One Day It Happens
stories by Mary Lou Dickinson

Print: 978-0-9782233-2-8
ePUB: 978-1-9267086-1-4
PDF: 978-1-77133-119-7

194 Pages
May 01, 2007
Fiction All Titles

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One Day It Happens stories by Mary Lou Dickinson

One Day It Happens is an eclectic collection of short stories, which deal in myriad forms with communication or lack thereof in the lives of the characters. One of the universal factors in human existence is the need to connect with one another. When these characters fail to do so, it is the result of fear, of loneliness, of violence, of impending death. Sometimes they succeed in spite of everything to reach a place of insight and understanding, usually in unexpected ways and to their own surprise.

Mary Lou Dickinson graduated with a Master in Library Science from the University of Toronto and worked for many years as a crisis counsellor. Her fiction has been published in the University of Windsor Review, Descant, Waves, Grain, Northern Journey, Impulse, Writ and broadcast on CBC Radio. Her writing was also included in the anthology, We Who Can Fly: Poems, Essays and Memories in Honour of Adele Wiseman. Mary Lou Dickinson lives in Toronto.

"The stories in One Day It Happens speak to the truths about ordinary people’s lives as they deal with loneliness, abuse, aging, loss and death. Mary Lou Dickinson shows good insight into her characters and her stories have a refreshing sense of honesty and forthrightness that make this volume a memorable read."

—Joy Kogawa, author of Obasan, The Rain Ascends, and Emily Kato.

"A refreshing wisdom and breadth of experience informs all of Mary Lou Dickinson’s stories in One Day It Happens, an experience rich with compassion, aching poignancy, and a dark sense of humour. Dickinson exposes wasted and empty years, conflicted and lonely characters, with men and women who seem to be continually at cross purposes. A tension of opposites is at play here, of wanting to live life to the fullest, though always with the awareness of illness and death hovering at its periphery. Dickinson never skims the surface of things; she tackles the hard subjects—mental illness, AIDS, child abduction—with surprising candor and empathy. It takes an assured writer to slip so organically from voice to voice, regardless of gender or age, with sharply-observed moments at every turn. Dickinson is such a writer, and we emerge uplifted for it."

—Myna Wallin, author of A Thousand Profane Pieces

"These are lucid, passionate stories about contemporary urban characters who enjoy friendships, go to cottages and plays, write, paint, travel until “one day it happens”: their lives are torn by crisis, by illness, death, memory of horrors—or by the realization that freedom is theirs, if they can only enter the moment. Mary Lou Dickinson writes with strength and wisdom."

—Elizabeth Greene, Associate Professor, Queen's University and Editor of We Who Can Fly: Poems, Essays, Memories in Honour of Adele Wiseman

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Reviewed by Lee Gold

"Mary Lou Dickinson has created a rich and varied first collection of short stories, One Day It Happens. They reveal a full range of human struggles not purely feminine ones. These modern stories touch on issues of woman abuse, alcoholism, divorce, homosexuality, child sexual abuse and mental illness. No longer forbidden topics, they still bring pain, shame, fear and, too often, silence. However these stories bear no resemblance to political tracts or diatribes. They do what good fiction does best: reveal the human condition in its endless permutations, differences, horrors, pleasures, and contradictions.

The narrator ranges from first person to third, from male to female and young to old. But always there remains an ability to find significance, humor, irony, or menace in small moments, brief encounters and prolonged friendship. A young child draws a house, surrounded by trees, on the lid of her father’s cardboard coffin; a lecherous old man seeks out a new arrival in a nursing home to revive his lost sexual prowess. The stories challenge the reader to examine moments of adventure, to be open to connection as well as to fear and even death.

The collection has a rhythm, a structure that helps to make the darkness of several stories bearable. It can be read as a fugue of sorts, orchestrated to frighten, amuse, repulse and even, delight. The reader gets taken on a journey over time.

Some stories are directly informed by the writer’s work as a crisis line counselor: “Slides from Exotic Places” and “From the Front,” fictional accounts of such experiences reveal the toll this work takes on one’s body and spirit as well as the kinds of issues that arise in the course of a single shift. “The Essay” vividly portrays the mind of a woman, whose sense of self has been so severely traumatized as a child that she has to struggle every moment to hold together the splintered pieces as a fragmented adult.

