Archive for the ‘Read in 2015’ Category

it's an old country j.b. priestley 001It’s An Old Country by J.B. Priestley ~ 1967. This edition: Heinemann, 1967. Hardcover. 247 pages.

My rating: 2.5/10

I’m a sincere J.B. Priestley fan, so this rating and following review pain me greatly. I’ll try to get it over with quickly, so I can put the book away (far away) and not have to look at it and be reminded of my disappointment.

It’s 1960-something, and 35-year-old economic historian Tom Adamson has just buried his mother in a Sydney, Australia graveyard. Tom is by birth English, having come to Australia as a toddler with his embittered mother and wee sister when his actor-artist father suddenly abandoned his family back in the old country.

Raised to scorn his absent parent, Tom has had a disquieting experience when, in her last days of illness, his mother hints that there was some sort of mystery as to why Dad cut all ties, and a deeper reason behind it all.

So Tom takes leave from his job as a Colonial Economic History professor at the local university, flies to England, and proceeds to seek his father, whom he feels is still alive (he’d know if it weren’t so, our author assures us, Tom being apparently blessed with some sort of superior filial intuition) and perhaps yearning for his long-lost son.

Tom falls in with a ne’er-do-well cousin, who in the intervals of between hitting Tom up for substantial “loans” of cash actually proves fairly useful in providing introductions to people who can give snippets of information regarding Tom’s elusive father. We meet a vast array of potentially intriguing characters – a seedy private enquiry agent, a senile noblewoman, an elegant European jetsetter (with whom Tom has an ultimately unsatisfying sexual escapade), various actors, artists, writers, pub-owners, ex-lovers of the father, ex-employers of the father, fellow workers of the father’s numerous jobs – an immense cast of secondary characters, and each one as sketchily portrayed and forgettable as the last.

I’ll tell you what Tom discovers, to save you from plodding through this thing for yourself. (Consider this your spoiler alert, though that very term implies something suspenseful or exciting, which is far from what occurs in the book.)

Turns out that Dad’s letters home were suppressed by a jealous lover – he’d really meant to return to his wife at some point but said lover maneuvered weak-willed Dad in a different direction. After failing at reaching success as either an actor or a painter, Dad enlisted in the army, fought in the 2nd World War, came out to a dismal civilian life, passed dud cheques, served time in jail, changed his name, and worked at a series of progressively less rewarding jobs until Tom finds him slaving away as an underpaid waiter in a South Devon hotel.

There is an underwhelming reunion, notable for its über-masculine soberness. Tom promises to set Dad up with an annuity and a new life in London, with the intimation that one of Dad’s old girlfriends who still carries a torch for the ineffectual but generally decent old guy will step in to provide female companionship.

Tom himself has found a love interest in a 25-year-old book editress, and the two find they share a sniffy dislike of the way English society is sliding into chaos – beatnicks versus the old guard – and decide that the happiest future shared career will be in working for the U.N. In a more developed part of the world of course: “(D)oes it have to be Ghana or Cambodia or Ecuador?…Couldn’t we make it Austria or Thailand or Mexico, my darling?”

The end.

It’s an Old Country fails to live up to expectation on every front. The plot is boring. The characters are strictly cardboard – even our “hero” Tom fails to come across as multi-dimensional in any way, shape or form. The dialogue is stilted. The style throughout reads like a first draft, a mere roughed-out outline without any living detail.

Even Priestley’s “big idea” – a reliable trope with this author is his inclusion of an intellectual motif to each book – is vague  and understated. In this novel, the gist seems to be that the youth of the day are sloppy and unambitious, a bunch of guitar-playing beatnicks, but perhaps that’s to be expected after the way the elder generation has mucked up the world with its wars and class divisions, and that the old guard is overdue for toppling. The “old country” – England, and also its colonial partner Australia – is fixed in its downward spiral – time for a forward-thinking man (that would be our Tom) to abandon ship. Hurray for tradition, it’s been swell but it’s over, see you later.

