Sean Johnston,
All This Town Remembers
(Gaspereau Press, 2006)

Twenty years ago, in Saskatchewan, Canada, the high school hockey team for the small town of Asquith was headed for the championship series when the bus crashed, killing star player Joey Fallow and severely/permanently injuring the coach, Dan Veenhof, who was driving the bus. The story (fictionally) made the news, as did the team's subsequent dramatic successes. Twenty years later, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) is in town, wanting to make a documentary about how the tragedy affected the town.

If you go by the blurb on the back cover, you expect the book to be about the town, as implied by the title. It is really about Joey Fallow's best friend, Adam. Adam was on the hockey team, but was not injured in the crash. Despite being only a fair hockey player, Adam went on to lead the high school's hockey team to unexpected success, and the entire country followed the story. Now, Adam has recently had a closed-head injury during a construction accident, leaving him with a very erratic memory and often confused thinking patterns. The story shows us Asquith, and the impact of the making of CBC documentary on it, through Adam's eyes as he is trying to rebuild his life.

The idea of giving us a look at a small town in Saskatchewan is good, as that will not be familiar to most readers. The premise of looking at the long-term impact of a small-town's tragedy is also a good idea. The protagonist, Adam, is very well-developed. I'm not sure I ended up liking him, but I certainly knew him. Having the point-of-view coming from an insider, who left and then came back, is a strong choice, as it gives a perspective that is both insider and outsider.

And then, there is The Scene. I do not want to spoil it, but there is a scene, very near the end of the story, that is written absolutely perfectly. It describes the potentially tragic culmination of what was once a minor feud between neighbors, but which has rapidly escalated to a point where something truly awful is about to occur, or could occur. Again, I do not want to spoil it, but the participants experience a moment of absolute clarity and almost-wordless communication, and the result is something unexpectedly perfect, in a very quiet and subtle way. This one scene tells me this author has greatness in him, and I hope he shows it much more, and more consistently, in the future.

However, there are two good stories here: one about Asquith and its recovery from tragedy, and one about a man trying to recover from a brain injury. The stories do not, in my opinion, complement one another; they clash and muddy each other. Adam is so confused in his memory and his logical thinking, that he cannot see or tell us the Asquith story well, and the Asquith story makes the Adam story too complex, in a way that does not add much to that storyline.

By choosing a protagonist with a brain injury, we end up with a lot of ruminative dialogue (inner and with others). The story rambles and meanders, and the characters seem stagnant and stuck. This adds to the tragedy, but also detracts from the story's readability. It was very hard to get through at times.

There is also a tremendous amount of gratuitous obscenity. Adam has trouble saying two sentences with using the f-word. I know that this is not uncommon for people with closed-head injuries, but it is overkill.

The book is quite short -- 231 pages, with large margins, a larger-than-usual font and a blank page at the end of each chapter.

There are definite strengths, but many flaws. The premise is good, the protagonist is well-developed, and there is one astoundingly good scene. There are also conflicting storylines, excessive obscenity, rambling dialogue and a real depressive tone.

review by
Chris McCallister

22 November 2008

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