Waiting for Joe by Sandra Birdsell

Sandra Birdsell could have very well been describing her own writing in her latest book when she writes: “Being with her was like being in a warm current of water while swimming in a cold northern lake.”

Waiting for Joe is Birdsell’s seventh novel (she’s also the author of three short story collections). Her latest work is an intelligent, beautiful and profound story written in understated prose.
Joe, the novel’s protagonist, puts his father in a nursing home, sells all of his belongings and leaves Winnipeg with his wife in a stolen RV. He plans to drive to Fort McMurray, make some money and return to Winnipeg.

However, Joe ends up leaving his wife in a Wal-Mart parking lot in Regina to hitchhike to Fort McMurray alone. From there, each of the three main characters (Joe, his wife and Joe’s father) delves into their past while they undergo their solitary experiences of waiting. 

Birdsell’s novel draws a distinct line between past and present in terms of relationships and events.

While Winnipeg’s past features strong relationships set against a backdrop of arching elms on Arlington Street, the present day consists of struggles with the consumer lifestyle amid concrete.

However, the novel does not glorify nostalgia, but rather comments on our changing landscape and values. 

Joe’s struggle with religion receives the same treatment. As a child, Joe was converted to Christianity by the local pastor and his wife. Joe’s hitchhiking journey takes him to their mansion in B.C. where he realizes the fallacy of their lifestyle.

The pastor’s wife tells Joe: “Since we’ve left Winnipeg we’ve learned that God doesn’t want his children to be poor. We’re first-class citizens, not second-class. What kind of advertisement would we be for God if we lived in a shack and went around in rags?”

Whether the book is advocating against religion as an institution or our culture’s consumerism, Birdsell deftly reveals our worst traits through a fascinating storyline. 

Waiting for Joe’s characters are the novel’s one downfall. Ultimately, Joe’s wife remains a rather undeveloped stereotype of a semi-wealthy woman and Joe himself is as enigmatic as the title might lead the reader to believe he’ll be. 

However, Birdsell’s novel is a wonderful union of simple, evocative prose and an intricate story.

Sandra Birdsell will appear at the Thin Air Winnipeg International Writers Festival. Waiting for Joe is in stores now.

Published in Volume 65, Number 3 of The Uniter (September 16, 2010)

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