There are tiny glimpses here and there of the author’s true potential – micro-episodes and lonely glistening, gliding phrases – but so few and far between that they merely serve to remind the reader of how much better this book should be.

One could charitably excuse the absolute flatness of this dull, dull novel by maintaining that after over forty years of plugging out work after work after work the author was scraping the bottom of the barrel, getting old and tired. How then to explain the excellence of the book before this one, the quite stellar Lost Empires, published in 1965? Two years shouldn’t make that much difference. We know the man still has it in him, so where is it here?

It’s an Old Country is a hack piece, trading on the author’s good name, an underwritten, too sparse yet plodding novel that should never have made it to print.

In my opinion.

Over and out.

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Ssouth of an unnamed creek anne cameronouth of an Unnamed Creek by Anne Cameron ~ 1989. This edition: Harbour Publishing, 1989. Hardcover. ISBN: 1-55017-013-9. 199 pages.

My rating: 4/10

Six (actually seven, plus a girl child) downtrodden women are brought together by circumstance and end up as business partners (and more! much more!) during the 1890s’ Klondike Gold Rush.

Sounds like a promising storyline, doesn’t it? I thought so, and opened the book all ready-prepped to enjoy – well-known B.C. writer, strong female leads, historical setting – what could be better? I happily thought.

Anne Cameron, B.C.’s rather fascinating angry-feminist-lesbian kidlit/adult novel writer, in South of an Unnamed Creek combines period drama with a liberal helping of revenge fantasy, placing her characters deep in the mire before providing them with opportunities for turning the tables on their oppressors, and the heck with plausibility. I have to say that the parts that put me off the most were not necessarily the abundant incidents of rape and physical abuse, but the utter unlikeliness of the revenge bits, which are set out by Cameron with salacious glee.

It reads to me as if the author let her opinions get in the way of her craftsmanship.

The following post is loaded with plot spoilers. Stop here if you don’t want to know. Also if you can’t handle rape scenes, conventional and otherwise.

So here’s what I came away with.

  • All women are born victims.
  • All men are natural oppressors of women.
  • And “respectable” white men are the worst.
  • All First Nations people are wonderfully spiritual and secretly heroic. (But especially the women. Who are universally victimized by society as well as by the male members of their families/communities.)
  • Ditto people of “Celestial” origin. (Cameron’s code word for Chinese.) (And especially the women. Ditto the natural victim thing.)
  • But once the female victim is pushed too far – the rape thing, in most cases – superhuman strength and cunning is magically granted, and the oppressors are chopped down (sometimes literally) at the peak of their oppressive prime.
  • And revenge feels good.
  • And men are overrated as bed partners, anyway.

Yes, dear readers, the brushes in this uneven saga are very broad indeed, and dripping with non-nuanced primary colours.

Main characters and the long, complicated setup:

  • Ceileigh is an expatriate Scottish fiddle player who has ended up in some unnamed Canadian settlement, plying her musical trade and saving her bits of copper for passage to who-knows-where. She’s followed home from a New Year’s Eve gig and brutally raped by two men, but once they are sated, the Celtic priestess element in Ceileigh’s nature awakens, and she beats them both senseless with her violin case, disfiguring at least one of her assaulters for life. She’s now on the run from the rapists and the authorities. And she’s pregnant.

 

  • Aggie is the feral child of drunken parents living on the Fraser River mudflats near (presumably) Vancouver. While still a wee child, Aggie attracts the eye of a pedophilic “Uncle”, but she soon learns how to trade sexual services for various favours, such as a dress and (I’m not kidding) shoes good for tapping. For Aggie is a naturally accomplished dancer, and is soon working the streets as an entertainer, dancing for pennies. She is taken pity on by a noble First Nations woman, adopted into a native village, and initiated into the Salish lifestyle and spirituality. It can’t last. The hapless villagers are soon wiped out en masse by smallpox, and Aggie heads back to her squalid old life and occupation.

