Posts Tagged ‘1984 Novel’

Volkswagen Blues by Jacques Poulin ~ 1984. This edition: McClelland and Stuart, 1988. Translated from the French by Sheila Fischman. Paperback. ISBN: 0-7710-7158-2. 213 pages.

“It’s America. You start to read the history of America and there’s violence everywhere. It’s as if America was built on violence.”

I had mentally bookmarked that as a quote which reflected a lot of what is discussed in this novel even before seeing the news last night of the latest mass killing in the United States yesterday – 17 shot dead in a Florida high school.

Perhaps not quite the same sort of violence Poulin’s quoted character has in mind; he was referring in the main to general acts of warfare; but it felt a depressingly apt comment in light of current affairs.

Volkswagen Blues is a quirky, thoroughly charming, occasionally angry novel, and it’s a bit hard to slot into a neat category. It’s first and foremost a road trip novel, and there are shades of love story, and also, running through it like a blood-scarlet thread, an examination of the history of the Americas and the continual conflict between indigenous-indigenous, indigenous-colonizer, and colonizer-colonizer cultures.

The driving character (pun intended) is a forty-year-old Québécois writer, pseudonym Jack Waterman, who has embarked upon a journey in his old Volkswagen minibus to try to find his older brother Théo, last heard from fifteen – or maybe twenty? – years ago, sending Jack a mysterious postcard from Gaspé.

On the way to Gaspé, hoping to pick up Théo’s long-cold trail,  Jack picks up a hitchhiker – well, two, really – a young Metis woman, Pitsémine, nicknamed La Grande Sauterelle – The Grasshopper – because of her long legs – and her small black kitten. The two (three!) click, and soon they are seen driving along, following an elusive breadcrumb-trail of clues, which leads them all the way (eventually) to California, to San Francisco, where they find (maybe?) what they are seeking.

The novel consists of small episodes described in detail and strung out like beads on a chain. Great narrative gaps exist, filled (we assume) with miles and miles of driving. The Volkswagen early on takes on a personality of its own, it is the fourth member of the travelling band, and though in the main it is a reliable sort of creature, it does have a few episodes of road-fatigue itself, echoing the occasional emotional breakdowns of its human companions.

At some point in the journey the man and the girl (for that is how Poulin refers to them most of the time) become lovers, though we are never told that they are in love; sex is kept in its place as not the be-all-and-end-all of the relationship, but as merely something shared, a physical pleasure coming naturally between two people once affection and trust have been established.

The journey ends, or perhaps it doesn’t. The companions part, though possibly not for good. Each has found something that was searched for, but each still seems to be on an as yet unfulfilled quest, perhaps best tackled alone…

A most interesting small novel, deeply Canadian, and even more deeply American in the continental sense.

Volkswagen Blues is a very slightly awkward read, though how much of the gentle stiltedness is by author’s intention and how much from its French-to-English translation I cannot tell. It was no trouble at all to follow, though. It’s a quick read, too, and one which will no doubt reward a subsequent re-reading with a deeper appreciation of all its many nuances.

I enjoyed it, and had many moments of wishing I could follow the (physical) route the journeyers took. I would cheerfully read another book by Jacques Poulin if one were to come my way.

An appreciative 6.5/10.

Can-Lit note: Volkswagen Blues was nominated for a Governor-General’s literary fiction award in 1984, and was selected as a contendor in the 2005 “Canada Reads” event on CBC Radio.


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Thursday’s Children by Rumer Godden ~ 1984. This edition: Viking Press, 1984. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-670-71196-9. 249 pages.

My rating: 7/10.

During most of her long career, Rumer Godden was widely viewed as a “popular” versus a “literary” writer, and it is her second-string novels such as Thursday’s Children that serve as evidence for that slightly scornful designation.

Her work did vary widely – as she herself commented – between those books she felt “demanded” to be written, and those that she searched out themes for and “chose” to write. This novel has a “Hmmm, what shall I write about?” feel to it. This said, I’ve read and re-read Thursday’s Children with enjoyment over the years because it is, after all, a Rumer Godden book, which means very competently written with flashes of wry humour, even in the most clichéd of her occasional “hack” novels.

