|by Steve Charles • April 14, 2012|
Professor Eric Freeze recently told a student reporter about a “weird moment” during his book tour earlier this year in support of Dominant Traits, his new collection of short stories. The book’s tales are set in Ridgeville, a fictional amalgam of towns in the southern Alberta of Freeze’s childhood, and the author returned to the region for readings.
“A lot of the people who would come to the readings or book signings were the people I had known growing up,” Freeze said. “The stories are fiction, but some of the people who read the stories tended to incorporate themselves into some of the characters, the town, or the situations. That can be really uncomfortable…”
But reading from the book last Monday in Center Hall 216, Freeze seemed anything but ill at ease.
“Welcome to this celebration of our esteemed colleague and his collection of stories,” Professor and Chair of the English Department Marc Hudson told students, faculty, staff, and friends filling the room. “Eric is known by colleagues and students for his amazing discipline, energy, and sense of humor, and you’ll find in his fiction a similar abundance of imaginative energy, as well as an affection for his characters.”
Hudson offered an addendum for the back cover of the book, which describes Freeze’s debut collection as “a deftly crafted study of desperate mortals careening through their liminal moments, grasping for certainty.”
“These ‘desperate mortals,’” Hudson said, “are set spinning not into a void, but to a recognizable place, and a world the author values, where community is possible, if always difficult to achieve.”
Critics have praised the work, which Boston Review calls “an honest record—a way to trace the passage of time and understand the little stories of our past.” Booklist calls Dominant Traits’ tales “excellent stories,” adding, “Freeze produces realistic, believable people and delves deeply into their psyches to create truly enjoyable character studies.”
Before introducing the audience to those characters, Freeze talked about the area of southern Alberta where he grew up.
“This area of Alberta is very conservative socially. Many different groups co-exist in the area—Hutterites have large communal farms, Mormons established a large colony in the 1800s, there are many Mennonites, and Native Americans—the largest reservation in North America is not far from the town where I grew up.
"Because of the social conservatism in the area, there is, ironically, not a lot of tolerance for diversity or difference, and some of the characters in these stories exhibit that in different ways.
“The title of the book, Dominant Traits, comes from “Poachers,” one of the stories, in which a woman who had an affair finally decides to tell her son he is the product of that affair. Throughout the collection, men treat each other in ways that play with this idea of domination, socially and genetically. The title speaks to the genetics of that one story, and the issues of domination and control that happen throughout the rest.”
Asked if he felt pressure to leave his small town when he was growing up, Freeze noted that his high school graduating class had about 75 students, and that more than half went on to college.
“A lot of my friends became doctors or lawyers, and I started off as a pre-med major, because I thought that’s what you did if you wanted to get out of southern Alberta.”
The author read “The Beet Farmer,” the shortest story in the collection and one inspired by Welsh poet and writer Leslie Norris’s “The Blackberries.” Like most of the stories, this one includes autobiographical elements.
“My grandfather worked in a sugar beet factory,” Freeze said, “and I went to observe one to make sure I got the details right.”
Following the reception, Hudson said the publication of the book means much not only to Freeze as a writer and teacher, but to the College and students, and particularly the English Department's creative writing program.
“A first book for an author—well, you can’t describe the importance of it. I’m sure it felt like a deep sense of ‘I’ve arrived.’ There’s a sense that your identity as an author has been ratified by the wider world. This is not to diminish the many publications that Eric has had in fine literary journals like the Harvard Review and Boston Review, but there’s something about having the book, a tangible artifact, in hand—there’s this sense of a presence that may last.
“As a department we’re so delighted by Eric’s generous spirit, his fine craft revealed in these stories, and his exceptional imagination he brings to play in his teaching, as well as these imagined worlds.”
At the conclusion of the reading and a question and answer session, recently tenured art professor Elizabeth Morton spoke for all those gathered.
“On behalf of everyone here at Wabash, I wanted tell you that it’s been really fun to hear your stories over the years, to listen to your readings. It’s great to have you here for your creative spirit, for all the writers you bring to us. Congratulations on this achievement.”