Somewhere in Ivan E. Coyote’s collection Close to Spider Man ( 2000, Arsenal Pulp) Coyote describes the Yukon sun shining bright but ‘heatlessly’ and then wonders if that’s even a word. Not that it matters because the way it’s presented, it becomes one and it sticks and the next day when I’m skiing on a bone chilling morning in the sunshine of a blue blue sky, I think how very heartlessly it shines. And I know that every time I encounter that particular kind of day I’ll remember Coyote’s reference and even though it was to a northern sun, specifically, the way it was presented it, it applies, generally, to all suns.
Coyote does this a lot. And not just with large objects in the solar system, but with teensy details right here on terra firma where stories cover pretty general ground—childhood, family, neighbourhood, school, first love, friends, being misunderstood. And while these subjects resonate universally, they’re actually specific to a girl growing up in a small northern community, with the mind, body, spirit, soul, of not merely a girl, but also a boy.
None of which, in the reading, ever feels strange. The beauty of Coyote’s writing is its straight-from-the-hip truth, which over and over again takes the specific and makes it general so that the reader forgets there are differences. At least long enough to see the similarities.
One beautiful scene has Coyote giving the eulogy for a beloved grandparent. When the attending priest mistakes ‘her’ for a guy and suggests s/he join the priesthood, Coyote is tempted to straighten him out with a one-liner but opts instead to respect the dead grandmother’s high opinion of the church and thank him for the compliment.
The circumstances may be unique and the situations unusual, but at the heart of everything, Coyote manages to remind us, we’re all dealing with the same basic stuff: kindness, respect, compassion, decency.
Or their opposites.
In No Bikini Coyote accidentally passes for a little boy at swimming class by wearing only a bikini bottom—and for purely practical reasons keeps up the charade because… “It was easier not to be afraid of things, like diving boards and cannonballs and backstrokes, when nobody expected you to be afraid.”
In Three Left Turns Coyote is six years old when a little girl, thinking Coyote is a boy, wants to kiss. Coyote wants to kiss the girl back but feels it’s wrong unless Coyote admits that she’s not a boy. It doesn’t end well—all the more heartbreaking when you think a six year old is already aware of society’s narrow (and punishing) rules on who to love.
Coyote, whose work includes five story collections and a recent novel, self describes as a kitchen table story-teller. I love the quality of “ordinary” in that. That even though the stories… about gender roles, how they develop, how judgments are passed, and the pressures we put on one another, knowingly or not, seem directed at an element of society that is seen as ‘different’, we soon recognize ourselves in the difference.
The hope is that maybe from there we can begin to see the similarities.