Archive for the ‘1970s’ Category

Please pay no mind to this rather dire 1980s' cover; the content is much better than this would lead one to believe.

Please pay no mind to this rather dire 1980s’ cover; the content is much better than this would lead one to believe.

The Yellow Meads of Asphodel by H.E. Bates ~ 1976. This edition: Penguin, 1986. Paperback. ISBN: 0-14-004620-8. 95 pages.

My rating: 9/10

This slender collection of short stories, published two years after H.E. Bates’ death in 1972, is something of a hodge-podge, no uniting theme present except that they were all written by a master observer of both nature and the human race.

A review snippet from the back cover sums up this writer’s style quite nicely: “All the clotted cream of a sensuous rusticity…” (Scotsman)

Yes, indeed.

Just the briefest of comments on the seven stories in this collection, because you need to encounter H.E. Bates at first hand for purest pleasure.

The Proposal

Professor Plumley is unmasked as the mysterious person leaving lavish offers of fruit on Miss Shuttleworth’s doorstep. Is this merely a way of ridding himself of excess garden produce, or is love about to bloom in two elderly hearts?

The Yellow Meads of Asphodel

Middle-aged siblings living together in the house willed to them by their parents find their staid life turned on end when one of them falls in love.

A Taste of Blood

Dhillon falls unaccountably afoul of a gang of violent bikers.

The Love Letters of Miss Maitland

Repressed Miss Maitland allows her imagination to supply her with a lover, whose reality is too readily accepted by her friends.

The Lap of Luxury

Roger Stiles, on a journey of post-war reminiscence in France, finds himself cut adrift in the summer countryside. The offer of a ride from a presumably widowed Frenchwoman leads to a long dream-time of love in a luxurious country château. How long could it last?

Loss of Pride

Rustic philosopher Uncle Silas relates the downfall of a bully.

The House by the River

Beware the real estate deal too good to be true; it may have some strange strings attached…

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pandora sylvia fraser 1972Pandora by Sylvia Fraser ~ 1972. This edition: McLelland and Stewart, 1976. New Canadian Library No. 123. Introduction by David Staines.  Paperback. ISBN: 0-7710-9223-7. 255 pages.

My rating: 8/10

First of all, a comment regarding that high rating, for those of you who are familiar with my frequent habit of discussing vintage “cosy” books.

Pandora received its high marks because it is so intelligent, so stylistically interesting, and so very much of its era – the early 1970s, when stream-of-consciousness writing was having one of its recurrent moments of being all the rage. It is not a typical “pleasure” read in the accepted sense of the word, nor do I believe was it meant to be. Paradoxically, it is frequently (intentionally, darkly) humorous.

A heads-up note that some of the subject matter may be very disturbing to some, involving as it does several instances of adult-to-child sexual abuse, as well as an abundant amount of physical and psychological violence between children, by adults towards children, and, arguably, by children towards adults. Some very dark places are being explored here, which I will address more fully when I get to the bit about the author at the end of this post.

You will have gathered by now that childhood as a state of paradise is not what this novel is about. Though one might argue that it is all about juvenile innocence. And, inevitably, the loss thereof, and the attainment of a different state of being.

July, 1937. Fourth child Pandora Gothic is born into a hot, summer-weary bedroom in a gabled house on Oriental Street, small-town-could-be-one-of-many, Ontario. She has been preceded by five-year-old twins, Adel-Ada, and Baby Victor, who choked to death. Pandora was meant to be a boy.

Pandora’s mother sings hymns as she goes about her ceaseless round of domestic duties. Pandora’s mother smells of powdered milk and dead roses. Pandora’s father is a one-handed butcher, a bitter veteran of the First War. Pandora’s father smells of blood and rage. Pandora’s older sisters don’t think much of her, this cuckoo in the nest, as they see her. And as her parents increasingly see her, as she leaves babyhood behind and her at-odds personality begins to make itself known.

Over in Europe, the Second War thunders ominously on, permeating every aspect of Pandora’s world.

Pandora knows quite a lot about the Nazis.

If the NAZIS catch you they hang you, naked, on a hook, andd they shave off your hair, and they whip you. If the JAPS catch you, they stick hot needles up your fingernails and they pull out your teeth for the Tooth Fairy. Pandora learned that at Sunday School from Amy Walker who reads War Comics, inside her World Friends, while the other children nail Jesus to the cross and sing He Loves Me.

Pandora puts her hands over her ears. She closes her eyes. She burrows to the heart of what she knows is her problem:

Adel-Ada wont play with me because ... they don’t like me.

