Archive for the ‘Ferguson, Will’ Category

I Was a Teenage Katima-Victim: A Canadian Odyssey by Will Ferguson ~ 1998. This edition: Douglas & McIntyre, 1998. Softcover. ISBN: 1-55054-652-x. 259 pages.

My rating: 9/10.Funny and thought provoking. This is the book that made me a Will Ferguson fan, way back in 1998, when I plucked it off the “New Releases” bookstore shelf solely for the reference to Katimavik. A few minutes browsing and I was sold. Liked it then, like it now. A very Canadian memoir.


Funny, touching, and never maudlin . . .”     – Montreal Gazette

“A rollicking memoir”     – Globe & Mail

“A coming of age story with a fierce and nationalistic bite.”     – January Magazine

With Will Ferguson in the literary spotlight these days, due to his Booker Prize win for 419: A Novel  just a week ago, I felt the urge to dig through the bookshelves and re-read the my first ever Ferguson book, the now-obscure 1998 coming-of-age-Canadian-style memoir, I Was a Teenage Katima-Victim.

Ah, Katimavik! What a well-meaning and ambitious, oh so Canadian idea!

In my Grade 11 year I too went to one of those earnest presentations in the school gym, listened with deep interest to the bubbly recruiter, and, most importantly, mused over what I could do with the thousand dollar pay-off at the end.

I even went so far as to take a brochure home to my parents, who flicked through it with scornful dismissal. The airy-fairy notion of travelling and seeing Canada basically on the taxpayers’ dime was not something to countenance for one of their children. In my father’s eyes such programs were akin to “those deadbeats collecting welfare”, and he quite literally would have starved on the street rather than apply for a government handout, or anything which could be remotely conceived of as such. To top it off, Katimavik was supported by none other than “that Liberal bastard”,  Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, who my father hated with a black passion, for reasons I’m still not quite clear on.

By the end of my Grade 12 year Katimavik was a distant memory, a momentary what-if? fairytale I had told myself. I had moved out of my parents’ home into a nasty and dank – but blessedly my own – basement suite in town, and was working full-time waitressing (nights and weekends) while struggling to make it through the tatters of my last high school year to collect that all-important graduation diploma. My love life had unexpectedly taken off, and I was deeply occupied in the here and now. The last thing I now wanted was to rip up those tentaively establishing adult roots and travel. But a soft spot remained for the grand ideas embodied in Katimavik, and my ears ever after were sensitive to the sound of the name.

Will Ferguson took the bait, made the plunge, and survived to tell the tale. Here is a 1999 interview in January magazine:

The book … is delightful: a coming of age story with a fierce and nationalistic bite.
To explain the reference, Katimavik was a Canadian government funded and sponsored program that blossomed in the 1970s. Of course. While the program was active, it brought thousands of young Canadians together to do “meaningful work.” Everything from soup kitchens to nature trails to heritage sites: over 20,000 “katima-victims” went through the program. “The scope of the program was staggering,” writes Ferguson. “1400 different communities across Canada, and more than 200,000 people directly involved or affected. For better of worse, Katimavik helped shape an entire generation.”
For the lavish sum of $1 a day and “all the granola you could eat” these 20,000 17 to 21 year-olds were taken far from their home towns for a year to see first-hand the cultural mosaic of which they were – by birth – a part.
“The thinking about Katimavik was that there is something redeeming about manual labor,” says Ferguson. “And the thing is, it just isn’t true at all. Anybody doing manual labor knows that it’s a tough gig and if they had the option not to do it, they wouldn’t. The second notion is that somehow once we get to know each other, we’ll like each other. This is the biggest flaw and it runs right through a lot of thinking. They think that, just because you and I are enemies, if we got to know each other, we’d like each other: that’s a big flawed premise because – quite often – the more you get to know each other, the more you realize that you have nothing in common.”
Despite his misgivings about the program’s principals, “Katimavik worked on a personal level, despite its good intentions. Just because any time you throw someone into something that big and that intense you come out of it with a rounder personality.”
Now 34, Ferguson’s personality is sufficiently rounded to take us along with him on great rollicking rides. Thus far he’s taken us from the wilds of Canada to the back roads of Japan. Whatever he has in store for us next is sure to be fun: and will hopefully raise still more eyebrows. | Linda L. Richards, January Magazine, February 1999

There is a certain irony in the fact that, soon after Ferguson’s participation in the now-iconic Canadian youth travel-service-work-cultural  program, it was axed in 1986 by the newly elected Mulroney Progressive Conservative government. Katimavik was resurrected in a slightly different form in 1994, and just this year, 2012, has been cut again, this time by the Conservative Harper government. Another rescue mission is afoot, to reimagine Katimavik for yet another generation of young Canadians. I hope it succeeds.

This book has been out of print for years, and is unaccountably ignored in most discussions of Ferguson’s work, which is a shame. Despite the graphically appalling cover, the tale told within is worth reading, especially for anyone who has memories of Katimavik in its sincere and slightly loopy heyday. A bit raw in spots – it was, after all, only Will Ferguson’s second published book, following hard on the heels of surprise bestseller Why I Hate Canadians – it nevertheless gets better and better as it goes along. Laugh out loud funny in places, there is a thread of sincerity running through it which is deeply appealing.

More than a mere curiousity piece and a relic of the author’s youth, it’s a rather grand little read. One of those “Proud to be Canadian” feel-good things. Recommended.

