Saturday, December 7, 2013

Coal Dust Kisses by Will Ferguson

Coal Dust Kisses: A Christmas Memoir
by Will Ferguson
Viking Canada, 2010
57 pages

Evidence that science doesn't know everything: Science will tell you that the Northern Lights are silent, cherry blossoms have no scent, and the likelihood of Santa Claus actually existing is low, to say the least.

But in each case I can assert the opposite, just as firmly and with something approaching empirical certainty. For I have heard the Northern Lights, caught the scent of cherry blossoms on the wind, and seen the evidence for Santa Claus firsthand - in the mirror, written on my very skin, a faint but undeniable smudge, Christmas, made manifest.

So begins Will Ferguson's very short and very charming little Christmas memoir. The first thing that struck me was the writing. I've never read anything by Will Ferguson before, though he comes highly recommended by many both for his nonfiction and his fiction. The reputation, if this tiny slice of holiday life is to be trusted, is well-earned. Not only does he write with clarity and gentle humour, his turn of phrase is graceful. His writing feels good to read.

(Or perhaps I am just partial to it because in this little informal piece he uses a lot of parentheses, and we all know how fond I am of parenthetical asides.)

As one might expect from a book that is a scant 57 pages long, there isn't a lot here to write about. I read this with one of my book clubs and we didn't have a lot of discussion on the book itself, though we went a lot of tangential directions from it. Ferguson is talking about Christmases he remembers, tradition, and family; he is drawing a faint arc from his great-grandfather in Cape Breton, west with his grandfather, and around the world with Ferguson himself, then back to Western Canada with his own children. There is, because this is a book about family and tradition, a slight melancholy to accompany the sweet and the gently funny. One gets the impression that Ferguson is working through something, not just writing for the benefit of the holiday reader. Or solely for the benefit of his own boys, though one gets the impression that this is a book written specifically for them and the dedication confirms it.

This is, though, a book that couldn't have been any longer. I didn't really want more. (As one of our members said, "Sometimes I wondered... what's the point of this book?") Well, it's a memoir. It's someone telling stories and making that telling look very easy, writing with an ease that if I know anything about writing is anything but easy. But any longer would have been more than necessary, would have made it less enjoyable and more work to read. Its aim isn't just to entertain, though it does that, nor is it to make the reader think, though it does that too at points. It's a sweet little record, a sharing of something special. You are being let in on the story, allowed to peek through the frosty window, just for a little moment in time.

Enjoyable, not unmissable. If you like a little amusing holiday reading that won't take long (perfect for such a busy time of year, really) go ahead and pick this up. It's liable to make you laugh out loud, and it may make you think about the traditions that surround this time of year, that seem so vital to our own holiday experiences, and how those come about and how those change over time. I will certainly be reading more of Ferguson's work; perhaps one of his travel memoirs next.

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