Posts Tagged ‘Canadian Book Challenge 6’

Here’s another excellent travel memoir from Lorna Whishaw, re-posted from October 2012 specially for my long-distance friend Susan. One to search out once you’ve gone with Lorna to Alaska!

Mexico Unknown by Lorna Whishaw ~ 1962. This edition: Hammond and Hammond, 1962. Hardcover. 256 pages.

My rating: 9.5/10 for sheer admiration of the cheek of this mid-20th-century intrepid traveller, plus for the extreme readability of her prose. If even half of this is true – and apparently, it all is, with some allowances for dramatic presentation – Lorna Whishaw gets my nod for the “Forge Ahead Regardless and Don’t Make a Fuss” award. Shaking my head and smiling, thinking of her adventures – in this case not an exaggeration of term. She loses .5 for not telling more. Infuriating book, because it’s such a teaser.

Lorna Whishaw only wrote two books – this one plus the earlier (published in 1958)  As Far as You’ll Take Me . She barely lifted the veil on her fascinating life and many travels. Probably too busy living to sit down and write about most of it!

I did find record of a third piece of Lorna’s writing, her Master’s Thesis for the University of British Columbia Department of Creative Writing, a 1212 page (really? possibly a pagination misprint) work titled Blue Kootenay, published 1985. Most intriguing. I wonder what the possibilities of somehow accessing that one are? I’m thinking fairly slim.


Of my own free will I would not choose to live in Mexico, any more than I would take up residence at the bottom of a tropical sea, because I do not belong there, because I am not wanted there, and because Mexico can get along very well without me. But because through the Will of God I live in Mexico, I shall write of it, of day-by-day living in a land of vast beauty, of violence, and savage extremes, where the struggle of maintaining life is more terrible than death; a land which is trampled by the tourist with sightless eyes.

I have heard Lorna Whishaw’s two memoirs referred to, in her B.C. BookWorld biographical entry*, as creative non-fiction, and I suspect that she distanced herself somewhat from her narratives by tweaking names and certain personal details, and in her portrayal of order of events. There is no question that she was a real person, that she did travel widely and adventureously and that she based her books solidly in fact.

Lorna Whishaw’s perspective is at once soberly analytical and deeply personal. I am finding her writing intelligent and vivid; Mexico Unknown in particular is a unique work which rewards the reader in multiple ways. Sincerely passionate, continually smile-provoking, and unusually thought-provoking. Plus she was just a damned good writer, and not one mite afraid to voice her opinions in print, though it appears she was capable of maintaining a tactful silence when required in her real life.

On October 4, the day of the sputnik, we left the sanitary tranquility of the American way of life, and in total ignorance of things Mexican we plunged into the uneasy atmosphere where anything goes, where yes and no are as high as the sky and as deep as hell, and where nothing you can conceive of is impossible.

The Mexican experience starts with the culture shock of the border towns, and then the physical shock of the amenity-less workers’ community of a struggling Sierra Madre mine. The first half of the book is a dramatic tale of love and death, corruption and betrayal, nobility of character and inner joy found in the most unlikely people.

The portraits of the Mexicans and the American and European mine foremen, technicians and investors are generously but ruthlessly drawn with an artist’s flair for capturing personality and mood in a few well chosen words. The physical descriptions of the land and people are as good as photographs; I find myself perfectly able to picture each face and scene; an unusually difficult authorial feat to pull off as well as Whishaw consistently does.

Disaster strikes La Fortuna Mine, and the scene abruptly changes to Mazatlan, where the suddenly unemployed and quite broke family reassess their situation. The geologist husband goes off with the last of the ready money to attend job interviews, while the wife and daughter camp on the deserted beaches, invisible to the lavish tourist enclaves just down the coast.

A new job is found in a silver mine in Zacatecas in central Mexico,

…a rolling land, arid and beautiful, a vast panorama of golden grass rimmed by oil blue mountains; of joshua trees, lovely in scant clumps, but frightening assembled as they are sometimes to cover the land…as they march to the horizon black with their myriads…

and a life of relative luxury is settled into; school for the daughter, and endless days of lounging by the swimming pool, gossiping with fellow expatriate wives, and riding out in the surrounding countryside.