They don’t like me because ………… I scream.

Nobody likes me because ………… I scream and hold my breath.

I have to scream because …………… because ...

The answer comes in a rush: I have to scream because nobody likes me!

It is a futile insight, too bitter to sustain. Pandora shoves it back inside her head.

Pandora does this a lot, shoving her thoughts back inside her head, but occasionally she forgets, and her outspokenness brings her into direct conflict with her elders. Her father in particular seems to find her enraging; Pandora inadvertently triggers his sullen temper, and is continually shouted down, occasionally smacked, and at last resort bundled into locked places (the closet, the basement storage room) to consider her misdeeds. Pandora responds to this by developing an even deeper inner life; she also begins to consider her words before they leave her mouth.

In 1942, kindergarten-age Pandora is marched off to school between her sisters, and her world enlarges exponentially. Here are a new set of adults to be figured out, and the politics of schoolroom and, more crucially, schoolyard politics to be learned. Pandora finds that her bluntness and physical bravery can earn her a status and a fearful respect lacking at home; she becomes one of the leaders of her peers, though the hierarchy within the student group is constantly changing, albeit at a predestined level – the outcasts remain so, the leaders swap places, the masses in the middle section sway to and fro in sycophantic chorus. And Pandora is ever hyper-sensitive to the stink of fear – her own, that of fellow “top girls”, that of the outcasts, even that of the teachers who are only ever in varying degrees of conditional control of their volatile charges.

Pandora navigates her childhood with what seems to me to be more than the usual amount of emotional trauma. Both of her grandmothers die; it is a time of displaying the dead in the best parlour, and Pandora doesn’t do well with the “Give Granny a last kiss on the cheek” expectation. She and a friend encounter a man in the park, in their “safest place to play”, who approaches them and exposes himself. An attempted good deed, giving water to the breadman’s horse, results in an invitation to ride along on the wagon, and a persistent sexual assault ending in Pandora being choked with the hissed instruction not to tell, ever. (Pandora doesn’t.)

Playground politics get progressively more brutal, as the children grow both in stature and in increased potentiality of evil: a kitten is strangled, dismembered, dowsed with gasoline and burnt, and Pandora receives its tail in an envelope from one of the boys who resent her refusal to bow to them as natural lords of creation. Various schoolmates are shamed and bullied – heads doused in unflushed toilets, gang-beaten in the back allies, shunned on the playground, fingered as scapegoats in incidents of vandalism and juvenile crime by the perpetrators. Oh, it’s a wicked, wicked world.

Where are the adults? Trudging along in their own various personal ruts, all unaware that their actions are being studied and replicated by the younger generation.

Pandora finds that schoolwork is easy for her; she heads her class in academics; she is a social leader, though she shares that role with several others. The elaborate social dance of childhood continues. Pandora has several “best” friends; they plan and attend parties, go to the movies, roam about utterly unsupervised in summer, explore the mysteries of sexuality and where bavies come from. There is an explicit incident of girlish genital investigation with an older girl, culminating in a full-on neo-lesbian romp. (Don’t tell anyone, Pandora…)

The novel ends at Pandora’s graduation from Grade Two. She’s learnt at last to diplomatically keep her mouth shut on occasion, to judge her words carefully. (She’s always been good at keeping secrets.) Her mother, though still frequently bemused by Pandora’s passionate personality, appears to be making a sincere attempt to figure her out – those high marks in school have caught parental attention and have inspired a grudging respect. A gleam of optimism for Pandora’s future appears; her mother hints that there may be the possibility of a higher education one day, college and travel and a tantalizing something more…

So. Sylvia Fraser.

In a departure from her established career as a journalist, Pandora was Sylvia Fraser’s first fiction, published when she was 37 years old. The novel received favourable reviews; the Saturday Night excerpt cover blurb on my NCL paperback gushes: “A stunner – innovative in its technique, precise to one-thousandth of a gesture in its characterization, and irrefutably humorous.”

Pandora-the-character is said to be something of a childhood self-portrait of Sylvia-the-writer, and the setting apparently comes from life as well. The 1940s-era detail included in the novel is quite remarkable, and the snapshot given of wartime domestic life in Canada is clear and memorable.

What I didn’t know until after I finished the novel and did some further research on the author was that the incidents of sexual abuse in Pandora were inspired by Sylvia’s own recovered memories of apparent incestuous assaults upon her own childish self – from the age of seven years old – by her father. Fraser’s 1989 book My Father’s House: A Memoir of Incest and Healing details this aspect of her life and her belief that the scenes in Pandora – written before the incest memories surfaced – were manifestations of that repressed memory.

