Stories of old Corner Brook in Tom Finn’s ‘Westsiders’

Published on October 19, 2010

Pre-confederation Corner Brook is the setting for a collection of short stories by Tom Finn, released earlier this year.

His stories are set in the 1940s in the west side of Corner Brook — a city dissected neatly down the middle by Mount Bernard Avenue, and, naturally, Corner Brook Stream.

West of these, you’ve got the area around Broadway, the “West Side’s main drag,” its “untidy commercial roadway” — and it’s around here that the human drama in Tom Finn’s stories is played out.

Tom Finn was born in Corner Brook, and grew up here, and he draws pointedly on his experiences as a born and raised resident.  Corner Brook readers, especially longtime residents, will be interested in Finn’s use of locale, forming their own judgments as to whether it reflects what they know of the place. How well Finn’s local references and social observations ring true will be up to individual readers to decide.

Through his characters, Finn demonstrates an interest in life’s defining moments, pivotal points when experience pushes us to new knowledge or expanded understanding of ourselves or our place in the world.  Often, such insights come at high cost.

Finn’s collection opens with “Short’s Long Day,” one of the collection’s strongest stories.  Its bemused tone and jokey dialogue at the beginning belie what the narrative gradually becomes: a deadly serious story about an infanticide, and the burden of long-carried suspicion in silence. The story closes at the very point police sergeant Cyril Short quietly makes a tidal wave of a decision — one he cannot afford to not make.

Not all of Finn’s characters are sufficiently self-aware that they are left altered in the wake of rough reality. Sometimes, the themes present in Finn’s stories are ours alone, as readers, to appreciate.

Disappointment in love, for instance, the theme at work in the story “Mouse,” leaves Ambrose O’Connor, the self-absorbed young man at its centre somewhat tragically unaffected. He is simply too shallow a person to comprehend where his infatuation led him wrong, or to apprehend the value of his experience as a growth lesson.

Some might view this resolution as a cop-out on the author’s part, a way of not having to deal with the complexities inherent to what might have been a particularly satisfying coming-of-age story. You get the sneaking suspicion that this romance is not going to go well, and, in a sort of twist, it doesn’t.  The end result is a story that is entertaining — suspenseful, even — but one lacking the depth and complexity needed to push it into the realm of “short story” — coming off more as a “tale” in the tradition of O. Henry; not that there’s anything horribly wrong with that.

An especially haunting story, “Traveller,” tells of Genevieve — a young woman in her teens, living with her parents, who becomes pregnant by an American serviceman she meets at a dance at local hot spot, the White House. Under the pretense of sending her off to attend school, her parents put her on a train for Nova Scotia, escorted by a nun where she will have her child at a convent — returning to Corner Brook afterward as though nothing happened.

It’s a nuanced story that shows sudden and brutal entry into the adult world. Finn capably shows that becoming pregnant by a stranger, and having to subsequently give birth to that child and hand it over for adoption — while traumatic in and of itself — pales next to Genevieve’s  treatment at the hands of her parents and their offhand “solution” to what they see simply as a troublesome situation for which Genevieve is to blame. The story’s final image of Genevieve taking her seat on the train — across from the nun whose indifference to her situation is only too obvious — is the kind that can easily imprint itself indelibly on the reader’s consciousness.

Tom Finn’s stories demonstrate consistently controlled use of language, and the author’s sense of dialogue is keen. It is tuned to the way people speak, and the way his characters speak and think. At times comic, it harmonizes well with Finn’s often wry, omniscient third-person narration.

Finn writes well, and these stories are good — proving that small presses and self-published authors are capable of producing some real gems.

Ask for Tom Finn’s “Westsiders” at your public library.

 

Darrell Squires is assistant manager of Public Information and Library Resources Board, West Newfoundland-Labrador division. You can contact him at: dsquires@nlpl.ca or by phone at 634-7333. His column appears every other week.