Ordinary Strangers by Bill Stenson

Dec 19, 2019

‘Ordinary’ and ‘strangers’ are two words that seem contradictory. Yet they fit in this fine book by Bill Stenson, author of Svoboda and Hanne and Her Brothers among others.

Sage and Della Howard are a couple on their way to Fernie, BC. After a brief stop in Hope where they lose their dog, they pick up a little girl in the woods who is alone and crying. They take her with them, placing her in the back seat of the car. This is no ordinary act but both accept the find and continue their journey. Settling in Fernie, they name the girl Stacey. Sage goes to the coal mine he’d applied to work for and Della stays home to care for the young one.

In time they meet their neighbours, Molly and Hart Ferguson, who later become friends, sympathetic and kind. This all seems idyllic. Even the book cover displays an inviting image of a place, calm and peaceful looking, where people could live in relative harmony. But it is not long before we discover that Sage has a temper, that he is deceitful and unfaithful. Even he admits that “he had holes in his moral fiber” (55). What he does when frustrated also gives us pause and begs the question what would we do in such a situation?

As time passes, Della sets up a daycare in her home, wanting to earn extra to supplement the household income and also to give Stacey a chance to make friends. But Stacey does not find a true friend she can confide in until she meets Amber when she is in school and they become lifelong friends. Later, there is also a strong attachment to her Aunt Sadie, Della’s sister, different from her relationship with her mother.

For now, Stacey is a little stranger in Della and Sage’s midst. They’re not too sure what to make of her, or sometimes what to do. Eventually things work out by trial and error. During this time and a long time after, Della worries that someone will discover what she and Sage did. She keeps a journal, writing down every thought and event to ease her conscience regarding the taking of the girl whom she now sees as her own.

Humour adds balance to the story in which could have been an otherwise heavy read. Sage gives Molly a nickname—Molly the Nose—because she wants to know everything. When the family takes Sadie on a drive to the mountains, the conversation turns to politics and Sadie mentions that “people always buy staples and scandal” (135). Then Della asks why would people need to buy staples, mistaking the meaning. And Hart brings lightheartedness with his interest in the Old West and his dreams for his own version of Fort Whoop. It is these and other gems that provide chuckles and we come to recognize the ordinariness of the characters as our own.

There are disturbing scenes in the book as times goes on; they upset the household and change the course the family is on. Yet the strangers who make up this family are able to forgive; they remain loyal. In one instance Stacey wants to avoid “the temptation to pick away at the scab of regret” as she ponders what to do regarding her bond with Sage (268).

Stenson’s story flows and his observations of the ordinariness of people are keen and revelatory. The story raises the question whether we really know one another and what it takes—sacrifice, loving, looking, listening and patience—to discover that the ordinary can become the extraordinary with the acceptance of our flaws, and that we are not strangers after all.

Ordinary Strangers
by Bill Stenson
Mother Tongue Publishing
Salt Spring Island BC, c.2018, 274 pp., #23.95
ISBN 978-1-806949-70-3 (softcover)

Mary Barnes is a writer living in Wasaga Beach, Ontario.

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