This would indeed account for the overall tone of Pandora, that of a confused, questing spirit continually finding itself at odds with everyone and everything around it. Even the more light-hearted episodes (relatively speaking – there were few truly joyful moments portrayed) have a woefully foreboding atmosphere, and I hasten to stress that I thought this before I was aware of the author’s back story.

I have subsequently come across an excellent review of Sylvia Fraser’s Pandora by Mark Sampson of Free Range Reading. My response was similar to his: Pandora is a troubling though worthwhile read. “Kafkaesque” describes it perfectly. An excerpt from Mark’s review:

Fraser is clearly interested in blowing apart our perceptions of childhood as a peaceful epoch of purity and innocence. Pandora has a hard go of it almost from the minute she becomes fully sentient: she is ridiculed by her older twin sisters who resent her very existence; she is sexually molested by the neighbourhood breadman; she is treated with scorn by her mother and cruelty by her father, the town butcher. Indeed, from her fellow students at school to her community church, Pandora encounters random, almost Kafkaesque acts of viciousness wherever she goes.

Sylvia Fraser has written five more novels, and an array of non-fiction books, on a variety of topics from incest and pedophilia to spirituality and psychic phenomena.

 

 

 

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the mask of memory victor canning 1974

My 1976 Pan edition sports this gruesome cover illustration, chock full of spoilerish clues.

The Mask of Memory by Victor Canning ~ 1974. This edition: Pan, 1976. Paperback. ISBN: 0-330-246941. 237 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

Well, this was a welcome surprise. A random find among the tumble of abused books at the Williams Lake Share Shed – located just before the community refuse dump, where one may drop off unwanted items with some life left in them. It’s seldom on my book search route as it’s a bit out of the way for me, but I certainly scored this time round.

Besides the Canning book, I snagged a hardcover copy of Agnes Newton Keith’s Land Below the Wind, five immaculate hardcover copies of Richmal Compton’s William books, a Laurie Colwin, an Ernest K. Gann, Terry Fallis’ latest comic effort, and, most unexpected, an intriguing, chatty, and (at cursory browse-through) chockfull of good-sounding recipes, 1966 cookbook called Cooking with Love and Paprika, ostensibly by notable Hollywood director-producer Joseph Pasternak. Yum! – to all of these.

But back to the Victor Canning.

I already hold this writer’s most famous juvenile – The Runaways, 1971 – in nostalgically good regard, and I did know that he was also the author of a substantial number of detective/spy thrillers, but until now I had not actually read one of these. If The Mask of Memory is anything to go by, a promising shelf’s worth of future light reading has just materialized.

In a small seaside town in Devon, middle-aged Mrs Margaret Tucker wanders through the local department store, filling her pockets with packets of shoplifted sweets. She walks serenely out the door, her petty larceny unnoticed by the store clerks, and gets into her car, where she finds herself inexplicably crying. Pulling herself together, she drives through the town and out to the dune-edged estuary, where she walks across the sand to meet a group of children from the local orphanage, in charge of a nun. Giving the sweets to the Sister with a murmured “For the children”, Margaret then steps back and watches the straggling group proceed down the beach, and her tears return.

So, what’s this all about, then? Margaret’s two secret watchers would really like to know…

For Margaret is being shadowed, and not as one would expect by the department store’s detective – if they indeed have such a person on staff, which seems doubtful, for Margaret has been carrying on with her petty pilfering undetected for months now. No, she is being followed by a private inquiry agent employed by her mostly-absentee husband to record her movements, and, as well, Margaret’s sand dune walks are under close scrutiny by an oddly reclusive birdwatcher/amateur artist/casual laborer who lives in a secluded cottage nearby.

Both secret watchers are out for what they can get, and in well-bred, desperately lonely, until-now-faithful, conveniently-independently-wealthy Margaret Tucker they have found something of a golden jackpot. For her husband Bernard seems content to keep paying the private detective for his weekly reports – a nice little income stream, not likely to diminish anytime soon – while the dune watcher is after something a little more intimate, and ultimately more financially rewarding.

Margaret’s husband leads a dually secret life as a senior member of an unnamed British government internal espionage department. His wife of many years thinks he is involved in industrial chemical sales; his superiors and co-workers have no idea he is even married. But his two secret lives are about to be exposed, in a building cloud of tense drama.

