Posts Tagged ‘Biography’

my discovery of america farley mowatMy Discovery of America by Farley Mowat ~ 1985. This edition: McClelland and Stewart, 1985. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-7710-6624-4. 125 pages.

My rating: 6/10.

High marks for tackling this topic with such eloquent vigour, tweaked downward for the increasingly bombastic posturings of the author, which led me to a sneaking small sympathy for his unwary opponents. As I read I could envision the froth forming at the Mowat’s mouth, perhaps dribbling down his legendary beard, too, as he raved on and on and on. (The conciliatory last chapter, where he thanks his many supporters in the U.S.A., did seem a bit calmer, and appropriately sincere.)

Oh – adding another point back on for that first chapter, in which Mowat describes his airport encounter with the Forces of American Evil, a.k.a. the INS: Immigration and Naturalization Services of the United States of America. It was a truly funny piece of writing, and for this I will forgive the annoyance Mowat so often inspires in me by his ego-driven blusterings, which, in this instance, had plenty of justification.

Okay, here’s the story. On April 23, 1985, as Mowat was setting out on a trip to the West Coast of the U.S.A. on a joint lecture/promotion tour for his just-released Sea of Slaughter (a passionate indictment of the human-caused ecological devastation of the Atlantic shores of North America), he was escorted off the plane as it sat on the tarmac, and notified that he was persona non grata in the U.S.A. Forever and for always. And no, we can’t tell you why, sir. Just go away now, sir.

Mowat storms out of the airport terminal and into the arms of his publisher, where he is met with a shared indignation exceeding even his own. “This is war!” (or words to that effect) cries Jack McClelland, and a press deluge begins, spurred on by the very recent “Irish Eyes are Smiling” Reagan-Mulroney love-fest, and assurances by both leaders that the U.S.A. and Canada are dear, dear friends.

Why does the mighty United States feel that wolf-, whale- and generally nature-loving Mr. Mowat is a security threat? And why do the words “Commie sympathiser” keep coming up, though no one will let Mowat or anyone else take a look at his secret file, the one that led to its abrupt barring from the neighbouring country?

It seems that there is a McCarthy-era law on the books, the McCarran–Walter Act, which allows such arbitrary barring on the most microscopic past “offenses”, such as visiting the USSR (which Mowat had done some  fifteen years earlier, to research his book Sibir), and – oh! that little incident in which Mr. Mowat reported a desire to shoot his .22 rifle at U.S. Air Force planes carrying (possibly) atomic warheads across Newfoundland air space…

125 pages later, not much has changed, except that Mowat is offered a “parole” to allow him a one-time entry into the U.S.A., which he scornfully turns down, “parole” implying some sort of wrong-doing.

In this post-9/11time of ever more stringent border examinations, and many more arbitrary black-listings for undisclosed reasons – “security risk” being the handy catch-all phrase – Mowat’s prior experience sounds sadly like something we’ve all heard before.

Mowat’s horrified indignation echoes so many others; his response was the one every wronged citizen dreams of pulling off. Lucky for Mr. Mowat that his celebrity and many connections allowed him to speak out so vibrantly without losing his livelihood or credibility, a real problem for so many others in the same position, as Mowat points out, and which is one of the reasons he puts forward for his strident rebuttal to his black-list barring.

An interesting read, and with chilling parallels to the situation today between the countries on both sides of the world’s longest – but for how much longer? – undefended border. The razor wire, both literal and figurative, is persistently going up.

Here, FYI, is a very partial list, courtesy Wikipedia and therefore including the related links, of some of the public figures joining Farley Mowat on the McCarran-Walter exclusion list, before its amendment (but not its dismantlement) in 1990:

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cornish years anne treneer 001Cornish Years by Anne Treneer ~ 1949. This edition: Jonathan Cape, 1949. Hardcover. 284 pages.

My rating: 8/10.

This is the second volume of Cornish writer and poet Anne Treneer’s trilogy of memoirs. The first, Schoolhouse in the Wind , was such an unexpected treat that I immediately decided to track this author’s other works down. I did all of the usual searches, and decided my best bet was to order the re-released trilogy published by the University of Exeter Press in 1998, under the (slightly altered) title of the first book, School House in the Wind.

Imagine then my delight upon finding this first edition copy of the second volume in a tiny antique store in the micro-community of Barriere, B.C. on a quickie road trip last week. We were out in our old Spitfire convertible, investigating promising narrow, winding (and must be paved – not a given in this part of the world) side roads in the Kamloops area, and were ready for a break from the wind and sun when a sign in the window captured our notice: “Used Books”. Well, that was irresistible, so I pulled a quick U-turn (an easy feat in a tiny little Triumph) and in we went. Lots of china and glassware, but the promised used books were only a shelf or two, quickly scanned and dismissed. However, as I made my way carefully out through the shelves of fragile treasures, something caught my eye in the showcase beside the cash register. There, side by side, were this book, and another, The Angels’ Alphabet by Hilda van Stockum, a first edition picture book by another author-illustrator I’m mildly interested in.

I’m guessing these were featured because of their intact dust jackets and general “vintage” appearance? Anyway, for well under twenty dollars I walked out of the store clutching my treasures with ill-disguised glee. And that proved to be the bookish highlight of the day, as our subsequent visit to our real destination, Kamloops’ excellent At Second Glance Used Books, source of so many wonderful finds over the past ten years, left us standing in bemusement peering through the windows of an empty store front.

“They’ve moved!” I said optimistically to my husband. Across the street to the Kamloops Art Gallery we trotted, and upon inquiry we were stunned to hear that the bookstore had indeed closed just a few months ago. “So many people are asking about it, and they’re all so disappointed,” said the helpful girls at the admissions counter.

Turns out that a steady decline in sales over the last few years had left the owner debating the state of the used book business. She sold off as much as she could in a series of escalating sales, and at the end had dumpsters brought in, and binned the remainder.

I am very sad. What a dismal ending to such a grand bookstore.

Two more of my local used book sources, Nuthatch Books in 100 Mile House, and The Final Chapter in Prince George, are also debating closure, as their margins are steadily decreasing. Every bookseller I’ve spoken to has blamed e-books for the decline in the print book business.

Meanwhile the charity shops are overflowing with books – most, admittedly, the epitome of “trashy” (in so many ways) – which may indeed be an indication of shelves being cleared as people embrace the new technology.

There is no adequate substitution for a well-established, well-organized used book store staffed by fellow book lovers. I tremble at the thought of more of these dying out, much as I understand the seduction of having your reading material to hand in a compact electronic format.

But used book sellers have grocery bills too, and once the point of too-little return is reached, what options do they really have? I know many are turning to internet sales, but to do that properly is a job in itself, and the competition is fierce unless you are prepared to vigorously establish a lucrative niche market of some sort, often not a very viable option for those in small communities with limited book-sourcing opportunities…

Ah, well. It is what it is. Back to this book.

