Posts Tagged ‘Canadian Book Challenge #12’

Cabin at Singing River by Chris Czajkowski ~ 1991. This edition: Nuk Tessli Publications, 1997. Foreword by Peter Gzowski. Softcover. ISBN: 0-9681775-0-6. 149 pages.

Chris Czajkowski, born in 1947 and raised in England as the only child of a British mother and a Polish war refugee father, grew up surrounded by industrious creativity. As a young woman, Chris travelled the world, hiking in lonely places and working on farms, eventually fetching up in western Canada in 1979, milking cows near Salmon Arm, B.C.

Salmon Arm – with a population of 17,000 people not a particularly large metropolis – proved too crowded for Czajkowsky’s liking, and she headed even farther west, across the Coast Mountains and into the remote Bella Coola Valley some 250 miles out of Williams Lake, where she was invited to build a cabin on the Trudy and Jack Turner wilderness farm near Lonesome Lake, a day and a half’s hike on foot from the nearest road.

This is the story of Chris Czajkowski’s first cabin, how she built it mostly by herself with mentorship from the Turners, teaching herself to fall trees and erect log walls and finally, two years or so after her start, put on a roof. The eventual cabin was more than a modest log shack; it turned out to be a handsome and very livable house, where Chris spent the majority of her time for a number of years, occasionally going out to civilization to work and earn some much-needed cash.

Czajkowski was already an accomplished visual and textile artist, and she eventually found her writer’s voice as well, when her lyrical letters to Peter Gzowski’s Morningside CBC radio program caught the imagination of Gzowski and listeners across Canada.

Cabin at Singing River is a fascinating depiction of an adventurous life beyond the ken of most of us, but those of us familiar with the region are perhaps the most aware of the magnitude of what Czajkowski and her fellow wilderness dwellers accomplished in making themselves a viable home in the bush; this really is The Wild; one truly is alone and in charge of one’s destiny out there beyond the end of the last road.

Upstream from the Stillwater, the river splits and runs in braided skeins through dark strands of cedar, an Emily Carr landscape of green and gloom, a prime place for mosquitoes in the summer and grizzlies in the fall. Pale cottonwoods send vast, corrugated trunks into the canopy, and devil’s club writhes like a mass of spiny snakes beside the boggy creeks. The remnants of the settlers’ trail are visible in places, but it is rarely used and no longer maintained. Great windfalls cross it in hopeless tangles, and much of the original route has been obliterated by the vagaries of the river…

Chris Czajkowski is a highly individual and very opinionated person, and this comes through loud and clear in Cabin at Singing River and in subsequent books. She has little time or patience for dilly-dalliers, and visitors coming into her solitary domain had better keep themselves up to the mark or risk a keen critique in her writings; she’s not averse to publically calling out those she considers naïve, pretentious or unprepared.

To me, city people are frighteningly alike, aspiring to be carbon copies of each other. Their programmed world gives them no chance to grow as individuals; not only are they unbelievably ignorant about what goes on beyond the limits of their lives, but they also surmise that anything outside their range of experience is inferior and not worth knowing.

Yeah, there’s a strand of judgementalism running through these pages, taking away some of the shine on what is otherwise a deeply moving appreciation of the natural world, and the truly admirable exploits of the memoirist. But more often Czajkowski is deeply appreciative of her neighbours and friends, the unique individuals who make their homes way away from the easy-come amenities of the more “civilized” parts of the world.

This first beautifully written account of her life-so-far is in my opinion one of Czajkowskii’s best, though every one of her subsequent books – Diary of a Wilderness Dweller, Nuk Tessli: The Life of a Wilderness Dweller, Wildfire in the Wilderness, A Mountain Year, And the River Still Sings, among others – follows much the same pattern. All are very readable.

Full disclosure: I’ve had some brief interactions with Chris Czajkowski over the years, and several prized pieces of her artwork grace my walls. I admire her greatly but find her a bit intimidating, too. I suspect she is a stalwart friend to those she allows into her inner circle. I happily purchase each one of her books as they appear, for personal pleasure and for knowing how much she depends on her writings to put food on her table; she’s perennially struggling to make ends meets, because even the most self-sufficient of remotely lived lives require resources from elsewhere and infusions of cold hard cash.

My rating for this one: 8.5/10

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Playground by John Buell ~ 1976. This edition: Ballantine, 1977. Paperback. ISBN: 0-345-25616-6-175. 185 pages.

Well, well. What have we here? Could it be a version of that standard Canadian theme-novel, the Man-Against-Wilderness saga?

Yes, indeed. And it’s a grand specimen of its kind.

Spencer (Spence) Morison, middle-aged professional man, exact occupation unspecified, is well-off, well-organized, fighting fit physically but emotionally more than ready for his meticulously well-planned two weeks holiday in the bush, exploring a bit, fishing a lot, and drinking good booze with three like-minded friends.

Spence leaves a day early, as the plan is that he will fly in a rented plan to the remote lake that the four have planned to base themselves at. He’s a qualified pilot, though that is not his official trade, and like everything else he undertakes he’s darned competent at flying, so a leisurely solo flight is not something he worries about.

Spence provides his flight plan, everything is loaded up, and off he goes. He’s got some time to spare, and it is a holiday, so he then does something which will prove to have serious implications. He detours to check out what the country farther north looks like. Over a hundred miles off his flight path, Spence runs into bad weather and takes his plane down on a large lake. Unfortunately he lands on a submerged shoal of rocks, holes his floats, and the plane goes down. Spence finds himself in the water a mile or more from shore. The struggle is on.