Two plot lines drive the story. Margaret’s emotional and mental trauma lead to her first ever extra-marital love affair, and her seeking of a divorce from the all-unaware Bernard, who himself has been secretly yearning to be freed from a marriage gone still and cold. Meanwhile, back at the office as it were (or The Department as it is referred to throughout), Bernard is deeply involved in the upcoming revelation of a critical political exposé, and has just come home with a folder of highly sensitive documents as well as a secret recording device potentially throbbing with delicate secrets.

The suspense builds, partial revelations are made on all sides, someone dies, and the politically toxic papers and James Bond-worthy recording-device-wristwatch turn up missing.

Is the death an accident, or murder? What does the private detective really know? Is Margaret’s lover deep down true? Is Bernard a traitor to his nation? A snarl of lies, deception, ethical qualms, love and lust (of every type) must be sorted through before the surprisingly hopeful ending.

While this is not a top rank sort of thriller – just a few too many over-simplifications, logic gaps and blurred-over bits for absolute suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader – it’s a very easy read. Victor Canning spins a nicely complex web, and the strengths of his writing style outweigh the logic deficits of the plot.

A very decent example of 1970s-era espionage/thriller fiction, with a well done domestic drama going on concurrently with the spy stuff. I will be shelving this one between Mary Stewart and Helen MacInnes, one shelf down from John le Carré and Eric Ambler.

Victor Canning. Making note of that name and adding to the look-for list for my next foray into the big city used book stores on upcoming fall road trips.

Another The Mask of Memory review here, from Nick Jones at Existential Ennui.

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white eskimo harold horwod 001White Eskimo by Harold Horwood ~ 1972. This edition: Doubleday, 1972. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-385-04346-0. 228 pages.

My rating: 4/10

Oh, gosh, here’s another one.

A candidate for Canada’s stupidest novel, that is. (see The Last Canadian for the reference.)

I wanted to give credit to the author for his strong points: an interesting set-up framing the telling of the tale (eight people travelling in a supply ship along the northern Labrador coast start reminiscing abut the titular character), his strong descriptive passages regarding the natural features of the setting – land, sea, various wild creatures, his keen social conscience (many of his allegations regarding the damage inflicted upon indigenous peoples by paternalistic Caucasian interlopers are bang-on), and his obvious passion for his fictional subject.

But it is that very passion which goes too far by expecting the reader to swallow whole some bizarre allegations, which the author goes on about at great length with ever increasing vehemence.

To whit:

  • All religious and medical missionaries are weak, evil, power-hungry, greedy effetes, motivated in their travels to the furthest reaches of the Arctic lands by an unquenchable thirst for controlling every thought and action of their native congregations. (European Protestants being the most evil; the Catholics get a conditional pass.)
  • All Eskimos (Inuit to us now; this was written in 1972) are beautifully childlike and trusting in nature, prepared by their innate belief in magic to follow anyone who presents well. They can be given some responsibilities, but because of their simplistic thought processes are apt to lose focus and wander off-task. Some very highly advanced individuals may be trusted with supervisory roles, but these are the exception.
  • All Eskimo women make excellent wives/bed partners, being by nature compliant and soft-spoken. They are sexually eager and ready to accommodate any man who wishes to make use of their bodies, which is handy, because they are (in this tale) shared about among the men as a matter of course.
  • The old Eskimo ways are the best. Period. Oh, except that it is okay to use European-introduced guns, steel traps and other various innovations versus traditional hunting tools. (But we won’t go there, because that would be inconsistent with the premise that The Old Ways are The Best.)
  • Returning to traditional ways (though of course with aforementioned guns, steel traps etc.) means a return to a utopian way of existence.
  • But because of his beautifully childlike and innocent nature, the Eskimo must be led in this direction (the return to utopia) by a designated leader, in this case a Great Hunter, an über-Eskimo (or would that be a pseudo-Eskimo, because he’s actually a white guy?) who is admirable because of his superior size, strength, hunting abilities, and undoubted “magical” powers.
  • Oh – almost forgot this one – all policemen are corrupt. They can however denounce their corruption by leaving the police force and rehabilitating themselves in another occupation.
  • Ditto most government officials. Except for the exceptions.

Here’s the story.

In a remote Labrador outpost, a stranger suddenly appears:

He descended upon Labrador as though from heaven. The Eskimos still talk of the morning the giant stranger came down out of the hills in the dead of winter dressed in the skin of a white bear, driving a team of white dogs with a long sled on the Eskimo pattern – a komatik as we call it – and bringing the biggest single load of white fox pelts anyone had ever seen.

