When Darby Swank finds her beloved aunt floating dead in the water of Brightsand Lake, it sets in motion a hunt for the killer and shatters the tranquil facade of the rural community Darby calls home.
If it sounds like a murder mystery, it is. But Grainews writer Lisa Guenther’s debut novel, Friendly Fire, is much more than that. Set against the backdrop of the 2002 Turtle Lake fire in a small town in northwest Saskatchewan, the story is really about Darby’s slow recognition of the secrets and violence that lurk behind the shiniest veneer of family and community.
“It’s about how we uncover those secrets and who the gatekeepers are and the effects on the people involved,” says Guenther. “Family violence is a problem everywhere, but it looks different in a small town… because in a small town there’s always someone who knows. There has to be. They condone or ignore or keep it secret and it depends on the relationship with the abuser.”
Careful not to paint a clichéd picture, Guenther chooses her words. “I wanted to examine why some people speak out and others don’t and why they react in these different ways; what it takes to be brave enough to do something.”
Guenther knows small towns well. “Livelong is three streets by three streets. And still people can’t find my house sometimes,” she laughs. She grew up on a farm near the small community of 100 in northwest Saskatchewan and moved back with her husband a few years ago to pursue a freelance writing career after working with Alberta Agriculture in Edmonton. She’s an agricultural journalist, a staff writer with Grainews and Country Guide, and president of the Canadian Farm Writers Federation.
Growing up in lake country at the edge of the boreal forest might not make Guenther the typical wheat field “Prairie writer,” but like many Prairie writers the landscape surrounding her becomes almost another character in her novel. Fire and drought are always present. So too are an appreciation of Prairie language and culture and agriculture. Cattle vaccinations and calf processing, references to horse-training skills, and scenes at a community hall used for funeral processions, wedding dances and everything in between, are all there as an organic part of her writing, largely because they are a part of Guenther’s own life.
Although the novel deals with the heavy themes of family secrets and violence, there is humour and lightness in her story. “That’s how life is,” Guenther says. “Even in the worst situation, we often cope through humour. In this case I do it with empathy, so it’s not laughing at someone, but rather sharing in their experience.”
In the novel the fire at Turtle Lake is accidentally set by a fictional character named Friendly, thus the title, Friendly Fire. But the words carry other connotations. In war and at home, violence can come from where you least expect it and from people it should not be coming from.
“I wanted to talk about it in fiction because there’s more room to explore and look into a character’s head and do it in a safe way. As a reporter it would be heartbreaking and you can’t resolve anything. Fiction gets at the truth in a different way.”
Friendly Fire won second place in the Saskatchewan Writers Guild 2013 John V. Hicks award for fiction. Guenther then sent it to Newest Press, an independent literary press in Edmonton, which accepted it. The publisher told Guenther her writing was direct and to the point and asked if that was a result of her journalism background.
“That’s likely a combination of my personality and my job,” she laughs. “I’m not a flowery writer. I like a good metaphor or a nice description, but I definitely don’t have too much extraneous writing in there… Writing and working in agriculture keeps you real.”
Guenther has received a good response from both city and small-town readers. “People from small towns recognize themselves (in the novel) and those who are not from a small town connect with Darby,” she says.
Find out more at lisaguenther.com.