Heartbeat by heartbeat John Buell walks us along with his protagonist as he thinks his way through situation after situation: not drowning, getting to shore, taking stock of his very few assets, figuring out how to light a fire, making a shelter, finding food, locating himself in his surroundings and formulating a plan to head southwards, as it becomes apparent several days in that any search planes out there are not reaching his location.

Spence is a fascinating character. He is by nature so very, very sure of himself, but he realizes almost immediately that he is astoundingly out of his element. He is so well-organized in daily life, every contingency planned for, that he is thrown off kilter by having to truly think on his feet, and herein lies the true interest to me in this otherwise stereotypical Canlit tale, as Spence comes to terms with what he doesn’t know, and muddles through regardless.

He wondered what kind of evergreen it was, not pine, not balsam, not fir, they’re supposed to be big, there’s spruce and cedar and hemlock, only words for him, he knew the shape of his tree, the sprays and flattened leaves, and he’d recognize it. That and the plant with the little yellow flowers. For all his outdoorsman sports he didn’t know much about these things, there was always someone around to say that’s a such-and-such tree and the Indians made a medicinal tea from that plant, and it didn’t really matter, it was interesting and it sounded like a tour, nature had become a museum. And a playground. That’s what brought me out here. I’ll have to find out what those things are. I wonder who told the Indians. And how did they ever manage to boil tea?

Spence isn’t very good at living off the land. In the three weeks of his ordeal, he catches one fish and a handful of minnows, and clubs one small porcupine to death. The rest of the time he eats leaves of some unidentified species of plant – dandelionish but taller and more fleshy. He wishes he’d paid more attention to all the nature hints his previous fishing guides dropped in conversation, but he never really thought he’d need to, so that information was never retained in his well-organized brain.

As week three progresses, Spence gets weaker and weaker. He starts to hallucinate. He comes to terms with the idea of death, so foreign to him at this time in his life. He’d always assumed he had decades more to go. And at last he can’t get up any more. It’s all over.

Serendipity intervenes, which I was exceedingly happy about – as is Spence, obviously – because I had become quite attached to him and found myself utterly invested in his solitary goal of continuing to live.

The best thing about John Buell’s Playground is how it isn’t about a dramatic, hostile, violent life-and-death struggle of man against nature. Ignore all that crap on the cover blurbs. None of that happens.

The true and sobering kernel of truth which comes through loud and clear is that nature is utterly indifferent to the individual. It just is. It’s not out to hinder or to help. The individual is in charge of how he/she/it interacts with what is around, and sometimes the luck is on your side and sometimes it isn’t. This is essentially a non-dramatic drama. There are no struggles with predators or derring deeds done. Just a single human being, plucked out of his physical and psychological element, and doing the best he can with the resources at hand.

Great stuff.

My rating: 10/10





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Turvey by Earle Birney ~ 1949. This edition: McClelland and Stewart, New Canadian Library N34, 1963. Introduction by George Woodcock. Paperback. 286 pages.

Earle Birney, Canadian master-poet of power, grace and poignant reflection, occasionally wrote off-genre.

Perhaps most notably so in 1949, just a few years after Birney’s service in the Canadian Army during World War II, when he produced this bawdy and satirical novel – “a military picaresque”, as it is sometimes subtitled – combining a farcical account of a common soldier’s adventures during his quest to get to the front lines in Europe with a critique of the absurdities of military bureaucracy (Birney served as a personnel officer so had an insider’s knowledge) and a scathing if understated depiction of the horrors and human toll of war.

We follow one Thomas Leadbeater Turvey, originally native to (fictional?) Skookum Falls, British Columbia, as he enlists in the Canadian Army and goes through an interminable saga of slow advancements and sudden setbacks on his mission to join his best friend Mac Macgillicuddy in the (fictional?) Kootenay Highlanders as they head to Europe to take on the Nazis.

First edition dust jacket.

Private Turvey is of the species amiable innocent, and though he goes through an astounding series of mild-to-dire accidents and ailments, he always manages to crawl out from under with a sheepish grin. We are ever on his side, fingers tightly crossed, especially after he does eventually achieve Europe and a reunion with the ultimately ill-fated Mac.

Hedy Lamarr snuggled tighter into Turvey’s arms. The other dancers cleared the floor to watch, entranced with their grace. Her fingers slid down and caressed his wrist. Lifting her luminous eyes she murmured:

“Come on, lug. Open up your trap ‘n lift that tongue.”

Turvey awoke in time to gag before the little icicle of a thermometer could slide down his throat. The orderly, who had been holding Turvey’s wrist with a thumb and forefinger as if it were a piece of bad meat, dropped it. The time was 0600 hrs.  Turvey began his thirteenth day in Ward Two of Number Umpteen Basic Training Centre Hospital…

Turvey takes hit after hit and comes out each time a little bit wiser; on his post-VE Day return to Canada he finally develops a righteous sense of indignance (anger is too strong a term for this sweet-natured man) at the powers that control the fates of lowly privates and hies himself off in pursuit of his left-behind English sweetheart and a well-deserved happily ever after.

I thoroughly enjoyed this engaging and deeply funny novel; its serious moments hit hard in contrast to the lightheartedness; the combination works perfectly; Earle Birney’s touch is sure and precise.

Turvey won the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour in 1950. Reviews of the book are easy to find online, and a short but interesting post on the novel appears here, at the Canus Humorous blog.

My rating: 9/10

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