Archive for July, 2013

the mysterious affair at styles agatha christie 001The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie ~ 1920. This edition: Grosset & Dunlap, 1927. Fourth printing. Hardcover. 296 pages.

My Rating: 7/10

Setting: An English country House, Styles Court in Essex, sometime during the Great War.

Detection by: HERCULE POIROT, with “assistance” from CAPTAIN HASTINGS (narrator); INSPECTOR JAPP of Scotland Yard is introduced.

Final Body Count: 1

Method(s) of Murder: POISON – strychnine

100 Word Plot Summary:

When wealthy Mrs. Inglethorpe succumbs to a dose of strychnine, suspicion immediately falls upon her much younger (and forbiddingly black-bearded) second husband, Albert. But the philandering Albert has an ironclad alibi, as do all of the other members of the Styles Court ménage. Could it be the sweet young pharmacy assistant, with her easy access to poisons? Or either of Mrs. Inglethorpe’s adult sons, hard up for cash and living on their mother? Her daughter-in-law, cool and unemotional? Her lady housekeeper, outspoken and jealously loyal? Or perhaps the sinister German-Jewish doctor, who just happens to be an expert on poisons?


Agatha Christie’s first published novel. Her very first, a romantic drama set in Cairo and sent out under the working title Snow Upon the Desert, was read and favourably remarked upon but ultimately refused by the publishers she sent it to.  The Mysterious Affair at Styles was inspired by her sister Madge’s comments that Agatha couldn’t possibly write a decent murder mystery. Written while working as a pharmaceutical dispenser during and just after the close of World War I, The Mysterious Affair at Styles is a classic puzzle mystery, with all clues revealed to the reader, and a generosity of suspects. The most unlikely person, of course, might ultimately be revealed as the murderer.

Front fold blurb from 1927 Grosset & Dunlap edition.

Front fold blurb from 1927 Grosset & Dunlap edition.

Narrated by a young Captain Hastings, who has been invalided out of active service, and is recuperating at his friend’s mother’s country home, Styles Court, the novel introduces Hercule Poirot, a finicky and eccentric Belgian ex-policeman. Poirot is living with several other Belgian refugees, and is eager to provide his investigative services when his generous sponsor, Mrs. Inglethorpe, dies mysteriously. Inspector Japp of Scotland Yard is also introduced; he and Poirot already know and like each other, and their collaboration, along with Captain Hastings’ inadvertent contributions, results in the solving of the murder plot.

Though decidedly dated and just a bit awkwardly plotted in spots, this is a very creditable mystery novel. The puzzle is truly hard to sort out; suspicion falls on each of the suspects in turn, and the ending is cleverly worked out. Poirot is not quite solidified into his final form, whom we come to know so well in future years – he was eventually to figure in thirty-three of Christie’s mysteries, and something like fifty short stories. The characters in general are puppet-like; aside from the narrator Hastings, we never get to know any of them – including Poirot – beyond their superficial appearances and stereotypical roles.

The murder itself occurs early on in the narrative, and Mrs. Inglethorpe’s horrible death is quite fully described, as Hastings is one of the witnesses. The brief mourning period for the victim is very soon over as the characters scramble to defend themselves against allegations of wishing for and ultimately causing her demise.

This is not at all a “literary” detective novel, such as those penned only a few years later by the other great “Golden Age” female mystery novelists Dorothy L. Sayers and Josephine Tey, but it is a well-constructed first attempt at the genre, and a grand little period piece, especially when considered in the context of Christie’s astoundingly prolific and successful later body of work.

Dust jacket of the 1927 Grosset and Dunlap edition. Can you see all seven of the suspects?

Dust jacket of the 1927 Grosset and Dunlap edition. Can you see six of the seven suspects? (Captain Hastings is also present, but he is apparently never considered as a possibility, due to lack of motive, I presume.)

Read Full Post »

my discovery of america farley mowatMy Discovery of America by Farley Mowat ~ 1985. This edition: McClelland and Stewart, 1985. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-7710-6624-4. 125 pages.

My rating: 6/10.

High marks for tackling this topic with such eloquent vigour, tweaked downward for the increasingly bombastic posturings of the author, which led me to a sneaking small sympathy for his unwary opponents. As I read I could envision the froth forming at the Mowat’s mouth, perhaps dribbling down his legendary beard, too, as he raved on and on and on. (The conciliatory last chapter, where he thanks his many supporters in the U.S.A., did seem a bit calmer, and appropriately sincere.)

Oh – adding another point back on for that first chapter, in which Mowat describes his airport encounter with the Forces of American Evil, a.k.a. the INS: Immigration and Naturalization Services of the United States of America. It was a truly funny piece of writing, and for this I will forgive the annoyance Mowat so often inspires in me by his ego-driven blusterings, which, in this instance, had plenty of justification.

Okay, here’s the story. On April 23, 1985, as Mowat was setting out on a trip to the West Coast of the U.S.A. on a joint lecture/promotion tour for his just-released Sea of Slaughter (a passionate indictment of the human-caused ecological devastation of the Atlantic shores of North America), he was escorted off the plane as it sat on the tarmac, and notified that he was persona non grata in the U.S.A. Forever and for always. And no, we can’t tell you why, sir. Just go away now, sir.

Mowat storms out of the airport terminal and into the arms of his publisher, where he is met with a shared indignation exceeding even his own. “This is war!” (or words to that effect) cries Jack McClelland, and a press deluge begins, spurred on by the very recent “Irish Eyes are Smiling” Reagan-Mulroney love-fest, and assurances by both leaders that the U.S.A. and Canada are dear, dear friends.

Why does the mighty United States feel that wolf-, whale- and generally nature-loving Mr. Mowat is a security threat? And why do the words “Commie sympathiser” keep coming up, though no one will let Mowat or anyone else take a look at his secret file, the one that led to its abrupt barring from the neighbouring country?

It seems that there is a McCarthy-era law on the books, the McCarran–Walter Act, which allows such arbitrary barring on the most microscopic past “offenses”, such as visiting the USSR (which Mowat had done some  fifteen years earlier, to research his book Sibir), and – oh! that little incident in which Mr. Mowat reported a desire to shoot his .22 rifle at U.S. Air Force planes carrying (possibly) atomic warheads across Newfoundland air space…

125 pages later, not much has changed, except that Mowat is offered a “parole” to allow him a one-time entry into the U.S.A., which he scornfully turns down, “parole” implying some sort of wrong-doing.

In this post-9/11time of ever more stringent border examinations, and many more arbitrary black-listings for undisclosed reasons – “security risk” being the handy catch-all phrase – Mowat’s prior experience sounds sadly like something we’ve all heard before.

Mowat’s horrified indignation echoes so many others; his response was the one every wronged citizen dreams of pulling off. Lucky for Mr. Mowat that his celebrity and many connections allowed him to speak out so vibrantly without losing his livelihood or credibility, a real problem for so many others in the same position, as Mowat points out, and which is one of the reasons he puts forward for his strident rebuttal to his black-list barring.

An interesting read, and with chilling parallels to the situation today between the countries on both sides of the world’s longest – but for how much longer? – undefended border. The razor wire, both literal and figurative, is persistently going up.

Here, FYI, is a very partial list, courtesy Wikipedia and therefore including the related links, of some of the public figures joining Farley Mowat on the McCarran-Walter exclusion list, before its amendment (but not its dismantlement) in 1990:

Read Full Post »

hi, there! gregory clark 001Hi, There! by Gregory Clark ~ 1963. This edition: McGraw Hill-Ryerson, 1968. Softcover. ISBN: 0-7700-6026-9. 228 pages.

