SECTION LINES are rail lines that run off the main track, often to small?town grain elevators. If the title was intended as a metaphor to indicate that Manitoba writing is unconventional ? not of the mainstream then it doesn't quite work. The literary boundaries are not defined precisely in Section Lines, but then, it is an anthology, a literary cross?section, and that is not generally a form that ]ends itself to uniformity. Ibis is a collection of the oldest and the newest of Manitoba writing.
Or is the title meant to suggest instead that Manitoba writing is alive and well in a province not seen by centralists as part of the cultural mainstream? Surely not ?Mark Duncan, who edited the anthology, says in his opening essay that "the days of the prairie literary inferiority complex are over." But then he goes on to say that regional writers are still striving for equality. By this time, one really has no idea what the title is intended to mean.
Between its covers, Section Lines is a tasteful collection of short fiction and poetry that hits the centralist stereotype straight on. Yes, some prairie writing is conventional and obsessed with tragic stories of wind, dust, and grain elevators ? and Duncan has chosen the best example of this in Sinclair Ross. But Manitoba is no longer mainly a rural, farming province. Most people live in cities now, whether they were born there or moved in from the farm. And, says Duncan, "Continuing urbanization, on the social level, and the desire to experiment with new forms, on the literary level, has resulted in the broadening of perceptions." Writers such as Sandra Birdsell, Carol Shields, Di Brandt, and Dennis Cooley represent the reality of Manitoba writing today: and like Margaret Laurence, Dorothy Livesay, and Robert Kroetsch, the writers needn't live (and die) in Manitoba; they need only understand the relationship between the place and its culture, and write about it in extraordinary ways.
But to return to the stereotype: in "Cornet at Night," the conventional story form is well suited to the characters. The narrator is a teenage boy whose mother would have him be "a Christian and a gentleman," but whose father argues that "the crop's more important than a day of school." The boy, caught between them, says "I have always been tethered to reality, always compelled by an unfortunate kind of probity in my nature to prefer a bare?faced disappointment to the luxury of a future I have no just claims upon."
Ross's writing is alive in its use of juxtaposition: a simple farm lad against a worldly musician; Christian values against survival; pride against prejudice. In this rite of passage, a farm boy's trip to town has as much importance as a trip to Europe for a 1970s college kid ? perhaps more.
Sandra Birdsell's "The Bride Doll" moves the reader from the farm to the town, but not away from the ethics of hard work and propriety, and the knowingness of young people who, no longer children, are not yet adults. "Even though I had been taught not to pray for tangible things as that was a mark of selfishness. . . I prayed fervently for a bride doll," the narrator says, remembering her childhood.
Despite the small?town barber shop and the gleeful mention of indoor toilets, the story can be most accurately dated by the kind of play its narrator engages in. "We played wedding. We collected toadstools and laid them out on wild rhubarb leaves for a wedding feast. Do you take this man as your lawful wedded husband? I asked. Do you take this woman to be your awful wife? Virginia would say, laughing, spoiling the ceremony. To her it was a game, the same as playing Dale Evans and Roy Rogers."
The adults see marriage not as a game, but as a social convention bordering on a righteous duty. One does not get married in white hand?me?down "rags" wrapped round like a Greek goddess's robe. Marriage is more virtuous than that. Yet measured against time, marriage became like something saved in the china cabinet. When the cabinet is accidentally tipped over in the process of repairing a flood?ravaged home, the narrator ?recalls her mother's hysteria: "It was all I had left."
Thirty?six Manitoba writers are included in Section Lines. The collection is a balance between the old and the new and if the old are of one time ? or section ?: and the new of a different section, then perhaps the title makes sense at last.