Brindle & Glass, 272 pages, $22.00, 2020
The interconnected stories that populate Katie Bickell’s thoughtful debut collection, Always Brave, Sometimes Kind, remind us of how deeply socio- political factors shape our personal experiences. Set in Alberta between 1990 and 2016, the stories explore myriad issues facing Albertans, including boom and bust in the oil industry, the mistreatment of Indigenous communities, labour rights, and addiction. With great warmth and empathy, Bickell’s work captures how the province changed, or didn’t change, over time.
Now residing in Sherwood Park, Alberta, just east of Edmonton, Bickell writes about places she knows well, among them Northern Alberta, where she lived as a resident of Slave Lake. A skilled observer, she depicts rural and urban spaces, from clinical hospital rooms to sprawling highways lined with trees, with great precision. However, the characters who inhabit her stories don’t always benefit from this careful attention to detail.
Always Brave, Sometimes Kind begins with “All the Children We Don’t Know,” an earnest story about Rhanji, a doctor managing hospital overflow and a staffing crisis in 1995. Told through matter-of-fact prose, Bickell tells readers that workers are “used and abused, underpaid and unseen” instead of having readers infer the physical and emotional impacts that healthcare cutbacks have on characters. Thankfully, with each story, Bickell’s work blossoms, opening readers to better- developed characters one can’t help but root for—among them, Miranda, a teenage songstress chasing her big break, and Amy, Miranda’s older sister, who goes into labour at the West Edmonton Mall.
Evoking empathy in readers, many of Always Brave, Sometimes Kind’s nuanced stories feature caregivers who are forced to make difficult decisions to protect or support those they love. It traces the experiences of characters, who appear again and again in multiple stories over multiple decades, revealing an intricate network of Albertans simply trying to do their best despite great loss. There’s little extraordinary about the stories that populate Always Brave, Sometimes Kind, and that’s what makes it powerful. It reminds of us of the interconnectedness of our lives and the ordinary people lost to government inaction. Above all, it’s a book about the resilience of people and communities, bringing to life the age-old adage that “the personal is political.”