I read many of the short stories in Donna Besel’s Lessons From A Nude Man while sitting on the deck of a guest cottage on a friend’s property at Jessica Lake. I was surrounded by the trees of the boreal forest and that was most appropriate. Joan Thomas who wrote one of the endorsements for Lessons From a Nude Man says Donna Besel has an intimate knowledge of the boreal forest and those who live on its edges.
The first story and the one for which the book is named is about Chris, a man scouting around for a nudist-friendly place for a group of friends who want to spend some time together. He visits a property owned by a widow that might be a potential site. Chris takes off his clothes just to get a ‘feel’ for the place and it releases a myriad of feelings in the widow.
Fare Well is one story in the book that has haunted me since I read it. It introduces the reader to an incredibly dysfunctional family poisoned by a misogynistic and angry father. We view the family’s life starkly and tragically through the eyes of a fourteen-year-old girl named Gina.
I thoroughly enjoyed the story Hawksley Workman and the Worst Motel in Canada. Songs by Hawksley Workman play an important role in Besel’s account of a memorable family road trip. My favourite Hawksley Workman song is Safe and Sound and I think the lyrics would have been perfect for a story about a road trip. I admit I was just a little disappointed it wasn’t one of the songs included.
I wasn’t that fond of the three young people who do a renovation project on a boathouse in the story Sam, Lump and the Boathouse Reno. Jacob and Esther the wealthy Mennonite couple who own the boathouse were more intriguing and likeable characters for me, and I actually wished they had played a bigger role.
Two interesting and thought-provoking stories in the collection revolve around roadside encounters. One is between a writer and a young boy and another between a social worker and an older couple who need to get to a hospital.
The story Dead Skunk a set on a Hutterite Colony and describes an art lesson led by a new teacher at the colony school. As I read it I was reminded of the exhibit of Hutterite artists’ work I visited in October. Many of the pieces in that exhibit were by school children.
Lessons From a Nude Man ends with a story called The English Cousin that has sections which are certainly scary and troubling to read. In the end, though, it is a story of courage.
I was inspired to pick up Lessons From A Nude Man when I saw it at McNally Robinson because I had just heard that Donna Besel had won first prize in the 2019 Prairie Fire magazine contest for creative non-fiction for her story The Bay Filly. I have yet to read the latest issue of Prairie Fire but if the stories in Lessons From a Nude Man are any indication reading The Bay Filly will be an experience to savour.