*****

Cornish Years decidedly lived up to my high expectations. Ann Treneer continues her life story of the years between 1906 and 1932 with cheerfully pragmatic anecdotes about her own doings, and affectionate reminiscences of the places and people she rubbed up against. As in Schoolhouse, the narrative is never twee or gushing, but it is cheerfully positive in tone, and the mood feels genuine throughout.

As much as it is a personal narrative, Cornish Years is also a loving ode to place, both Treneer’s home region of Cornwall, and places farther afield. Anne Treneer spent time as an adult student pursuing studies at Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford, and her memories of those days are beautifully evocative and full of love and appreciation for her experiences there.

The snippets of Anne Treneer’s poetry in Cornish Years – she was a published poet from an early age – show much more style and polish than those in School House; I wonder if she has included these small samples of her work in some sort of chronological order? If so, I would be most interested to see what the third volume of memoir, A Stranger in the Midlands, contains, both in the way of poetry and in the continuation of Anne’s personal story.

school-house-in-wind-trilogy-by-anne-treneer-paperback-cover-artAs I can’t count on bookish serendipity to bring me the third book as it did the first and second, I have taken things into my own hands and ordered the 1998 trilogy. And if I do come across an old copy of Stranger, I will of course be more than happy to add it to the bookshelf.

In my internet travels, I came across an interesting reference to Anne Treneer at this blog, The After Life of Books, written by Gillian Thomas, an English literature teacher and resident of Cornwall. She writes about the experiences of her parents and grandparents in relation to the books they read. (Fascinating website, well worth a look-around.)

She (Gillian’s mother) was particularly proud of having a personal connection with another Cornish writer, Anne Treneer, author of the childhood memoir, Schoolhouse in the Wind, and Cornish Years, a reminiscence of her college education and early years as a schoolteacher. Treneer had been my mother’s English teacher at the local grammar school and, as well, had rented a cottage from my grandparents. They, along with other villagers, appear in one of the chapters of Cornish Years, and both my grandmother and mother often proudly mentioned these references. They were flattered to find their names in a book, even as faintly amusing village “characters.”

My mother’s pride in the Treneer connection may have originated in the prestige of a personal aquaintanceship with a published author, but it was sustained by her fascination with Anne Treneer’s apparent independence from conventional restrictions.  During the time the author taught at the grammar school she used a motorcycle to explore the area, a detail which always figured in my mother’s recollections of that time as well as in Treneer’s happy reminiscences about her Velocette in Cornish Years. Similarly, my mother recalled visiting her former teacher years later and finding her fuelling the fireplace in her rented seaside cottage with an enormous driftwood spar that she had just scavenged from the beach. In all these reminiscences Anne Treneer seemed to embody an insouciant air of independence, a relishing of her own solitary company and an unconcern about conventional behavior. In the letters and postcards from her that arrived from time to time throughout my childhood, she always seemed free to travel at will. We imagined, I think, that this apparently carefree independence, came with the role of being “an author.” It was, of course, mainly made possible  by Treneer’s generally frugal tastes and habits. Also, it’s likely that  travel funds came from the author’s older brother, Maurice, who had emigrated to the US and become senior chemist at Miles Laboratories in Elkhart, Indiana. He is credited with creating the original formula for Alka-Seltzer, a product whose launch was fortuitously timed to coincide with a flu epidemic as well as the end of Prohibition. While he does not seem to have personally owned the patent to that lucrative cure for hangovers and other malaises,a number of other patents in his name, as well as his salary as head chemist at Miles Laboratories, would have enabled him to be generous in funding holidays for his sister…

And here, as another side note, is the Wikipedia page regarding the Velocette motorcycle, one of which Anne Treneer tenaciously learned to master and rode about on with undisguised joy, which she so eloquently described in Cornish Years.

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schoolhouse in the wind anne treneer 001Schoolhouse in the Wind by Anne Treneer ~ 1944. This edition: The Travellers’ Library, 1950. Hardcover. 221 pages.

My rating: 8/10.

A slight memoir which leapt into my hand as I was quickly browsing the back room bookshelves housing the “collectibles” during a recent visit to Hope’s lovely used book store, Pages. I’d never heard of Anne Treneer before, but I am so pleased to have made her unexpected acquaintance.

Intrigued initially by the title, and wondering rather why this volume had been shelved among the back room “treasures”, I had no idea what to expect, but a brief dipping-into let me know that this was one of those personal memoirs of childhood which can be such appealing reading, capturing as they do the very essence of an individual’s earliest memories, and frequently memorable glimpses of long-passed time and much-changed place.

*****

He panted to escape but I
As he was winding thin
And narrowly was slipping by
Gasped and drew him in.

~On Catching the Breath

Anne Treneer was born in 1891, in the small village of Gorran in England’s Cornwall (hotbed of so many writers and creative types), the very much unplanned-for sixth child of the family, born after the family of four boys and a longed-for daughter, Anne’s older sister Susan, was thought complete. The baby carriage had long been given away, so Anne was trundled about by her older brothers in whatever other conveyance was handy:

My brothers say they brought me up in a wheelbarrow, and that this accounts for certain bumps in my forehead and generally scrappy appearance. When I was small they used to tell me that old Mrs. Tucker brought me one winter night in a potato sack and left me on the front step; and that I squalled so loud that my father said to my mother, ‘For God’s sake bring the little Devil in and see if she’ll stop that noise’. So in I came and stayed…

Anne’s father was the local schoolmaster, and Schoolhouse in the Wind is an affectionate, humorous and occasionally poignant evocation of a small corner of Cornwall at the juncture of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Gorran School, with a house for ‘master’ glued to it, stood strong and symmetrical, without beauty but not mean, triumphantly facing the wrong way. It might have looked south over the distant Gruda and the sea; but this advantage was forgone in favour of presenting a good face to the road. Master’s room in school, the big room as we called it, caught the north wind while the closets at the back caught the sun. I have heard that Mr. Silvanus Trevail, the architect, who designed many Cornish schools, committed suicide in the end; but whether out of remorse for his cold frontages I do not know.

That last comment at the end of the book’s first paragraph filled me with quiet glee – obviously this was not to be a completely sweetly sentimental memoir, but something with a bit more bite! – and I read on with high expectations. Those expectations were well met and frequently exceeded.

a young Anne Treneer

A young Anne Treneer.

I could go on and quote many excerpts of Anne Treneer’s rather delicious writing, but I won’t. This book was recently (well, in the late 1990s, “recent” in the used book world, I feel) reissued along with its two companion memoirs, Cornish Years and A Stranger in the Midlands, as a one-volume trilogy. It should be fairly readily available in libraries – at least in British ones – and there are a number of copies available through ABE.

A young Anne Treneer (seated) with her father & sister Susan

A young Anne Treneer (seated) with her father & sister Susan

I recommend it on the strength of this first volume of the trilogy, and I will be buying the combined memoirs for my personal library. The first chapter of Schoolhouse in the Wind sets the stage, as it were, introducing the physical setting of the chapters of reminiscence to follow, and though it will perhaps be of greatest interest to those familiar with the area, even to me, a reader who has never visited England, the picture it draws is vivid and memorable. Also vivid are the character portraits the author paints of her family; with a few well chosen words they come alive on the page.

