Every summer, I take it upon myself to read some gay history fiction while enjoying seasonal downtime. Last summer it was The Well of Loneliness; this summer, to my delight, it is a Calgary story. The Western Alienation Merit Badge is the first novel from author Nancy Jo Cullen, a former Calgarian, and recipient of the Writers’ Trust Dayne Ogilvie Prize for LGBT Emerging Writers. It has been gathering plaudits and praise.
The book chronicles the staggering trials of the Murray family during the 1982 oil recession in Calgary. A death in the family, unplanned pregnancy and a coming-out story test family bonds against a backdrop of economic precariousness – a lot of drama, which Cullen deftly weaves with a poetic touch. My favourite aspect of the book is its use of non-linear time. The plot ricochets through the decades and only slowly reveals the larger tapestry of the Murray family’s sadness and regrets.
The Western Alienation Merit Badge has some eerie resonances to the Calgary of today. An economic slump mixed with anti-Trudeau rhetoric and general Calgarian embitterment makes one think distressingly about the cyclical nature of our city. After all, was it not that legendary 1980s recession that brought us the bumper sticker: “Please God, let there be another oil boom. We promise not to piss it away this time.”
The book also takes us to a period where gay identity was generally disparaged. In the early 80s, coming out was fraught with rejection, and new support groups like the Lesbian Infomation Line were saving lives.
It is fun to read a smart book where Calgary is given a starring role. The locations, the atmosphere, and the dialogue are all achingly familiar. Plus there is a queer protagonist at the heart of it – fans of Calgary gay history could not ask for anything more!
The Calgary Gay History Project will be part of Historic Calgary week again in 2019. In collaboration with the Calgary Public Library, we are hosting a lecture titled: Among friends: the history of LGBTQ2+ recreation and sport in Calgary. Join us on Saturday, August 3rd from 1:00 – 2:00 PM at the Memorial Park Library. There is a post-lecture screening at 2:30 PM of Outliers: Calgary’s Queer History (the Directors Cut) in partnership with the Calgary Queer Arts Society.
We hope to see you out and happy summer reading!