The Western Alienation Merit Badge
Nancy Jo Cullen
240 pages | 978-1-928088-78-3
Set in Calgary in 1982, during the recession that arrived on the heels of Canada’s National Energy Program, The Western Alienation Merit Badge follows the Murray family as they struggle with grief and find themselves on the brink of financial ruin. After the death of her stepmother, Frances “Frankie” Murray returns to Calgary to help her father, Jimmy, and her sister, Bernadette, pay the mortgage on the family home. When Robyn, a long-lost friend, becomes their house guest old tensions are reignited and Jimmy, Bernadette and Frances find themselves increasingly alienated from one another.
Part family drama, part queer coming-of-age story, The Western Alienation Merit Badge explores the complex dynamics of a small family falling apart.
Reviews | Interviews | Articles | Excerpt | About the Author
"A queer prairie novel of my dreams – electric, funny, hot, heartbreaking, scathing, like a mix of Sarah Schulman and Chandra Mayor. The Western Alienation Merit Badge flashes effortlessly back and forth between four decades of sisterhood, poverty, estrangement, grief, queerness and, well, alienation. And the ache, the ache of queer people and family. I love this book just as much as I loved Canary, Cullen’s book of short stories, and I hope it’s not her last."
– Casey Plett, author of Little Fish and A Safe Girl to Love
"I loved many things about this book. The timeframe, the setting, the characters – all of which felt authentic and layered and painfully honest. But I loved Nancy's writing most of all. She has a gift of capturing the smallest moments of our lives and turning them into brilliant gems."
– Brian Francis, author of Natural Order
Nancy Jo Cullen's The Western Alienation Merit Badge (Marcie McCauley, Temz Review, 20/11/2019)
"The importance of experience and practice is underscored, the road between past and present illuminated."
CBC Podcasts: Daybreak Alberta (Angie Abdou, Daybreak Alberta, 10/04/2019)
Angie Abdou Reviews Books From Richard Van Camp and Nancy Jo Cullen.
The Western Alienation Merit Badge (Kevin Allen, Calgary Gay History, 26/07/2019)
"It is fun to read a smart book where Calgary is given a starring role. The locations, the atmosphere, and the dialogue are all achingly familiar. Plus there is a queer protagonist at the heart of it – fans of Calgary gay history could not ask for anything more!"
The Western Alienation Merit Badge (Anne Logan, Alberta Views, July/August 2019)
"This is not a book about exceptional people living extraordinary lives. Instead, the story here – written in taut, focused prose – follows people whose lives are permeated with sadness, regret and the threat of financial ruin, ad who struggle to get through difficult days to the best of their abilities [...] The Western Alienation Merit Badge is easy to read and to recommend to others – a short dive into an Alberta family's life that leaves a lasting impression."
Summer Reads (Broadview, July/August 2019)
"This is a family like most others: the Murrays are alternately disappointing and charming. But either way, you'll enjoy their story."
Nancy Jo Cullen writes a moving portrait of family (Dene Moore, Toronto Star, 10/05/2019)
"At first blush, this is a quirky, queer coming-of-age novel. In her stripped-down, everyday prose, Cullen details the small hurts and moments of silence that break Frankie's heart when she refuses to hide her sexuality from her conservative family....The Western Alienation Merit Badge is a moving portrait of fathers and daughters, sisters, friendship and the mistakes we all make along the way."
The Western Alienation Merit Badge, by Nancy Jo Cullen (Kerry Clare, Pickle Me This, 29/04/2019)
"Because Alberta is the kind of place, the novel is suggesting, where the answers to questions still lie in the past, which is why this novel set in a recession-era Calgary circa 1983 seems so absolutely timely in 2019."
"I don't write every day, I write every day that I can."
The Chat with Nancy Jo Cullen (Trevor Corkum, 49th Shelf, 14/06/2019)
"I absolutely remember the feeling of alienation many Westerners had. We all felt it to a certain extent. We'd go vote at 5 p.m. in BC as the polls were closing and before the polls closed in BC election results were being announced. It felt like we had no effect and it was alienating."
Q&A: Cullen’s Albertan novel is queer coming-of-age tale meets grieving family drama (Broken Pencil, 03/04/2019)
Need something to read while you isolate? Here are 73 Canadian short stories available free online (Kevin Hardcastle, CBC Books, 15/05/2020)
Nancy's short story "Hashtag Maggie" is listed as one of 73 Canadian short stories available free online.