An internet search brought up a very few references to Treneer. Though she is described as a “prolific” writer, there appear to be few of her titles now available, aside from Schoolhouse in the Wind and the other two memoirs. Schoolhouse is also full of brief snippets of poetry; one assumes these are samples of the author’s work. Some are quite lovely; others seemingly aimed at perhaps a juvenile audience, which is understandable as Anne Treneer spent many years as a schoolteacher.

Anne Treneer

Anne Treneer

Anne Treneer never married, and seems to have led a happy and rather individualistic single life, pursuing her many interests with passion and good humour. She died in 1966.

I will leave the subject of Anne Treneer, at least for now, with this excerpt of a short biography from Maurice Smelt’s 2006 book, 101 Cornish lives.

 Anne Treneer pulled off a difficult trick; she wrote an autobiography that succeeds in enthralling despite its almost relentless happiness. Most writers would not even try, reminding themselves that ‘happiness writes white’. It came out as three books over a period of eight years – Schoolhouse in the Wind, Cornish Years, and A Stranger in the Midlands – and it runs from her earliest memories to a day in her late 50s when she went to America to visit her brother.

From her father’s village school she went to St Austell County School, then to a teacher training college in Truro and then taught in various schools in Cornwall. Ambitious to read deeper and wider she took an external course at London University during the First World War, later spent a year at Liverpool University, later still took a postgraduate degree at Oxford as a mature student. Her longest spell at any one school was a seventeen-year stint at King Edward’s in Birmingham, ending in 1946 with a year’s sabbatical leave. She had by then already written Schoolhouse in the Wind two years earlier, and her future was to be a writer, exiled but coming to her beloved Cornwall when she could. In those twenty post-war years she lived mostly in Devon. She was never married and died in 1966.

One reason why her life seems so tranquil is that she was so eccentric, and at the same time so commonsensical that she records what she did as if doing it were the most obvious thing. For example, she loved air with a passion. It is a word of power in her books, her poems especially; there it is, in slight disguise, in the title of Schoolhouse in the Wind. Hence her whizzing about the country in her young days on a Velocette motorbike, the air streaming past her nose like high-speed champagne. As a teacher in Birmingham she spent a summer term commuting (by Velocette) from a tent in Shropshire on Clent Hill. Tents also feature in later summer holidays in Gorran with her sister Susan – three tents, one for each of them and one for the saucepans… Her outdoorsness gave her the keenest eye for the particularity of place, and she could see several worlds in a single Cornish parish.

She claimed to hate crossings-out and third thoughts, but one would never know it as her books are easy reading, usually a sign of art concealing graft…

“Art concealing graft”… what an intriguing comment that one is, as well!

So, if you stumble upon anything by Anne Treneer in your travels, pick it up and peruse it. She has a lot – happily wry and generally unsentimental – to say.

This one gets a “hidden gem” tag.

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a doctor's pilgrimmage edmund a brasset 001A Doctor’s Pilgrimage: An Autobiography by Edmund A. Brasset, M.D. ~ 1951. This edition: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1951. First Edition. Hardcover. 256 pages.

My rating: 8/10.

What a great little autobiography this was! Totally unexpected. This was one of the books I picked up in Hope’s fabulous Pages bookstore recently; so far my eclectic selection of books from that source have been overwhelmingly rewarding.

A Doctor’s Pilgrimage covers only a small portion of the life of Nova Scotia physician Edmund Brasset’s life and career, and it appears, from a fairly involved internet book search, that this was Brasset’s only literary endeavour. One can only assume that the man was too busy with his career and family to continue writing, but this lone work is interesting and well written and gives a wonderful portrait of both the man and the time and place he was writing about.

From the inner flyleaf:

a doctor's pilgrimmage edmund a brasset 001 (2)

The book consists of anecdotes of medical school, internship and work as a novice doctor in rural Nova Scotia, first in poverty-stricken Canso and later in a variety of other communities, ending in the almost utopian Acadian community of Little Brook, a posting which changed Dr. Brasset’s focus for the continuation of his medical career. Dr. Brasset never talks down to his readers; medical terminology is used with great abandon, but never to impress, merely to inform. Character portraits abound, as do retellings of local legends – a mysterious case of spontaneous combustion; the morning discovery on shore of an unconscious man with both legs recently amputated; a woman who believes that she is surrounded by ghosts – as well as asides referring to the author’s strong faith in both the goodness of humanity and the existence of a benevolent God. A very individualistic and opinionated (in a very good way) memoir.

A grand little book, in its happy minor key.

From the back cover, more on the author. (Aren’t these old dust jackets great?)

a doctor's pilgrimage back dj edmund brasset 001

And last but not least, the Kirkus Review entry for A Doctor’s Pilgrimage, from September of 1951.

A lively, likable record of a doctor’s rewarding if unrewarded first years in practice, and a little black bag full of fascinating cases, Brasset’s story starts when he left Halifax and the ambition to become a brain surgeon behind for Canso in Nova Scotia, where there was only fish and fog. After two years in Canso and a rising debt of several thousand dollars, Brasset was forced to leave for New Waterford where he married Sally, and his obligations increased in spite of a grateful mobster’s attempt to drum up business. A year on the staff of a mental institution widened his experience but did not increase his income, and finally he found a good practice in the remote French-Canadian village of Little Brook. Later given the chance to become a neurosurgical specialist, Brasset found the indifference and institutionalism of working with cases, as against people, less satisfying, made the decision to return to his country doctoring in Little Brook… A record of service which has warmth and humor.

The family eventually moved to the United States; during my internet research I found mention of Dr. Brasset’s son Paul, who is now a successful winemaker in California’s Somona Valley, even naming his winery after his childhood home: Bluenose Wines . (What an interesting little side note I found this to be. One reason I love the internet – such an abundance of rabbit trails one can happily follow!)

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zigzag james houstonZigzag: A Life on the Move by James Houston ~ 1998. This edition: McClelland and Stewart, 1998. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-7710-4208-6. 278 pages.

My rating: 9/10.

When we first visited Calgary’s Glenbow Museum in 1988 to take in the controversial but beautifully presented special exhibition on First Nations art and culture,  The Spirit Sings, we were impressed by the huge mobile, four stories in length, that hangs in the open foyer of the museum. “You should see it when it’s working!” we were told; plagued by continual malfunctions in the sound and lighting system, the mobile was hanging dim and silent. When artist James Houston installed the work in the newly opened Glenbow back in 1976, it was lit by moving lights coordinated to the strains of Debussy’s Snowflakes Are Falling. Though we visited the Glenbow numerous times during our Alberta sojourn, and again in 2005, we were never lucky enough to see the famed Aurora Borealis sculpture in its full glory, but it was a memorable sight nonetheless. (A bit more about the sculpture here. )

'Aurora Borealis', Glenbow Museum, Calgary, Alberta

‘Aurora Borealis’, Glenbow Museum, Calgary, Alberta

Several of the anecdotes in Zigzag concern the design of Aurora Borealis, and Houston and his son John’s personal transportation of the fragile, 5 to 7 foot long acrylic crystal “needles” by U-Haul truck from Rhode Island to Alberta. I will be looking at the sculpture with fresh appreciation on our next visit. (We are hoping to visit sometime this summer, to take in the current M.C. Escher exhibit before its closure in August.)