My rating: 9/10. There is absolutely nothing to dislike – well, aside from, if one wants to get really nit-picky, the odd era-typical comment, such as Mr. Clark referring to his wife and presumably at least one daughter in a paternally misogynistic way as “my women” – and much to like.

This was one of my father’s books; I remember buying him other Gregory Clark titles as birthday and Father’s Day gifts; I am now wondering just where those might have ended up, as Hi, There! has piqued my interest; I’d happily read more of these pleasant (though possibly just a bit dramatized) memoirs.

These are short, 4 to 5 page, mostly humorous, meticulously well-written anecdotes and essays on various low-key topics, from winter driving (a truly Canadian focus of interest) to neighbourhood feuds to amusing encounters with all sorts of people, including a carload of bank robbers disguised as a wedding party.

Gregory Clark has a stellar backstory as an extremely well-regarded journalist. He was the recipient of both the Order of the British Empire and the Order of Canada for his war reporting, as well as receiving the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour for his collection entitled War Stories.

From The Canadian Journalism Foundation biography:

Greg Clark – Journalist 1892-1977

It was once said that in the years leading into the Second World War, more Canadians would recognize Greg Clark on the street than the prime minister or the movie hero of the day.

During the 1930s, Greg Clark was the most widely read writer in Canada, crafting features for the Star Weekly with cartoonist Jimmie Frise. His popularity continued through the late 1940s and into the early 1960s as a writer and most notably back-page columnist, for Weekend Magazine.

Nineteen books of Greg Clark’s writings, ranging from everyday life to the horrors of war, have been published. His output of stories about real people living real lives was phenomenal.

Craig Ballantyne, editorial director of Weekend Magazine, once described Clark as “a man so Canadian that no other land could possibly have produced him.” [Ernest] Hemingway, in 1920, called him the best writer at the Toronto Star.

Clark entered journalism in 1911 at the Toronto Star, where he worked for 34 years before joining the Montreal Standard, which later developed into Weekend Magazine.

He is often remembered as a columnist, but his feature and column work had been forged by years of front-page reporting. He covered the Moose River mining disaster, royal coronations, papal coronations, the death of FDR, and the founding of the UN, to name a few. He was a [frequently frontline] war correspondent in World War II, after serving in WWI, which he entered as a private and left as a major.

His contributions to journalism are many, but his most important is what his work can show other journalists about storytelling excellence. All Clark’s writings, from columns to hard front-page news, are guides to how journalists should tell stories that interest and inform readers.

His writings are real life with human touches. They have been described as “rapid, full of rhythm, unimpeded by digression.” His work was positive in the darkest situations, while still laying out the full facts and describing reality. This is an approach worth study in a time when the public feels journalism is far too negative…

More glowing biographies are here:

4th Canadian Mounted Rifles – Biography of Capt. Gregory Clark

Gregory Clark. Perhaps now a forgotten author in this new century? Fellow Canadians, remember the name for your used book store explorations; you might be very well pleased to make his acquaintance.

Read Full Post »

monkey beach eden robinsonMonkey Beach by Eden Robinson ~ 2000. This edition: Vintage Canada, 2001. Softcover. ISBN: 0676973221. 377 pages.

My rating: 9.5/10.

Fabulous writer, this Eden Robinson.

Part of the time (most of the time) the words flow effortlessly and reading them is like riding the crest of a perfect wave; occasionally the reader is tumbled out of complacence and, gasping a bit from the shock, needs to go back over what has just been read, to readjust to what’s just been thrown at you.

This would have been a solid 10, but I docked the half point because the story fell into cliché right near the end, after brilliantly flouting expectations most of the way through.

Picking snippets at random from the first page of a Google search on Monkey Beach yields these comments: “(C)ombines both joy and tragedy in a harrowing yet restrained story of grief and survival…”; “(F)illed with intense landscapes…”; “(A)ddresses issues related to race, historic oppression, and the clash between cultures in a coming-of-age ghost story…”; “(A) story about childhood, family, loss, grief and life on a 21st century Native-Canadian reserve…”

Ooh, sounds all deep and Can-Lit dark, doesn’t it? But the story transcends these sound-bite assessments. Already at the bottom of the first page I couldn’t look away; I read eagerly to the end (flagging just a little when the author stubbed her toe on the possible-but-slightly-contrived reason for her brother’s motivations regarding that trip out onto the ocean); completely accepted the rather vague ending scenario (who’s really alive? dead? what does it all mean?); and eagerly pressed it into my husband’s hands: “You must read this book!” (And he did, and he loved it, too.)

A surprisingly funny and, yes, cheerful (in places) sort of book for all of the tragedies it describes.

The internet is seething with reviews on this one; I missed it when it first came out, but apparently it was a Giller Prize finalist and a Governor General’s Award finalist in 2000. It apparently made quite a stir, and in the thirteen years since first publication has become a Can-Lit high school/college standard; likely because (cynicism alert!) of its First Nations author, characters, and themes. And (of course!) because it’s a well-written and cleverly complex tale; lots of room for exploration, and the generation of many words of student “analysis”.

I was going to give you a quickie overview, but instead I’m about to cheat big time and refer you to the Canadian Literature Quarterly of Spring 2001, to the article Beauty and Substance by Jennifer Andrews, which nicely sums things up.

Eden Robinson’s Giller-Prize nominated Monkey Beach … [creates] a darkly comic narrative about the life of Lisamarie Hill, a woman who returns to memories of her childhood and adolescence in order to cope with the disappearance of her brother, Jimmy. Robinson, a mixed-blood Haisla and Heiltsuk woman raised near the Haisla village of Kitamaat, has previously published a collection of short stories, Traplines (1996), that won the Winifred Holtby Prize, the Prism International Prize for Short Fiction, and was selected as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Like Robinson, the protagonist, Lisamarie—named after Elvis Presley’s daughter—negotiates various worlds while growing up in Kitamaat. She moves between the eclectically traditional ways of her grandmother, Ma-ma-moo, who educates Lisamarie by sharing her passion for television soap operas and teaching her the Haisla language, and the New World activism of her Uncle Mick. A complex web of contradictions, Mick is a survivor of the residential school system, a Native activist who once belonged to the American Indian Movement, a nomad who can never rest, and an Elvis fan whose passion for the “King” knows no bounds. He offers another dimension of experience to Lisamarie by encouraging her to express herself politically. After losing both Mick and Ma-ma-moo, Lisamarie must figure out a way to put her life back together and come to terms with these ghosts from her past.

The novel traces Lisamarie’s journey to discover the fate of her brother, a boat ride that gives her the time and space to recount her story. The narrative is rooted in the beauty and mystery of place, particularly Monkey Beach, a site of family outings and rumoured sasquatch sightings. Robinson’s ability to evoke characters through dialogue and create vivid images of the community, coupled with her awareness of the intricate links between individuals and the land they live on gives the novel a richly layered texture that conveys the significance of Lisamarie’s mixed-blood heritage (Haisla, Heiltsuk, and European). Although the structure of the novel suspends the immediate action of the story, a risky strategy, Robinson’s narrative weaves together multiple plot lines with subtlety and grace, delicately responding to readers’ desire to know the fate of Lisamarie’s brother and the need to recount her past. Moreover, the comic aspects of the novel provide a wonderful counterbalance to the bleakness of Lisamarie’s life, particularly when she ends up living on the streets of East Vancouver. Robinson creates a novel in which humour may lighten the moment but irony ensures that the full weight of tribal histories of colonization and genocide remains a potent force in the text. This is one case in which beauty and substance join together, creating a novel that delivers what it promises.

What else can I add? If you come across this book, pick it up and start reading. If it hooks you, go on. Its early promise holds up remarkably well.

Then, when you’ve read it, check out the author biography and interview at B.C. Book World.

