Small Beneath the Sky by Lorna Crozier. Greystone Books, 2009.
Small Beneath the Sky is Lorna Crozier’s memoir of growing up in a small prairie town, Swift Current, Saskatchewan, in the 1950s and 60s. It is also very much the story of her parents, especially her beloved mother.
Her mother and her Dad knew each other from childhood, when they grew up on farms on the same country road. Both suffered bitter experiences at the hands of their own parents. Her father was disinherited by his mother, who chose to leave the family farm to her younger son. At the tender age of 5, Peggy was sent away by her parents to work in the household of a neighbour. She remained with them, the hired help, for all of the years of her youth. Although raised in the country, the young couple rented a house in town, and thus Lorna grew up in Swift Current.
Poetic passages interspersed with the text celebrate the unique qualities of the prairies, the light, the insects, the wind and sky, and the book is subtitled a prairie memoir. Nevertheless, much of Cozier’s story is surprisingly similar to that of growing up in any small town of the era. Indeed, my own experiences in a small town in Ontario were not so different, and many of the details of Crozier’s life were familiar, from games she played to attitudes towards unmarried teens who became pregnant.
A noted poet, Crozier’s descriptions of everyday objects and events often sing. An example is this description of her mother’s voice as she worked on the week’s laundry: “her voice was taut and barbed, like a wire fence meant to keep you out”.
Crozier paints a sharp, unsparing picture of her parents. Her Dad became an alcoholic, often drinking much of the income that would have helped to lift the family out of poverty. Her mother worked at low-paying jobs to help make ends meet. In spite of the hardships caused by her husband’s drinking, her Mom carried on with quiet fortitude, undefeated by the circumstances of her life. Peggy does not bear the grudge you would expect. When releasing her husband’s ashes she surprises both Crozier and the reader with her farewell to her husband: “You made my life better.” In many ways it is Peggy who is at the centre of the story and the memoir celebrates her life, a beautiful homage from her daughter.