Archive for July, 2013

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.

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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.

Example:

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…

and

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.

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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.

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enchanted summer gabrielle roy 2 001Enchanted Summer by Gabrielle Roy ~ 1972. Published in French as Cet été qui chantait. This edition: McClelland and Stewart, 1976. Translated by Joyce Marshall. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-7710-7832-5. 125 pages.

My rating: 8/10.

This is a slight and delicate compilation of short (some very short) vignettes written by the esteemed francophone author during one of her summers residing in a little house she had purchased in 1957 in the rural village Petite-Rivière-Saint-François, Charlevoix County, Quebec.

People come and go throughout Gabrielle’s summer; her husband Marcel Carbotte, various acquaintances from far and wide, her local friends, and, most frequently, her closest neighbours, Berthe and Aimé, with whom she peaceably shared a fenceline.

Many of the vignettes are fragmentary glimpses of nature and landscape, snapshots of a moment captured in words. Gabrielle and Berthe walk along the railroad line to a small pool inhabited by a responsive bullfrog, Monsieur Toong; Gabrielle ponders the wild garden which grows on an uncultivated bit of farmland; the intellectual capabilities of Aimé’s placid cows are considered; the gentle life of  Jeannot the crow is captured in words as he sways in the wild cherry tree, and his sad fate is documented.

Wildflowers, birds, domestic animals are all considered and watched with interest and the author’s observations are gently and humorously related to the reader. The beauty of the landscape is frequently detailed, and the sights, sounds and fragrances of what seems to be a time of great peace and contentment; even the occasional storm does not break the mood of repose. These summers by the river were Gabrielle’s time of retreat and (relative) solitude, in which she refreshed herself from the busy social life of her winter residence in Quebec City, and from the cares of her family – two ailing sisters in Manitoba were often visited – and a time of concentrated writing.

Most of these small stories are centered on animals, but the two most poignant, and to my mind the most memorable, involve people.

Elderly cousin Martine comes for a two weeks’ visit in the country; living in a small city apartment and frail to the point of immobility, she longs for a glimpse of the river of her childhood. One day, without telling Martine’s sons what they are planning, Berthe and Gabrielle laboriously support and carry her down to the river, where for a while she revisits her long lost youth.

For my part, the more I looked at her the more I was reminded of those pilgrims of the Ganges in Benares, whom one sees with loincloths tucked up, frighteningly thin but their faces illuminated with fervour…

…Suddenly, barefoot on the rim of the summer sky, she began to ask questions – doubtless the only ones that matter.

“Why do we live? What are we sent to do on this earth? Why do we suffer so and feel lonely? What are we waiting for? What is at the end of it all? Eh? Eh?”

Her tone was not sorrowful. Troubled perhaps at the beginning. But gradually it became confident. As if, though she didn’t quite know the answer, she already senses that it was good. And she was content at last that she had lived…

And, in a remembrance of a long-ago month as a substitute teacher in a very small, poor, rural Manitoba settlement, Gabrielle recounts her visit to the house of one of the school pupils, who has just died of T.B. The other schoolchildren, who have been apathetic towards their temporary teacher, unbend as they tell her about the sadly fated Yolande. With sudden inspiration, Gabrielle suggests they pick the wild roses growing in the clearing outside Yolande’s cabin, to give tribute to their friend.

On our return we pulled them gently apart and scattered petals over the dead child. Soon only her face emerged from the pink drift. Then – how could this be? – it looked a little less forlorn.

The children formed a ring around their schoolmate and said of her without the bitter sadness of the morning, “She must have got to heaven by this time.”

Or, “She must be happy now.”

I listened to them, already consoling themselves as best they could for being alive.

But why, oh why, did the memory of that dead child seek me out today in the very midst of the summer that sang?

Was it brought to me just now by the wind with the scent of roses?

A scent I have not much liked since the long ago June when I went to the poorest of villages – to acquire, as they say, experience.

As I said early on, this is a slight and quickly read memoir, but one that has a decided charm and a strong sense of atmosphere and place. Very well suited to a peaceful summer afternoon read, preferably in the shade of your own particular tree, with birdsong and dancing shadows for counterpoint.

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hostages to fortune elizabeth cambridge 001Hostages to Fortune by Elizabeth Cambridge ~ 1933. This edition: Jonathan Cape, 1933. Hardcover. 304 pages.

My rating: 10/10. Not only met but exceeded all of my expectations.

He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune; for they are impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or mischief.

~Francis Bacon

I loved this book on so many levels; I suspect it will be high on my “most memorable books of 2013” list. Not only is it beautifully written, but the themes of marriage, motherhood and personal fulfillment struck very close to home; I couldn’t help but recognize many parallels with my own experience, which (of course!) is not unique, as Elizabeth Cambridge so eloquently demonstrates.