 

  • Su Gin is the daughter of poor Chinese farmers. When bandits attack her village and kill almost everybody, she hides in the mud of the rice paddy, surfacing when it’s safe. Her uncle, coming to take over the family holdings, welcomes her warmly, then immediately drugs her and sells her into slavery. Su Gin comes to on a ship headed for the west coast of Canada, fated for a new life as a prostitute. (Being a virgin, her initial price is set high. Cameron uncharacteristically spares us the details of Su Gin’s deflowering.)

 

  • Lily is the child of a rather simple-minded, money-grasping white prostitute somewhere in middle Canada. At a still-tender age Lily is rescued by her great-grandmother, taken off to an affluent life in the city, and civilized and educated. But everyone in the family (except Great-grandmother) despises Lily for her origins and her outspoken ways. When Lily is in her teens, Granny dies, and Lily, knowing her life will change for the worse without Granny’s protection, loads up with cash (left to her in the will, to the anger of the other relatives) and with a string of the best horses in the stable (the family servants are all on Lily’s side) trots off into the wider world, heading west.

 

  • Mary is the loving daughter of a widowed coal miner somewhere on Vancouver Island. Daddy is brusque and occasionally violent, due to his hard life and perpetual state of fatigue and hunger. Mary lucks upon an Indian canoe and soon masters the craft of paddling about and fishing. This is a good thing all round, except presumably for the people now missing their canoe, but we won’t get into that. Daddy when well fed is a much cheerier person to be around, and Mary starts bringing in some extra cash with her fish sales. But things are getting too comfy to be sustained. A mine collapse leaves Mary orphaned, and she is kicked out of the company house. Making her way down the coast, Mary does quite nicely with the fishing trade, but jealous men smash her boat. (“This t’isn’t the occupation for a mere woman. Y’er puttin’ us out of business. Go back to yer sewing.”) Luckily Mary has hidden resources. She takes her savings and heads to the mainland on a ship, but only after cleverly (and fatally) revenging herself on her main oppressor. (Glub, glub.)

 

  • Cora is the eldest daughter of a family of dirt-poor prairie settlers. She loves her patient mother with daughterly affection, but desperately yearns to be a close pal to her stern father, who continually overlooks Cora and favours the boys of the family instead. But Cora has developed a strong skill set, shooting and riding as well (actually, better) than the boys, as well as becoming accomplished in all of the womanly arts. When a wealthy, widowed neighbour-man comes questing for Cora’s hand, her father pushes her to accept. Cora demurs, but the neighbour takes things into his own hands, brutally rapes the teenager, and loads her up into his wagon, with her father’s full approval. Cora, now the physically abused sex-slave of an older man, despairs of her future. When her father is killed in a brothel brawl, Cora’s still-young mother comes to live with her, and it’s not long before Cora’s unofficial husband (they never were properly married) is sampling the sexual delights of Mum as well. So Cora bides her time, organizes her escape plans, and one night packs up a substantial nest egg liberated from her husband’s secret stash, loads up food and a rifle, and rides away with two fine horses, heading west.

Much journeying now occurs, with all of the characters eventually convening in Dawson City or thereabouts. The white characters have bonded together in a business partnership – they set up a hotel/restaurant/trading enterprise catering to the gold miners. They’ve also acquired a male sidekick, a First Nations guide who becomes more than a friend to one of the party. They are joined by Su Gin, who has picked up a random white child in her travels – fellow victim of a brutal train hijacking – as well as another “Celestial” woman, Ling Ying.

Things are going wonderfully well, and the women are coining money hand over fist. Ceileigh’s baby (a girl) is born. Some time (a few years?) goes by. Then – disaster! Mary falls in love with a wicked Englishman, who absconds with the communal hidden stash of gold. Ceileigh’s male partner follows to try to retrieve it, and ends up very dead. Aggie then takes things into her own hands, pulls off a reverse coup in San Francisco, and comes home with the recovered cash, just in time for another crisis, as a gang of slick gamblers blackmail the women into signing over control of their flourishing business. (The reason for the blackmail is the illegal presence of the Chinese women in Canada. Or at least that was the case according to Cameron, though by this point I was no longer relying on her research to be completely accurate in all of its details, as it seemed to me that she was picking and choosing at will from the historical record, context be damned.)