Read Full Post »

the road past altamont gabrielle roy 001The Road Past Altamont by Gabrielle Roy ~ 1966. Published in French as La Route d’Altamont. This edition: New Canadian Library, 1976. Translated and with an Introduction by Joyce Marshall. Paperback. ISBN: 0-7710-9229-6. 146 pages.

My rating: 10/10.

It has been a while since I read much of Gabrielle Roy, but my recent discovery of Enchanted Summer reminded me of how much I enjoyed her writing in summers long past. For to me Gabrielle Roy is best read in summer, on those sunny days that invariably follow the solstice; something about her delicacy of expression and lightness of touch belongs to the stillness of summer afternoons, and to times of repose in green shade.

I came to The Road Past Altamont with high hopes; they were met in full. And, too, very personal feelings were stirred by these anecdotes of generations of (mostly) women, and their ways of dealing with the passing of time and the separation of the generations in a very real sense, as my own almost-grown children are poised for their journeys into the wider world, and my own elderly mother for her withdrawal from it.

The Road Past Altamont is an assemblage of four connected, chronologically ordered short stories, or, rather, vignettes. The central character is Christine, youngest daughter of a Manitoban francophone family. Readers of Gabrielle Roy will remember Christine from Street of Riches, in which she is the narrator of a similar collection of vignettes. Christine is an autobiographical character, based on Gabrielle Roy, and Christine’s memories and responses are, one must therefore speculate, Gabrielle’s.

In the first story in The Road Past Altamont, My Almighty Grandmother, six-year-old Christine is sent, at her grandmother’s request, to visit for part of the summer in a rural Manitoba village. Christine is at first sulky and reluctant, informing Grandmother upon arrival that, “I’m going to be bored here…I’m sure of it. It’s written in the sky.” Grandmother takes up the challenge at once, and Christine, though she does frequently succumb to the lassitude of hot summer afternoons, ends up with a strong love and admiration for her still-capable grandmother, who is slowly being relegated to the status of “poor old Mémère” by the rest of her large family of descendants. To Christine’s amazed delight, Grandmother makes her a doll from odds and ends, scraps of cloth, leather and yarn; even weaving a tiny hat. While the two work, Grandmother muses on the ironies of growing old.

“That is what life is, if you want to know… a mountain made of housework. It’s a good thing you don’t see it at the outset; if you did you mightn’t risk it, you’d balk. But the mountain only shows itself as you climb it. Not only that, no matter how much housework you do in your life, just as much remains for those who come after you. Life is work that’s never finished. And in spite of that, when you’re shoved into a corner to rest, not knowing what to do with your ten fingers, do you know what happens? Well, you’re bored to death; you may even miss the housework. Can you make anything out of that?”

… She grumbled on so that I dozed, leaning against her knees, my doll in my arms, and saw my grandmother storm into Paradise with a great many things to complain about. In my dream God the Father, with his great beard and stern expression, yielded his place to Grandmother, with her keen, shrewd, far-seeing eyes. From now on it would be she, seated in the clouds, who would take care of the world, set up wise and just laws. Now all would be well for the poor people on earth.

For a long time I was haunted by the idea that it could not possibly be a man who made the world. But perhaps an old woman with extremely capable hands.

In The Old Man and the Child, Christine is a few years older. Grandmother has died, and Christine’s deep unhappiness about losing her is salved by her new acquaintance with an elderly neighbour several streets over from her own. Monsieur Sainte-Hilaire sees Christine fall while walking gingerly on her newest passion, a pair of stilts; he picks her up and dusts her off and sends her on her way buoyed by his admiration for her tenacity and agility. Christine basks in his admiration; the two become close friends. As the hot, hot summer proceeds – one of the hottest and driest in living memory – Monsieur Saint-Hilaire and Christine hatch a plan together, a visit to the great inland ocean, Lake Winnipeg, which Christine has never seen, and which the old man yearns for, having spent much time beside it in his long-ago youth. Against her better judgement, Christine’s mother gives permission for the long day’s excursion.

At length the old man asked me, “Are you happy?”

I was undoubtedly happier than I had ever been before, but, as if it were too great, this unknown joy held me in a state of intense astonishment. I learned later on, of course, that this is the very essence of joy, this astonished delight, this sense of revelation at once so simple, so natural, and yet so great that one doesn’t quite know what to say of it, except, “Ah, so this is it.”

All my preparations had been useless; everything surpassed my expectations, this great sky, half cloudy and half sunlit, this incredible crescent of beach, the water, above all its boundless expanse, which to my land-dweller’s eyes, accustomed to parched horizons, must have seemed somewhat wasteful, trained as we were to hoard water. I could not get over it. Have I, moreover, ever got over it? Does one ever, fundamentally, get over a great lake?

In The Move, Christine is eleven, and has made unlikely friends with Florence, whose father, among his other odd jobs, often works as a mover, driving a team of horses and a huge cart, trundling the sad possessions of the poor of the city from one dismal home to another. At this time the team of horses is itself becoming an anomaly, as technology has largely replaced them with the internal combustion engine. Christine is fascinated by concept of moving house; she has never personally experienced it, other than the temporary removals of holidays and such.

To take one’s furniture and belongings, to abandon a place, close a door behind one forever, say good-by to a neighbourhood, this was an adventure of which I knew nothing; and it was probably the sheer force of my efforts to picture it to myself that made it seem so daring, heroic and exalted in my eyes.

“Aren’t we ever going to move?” I used to ask Maman.

“I certainly hope not,” she would say. “By the grace of God and the long patience of your father, we are solidly established at last. I only hope it is forever.”

She told me that to her no sight in the world could be more heartbreaking, more poignant even, than a house moving.

“For a while,” she said, “it’s as if you were related to the nomads, those poor souls who slip along the surface of existence, putting their roots down nowhere. You no longer have a roof over your head. Yes indeed, for a few hours at least, it’s as if you were drifting on the stream of life.”

Poor Mother! Her objections and comparisons only strengthened my strange hankering. To drift on the stream of life! To be like the nomads! To wander through the world! There was nothing in any of this that did not seem to me like complete felicity.

Since I myself could not move, I wished to be present at someone else’s moving and see what it was all about…

Christine sneaks away early one morning to accompany Florence and her father on one of their jobs; she comes home devastated; it is not the joyful experience she had imagined. Mourning to her mother that the view from the seat of the wagon is not as she had imagined it to be, Maman realizes with dismay that Christine is one of the yearning ones; one who will always be looking for new horizons…

“You too then!” she said. “You too will have the family disease, departure sickness. What a calamity!”

Then, hiding my face against her breast, she began to croon me a sort of song, without melody and almost without words.

“Poor you,” she intoned. “Ah, poor you! What is to become of you!”

It is so much more heart-rending to be the one left than the one leaving, and Maman struggles mightily with the pain of desertion when Christine, now a young woman, breaks it to her that she is about to embark on her long-desired travels, to go to Europe, to explore the greater world. The Road Past Altamont, the last story in the book, is the most delicately poignant, as Christine and Maman drive together across the prairie to visit relatives on the outskirts of the Pembina Hills, the only “mountains” in southern Manitoba. Maman yearns for the hills, but as there is no road into them, she fears she will never walk among them, so when Christine inadvertently take a wrong turn, “just past the village of Altamont”, and ends up in the gentle mountains, her mother’s joy is overwhelming. However, on a return trip, they cannot find the road again, and soon Christine will be gone…

Maman was perhaps close to admitting that she felt herself to be too old to lose me, but there is a time when one can bear to see one’s children go away but after that it is truly as if the last rag of youth were being taken away from us and all the lamps put out. She was too proud to hold me at this price. But how insensitive my lack of assurance made me. I wanted my mother to let me go with a light heart and predict nothing but happy things for me…

Christine goes away, accompanied in her memory by all of the women in her family that came before her, and her mother encourages her in her travels, sharing her own small stories and dreamed-of destinations, which Christine has moved so far beyond. It is only in later years, looking back on that drive together towards the elusive hills, that Christine realizes how gracious her mother was in hiding her own deep pain and in opening her arms wide to let her youngest daughter freely go, unrebuked and encouraged on her way.


