BOOK REVIEW: Dirty Work by Anna Maxymiw

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I’ve often struggled with the feeling that I’m reading too much into a situation - that I’m overanalyzing and assigning too much importance to a normal event. When I speak to friends from university or summer jobs about the experiences we shared years ago, I often feel embarrassed by the detail in which I remember those moments. After reading Anna Maxymiw’s memoir Dirty Work I’ve come to realize that remembering those little moments is actually a gift. 

Between the first and second year of her MFA in writing at the University of British Columbia, Anna Maxymiw decided she needed a break. Desperate to change-up her life she applied for a housekeeping job at a remote northern Ontario fishing retreat - a place she’d visited only once for a matter of days. Upon arrival by float plane, Maxymiw discovered just how isolated and wild the place really was, and met the small group of people with whom she’d spend the next three months of her summer. 

Dirty Work is a magical book, made up of Maxymiw’s magnetic musings and perfectly woven turns of phrase. Her writing, in all its ethereality, fits perfectly into the landscape she so painstakingly describes. Northern Ontario is harsh, and the kinds of people who can survive it even harsher. But somewhere beneath the hard land lies a home - a place where young people have been working and living together for generations and forming beautiful bonds of friendship and love. As her summer begins, Maxymiw hopes desperately that her summer crew will grow as close as those of past years. 

Up here, where the world has started to offer itself to my imagination in every regard, I’m able to find something poignant in the honk of the geese. I like to think they’re watching us, wondering what silly mammals are down below, wondering why we don’t move in the V-formation, too.

Though Maxymiw’s plight over the summer is fairly unique - she spends her days cleaning human mess from bathrooms and bedrooms and kitchenware - her emotions and personal transformation are not. She finds herself growing strong and brave, discovering a knack for new tasks and forming relationships with people entirely unlike anyone she’s ever met. Dirty Work is an ode to the Canadian wilderness, but more importantly a deep musing on the simplicity with which human beings can adapt to new situations. Maxymiw and her comrades, despite wildly different personal histories, grow to care for one another deeply, all against the backdrop of one of the harshest terrains on earth. 

Maxymiw’s writing carries Dirty Work, which likely wouldn’t work if penned by a less talented hand. Each sentence, even if describing the most unpleasant experience, is lovely and lyrical. Maxymiw has a gift for capturing human emotion in words, explaining the tension in a shared glance or the magic of an evening swim in the lake. I found so many of her descriptions of budding friendship, frustration and nostalgia similar to things I’ve felt in my life.

Dirty Work is without doubt one of my favourite reads of the year. It’s beautifully written and wholly original, and even if wilderness adventure stories aren’t your cup of tea you can rest assured that you will find something worth reading in this story.