In the Dry Woods

by Cullene Bryant

Published by River Books

196 pages, 2006

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Undercurrents of Loss and Waste

Reviewed by Cherie Thiessen


An entrepreneur, a stand up comic, a fiction writer, a mystic and a minister in the United Church of Canada don't usually all wear the same cassock. Cullene Bryant is an author whose background doesn't fail to intrigue. I have new respect for the United Church; they clearly are not made nervous by individuality and original thinking.

Bryant has written one earlier book of fiction, Llamas in the Snow, and is at work on a third, non-fiction entitled, Memoirs of a Modern Mystic: Pathways to Healing. In my ecumenical experience, many Christians are made nervous by words like "mystic," "magic" and "pagan" but Bryant, also sought after as a keynote speaker, clearly redrafts the typical blueprint of a minister. She has also just started her own business, "Enlightenment by Laughter." Bet the congregation doesn't fall asleep at her sermons!

The dozen short stories contained in this book take the reader globe trotting, from the Philippines to a remote Vancouver Island settlement, from Germany to Toronto to New York. Many of them feel as if they have germinated directly from the author's own experiences.

The story that lends its name to this collection, "In the Dry Woods," is the longest and the last narrative. It's a tale as melancholy as its rain-drizzled setting. A depressed young teacher on her first assignment tries to fit into a logging community but ultimately is destroyed by some of is occupants. Ironically, while she brings joy and affirmation to several of the marginalized inhabitants of this sopping village, and is a breath of fresh air to her students, who become infected with her enthusiasm for words and learning, she seems to have none left over for herself. When she is shot, probably by her mismatched lover, it almost feels like the suicide the town thought it was; she seemed so ready to give up on her own life while enhancing so many others'. Even mother nature seems against the gentle creature, refusing to allow her to leave this sodden place.

Many of the other stories in the collection also echo loss, apartness and loneliness. There is no foreshadowing of a stand-up comic in this fiction. In "Saved," a mature woman recalls an affair with her married lover while taking examinations in Princeton for her doctorate. The last line is immensely sad: "Nobody ever wept at leaving me before -- not even my own husband. I don't think anyone has cried over me since."

In "Unmeeting," a woman has come to Germany to cover a story for the United Church Observer. She is thrilled because it means she can again meet up with a German theologist she encountered while covering an International Conference on Pastoral Care in New York for the Observer a year earlier. She has missed him and is thrilled at the thought of seeing him again. However, things are not the same with the man in his home country. What has happened to his passion and affection? He is more like a tour guide than a lover. Bryant offers two endings to the story, in neither does romance win out.

Two stories set in the Philippines reflect pleasurable memories of the narrator during the time she instructed local teachers there in pastoral care, "Bahala na" and "Promise," but even here there is an undercurrent of loss and waste.

Pithy, punchy and pensive, these stories took courage to write. Often in seeking out resolutions and understanding in our own lives, we come up against a mirror that only shows us who we are becoming; not who we are, as if life is a process and can never be an end product. Bryant nudges us closer to that mirror. | April 2006


Cherie Thiessen has been a scriptwriter, playwright, creative writing instructor and -- for the past 10 years -- a travel writer and book reviewer. She was the review columnist for Focus on Women Magazine for eight years and has also written numerous reviews for magazines including Monday Magazine, Pacific Yachting, Cottage Magazine, The Driftwood News, Linnear Reflections and Douglas College's Event Magazine.