Archive for the ‘Canadian Book Challenge #7’ Category

hello to springtime robert fontaineHello to Springtime: A Personal Memoir by Robert Louis Fontaine ~ 1955. This edition: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1955. Hardcover. 246 pages.

My rating: 8/10

As those of you who have been following my blog for any length of time will know, I have fondness for memoirs, particularly those of never-been-famous “regular people” or now-forgotten public figures. Their personal stories are always fascinating, and, if well-written – as they frequently are –  wonderfully readable for their occasional poignancy and frequent humour. The glimpses back into times gone by and their unique perspectives on historical events are an added attraction. Hello to Springtime is a good example of this particular biographical niche.

Robert Louis Fontaine was a minor celebrity in his time. Born in 1911, he was a working journalist, a best-selling author of short stories and novels, a public speaking humourist, and an occasional actor.

At the tender age of three, Robert Fontaine accompanied his mother and father by train from Massachusetts to Ontario, where his father had been offered the position of conductor and first violinist of an Ottawa vaudeville theatre. From snippets of memory, from looking at old photographs,  and from the accounts of his parents, Robert pieces together a child’s-eye account of the highlights of that trip, and of the years which came after. As his memories solidify, the book progresses into fully formed, detailed anecdotes of the strange and wonderful world of boyhood and adolescence.

Robert tells of his bemused response to the celebration on the streets of Ottawa at the end of the Great War, and of his increasing awareness that life was not simply the ever-present Mama and the away-much-of-the-evening Papa, and listening to the strains of violin practice coming from his father’s room, and playing in the street. It soon broadened to include school, and the usual childhood friends and enemies, as well as beloved and feared teachers, and, inevitably, the maddening but adorable charms of the opposite sex. As well, the Fontaine family was an extended one, and a number of Robert’s relations were French Canadian; visits from various aunts and uncles gave plenty of scope for humorous remembrance in later years.

Just before his final year of junior college, Robert and his family returned to the United States; the increasing popularity of “talking pictures” and the subsequent demise of the vaudeville and music hall phenomenon left his father scrambling for employment; the Canadian days were over.

The author was a strongly opinionated man; he holds forth with vigour on a wide array of topics, from the paradoxical moral standards governing young people and sex, to the evils of compulsory schooling, the complications of organized religion, and the various foolishnesses of civilized society in general. Often didactic in tone, Fontaine’s laying down of the law as he sees it is neatly tempered by his cheerful willingness to poke fun at himself; I was never truly offended by his rather outrageous pronouncements, but found myself frequently (though not invariably) in complete accord.

My initial mild enjoyment steadily increased as the narrative progressed and I became more and more caught up in Robert Fontaine’s reminiscences of his early youth and teenage years, and in his anecdotes about his family. I turned the last page with gentle regret; I could happily have kept going. An insidiously appealing read, this one.

Robert Louis Fontaine is perhaps best remembered for his connection to a popular 1952 feature film, The Happy Time, based on his 1945 fictionalized memoir of the same title. The Happy Time was made into a successful stage musical in 1968. Incidents in all three versions of The Happy Time are also detailed in Hello to Springtime; the author assures us in the forward that “these are the facts”.

I am also in possession of one of Fontaine’s best selling fictional novels, based on the antics of one of his actual relations, 1953’s My Uncle Louis. This was among my late father’s books, and I recall reading it as a teenager with not much enthusiasm; I remember thinking it rather silly. After my enjoyment of Hello to Springtime, I am now keen to revisit My Uncle Louis with fresh eyes. Perhaps the several decades of life which have gone by since that first reading will bring me to a new appreciation. We shall see.

While I wouldn’t recommend that you immediately run out and search for Hello to Springtime, I would encourage you to give it a whirl if it crosses your path, especially if you, like me, enjoy these glimpses into the past via good-humoured personal memoirs.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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the lost salt gift of blood 2 alistair macleodThe Lost Salt Gift of Blood by Alistair MacLeod ~ 1976. This edition: New Canadian Library, 1989. Afterword by Joyce Carol Oates. Paperback. ISBN: 0-7710-9969-X. 160 pages.