*****

Catherine lay still. Through the slats of the blind she could see the hard white light of early morning; the bars were like a ladder. Black, white, white, black … was the white the rungs of the ladder or was it the space between? A white ladder or a black ladder?

Water splashed. The voice of the newcomer, hoarse and uncertain, rose and fell, broken by deep, sobbing breaths.

A girl. An anti-climax. A girl … after all that! Oh well, William would be pleased. A ‘nice little girl’. That was nurse, standing up for another woman.

‘Can I see her?’

‘Not yet. I’m just giving her a bath.”

Catherine closed her eyes. She wondered if being born hurt as much as giving birth. Somebody pulled up the blind and opened the window. Instantly the room filled with the smell of slaked dust. It had been raining in the night, but the morning was windless, damp, and fresh. An early tram clashed and rattled down the hill, the overhead wires sang as it passed. Out in the Sound a tug hooted. The tide must be falling now … all down the coast over miles of brown rocks, the gulls screaming in the pale June morning.

A girl. But who wanted girls, now, in the middle of a war? Catherine had never believed in the equality of the sexes. Women simply did not have the same chance as men. Nature had seen to that. If you wanted to produce a human being at all, it was common sense to want to produce the kind of human being that was going to have the best time.

Best time? The expression was the wrong one. Surely? What did she mean by the best time?

… She opened her eyes. Nurse was standing over her, the baby held upright against her shoulder, like the bambino on a Della Robbia plaque.

Catherine stared. So that was her baby. Baby? Babies were sleepy, amorphous, unconvincing and ugly. This creature was not amorphous, it was not even ugly. It stared at life with bright, unwinking eyes. Its underlip was thrust out, tremulous, indignant.

‘My word,’ Catherine thought. ‘That’s not a baby. It’s a person.’

And with that delicate little epiphany, the stage is set for the years to come of Catherine’s motherhood. The girl child, Audrey, is eventually followed by two more siblings, Adam and Bill, and through it all, the tedious business of ministering to infant needs, the small heartaches and exquisite joys of mothering toddlers, small children, increasingly independent and opinionated school children, teenagers, Catherine finds herself secure in that attitude, that these are, above all, persons, not merely extensions of herself or William, though of course there are glimpses of genetic imprint which for a moment here or there stand out and give sharp pause.

This is an episodic novel in which “nothing ever happens”, but it is a beautifully observed and documented series of vignettes of family life, with a view to the broader scene in which it is set. It reminded me most strongly of another book that has a similar tone and an equally well-depicted mother, Margery Sharp’s 1935 novel Four Gardens, another hidden gem of a book which I wish would receive the same attention from modern re-publishers of almost-lost small literary treasures.

These women are, of course, more than “just mothers”, but their maternity is an inescapable part of their lives, and though it does not define them, it forms their lives in various unforeseen ways, and their emotional and intellectual responses to their motherhood are well worth considering. Elizabeth Cambridge’s Hostages is said to be semi-autobiographical; Margery Sharp was childless; but both writers have identified and played upon a strong chord of shared experience which resonates with me, a person (and mother) of several generations later, living in a very different time and place.

I am having a hard time putting into words the deep appeal this book had for me; not only regarding the subject matter but how strongly the author’s voice came through. I will therefore leave it, at least for now, with a strong recommendation, and links to other reviews.

Hostages to Fortune is extremely readable, frequently very amusing, thoroughly thought-provoking, and occasionally poignant. An excellent book. Other readers agree; I don’t believe I’ve seen a single negative review.

Here is an excerpt from Claire at The Captive Reader‘s post. Please click over and read the whole review; she says much more.

Cambridge gives us a very ordinary, unremarkable story about ordinary, unremarkable people, just trying to do their best as they move through the years.  The focus is primarily on Catherine, mother and wife, who begins as a not unusually selfish young woman, concerned with her writing aspirations and her husband and, eventually, her babies.