So the women decide to yield to the blackmailers, because things are starting to decline in the business anyway, as the Klondike gold rush is coming to an end.

Off they go with their millions in gold dust, to settle down in kinder climes, some neatly paired off  – Su Gin and Aggie, Cora and Lily – and the others apparently just happy to hang out in sisterly companionship.

And the moral of the story is?

Ha. No prizes for figuring that one out.

Anne Cameron. My goodness. I wish she was a little less obvious in her agenda, because there is some interesting story-telling going on here, but I keep bumping up against the more bizarre bits, such as the sudden kung-fu powers of the Celestial prostitutes and the killer dog used in the revenge scenario in San Francisco and – probably most ick-inducing – the rape scene early on involving the use of a Chinese woman’s bound feet as a substitute vagina. (I even did a very little bit of superficial internet research on that last-mentioned scenario, because it sounded too weird to be true, and I’d never come across such an allegation before. My conclusion is that it is mostly imaginative on Cameron’s part. Perhaps?)

Anyway, I tried my darnedest to appreciate the nuances of this character-heavy, over-plotted yet paradoxically over-simplified tale. As you can see by my rating, it didn’t quite convince me to enter into its world.

Anne Cameron is perhaps most well known for her acclaimed and controversial Daughters of Copper Woman, 1981.

 

 

 

 

 

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Not my own copy, but a dust jacket of an early edition.

Not my own copy, but a dust jacket of an early edition.

The Old Ladies by Hugh Walpole ~ 1924. This edition: McClelland and Stewart, 1924. Hardcover. 305 pages.

My rating: 5/10

Ah, Hugh Walpole.

Protégé of Henry James, friend and compatriot of such disparate fellow writers as J.B. Priestley, Joseph Conrad and Virginia Woolf, yet, unlike them, mostly forgotten today. Hugh Walpole in his time enjoyed tremendous popularity, though the crueler critics dismissed his work as too facile, too easy to read, too – well – popular.

During his peak writing years, 1909 to 1941, Walpole produced a volume a year (sometimes more) of novels and story collections ranging in tone from the romantic to the dramatic, with ventures into the macabre. Some of his works are small masterpieces of their type.

Some, not so much. A prime example of the B-list is this overlong novel, wherein Walpole takes the material for (at best) a novella, and stretches it out to three hundred pages, when half that would likely have sufficed.

I must say points to the man for keeping it readable, for though The Old Ladies in their uncomfortable dotage got a bit tiresome I was never tempted to abandon them completely, though I had a moment at the close where the urge to give the book a sharp shake (in lieu of its long-defunct author) was only resisted with a strong effort. Walpole brings his tale to a tragically overwrought conclusion, then tacks on a cheerful “prodigal’s return” to the very end, which I must admit is soothing to the reader worried about the most likeable of the titular old ladies, but which was just too darned convenient for my comfort.

The plot:

Three elderly ladies (all are in their seventies) who have fallen on hard times find themselves living in a shabby rooming house in the cathedral town of Polchester (imaginary setting of many of Hugh Walpole’s tales) presided over by a mostly benevolent landlady.

One, the sweet-natured and mild-tempered Mrs. Amorest, is the widow of a poet, who died quite suddenly (in the best tradition of his kind) leaving behind nothing but manuscripts and debts.

The next, also-widowed Mrs. Payne, slovenly and indolent, regrets nothing of her slightly sordid past. She thinks back seldom of her weakly abusive husband and her deserting lover and her long-dead child, concentrating her energies instead upon the comforts of the now, indulging herself with sweets and rich food and dashes of brilliant colour – a ribbon, an ornament, an illustration – which she hoards like an obese dragon in her over-filled lair.

