SAILOR GIRL by Sheree-Lee Olson (Porcupine’s Quill), 288 pages, $27.95 paper. Rating: NNN
It's clear that Sheree-Lee Olson long ago succumbed to the lure of the water. Her debut novel, Sailor Girl, brims with affection for Canada's Great Lakes and the sailors whose lives unfold aboard the lumbering cargo boats.
The year is 1981, and 19-year-old Toronto art student Kate McLeod has packed her camera and duffle bag and run away to sea, signing on as a porter aboard an aging grain tug. The work is back-breaking, the crew sexist and dismissive of Kate - whom they write off as a nice girl slumming for the summer.
Hard-drinking, horny and desperate to prove her mettle, the rebellious Kate soon hooks up with the wrong guy, and everything goes topsy-turvy.
Olson's own experiences on the boats guide the story. The dialogue is spirited, the sex fast and the characters exactly what you'd expect - a bunch of tough-talking, worn-out, demon-ridden castaways. We get a real feel for life on the lakers, and how the rhythms of work and water can heal.
A new boat and another crew open the hatch to fresh possibilities. Kate finds her own strength of purpose and forges bonds with an unlikely pair of older women and a boy.
Olson deftly navigates the waters between literature - she's handy with a metaphor - and popular fiction. What I liked best were all the details about boat operations, and her poetic descriptions of the geography of the lakes, Superior's sudden storms and the cheerless, struggling towns along the route.
Sailor Girl is more than a young woman's coming-of-age story. When it wades into the glory days of Great Lakes shipping, with all its sweetwater adventure, tragedy and romance, it crests the waves.