Joan Givner wrote in B.C. Bookworld, 1998:

James Houston’s second volume of autobiography, Zigzag: A Life On The Move begins as he leaves the Arctic to start a new life as a designer for Steuben Glass in New York. He has just spent 14 years working closely with the Inuit of the Arctic. [Houston is credited with discovering Inuit were producing great art and single-handedly creating a market for it. He also encouraged Inuit to adapt their work for North American buyers.] As he leaves Baffin Island, he receives two gifts from the Inuit: a carving of a walrus and a paper bag containing $33. “You’re going away, everyone says, to try and make more money,” they explain. “If at first you don’t have money in that foreign place, we thought to give some to you.”

The original purpose of Eskimo carvings was to bring luck and protection on hunting expeditions. Houston needs both luck and protection as he leaves a culture unconcerned with monetary gain (the market value of the walrus is $11,000) for one in which it is the be-all and end-all. In Manhattan in the 1960s, Houston at first has trouble adapting to the tyranny of clocks and schedules. Soon he becomes acclimatized and delights in the theatres, art shows, lavish parties and holidays on yachts where kings and presidents and Nelson Rockefeller casually drop by. Houston becomes a successful glass-designer, makes a fortune, teaches art in Harlem, becomes a successful writer, designs National Geographic’s centenary cover and even marries happily.

 It is, however, the Arctic which inspires and nurtures Houston. “I am thrilled by the frosted, Arctic-like appearance of deep engravings on glass,” he says. When the Glenbow Museum in Calgary asks him to design a sculpture, he creates his Aurora Borealis which is four storeys high. It is inspired by his memory of the spectacular ever-changing display of the Northern Lights. Either the protective qualities of the walrus carving or his years with the Inuit prevent him from succumbing completely to the glitzy life. He never confuses technological advances with civilization, nor economic gain with success. 

The final pages of the book describe his life in a cabin on another island, one of the Queen Charlottes now known as the Haida Gwaii, where he now lives part of every year. 

That anecdote about the paper bag filled with crumpled one dollar bills shows up in this collection of memoirs, as well as in the ending pages of Houston’s truncated account of his Arctic years, Confessions of an Igloo Dweller. It obviously moved him deeply at the time; it also made a “good story” and that, in essence, is something that James Houston liked to have under his hat.

Houston’s memoirs skirt extremely closely to the “If you want to know how good he is, just ask him” school of autobiography, but they are saved by his occasional self-effacing comments. He turns the laugh on himself as needed, and his frankness and willingness to comment openly on extremely intimate matters give small but crucial insights into his character. Whether that character comes across as intended is another story altogether; I frequently feel that there is a lot being left out of Houston’s story of himself.

What he does share is quite fascinating. Through Houston’s brief vignettes in both Zigzag and the earlier Confessions of an Igloo Dweller, we get glimpses of the Inuit world from the mid 20th century to the creation of Nunavut in 1999. We also get glimpses of what made this extremely driven and creative man “tick”; his great love for and pride in his two sons, and his lifelong dependence on touching base with the natural world to refuel him for his bouts of big city-based creativity.

He was an iconic figure in more ways than one in the numerous spheres he seems to have effortlessly inhabited. I suspect he might also have been a rather arrogant man to have bumped up against if one did not share his high opinion of himself, but I bet a dinner party with Houston at the table would have been a memorable thing.

Zigzag was a very good read; it lost a point merely because the vignette-style format jumped around an awful lot (to be expected, one supposes, from the very title of the work) and left me frequently wanting more than I was given.

Another volume of memoir, Hideaway, about the author’s cabin on Haida Gwaii, followed Zigzag and Confessions to form a trilogy of sorts. I will be reading this one when I come across it.

A memorable Canadian and a very gifted man; a complex persona in so many ways.

James Houston passed away in 2005. His artistic and literary legacy lives on.

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ringing the changes mazo de la rocheRinging the Changes: An Autobiography by Mazo de la Roche ~ 1957. This edition: Macmillan, 1957. First Canadian Edition. Hardcover. 304 pages.

My rating: 9/10. What a fascinating autobiography! It was definitely readable, and full of vivid vignettes, capably portrayed.

But is it factual? Perhaps not particularly, from what I’ve  found out in some very desultory online research. It is very much a created portrait rather than a true glimpse into what made its subject tick. Nonetheless, I found it a compelling read and I will be approaching my future reading of the author’s works with this self-portrait very much in mind.

*****

First, some background information for those of you (and I suspect there may be some) who have no idea who Mazo de a Roche was, and why I’m finding her story so interesting. Feel free to skip this section; my response to the autobiography itself follows at the bottom of the post. I’ve spent a fair bit of time this past few days doing something of a mini-study on de la Roche; I’m not at all what one would call a fan, though I’ve read a few of her books in the past, without feeling the urge to read everything the author has written. She’s not quite my thing, though I’m intending to explore her fiction more in the future, nudged on by the new knowledge I’ve just gained. An intriguing woman.

Mazo de la Roche was born in Ontario in 1879, the only child of parents who, while not exactly poverty-stricken, certainly experienced ongoing financial difficulties. Young Mazo was a self-described eccentric child, and an avid reader. She created an imaginary world peopled by invented characters which she referred to in her autobiography as “The Play”, and this world, expanded and lovingly detailed as the years went on, is thought to be at least partially the basis of de la Roche’s eventual epic sixteen-book series about a fictional Ontario family, the Whiteoaks, and their home estate, Jalna.

When Mazo was seven years old, her parents adopted her younger cousin Caroline, and the two became as close as sisters – and in some ways perhaps closer. Their intimate relationship was to persist until Mazo’s death in 1961. The young girls shared in the imaginary world originally created by Mazo, and as they grew up they built a shared life which seemed to preclude either of them marrying or living independently of the other for more than brief periods of time. Mazo had written stories and poetry throughout her life, but her ongoing bouts of ill health and the need to care for her invalid mother prevented her from spending as much time writing as she desired to. Caroline became the breadwinner of the family group, while Mazo stayed at home, nursed her mother, and wrote in her spare time.

Mazo had had some success selling occasional short stories to magazines, but her first real literary break came with the publication of a series of linked anecdotal stories, Explorers of the Dawn, in 1922. Mazo de la Roche was at that point forty-four years old, and her greater success was yet to come. Explorers of the Dawn made it onto bestseller lists of its time, alongside The Beautiful and Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Louis Hémon’s Maria Chapdelaine. A foreword by Christopher Morley (best known nowadays for his humorous novels The Haunted Bookshop and Parnassus on Wheels, but a respected literary editor and critic in his own time) gave credence to de la Roche’s evident talent, and her distinctive authorial voice.

