Family, Female Voice and the Working Class in Lisa Pike’s Industrial Roots
By Victoria Bromley, Eleanor Bowskill, Lily Baldanza and Hannah McWhinnie
Lisa Pike’s Industrial Roots is an exceptional insight into the lives of working-class women in Canada. Rooted in the oral tradition of storytelling, Pike’s novel is a linguistic gem that uses a variety of registers, slang, and standard English to challenge the limits of the English language. The result is a striking range of female voices shaped by experiences of blue-collar life. From a woman tempted to steal babies, ageing parents recalling parenthood, cousins torn apart by their love for the same man, and exhausted women working in academia – there is a place in these stories for everyone. Examining the relationship between themes such as social class, gender politics, intergenerational relationships, and personal identity, Pike presents nuanced and achingly honest illustrations of daily life as a working woman across several generations.
Pike’s writing is born in such an “organic way” where inspiration from an idea or a particular line of dialogue overrides any form of planning, letting herself be “free to explore and experiment.” This collection was crosshatched with a cast of characters which created a harmony between the stories and the “sprawling intergenerational family” is familiar to Pike from her own “individual history.” While “intellectually fascinated by these complex emotional dynamics” between the characters, Pike describes these connections as “visceral, lasting, and are part of the intergenerational passage of time.”
When considering the structure of Industrial Roots Pike noted that “the stories rise up out of a place and are each quite open-ended.” However, “the people are all connected” as each chapter of the novel reads as a short story; we meet all the characters as they interweave seamlessly throughout the collection. This was inspired by “the short story itself and its connections to orality” as she goes on to mention “everyone knows the story, it’s how you tell it that’s important.” The pacing and the connection between each story has similar feelings to James Joyce’s The Dubliners, or NBC’s This is Us.
From the very first story, His Little Douchebag, there is a clear sense of identity through the linguistic nuances within the narrator’s voice. As an author, Pike said it was “crucial” that she used voice and narrative style to present these women’s backgrounds and identities. Many of the women from the older generation had “little formal education,” yet their “knowledge and life experiences are vast and deep.” Therefore, Pike used their “speech” and “expressions” to form “creative resistance” where the women would often match, “or sometimes surpass,” the men’s brutality.
Looking at chapters more closely Pike states that Sky Blue was the “first of the collection to be both written and published.” Sky Blue is a story about motherhood but developed into a complex and heart-wrenching story of loss. When asked if the chapter was hard to write Pike stated, “It is the societal institution of motherhood that causes so much inner conflict, depression, confusion and pain for women.” Pike explained that this is the overall conflict of the story as the character “wants something different for herself and her daughter but struggles to articulate and envision what that might be.”
Two-Bit Tommy, presents a poignant image of a grandmother left to reflect on the rift that has grown between her family. The shared memories that exist between the generations unfold whenever she pauses to blow out her cigarette smoke. For Pike, these family members are “connected through a sense of love and loss.” Their “unspoken” emotional baggage lingers and they can’t seem to “articulate the effect of such love and longing.” Pike explained that as the matriarch, Gramma Ruby is also “the storyteller” of the family, holding the knowledge of their history, making her the “keeper of their past”.
Later in the collection, The Two Stellas explores the relationship between two cousins with the same name, whose friendship had been severed through their romantic rivalries. While one of Pike’s favourites from the collection, it explores the painful “rupture between two women” whose lives have been “intertwined” since birth. Pike pointed out that, in “dire economic straits” the girls even shared a pair of shoes between them. Feelings of “guilt, regret and stubbornness” are more “complex and nuanced” than we might expect. In her own way, each woman wants to “reconnect with the other” as death approaches, but the fear of feeling “exposed and vulnerable” ultimately “thwarts their efforts at connection.”
In Go Ask Alice Pike explores feelings of “outrage and anger” when lecturer Alice witnesses how institutions hypocritically exploiting social justice “destroys people.” Pike explains that corporate influence “has reduced education to a mere front” and that for Alice, this is “a source of absolute outrage.” The death of Alice’s close friend, Louise, who coped with teaching pressures through substance abuse, demonstrates Pike’s point that front-line workers who have to get high, “to survive their jobs” are “at best unnoticed.” Pike emphasized the extent to which “people are completely expendable,” and made her readers deeply consider: “What access do women have to anger?”