On to Guadalajara and then Mexico City, where the family experiences the major July 28, 1958 earthquake, then the geologist goes on to Nicaragua, while the other two return briefly to Canada, where a new car, a British-built Ford Zephyr convertible, is purchased and driven from British Columbia through the U.S.A., through Mexico and, over a technically “non-existent” road through the jungle,  into central America. That trip is a saga all of its own, tacked on to this crowded tale as almost an afterthought.

The family is reunited yet again, only to discover that the Nicaragua job is being curtailed, and though by this time Canada is looking wonderfully attractive, Mexico is again the next destination…

And here I should end this story, but something happened on our drive to the mine on that black and silver night, that should be told. On the trail, lying insolent and beautiful under the headlights we saw two jaguars. Tony stopped the truck a few feet from them, and we watched in ecstasy as they rose and moved slowly away into the bush, throwing flaming glares towards us as they went.

‘Fancy’, Mary said. ‘Jaguars in driving distance from Canada.’

The End




Did I saw “highly recommended” yet? I’m sure I did, but I’ll say it again. This is why I love used book stores, and glorious vintage books.


* B.C. BookWorld, 1992:

Born in Riga, Latvia to British parents in the diplomatic corps, Lorna Whishaw grew up in England and came to B.C. in 1947. She has lived in many countries, including South Africa where she worked on behalf of the civil rights movement. She speaks six languages and has published two books of creative non-fiction, As Far as You’ll Take Me (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1958) and Mexico Unknown (London, 1962). With degrees in French, English and Philosophy, she has taught for East Kootenay Community College in Golden and Cranbrook. She lives in Windermere.

Lorna Whishaw died in 1999.

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A commentor has just referred to this grand travel memoir which I first read and wrote about in 2012. Re-posting, because it is an enthralling account, as unique as the woman who lived it and wrote about it.

As Far As You’ll Take Me by Lorna Whishaw ~ 1958. This edition: Hammond, Hammond & Co., 1959. Hardcover. 222 pages.

My rating: 8.5/10

One summer in the 1950s, while her geologist husband was off an a 3-month, “no wives allowed” prospecting trip, Lorna Whishaw left her Kootenay Lake farm and her 10-year-old daughter and 15-year-old son in the care of a neighbour’s retired ex-nanny mother and hitch-hiked to Alaska and back. This is the account of that journey, and of some of the people Lorna met.

Her husband, apologetic that Lorna could not accompany him on this trip as she had on many others, suggested that she go on an adventure of her own, until the time of his return when they could go off on a family trip together. She mulled over his suggestion, and went so far as to engage the efficient Mrs. Clements (to whom the book is dedicated), but then dreams the weeks away until…

One morning, as I lay watching the dawn on the mountains, I knew that the time had come. And that it had to be a hiking trip. Naturally, I was unprepared. I had expected to take weeks making plans and packing, but suddenly it was time to go and I had not even been into town to the bank.

I scoured the house for money until I had collected thirty-six dollars, mostly from winter pockets. I filled a packboard and a huge sack with all sorts of unsuitable effects. Anything, in fact, I could lay hands on without waking Mrs. Clements. In the end I had collected: two pairs of jeans, one pair of faded blues and some shorts, two cotton shirts, two short-sleeved sweaters, one fisherman’s sweater, three pairs of woollen socks, some crimson skijamas, three changes of underwear, a short fisherman’s slicker and four coloured kerchiefs to tie around the neck.

From the kitchen I stole a small Revere saucepan and frying pan, a silver spoon and fork, an aluminum pie plate, a plastic mug, two pounds of coffee, two pounds of rice, some bacon, salt, pepper and a huge chunk of cheese.