Two more promising novels followed, the critically acclaimed Possession, in 1923, and Delight, a less popularly successful Thomas Hardy-esque rural satirical romance, in 1926. In 1927, the work that was to launch Mazo de la Roche’s career into the Canadian and eventually worldwide literary stratosphere was published. Jalna was a a soap-opera-ish family saga centered on an old Ontario family, the Whiteoaks,  headed by a wealthy matriarch. Something about it caught readers’ imaginations, and, when Jalna unexpectedly won the prestigious Atlantic Monthly $10,000 cash award – a small fortune in 1927 – for “most interesting international novel of the year”, it assured its author’s financial security and allowed her the freedom to write full time. At the age of forty-eight, Mazo’s creative life was about to become very much the focus of an overwhelmingly adoring public and a varied group of intensely opinionated critics.

Mazo de la Roche and Caroline Clement, 1930s

Mazo de la Roche and Caroline Clement, 1930s

Caroline was now able to retire from wage-earning work and she took on the role of her suddenly-famous cousin’s housekeeper, editor, secretary, and collaborator in creativity. “The Play”, so precious to the two in childhood and maintained throughout the years, continued to expand in their leisure time, as the cousins ought respite from the pressures of fame in their shared imaginary world. Suffering continually from blinding headaches and trembling hands – and at least one bona fide nervous breakdown – Mazo found that the only way she could sometimes get her thoughts down on paper was to dictate them to Caroline. While Caroline always disclaimed any notion that she originated the plot lines and characterizations that Mazo was so famous for, both women were very open about Caroline’s role as a sounding board and critic.

Fifteen more “Whiteoaks of Jalna” novels were to follow that first astonishing bestseller, as well as more novels, plays, short stories and, eventually, several autobiographical memoirs, of which 1957’s Ringing the Changes is the last. Mazo de la Roche died four years later, at the age of 82. Caroline survived her cousin for some years; the two are buried side-by-side in an Anglican church cemetery in Sibbald Point, Ontario.

It is estimated that the Jalna novels have sold more than eleven million copies worldwide in the years since 1927. They have been translated into more than ninety languages, and were adapted for the stage, movies and television, with varying degrees of popular, commercial and critical success. Despite – or perhaps because of – their bestseller status,  the Jalna novels were increasingly viewed with scorn by the literary world as being too “popular”  and “melodramatic” in plot and execution.

Mazo de la Roche, in the decades since her death, has slipped into literary oblivion but for a few dedicated readers who staunchly read and reread the Jalna saga, and passed the books along to their children. Mostly daughters, one would assume, as de la Roche was seen as a “women’s writer”; her works were thought to appeal mostly to the bored housewife seeking sensation and emotional escape from the humdrum everyday round.

A recent (2012) documentary by Canadian film maker Maya Gallus has brought Mazo de la Roche into new focus. Both her ambitious novels and her unconventional and rather mysterious life are being examined with twenty-first century eyes. It will be interesting to see if there will be something of a “Jalna Revival”; I’m betting that we’ll be hearing much more of this not-quite-forgotten Canadian in the months and years to come.

Pertinent links regarding the recent docudrama:

NFB – The Mystery of Mazo de la Roche

Review: NFB docudrama: The Mystery of Mazo de la Roche

Quill & Quire – Interview with Maya Gallus

*****

(When reading) the autobiographies of other writers …  some appear as little more than a chronicle of the important people the author has known; some appear to dwell, in pallid relish, on poverty or misunderstanding or anguish of spirit endured. They overflow with self-pity. Others have recorded only the sunny periods of their lives, and these are the pleasantest to read.

~Mazo de la Roche ~ Ringing the Changes

Mazo de la Roche and her beloved Scottie, Bunty

Mazo de la Roche and her beloved Scottie, Bunty

Ringing the Changes itself is a diverting memoir, and, if the author indeed intended to record the frequent sunny hours of her life, she by and large succeeded. Tragedy both major and minor continually followed Mazo and her extended family, and while unhappy events are described, they are not dwelt on or singled out as an excuse for pathos. I never got the feeling that the author was “wallowing”, though I occasionally shook my head in wonder at the sad fates of so many of her relatives, and, frequently, of her family’s beloved animals. They did seem, so many of them, to come to such tragic ends…

I must confess that I knew very little about de la Roche before I read this book, though I had a pre-existing vision of her as a rather reclusive, mildly eccentric sort. I had read several of the Jalna novels way back during my teenage years, but had certainly not found them worthy of any sort of “fandom”, as so many others apparently have. I did pick up a number of the books quite recently in a library sale, thinking that my mother might enjoy them, but she was rather dismissive of the series, so they currently languish somewhere in a box.

In this memoir, Mazo looks back to her childhood, and, once a bit of genealogical discussion is gotten out of the way, launches into a compelling tale of gallantry, tragedy, heartrending anecdotes and humorous vignettes. “Gallant” is a term I kept saying to myself as I read Ringing the Changes; so many of the people in Mazo’s life demonstrated this trait, in particular her beloved cousin Caroline, who was the epitome of selfless devotion in numerous ways, though she appeared to have a full and satisfying independent life as well. The Mazo-Caroline relationship is still raising eyebrows – were they lesbians? what was Mazo’s hold on Caroline? who really wrote the books? – but, seriously, it does seem like that particular relationship was one of equals. Both women apparently had romantic interludes – with men – at various times throughout their lives; that they would choose to stay single and in a “family relationship” with each other and various other family members surely is a purely personal matter and rather understandable given their backgrounds and that of their extended family.

The argument for “closet lesbianism” for Mazo at least is quite strong, or perhaps one might go so far as to speculate that “cross-gendered” might be a more apt term. From her own statements in Ringing the Changes, in childhood she wanted to be a boy, she related on completely equal terms with her male editors and literary advisors, and, perhaps most tellingly, she frankly states that she identified extremely strongly with one of her male protagonists, Finch Whiteoak, who is portrayed as artistic, emotionally and physically fragile, and highly conflicted in his romantic yearnings.

In Ringing the Changes it does seem that Mazo de la Roche was continually striking back at her many critics, the ones who denied her work any place in the “literature” canon, due to its popular success and formulaic nature. She is highly defensive of her own motivations, and this oft-quoted passage sums up her rather hurt tone well:

I could not deny the demands of readers who wanted to know more of that [the Whiteoak] family. Still less could I deny the urge within myself to write of them. Sometimes I see reviews in which the critic commends a novelist for not attempting to repeat former successes, and then goes on to say what an inferior thing his new novel is. If a novelist is prolific he is criticized for that, yet in all other creative forms — music, sculpture, painting — the artist may pour out his creations without blame. But the novelist, like the actor, must remember his audience. Without an audience, where is he? Like the actor, an audience is what he requires — first, last and all the time. But, unlike the actor, he can work when he is more than half ill and may even do his best work then. Looking back, it seems to me that the life of the novelist is the best of all and I would never choose any other.