On Trying Not To Fly By the Seat of My Pants (Nancy Jo Cullen, Open Book, 21/02/2020)
"I have to think that beginning with some kind of plan might actually be a kinder way to treat myself in a writing life that doesn’t always allow me to sit at my computer every day to work."
2019 Books of the Year (Kerry Clare, Pickle Me This, 17/12/2019)
Nancy Jo's book is listed as one of Kerry Clare's Briny Books
Our Top Fiction of 2019 (49th Shelf, 17/12/2019)
Chosen as one of the works of fiction that made the literary year by the staff at 49th Shelf.
Briny Books: The Western Alienation Merit Badge (Kerry Clare, Briny Books, 14/11/2019)
Kerry Clare picks Nancy Jo's book as one of Briny Books' Season Selections.
Home (Nancy Jo Cullen, Open Book, 13/11/2019)
Nancy Jo returns to Open Book with a regular column.
LGBTQ novel talking point at Distillery Discussions (James Snell, The Free Press, 21/10/2019)
"Distillery Discussions, a part of Elk Valley Pride Festival, was held at the Fernie Distillery on Wednesday night. The popular event, billed as, 'an evening of exploring growing up gay in a 70s Western Canadian red-neck city,' featured Gordon Sombrowski, who lead a discussion with Nancy Jo Cullen, author of The Western Alienation Merit Badge. Admission was free. The storytelling was priceless."
Nancy Jo Cullen on Library Love, Recommended Reads, and Bronwen Wallace (Open Book, 05/10/2019)
"I would give Billy-Ray Belcourt's This Wound is a World to every seventeen-year old in Canada, right now today. It's exactly the kind of book I think we should all read."
Bookstore Love (Nancy Jo Cullen, Open Book, 29/09/2019)
"If you're lucky enough to live near an independent bookstore, then you know how much they add to a community."
A Writer's Best Friend (Nancy Jo Cullen, Open Book, 24/09/2019)
"I'd be a liar if I said the company of a dog didn't take away the edge of writing."
Humour and Coping (Nancy Jo Cullen, Open Book, 20/09/2019)
"Humour helps me to persevere in life and in writing, so if laughter and crying are the same release, then, more times than not, I’d rather laugh."
Each Novel Is It's Own Universe - Becky Blake and Nancy Jo Cullen Discuss Their Latest (Librarie Drawn & Quarterly, 27/08/2019)
"It's more a book about people struggling through a difficult time, rather than that burning anger many people can’t let go of in Alberta; it just didn’t work in the story. I wanted to look at Alberta with some distance - to not be so upset with Alberta - it was a home to me."
The Ultimate Writing Tips Post: We Asked Talented Canadian Writers for Their Best Piece of Literary Advice (Open Book, 31/07/2019)
Nancy Jo offers some writing advice.
Where in Canada: The Western Alienation Merit Badge (Nancy Jo Cullen, All Lit Up, 04/07/2019)
"With stalled construction, lost homes, empty bars and a federal National Energy Program to pin the blame on, 1982 Calgary is not too far off from today."
Super Summer Reading Guide (Kerry Clare, 49th Shelf, 25/06/2019)
"Why we're taking notice: Award-winner Cullen's debut novel has something for everyone, and a story that will break your heart in the best kind of way."
Nancy Jo Cullen spins humour and family drama into her queer coming-of-age debut novel (Sue Carter, Quill & Quire, June 2019)
"The Western Alienation Merit Badge is a time-jumping, multi-character narrative that serves as a queer coming-out story, but is also an examination of grief and how families can overcome seemingly insurmountable emotional barriers."
Spring 2019 Indie Book Picks (Broken Pencil, 01/04/2019)
Nancy Jo's book is one of Broken Pencil's Spring 2019 Indie Book Picks!
Most Anticipated: Our Spring 2019 Fiction Preview (Kerry Clare, 49th Shelf, 07/01/2019)
Nancy Jo's book is on 49th Shelf's Most Anticipated: Spring Preview.
Spring preview 2019: Novels and graphica (Steven W. Beattie, Quill & Quire, 07/01/2019)
Nancy's book is listed in the Quill's Spring Preview.
Nancy Jo Cullen is the fourth recipient of the Writers’ Trust Dayne Ogilvie Prize for LGBT Emerging Writers. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph-Humber and her short story collection, Canary, was the winner of the 2012 Metcalf-Rooke Award. Her poetry has been shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Award, the Writers’ Guild of Alberta’s Stephan G. Stephansson Award and the City of Calgary W.O. Mitchell Book Prize. She lived in Calgary for over two decades and still returns regularly to connect with family and friends. She now lives in Kingston, Canada.