My rating: 10/10 for the writing, no debate there. For reading “pleasure”, which of course is an extremely individual definition, I’m struggling with a rating. I’ll willingly put this on the keeper shelf, but I strongly suspect I may never read it again. The well-turned phrases are lovely in and of themselves, but the subject matter is so very bleak. This book makes me so glad I’m not in high school any more. What a godsend to keen Can-Lit teachers!

I started off reading this book with no foreknowledge of what the tone would be, though I suspected less than frivolous, what with the earnest back cover blurb:

The stories of The Lost Salt Gift of Blood are remarkably simple – a family is drawn together by shared and separate losses, a child’s reality conflicts with his parents’ memories, a young man struggles to come to terms with the loss of his father.

Yet each piece of writing in this critically acclaimed collection is infused with a powerful life of its own, a precision of language and a scrupulous fidelity to the reality of time and place, of sea and Maritime farm.

Focusing on the complexities and abiding mysteries at the heart of human relationships, the seven stories of The Lost Salt Gift of Blood map the close bonds and impassable chasms that lie between man and woman, parent and child.

These seven stories are intense and perfectly crafted; I can easily believe that Alistair MacLeod spent a year writing each one; they feel perfected, pared down, edited for maximum effect to the nth degree. Marvelous writing.

But I came away from my reading – which I spaced out over a week or so because this isn’t the sort of stuff one can take in all at one sitting – feeling so terribly sad, which may in itself be the strongest tribute I can give to the power of MacLeod’s writing.

*****

These are all stories of “place”, very specifically regional, focussed on Cape Breton. The sea and the land are characters as much as any of the sentient creatures that occupy their worlds.

  • In the Fall ~ The teenage narrator, the oldest of six children, remembers the autumn his father was forced to sell his beloved old horse to the knacker. Heart-wrenching.  I have a very low tolerance for betrayal of old animals scenarios – hence my real-life situation of supporting a number of geriatric creatures in various stages of decline – so I almost bailed on the book at this point, but doggedly kept on. Though it never got much more cheerful…people started dropping in the following episodes. But, oh! – the evocative writing!

It is hard to realize that this is the same ocean that is the crystal blue of summer when only the thin oil-slicks left by the fishing boats or the startling whiteness of the riding seagulls mar its azure sameness. Now it is roiled and angry, and almost anguished; hurling up the brown dirty balls of scudding foam, the sticks of pulpwood from some lonely freighter, the caps of unknown men, buoys from mangled fishing nets and the inevitable bottles that contained no messages. And always also the shreds of blackened and stringy seaweed that it has ripped and torn from its own lower regions, as if this is the season for self-mutilation – the pulling out of the secret, private, unseen hair.

  • The Vastness of the Dark ~ A boy leaves home on his eighteenth birthday, with little plan but that he must get away from his here and now, and travel forward into something different.

(After the Cumberland No. 2 coal mine explosion)… I remember again… the return of my father and the haunted greyness of his face and after the younger children were in bed the quiet and hushed conversations of seeping gas and lack of oxygen and the wild and belching smoke and flames of the subterranean fires nourished there by the everlasting seams of the dark and diamond coal. And also of the finding of the remains of men flattened and crushed if they died beneath the downrushing roofs of rock or if they had been blown apart by the explosion itself, transformed into forever lost and irredeemable pieces of themselves; hands and feet and blown-away faces and reproductive organs and severed ropes of intestines festooning the twisted pipes and spikes like grotesque Christmas-tree loops and chunks of hair-clinging flesh. Men transformed into grisly jig-saw puzzles that could never more be solved.

