Taxi! / Helen Potrebenko
Vancouver: New Star Books, 1989, c1975.
This is a Canadian novel from the 70s which doesn't examine the theme of Wilderness, or individual crises of identity among women looking at their lives; it looks at the everyday systemic crisis that women faced as urban, working class people in this era. And it is superbly strong and fearless while doing it.
I enjoyed Potrebenko's short story collection, Hey, Waitress!, when I read it some years ago, and have been meaning to get to Taxi! ever since. Thanks to Interlibrary Loan I got my hands on it and read it this week. There are some others who are really keen on getting people to read Taxi again, notably author Anakana Schofield, who loved it so much that she sparked its revival with a piece praising it in the National Post, and then started a blog about it, way back in 2009.
What's it about? Taxi driving, on the surface of it. Shannon is an outspoken taxi driver in Vancouver; she's unusual, as there aren't many women in this soul-sucking job. Through her narration the reader comes to understand the drudgery of this job, and the way in which so many people don't have the option of finding a 'better job' to go to. She talks about the dull passengers who always have the same questions: "Are you married? Are there many women drivers? Do you like your job?"
Potrebenko openly discusses class, money, feminism, sexism, racism, politics and more -- refreshing, really. She refers to the War Measures Act, to unionizing, to the Vietnam War, to the state that Indians [sic] find themselves in at this time. "It's hard to find work if you're not a white man," one Indigenous passenger tells her; yes, Shannon agrees, yes it is.
Shannon, alongside her friends and housemates Evelyn & Bradley (and their baby), are placed into a social context. Their friendship goes from strong to fraught and back again depending on the exhaustion of all three, and their employment and economic status. Bradley loses jobs, so has to take on some short-term work he dislikes; Evelyn holds a brief office job but prefers to be home with the baby. Shannon keeps plodding along driving a broken-down taxi, sharing her feminist insights with some of her passengers, and fending off drunks - so many drunks. She has one real friend, Gerald, a middle class young man who has decided being a hippie on the street is more worth his time -- Potrebenko has some strong words for the burgeoning hippie movement, although Shannon does call herself a kind of hippie from time to time.
"There is no more room in the middle class for the sons of the working class (there never was any room for the daughters). Even the sons and daughters of the middle class are finding there is no further space for them, and so they are cast down into cannabis and hitch-hiking and they pretend for a time that it's groovy...
Here's another quote about why she thinks the hippie movement took on steam, too long to type out but a full page and more of socioeconomic philosophy:
This is a novel that still resonates and speaks truth to the reader. It's kind of depressing that this book, first released 42 years ago, is still so timely. But it's energetic, honest, funny in parts, and has a straightforward and unusual perspective that I really appreciated. If you are looking for the fictionally uncommon perspective of a working class woman, this is the one for you.
Helen Potrebenko also writes poetry, and you can find some of it online at her blog Doing My Share of the World's Work - it hasn't been updated lately but still holds a lot of her work.