On top of this I stuffed in my sleeping bag, which weighed as much as the cheese, and a ground sheet…

After bidding goodbye to Mrs. Clements, and peeking in on her still-sleeping children, Lorna heads down the road, picking up a ride almost immediately with a well-wisher who warns Lorna about the dangers of the road, but ends with a “Wish I was going with you!” good luck parting. Into the line-up for the Kootenay Lake ferry, and Lorna picks up her first real ride, with a trucker headed to Vancouver. He gets her as far as the MacLeod junction, giving her tips on truck driver-passenger etiquette which will stand her in good stead her whole trip. Past the point of no return, Lorna mulls over her next move.

I turned northward, up the long straight road which seemed to touch the horizon and climb into the pink evening sky. Till that moment I had not really given much thought to the direction I would take. For many years I had dreamed of the far north. It was a dream which I had never allowed to take hold, but it was always with me. Standing in the golden sunset at the start of the flat grey road, I felt an overwhelming desire to go north. I had the time and I had thirty-six dollars. With luck I might actually realize my dream – Alaska and the Yukon!

And, by golly, she does indeed realize her dream. Cadging a series of rides with truckers and tourists and farmers and other good-hearted souls, she makes it all the way to Alaska, where she finds further adventure in trips into the wilderness through the kindness of strangers who quickly become friends. It is not all fun and laughter; many of her drivers and hosts have tragic pasts and difficult presents; Lorna herself has several brushes with disaster and makes some very poor decisions, which she pays for in real danger and frequent discomfort. She always pushes through, though, with a combination of luck and bull-headed resolve.

This was an understated but nicely written road trip saga. I found myself fully engaged and reluctant to put the book down, reading far into the night until my eyes closed on their own. Lorna’s voice is cool, calm and collected, and her dry sense of humour is apparent throughout. I am so glad I stumbled upon this memoir; this is my second reading of it and it is even better the second time around, as I found I slowed down in my reading and really savoured her descriptions and impressions of the country she was travelling through.

Lorna herself must have been as much of a unique character as any of the long-distance truck drivers, game wardens, and Yukon and Alaskan prospectors, lodge owners and fellow adventurers she met. According to scant but intriguing biographical information I tracked down, Lorna Hall was born in 1912 in Riga, Latvia, to British diplomatic corps parents. She grew up in England, but travelled widely, marrying pilot and mining engineer Quentin Whishaw and living in many countries, including South Africa, where she apparently worked on behalf of the civil rights movement, and also as a linguist for the “secret service”, according to her son Ian’s biographical notes. Lorna spoke six languages, and had degrees in French, English and Philosophy.

She moved to the Kootenay Lake region of British Columbia with her family in 1947, and lived in Windermere until her death in 1999. Apparently she only wrote two books, both travel memoirs: As Far As You’ll Take Me in 1958, and Mexico Unknown, in 1962. A real shame; I wish she had published more of her memoirs; from the glimpses of her life she shares in As Far As You’ll Take Me she is definitely a person whom I’d like to hear more from.

There were a few copies of both books on ABE, most quite reasonably priced the last time I checked. If you see a copy of either travel memoir in a second-hand bookshop, I would recommend you grab it, if you think you might enjoy reading of the solo travels of a strong, independent woman with a deep appreciation of other people and the natural world.

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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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fits like a rubber dress roxane wardFits Like a Rubber Dress by Roxane Ward ~ 1999. This edition: Simon & Pierre, 1999. Softcover. ISBN: 0-88924-4. 303 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10.


Great title and teasingly provocative cover. Didn’t realize it was Canadian until I got a page or two in, though the cover blurb by Timothy Findley should have been a major clue:

“It’s a glorious book! Roxane Ward is a sorceress – she transports you into a weird world of frantic characters dancing on the edge of the millennium. Then she lets you in on the secret: it is your own world, seen through the eyes of young, super-urban artists who are never satisfied with what they have or what they find. I warrant you will not forget Indigo Blackwell, in her pursuit of a life that fits like a rubber dress …”

– Timothy Findley

I raced through this one in a single sitting, staying up much too late last night to finish it, so that is an indication of its more than decent quality. This said, Fits Like a Rubber Dress is being added to the giveaway box as soon as I record this review, as I doubt it’s a re-reader for me.

