The Alberta of Nancy Jo Cullen’s The Western Alienation Merit Badge will sound familiar to many readers, “with its newly bankrupt oil barons, out-of-work rig hands, jobless heavy-duty mechanics and unemployed secretaries.” The novel, Cullen’s first, after three books of poetry and one short story collection, takes place primarily in the autumn of 1982, yet the economic recession the characters find themselves in resembles the province’s current situation, complete with grumblings about the federal government.
In the novel, the youngest daughter and protagonist Francis, also called Frankie, returns home to Calgary as an out, gay woman to assist in the care of her aging father, Jimmy. Her older sister, Bernadette, a staunch Catholic, never left the city and is clearly resentful of Frankie’s decision to leave in the first place. Living together again, each family member tries to work through past grievances, resulting in an ongoing power struggle. As Cullen writes, “…life had a way of bringing you back to your sins and making you look at them all over again.”
Told from different first-person perspectives, the book is divided into short chapters, each with a title describing a potential trait one would find on a scout’s sash: Hostess; Globetrotter; Interpreter. But, unlike a scout’s badge, these headings serve to highlight a character weakness rather than a challenge overcome. This is not a book about exceptional people living extraordinary lives. Instead, the story here—written in taut, focused prose—follows people whose lives are permeated with sadness, regret and the threat of financial ruin, and who struggle to get through difficult days to the best of their abilities.
Those abilities vary. Jimmy, for instance, recently lost his second wife and struggles to understand his daughters. Thankfully for the reader, this can add levity, especially when Frankie comes out to him: “He didn’t want to answer questions right now, not about his needlework and sure as hell not his daughter’s taste in people, or whatever you wanted to call it.”
While Frankie might be the character one would expect to bear the “alienation” referred to in the title, this isn’t necessarily the case. Frankie settles in to her life as a queer woman with grace, finding love after only a few missteps. Bernadette, on the other hand, remains judgmental of others and blind to her own mistakes. Jimmy is the one who goes through the strongest arc of transformation. With complicated characterization and dialogue-heavy writing, The Western Alienation Merit Badge is easy to read and to recommend to others—a short dive into an Alberta family’s life that leaves a lasting impression.
—Anne Logan blogs about books at ivereadthis.com in Calgary.