  • The Lost Salt Gift of Blood ~ A successful Toronto businessman returns to the Newfoundland community he has long left behind, to take a look at his illegitimate son who has recently been orphaned by the death of his mother and stepfather. Yearnings of fatherhood stir within him; should he tell the boy who he is?
  • The Return ~ A ten-year-old boy makes the trip from Montreal to visit his Cape Breton grandparents for the first time.
  • The Golden Gift of Grey ~ A teenage boy lives a secret life, visiting the pool hall after classes and forming a friendship with the man who was the cause of his father coming to Cape Breton from Kentucky ten years ago.
  • The Boat ~ An adult son remembers his father, and their life together on their fishing boat.
  • The Road to Rankin’s Point ~ This was the most personally moving and my favourite of all these seven stories. A terminally ill grandson returns to his elderly grandmother’s farm, seeking peace and a place to die.

I could easily have included excerpts from each of these stories – the most difficult task would have been deciding what to highlight among so many memorable passages –  but I will instead leave you to discover them for yourself, if you so choose.

A good review from another blogger is here: City Scrivener – The Lost Salt Gift of Blood

A very readable scholarly examination of the stories is here: SCL – Studies in Canadian Literature – The Lost Salt Gift of Blood

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outside the line christian petersen 001Outside the Line by Christian Petersen ~ 2009. This edition: Dundurn Press, 2009. Paperback. ISBN: 978-1-55002-859-1. 213 pages.

My rating: 6/10. I must admit I gave this one an extra dash of “like” because it is by a hometown author. If it was by someone from somewhere else, it would likely only rate a 5. Maybe not even that high…

Christian Petersen has also had published two volumes of short stories. I read, greatly enjoyed, and subsequently reviewed the first collection, Let the Day Perish, so was eager to read Petersen’s first full-length novel.

*****

Middle-aged Peter Ellis is an auxiliary probation officer attached to a busy office in a small, unnamed city in the interior of British Columbia. (And though never named, it is very obviously Williams Lake, with a few creative liberties taken here and there; not quite sure why Petersen didn’t just go ahead and “locate” his place; the caginess is perhaps a self-protective measure by an author who lives and works in his own – though obviously slightly fictionalized – setting.)

As a former student of literature and lower-case communist who once attended rallies and freely signed all manner of petitions, (Peter) had never had any interest or intention of getting involved in the Justice System. When he first began working as a probation officer, a few of his friends questioned the move, and thereby his values. With these keen defenders of human rights he took an almost apologetic tone, claimed the job was a trial run, just a means of survival, certainly temporary. He chews gum at a range of paces, aggressively at the moment, while he swivels back and forth in his chair, prioritizing the work at hand. What he didn’t admit to anyone, even to himself for a long time, was that this job hooked him immediately. Every day it places him at the crisis point in someone’s life, tangent to a stupid mistake, a rage, an arrest.

Peter shies from judgement, despite or maybe partly to spite his Baptist upbringing. He suffers with imagination like vertigo lately, glimpsing life’s infinite heartbreaking scenarios. He wonders whether it is some errant part in himself, some piece askew, that enables his rapport with the probation clients, the offenders.

Then a client walks into Peter’s life whom he can find no common ground with, no sympathy or rapport.

Twenty-four-year-old Todd Nolin is, despite his relative youth, already washed up, and dealing with it badly. As a teenage hockey star and National Hockey League draft pick rookie player, Todd’s potentially brilliant career has gone sideways on him; he’s been quietly let go from the team with no real reason given, and he’s gone from being totally focussed on hockey and rolling in cash to working in the sports store in his old home town, where he’s come to lick his wounds after his ego-crushing letdown.

While Todd was flying high, he bought a lavish (well, lavish by small-town B.C. standards) house in the upper scale neighbourhood he grew up in, hosted wild parties, and took up with a gorgeous local girl, Marina Faro. Now, two years after the “big time”, all that remains of Todd’s fleeting time as an elite athlete is a hometown hero reputation, an appetite for alcohol and cocaine, a condo, and the lovely Marina. And he’s just screwed up the last two. The reason Todd is in Peter Ellis’ office is because of a recent enraged physical and sexual assault of Marina; one of the terms of Todd’s probation is a restraining order barring him from both his home and girlfriend.