Our heroine Indigo Blackwell is 29, on the cusp of leaving her youth behind, and she is obsessed with all of the usual angst-ridden baggage this entails. Her four-year-old marriage to a freelance writer/aspiring novelist, Sam, is happy enough, though Indigo loudly complains to her husband and her best friends (bartender Tim and television presenter Nicole) that her sex life is not as exciting as it once was in the “early days” of her marriage. She obsesses about this as much as she does about the incipient wrinkles she imagines are lurking, waiting merely for the flip of a calendar page to appear. Indigo wants to have sex, lots and often; Sam just isn’t that interested, citing stress, and preoccupation with finishing his novel, and gently ignoring Indigo’s increasingly desperate attempts to maneuver him into the bedroom.

“Frustrated” describes Indigo’s general state of mind. Not only is her marriage dull and her sex life stalled out, but her career is increasingly unsatisfying. Working for a Toronto public relations company, Indigo is modestly successful in her field, but when she receives a minor promotion, her feelings of dismay surprise her. Indigo needs to spice up her life …

All of this sounds most clichéd and rather yawn-making – oh, yes, we’ve read this story before – but author Roxane Ward managed to keep me engaged enough to follow Indigo on her quest for self-fulfilment, for a life that fits her and expands with her as she “grows” and makes her look and feel oh-so-good about herself, obliquely referencing the title. This first novel is more than competently written; Ward has oodles of talent, and I am curious as to what she did after getting Indigo out of her system, though I can find no evidence of a second novel in my brief internet search this morning. Which, if so, is a shame. But I digress.

Okay, back to Indigo. Her seems-so-serene marriage is about to founder, due to Sam’s own preoccupation with sex, or, rather, the sex lives of others. Researching the Toronto gay scene for material for his novel, Sam strikes up an increasingly deep acquaintance with a male escort, Graham, though he insists that there is nothing personal going on with his fascination with that parallel world. Indigo, having decided to dump her P.R. career and go to art school to study film-making, walks in on Sam and Graham in the midst of Sam receiving some firsthand experience with male-on-male sexual practices, and though Sam insists that it is all in the nature of research and that Indigo should basically get over it already, the marriage is, from that moment of we-could-all-see-it-coming-but-Indigo discovery, doomed.

Luckily Indigo has a cozy place to escape to, as her mother has just left for Bali for an extended artists’ retreat (what wonderful lives these people lead – no one is worried about the phone bill; it’s all about self-fulfillment; but how do they pay for it?! – I wish I knew!), leaving Indigo with the keys to her house. Indigo embarks on her own sexual explorations, taking up with bad boy, drug-dealing, sadomasochistic Jon, who introduces her to the world of fetish parties and anything-goes sex. This is cool for a while, but then things go a little bit sideways, and Indigo bails out, showing more sense than I had initially expected her to have. (She is described at one point in the novel as being “malleable” – very apt, as she appears willing to go with almost anything that comes her way – so it was a happy surprise when the girl found her spine at long last.)

So at the end of the tale – and here be spoilers, so look away now if you care to – Indigo is quite happily solo, Sam is off doing whatever comes next in his life, one friend is pregnant, and another is dead. Oh, and Indigo has a new tattoo. The end.

Did that sound rather bitchy? Yeah, I guess it did. On reflection, I realize that I didn’t ever really like Indigo. She was just too self-absorbed and navel-gazy and spent so much time worrying about the really obvious things in life – yes, Indigo, we’re all going to die, and no, Indigo, drug dealing, abusive artist types are not that into empathy and understanding. Go figure.

All that aside, a good first novel in a modern-urban, slightly satirical way. Well written, good characterizations. Nicely done, Roxane Ward. I hope you’re still out there writing away, because if Fits Like a Rubber Dress is any indication, you can say it well.

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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 release sometime in the near future.

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one native life richard wagameseOne Native Life by Richard Wagamese ~ 2008. This edition: Douglas & McIntyre, 2008. Hardcover. ISBN: 978-1-55365-364-6. 257 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10.