The stories are far from repetitive nor are they all bleak. Two, especially stand out for their deft touch, wry humour, and self mockery. “Neighbours” about the deaths, a year apart, of two gay men from AIDS is as sensitive a telling of the ravages of this disease and the prejudices of a homophobic society as one could wish for. The other, very different in the telling as well as the subject, consists of PERSONALS, both his and hers. The reader witnesses the shift from an effort to find a companion, albeit playfully, to a woman simply finding pleasure in self-revelation over the space of a few years and giving up on finding “Mr. Right.” These stories arrive when the reader needs a bit of relief: ironic light cast into the shadows of the more prevalent darkness of human experiences.

I struggled with one story in particular, a mad or perhaps not so mad, woman living in her fantasy world or acting out for the sheer adventure of it. I could never quite tell whether it worked or not. But the pleasure of such a collection lies in its variety, enough to satisfy a broad readership. Mavis Gallant once said she thought short stories should be read singly, with time in between. For me it depends on the writer and, of course, the stories. I read these three or four at a time over the course of a few days. None are very long but each feels complete. Only two involve the same characters.

The writing does not draw attention to itself; the stories occupy center stage. The style lends itself to the tale told without embellishment, simile or metaphor. (I noticed one and it felt discordant.) The voice feels consistent throughout even as it changes from first to third person, female to male, dialogue to Personal Ads to description. This versatility helps to keep the stories interesting and engaging, as varied as the subject matter. This is the work of a mature writer who has mastered her craft as she observes and experiences the world around her. Landscapes she inhabits or visits become characters in the stories as well: the North, rural France, Toronto, an apartment with a child’s drawings on the ceiling and her dying father in a bed beneath them.

The cumulative effect of this collection will leave the reader with an increased understanding of a variety of states of mind, human interactions and experience. If fiction can transport us into worlds others inhabit, these stories succeed brilliantly. The book is entitled, One Day it Happens, but it could also be called, “What we all Long for,” safety and a connection with others and it should be read.

Published in Canadian Woman Studies/les cahiers de la femme 26 (1) (Winter/Spring 2007).

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One Day It Happens
Highlights from a review in the Globe and Mail
Reviewed by Jim Bartley on July 14, 2007


"Jan is a volunteer counsellor at a call-in distress centre. In the opening story of Mary Lou Dickinson's collection, the burden of distress shifts decisively on the first page as Jan hears a muffled voice on the line: "There's a bomb in your building." As she calls 911, then alerts co-workers and her boss, the expectation of formulaic drama is quickly laid to rest. This tale's terror is all interior, the sense of dread subtly built and intimately bound up with Jan's past.One Day It Happens presents a family's varied responses to a recent brush with death. It's an unsentimental probing of the ways that our view of past and future, memory and anticipation, can be distorted - or sharply focused - when death suddenly intervenes as the refracting lens…

A Country Weekend builds quietly to an ending that resolves almost nothing, yet hums with character revelations. The bare bones of it are a lakeside cottage, a tired and fractious marriage, and a convalescing husband with a reckless urge to prove himself. Setting, plot and theme are tightly integrated, with the final paragraphs leaping beyond the expected.

The Train Ride is a touching snapshot of a lonely man and a fellow train passenger's fleeting kindness to him, born entirely of the forced proximity. The story concisely makes its double-edged point: We feel for Joe even as we know that, were we captive on that train, we'd gladly have him pass us by…

A… tragic riff takes us into the hallucinatory psyche of a young woman battling the fallout of ritual childhood abuse, or the terrors of self-destructive mental illness - or both. Natalie/Beth's reality comes to us raw, self-contained and uninterpreted, a plunge into waking nightmare…

Two closing stories take us to Venice, then France, in the company of women of a certain age, both drifting in the wake of empty nests and failed marriages. The Euro travel snapshots are evocative… 

Characters and locales in the French story intriguingly reprise those of an earlier entry, suggesting fictional paths as yet unexplored."

Jim Bartley is The Globe and Mail's first-fiction reviewer.

Slides of Exotic Places 1
One Day It Happens 14
Hello, Angel 23
The Empty Chair 39
The Golden Chain 48
A Country Weekend 57
The Train Ride 72
National Personals 81
Neighbours 92
The Essay 104
Who Are You Today? 114
The Yellow Volvo 123
From the Front 129
First She Killed Him 137
Hannah’s Drawings 149
Two Women in Venice 158
Hats 167

Acknowledgements 183

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