Ringing the Changes, read as a stand-alone book without reference to Mazo de la Roche’s fictional body of work, “works” as a memoir which can be read for the pleasure of the tale itself. Mazo de la Roche was, as even her harshest critics freely admitted, a “born storyteller”, and this account of incidents in her life, as deliberately selected and edited as they may be, is a very readable thing indeed.

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Surfacing briefly from the May supreme busy-ness which only escalate in the coming weeks – I’m in the plant nursery business –  to talk a bit about a book. Much as I’d like to maunder on in-depth about everything I’ve been reading recently, there are those pesky time constraints…

A week ago it was below zero (Celsius) and snowing; today, in our region’s typical spring weather extremes fashion, it is forecast to hit the mid-plus-20s. The sun is coming across the valley (we’re nestled at the foot of the east side, tall hills behind us) so until it hits us directly I’m off-duty, as it were, from going out and tinkering with greenhouse ventilation systems. (Well, fans, windows, doors and roll-up hoop house side panels – not very fancy – but “ventilation systems” sounds much more professional, doesn’t it?) 😉

The second Sunday morning cup of tea is at hand – I’ve already consumed the first propped up in bed finishing a re-read of Tom’s Midnight Garden –  and I’ve a short but sweet guilt-free chunk of non-work-related computer time before I need to be really up and moving again. Here we go.

extra virgin annie hawesExtra Virgin: A Young Woman Discovers the Italian Riviera, Where Every Month Is Enchanted by Annie Hawes – 2001. This edition: Harper Collins, 2001. Hardcover, first American edition. ISBN: 0-06-019850-8. 337 pages.

My rating: 9/10.

I almost didn’t pick this one up, but was intrigued by the (presumably) Elizabeth von Arnim reference in the subtitle. What I found inside this densely written creative autobiography was a better reward than I deserved for my initial hesitation. It’s taken me a good week of hard-won reading breaks to get through it all, but I was never tempted to set it aside in exchange for something shorter and easier. This one was a quiet pleasure from Prologue to reluctantly-turned last page.

Back in the early 1980s, a young Englishwoman, recently turned down as a “poor risk” in her attempt to receive bank financing to buy her own home in England, is at loose ends and feeling rather sour about life in general. Her sister convinces her to come along on a working trip to Italy, grafting roses for a small commercial operation in the Ligurian hills, in the region of the “Italian Riviera”.

Annie is a rose-culture neophyte, but her obviously experienced sister coaches her through the first thorny weeks, after which, settled well into their temporary occupation, the two find themselves occasionally with time to explore the surrounding countryside. On one of their off-duty hill walks they come across a derelict stone house in a neglected olive grove, and when the local real estate entrepreneur scents their interest, they find themselves possessed of a rural Italian property for the unbelievably cheap sum of 2000 pounds. The facilities are primitive to the extreme – water is bucketed up from a shallow dug well, and an outdoor shower and “earth closet” are needed for sanitary purposes, but the two settle into their new life with optimistic tenacity.

This is a rather different tale from the usual “we bought a place in a foreign paradise and hired quaint locals to fix it up” lifestyle porn. Written several decades after the purchase, the tone is not at all cutesy and patronizing. The sisters go to and from England and Italy regularly for many years – England for the “real” jobs which earn the funds to return to Italy for the love of the place, and, increasingly, the people.

I’ll tease you by revealing that Annie is not all that forthcoming about personal details, but more than makes up for it in her portraits of others, and in her much too brief comments regarding her own family. As well as the sister of the Ligurian enterprise there are three brothers, several of whom chip in to provide much-needed labour and even fire-fighting assistance during the progressive slow Italian house and olive grove renovations which stretch over the years.

Other reviewers – I briefly scanned the book’s page on Goodreads – had issue with some of the stylistic devices the author used, but I found them to be a non-issue, personally. Extra Virgin is written from the “we” viewpoint throughout, only slipping into “I” near the end. Much ironic use of capitalized terms – the Sulky Bar, the Evil Sister, the Poor Stranger, and so on. Again, for me, not a problem. The Author stayed most consistently true to her Chosen Style.

I did just a bit of research on Hawes after finishing Extra Virgin, and was more than intrigued by what I found – Annie’s back story includes a teenage marriage and a residence in Portugal, a child of that (quickly dissolved) marriage, much travelling and a “real” career as a film editor. Not much of this comes out in the Italian tale, but apparently her succeeding books, Ripe for the Picking and A Journey to the South, are more personally revealing. There’s also a Moroccan memoir, A Handful of Honey.

Annie’s second career as a memoirist is a definite success, at least enough so that, according to an author interview which appeared on the Harper Collins website, she now has indoor plumbing in Liguria.

I enjoyed the author’s voice in Extra Virgin enough that I will be seeking out her other books as soon as I am able to. She writes with a wry, dry humour and a very individual style, just short of “travel writer” parody. In a very good way. Loved it.

Oh – one more point in favour. Annie Hawes can certainly write about food! Amazing descriptions of the wild-crafted, gardening and culinary abundance of Liguria. I absent-mindedly found myself lining out yet another flat of basil seedlings and potting up extra eggplant babies while musing on my ongoing reading of Extra Virgin while out in my own very earth(l)y paradise this past week. This book made me hungry. Again, in a very good way.

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my heart lies south elizabeth borton de trevino 001My Heart Lies South: The Story of My Mexican Marriage by Elizabeth Borton de Treviño ~ 1953. This edition: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1953. Hardcover. 248 pages.

My rating: 8/10.

*****

I found this book among my mother’s boxes in her attic which I was supposed to go through and “deal with” when she downsized from the too-many-staircases rambling family home to the tiny-but-manageable single-level house she’s in now. I almost put it into the Sally Ann box, but something stayed my hand. “Elizabeth Borton de Treviño…. I know that name, somehow,” I thought, and that was enough to put it into my keeper pile instead.

Some years passed (well, six years, to be exact, because Mom moved in 2007, and much of what I brought home is still in “temporary” storage here, still waiting to be “dealt with” – and honestly, the only boxes I’ve cracked open are the ones full of books) and then one day I looked at My Heart Lies South again. And the penny finally dropped.

Elizabeth Borton de Treviño. Of course! I, Juan de Pareja. The 1966 Newbery Award winning historical fiction about the Spanish painter Velazquez and his personal slave, Juan de Pareja. I’d read this some years ago, and found it a well-written juvenile historical fiction, and that was why the name of the author sounded so familiar.

I opened My Heart Lies South, as I should have done six years ago, and started reading bits here and there. Far from being the serious and sober biography I had expected from the rather unprepossessing dustjacket – (“Don’t judge a book by its cover” – I know, I know) –  the passages I read were wry and funny and interesting. And when I settled down to tread it cover to cover, it definitely did not disappoint. Another hidden bookish gem, I think we could safely say.

