Calgary Herald - "Looking Back at a Life in a Mountain Town"

As far as descriptive words go, "ambivalent" is not one that promises great art.

But author Gordon Sombrowski's book of short stories, What Echo Heard (Oolichan Books, 222 pages, $21.96) benefits from his admitted mixed feelings about hometown Fernie, B.C.

As painted in the 11 stories in Sombrowski's debut, Fernie often seems filtered through a certain nostalgia for what has been lost in its transformation from quaint mining town to touristy ski hub.

On the other hand, many of the characters seem alienated in one form or another. Neglected children, isolated immigrants, grieving mothers and even the town's first "ski bum" are featured characters whose experiences seem to counter the perception that the "good old days" were all that good for certain people.

In the days before Fernie becoming a beacon for those seeking second residences and ready access to the ski hills, it was a small mining town that encapsulated all that is good and bad about small-town life.

For Sombrowski, growing up gay often made it an uncomfortable fit.

"Everybody knows your business and if they don't like your business, they can make your life unhappy," he says.

"Being gay in the '60s and '70s was not necessarily the easiest thing to be, especially in a small town and being a teenager. I got to see the world from an extraordinary perspective. I got to be an insider in a very big way and was able to see it from a position of privilege, but also to feel what it was like to be an outsider."

At the risk of playing armchair psychologist, this may at least partially explain why Sombrowski took so long to publish any of his work. As his author bio boasts, he has been a writer since he was eight years old and secretly wrote a six-page tale about Catherine the Great.

But the prospect of rejection was terrifying. Sombrowski learned of his thin skin while taking a few creative writing courses at the University of Alberta, which opened his work up to criticism by fellow classmates.

He would go on to the University of Cambridge and train to be a lawyer and eventually join the family's real estate and investment business in Fernie. To placate his artistic yearnings, he occupied himself with administrative duties for arts groups in his second home of Calgary, including helping organize the Fairy Tales film festival and chair Alberta Ballet's board of directors. But then, 41 years after his Catherine the Great scribblings, he was convinced by his husband to submit a story for publication.

That was the start of What Echo Heard, much of which came from private journals he had kept over the years.

"I don't know why the young me was so trepidatious about it," he says.

"But I thought the timing wasn't right. I had to grow somehow as a person to deal with the idea that other people were going to be reading about things I was writing about. It's very different writing fiction than writing a report for a business meeting. You're putting yourself out there in a different way."

Which doesn't mean the trepidation has completely faded now that the book is out. But Sombrowski has two novels that he is currently working on, suggesting he is a little more at ease with the idea of outsiders reading his writing.

Early feedback for What Echo Heard from Fernie's longtime residents suggests the author was able to capture the town the way it once was, with stories that span from post-Second World War up until the end of the 1970s.

"The last story in the book is the arrival of the first ski bum, in essence," he says. "I wanted to round out these stories with a story that says, 'Something is coming: Different people are going to come and life is going to change in the valley.' "

evolmers@calgaryherald.com
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