Joining the modest ménage is spinster Miss Beringer, who creeps into the refuge of the old house with her shivering little dog. Miss Beringer has been cheated out of her modest investment capital; her small savings are running out; her future is beyond bleak. She owns one item of beauty and value, an amber carving given to her by her one friend as a remembrance upon the friend’s marriage and subsequent removal to India.

Gentle Mrs. Amorest takes slightly-lower-class Miss Beringer under her wing, not letting on that her own prospects are also desperately declining. Mrs. Payne scorns both of the other residents of the house, despising their meekness and their willingness to run errands for her as evidence of their mental inferiority. She uses them both to the utmost of her cunning ability, and when an ailing cousin of Mrs. Amorest promises a fortune in his will, and Miss Beringer’s amber ornament catches Mrs. Payne’s eye, she begins turn her mental energies to the question of how she can obtain these treasures from her housemates.

Walpole paints a sharply detailed picture of the come-down-in-the-world existences of his three characters. Their thoughts and feelings, their many small economies and occasional overwhelming temptations, their midnight worries and daytime attempts at hiding those fears from the world around them are all sympathetically portrayed.

Small daily drama turns to smouldering melodrama when Mrs. Amorest’s cousin dies and the will is read. Balked of her bad intentions towards one of her neighbours, Mrs. Payne turns her malignant focus upon the other, with devastating results. Only one of the old ladies will walk away from the house with her sanity intact and her future provided for, even if it takes an authorial intervention to bring this about…

Recommended only for those who are already admirers of Hugh Walpole’s eclectically prolific oeuvre. All others, perhaps best to start elsewhere, with The Joyful Delaneys (1938), or Hans Frost (1929), or the critically acclaimed early novel Mr Perrin and Mr Traill (1911), or perhaps the recently rediscovered and dramatized Rogue Herries (1930), first of a four book sequence, and thought by many to be the crème-de-la-crème of Hugh Walpole’s dramatic novels.

My rather unenthusiastic rating of The Old Ladies aside, even a B-list Walpole stands up well to the interested scrutiny of a modern reader. One wishes him a revival, which does indeed seem to be occurring in a low-key way. I add my voice to those who quietly extol his better qualities, and who collect and read his many works with mild enthusiasm.

 

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boo neil smithBoo by Neil Smith ~ 2015. This edition: Vintage, 2015. Paperback. ISBN: 978-0-8041-7136-6. 310 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10

Hot off the press is this “young adult” novel by Montrealler Neil Smith.

It’s 1979, and in a high school hallway in an unnamed city in the United States, a thirteen-year-old boy has just died while standing in front of his locker. Oliver “Boo” Dalrymple wakes up in what can only be Heaven, but it is a Heaven utterly at odds with any preconceptions he or the other occupants might have had.

The place looks like a slightly run-down inner city housing development, it is surrounded by twenty-five-story-tall concrete walls, the weather is always pleasant, food and supplies show up as needed, things (including buildings) heal themselves when damaged, and every single person in the place is a thirteen-year-old American. After fifty years’ residence, during which the occupants mentally grow and mature but physically stay in their teenage form, a person (angel?) suddenly vanishes, though to where or what state no one knows.

Oliver adapts remarkably well to this new environment, though he has always been an agnostic and had not expected any sort of an afterlife. He’s not terribly shocked to have died, for he was in a life-long fragile state of health due to a heart defect. He misses his parents, and is writing an account of his experience in the faint hope that he can somehow, someday communicate with them.

Then another boy shows up, a schoolmate of Oliver’s, and as the two boys compare notes as to how they’ve perished, a troubling scenario begins to emerge, involving gunfire in the school hallway. Was there a killer, and if so who was it? Where is he (she?) now? Maybe right here in Heaven?

Stopping right here, because you’ll want to unravel this one for yourself.

Boo is firmly in the YA genre, but as with the best of these sorts of books, it easily crosses age-defined boundaries.

