Archive for the ‘Canadian Book Challenge #8’ Category

nore than a rose heather robertson 001More Than a Rose: Prime Ministers, Wives, and Other Women by Heather Robertson ~ 1991. This edition: McClelland Bantam, 1992. Paperback. ISBN: 0-7704-2525-9. 439 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

This may well be my one of my shorter book posts of the year, for the best of reasons. More Than a Rose delivers just what it promises on the package, as it were, and very well, too.

The title comes from a passionate statement by the unforgettable Margaret Trudeau back in 1976, when she stated in a newspaper interview that she wanted to be “more than a rose in my husband’s lapel!” Maggie then went on to demonstrate that the quiet seclusion of an Ottawa wife was not for her, becoming increasingly outspoken on all sorts of subjects (and incidentally causing her husband and his political party no end of tense moments) until the marriage irretrievably broke down. Margaret Trudeau is still very much in the news, now as a spokeswoman on mental health issues (she has been very frank about her own bipolar condition in two memoirs), and as the mother of Justin Trudeau, currently poised to take his own run at the Prime Ministership of Canada in the next federal election.

More Than a Rose consists of condensed portraits of many the supporting (and occasionally not-so-supporting) women in Canadian politics, from Isabella Macdonald (wife of Sir John A.) to Mila Mulroney, who was still fulfilling her role as the lavish-living Canadian “First Lady” in 1991, when this book was published. There are a few mistresses, mothers, and female politicians profiled as well, and every vignette offers a deeper glimpse into the world of Canadian politics.

I took this book along as my holiday reading on our recent road trip, and I enjoyed it greatly. It is impeccably referenced, and I found the anecdotes and the words of the subjects – there is much use made of letters and journal entries – quite engrossing.

Isn’t it interesting how the more we read, the more details we discover to enrich our view of history and the world around us? This is one of those books, adding another layer to our country’s story.

Author Heather Robertson had a long and stellar career as a journalist, novelist, and non-fiction writer. Those interested in Canadiana should take note of that name; her writing on any topic is easy reading.

Rated as 7.5 and not higher only because so much had to be left out. Each one of the women profiled would be worthy of a book-length treatment; the constraints of this project must have made editing a challenge.

 

 

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i heard the owl call my name margaret craven 001

I Heard the Owl Call My Name by Margaret Craven ~ 1967. This edition: Clarke, Irwin & Co., 1977. Softcover. ISBN: 0-7720-0617-2. 138 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

This is a slight, quiet, non-sentimental though rather romanticized novel about a young, terminally ill Anglican priest and his short residence in the Tsawataineuk (First Nations) village at the head of remote Kingcome inlet, on the southwestern British Columbia coast, opposite the northern tip of Vancouver Island. The time frame is contemporary with its writing, in the mid 1960s.

The doctor said to the Bishop, “So you see, my lord, your young ordinand can live no more than three years and doesn’t know it. Will you tell him, and what will you do with him?”

The Bishop said to the doctor, “Yes, I’ll tell him, but not yet. If I tell him now, he’ll try too hard. How much time has he for an active life?”

“A little less than two years if he’s lucky.”

“So short a time to learn so much? It leaves me no choice. I shall send him to my hardest parish. I shall send him to Kingcome on patrol of the Indian villages.”

“Then I hope you’ll pray for him, my lord.”

But the Bishop only answered gently that it was where he would wish to go if he were young again, and in the ordinand’s place.

So off goes young Mark Brian, the new vicar of Kingcome, under the able supervision of a young native man of similar age, Jim Wallace. Mark and Jim gravely size each other up, setting the tone for the rest of the story. Mark’s only authority is in the religious arena – the villagers respect him as a symbolic leader representing the church – but in every other aspect of his daily life he is as a child compared to the capable and wilderness-savvy people around him.

Mark is in some ways wise beyond his years – perhaps it is because of prospective hand of death stretched over him? – yes, this is slightly cynical but one can’t help but feel that our young protagonist is just  the tiniest bit too good to be entirely true – and he settles down to learn from the people of Kingcome how best to deal with this strange new place he has found himself in.

Various incidents occur, and Mark comes nicely up to scratch in the eyes of the villagers, who by the end of Mike’s worldly tenure (he does indeed perish, though not of his mysterious ailment) have accepted him as one of their own. And Mike himself has apparently succeeded in preparing his soul for the life everlasting which his religion promises, and has done some earthly good in the meantime.

Margaret Craven has created a novel which is deeply appreciative of the region in which the story is set, and calmly descriptive of the very real problems of the Tsawataineuk people as their ancient culture is quickly being changed by the influx of modern ways and the influence of the non-native colonizers and religious missionaries.

