For a slim book under 150 pages, transgender musician and now writer Rae Spoon’s first book First Spring Grass Fire sure packs a wicked punch. First Spring Grass Fire follows the adventures of Rae, a gender-non-normative kid growing up in Calgary in the 80s and 90s. This collection of unassuming, quietly devastating short stories that straddle the line between fiction and non-fiction is deceptively simple. The language, tone, and structure of the book are all casual and familiar. Reminiscent of Ivan E. Coyote’s colloquial storytelling/writing style, Spoon’s stories feel like they’d be right at home being read aloud while sitting around the kitchen table after supper. The first story, for example, is simply titled “Billy Graham” and starts with a sentence that could as easily be found coming out of someone’s mouth in conversation as in a published short story: “The first stadium concert I ever went to was a Billy Graham rally at the Saddledome when I was nine.” For those not familiar with Calgary, Rae explains what the “Saddledome” is (“a hockey arena shaped like a saddle”) and how you have to take the C-Train to get there from the suburbs.
Don’t be fooled, however, at the simplicity of Rae’s innocent-sounding and sweet voice. As you move further through the collection, you realize there’s a multitude of insidious things lurking just below the surface of Rae’s narratives, just like the mythical lake monster of Okanagan Lake, the Ogopogo (Naitaka in Salish) who haunts Rae’s childhood swims. Perhaps, though, it’s unfair to compare the sea snake to the appalling things that happen to Rae and their family (side note: since the author uses the gender-neutral pronoun ‘they’ and shares a name with the main character, I’m going to use they to refer to Rae in the book). As Rae tells us about their coping mechanism: “I took the most alive parts of myself and hid them deep down under our house, like a sea snake trying to stay out of view.” So maybe it’s the sea snake who deserves our compassion, hiding out there at the bottom of the lake like Rae hides in their room.
[if you prefer no spoilers you’ll want to skip this paragraph] Rae certainly has a lot of things to hide from: the memory of a beloved baby brother who died in infancy, their father’s schizophrenia, guilt about behaviour and feelings they’ve been programmed to see as ‘sinful,’ resurfacing memories of abuse by their father, and feelings of worthlessness. Their family, and other church members, try to use Pentecostal religious teachings to make sense of the appalling things Rae and their siblings have to deal with; Rae sees the appeal of God but takes no comfort. They tell us:
We all wanted to believe that he [Rae’s father] was just sick and that God had a plan for us. Believing this would make my father’s illness the monster that had done all the things I hadn’t even begun to remember; the things that hung like a thick blanket over me and made me feel like I was the ugliest person who had ever lived.
These are the kind of passages that Ivan E. Coyote writes are emotional stomach punches from the side. It’s an unflinching statement of self-hatred and emptiness that is simply heart-breaking. God doesn’t seem to be much help in terms of Rae’s non-normative gender and sexuality either; they ask: “Why would God make me like this? … And where can I hide from growing up?”
Rae’s journey is not without some light, however; when the Christian salvation they have grown up with fails them, Rae is able to turn to music. In the aptly titled story “Music Saves,” Rae chronicles their early attempts at home recordings cassette tapes and the famous unnamed musician who takes a copy home and tells Rae to keep writing. There are also surprising moments of humour, even if dark in tone; for example: “Now that I think of it, it’s amazing that my parents gave me that blue dinosaur; somehow it was exempt from their war on non-biblical creatures. It certainly fared better than the unicorn my sister got from someone on her fifth birthday; as soon as her party ended, my father took it to the bathroom and cut its horn off. From then on, it was just a horse with a hole in its forehead.” Rae’s story of first love is also adorable and moving. No longer able to keep their feelings for their high school best friend a secret, Rae composes a note: “On one of the last days of school that June, I shakily wrote out another note. Actually, it was more like a survey. In it, I put two questions. The first was: ‘Do you think you could date a girl?’ The second read: ‘Do you think you could like me?’ Next to each question, I put two boxes for her to check: one said ‘Yes’ and the other said ‘No.’” Could that be any more adorable?
Unrepentant, brave, and moving, First Spring Grass Fire is another fabulous queer title from the ever-reliable Arsenal Pulp Press; I want to add that I think although it’s not been marketed as a young adult title, I would definitely recommend it for queer and non-queer teens alike. I’m excited to see what the multi-talented Rae Spoon does next: if you’re on the east coast, they have some shows in support of the book coming up in Halifax, Wolfville, and Sackville, NB. Also, they are the subject of an upcoming NFB documentary called My Prairie Home, by filmmaker Chelsea Mcmullan! So cool. I hope they can make room for some more short story writing in the future, along with all the other kinds of projects happening, because this thin volume definitely deserves a sequel. For proof, I offer you the book’s closing sentence: “As far as small talk goes, I still haven’t figured out a way to say that I was born in Calgary, but my heart lives in the blue glow under a frozen lake of water on top of a mountain in Alberta.”
[Note: I want to make it clear that while I’m reviewing this book on my ‘Canadian lesbian’ site, in no way am I implying that Rae Spoon, who clearly identifies as transgender, is a woman or a lesbian; as someone who dates women and uses gender-neutral pronouns, though, I feel Rae fits nicely into my queer project].