I liked it. For what it is, it’s very good, and I’m keen to see what my one remaining teenager has to say about it. I suspect she’ll find it as intriguing as I have.

I’d seen mention of it here and there during recent internet travels in search of other things, and thought it sounded darkly interesting, but I wasn’t moved to actively seek it out until I read more about the author and the background of the story here:

Montreal Review of Books: Boo by Neil Smith

My local indie bookstore didn’t (yet) have Boo in stock, but ordered me a copy which arrived just a few days ago. I read it in one long session, staying up into the wee hours to finish it, and I put it down with rather mixed emotions. The ending was quite neatly handled, and I was completely engaged from start to finish, but the book has some flaws, too. Mostly a certain amount of predictability, though that aspect was, as I’ve already said, well clothed with creativity.

Looking at it dispassionately, the big-reveal plot twists were not terribly surprising, and I saw the most crucial of them coming from quite some distance away, but the author has incorporated so many imaginative details that it really doesn’t matter. If you were a child of the 1960s and 1970s, you’ll catch the many pop culture references, and either smile or groan at the memories they inspire. If you’re a child of the new century, some of these might float right over. It also helps to be familiar with young adult literature of that era: Neil Smith indulges in some name-dropping which just might be playing to his contemporaries (he’s fifty)versus teens of right now.

There is, predictably, redemption of a sort after the reveal of the big and angsty main event, but it didn’t get sloppy, and – rather satisfyingly in an artistic sense –  all of the questions weren’t resolved. Some random stuff is just left there, throbbing gently in dark corners of the room, never explained. And – huge point in favour – some bits are very funny.

Several days after my reading, and after quite a lot of pondering, I’ve decided that Boo is a winner.  It’s a fine thing just as it stands. I hope to high heaven (pun intended) that the author can resist the temptation to concoct a sequel. I don’t regret my $20 investment, and I hope the writer gets a decent royalty check, because he’s put a ton of work into this book and it shows.

This is Neil Smith’s first novel, though he has also written a prize-winning collection of short stories, 2008’s Bang Crunch. That one’s on my wish list as of right now.

Buy this for your teen, and then borrow it back for yourself. And keep an eye on this writer.

Another review well worth checking out is here:

The Indextrious Reader – Boo by Neil Smith

 

 

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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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“So, read any good books lately?” my friend cheerfully asked me yesterday when we were playing catch-up on personal news at the first Farmers’ Market of the season. “I’ve noticed you haven’t been posting on the blog for quite a while.”

I hung my head in bibliophilic shame, and dissembled not very cleverly. “Well, so busy, you know. And I’ve been doing a lot of re-reading. Hard to focus this time of year, what with the garden and all. You know, so busy!”

To be absolutely honest, it’s about the normal state of busy (which translates to quite well occupied indeed), but the book blog has indeed slipped into the neglected category on the want-to-do list, and that makes me most unhappy, because I do truly like rambling on about what obscure gems (or otherwise) I’ve just dragged home from my latest book-hunting excursion.

The sad thing is that I am sitting here and not remembering what I’ve been reading – it’s all lost in the fog of that part of my brain. Wait, the mist is parting… (Aided by a pass through the house and an examination of the main reading spots.)

miss pym disposes josephine tey 1946 pan coverFirst off, the book in hand at present, Miss Pym Disposes by Josephine Tey  (1946). My ???th time reading, as Tey is a fixture on the favourites shelf. Miss Pym, amateur psychologist and unexpectedly bestselling author, visits an old school friend’s “physical training” college, and finds herself observing much more than mere gymnastics. A quietly humorous mystery story which works just as well as a “proper” novel, as do all of Tey’s too-few puzzle tales.  The details are wonderful. I haven’t yet properly reviewed Miss Pym Disposes, but I have previously said a few things about Pym’s first novel, The Man in the Queue (1929), and her later “double life” suspense novel, To Love and Be Wise (1950). As with everything by Josephine Tey, highly recommended. Late Golden Age mystery fiction at its very best.