The big white stranger (for he is indeed Caucasian under all those furs) proceeds to make friends with the local fur trader (an intellectual atheist) and enemies with the local missionary (a soft, luxury-loving German Protestant) and devotees of the entire local Eskimo population (due to his obviously magical powers, what with his coming from the spirit-infested interior mountains where hunters do not go etcetera etcetera).

Within days he has become “song brother” with the most prominent of the local Eskimos, and has started learning to speak the language with wonderful fluency. No surprises there, for Gillingham, the “White Eskimo”, is a dab hand at everything he attempts.

Pleased by his reception, Gillingham comes up with a clever idea. The Eskimos now gathered at the missionary post must return to the wilds, casting off the white man’s religious and societal constraints. Under his leadership, they will set up a series of traplines in an area shunned by all since the death of its previous inhabitants in a flu epidemic. Gillingham’s “magic” will keep the bad spirits away.

The Eskimos agreeably play along, and all goes well.

For a while.

Back at the settlement, the villainous Mr. Kosh (the missionary) is frothing with rage at the loss of the main core of his congregation. He swears vengeance upon Gillingham, and calls in the provincial police on a trumped up complaint against Gillingham: incitement of the Eskimos to pagan rituals and human sacrifice! The police arrive in full riot gear, and for a while things are tense, until the fur trader (Gillingham’s new pal and soon-to-be partner in the fur dealing enterprise) points out that no one is actually missing, so the human sacrifice thing was an exaggeration. (Mr. Kosh obviously mistook people comatose from their excessive revels for dead men.)

But soon there is a dead man, as Gillingham’s song brother is found under suspicious circumstance with a neat bullet hole in the centre of his forehead. There are no witnesses to the murder, but Mr. Kosh calls in the police again, swearing that Gillingham must be the murderer, for he is the only one capable of such an accurate shot. (In a community of skilled hunters, no one else is able to accurately hit a target at close range? Really, Mr. Horwood and fictional Mr. Kosh? Really?!)

The Eskimos all say, “Oh, no, couldn’t be Gillingham! A man does not kill his song brother, because he himself would then die!” The police, under Kosh’s influence, arrest Gillingham anyway. No one else is suggested as the murderer, and there is no attempt at investigation.

Long story short: the murder charge is dismissed on a technicality, and Gillingham serves several months in a southern prison on a lesser charge.

After getting out of jail and working his way around the world doing various menial jobs, Gillingham returns to Labrador, makes the rounds of his Eskimo protégés, gets his Eskimo wife pregnant, and then sets off alone into the mysterious mountainous interior from whence he came, leaving behind his own legend and a bunch of newly motivated Eskimo chaps, who go on to fulfill the White Eskimo’s legacy by succeeding at everything they put their hands to.

We never do find out who the murderer is.

What a stupid story this turned out to be, Farley Mowat’s glowing blurb on the front cover to the contrary. (“The best novel to come out of Canada in generations.”)

Turns out upon further investigation that Mowat and fellow author Horwood were buddies. Enough said.

Harold Horwood was quite the guy. He was politically active in Newfoundland politics, and represented Labrador as an MLA for a term. He travelled widely in the north, and became, as years went on, a passionate critic of what he saw as governmental abuses of power, especially in the support given to the religious orders in their administration of Eskimo affairs, and the complicity of the provincial police and RCMP in upholding that administration.

Horwood wrote a number of well received books, including a fictionalized 1966 memoir – Tomorrow Will be Sunday – also strongly critical of organized religion.

Here’s the Kirkus review for Sunday:

Embedded in excellent, chilly description of Newfoundland village life is a tangled sex story that is convincing at every turn but somewhat overplotted as a whole. In spite of honest characterizations, a story with as many twists as this begins to beg the reader’s already willingly given sympathies. Caplin Bight is populated by 250 brethren of the Church of the Firstborn. Hell-fearing, mean-spirited and paleolithic, these Stone Age Christian fisher folk expect the Day of Wrath imminently. They propagate only while fully clothed in bed in the dark of night. One day their pastor seduces fifteen year old Eli Pallisher. Eli’s closest friend and mentor is a young schoolteacher, engaged to the town’s only freethinking girl. Eli and his friend are discovered by the pastor, innocently wrestling in the nude after a swim. Charges are lodged and the schoolteacher goes to jail. While he is serving his sentence, Eli falls in love with the fiancee and she becomes pregnant. The friend is more open-minded than the town and returns finally to win his girl back…. Horwood keenly renders the vicious brutalization of the townsfolk by their religious mores; the rigors of cod and salmon fishing; and the benighted narrowness of a community such as this.