*****

Elizabeth Borton was born in 1904, in Bakersfield, California, and, encouraged by her parents, started writing at a very young age. After graduating from Stanford University in 1925 with a degree in Latin American History, Elizabeth went on to the Boston Conservatory of Music to study violin. She then worked as a reporter for the Boston Herald, and spent five seasons in Hollywood interviewing film personalities.

With her strong interest in all things Latin American, Elizabeth was continually talking about going to Mexico, and one day, in 1934, her editor broke down and sent her off with a handful of tickets, vouchers and contact lists, telling her to “just write something” once she got there. And with her eventual meeting with the representative of the Monterrey Chamber of Commerce, one Luis de Treviño, Elizabeth’s future, though she didn’t know it at the time, was about to take a very different turn from her life as an independent American career woman.

“Hello Luis!” said Bill. “This is Miss Borton. When you get to Vallecillo, buy her an ice-cold beer.”

Luis laughed nervously. There is nothing he likes better than a cold beer, but the lady he had taken across the border for the Chamber of Commerce two weeks before had resisted the beer with desperation as if it might be the first step in a seduction, and the lady last week had been Dorothy Dix, who was even then rather tired from pushing seventy or so and inclined to be tart with young men eager to waste her time in taverns.

I was turned over to the vaccination, immigration, and customs authorities, and at last, in a car which had been provided by the Chamber of Commerce, complete with chauffeur, we set out for Monterrey. I had my hair tied up in a scarf and I was wearing a large black hat as well as sun glasses. Now the sun began to go down and long violet shadows crept across the plain. I took off my hat.

“Ah,” breathed Luis.

I undid the scarf.

“So?” remarked Luis.

I took off the black glasses.

“Wonderful,” he decided, aloud. He leaned toward me and looked at me soulfully.

“Shall I sing you a song about love?” he asked.

“Why yes,” I agreed, thinking this must be a gag.

But he launched into “Palm Trees Drunk with the Sun,” went on to “The Sea Gulls,” and then sang “The Green Eyes,” in a light baritone voice.

“Very nice,” commented the chauffeur from the front seat. “Now sing ‘Farolito.'”

He sang it. After our beer in Vallecillo, Luis sang other songs. He sang all the way to Monterrey.

I didn’t realize it, but I was being courted.elizabeth borton de trevino 001

As you can see from the photo of the author, taken from the jacket of the book published eighteen years after her marriage, the initial attraction on looks alone is understandable!

Luis shows Elizabeth the attractions of Monterrey, including things definitely off the tourist track, such as his family ranchito, and, significance unknown to Elizabeth at the time, the private parlour of his beloved mother, Mamacita. He also takes her dancing, in company with a respectable engaged couple, a situation that made all of Monterrey society take note…

I was left at my hotel. But a sort of die had been cast. Luis had cast it and with his eyes open. He had taken a strange woman to dance. Just any strange woman, and the incident might have been passed over as a wild oat on the part of the fifth Trevino. But he had taken the strange woman in company with a pareja of his best friends, an engaged couple! Two plus two equals four. Dancing with one girl all evening, with an engaged pareja to make up the party, means something serious! Phones rang in Monterrey; the news went round. Only I was in the dark.

Formally on the afternoon of the next day, I was taken to call on Mamacita. While we sat in the sala, Luis disappeared, to return with a tray on which sat Mamacita’s best small silver liqueur glasses. In each was a thimbleful of sweet vermouth. On a plate there were some little yellow cakes that melted into a puff of flavour when bitten. These were Mamacita’s famous polvorones de maizena (cornstarch puff cookies), the engagement cake… They were a kind of symbol. All unknowing I ate the engagement cakes and tasted the engagement vermouth.

Later Luis brought me a small yellow-striped kitten and dropped it into my lap.

“Oh, the darling! I wish I could have him,” I cried. “But I am leaving tomorrow for Mexico City and I have lots of work to do. I won’t be home in California for weeks.”

Mamacita said calmly, “Galatea has kittens like these every four months. You will have a kitten.”

Paling visibly, Luis scooped up the kitten and left. I wondered what had happened, but it seemed he had only recognized his mother’s acceptance of me. Mamacita had decided that I was to come to Monterrey, marry Luis, and receive a kitten from the fecund Galatea. He had been working toward this, but it was serious, and it sobered him to realize he was practically a married man.

Elizabeth eventually catches on, and with the blessing of both sets of parents, the couple is married and sets up housekeeping in Monterrey, on a shoestring budget. Culture shock hits strong and hard, as Elizabeth is suddenly immersed in traditional Mexican society, and finds herself floundering more than a little in her new role as the wife of an established, upper class Mexican husband. Luckily Mamacita and Papacito, Elizabeth’s new parents-in-law, are firmly behind her, and guide Elizabeth through the maze of “proper” behaviour, and cover up her most blatant mistakes. Of which there are many, reported in full by the author.

I am afraid I am not at all familiar with Mexican society of the time period of the memoir – the 1930s – or even of the present day – but after reading My Heart Lies South I have a clear and mostly positive impression of a world in which family comes before all else, and in which women, though subject to the strictest of behavioural expectations from their menfolk, have an enormous influence and hidden power, which they can wield for either good or ill. Elizabeth’s family, visiting some years after her marriage, shake their heads in wonder and tell Elizabeth that she has wandered into a world frozen in the 1800s. Elizabeth, having carved out her domestic niche after significant struggle, agrees, but states that she is deeply happy, and that she now fully enjoys the more positive aspects of this steeped-in-tradition world.

This full acceptance of uber-traditional female roles may have modern-day feminists grinding their teeth in despair, and it also does appear, from the glowing reviews which this book receives on the “Godly womanhood” websites I’ve stumbled across while researching the author, that the more conservative “right-wing” types have embraced this memoir as an estimable example of true femininity.

I find that I fall somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. Elizabeth and Luis seemed, from all reports I’ve read, to have a most successful and happy marriage, which is an accomplishment worth celebrating, no matter in which society it is achieved. Elizabeth continued with her successful writing career after her marriage, managed to find time to keep up with her music, created a beloved home, and adapted very well to the expectations of her in-laws, while still staying in close contact with her American friends and relations. It seems to me that her life was most reasonably “fulfilled”; she certainly does not come across as downtrodden in any way, and she speaks of her integration into Mexican society with affection and sharp-eyed realism.

All of this to say that I enjoyed this book greatly.

There also exists an expurgated “Young People’s Edition” of My Heart Lies South, got up, I am sure, to piggyback on the perennial success of I, Juan de Pareja. Apparently all the more risqué bits are left out – and there are a few – so I can’t really see the point of that, as when Elizabeth shares some of her more “adult” anecdotes she’s really at her best. So look for the original version, which has been reprinted numerous times, instead. (And to add insult to injury, the cover of the junior version is not at all dignified, and hints at a jolly comedy, which, for all of its humour, this memoir is definitely not.)

