A quiet charm

Urquhart reflects on life’s milestones in thoughtful essay collection

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Emily Urquhart is a Kitchener-based journalist and folklorist, which is to say, she is more than unusually interested in stories and how stories are told. Not only that, but she is the daughter of novelist Jane Urquhart and painter Tony Urquhart, so she grew up watching artists tell stories for a living.

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Emily Urquhart is a Kitchener-based journalist and folklorist, which is to say, she is more than unusually interested in stories and how stories are told. Not only that, but she is the daughter of novelist Jane Urquhart and painter Tony Urquhart, so she grew up watching artists tell stories for a living.

Ordinary Wonder Tales, Urquhart’s third book of non-fiction, takes readers through the milestones in her life, from childhood to middle-age, while also introducing the legends and folk tales we’ve elaborated to help understand those milestones.

This book brings to mind Robin Wall Kimmerer’s work, which explores episodes in the Potawatomi scientist’s life where her Indigenous heritage and her botanist training intersect and where they diverge. The result is fascinating. Similarly, Urquhart’s combination of personal essays and folk tales allows her to recount the specifics of her life in quiet but moving prose but also to note how and why her experiences are universal, a part of a heritage of stories.

Andrew Trant photo

Author Emily Urquhart’s combination of personal essays and folk tales allows her to recount the specifics of her life in quiet but moving prose.

The book opens with Urquhart recounting the family story of the apparition — an “inky fluid mass” — that sometimes appeared in her borrowed bedroom in the village of Flavigny-sur-Ozergain in the Burgundy region of France when she was three. Urquhart was staying there because her father Tony was on sabbatical from teaching fine art and had borrowed the house from a colleague, as had other colleagues and friends. In the essay, Urquhart interviews the other children who stayed in that haunted bedroom, but also talks about the studies on the ability of young children to believe in almost anything and the key differences between a ghost story (or “personal haunting narrative”) and a fairy tale.

As the narrator of Ordinary Wonder Tales ages, so do her stories. The next essay recounts Urquhart’s experiences with sexual violence, comparing them not only with old European ballads but also the TV show Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. The ballads constitute a kind of horrible warning for women about abuse, rape and murder whereas SVU posited a world where women reporting sexual violence were treated with respect and dignity.

Next come the stories of a woman of child-bearing age: losing a child, having dubious encounters with the medical profession, having a child with a genetic condition and then deciding to have another child. These are bloody essays, but Urquhart’s way of thinking/feeling her way through the things that happened to herself and her loved ones, her way of turning them into stories, protects the reader.

The last part of the book focuses on the coronavirus pandemic and the history of plague tales, but also her father’s descent into dementia and the nature of memory.

Urquhart has treated the diagnosis of her daughter’s albinism in her first book, Beyond the Pale: Folklore, Family, and the Mystery of our Hidden Genes (2015), and her father’s Alzheimer’s disease in The Age of Creativity: Art, Memory, My Father and Me (2020), but these essays add to that material instead of re-treading it.

Beyond telling stories about stories, Urquhart does something else interesting in Ordinary Wonder Tales: she sets the fairy tales she is recounting in places she knows intimately. So that house in France reappears when she needs a starting place for a hero. Later, a maiden finds sanctuary on the banks of the Skeena River in British Columbia where Urquhart camped when she was pregnant with her second child. Urquhart notes that this interior decorating is completely involuntary: “What flickers to life in my mind’s eye as I read or listen to a story comes unbidden. I could no more conjure them on purpose than I could stop them from appearing.” Still, it’s a neat trick.

Ordinary Wonder Tales

Ordinary Wonder Tales is a quietly charming book about all the ordinary tragedies in a life. Urquhart’s essays help us understand the stories we tell ourselves, while also being satisfying as stories themselves.

Ariel Gordon is the author of Treed: Walking in Canada’s Urban Forests, which attempts to combine the personal essay and science writing.

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