I seem to sense a sameness of theme with White Eskimo, though Tomorrow Will be Sunday‘s characters come from a bit farther south.

White Eskimo was undeniably an interesting read, but, sadly, I feel that I can’t recommend it, as its strengths were outweighed by the ridiculous plot, and the oversimplified depictions of the characters (all missionaries are bad, all Eskimos are good and noble, if slightly stupid). There’s also an attempt to portray the hero as a modern Gilgamesh, but it doesn’t come off very convincingly.

I’m open to exploring more of Horwood’s writing, but I will be approaching with caution versus enthusiasm.

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children of my heart gabrielle roy 001Children of My Heart by Gabrielle Roy ~ 1977. This edition: McClelland & Stewart, 1979. Translated from the French by Alan Brown. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-7710-7838-2. 171 pages.

My rating: 9/10

Gabrielle Roy’s writing has such a freshness to it, and such a rare delicacy of thought and feeling, that her works are quite unique. I can’t think of any other author to compare her to. (Though perhaps Ethel Wilson comes closest?)

Roy stands alone, off in a serene (but never sentimental) corner of the Can-Lit world, where one imagines her raising a gently cynical eyebrow at the often lewd and rude blusterings of her approximate contemporaries – the Mowats and Richlers and such-like sorts – whose works shared space with Roy’s on publishers’ lists of the 1950s, 60s and 70s.

Gabrielle Roy has been well-served by her translators. She wrote and was published in French, though she was fluently bilingual, and the English translations I have collected over the years are never awkwardly phrased or unclear in intent.

Children of My Heart is a sketchy sort of “novel”, in that it is actually a series of anecdotal recollections, based on Gabrielle Roy’s personal experiences as a young teacher in Manitoba in the 1930s. It reads like a conventional snippets-of-incident memoir, and only in the last episode do we have anything like a traditionally structured plot progression, as the young teacher – only eighteen – becomes involved in a chaste but emotionally passionate relationship with a thirteen-year-old pupil, the “bad boy” of a little prairie settlement, who is blessed with supreme physical beauty (not to mention uncanny violet eyes), equally supreme horsemanship abilities, and a romantically tragic backstory.

The earlier part of the book is composed of character portraits of various young students and their parents, as seen from the viewpoint of the naïvely optimistic young teacher, fresh out of Normal School and finding her way under the gently mocking protectorship of the only-slightly-older but much-more-experienced teachers she has come to join.

This is, in my opinion, a rather slight book in the author’s body of work. It was Roy’s last published fiction, and its glowing reviews reflect (one suspects) the high regard in which her earlier, more complex books were held. (It received a 1977 Governor General’s Award for French Language Fiction.)

I found The Children of My Heart a lovely thing, expectedly poignant and moving, but not nearly as strong as certain of Roy’s other novels. If you are expecting another Street of Riches or Tin Flute or Cashier, I would like to let you know that you will not find it here, though there are many moments of deeper reflection where the author is obviously looking back at the person she once was, and clear-sightedly analyzing how she may have affected her students’ lives by her words and actions, as they in turn left their marks upon the person she was to become.

With this in mind, I will say that I highly recommend it, both for those seeking to round out their experiences with this iconic French-Canadian writer, and those new to her work.

 

 

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last canadian heine cover 001The Last Canadian by William C. Heine ~ 1974. This edition: Pocket Books, 1975, paperback. ISBN: 671-78753-8. 253 pages.

My rating: Oh, dear. Maybe a 2/10? But I did read it from beginning to end, so that argues for a certain mesmerizing appeal. After a certain amount of inner argument, here’s the final verdict: 5/10. Because something so strangely bad adds variety to one’s reading life, and Mr. Heine shows vast enthusiasm for his plaguey topic, even if he’s a bit unreliable on his science. And he’s occasionally very funny, though I’m not quite sure if that was by intention or merely happy accident.

Where to start?

Brian Busby and Grady Hendrix have both written gloriously gloves-off reviews on this well-forgotten* 1970s’ sci-fi-ish thriller, and they’ve pretty well said everything I’d like to say, so I’ll just give you my own (probably rambling) overview, then refer you over to them. Perhaps their reviews are best appreciated after reading the novel itself, but, on the other hand, you might find the book less of an awful shock if going into it forewarned.

Here’s the deal.