A lovely book, and, for me, a timely one. The sensitivity of her observations is surely what has made Gabrielle Roy such a beloved author; her visions hold a lasting appeal, and something of comfort, too, across our varied experiences and all the years between our times.

Read Full Post »

glimpses of the moon edith wharton 001The Glimpses of the Moon by Edith Wharton ~ 1922. This edition: Signet, 2000. Introduction by Regina Barreca. Paperback. ISBN: 0-451-52668-6. 252 pages.

My rating: 6/10.

This one started out very well, but I felt it lost steam as it went on, and the ending was, in my opinion, more than slightly weak. But it’s decidedly readable, especially if one is interested in comparing it to the much stronger The House of Mirth, with which it shares some common themes, though the author takes her characters in a different direction, and the tone of The Glimpses of the Moon frequently approaches farce.

I’m going to give you a transcription of the opening page and a general overview – SPOILER ALERT: the ending is divulged – before sending you off to visit several other more thoughtful reviews, both of which much more fully reference The Glimpses of the Moon in relation to The House of Mirth.


It’s been many years since I read Edith Wharton’s tragic American Lit classic, The House of Mirth, but I retain enough memory of it to be able to say that The Glimpses of the Moon is, in comparison, one of Wharton’s minor novels. Coming to it with that initial expectation, I asked myself how it appealed to me as a stand-alone novel. If I had never read any of Edith Wharton’s Big Important Novels, and had picked this one up cold, what would I think? So I won’t be comparing Susy Lansing to Lily Bart, obvious counterparts though they may be.

Here’s the set-up. A young couple is on their honeymoon, and as they linger in the moonlight reflecting off Lake Como, their thoughts are not so much on each other as on their great good fortune in being there at all…

It rose for them—their honey-moon—over the waters of a lake so famed as the scene of romantic raptures that they were rather proud of not having been afraid to choose it as the setting of their own.

“It required a total lack of humour, or as great a gift for it as ours, to risk the experiment,” Susy Lansing opined, as they hung over the inevitable marble balustrade and watched their tutelary orb roll its magic carpet across the waters to their feet.

“Yes—or the loan of Strefford’s villa,” her husband emended, glancing upward through the branches at a long low patch of paleness to which the moonlight was beginning to give the form of a white house-front.

“Oh, come – when we’d five to choose from. At least if you count the Chicago flat.”

“So we had—you wonder!” He laid his hand on hers, and his touch renewed the sense of marvelling exultation which the deliberate survey of their adventure always roused in her…. It was characteristic that she merely added, in her steady laughing tone: “Or, not counting the flat—for I hate to brag—just consider the others: Violet Melrose’s place at Versailles, your aunt’s villa at Monte Carlo—and a moor!”

She was conscious of throwing in the moor tentatively, and yet with a somewhat exaggerated emphasis, as if to make sure that he shouldn’t accuse her of slurring it over. But he seemed to have no desire to do so. “Poor old Fred!” he merely remarked; and she breathed out carelessly: “Oh, well—”

His hand still lay on hers, and for a long interval, while they stood silent in the enveloping loveliness of the night, she was aware only of the warm current running from palm to palm, as the moonlight below them drew its line of magic from shore to shore.

Nick Lansing spoke at last. “Versailles in May would have been impossible: all our Paris crowd would have run us down within twenty-four hours. And Monte Carlo is ruled out because it’s exactly the kind of place everybody expected us to go. So—with all respect to you—it wasn’t much of a mental strain to decide on Como.”

His wife instantly challenged this belittling of her capacity. “It took a good deal of argument to convince you that we could face the ridicule of Como!”

“Well, I should have preferred something in a lower key; at least I thought I should till we got here. Now I see that this place is idiotic unless one is perfectly happy; and that then it’s – as good as any other.”

She sighed out a blissful assent. “And I must say that Streffy has done things to a turn. Even the cigars—who do you suppose gave him those cigars?” She added thoughtfully: “You’ll miss them when we have to go.”

“Oh, I say, don’t let’s talk to-night about going. Aren’t we outside of time and space…? Smell that guinea-a-bottle stuff over there: what is it? Stephanotis?”

“Y-yes…. I suppose so. Or gardenias…. Oh, the fire-flies! Look…there, against that splash of moonlight on the water. Apples of silver in a net-work of gold….” They leaned together, one flesh from shoulder to finger-tips, their eyes held by the snared glitter of the ripples.

“I could bear,” Lansing remarked, “even a nightingale at this moment….”

A faint gurgle shook the magnolias behind them, and a long liquid whisper answered it from the thicket of laurel above their heads.

“It’s a little late in the year for them: they’re ending just as we begin.”

Susy laughed. “I hope when our turn comes we shall say good-bye to each other as sweetly.”

It was in her husband’s mind to answer: “They’re not saying good-bye, but only settling down to family cares.” But as this did not happen to be in his plan, or in Susy’s, he merely echoed her laugh and pressed her closer.

The spring night drew them into its deepening embrace. The ripples of the lake had gradually widened and faded into a silken smoothness, and high above the mountains the moon was turning from gold to white in a sky powdered with vanishing stars. Across the lake the lights of a little town went out, one after another, and the distant shore became a floating blackness. A breeze that rose and sank brushed their faces with the scents of the garden; once it blew out over the water a great white moth like a drifting magnolia petal. The nightingales had paused and the trickle of the fountain behind the house grew suddenly insistent.

When Susy spoke it was in a voice languid with visions. “I have been thinking,” she said, “that we ought to be able to make it last at least a year longer.”

Her husband received the remark without any sign of surprise or disapprobation; his answer showed that he not only understood her, but had been inwardly following the same train of thought.

“You mean,” he enquired after a pause, “without counting your grandmother’s pearls?”

“Yes—without the pearls.”

He pondered a while, and then rejoined in a tender whisper: “Tell me again just how.”

the glimpses of the moon edith wharton 2For Nick and Susy are wallowing in borrowed luxury, on borrowed time, and their future consists of one big question mark. Both of them are as poor as church mice, and the last person each should have married was the other, according to the mores of the wealthy social circle they have been delicately moving in, charming parasites tolerated because of their physical attractiveness and gift for amusing repartee. But Susy and Nick have, most unwisely, fallen in love with each other, and when Susy comes up with a plan to enjoy the best of both worlds – to marry her impoverished counterpart and to continue to enjoy the decadent lifestyle which her wealthier contacts have accustomed her to – they take the leap together. And for a while it seems to be working…

Charming her rich friends with the novelty of a poor marriage, Susy has asked outright for cash in lieu of wedding presents, and has let it be known that she and Nick will be most grateful for loaned accommodation. They are set up for a good year or so, if they’re very careful, thinks Susy, with their main expenses being the tips on departure from each borrowed villa or chalet to their borrowed servants – whose salaries are, of course, paid by the owners of these lavish residences. And during that year they will indulge themselves in the luxury of each other’s most desirable company. Nick, an aspiring writer, will perhaps be able to finish the manuscript which will launch him on a successful and lucrative authorial career, and if this works as planned the two will be set. If the worst happens, and Nick’s plans go awry, the two have agreed that they will take whatever better opportunities arise – ie. a new (and, as it goes without saying, wealthier) romantic partner – and amicably part ways to allow each other to take advantage of the new situation.

