The Western Alienation Merit Badge

By Anne Logan

by Nancy Jo Cullen
Wolsak & Wynn
2019/$20.00/240 pp.

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.

RELATED POSTS

The Broken Places

Frances Peck’s debut novel, The Broken Places, about a fictional Vancouver earthquake and the lives it disrupts, takes a hatchet to the trope that those who can’t do, teach. As a writing workshop and university instructor, ghostwriter and editor, Peck spent years teaching the finer points of language and writing ...

Firewater:

One of the many Canadian communities hit hard by the ongoing fentanyl debacle is Standoff, Alberta, headquarters of the Kainai (Blood) First Nation, where a state of emergency was declared in 2015 to try and get control of the crisis. It is sadly ironic that Standoff should make the news ...

The Company: The Rise and Fall of the Hudson’s Bay Empire

During the 19th century, its own employees often joked that the Hudson’s Bay Company’s initials (HBC) stood for “Here Before Christ.” For many Canadians, there has always been a Hudson’s Bay Company. Canadians have grown accustomed to shopping at “The Bay,” and have associated some of its premier brands such ...