Born on 8 December 1963 to parents Jim and Sharon Cooper, Kelly Hope Cooper was raised and helped tend cattle in the small farming community of Senlac, Saskatchewan until age thirty. She attended the University of Saskatchewan from 1981–1985 where she obtained both her Bachelor of Education and Bachelor of Arts degrees. Cooper has worked as a high school English and Art teacher and once served as poet laureate for CBC Saint John. In 1993, she moved to Belleisle Creek near Sussex, New Brunswick, with her husband, Hugh O’Neill. They both now work on their dairy farm in that community.
Cooper is the author of the short story collection Eyehill (2004), which was a finalist for the Danuta Gleed Award and the Thomas Raddall Prize. Most recently, she is the author of the children’s book If a Horse Had Words (2018). Cooper’s short fiction has earned her multiple recognitions: “Levelling Up” was longlisted for the CBC short story prize in 2016; in 2014, she won the Open Season Award from the Malahat Review for her creative nonfiction; and in 2001 she was the winner of The Fiddlehead’s Fiction Prize as well as the Short Grain Contest.
In a 2006 review of Eyehill, Kerry Ryan remarks how the reader “[comes] to know the characters that make up the town of Eyehill in bits and pieces – through coffee shop talk, gossip, memory and flashbacks” (36). Subtlety and elegant restraint are characteristic throughout Cooper’s debut collection, as Lucy Bashford remarks in her 2004 review:
Cooper’s writing style and milieu resonate with Karen Solie’s prairie poems in Short Haul Engine, and Annie Proulx’s Wyoming stories in Close Range. The lives of her characters are less hard-bitten and sun-bleached than Proulx’s; however, they suffer the same frustrations and defeats: untimely death, infidelity, drought, abandonment, sexual tension, unrequited love, alcoholism, financial instability; and Cooper is kinder in her judgement of them – allowing room for at least a hint of redemption. (95)
Eyehill, from which the linked collection of stories gets its name, is a fictional town that seems - in personality, social stratification, and economy - not unlike those towns that Cooper has called home throughout her life. Filled with characters that at first appear deceptively isolated, the population of Eyehill frequently harbours dynamic and deeply complex interpersonal lives. Unspoken truths populate the pages in this collection and account for much of her characters’ dimensions. In “The Weaning Season,” for example, the absence of a child, separated from its mother at birth, is articulated through less than a dozen sentences consisting more of silence than speech:
Words threaten to spill out; she is a container too small to hold the phrases. More in sorrow than in anger. Who said that? The words sound of judgement, of something a parent or preacher might have said. Wrong. She feels the opposite, more anger. Myra is angrier now than she was then. What had they told her? There will be other children, later on, when you can give them the family they deserve. Lots of time. She had let them make arrangements, and (there must be honesty, tonight of all nights) she had felt, among other things, relief. (Eyehill 24)
Similar in its subtlety, the story “Do as I Do” describes a painter’s most recent exhibition:
black canvases, each with an indistinct figure, a few brush strokes of pale green, painted like a tiny flicker of light in the top left corner. A process her grade six teacher taught her. Cover paper with crayon colours. Cover the colours with India ink so all seems black. Take a small, sharp object, an uncoiled paper clip, a pin or a pencil lead, and scrape away the black to reveal the rainbows underneath. If only they could have known, the men and women who looked at the paintings, those who finally bought them, they could have taken a coin or fingernail and scraped off the top layer of black to expose another picture. (101)
Some readers might interpret this restraint in the fictional work as reflective of a humility characteristic of small-town modesty or insecurity. The significance of this quality in Cooper’s writing is perhaps best articulated by Heather Birrell in her 2004 review, where she acknowledges “[the] tension between the tidal pull of the outside world and the anchor that is home” (109), and how this tension is felt by the characters in Eyehill:
farmers and waitresses; dreamers, adulterers and artists; they are young and old. It is their hometown, as much as blood ties and common experience, that binds them. They share an intimate knowledge of landmarks… and their significance in the town’s history. And, for the most part, they share a desire, spoken or silent, to transcend the town’s very confines. (109)
Cooper frequently constructs stories that leave a great deal to the imagination, inviting readers to apply their own creative abilities. Things may appear slow-moving, archaic, or dull on the surface, but underneath lies hidden layers of colour and vitality that are revealed upon close reading.
Spencer Folkins, Fall 2018
St. Thomas University
Bibliography of Primary Sources
Cooper, Kelly. Eyehill. Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane, 2004.
---. Interview. “The Unsettled Form: Melissa Stephens in Conversation with Kelly Cooper.” The Malahat Review. 2015. U of Victoria. 29 June 2020
---. Interview. “Wire in the Heartwood: Rachel Lallouz in Conversation with Kelly Cooper.” The Malahat Review. 2014. U of Victoria. 29 June 2020
---. Interview With Author. 8 Nov. 2018.
Cooper, Kelly, and Lucy Eldridge. If a Horse Had Words. Toronto: Tundra, 2018.
Bibliography of Secondary Sources
Bashford, Lucy. Rev. of Eyehill, by Kelly Cooper. The Malahat Review 148 (2004): 95-96.
Benjamin, Chris. “Atlantic Canadian Writers Make Good in CBC’s Short Story Contest.” Atlantic Books Today. 15 Jul. 2016. Atlantic Publishers Marketing Association. 24 Oct. 2018
Birrell, Heather. “Linking Lives, Ordering Consciousness.” Rev. of Eyehill, by Kelly Cooper. Event 33.3 (2004): 109-10.
Ryan, Kerry. Rev. of Eyehill, by Kelly Cooper. Herizon 19.3 (2006): 36.