Though Nick comes across as being the more passive partner in this sophisticated relationship, he is as complicit as Susy in viewing their joint reliance on the generosity of others as his due, so his moral qualms when Susy pops a few things into her luggage on departure from the Italian villa – such as the marvelous cigars mentioned in the excerpt – seem rather ingenious. But Nick insists on maintaining a moral high ground just a little more elevated than Susy’s, and, when Susy allows herself to be part of a marital deception at their next place of residence, the fragile marriage disintegrates, and Nick and Susy go their separate ways, each finding a convenient patron-slash-potential new spouse to sponge off of while their lawyers start the separation proceedings.

But absence does, in this case, make the heart grow fonder, and the two find themselves yearning for what they briefly experienced, a meeting of minds and a true affection for each other. After various heart rendings the two come together again, this time with much more likelihood of making it work, after Nick’s book has been accepted (for he’s been working on it all this time, in his bedroom on the yacht on which he’s been cruising) and Susy’s surprising embrace of domestic life (she’s bizarrely ended up as the temporary caretaker of five lovable children).

I just couldn’t quite swallow Susy’s about face, from self-indulgent, entitled, and materialistic to meek and domestically minded, all in the space of a few months. And the ending chapter, well, it was pure sentimental dribble. Susy, Nick, and the five children Susy is still shepherding around, off for a second honeymoon. Too cute for words, and almost toss-it-across-the-room disappointing. (But I didn’t, because the majority of the book was rather captivating, and Susy’s scheming kept me interested, to see what she would come up with next.)

There are a few little twists and kinks which display the reliably cynical Edith Wharton hand, but by and large this is simply a mildly melodramatic and slightly farcical relationship drama. If updated from the jazz-age Europe of the perennially cruising American expatriates – the jetsetters of their time – it could well be one of those lavish Rich People summer bestsellers so popular in their stereotyped glory today. The Glimpses of the Moon has also been recently (2010) turned into a “comedic romantic musical”, so there you go! Can’t quite imagine the iconic The House of Mirth being so treated…

Still, an interesting read, which kept me amused for several summer afternoons. I did just unearth my copy of The House of Mirth, but I’m not sure if I’m quite in the mood to face the tragedy of poor, self-doomed Lily Bart quite yet; I need to rest a bit, mentally speaking, from this other aspect of Edith Wharton’s authorial oeuvre.

Here are the other reviews promised at the beginning of the post, each rather more scholarly and wise than mine. Enjoy!

His Futile Preoccupations – Guy Savage Reviews Glimpses of the Moon

Seeing the World Through Books –  Mary Whipple Reviews Glimpses of the Moon

Read Full Post »

frederica georgette heyer 1Frederica by Georgette Heyer ~ 1965. This edition: Pan, 1968. Paperback. ISBN: 330-20272-3. 330 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10.

This is my fifth ever Georgette Heyer “Regency Romance” title. After bowing to so many recommendations to give the author a try, I must say that I am thoroughly enjoying my explorations of her work. Frederica was, I believe, Heyer’s twenty-ninth Regency novel, in a writing career spanning fifty years, in which she produced a very respectable sixty-plus novels and mystery thrillers.

Here, in Heyer’s own words, is the rather tongue-in-cheek blurb she wrote for the pre-publication promotion of Frederica, at the insistence of her publisher. By this time, in the mid 1960s, the author was a reliable producer of “a book a year”, with a strong contingent of devoted fans clamouring for more.

This book, written in Miss Heyer’s lightest vein, is the story of the adventures in Regency London of the Merriville family: Frederica, riding the whirlwind and directing the storm; Harry, rusticated from Oxford and embarking with enthusiasm on the more perilous amusements pursued by young gentlemen of ton; the divine Charis, too tenderhearted to discourage the advances of her numerous suitors; Jessamy, destined for the Church, and wavering, in adolescent style, between excessive virtue and a natural exuberance of spirits; and Felix, a schoolboy with a passion for scientific experiments. In Frederica, Miss Heyer has created one of her most engaging heroines; and in the Marquis of Alverstoke, a bored cynic who becomes involved in all the imbroglios of a lively family, a hero whose sense of humour makes him an excellent foil for Frederica.

The storyline is as simple as can be. It involves that tried and true pursuit, the husband hunt, and of course its equally vital counterpart, the quest for an acceptable wife.

Frederica, eldest in a family of five recently-orphaned siblings, has, at the advanced age of twenty-four, cheerfully accepted that she is destined for a life of happy spinsterhood. With her oldest brother, Harry, several years her junior, off at Oxford, Frederica is concentrating her energies on her nineteen-year-old sister Charis, who is an adorable young lady, being sweet-natured (though not overly bright), and stunningly beautiful. The little snag is that though the Merrivilles were left with a reasonably adequate income after their late father’s demise, the otherwise desirable Charis will not have much of a marriage portion to accompany her lovely self into a marriage; Frederica is determined to introduce her sister into the highest society and provide her with a chance to attract a high-born (and wealthy) suitor who may overlook her (relative) poverty.

Frederica petitions a remote cousin, Vernon, Marquis of Alverstoke, to sponsor Charis for her London season. Lord Alverstoke, a confirmed cynic and a slightly notorious rake – though forgiven all by fashionable London society out of respect for his massive fortune – is initially dismissive of Frederica’s suggestion, but she so charms him with her candour and sense of humour that he unexpectedly relents and decides to don the mantle of guardian of the Merriville menage for a while, mostly, he tells himself, because his interest in the lovely Charis – a direct competitor in the marriage market to their own daughters – will annoy his snobbish and critical sisters.

Charis does indeed cause a sensation with her loveliness and good nature; suitors reliably materialize, and the story meanders on its way. And we all know who Lord Alverstoke ultimately falls for, don’t we? Though the object of his reluctant devotion remains oblivious, which gives opportunity for the reader to sigh romantically over the reformed rake’s newly awakened and, for the first time in his life, truly heartfelt passion, which – of course! – he cannot share with the woman of his desires, as she shows no signs of reciprocation and would doubtless laugh off any advance…

This novel does rather go on; Georgette Heyer was going through a bout of serious ill health while it was being written and readied for publication, and she stated that though she would have liked to have edited it more strongly and decreased its length, her publisher’s and public’s demands overwhelmed her and she let Frederica go into print as it stood.

It works, though. The characters are interesting, and the dialogue is – overused but apt description – sparkling. The situations Frederica and her two youngest brothers, earnest Jessamy and rambunctious Felix, get themselves into are enjoyably humorous. The period detail is absolutely delicious, and I loved the passing descriptions of dress which Heyer provides, speaking to her readers as though they too were intimately familiar with the fashions of the time period. She informs, but never preaches; this is the type of historical fiction I like the very best. The readers must stretch to take it all in, but the writer assumes her audience is perfectly capable of doing so, and the story moves right along.

Of particular interest were the references to the technological inventions of the day. I was most intrigued by the mention of

… Maillardet’s Automaton … this marvel was a musical lady, who was advertised, rather alarmingly, to perform most of the functions of animal life, and to play sixteen airs upon an organised pianoforte, by the actual pressure of the fingers…

frederica georgette heyer pedestrian curricleAlso the Pedestrian Curricle, a kind of pedal-less precursor to the bicycle, upon which one of the Merriville boys, in company with a steep hill and a canine companion – the boisterous pseudo-“Baluchistan Hound” Lufra –  comes to grief. And then of course there is the ballooning episode which concludes the story with such drama.

A most enjoyable diversion, was cheerful and overwhelmingly good-natured Frederica – book and heroine both – and I savoured every page.

It lost a few points on my personal ratings scale by the rather overdone drama of the ending, which I thought was just a bit over-the-top, is such a criticism can be levelled at a book of this genre.

