Review of Industrial Roots

‘Poor Uncle Mike,’ I say, slightly surprised at how easy it is to slip into Gramma Ruby’s ways.  

So says Lucy, one of several narrators in a collection of stories about the lives of women across three generations of an extended family. We’re in an area of Ontario close to Detroit, ‘a great location […] equidistant from Chrysler’s (the engine plant) and Ford’s Foundry with its medium industrial blue smoke stacks that would one day be shut off for good.’ The protagonists live in cheap post-WW2 housing in need of fixing – ‘tight living, that’s for sure.’

The short stories in Industrial Roots can stand autonomously – indeed, several were published as single pieces – but, taken together, they achieve a coherent whole. Canadian writer Lisa Pike harnesses the potential of this literary form, which is often referred to by different labels (not all synonymous[1]), such as: integrated short-story collection, short-story cycle, inter-related stories, composite novel. Examples include Eudora Welty’s The Golden Apples, William Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses and Alice Munro’s Who Do You Think You Are? / The Beggar Maid.

The author gives us a choral narration, through which we encounter repeatedly some of the characters at different points in their existence, filtered through various consciousnesses: their own and those of mothers, daughters, grand-daughters, nieces, and cousins, so that they acquire increasing depth and complexity. Their lives are linked by place and patterns of experience, starting with that of unhappy marriages to men who drink, gamble, and are violent towards their wives and children. ‘Some women took to drinking themselves, you know, to cope.’ Intergenerational trauma haunts the living: the first ‘Stella’ in the family was a little girl shot dead in 1920, in a pogrom during the Polish-Soviet War. She and other ancestors live on in the present, with ‘each branch of the family having at least two or three Stellas, Walters and Wandas among them.’

Roots grow deep, spread, and interlace; some surface, and become visible through oral and embodied memory. So, one of the characters drizzles North American dressings onto salads, but also makes pierogi the old-fashioned way her mother and grandmother taught her. She is a repository of the family’s history, one ‘who knew the stories. The one who bothered to hear them and remember them, fix them in her mind the same way the old woman [her grandmother] had them fixed in hers’. Cancer takes away several family members, including one who does not tell her colleagues she’s ill, because ‘They’re going to say: ‘See! And she was such a health nut! Just goes to show you!’ as if getting cancer were her fault, punishment for thinking she was so great, eating healthy and exercising and all.’ Funerals become occasions to grieve, make peace with, reflect on, and – in one case – even meet, relations for the first time.

Some in the younger generation seek to escape the pull of their industrial roots through education, but they grow disillusioned. One of them, debt-laden, recalls Chomsky’s ‘call for change, resistance’ during her university days and concludes she’s living ‘the pragmatics of his prophecy,’ ‘the wearing down of the intellectual, of those people who saw the bigger picture of things, […] how PhDs were now living on food stamps.’ Another earns more by writing essays for students than from her precarious post as a lecturer. She sees the higher-education system operating like an industry and treating her like a mere productive resource. Her outbursts against it, ‘ad-libbing about things like the psychology of advertising, the dismantling of the welfare state […]’], fall on students’ uncomprehending ears.

The book raises questions about numerous aspects of family connectedness. How does family impact us? How do we show care? Do we ever know those near us as well as we believe? Another major theme is mortality – and therefore the sense of a life’s meaning and purpose. ‘A death every few years. Coming to a certain point in life when you realise a funeral could arrive at any moment and it’s just better to have a designated outfit, there, hanging at the back of the closet, ready to go. […] You may as well pick out the outfit you want to be buried in, along with a photo […] A sense of hope for the family, the picture letting them believe that life had been good and happy and worthwhile.’ The quote which precedes the book seems doubly significant: it’s from Faulkner’s ‘As I Lay Dying’, which also handled these themes, while his ‘Go Down, Moses’ broke new ground in this literary form.

Lisa Pike’s characters and sense of place linger in the mind. Separate voices distinguish the protagonists, through their narration and dialogues across different tones and registers. Their environments and possessions are used to delineate them, their relationships, and circumstances with gripping specificity. So, a woman’s perception of her grandmother’s wish to leave a chipped platter to another granddaughter is quietly heart-breaking: ‘Wanda (daughter), of all people, did not deserve the worn, discoloured, beautiful, rose-patterned platter with the two deep chips on the right-hand side.’

Lisa Pike’s love of, and playfulness with, language enables her to pull off this ambitious work. She was awarded the Canada Council for the Arts Grant and received support from the Ontario Arts Council and the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity to complete the book. All credit to Heloïse Press for bringing this Canadian author and Industrial Roots to readers’ attention.

Industrial Roots is published on 11 April 2023.

[1] Dunn, M., Morris, A. (1995). The Composite Novel – The Short Story Cycle in Transition. New York : Twayne, Macmillan Publishing