Each incident is treated with sober even-handedness, as the author succeeds in seeing each angle to every encounter. The “old native ways” are perhaps seen through slightly rose-tinted spectacles, but by and large this is a very fair depiction of an extended culture clash.

The story is overly simplistic in many ways, of course – the book is, after all, extremely short – and I found it just a little hard to wrap my head around a fatal illness with no obvious signs except for a progressive weakness.

Everyone in Mark’s world appears to know of his fate – his church superiors because of the doctor’s diagnosis, and his twin sister because someone has obviously tipped her off, and the motherly native ladies of the village because of some special intuitiveness – but the man himself is clueless until very close to the end. He appears to be experiencing no pain or obvious symptoms, and there is no mention of any sort of palliative treatment. What the heck is wrong with him?! Inquiring minds (okay, mine) want to know! I can only surmise that it is that special fictional fatal ailment we run across here and there, diagnosed by clever physicians who can accurately predict the likely time frame of their subject’s demise. Would that our real doctors were this wise…

But that is my only real complaint against this likeable story. It hits all of the buttons, and was a commercial success some years after its low-key first publication, when a reissue sent it rocketing up bestseller lists.

Author Margaret Craven was an American journalist, and she travelled in the area of the setting of  I Heard the Owl Call My Name for some months in 1962, which experience inspired the story. The novel was very well received in the Pacific Northwest, and in British Columbia in particular, where it remains a recommended novel in the B.C. high school English curriculum. It was also made into a modestly successful television movie in 1973.

The novel receives a rare favourable mention for a book by a non-native writer on the American Indians in Children’s Literature list – see Debbie Reese’s AICL blog – though it is also sometimes viewed by modern critics as depicting outdated attitudes and ideas.

I Heard the Owl Call My Name is indeed a dated book, published almost 50 years ago as it was, but it retains merit for its articulate and admiring depiction of a people and a place. The gentle fictional melodrama of the doomed priest seems to me slightly secondary to the “capture” of the very real setting.

Here is arecent photo of St. George's Anglican Church in Kingcome Village.

Here is a recent photo of St. George’s Anglican Church in Kingcome Village, consecrated in 1938. The totem pole beside the church which depicts the four First Nations of Kingcome Inlet was dedicated in 1958 as a memorial to King George V.

 

 

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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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Tthe incomparable atuk mordecai richlerhe Incomparable Atuk by Mordecai Richler ~ 1963. This edition: McClelland and Stewart. Hardcover. 192 pages.

My rating: Unrateable. This is one strange little book. Repellant and mesmerizing in equal quantities.

Despite the post heading above – lifted from some pertinent dialogue in the book – I think I can safely say that this is one of Richler’s relatively more obscure works, though the title is sure to be more immediately recognizable than those of his first three brooding novels, The Acrobats(1954), Son of a Smaller Hero(1955) and A Choice of Enemies(1957).

Richler’s fourth novel, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, was published in 1959, and its resounding success made readers and critics eager for more. What showed up next, after a four year hiatus, was this small but seethingly ultra-satirical novel. Duddy Kravitz, take a hike. Atuk the Eskimo is here.

Yes, I said Eskimo, because back in 1963 that was the term-in-use for people of Atuk’s ethnicity. Better let it roll right over you, because if you’re at all sensitive to what would nowadays be severe political incorrectness, this thing will have you breaking out in hives before you can say…well…never mind. Won’t go there.

Here is the front flyleaf blurb from my tattered ex-library first edition.

THE INCOMPARABLE ATUK

‘Eskimo poetry’ – words calculated to chill the blood of all but the devoutest Canadian egg-head patriot. So when Atuk, the Eskimo poet, first came to Toronto as the ‘discovery’ of a Twentyman Fur Company public relations officer, all he got out of it was a slim volume and a few literary cocktails. Prestigewise, as his new friends would have said, it was not too bad; moneywise it stank.

But Atuk did not focus the gentle savage’s traditionally innocent eye on the Toronto scene – far from it. One gimlet glance at the delights of civilization and he was on the ball. Soon his stocky figure was to be seen stepping out of a black Thunderbird at the doors of TV, movie and press magnates – or rolling on a divan with the country’s darling, Bette Dolan, record-breaking swimmer and the wholesomest girl in the land. Atuk’s downfall only came when …

But no: we cannot do this to you. The beauty of this book lies in its surprises: in its lunatic twists and turns, in the laughs it startles out of you by outrageous shock tactics. Because one of Canada’s most serious young writers has here turned a somersault and has come up with – we are weighing our words – a tour de force of comic invention unrivalled since Juan visited America. It is possible that, as a result, when he next sets foot on his native soil it will bounce him back into the sea – but whether Canada likes it or not, it has now produced a comic writer and satirist of whom any country in the world could be proud.