Looking forward to my next foray in Georgette Heyer’s meticulously depicted Regency world, and to meeting yet more of her dashing heroes and clever heroines.

In the meantime, here are some of the covers for Frederica which struck my fancy as I poked about the internet investigating other reviews, of which there are many, most exceedingly enthusiastic.

I liked this cover; it has a decided "period" appeal.

I liked this cover; it has a decided “period” appeal.

And this one, focussed on the dramatic balloon episode which brings the tale to a fitting conclusion.

And this one, focussed on the dramatic balloon episode which brings the tale to a fitting conclusion.

And here we have Frederica and Charis, accompanied by their beloved Lufra. I'm not quite sure about that fan, though; would it have been employed in such a way on a daytime stroll in a London park?

And here we have Frederica and Charis, accompanied by their beloved Lufra. I’m not quite sure about that fan, though; would it have been employed in such a way on a daytime stroll in a London park?

Here's a German cover which caught my eye. (Georgette Heyer was apparently very popular in Germany.)  I really like the strong colours and simplicity of the pen-and-ink treatment of this poster-like illustration.

Here’s a German cover which caught my eye. (Georgette Heyer was apparently very popular in Germany.) I really like the strong colours and the striking simplicity of the pen-and-ink treatment of this poster-like illustration. (“Heiratsmarkt” translates to “Marriage Market”.)

This one is absolutely bizarre, a triumph of misguided misrepresentation.  Who are these people, and why have they strayed from a 1960s costume party onto the cover of a well-mannered Regency-period romance?!

This one is absolutely bizarre, a triumph of misguided misrepresentation. Who are these people, and why have they strayed from a 1960s costume party onto the cover of a well-mannered Regency-period romance?! And who is the “scandalous young beauty” so prominently mentioned? Egads! Did the illustrator read the book? Methinks…NOT.

A more current cover from a recent re-release. This one captures the happy tone of the novel wonderfully well, though the featured female does not really fit my mental picture of Frederica herself.

A more current cover from a recent re-release in 2009. This one captures the happy tone of the novel wonderfully well, though the featured female does not really fit my mental picture of Frederica herself.

And here is the most recent cover, from 2011. Again, not my mental image of Frederica, but a lovely cover nonetheless.

And here is the most recent cover, from 2011. Again, not my mental image of Frederica, but a lovely cover nonetheless.

Read Full Post »

hazel rye vera bill cleaver 001Hazel Rye by Vera and Bill Cleaver ~ 1983. This edition: Harper Trophy, 1985. Softcover. ISBN: 0-06-440156-1. 178 pages.

My rating: 5/10.

A short novel published for the older elementary school ages – it says so right there on the back cover – ages 10 to 12 – and please don’t get me started on such narrowly prescriptive recommendations! Useful as these are to teachers and librarians when “targeting” the books they select for their students, I often wonder how many readers miss out on reading truly diverting and worthwhile stories because they are past the “age limit” so prominently displayed.

Not that I am suggesting that this particular novel is a masterpiece. Far from it. Hazel Rye is a slight novel, one of those “relationship”-slash-“issues”-slash-“problem” tales so common in elementary school libraries. The idea, it seems, is to make sure that any particular problem a child might be facing in his or her life can be eased by referring said child to a book featuring a similar situation. Want to be a football star but didn’t make the team? Here, read this. Being bullied at school because you’re fat/thin/gay/gawky/smart/slow? Super popular but still unhappy because your friends are all so shallow? Adopted and having issues with it? Foster kid? Mom and Dad divorcing?  Pregnant? Big brother dying of AIDS? Best friend dying of cancer? Mother dying of cancer? YOU’RE dying of cancer? You name it, there’s a story that addresses it, usually with a Big Helpful Conclusion of some sort to help the reader cope with the issue by learning that even though bad stuff happens, he/she is not alone.

All of the above being great topics to drive a novel, but so terribly often the storytelling gets lost in the shuffle, what with The Issue taking precedence. The characters exist merely to mouth the words; they’re frequently merely the framework The Issue gets draped over;  we never get to know them, let alone form any sort of personal relationship with them.

What I’m aiming at with my opinionated dismissal of so much well-meaning but misses-its-mark-as-good-fiction juvenile literature is to say that though this particular book fits into the category of an “issues” book, it’s just a little bit different, and it works well as a purely enjoyable read. It also seems aimed at perhaps a more mature audience than that stated on the cover, or maybe I should say “likely to be appreciated by”, rather than aimed at. For Hazel Rye – the book as well as the character – is a bit out of the ordinary.

The titular protagonist is an eleven-year-old girl living in a small community surrounded by orange groves in central Florida. Hazel’s Big Obvious Issue is that she’s slow in school; we find out on the first page that she’s just flunked sixth grade, and though she pretends not to mind all of the evidence points to a sorely bruised psyche.

Hazel’s eighteen-year-old brother Donnie has just been married; he lives nearby and is doing just fine taxi-driving; Hazel holds his financial success in high regard and likes to think that she too could do as well in a few years, once this bothersome school time is over; Donnie dropped out at sixteen and no one seems too concerned about it. Her mother is a fragile hypochondriac, too involved in her woes to take much interest in housekeeping, let alone mothering her daughter. As the story starts, Ona Rye is about to leave for a prolonged visit to her family in Tennessee.  The parental mantle in the household rests firmly on the shoulders of Hazel’s father, Millard, a hard-working and successful carpentry contractor. He and Hazel are not just father-and-daughter but also very close friends – “buddies” – with occasional bouts of flash-in-the-pan violent squabbles to keep things interesting between them. It was after one of these arguments that Millard transferred ownership of his small, neglected orange grove to Hazel, to woo back her attention and affection by an important gift.

Hazel rather likes the idea of being a property owner, though she’s not much interested in the farming aspect of things – too much work, and Hazel is all about taking things as easy as possible – and when an itinerant, fatherless family shows up asking to rent the rundown shack in Hazel’s grove, she enters into an agreement with the Poole family to let them live in her grove in return for young Felder Poole’s assistance in bringing the damaged trees back into production.

Felder Poole is close in age to Hazel, but aside from this similarity he is everything that she is not. Extremely bright, fond of all sorts of learning, he is an accomplished autodidact with a talent and propensity for making things grow. Hazel is at first suspicious and then enthralled with Felder’s plans for the grove; she becomes fascinated with the whole Poole ménage, much to her father’s dismay.

For Millard Rye’s Great Big Issue – which is really part and parcel of Hazel’s Great Big Issue, too – is that he is so emotionally attached to his daughter that he can’t bear to share her with anyone else. As Hazel’s horizons widen with the entry of Felder and the rest of the Pooles into her life, she is continually confronted with her father’s veiled but genuinely deep jealousy, and rather than being flattered by his attachment to her as she has been in the past, is beginning to see that this is an emotionally unhealthy situation for the both of them.

Let me hasten to say that Millard’s interest in Hazel is purely filial; there is no shadow of anything improper in his attachment to her; Millard is also deeply attached to his “nervous” wife Ona, and yearns for her happiness, indulging her in every way possible, hence his willingness to send her off to her parents to regain her fragile equilibrium while Millard and Hazel keep the home fires burning. She’s definitely coming back; whatever the Ryes’ other issues, a permanently split and unhappy family life does not appear to be among them.

As Hazel becomes more and more interested in the orange grove, and in the inner workings of the happy, loving, poor-but-ambitious Poole family, she is moved to change her own life in various ways. The sudden and unexpected resolution of the story rather surprised me, as did Hazel’s reaction to it; a welcome situation for this old cynic where this particular juvenile genre is concerned. Actually, I shouldn’t say “resolution”, as there really isn’t one; Hazel is left poised for her next step as the curtain closes on this brief period in her life.