…(S)howing a … mature marriage, I was incredibly impressed by the portrait of Catherine and William’s union through the years.  The novel begins during the First World War, with Catherine giving birth to Audrey while William is away.  When he returns, invalided out, they settle in the country and William begins his stressful work as the local doctor.  With William running about the countryside at all hours and Catherine struggling to manage at home with first one, then two, then three children, both spend the early years of their marriage frazzled, pressed for time, patience, and money.  They go through phases where they don’t particularly like one another, where they can’t even remember what they used to like about the other, where they question why they ever thought marriage was a good idea.  But, in the end, they are partners and, however distant they may have felt over the years, they shared the same vision and values.  They can respect the work the other has done over the years and, year by year, that brings them closer together…

…(T)his is truly a novel about parenting, about the limits of control.  Catherine’s greatest struggle is learning that she cannot give her children everything she’d dreamed or planned for them.  That she must “not grab nor claim, nor try to insist on what they do and what they are.”  There comes a point where, if you’re going to keep them close and on good terms, you have to let go rather than attempt to orchestrate their lives for them.  And you have to resign yourself to the fact that the fates they chose for themselves will be different than the ones you planned for and that they will potentially achieve much less than what they’re capable of…

Hostages to Fortune is a thoughtful novel full of well drawn characters and relationships, presented with admirable simplicity.  I was so taken with it, was so easily able to relate to not just Catherine but also William and their children, that I’d say it is now probably one of my favourite Persephones…

And a few more links:

A Window to My Soul – Hostages to Fortune

Heavenali – Hostages to Fortune

Fervent thanks to Persephone Press for re-publishing this novel. Here’s hoping that many more forgotten books which still speak to us today will continue to be brought back into circulation, and to garner the attention which they so richly deserve.

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the young clementina d e stevensonThe Young Clementina by D.E. Stevenson ~ 1935. Original/alternate titles: Divorced From Reality and Miss Dean’s Dilemma. This edition: ACE, 1975. Paperback: 0-441-95048-5. 320 pages.

My rating: 9/10.

Completely met expectations, up to and including the blush-inducing ending, which lost the story its single “you’ve got to be kidding!” point. Golly, D.E. Stevenson often bobbles in those last few pages, doesn’t she?!

Well, really, the ending’s not that bad. Just…hmm…maybe just a little bit rushed? And a little too good to be true? But hey! – that’s why I’ve come to quite adore D.E. Stevenson. This story in particular is escape literature at its delicious, romantic, improbable, suspend-your-disbelief for hundreds of pages, period-piece-vintage best.

Okay, here’s a brief overview of the set-up of this novel. It’s very nicely done indeed; one of the author’s melodramatic (versus her more placid and thoughtful) minor masterpieces.

I wonder how a hermit would feel if he had spent twelve years in his cell and were called back to the world to take up the burden of life with its griefs and worries and fears; if he had passed through the fire of rebellion and achieved resignation; if his flesh had been purged by sleepless nights and his mind had found the anodyne of daily work. Would he feel afraid of the world, afraid of the pain awaiting him, afraid of his own inadequacy to deal with his fellow men after his long, long years of solitude? Would he refuse to listen when the world called, when his conscience whispered that his duty lay outside his cell, or would he gird up his loins and go forth, somewhat reluctantly, into the world which had turned its back upon him for twelve years?

My mythical hermit is standing at the parting of the ways, and so am I. Two roads are open to me, one lonely but well known, peaceful and uneventful; the other full of dangers and difficulties which I cannot foresee…

Our narrator is middle-aged Charlotte Dean, inhabitor of a dreary London flat, efficient and self-effacing librarian at a quiet geographical library – repository of “any book that adds to the geographical knowledge of the world” – recluse from that very world. Her only friend, aside from her kind employer, Mr. Wentworth, and her dedicated charwoman, Mrs. Cope, is her diary, in which she records her daily doings as she has done from childhood.

Ah, childhood. Happy days, indeed, when Charlotte was the beloved child of the Parsonage in green and flowery rural Hinkleton, running wild with her bosom friend, Garth Wisdon, equally beloved child of the Manor. Charlotte and Garth were inseparable, and their friendship was not at all disturbed by the advent of Charlotte’s small sister, Clementina – “Kitty”, as she was soon named. Not then, not in childhood. But as the years passed and friendship ripened to something deeper, Kitty had her part to play in the dissolution of the bonds that held Charlotte and Garth together…

The Great War tore Garth away from Hinkleton, and upon his return it is, unexpectedly, Kitty who becomes the new lady of the Manor, while Charlotte remains at home to care for her failing father, and then creeps off to London when his death leaves her alone and penniless.

For some strange reason Charlotte and Kitty are no longer the close friends that they were in childhood, and Garth openly sneers at his once-beloved “Char”. She meets them only occasionally, and so is rather surprised to be asked to act as godmother to her young niece Clementina  – named after her vivacious mother – and to visit at Hinkleton Manor for the occasion. But Garth is still dismissive and sarcastic, and Kitty disturbingly self-centered and complaining, so Charlotte returns to her quiet life with no thought but to regain her hard-won peace of mind, and to leave the dead past buried.