Ex-US air force pilot Eugene (Gene) Arnprior is now working as an engineer up in Canada. He likes it there in Montreal quite a lot, and has just received his naturalization papers, the day before everything goes to pieces.

Uncannily fast-thinking and forward-planning, Gene twigs immediately to the fact that something really, really bad is brewing when he hears radio reports of a cluster of mysterious deaths in rural Colorado. The ring of death expands from the centre, rippling outward like the waves created from an emerging underwater volcano, but well before it reaches Montreal, Gene is airborne in his company’s small plane, heading up to a remote northern Quebec fishing camp with his wife and two young sons. A lightning-fast shopping trip has provided the family with all of the supplies they’ll need for a prolonged retreat from the world – golly – I wish my shopping chores were as efficient as our Gene’s – he outfits a family of four with all wilderness survival needs in 40 minutes(!) – yesterday I took longer than this to pick up a few bags of groceries, but I digress – anyway, this guy is organized.

So – Gene and family are safely ensconced in the Quebec woods, in a remote fishing camp which is conveniently stocked with canned good, fuel, and lots and lots of guns and ammo. They pass their time in hunting the various wild critters, making flour substitute from cattail roots – “In a little while they had collected fifty pounds” – whoa – akin to the 40-minute shopping trip – if I didn’t already loathe Gene deeply – the wife-beater! (reference to an incident early on) – this would have done it -learning how to whittle, and, in the case of Gene and his lovely wife Jan, having lots and lots of enthusiastic sex. (Hopefully when the boys are out setting their bunny snares, I found myself thinking.)

Three years go by. La, la, la, la…but who is this coming across the lake? Oh, no – an Indian in a canoe! An alive person is bad, bad news – he has to be a plague carrier – yup – he is – and Gene keels over, as do Jan and the lads, felled by the virulent virus while the paddler is still well out on the lake. Some time later, Gene comes to, to find his little family stiff and cold, and himself now a “carrier”.

After burying his family, Gene fires up the airplane and heads back south, to investigate what’s going on in the rest of North America, now that he’s immune to the killer disease.

Various encounters with other survivors ensue, some ending badly for those underestimating Gene’s amazing foresight and lightning fast trigger finger. He picks up another female partner and proceeds to have lots and lots of enthusiastic sex, until an encounter with evil Russians results in her sudden demise.

Oh yes. There are evil Russians here and there, advance troops spying out the countryside for eventual full-scale invasion, because an America without people is a fantastic land-and-natural-resource jackpot for the greedy Soviets. Interestingly, the Russians seem to be ignoring the also-population-decimated Canada in their explorations, which I thought rather odd, seeing as it is also chock full of natural resources, closer to The Homeland, and much less likely to contain plague survivors. (If there is a certain percentage of natural immunity, wouldn’t that mean that Canada would only have ten percent of the number of roaming survivors as the USA has, based on pre-plague population numbers?)

But the Russians aren’t immune to the disease, as we find out when Gene stumbles onto a Soviet expedition, and, after failing to kill our hero with a barrage of gunfire and missiles(!), every man jack of the Russky battalion suddenly dies.

So Gene starts putting two and two together, and decides that the plague must have come from Russia, part of an evil takeover plot. And by golly, he’s right!

Lots of intrigue, lots of gunfire, the occasional nuclear warhead being detonated (goodbye Denver, Colorado!), the last-few-chapters introduction of a whole new array of characters – British and Russian scientists playing who’s-got-the-killer-virus games – and lots and lots of people dying. Good people, bad people, random in-between people. But Gene keeps plugging along, now single-mindedly focussed on carrying out a single-man invasion of Russia, to infect the population there as revenge for all that’s gone before.

How will it all end?!

Any guesses?

Spoilers coming. Look away now if you’re honestly planning on reading this thing without knowing the final plot twist.

Okay, here it is.

The British have suddenly developed a successful vaccine (never mind the pesky details of how – which bugs me, because I was really curious) and the evil Russian government has suddenly been taken over by a more-cooperative bunch of politicos and the two countries – England and Russia – plus the surviving Americans (the President is in England, and there have been warships cruising the seas for the past three years carrying key US military and political personnel) plus China(!) all decide, in what must be the world’s fastest-ever international cooperative effort, to vaporize Gene, who has managed to evade all efforts to intercept him and has flown one final small plane across the Bering Strait and has now set foot on Russian soil.

Goodbye, Anadyr basin, and everything and everybody living there. Twenty-two missiles should do it. Nice try, Gene.

But hey, it was an exciting time to be alive. (Direct quote, last page, four paragraphs from the end. Here, see for yourself.)

last page last canadian heine 001

Wrapping things up, no need to get into boring detail!