My Heart Lies South has two companion memoirs, Where the Heart Is, and The Hearthstone of My Heart. I’m a bit taken aback by the Heart-y-ness of the titles – definitely working the theme to the utmost! –  but I’ll be keeping an eye out for these, as I’m sure they will be worth investigating.

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sisters torn cynthia faryon 001Sisters Torn by Cynthia J. Faryon ~ 2001. This edition: Caitlin Press, 2001. Softcover. ISBN: 0-920576-92-3. 297 pages.

My rating: 4/10.

A tragic family story, and much as I respected the author’s desire to record it, it didn’t quite come to life as it might have. Perhaps the attempts at dialect and dialogue didn’t really work out?

This has a small press, “self published” feel to it. It definitely could have used a stronger editorial presence, to clean up grammar, punctuation and proof reading errors, all of which were much too frequent, and got in the way of my fully appreciating the narrative.

*****

From the back cover:

“I promise I will always look afta’ my sista’ no matter what, I will never let go of her hand.”

Little did young Simone realize, as she made this promise to her aunt, that she and young Catherine would spend the next 65 years trying to reconnect.

Abandoned by their parents and separated by the British adoption system, these two young girls would face impersonal orphanages, brutal boarding-out homes, a world war, and separation by an ocean and two continents before they finally met again – in Victoria, B.C.

This is their story as told to the daughter of one of them. It is a story of pain and courage – and hope.

Born to a mismatched couple in the 1920s – their mother “married beneath her” – young Simone and Catherine were placed with relatives when their baby brother tragically died in a gruesome accident (vividly – perhaps too vividly! – recreated by the author) and the marriage dissolved. After a few years, the relatives were unable to financially manage the care of the sisters, so they were placed in a series of children’s homes, always with the proviso that they remain together.

Sadly, this request was not respected, and Catherine and Simone were separated suddenly and without explanation. Though they both attempted to find each other through the years to follow, they were completely unsuccessful, and all attempts at gaining information from the British children’s care ministry were met with stark refusals and, eventually, threats of prosecution.

A damning condemnation of the conditions and attitudes of the time which made such an abusive (and just plain wrong) situation possible.

The story does have a happy, late-in-the-day reunification. Both sisters were also fortunate in finding caring spouses and creating satisfying lives for themselves, but the thread of sadness at the loss of their “true family” wound through their lives, and influenced the lives of their children.

This is a work of creative non-fiction which works reasonably well; it is the author’s first published work. Cynthia Faryon originally wrote it as a family document, but at the request of the her mother, the “Simone” of the story, the author sought and found a publisher for it, Prince George, B.C.’s Caitlin Press.

Sadly, the publisher did not edit and polish the manuscript to the extent which it deserved; I feel that a much stronger editorial hand would have resulted in a more smooth and successful presentation of a fascinating and poignant family saga.

I will be passing this book along via a BookCrossing.com release sometime in the near future.

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one pair of feet monica dickens 001One Pair of Feet by Monica Dickens ~ 1942. This edition: Penguin, 1964. Paperback. 221 pages.

My rating: 10/10.

One had got to be something; that was obvious. But what? It seemed that women, after having been surplus for twenty years, were suddenly wanted in a hundred different places at once. You couldn’t open a newspaper without being told that you were wanted in the Army, the Navy, or the Air Force; factory wheels would stop turning unless you rushed into overalls once; the A.F.S. could quench no fires without you, every hoarding beckoned you and even Marble Arch badgered you about A.R.P.

The Suffragettes could have saved themselves a lot of trouble if they had seen this coming. Men’s jobs were open to women and trousers were selling like hotcakes in Kensington High Street.

I could not make up my mind what to be. A lot of fanatics rushed into the most uncongenial jobs they could find, stimulated by a glow of self-sacrifice that lasted until the novelty wore off or the cold weather set in, but it seemed to me that, provided it was useful, it was no less patriotic to do something enjoyable. At first sight, the choice seemed so enormous that the trouble was to decide what not to be, but a closer inspection revealed so many snags that in the end the trouble was to find something to which I had a hope of sticking.

The Services? I didn’t think my hips would stand the cut of the skirt and I wasn’t too sure about my legs in wool stockings. Besides, I’d never been much good at drilling and all that. My school reports used to say: ‘Not amenable to discipline; too fond of organizing,’ which was only a kind way of saying: ‘Bossy.’ I might have been a success as a general but not as a private.

The A.F.S.? I did try that for a while, but at the beginning of the war there was not much doing and I got discouraged with sitting all day in the back room of a police station knitting and eating sticky buns with six assorted women and a man with a wooden leg. At the end of the week, we all knew each other’s life histories, including that of the woodenleg’s uncle, who lived at Selsey and had to be careful of his diet. Messenger Dickens had once been down to Roehampton to fetch the Commandant’s handbag and a small tube of soda-mints from the shelf in her bathroom.

A bus conductress? … The W.V.S.? … I worked in a canteen for a while, but had to leave after a terrible row with Mrs Templeton-Douglas, who could never subtract one-and-ninepence from half-a-crown. I sold some of her jam tarts for a penny instead of twopence, thinking they were the throw-outs we had bought at the back door of the A.B.C.

The Land Army? One saw oneself picking apples in a shady hat, or silhouetted against the skyline with a couple of plough horses, but a second look showed one tugging mangel-wurzels out of the frozen ground at five o’clock on a bitter February morning.

Ministries and Bureaux? Apart from the question of my hips again (sitting is so spreading), they didn’t seem to want me. Perhaps it was because I can only type with three fingers and it always keeps coming red.

The Censor’s Office I knew was in Liverpool, and I’d been there once.

Nursing? The idea had always attracted me, even in peace-time, but I suppose every girl goes through that. It’s one of those adolescent phases, like wanting to be a nun. It was reading Farewell to Arms, I think, that finally decided me, though what sort of hospital allowed such goings on, I can’t imagine. However, that was the last war…

So nursing it is, and Monica Dickens edgily and wittily documents the year she spent as a probationer at Queen Adelaide Hospital, and life on and off the wards, and the personalities she rubbed up against.

It is terribly difficult, I find, to write critically about an author whom one has read so often and with so much enjoyment, as I have read Monica Dickens. I will merely say that this book more than lives up to the first few pages excerpted above, and that it does not disappoint.

The author’s voice is two-thirds world-wearily cynical – as only a twenty-something writer can be! – and one-third completely sincere; “readable” is a mild recommendation, but very apt. Many of her sharper observations feel initially rather cruel, but Dickens is as hard on herself as on anyone, and often her most maligned characters are revealed to have redemptive qualities which the author displays with as much clarity as their failings.

Highly recommended.

Caveat lector: Several era-correct racial slurs in this one which may bring the modern reader up short. One character’s nickname is N_____, due to his curly hair, and several times the same term is used descriptively. There appears to be no intention to offend; I believe the usages here were completely accepted at the time of writing. I only mention them because it is a sensitive point with some modern readers.

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