Words by women who strive

Book Reviews

Women who strive to make a difference, to save what is good, to state what is honest – these are the themes of two widely differing books published recently. The first, Silenced, The Untold Story of the Fight for Equality in the RCMP (published by Halfmoon Bay’s Caitlin Press), is an account of Troop 17, the first females to be hired by the RCMP in 1974.

This detailed and rigorously researched historical record is by a former RCMP member, Bonnie Reilly Schmidt. Though she was not among the vanguard of first women, she served from 1977 to 1987 then earned a degree in history. She approaches the story with a historian’s ruthlessness but as an empathetic interviewer. Only someone who has worn the uniform herself could elicit such vivid memories from the women, now retired. Schmidt exposes the injustices of the early years with a factual firmness.

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The first 32 recruits faced what you might expect: harassment from some of their male colleagues, condescension from their commanding officers and an all-male committee who spent countless hours designing an impractical uniform that involved high heels and purses for their revolvers. The women were besieged by the media who followed their every move, alert to any signs of tears. Nonetheless, most completed their training proudly.

The heart of this book is in their personal stories, none more vivid than the first female member, Constable Candace Smith, to be wounded in the line of duty in a shooting incident in Manitoba. The fact that she hesitated before firing, giving the shooter one more chance to lay down his gun, was construed as evidence that women couldn’t handle danger. Smith recovered and returned to active duty, still choked by this assessment. Her version of the story finally sees the light of day in Silenced.

Schmidt’s own experiences are not recounted in the book, but perhaps she will describe them in person when she launches her book at the Gibsons Library (604-886-2130) on Wednesday, Sept. 23 at 6 p.m.

Author Marina Sonkina, who fled the Soviet Union in the 1980s.

Author Marina Sonkina fled the Soviet Union in the 1980s, but the Russia of the post-Stalinist era is still with her and is a big part of her story collections. The part-time Gibsons resident now teaches Russian culture at two universities in Vancouver.

Many of the tales in this new fiction collection, titled Expulsion & Other Stories (Guernica Editions), recall the women of Moscow who strive to make a living or simply to survive. There’s naïve Inna whose honest execution of her duties is not what the boss wants. And there’s a nameless wife who is lonely even though she lives in a communal apartment in Moscow with a listless husband, nasty neighbours and active bedbugs. In another story, Tanya seeks a miracle to make her wandering husband love her again, so she becomes baptized, not a politically correct activity in the Soviet Union. She pays heavily for defending another man who has also found religion. In the title story, Expulsion, young Alexandra strives to learn math and earn respect, until she meets a lewd gypsy.

But the jewel of this collection is a novella set in Vancouver titled simply Face. The woman who drives this story is shrouded mysteriously in a Muslim’s burka though she worships in many religions. She vows to save a grand, old tree that is threatened by real estate speculation and development. What’s under that veil? wonders the male narrator who is fascinated by this exotic creature and wants to unmask her. When he does, his world turns to nightmare. Sonkina’s characters inevitably gallop to surreal disaster, yet they are the backbone of her tragicomic stories.  

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