Then, twelve years after her flight to London, Charlotte’s world is turned topsy-turvy by the dramatic re-entry of Kitty into her life, and she faces the dilemma referred to at the start of the story…

For another look at the story, and an enthusiastic recommendation, a visit to Fleur Fisher‘s review will be in order.

I greatly enjoyed this grandly melodramatic and deeply romantic tale. Most engaging and deeply readable, and for that I’ll even forgive the rushed and too, too predictable “surprise” ending, my one perennial gripe with this author’s style. She builds up her story wonderfully well, rockets it along in fine style, and then chops it off with a hurried ending, almost every single time. Grrr. (And do please ignore this complaint; it’s a very minor one, and in no way puts me off reading these books with genuine enjoyment.)

I can see why this novel is so highly thought of by D.E. Stevenson devotees; she’s in fine form throughout. I do believe this one has just been re-released on July 2, 2013, so it should be readily available, just in time for your summer reading pleasure. Here’s the Amazon.com link, which includes an excerpt of the first chapter.

And I’ll say once more, this is a very vintage romance, written in the 1930s, with all of the expected clichés. It is, perhaps, even a bit old-fashioned for its time; it rather reads like something out of the closing years of the century before. With that in mind, enjoy!

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a breath of fresh air betty cavanna 001A Breath of Fresh Air by Betty Cavanna ~ 1966. This edition: William Morrow, 1975. Hardcover. 223 pages.

My rating: 4/10.

I had to look back and see how I rated the previous three Betty Cavanna vintage teen novels I reviewed, and I see I gave a 6 to the strongest one, Jenny Kimura, and a 5 to both The Country Cousin and Lasso Your Heart. A Breath of Fresh Air is definitely down a level from these already minor novels, both in plot and execution.

Despite the low rating, this book is already back on the keeper shelf, as it is a decent enough story for a quiet hour or two’s modest diversion.

Seventeen-year-old Brooke Lawrence and her thirteen-year-old brother Peter are reeling from their parents’ announcement that they are getting a divorce. In the staid middle-class circle the family inhabits in quiet Concord, Massachusetts, divorce is still a matter of whispers and concerned glances. Both Brooke and Peter feel horribly stigmatized by their situation, even though everyone (except the two young Lawrences) agrees that they could see the split coming.

Competent Harriet will be better off not saddled with her dreamy and ineffectual husband, Austin, and he in turn will be happier living with (and being supported by) his older sister, who truly appreciates his penchant for tinkering with hopelessly complicated inventions which never quite make it through the patent office to production. For some years now Harriet has taken on the role of family breadwinner with her antique store business, and Austin’s cleaning out of their joint bank account just as she’s written a (bounced) cheque for a stock order is the final straw in a long series of like episodes.

Brooke, “smart and very pretty”, is a scholarship student in her final year of high school at an exclusive girls’ school, and her pride is bruised and her confidence shaken by the failure of her parents’ marriage. She is questioning everything that she once took for granted, including her own budding romantic relationship with the quiet and loyal David Hale.

Brooke’s research project on author Louisa May Alcott, the local historical celebrity, brings the parallels in Brooke’s and Louisa’s lives into focus, and is the sub-theme of A Breath of Fresh Air. Impractical father, driven mother, and a strong desire for self-expression through writing are common grounds, and as Brooke muses over Louisa May Alcott’s teenage decision to eschew romance and marriage, she wonders if she should do the same. David, naturally enough, does not agree, nor does a charismatic Harvard student who pops up out of nowhere to actively pursue the delectable Brooke, and to add a bit of romantic tension to this rather dull story.

The details regarding the antique buying and selling business are the most interesting aspects of this novel, and the related humour relieves the earnest tone; I had to chuckle over Harriet’s classification of some of her casual browsers as “bathroom customers”. The main characters are (aside from Harriet, whom I quite related to) decidedly flat; I never got a sense of any of them being real people; they fulfilled every stereotype of their imposed roles. The plot is predictable and completely unsurprising; Brooke’s final decision regarding her own romantic life is absolutely no epiphany to anyone, including the patient and slightly patronizing David.

As the author did produce something like seventy novels in her prolific career, it seems reasonable that their quality would fluctuate. A Breath of Fresh Air has a potentially interesting theme, but it never really gets off the ground to fulfill that promise.

This “teen novel” is a lightning fast read and good for a momentary diversion, but, sadly, not much more. A period piece of mild interest and mild enjoyment, not bad enough for a toss into the discard box, but not good enough to wholeheartedly recommend either. Cavanna was a competent enough writer for her chosen genre, and I appreciate what she was trying to do with her themed storylines, but this particular story is not one of her best.

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