#938 A small town with a secret

Songs from a Small Town (In a Minor Key)
by Penny Chamberlain

Surrey: Now or Never Publishing, 2020
$19.95 / 9781989689097

Reviewed by Zoe McKenna

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Like many harmful and insidious things, the strange disease that haunts the girls in Songs From a Small Town (In a Minor Key) begins almost imperceptibly.

Based on the true story from Le Roy, New York, in 2002, Songs From a Small Town describes how an unknown condition causes tics and twitches to spread from one teenaged girl to another. There is great uncertainty and suspicion surrounding the outbreak, and many questions circulate: are there toxins in the water? Did it come from the school? Is it real, or are the girls pretending to have the condition to gain attention? What type of young woman does this disease target? Are the affected girls close, or are they strangers?

Penny Chamberlain

The most pressing question is: why?

Victoria writer Penny Chamberlain has published three novels for children. Songs from a Small Town is her fourth novel, and her first intended for a broader age range.

Songs from a Small Town is written as a collection of connected short stories that detail the spread of this curious twitching disease from many different perspectives. The stories in the first part of the book are so closely linked that they read more like a novel than separate pieces, but as more stories unfold, it becomes clear that these points of view are indeed intended to be distinct.

The short story approach is both a benefit and a curse. The structure is ideal for investigating how a disease can disrupt the lives of anyone and everyone, whether they are directly affected or not. In addition, stories provide an effective method for describing the strange and sad personalities that populate Chamberlain’s fictional small town in the Fraser Valley. The downside of this structure is that characters begin to tumble into one another. Without one centralized voice to return to, it is easy to conflate the personalities of some of the teenaged girls. Chamberlain’s small town certainly keeps the pages of this book very busy.

Many of the facts and events in Songs from a Small Town (In a Minor Key) closely mirror the events in Le Roy. Brief research into what occurred there in 2002 will effectively spoil the book’s strong sense of mystery and tension, so I advise readers interested in the real-world history to leave their research until afterwards.

While I was disappointed by her decision not to fictionalize the events and conjecture concerning what happened at Le Roy, Chamberlain crafts a satisfying read through the quality of her prose. Life in this town is far from idyllic, and Chamberlain reminds the reader of this through setting descriptions that are all the more lively when placed in contrast to the drab places they detail. Similarly, she describes the feelings of townspeople during the deterioration of the quaint small town illusion. Though the town may appear to be based on multi-generational connections and close family ties, the panic of this uncertain disease shows how a desire for self-preservation quickly pulls the town apart. The community swiftly becomes a place of sidelong glances, For Sale signs, and whispers in the street: “They aren’t contagious, are they?”

Most striking is Chamberlain’s intense description of the symptoms of the disease. The twitching and tics of otherwise healthy young women are seen as “a menacing spectacle, a sinister dance, a repulsive sight, but at the same time there was something almost hypnotic about it, mesmerizing to watch.” The uneasiness of the descriptions is more reminiscent of horror writing than literary fiction, and the discomfiting images bring home the severity of this non-fictional ailment. Visual descriptions such as these support the tone that connects all the short stories, one of anxiety bubbling dangerously just under the surface.

In Chamberlain’s town, health-related paranoia and justified fear push into the characters’ daily lives in a close parallel to how our our communities have changed in the first half-year of Covid-19. It is unfortunate, however, that a novel so firmly planted in women’s medical concerns, and one that is timely and prescient to our ongoing concerns, fails to come to any clear sentiment or statement of a purpose for fictionalizing the Le Roy incident. The story creates the perfect backdrop for highlighting issues such as the lesser acknowledged stresses of young women’s lives, or the ways in which medical care can neglect women’s concerns.

Songs from a Small Town does not comment on either, but rather hinges on describing the interconnectedness of small town living. The short story approach makes it possible for Chamberlain to describe how, even in a farming town, hundreds of complex lives exist simultaneously, barely aware of how connected they are. On its surface, this feels comforting in an existential way, but far from revolutionary.

Penny Chamberlain

The heart of Songs from a Small Town lies with those who are less connected, those who fall through the cracks. For me, the characters that have lingered most memorably after reading the book are not those afflicted young women, or their parents, or their boyfriends. Rather it is the developmentally challenged Del, collecting bottles in order to buy food for his family, and little Marcel, desperate to convey his love to his mother as they struggle to find a new normal.

Chamberlain’s thoughtful inclusion and attention to voices such as Del and Marcel, who are unable to describe how the influx of panic, press, and paranoia to Le Roy affects their lives, is a valuable choice. Their presence gives Songs from a Small Town an impressive sense of humanity, one that we would do well to consider mirroring in our own current world of uncertain disease.

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Zoe McKenna

Zoe McKenna recently completed her Bachelor of Arts degree from Vancouver Island University. Zoe studied English, History, and Creative Writing, all with a focus in Canadian literature, Indigenous literature, Gothic/Horror literature, Women’s literature, and the intersections of them all. She is set to begin a Master’s degree in English in the fall of 2020, where she will further her investigation of Canadian Gothic fiction. Her previous work has appeared in VIU’s Portal MagazineThe Navigator Student Press, and The Compass Rose: Exploration in Thought. When not reading, writing, or reviewing, Zoe can be found in front of a horror movie with her two cats, Florence and Delilah. She is always covered in cat hair, and wears almost exclusively dark clothing to prove it. Find her on Twitter @zoevmckenna. Editor’s note: Zoe McKenna has previously reviewed books by Brooke Carter and Donalda Reid for The Ormsby Review.

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Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

The Ormsby Review is a journal service for in-depth coverage of B.C. books and authors. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Wade Davis, Hugh Johnston, Patricia Roy, David Stouck, and Graeme Wynn. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Provincial Government Patron since September 2018: Creative BC

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