Atuk, playing the enigmatic Eskimo card for all it’s worth, runs rings around the Toronto intellectuals and artsy types and bleeding heart do-gooders keen to adopt him as this week’s picturesque indigenous person. He bluffs his way into an intimate relationship the ever-helpful and soon to be ex-virginal Bette Dolan, brings his extended family to Toronto to dwell in a basement sweatshop turning out crude specimens of “genuine Eskimo art”, and schmoozes his way into all sorts of circles, from upper-crust to deeply dodgy. But an incident from his past is about to catch up with him…

Mordecai Richler nails everyone in this midnight-black satirical romp, with the notable exception of that most expected Canadian target-of-scorn: Americans. By and large the field is made up of north-of-49thers, of every stripe and hue and political persuasion.

Deeply dated and terrifically politically incorrect by the standards of both then and now – a casual gang rape is played for cheap laughs, and there is an abundance of crude bedroom and bathroom humour – but I must say I laughed outright at several bits, most notably Atuk’s successful attempt at fratricide by traffic light.

Now that I’ve read this dark little period piece, I find myself quite happy to quietly slide it back onto the bookshelf. I don’t know as I’ll ever take it down again, but at least I’ve quelled my curiosity as to its contents.

Recommended? Probably not, unless you’re Canadian and keen on exploring the seedier back alleys of our national literary heritage.

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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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high bright buggy wheels luella creighton 001High Bright Buggy Wheels by Luella Creighton ~ 1951. This edition: McClelland and Stewart, New Canadian Library No. 147, paperback, 1978. Introduction by Rae McCarthy Macdonald. ISBN: 0-7710-9260-1. 352 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10

Tough call on the rating.

The book is undeniably well written, by an intelligent writer comfortably secure in her ability to portray scenes and moods more than competently in print.

But – and you knew there’d be a “but”, didn’t you? – there were a number of jarring moments, some editorial and some plot-related, and all made more obvious by the relative excellence of the workmanship displayed in the technical aspects of what is ultimately nothing more than a standard bildungsroman, albeit one embellished with abundant period detail and “exotic” (though slightly questionable regarding theological accuracy) Mennonite trappings.

Did you make it through that last bit all right?

Let me take a step back and give the details of the story.

It is the first decade of the 20th century, and in Ontario, Canada, in the southern region of prosperous farms, a Mennonite religious revival tent meeting is taking place. Here we meet our young heroine, 17-year-old Tillie Shantz, standing out from her lesser peers through her stately height, her exceptional beauty, and her remote air.

Tillie is the indulged oldest child of her family, and her doting father has seen that she has had plenty of leisure time to pursue such frivolous interests as piano playing, flower gardening, and wandering through the fields and woods daydreaming, all occupations which are acceptable enough in moderation but not in strong favour with the practical and hard-working Mennonite farmers to which “tribe” (Creighton’s term, used a number of times) our Tillie belongs.

Needless to say the lovely Tillie has attracted her fair share of the male gaze, and is being zeroed in on by one Simon Goudie. Simon is a few years older than Tillie, and, fervently pious, has already gained a reputation as a accomplished lay preacher. He’s heading off to theological college in the fall, but first he wants to secure the promise of Tillie’s hand in marriage. The local Mennonite community unanimously approves – this appears to be a suitable uniting of two prosperous and godly families.

Tillie is tempted by the thought of being mistress of her own home, and Simon’s avid gaze stirs her own latent sexual desires. The promise is made, though Tillie buys herself some time by asking her father to allow her to spend the winter in the nearest large town, taking a dressmaking course and more advanced piano lessons than she is able to come by out in the country. Luckily two spinster aunts are able to give Tillie a room, and for a while all goes well, with Tillie turning out to be a naturally accomplished seamstress and a a talented amateur artist as well as a potentially concert-level pianist. (Right about here is where I started to get annoyed at the author, for her heroine was becoming just a bit too wonderful to be true.)

Enter another man.

Tillie has already made the acquaintance of the town’s ambitious and dashing young drugstore owner, George Bingham, and their first mutual liking for each other predictably blossoms into something much more flammable. Poor Simon, we find ourselves thinking. You’re going to be in for a rude shock…

The tale follows its utterly predictable course. Tillie, after 200-some pages of soul-searching, at last gives Simon his walking papers – the thought of accompanying him to darkest Africa, to where he has decided that God has called him as a missionary, is the final straw stacked on Tillie’s should-I/shouldn’t-I load – and, to do things quite thoroughly, renounces her Mennonite faith in front of a massed congregation gathered for a special meeting in honour of Simon’s call. Simon reacts badly. One rather feels for him throughout this whole saga – he ends up being the sacrificial lamb on the altar of Tillie’s self-determination – almost literally so as a tragic accident leaves him physically and mentally broken within hours of his humiliating public rejection by the woman he thought was firmly his.

