“My interpretation is that matter forms our physical world,” writer and folklorist Emily Urquhart writes early in her transfixing new book “Ordinary Wonder Tales,” “but stories shape the rest.”
It’s not a particularly novel statement of intent — new books from Tomson Highway (“Laughing With the Trickster”) and Harold R. Johnson (“The Power of Story”) explicate the powers of story and storytelling, and an entire school of psychotherapy, narrative therapy, uses the construction of new personal narrative for therapeutic effect — but “Ordinary Wonder Tales” deftly, and powerfully, underscores the deep personal value of stories on one individual.
The book, composed of 10 essays that demonstrate the intersection between memory and experience with folklore and traditional stories, achieves a perfect synergy between the inner and outer worlds, between a finite life and a seemingly endless universe of lore.
Urquhart’s memory of seeing a ghost as a child, for example, an “inky fluid mass … seeping in from the corner of the room above” becomes an exploration of belief, particularly active in children, including the existence of the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus. The essay “The Matter” also includes references to the work of psychologist Jean Piaget, wraiths, the Newfoundland stories of the “old hag” and poltergeists.
The key, however, is not the breadth of the exploration, but Urquhart’s constant return to the personal: what did her experience mean to her? What do her stories of the experience mean to her children? What does the idea of haunting mean to her as an adult?
Similarly, “Lessons for Female Success” uses folk-tale antecedents to navigate through a series of events of sexual harm and violence, including her time spent scouring the graffitied name of “the vilest sexual predator that my country has seen” from the summer camp where he worked as a counsellor 15 years earlier. One of the touchstones for the essay is a ballad called “Lady Isobel and the Elf Knight”: “It is unusual among the others in the canon because the woman escapes.”
The focus on the personal is paramount throughout the book.
With unflinching but graceful prose, Urquhart recounts her experiences of violence and sexual assault, a miscarriage, prenatal genetic screening, the death of her brother (whose ghost haunts her for years after), the gradual loss of her father to dementia and life lived during a pandemic.
These personal stories are informed, shaped and given additional weight through her incorporation of such elements as the Child Ballads (the 300-plus English and Scottish folk songs collected by James Francis Child in the 19th century), fairy tales, folk tales and her own modern folklore studies (including the role of neighbours in a small Newfoundland community).
The result is a sort of magic, a reminder of the wonder present in every day, and the way in which the resonances of the past can give additional shape and meaning to a life. A book of both deep thought and intense feeling, “Ordinary Wonder Tales” is, literally, a collection of wonders, and a truly beautiful account of a life lived in the nexus of the temporal and the eternal. It’s a treasure.
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