without mercy john goodwin 1920 001Without Mercy: The Story of a Mother’s Vengeance by John Goodwin (1920). This old thriller was pretty bad, but I did read it cover to cover, so it must have had some redeeming qualities. Its sheer melodrama kept me interested enough to follow the improbable twists and turns right up to the satisfyingly clichéd ending.  A beautiful virgin falls into hands of evil men in the South American jungle, is stripped naked and lashed with whips until point of death and then (by implication) raped, or at least threatened with rape. Fast forward some years, to the meeting of the ex-virgin and her chief assaulter, both now moving in London’s high society. Cue emotional confrontations, kidnappings, financial and political skulduggery, a barge on the Thames full of high explosives (BOOM!!!), incredible rescues (numerous), and a generous sloshing of chloroform (refer back to kidnappings: in aid of.) Eventually (page 300 or thereabouts) the bad dude gets his fatal comeuppance: “You have a revolver; you know what to do with it, Sir X. I will give you an hour to settle your affairs and write out a full confession before revealing all to the authorities!” (Or words to that effect.) The hero gets the lovely girl: “Go forward, children, and drink deep of the cup of Life. For me, at last, there is peace.” (Direct quote.) I think we could safely call this a period piece, and gently change the subject. Promotional note facing title page:

WHAT THIS STORY IS ABOUT

Mrs. Garth is the head of the last of the great private banks, Garth, Garth and Trelawnes. She has a genius for finance, and is also a great personage in the social world.

Madame Vampire, the director of Gordon’s Limited, the notorious moneylenders, is also a power; but not for good.

No one suspects the truth, that Mrs. Garth and Madame Vampire are one and the same woman.

Sir Melmouth Craven, of the sinister Sternberg Syndicate, desires to marry Mrs. Garth’s beautiful daughter, Margaret. He is humiliated, and determines to be revenged upon the mother versus the daughter.

The story is full of thrilling situations and exciting incidents.

Indeed.

stickfuls irvin s cobb 1923 001Now for something rather different. Stickfuls: Compositions of a Newspaper Minion by Irvin S. Cobb (1923). (Later editions bear the title Myself – To Date.) This was a very enjoyable read, being the autobiographical account of the writer’s youth and early years making his way in journalism. Wryly humorous, self-revealingly honest, sometimes poignant, and always opinionated, this is a quietly glowing example of what memoir can be. I had no idea who Irvin S. Cobb was when I picked this book up last year in one of Vancouver’s overflowing used and rare book emporiums, Lawrence Books on the corner of Dunbar and West 41st (situated conveniently en route between the UBC Botanical Garden and Van Dusen Botanical Garden – fellow bookish horts take note), but a few moments browsing between its green linen covers convinced me to add it to my armful of vintage treasures. Now that I have made Mr. Cobb’s acquaintance, I find myself inclined to keep an eye open for some of his other writings, which I am sure will be very readable, if Stickfuls is a typical sample of this man’s smooth and clean prose.

A Wikipedia page details Cobb’s exceedingly full life and productive career. A very condensed summation:

Irvin Shrewsbury Cobb (June 23, 1876 – March 11, 1944) was an American author, humorist, editor and columnist from Paducah, Kentucky who relocated to New York during 1904, living there for the remainder of his life. He wrote for the New York World, Joseph Pulitzer’s newspaper, as the highest paid staff reporter in the United States.

Cobb also wrote more than 60 books and 300 short stories. Some of his works were adapted for silent movies. Several of his Judge Priest short stories were adapted for two feature films during the 1930s directed by John Ford.

That’s all for this morning, but now that I’ve broken the long silence I hope to get back into the habit of posting a bit more frequently.

Off to dig a few more post holes on the horribly steep hillside – a rather daunting but sorely overdue project, replacing a very tired split-rail Russell fence with something rather more sheep- and farm-dog-proof, to keep the critters properly confined.

Cheerio! And happy Sunday.

 

 

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