If you’ve made it to here, you MUST go further.

Check out what these other readers thought:

Brian Busby tells it like it is at The Dusty Bookcase

Grady Hendrix is clever and cutting.

So who the heck was William C. Heine?

Here we go:

Everybody needs a hobby.

Everybody needs a hobby.

*Well-forgotten except by a cult following within the “survivalist” community, where it is apparently viewed as a classic bit of prognostic fiction and a useful how-to manual. Paperback copies of The Last Canadian (alternatively titled The Last American, and Death Wind) are listed on ABE starting at $20 and heading into the thousands. (Did this ever come out in hardcover? Methinks not.)

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within this wilderness feenie zinerWithin This Wilderness by Feenie Ziner ~ 1978. This edition: Akadine Press, 1999. Softcover. ISBN: 1-888173-86-6. 225 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10

I read this book some months ago, and posted a brief mention of it as part of a round-up post. Expanded here, and re-posted in order to include this in the Canadian Book Challenge #8.

Within This Wilderness is an autobiographical account of Ziner’s final attempt to come to terms with her adult son’s rejection of society and his retreat to the remote coastal woods of British Columbia’s Vancouver Island.

The 1978 Kirkus review:

Feenie Ziner’s son Ben was one of those Vietnam war casualties who was never in uniform: spooked by the military buildup, repelled by the consumer culture, he dropped out of school and took off for the Northwest, talking of cosmic energy and inner space, drifting in and out of lack-limbed communes, ultimately settling on his own wilderness island. Anxious for his return or at least some answers, Ziner flew in after he’d been living alone for nearly two years, and her skillfully developed account of what transpired between them – a progressive disarmament – slips over the boundaries of personal experience. She masters the primitive flusher and inures herself to thoughts of wolves (“I’ve read Farley Mowat”); he points out handmade appliances and shares new wisdoms (“Plastic is to us what horses were to the Spanish”). They lie to each other, spar philosophically, and resume a fragile peace. Even the eccentric neighbors – classic misfits – find him difficult. “Why does he make himself so damned. . . inaccessible?” “Why does he live that way? As if he were expiating for some kind of a sin?” She draws on the tranquillity of the place, reads the I Ching with the beatific vegetarian round the bend (“The companion bites a way through the wrappings”), and waits. And eventually the staunch independence unmasks, the precarious self-esteem surfaces, a pained confession of inadequacy is spoken. One must suppress dark thoughts about the shaping of this material (could it have happened so smoothly? was she taking notes?) for the perfect curve of events seems almost too good to be true. But Ziner deftly renders the nature of their exchange and the nuances of her private adventure, and the illumination of his fringe benefits and her mainstream hollows will reach that audience attuned to generational discord and cultural reflections.

I found this book deeply moving, relating (of course!) to the mother-figure as she tries to figure out just what is going on with her son, and how much of it had to do with her. Her son’s back story leads one to speculate that it was not so much what his parents did as what he was in and of himself, but the mother-angst is no less because of this.

Feenie Ziner turns this very personal aspect of her life into something engagingly relatable. I myself found it comforting, being involved in the same stage in my life in relation to my own newly adult son – that point where they wander off and do slightly inexplicable things and leave you wondering just where you lost your place in the parenting manual – oh, hang on – was there a manual? – and the only thing one can cling to is the thought that your motherly experience is widely shared.

The worries in both of our cases, I hasten to add, are not as much about the moral state of the offspring as about the little details about how they are going to feed themselves, and the lack of any obvious-to-the-parental-eye long-term planning “career”-wise.

Within This Wilderness, along with its deeper moments, is permeated with wry humour, as the author turns her thoughtful gaze upon herself, and the various characters she encounters as she steps into her son’s out-of-the-mainstream world.

Curious about the whole Ziner ménage, I recently tracked down Feenie Ziner’s 1966 memoir, A Full House, detailing her life with her husband, acclaimed artist Zeke Ziner, their two young sons, and newborn triplets. I will be writing about this memoir in more depth in a future post.

“Ben” Ziner is in reality Joe Ziner, and he did stay on Vancouver Island, pursuing an eventual calling as an artist and printmaker. Joe Ziner founded Percolator Press in Courtenay, B.C., which specializes in graphic art and illustrated books.

Very much worth reading. Recommended.

Joe Ziner in Chatham Strait - photographic image by George Dyson

Joe Ziner in Chatham Strait – photographic image by George Dyson

 

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