The language in the book, coming from a third person perspective, is unusual and unique, using what I can only assume is a local Florida dialect and its very distinctive phraseology. Husband-and-wife writing team Vera and Bill Cleaver already had a respectable number of well-reviewed juvenile novels to their credit when they came up with Hazel Rye, and regional emphasis and use of dialect was one of their specialities. (You may find the authors’ names familiar if you were in grade school in the 1970s, as their award-winning Appalachian novel, Where the Lilies Bloom, was ubiquitous in libraries and frequently used for novel study classes. I read it way back then, and remember it vaguely but with admiration; I will be seeking it out for an adult re-read.)

Hazel Rye pleased me. Though it belongs in a genre I frequently hold up to scorn, I happily admit that it was a gently diverting read. The serious themes – the “issues” – were treated with respect and common sense, and the book was jam-packed with good nature and understated humour. A novel perhaps best appreciated by more mature readers than the target identified by the publishers; I would think a lot of the more enjoyable aspects of the language and scenarios would fly right over the head of the typical grade-schooler, and the plot itself isn’t really strong enough to be memorable, among so many other books with much more dramatic storylines.

I wouldn’t suggest that anyone rush out an acquire this one – it’s a very minor story in a read-once-and-move-on sort of way – but if you or your bookish adolescent come across it in your library travels, I’d say that you should give it a go.

Read Full Post »

river for my sidewalk gilean douglas 001River for My Sidewalk by Gilean Douglas ~ 1953. Originally published under the pseudonym Grant Madison. This edition: Sono Nis Press, 1984. Softcover. ISBN: 0-919203-41-8. 132 pages.

My rating: 7/10, after some consideration. Some of these short anecdotes and essays are solid 10s, some are not.

I’ve been slightly sidelined with a minor virus these past few days, and the upside is that while I’m just feeling sub-par enough to take a break from most of my more strenuous everyday chores, I’m perfectly able to putter about in the garden, do some gentle weeding, tomato-staking and pruning, watering, and definitely take advantage of the down time to read and type. So, having ambitiously started a number of reviews, I may just get a few more than usual launched in the next day or so. Or perhaps I’ll take advantage of the WordPress feature which allows us to schedule posts for future dates, something I’ve never yet had to do, as there is definitely no backlog of things ready to share! If anything, I frequently post before all of the final tweaking is done, catching typos and awkward phrasings after I’ve hit the “Publish” button. Luckily there is an “Edit” feature, too…

I picked up this particular book at The Final Chapter in Prince George last week, while browsing the excellent Canadiana section. Being rather partial to memoirs in general and British Columbia rural and wilderness settings and history in particular, River for My Sidewalk‘s back cover blurbs pretty well guaranteed my purchase.

About the Author

Gilean Douglas has been a newspaper reporter, copywriter, editor, columnist and, throughout and still, a freelancer. Her work has appeared in numerous periodicals both here and abroad, including Chatelaine, Saturday Evening Post, Canadian Business, Audubon, the New York Times and, by actual count, 144 other periodicals. She has five volumes of poetry to her name, one of light verse, and three nonfiction titles. Four of her poems were set to music and published by Schirmers and others received choral settings and have been performed at [various venues] and in concert. She edited Modern Pioneers for the B.C. Women’s Institute after holding local, district, provincial and national office in that organization.

Gilean Douglas now [in 1984] resides on Cortes Island, where she is a Weather Observer with Environment Canada (receiving four awards for her work) and a Search and Rescue Agent. In her spare time she raises plants, produce, and bulbs.

About the Book

Gilean Douglas spent close to a decade living alone in a small wilderness cabin in the Cascade mountains. River for My Sidewalk, first edition, was originally published…in October of 1953, under the male pseudonym of Grant Madison. The reading public of that time would have doubted the authenticity of a woman managing in the circumstances described. But Gilean Douglas did more than manage, she thrived in the isolation and completeness that solitude brings. Well before the days of liberated females, Ms. Douglas chose, lived, survived, and savoured a self-sufficient existence in an area that is still considered wild and inaccessible. Her story is timeless and the observations are lyrically clear…

Gilean Douglas: Naturalist, feminist, farmer, poet, author.

Gilean Douglas: Naturalist, feminist, farmer, poet, author.

Well, I’d never heard of the woman myself, but who could resist finding out more? And, after reading River for My Sidewalk, I did just that. What an absolutely fascinating woman Gilean Douglas must have been! And not just fascinating, but, for all of her quirks and her unhappy history with husbands, apparently much admired and beloved by her friends and neighbours. Here is an excerpt from a longer biography in B.C. Bookworld:

Gilean Douglas, author of River for My Sidewalk (1953), was a female Thoreau of Canada. A loner from a well-to-do family, she retreated to wilderness cabins and became an environmentalist before the word existed, leaving four marriages behind her.

Gilean Douglas, born in Toronto in 1900, was orphaned at age 16 and soon became a reporter. She travelled extensively prior to her arrival in B.C. in 1938 where she first lived in a cabin on the Coquihalla River. She then moved to an abandoned miner’s shack on the Teal River near Duncan, B.C. “It was the great moment of my life when I waded the Teal River,” she wrote, “with my packboard on my back and stood at last on my own ground. I can never describe the feeling that surged up inside me then. . . I felt kinship in everything around me, and the long city years of noise and faces were just fading photographs.” Subsisting mainly on produce from her garden, Douglas began to write about her adventures but could not find acceptance as a woman writing about outdoor life. Adopting the male pseudonym Grant Madison did the trick—and she published River For My Sidewalk, her best-known book.

Gilean Douglas continued to use her male name until 1983 when she revealed herself in a Vancouver Sun interview. Douglas next moved to Cortes Island, near Campbell River. “I have spoken many times of ‘my land’ and ‘my property’, but how foolish it would be of me to believe that I possessed something which cannot be possessed,” she once wrote. Along with seven poetry books, she produced two more meditative memoirs, Silence is My Homeland: Life on Teal River (1978) and The Protected Place (1979). The latter describes life on her 140-acre homestead on Cortes Island where she was employed as an Environment Canada weather observer and a Search and Rescue agent. Her cottage was situated at Channel Rock on Uganda Pass. For nine years she served as the Cortes representative on the Comox-Strathcona Regional Board. Gilean Douglas also contributed a nature column called “Nature Rambles” to the Victoria Daily Colonist (which became the Times Colonist in 1980) for 31 years, from 1961 to 1992, a longevity for a B.C. columnist that places in her in the company of Eric Nicol and Arthur Mayse. She died on Cortes Island in 1993.

And for a much longer and much more detailed biography, Andrea Lebowitz’s well-researched and fascinating article, Narratives of Coming Home: Gilean Douglas and Nature Writing, is a must-read.

Well, this is all well and good, but how does River for My Sidewalk measure up to its author’s infinitely intriguing promise?

I must say that I had high expectations, just from reading the cover material and from my quick perusal of the contents before I purchased the book. And I did enjoy reading it, though it went in a little different direction than I had anticipated.

Something about the tone of the narrative voice struck me as a little bit odd, and occasionally forced, and it wasn’t until I twigged to the fact that the author was carefully phrasing her passages to make the book appear as if it were written by a man that the penny dropped. I had started out assuming that the reader was aware that the writer was indeed a woman, and once I revised this assumption and allowed for the time of writing and publication, the late 1940s and early 1950s, the rather coy slant was understandable, and therefore much more acceptable.

Gilean Douglas writes in a strongly opinionated manner. She lays down the law as she sees it, unapologetically critical of mankind’s abuse of nature, and eloquently defensive of the way in which she has chosen to retreat from the mainstream world. She never condemns the city dweller as such, acknowledging that it would be an impossibility for all to strive for her type of lifestyle, but she has little patience for the squeamish and feeble-hearted visitor to the bush who quails at the thought of coming across a cougar or bear, or of crossing a river on an open cable car, or of hiking miles for a casual neighbourly visit.

