Moccasin Square Gardens is the most recent collection of short stories by famed Dogrib author Richard Van Camp. Clashing Van Camp’s brand of karmic comedy, memorable one-liners, and intimate connection to the North, Moccasin Square Gardens delivered what I had come to expect and so much more.
My favourite work of Van Camp’s so far, this collection really felt to me like a masterclass in storytelling, with each spectacular short story clearly the product of the years Van Camp has spent writing.
This collection impresses from page one with a striking opening line that I think encompass this whole collection – “I wanna tell you a beautiful story, and I’ve been waiting for somebody very special to tell it to” – making an impact in just a few short lines that isn’t lost as each short story gives way to the next. I take that back. This collection drew me in from before the first line, when Van Camp includes on an otherwise blank page a quotation from his mother: “First punch has to be real good.”
Well, boy, does this collection hit hard. Every story had a punchline of sorts, something waiting excitedly to be discovered or found out that I could trust to be beautiful, dramatic, or funny enough to split your sides. It was hard to come up with a list of my favourites from the bunch, but at long last my favourites were Aliens, Super Indians, and Man Babies, the last of which applied almost comically to my own life for being a veritable freeloader this last year after moving back in with my parents. Thank you, mom and dad!
From stories about aliens and apocalypses that had a similar peaceful thoughtfulness to Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life – the short story that the 2016 film Arrival was based on – to stories of Band politics and “man babies” who mooch off their parents, Moccasin Square Gardens brings fiction and reality close together in a game of “spot the difference.” Beautiful even when they were absurd, or funny while also being delicate, every story felt uniquely placed to contribute to this collection as a whole.
I had already read two of the stories included in Moccasin Square Gardens in the various other publications they were featured in, and I can confirm that they worked even better when placed alongside the other short stories in Van Camp’s collection. It’s also rewarding to read this collection if you’ve already read some of Van Camp’s other short stories, as some of the stories mentioned characters from other stories he’s written, like Sfen and Torchy showing up in Moccasin Square Gardens from Van Camp’s short story collection Angel Wing Splash Pattern – itself now 20 years old!
While being centred around Fort Smith and, notably, Roaring Rapids Hall (also known as Moccasin Square Gardens), this short story collection doesn’t hesitate to explore the rest of the Northwest Territories. My favourite example of this being a shout out to the Yellowknife Public Library, one of Van Camp’s favourite places in Yellowknife, and one of mine, too. And, as always, the afterword of this collection functions as a story itself – the story of how these stories came to be and a thank you to the people each was dedicated to. By far one of my favourite books I’ve read this year, and among my favourite books I’ve reviewed for the Yellowknifer, this collection felt immediately special, a perfect blend of humour and heart that kept my eyes on the page but also looking for similar stories in my own life and others.