Estranged from her family, Tillie marries George, and immediately embraces the worldly things so gently set aside by the Mennonite community. She immerses herself in music, lovely clothes, novel-reading, dining (and drinking!) in posh city restaurants, driving one of George’s racehorses (another surprise talent that pops up is Tillie’s apparent superb horsemanship – who knew!) and, very shortly, her own automobile, which she also immediately masters with style and skill. There is plenty of money, for George is a dab hand at clever investments, and Tillie steps into her velvet-lined new life with utter aplomb.

But storm clouds are brewing, and Tillie’s sun is about to be obscured by sudden darkness, as her pregnancy ends in a tragic stillbirth.

Could God be punishing her for turning her back on the religion of her youth? Is this payback for the wrong she did to Simon? Should she renounce the world and turn back to the Church?

Well, it’s not quite that easy, as she finds out, when an emotional return to the church of her youth finds her met with patronizing forbearance and, even more disappointing, no sudden re-acquaintance with God.

And then George starts glancing about for comfort elsewhere, tired of his sady depressed and once-again dully religious wife.

Not to worry, a “surprise” happy ending is coming down the pike.

Points to the author for keeping it engaging for so long, because honestly this thing is a mass of stock scenarios and random bits of melodrama. One rather wonders at its inclusion in the serious-minded New Canadian Library series, but it appears that the period details and the Mennonite plot elements make it a desirable novel for earnest study, with its nuances soberly studied by the scholarly set.

What I liked about this book: the very relatable ponderings of Tillie regarding her place in the world, and her desire to be her own person, not just an invisible cog in the works of a farm and/or mission settlement.

Tillie’s “is that all?”angst rang true, and made her an ultimately sympathetic character, despite the off-putting (to this cynical reader) perfections of her face and figure, and her annoyingly instant easy mastery of every task she put her hand to.

What I didn’t like about this book: the author’s passive-aggressive tone towards the Mennonite community.

Methinks perhaps Creighton has a tiny smidgeon of baggage being unpacked here? I did read mention of the fact that Creighton had a Mennonite stepmother and that they did not always share the same philosophy of life.

While showing a lavish appreciation for the bucolic wonders of the well-run farms and the abundance of food set out at the communal Mennonite tables, Creighton adds little digs here and there, “the fat, round faces”and the “placid, unquestioning gazes” of the women being referenced over and over. Perhaps this was merely a writerly way of framing the characters in order for Tillie’s wondrous physical and mental superiority to stand out in sharper contrast, but if so it went too far. Did no other Mennonite female in Tillie’s very wide circle share any of her self-agonizing regarding one’s place in the world? Apparently not, for the only other Mennonite girl or woman who is given any significant amount of page-time is the Shantz family servant, Bertha, unmarriageable, unsightly and outspoken, who appears to be Tillie’s only friend until her breakout into the world, where she immediately finds a strong ally in her happy-single-lady employer, the proto-feminist town seamstress.

The activities of the people in Creighton’s Mennonite church settings are strongly caricatured. They frequently shout out to the Lord, and loudly pray long extempore prayers, and all but roll about on the floor in the ecstasies of their faith. Having a Mennonite background myself, with some experience of the stern moral tone of the stricter orders – and the Shantz household appears to belong to one of the more rigorous “old” branches of this sect – the scenes depicted both in the camp meeting scenes and at regular Sunday services seem more akin to the more dramatic of the Baptist sects, rather than accurate manifestations of the self-governed and deeply self-conscious Mennonites I have personally encountered throughout my life.

Though the “oddnesses” of the Mennonite religion are referenced again and again, the actual theology behind the more restrictive of the behaviours is never once discussed, and it is this lack which seems to me to leave the novel in the second rank.

That and the horribly contrived happy ending, in which all religious and family conflicts are suddenly and inexplicably resolved, a neat bit of authorial deus ex machine which left me grinding my teeth. I have nothing against a happy ending – on the contrary, I quite like things to end on a positive note whenever it makes artistic sense – but this one was too darned good to be believable, considering all that had gone on before.

In looking over this review, I see that I have concentrated mainly on the negatives, with not much to say about the novel’s many strengths.

I suspect this is because there was so much that I actually liked that the off-key aspects disappointed me more strongly than if I had found it lightweight from beginning to end. It was the breaking of the tone which made me so disappointed – it was so close to being something truly special, but some of the most thought-provoking bits were ruined for me by the author’s opinionating showing through.

For another opinion, here is a wonderful review from The Indextrious Reader, who was much more scholarly and ultimately more kind in her examination of the book.

I think we both agree that High Bright Buggy Wheels is well worth reading, for those interested in Canadiana, or even merely looking for a literary type of romance novel.

 

 

 

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