I originally chose to read Skid Dogs by Emelia Symington-Fedy now because it referenced the murder of a young woman on Halloween night, so I thought this would be perfect for my October reading…until I realized it was a) non-fiction and b) not really about Halloween at all. Yikes! The fun of being scared on Halloween suddenly feels artificial and weird when we’re talking about true crime. Once that realization set in I was already a few pages deep into the memoir, and it seemed like a promising book regardless of my initial ignorance, so I was happy to continue reading it. Not quite as dark, it reminded me of another recent read of mine, Sharp Edges by Leah Mol. Both of these books are about young women learning the power of their own bodies and the way this is exploited by boys and men.
On Halloween night in 2011 in a small town in British Columbia, a young woman is murdered on the railroad tracks. Emelia is an adult living in Vancouver when this happens but returns to her hometown to comfort her mother, as this violence has frightened the entire population, putting everyone on edge. Emelia has other reasons to come home; her mother is suffering from another bout of cancer which is rapidly spreading so their time together is limited. The reader is led between two time periods; 2011 following the murder, and the mid-90s when Emelia is a teenager, starting in 1991 when they first move there as a family. Emelia’s parents are divorced and she lives with her younger brother and mother. She quickly makes friends with local girls Aimes, Bugsy, Max and Cristal, and their favourite spot to hang out is the tracks, a place they (ironically) feel safest, hidden from their parents and boys at school who make their lives so difficult. Their friendship is tested and eventually broken by the people around them, various pressures stemming from the impossible expectations placed on young women in small towns.
Emelia’s book is focused on two specific times in her life; her teenage years, and the period of caregiving for her elderly mother. These two periods are linked by a very specific mindset; a desire for bodily autonomy, and the struggles she faces as she tries to connect with the opposite sex. In both her teenage years and her adulthood, Emelia is plagued by feelings of inadequacy around men. As a young woman she places herself in dangerous situations to seek out validation, and as an adult woman, she is caught between wanting to find a partner who understands her, but not wanting to come across as too emotional or needy. Her mother is tied up in all these emotions because of two specific reasons. When Emelia was a teenager, her and some friends blacked out while drinking and were (very likely) sexually assaulted by some local young men from her school. Their parents punished them, alternating between shame from their actions, and righteousness, telling this this is what they deserved for drinking too much. Fast forward a few decades and Emelia’s mother is desperate to become a grandmother before the cancer overwhelms her, so she’s constantly begging Emelia to find a man and become a mother. The murder of the young woman complicates these emotions for Emelia even further, especially when it’s determined that the young woman would have survived if she would have simply let this man rape her then knock her unconscious; she died because she fought back.
Everything in this book leads back to the railroad tracks. One of the most popular games the young girls play (and return to) is the competition to see how long they could balance on the rails for, and how fast they could run while on on them. This game draws an obvious parallel to the balancing act they must perform as teenagers; being cool enough for each other and their peers while staying within the confines of their parents’ expectations. By switching between adult and teenage Emelia, we learn that she never wins – she is always walking this fine line, whether it be her mother’s expectations, or her boyfriend’s expectations, or what society is expecting of women in general – she can never win.
There is some benefit to hindsight in this book; Emelia eventually realizes how unfairly she and her friends were treated as young women:
“What had happened to us, back then? What had they done? Was there a single sexual encounter that felt mutual, shared? With the language I have now, like coercion and fawning, the answer is no.
But the words rape and assault were saved for struggle and screaming. And we’d allowed it, a lot of the time, their ineptitude. Sometimes we even forced it upon ourselves. So, what’s that called?”-p.213 of Skid Dogs by Emelia Symington-Fedy
So clearly this wasn’t the spooky Halloween scare I was looking for, but I found this messy, emotional memoir a very worthwhile and captivating read. Although it offers no answers or solutions, it’s a reminder of how powerful peer and societal pressures can be, especially in the lives of women.