Emily Urquhart's Ordinary Wonder Tales finds the magic in everyday experiences — read an excerpt now
Ordinary Wonder Tales is shortlisted for the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction
Ordinary Wonder Tales is an essay collection about finding magic in the everyday. Writing about everything from death and dying, pregnancy and prenatal genetics, psychics, chimeras, cottagers and plague, Emily Urquhart carves out the truth from our imaginations, combining her curiosities as a journalist and a folklorist.
Ordinary Wonder Tales is shortlisted for the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction. The $75,000 prize is awarded annually to the best in Canadian nonfiction. It is the largest prize for nonfiction in Canada. The winner will be announced at the Writers' Trust awards gala on Nov. 21, 2023.
You can read an excerpt of Ordinary Wonder Tales below.
One summer afternoon, while I was eating lunch in the park with my children along with another neighbourhood mom and her son, my daughter asked me to tell the story of my ghost. My own children were five and nine. My friend's son was eight. We were eating kid food — cheese sandwiches, baby carrots,a orange slices, and crackers shaped like goldfish. We'd planned to buy Popsicles for dessert. I began my story in the usual way, describing the ghost as a turtle named Skipper-Dee, and, encouraged by my children's laughter, emphasized its raspy voice.
Buoyed by my audience, I had overlooked the other family's reaction until my story concluded. The mother had turned her entire body towards her child so that her back was now facing me. It was as if she was shielding her son from physical harm. She was speaking to him in a low but audible voice, saying, Ghosts aren't real. This is a made-up story. This never really happened. Then, as an afterthought, which must have been meant for me, but sounded as if she were speaking to herself, she said, I know some people have diﬀerent beliefs about things, but …
It was as if she was shielding her son from physical harm.
She trailed off and didn't finish her sentence. I could feel my face growing warm. My son continued to laugh, repeating the refrain himself now. Go get your mother! Go get your mother! He eventually tired of this, and the kids ate their sandwiches and goldfish crackers and vegetables and the conversation moved on to something more benign, the kind of acceptable park talk about where to buy bathing suits for children, what day camps still have spots available, which pools were open and when. I had trouble concentrating, not because the topics were boring, although they were, but because of the way I'd been shamed. I hadn't realized that the story was inappropriate or upsetting. I'd meant it to be entertaining, but instead my narrative prompted the child's mother to create a barrier between him and me and to contradict what I was saying. I was confused by her behaviour but also perplexed by my own. I'd crossed into taboo and broken social norms without any awareness. Later, replaying the incident, I wondered if the problem lay in the way I was telling the story.
Later, replaying the incident, I wondered if the problem lay in the way I was telling the story.
Haunting narratives are dual stories because one listener might hear it as true while the other understands it to be fiction. It's a question of perception, and this is different from a fairy tale, which, from the outset, is understood as make-believe. In a chapter titled "Scientific Rationalism and Supernatural Experience Narratives" in Haunting Experiences: Ghosts in Contemporary Folklore, Diane Goldstein writes that when people describe personal supernatural experiences — namely, some form of haunting — they typically do so cautiously and with obvious embarrassment. They embed other possible explanations to prove that they themselves might not fully believe in the magic of their stories. It could have been the wind, they'll say, or maybe it was a shadow, or, the most self-damning of all, it was probably all in my head. The tellers include small unnecessary details to help build their case, as if on a witness stand. Unlike ghost stories, personal haunting narratives tend to be mono-episodic, fragmented, and without drama. Goldstein writes that the telling of these stories goes against academic rationalist tradition, a theory that supernatural belief declines with education and access to technology. Similarly, in her research on spirits in early modern Europe, Edwards writes that "widely held throughout Europe, belief in ghosts endured and even strengthened despite intellectual, cultural, and social changes in that period." Haunting stories do not adhere to the elitist idea that only those without education would believe in the supernatural. Tell a ghost story at any party, Goldstein says, and eventually someone will counter with their own personal haunting tale.
I took an ethnography course with Goldstein and I've interviewed her in my journalistic work. I have learned a lot about belief from her and from her research. She once described herself to me as an extreme cultural relativist, meaning that she aims to understand beliefs and their accompanying behaviour without judgment. I could never achieve this level of objectivity—she was researching infanticide at the time that she told me this — but I have tried to apply this gentle approach to supernatural beliefs since, however far removed they might be from my own.
Tell a ghost story at any party, Goldstein says, and eventually someone will counter with their own personal haunting tale.
In an article on the usefulness of ghost stories, folklorist Jeanie Banks Thomas writes that her students always want her to say, definitively, whether she believes that ghosts are real or not. She never responds. She tells them that the veracity of haunting experience narratives is of no interest to the folklore scholar. "To have scientific evidence for the supernatural, the existence of ghosts, and life beyond death would answer some of the most enduring questions of human existence," Thomas writes. "Folklore research, like other forms of scholarship, cannot sate that desire." Instead, folklorists analyze the story, looking for clues to better understand the society, culture, or person telling the tale. It's up to the storyteller to believe or doubt their experience.
My haunting is part of my family folklore.
The mother in the park had humiliated me by challenging my story and refusing to accept the possibility that it was true, but she'd also rattled me in a different way. My haunting is part of my family folklore. The hovering scribble sits on the same shelf in my memory as Martha, my imaginary friend, the pink flower girl dress I wore to my oldest sister's wedding, and stories about our badly behaved family dog. Some of these things are real and others might be imagined, but I had never thought to question their differences because together they told a story of who I was and who I would become.
Excerpted from Ordinary Wonder Tales by Emily Urquhart. Copyright © Emily Urquhart, 2022. Excerpted with permission by Biblioasis. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.