Much of the book is an enthusiastic tribute to the natural world, phrased in glowing and effusive tones. Possibly just a little too glowing and effusive? The style frequently seems a bit dated even for the time of writing, being perhaps more typical of the century before; it reminds me of those rather stilted memoirs one frequently comes across hiding behind ornate covers in the antique books section of the better second hand book stores.


The day is my friend. I meet it with outstretched hand and use every moment of it to the utmost. Sitting in the house I have partially built I eat the food which I have grown for myself. I have tried to learn everything there is to know about the trees, flowers, birds, animals, insects and rocks which are all around me. It has taken me years and will take more years, but I feel that every grain of such knowledge brings me closer to the great harvest of the universe.

The night is my love. Dusk comes with the benediction  of the thrush and the darkening of river water. The clearing is all shadow and the forest dim with mystery. The shade climbs higher and higher up the mountains which ring my valley, leaving only the peaks crested with sunlight. Everything becomes slower and more silent as the dusk deepens into night. Then stars burn silver in the sky and sometimes the moon sails a midnight sea to a port beyond the tall evergreens of Home Wood. This has been the way of night in the wilderness for untold eons. How few living now have ever known it as I do! Campers, fishermen, hunters come in here bringing their shouts and drinking and luxuries. They go home to boast of their wilderness adventures, but all they take away is a paste jewel in a plastic setting.

And then there are the passages like these:

Spring has swept away the last patch of her snow with her green-twigged broom and hung out the clouds to bleach…


When burning … fir and hemlock have their swan song of beauty… as needles become rosettes of flame which shimmer and fade along the twigs, transforming each one into a garland for some fire queen’s shining hair…

But for all the occasionally purple prose there is much beautifully phrased and sincerely presented, as Gilean Douglas documents the thoughts of her long solitudes. I buried all my qualms when I read this:

We are all strangers here, but no one more so than the person who is out of step with the time. If you are that person you will be understood – and then only imperfectly – by just one or two of all those you know and perhaps by none at all. To the others you will always be suspect. The timid will be afraid o be seen with you; the bold will say they cannot be bothered with anyone who is more interested in the future of the world than in whether today’s market is going up or the price of tomorrow’s whisky going down.

Most of this ostracism will bother you very little for there is nothing you like better than quietness and privacy. But not every moment of your life. In books you can find the comradeship and understanding you are denied by living men, but even so you are hungry for a good heart-to-heart talk with someone who comprehends you intellectually and emotionally. If you are lucky you will come across one or two people with whom you can exchange ideas, and if you are luckier still you will marry one of them…

…[An] urgent sense of the shortness of life, perhaps more than anything else, distinguishes the man out of step with his time from his fellow beings. He sees time wasting everywhere around him and he is disgusted and alarmed. He knows that it is all wrong; that life is precious and should be used for precious things. Not that he believes in all work and no play, but simply that his idea of play differs from the bridging, gossiping, clock-watching, pulp-reading average. To him play is a change of occupation – perhaps from writing to splitting wood – while relaxation is letting go completely in sleep, laughter or lying on a summer hill watching the clouds drift over and “growing soul”…

An unusual and admirable woman, this Gilean Douglas, and one whom I will be seeking to acquaint myself with more deeply through her other writings. Apparently the two 1970s memoirs are not quite so gushing, and are more contemporary in tone, though they are not as well known (relatively speaking) as River for My Sidewalk.

Read Full Post »

owls in the family farley mowat 001Owls in the Family by Farley Mowat ~ 1961. This edition: Little, Brown & Co., 14th printing. Illustrated by Robert Frankenberg. Hardcover. 107 pages.

My rating: 5/10 as an adult re-read; easily an 8/10 for a juvenile Can-Lit read-alone or read-aloud.

My kids swear I read this to them out loud way back in the murky depths of time; I can’t say that I remember doing so, but we read a lot of books together, so there’s a strong possibility that they are correct. They also say that they loved it, so…? (That has to stand for some sort of a recommendation!)

School teachers love this one, too. Just go ahead and Google “Owls in the Family novel studies”, and then stand back. Generations of Canadian school children have “done” and are still “doing” this slightly fanciful tale, ostensibly about young Farley’s true experiences as a Saskatchewan schoolboy.

Are you catching a slightly cynical tone to my words? I am sad to say that I have something of a love-hate relationship with Farley Mowat. I truly enjoy some of his fictions, and happily read and re-read his famous Lost in the Barrens and The Curse of the Viking Grave all through grade school, though luckily I dodged ever having to do a novel study on either of these; I read them purely for pleasure. But as the years went on, and I became more and more aware of the Canadian literary scene in a much broader sense, I often came across Mowat (in print) laying down the law and making grand pronouncements upon this, that and the other, which in itself is not all that offensive, but for his strident dismissals of other opinions than his own. Grand Old Man of Canadian letters as he may have become, but he is not universally loved in his home country. See this article in Up Here magazine, Farley Mowat: Liar or Saint?, for an interesting discussion of the Mowat paradox.

All of this aside, in looking at his juvenile fiction, Owls in the Family may well be his most beloved and widely read work, perhaps because of its suitability as a read-alone for novice readers, and its affectionate portrayal of an idealized mid-20th Century boyhood on the Canadian prairies.

The gist of the book is that at some point in his youth, the narrator, one Billy (widely accepted to be a stand-in for Farley himself, though why the renaming, none can tell), along with his friends Bruce and Murray, decide that they would like to capture and raise a young Great Horned Owl as a pet. They wander out into the cottonwood groves, find an owls’ nest, and, after a farcical encounter with the mother owl while accompanying one of their teachers on an attempt to photograph the nest and the owlets, conveniently acquire one of the fledglings when a storm knocks the nest down a day or two later.

The boys take their find to Billy’s house, where the young owl, named Wol after Christopher Robin’s companion in the Pooh books, joins an existing menagerie of various creatures such as gophers and white rats. Wol settles in to become one of the family, and is soon joined by a companion, the smaller and much more meek Weeps, rescued by Billy from certain death by torture by two other boys.

Several chapters of various adventures are described – canoeing on the slough, a pet parade gone hilariously awry, various encounters with unsuspecting individuals whom the owls universally upset and oust – until the story’s sudden ending with Billy and his family moving away, leaving the owls under Bruce’s care.

Perhaps I’ve become too cynical in my middle-aged years, but I’m afraid a lot of the humour didn’t raise much more than a reluctant smile this time around. Robbing birds’ nests, shooting crows, finding the neighbour’s cat dead in Wol’s claws – these are examples of the anecdotes we are asked to smile at. A less critical readership will no doubt take it all in stride.

From Farley Mowat's 'Owls in the Family' frontispiece; illustration by Robert Frankenberg.

From Farley Mowat’s ‘Owls in the Family’ frontispiece; illustration by Robert Frankenberg.

The illustrations by Robert Frankenberg are gloriously typical of the best juvenile books of the era, and it is well worth seeking out a copy with the original artwork if sharing this with a young reader, or, for that matter, reading it for yourself. Eleven short chapters and just over one hundred pages make this a fast and easy read-aloud; one could easily knock back three or four chapters at a sitting. Suitable for all ages, as long as one is prepared to discuss some of the more questionable events (no longer perhaps seen as harmless amusement) referred to in the previous paragraph.

I would hesitate to inflict this upon children in the nature of a “novel study”, but it does make an interesting casual read, capturing as it does a very Canadian place in a now long-ago time. Recommended, with the stated personal reservations.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »