Théodora Armstrong, Clear Skies, No Wind, 100% Visibility

I saw Théodora Armstrong read from the title story from her collection Clear Skies, No Wind, 100% Visibility (Astoria, 2013) at the end of last year’s Vancouver Writers’ Fest. A novice air traffic controller loses his first pilot and has to cope with his own inability to help. She only read part of the story, but it stuck with me. I wasn’t surprised when I saw her name on the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize shortlist, and I told myself I would get a copy. (Actually, I won of copy a this and every other Ethel Wilson nominee for this year’s prizes through the BC Book Prizes’ Facebook! But I read this one first.)

Armstrong didn’t win, but she certainly made her debut with a first-class set of stories. They take place all over BC and feature characters ranging from a high cuisine chef with anger management issues, to estranged sisters, to a curious young boy. But every story involves coping with something. The air traffic controller fails to save a pilot. The angry chef is about to have his first child but he knows he can’t handle parenthood. The sisters have to accept that they’ve grown apart, are no longer the girls from their childhood memories. And the boy, after making an animal trap, ends up with a dying young dog in his hands (and displays some startling sociopathic tendencies).

The story that has stayed with me since finishing the book is called “Mosquito Creek.” It is the last one in the collection, and the longest, which perhaps contributes to how well I remember it, but those aren’t the only reasons. It’s the story of a friendship between two teenage girls in North Vancouver, with all the elements of a teenage friendship. They are “best friends,” but one needs the other more. The adventurous free spirit of one and the need to feel included of the other seem to support each other well until alcohol, drugs and sex get into the mix. And like almost every teenage friendship, it can only go downhill. There’s all the drama of bad influences, a close suicide, and the boyfriend who dumps one friend for the other. And it’s all rendered in a way that even I feel for the girls—me! whose palms get clammy even just thinking of teenagers getting mixed with drugs and alcohol!

I was right there with them. That’s a real testament to Armstrong’s writing. And “Mosquito Creek” wasn’t the only story with scenarios that make me uncomfortable; they showed up throughout the book, and even when my hands were wet enough I worried about the pages (yes) I was compelled to keep going.

(And it made me wonder—is that what a typical teenage experience is like? Or is that just what good stories are made of? Either way, I feel like I understand teenagers a little better.)

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