And here is link to the Goodreads page.

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419 by Will Ferguson ~ 2012. This edition: Viking, 2012. Hardcover. First Edition. ISBN: 978-0-670-06471-7. Winner: 2012 Giller Prize, for best Canadian novel or short story collection published in English. 399 pages.

My rating: 8/10. Quite a lot better than I had anticipated. Ferguson’s last few efforts have left me mildly disappointed, but this new novel encouragingly shows that he is still growing as a writer. I haven’t yet read any of the other Giller Prize nominees, but 419‘s win a few nights ago no longer seems so far-fetched. This is a well-written and ambitiously plotted novel, and the writer exceeded my personal expectations this time around. I didn’t love this book, but I did like it – very much. Though I do have more than a few critiques, some of which I’ll address below.


I like being pleasantly surprised, and this book did just that. I’d read quite a few reviews, and I’d heard that it was nominated for the Giller, but I wasn’t particularly eager to delve in, as I’d earlier found Will Ferguson’s last book, Canadian Pie, disappointing. It felt rather repetitive, with some of what seemed like reworked material from earlier books, though some bits were excellent entertainment, as always.

But the distinctive cover of 419 caught my eye on the “New Books” display as I was heading out of the library on Tuesday evening, so I impulsively stopped and added it to my pile. When I got to car, I heard the announcement on CBC that Ferguson had indeed just won the $50,000 Giller for 419, and I mentally shuffled it to the top of my to-read pile, and started it that same night.

I found the narrative initially confusing, as the author has a number of different storylines on the go from page one, but it soon started to jell, though I didn’t ever shake the feeling that I occasionally had too many windows open on my mental computer screen.

The first lines, the literal importance of which become clear later on, are suitably foreboding and mysterious:

Would you die for your child?

This is the only question a parent needs to answer; everything else flows from this. In the kiln-baked emptiness of thorn-bush deserts. In mangrove swamps and alpine woods. In city streets and snowfalls. It is the only question that needs answering…

And we are suddenly at a car accident scene in a snowy Canadian city. Then in a sweltering African airport. In a mangrove swamp with a fisherman and his son. Back to Canada as a family learns of their father’s sudden death. Africa. Canada. Africa. Canada. What’s the connection here?

Longer stretches of narrative are interspersed with mysterious vignettes, as the stage is set for the characters’ and events’ inevitable connections and intertwinings, and separate strands start to stand out.

  • In Calgary, a retired school teacher has died in a troubling car accident. Was it an accident, or something more sinister? A daughter seeks the truth, and justice.
  • In the same city, a police investigator tries to determine the truth about that death, and others, as he mulls over his own personal future.
  • In Nigeria, a self-confident young man haunts the internet cafés, sending out thousands of tempting emails, waiting for the inevitable but rare “bite”.
  • From peaceable beginnings in a fisherman’s family on the Niger Delta, a young boy becomes a man, moving into a vastly changed world as multinational companies start to extract the oily treasure hidden under the dense mangrove swamps.
  • A mysterious scar-faced young woman stumbles through the sub-Saharan desert, hiding a secret and searching for a refuge as yet unknown.
  • In Lagos City, a crime lord plays his victims like an obscene stage director, evil but ultimately doomed himself.

The plot is driven by the ubiquitous presence of the infamous Nigerian internet scam, the titular “419”, so named for the number of the article of the Nigerian Criminal Code dealing with fraud, which turns out to be a key – but not the only – plot element.

419 is a total departure from Ferguson’s usual shtick of out-and-out parody, folksy anecdotes, and very Canadian self-mockery, but there are still abundant traces of the “old” Ferguson throughout. Though the subject matter is often starkly tragic, there are laugh-out-loud moments of rather twisted humour, as here on an African road ferrying a tanker trunk filled with stolen fuel:

Nnamdi was gripping the wheel, eyes on the road, barely blinking, barely breathing. His first time driving.

“Speed up,” said Joe. “A baby crawls faster.”

Nnamdi swallowed down his nervousness, pushed a little harder on the accelerator.

“And don’t swerve for goats like that,” Joe said. “Go through them. It’s the only way. We can hose off the grill later…”

All in all, a blackly comedic suspense novel, but not to be taken too seriously, Giller Prize or not.

The reader absolutely must suspend personal disbelief, and here I give away a bit of a plot spoiler. (Though not more so than any of the other reviews I’ve read.)

What is the likelihood of a modern, middle class, apparently well-educated family being so totally unaware of the sophisticated nature of internet fraud? I could buy into the innocence of the father – sort of – because obviously people do fall for these scams or they could not continue to proliferate, and I know how trusting certain individuals can be, but the naïveté of the adult children, one an apparently financially savvy businessman, tests the reader’s credulity a little too far. The revenge element, the reverse fraud, the involvement of the now highly pregnant Saharan girl – these plot twists, and numerous others, had me shaking my head as the story reached its conclusion.

Viewed as a semi-farcical novel, the flaws of logic smooth out and the “hang on a minute” moments are much more forgivable, but I didn’t ever get the feeling that this was the Big Important Serious Novel that some mainstream reviewers have made it out to be. Sure, there are some serious elements, and those lend poignancy to the tale, but to me it seems just another diversionary read, to be consumed with a certain gusto and set back on the shelf among all of the other well-wrought entertainments of the semi-serious sort.

With this in mind, recommended.

Good job, Mr. Ferguson, and congratulations on your prize.

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