Todd’s not taking it well at all. He takes an immediate dislike to his probation officer, and the feeling is more than mutual, especially once Peter meets Marina and feels stirrings of multiple emotions; a paternalistic protective instinct combined with admiration for her physical beauty, plus the unmistakable stirrings of sexual attraction.

Against his better judgement, Peter lets himself go with his feelings. You see, Peter’s own personal life is a bit of a mess, what with his beloved wife of eight years having walked out on him six months or so ago. She’s left Peter for another woman, and is now living in California, only connecting with Peter to inquire why their house, purchased several years ago with the idea of starting a family, hasn’t sold yet.

Facing personal bankruptcy both emotional and financial, Peter has been letting himself go in more ways than one, and when he breaks that ironclad taboo not to get personally involved with a client, he goes down hard. And Todd is on to him…

The rest of the story falls into predictable patterns, and the dramatic ending is par for the course with this type of novel; nothing out of the ordinary.

This is actually a very ordinary story, an ordinary drama. It’s a step back in some ways from Petersen’s edgy short stories, much more cliché-ridden and safer and tamer, despite attempts to keep it moving by tossing in references to the cowboy culture of the area, and a continuous scornful sub-theme of the bad attitudes and deep stupidity of the local “rednecks”.

That last term was what I found most troubling about this novel, because it shows up way too often. C’mon, Christian, is it you or your character Peter talking here? A few too many cheap digs at the less intellectual inhabitants of our “fictional” town, in my opinion.

That, and the totally stereotypical situation with the gorgeous Marina and Peter’s “urges” being too strong for him to control. No matter if she made reciprocal moves of her own, what was the man thinking?!?

Oh, right. Plot device.

*****

Outside the Line is billed as a mystery novel, but it isn’t any such thing. It’s more of a dramatic-suspense, noir-lite type of story. It also reads very much a “first novel”, a bit rough around the edges here and there, especially in the final dramatic scenes, as if the author was not quite sure how to handle his characters during the physical action. He does seem more at home with the cerebral stuff.

I think the word I’m looking for here is “promising”. What is good in Petersen’s writing is very good indeed, as his well-tailored short stories prove. This novel moves in a different direction, and Petersen occasionally falters along the way. I think I made allowances for the weaknesses in the narrative and especially the plot because I did so want to like this book, and I was curious as to what the author would make of a setting familiar to me from my own experience.

Petersen’s Peter Ellis kept reminding my vaguely of Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie, in that even though he pulled off the most desperately stupid moves, I still liked him at the end. There’s some good writing going on here, and the characterization of Ellis was one of the better aspects of Outside the Line. (The plot, however, was the weakest bit.)

And as for that whole “first novel is autobiography” thing, it seems alive and well in this case. Christian Petersen is intimately familiar with the B.C. interior’s Cariboo-Chilcotin region, as he grew up in Quesnel, and currently lives in Williams Lake, where he works as a probation officer. Well, “write what you know” is good advice, and in this case it works out fairly decently. This novel was just good enough that I would readily read a second, if it ever makes it to the bookstore shelf.

Kudos to Mr. Petersen for his persistence in honing his writerly craft and branching out genre-wise. Here’s hoping that that more than abundant promise is refined even further in future books.

Note: I don’t personally know Christian Petersen, despite being the same age as he is and sharing the same communities. His author photos look darned familiar though; I’m sure we’ve crossed paths in our daily rounds. Williams Lake is really just a very small town at heart, despite its bold claim to cityhood. I’m looking forward to one day meeting the author in person, perhaps at his next novel launch, if and when that occurs. Despite this rather damning review, I have a genuine liking and admiration for his writing style.

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