Thursday’s Children is listed variously as a children’s book and as an adult novel. In truth it falls somewhere in between, and perhaps might best be categorized as belonging to the nebulous “young adult” genre, though I suspect its true audience is an older generation looking for a comfort read.

The plot is low-key melodrama, reminiscent of the recent popular film Billy Elliot: young boy stumbles into a dance class, realizes his destiny, faces numerous obstacles, wins over scornful/homophobic father/friends/enemies, and ultimately succeeds. The weakness of this scenario is its predictability; we know from the moment that young Doone fumbles through his first steps in the hallway of his sister’s dancing school that he is destined for the spotlight; his subsequent journey is only of interest in seeing how the author has handled the stock situation.

Side note: I was curious as to whether Billy Elliot or Thursday’s Children influenced each other; it appears that Godden was first out of the gate on this one. It was published in 1984, while the Billy Elliot film was released in 2000. The “boy stumbles into dance” situation is hardly exclusive, and – to be fair – many “real life” male dancers have had similar epiphanies.

Set in London, England in an undesignated time, (though clues point to late 1960s or early 1970s), Thursday’s Children is a double narrative of two young dancers, Doone and his older sister Crystal. Crystal is the much-doted upon daughter of the middle-class Penny family, the long-desired girl following four older brothers, while Doone is her younger brother – an unwelcome “afterthought” child – decidedly unplanned for and viewed with bemusement and a shade of resentment by Maud (“Ma”) Penny, whose family yearnings were more than fulfilled by Crystal’s appearance. Turns out that Ma was once a dancing chorus girl, and her maternal ambitions for Crystal are much grander – nothing but ballet lessons with the “Russian” Madame Tamara (who incidentally started out life as plain old English Minnie Price) will do. Doone,  dragged along by an unwilling Crystal to her Saturday morning dance classes, falls in love with the music and the movement, and away our story goes on its predictable little track.

Rumer Godden proceeds to work her charms with the material at hand. Doone is almost too good for belief, for not only is he a piano-playing prodigy and a natural dancer, he is a thoroughly sweet, sensitive, and likably nice child as well, despite his family’s dual neglect and  bullying. Doone, unsupported by his own family in his quest, is providentially blessed with a series of understanding artsy unrelated adults who instantly recognize his budding genius and smooth his path at every turn. I find that though his dogged “goodness” occasionally annoys, in general I quite like Doone; he shows occasional flashes of wit and bad temper which redeem him from total Little Loud Fauntleroyism.

Crystal, on the other hand, is a far from likeable child. Vain, fickle and scheming, she manipulates everyone in her little world, especially her besotted mother. Jealous of Doone’s recognition by their shared teachers, Crystal actively plots his thwarting, though her schemes are immediately recognized by those omnipotent adults as the two siblings rise through the ranks to their eventual placements in the exclusive Royal Ballet School.

Rumer Godden herself had a life-long involvement with dance, as a long-time dance student who returned to England to train as a teacher, eventually running her own dance school in Calcutta, so all of the technical talk rings true. Her scathing portrayal of the “typical dance mother” strikes close to home. Full disclosure: I am a dance mother myself, and I both laugh and cringe at Godden’s commentary on our many collective follies, though she has also given full credit to the difficulty of reconciling the many needs and expenses of the dancer with the needs and desires of the rest of the family – in the Penny family, as in so many real-life families, the dancer takes precedence.

The characters are allowed to develop in a reasonably natural way, and they surprise us occasionally by their responses, which keeps things interesting though in the main our predictions prove to be correct. Crystal is eventually allowed her chance at redemption; rather a Rumer Godden specialty – she does go to some lengths to allow her characters to show multiple personality facets. Many of the figures in the novel are inspired by actual personages in the British dance world; Yuri Koszorz is a direct take-off of Rudolf Nureyev, and the author has dedicated the book to the legendary Ninette de Valois.

This is a novel in which nothing much happens; the characters are important mostly to themselves and their adventures are the small adventures of ordinary people, but as a simple story competently told it can be counted as one of Rumer Godden’s more satisfying minor novels.

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