After reading Wagamese’s Indian Horse recently, one of the prominent Canada Reads 2013 finalists, I was curious enough about the author to search out what I could find of his other works. The library proved generously supplied, and I chose two biographies, One Native Life, and For Joshua, and have mentally checkmarked two fictions, Ragged Company and Dream Wheels, for a future time.

One Native Life is a collection of short, three to four page reminiscences, anecdotes and mini essays on First Nations identity. Richard Wagamese was removed from his home in childhood due to physical abuse by adults in his birth family, and lived with non-Native families as a foster child and then as an adopted child until he reached his mid teens, when he left home to live independently, with varied success.

Often the only First Nations person in his school and social circle, Wagamese, especially as he matured, frequently wondered about his “differences”, and pondered his inability to feel fully whole with his First Nations heritage treated either as a curiousity or a non-issue by his adoptive family and his friends.

Serious substance abuse, alternating with periods of sobriety, and career and social success, eventually took its toll, laying Wagamese so low that a complete rebuild of his life was essential to his survival. Richard Wagamese looks to have survived his crash to rock bottom, and has more than successfully rebuilt his life into something new and good, though it is obvious that he views this very much as an ongoing process, and not a “done deal” by any means.

One Native Life addresses the healing process of Wagamese coming to terms with his individual circumstance. He seldom comes across as angry or resentful; he is very ready to excuse the actions and attitudes of those in his life by looking at the reasoning – or, often, lack of thought – behind each situation. This is both a memoir and an attempt to address current social conflicts between Native and non-Native ways of thinking and being. From someone who has walked all of these paths, and who has experienced life as a member of both social groups, the thoughts laid out here are definitely deserving of respect and consideration.

Very nicely written, too, as I expected after the more-than-decent quality of Indian Horse. My one nagging problem with this book, the one that kept me from buying into it one hundred per cent, is that it is perhaps a bit too conciliatory and understanding. Wagamese is so darned nice. But he excuses this himself by stating throughout that he wants to see bridges built, not more barricades erected, hence the tone. But it might be easy to dismiss this one because of its gentleness, which is, paradoxically, one of its main strengths.

And I’m also reading another of Wagamese’s memoirs, For Joshua, written five years earlier than One Native Life, and addressed as an open letter to his young son, whom he became estranged from due to his alcoholism, which is plenty full of tragedy and anger and strong emotion. One Native Life, coming as it does later in the sequence, shows evidence of a further healing and a few more years of thinking things through.

An interesting memoir, from an interesting man.

For a much more specific review, go here:   The British Columbian Quarterly – One Native Life

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the alpine path l m montgomeryThe Alpine Path: The Story of My Career by L.M. Montgomery ~ 1917. This edition: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 1975. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-88902-019-1. 96 pages.

My rating: Probably an 8/10 – it’s a slender little thing, and tells nothing very new, deep, or startling, but it is nonetheless an enjoyable excursion into the life of the renowned author, written in the relatively early years of her successful career.

A must-read for the L.M. Montgomery aficionado, just to say you’ve read it; a gentle, happy overview of the author’s life for those new to her; a pleasant “light” memoir with only a few mentions of the very real and frequently tragic difficulties the author faced in her childhood, teen and adult years.

The book is a compilation of a series of six autobiographical essays which L.M.M. wrote for the Toronto magazine Everywoman’s World in 1917, ten years after the stunning success of Anne of Green Gables had made her a worldwide household name.

Many years ago, when I was still a child, I clipped from a current magazine a bit of verse, entitled “To the Fringed Gentian”, and pasted it on the corner of the little portfolio on which I wrote my letters and school essays. Every time I opened the portfolio I read one of those verses over; it was the key-note of my every aim and ambition:

“Then whisper, blossom, in thy sleep
How I may upward climb
The Alpine path, so hard, so steep,
That leads to heights sublime;
How I may reach that far-off goal
Of true and honoured fame,
And write upon its shining scroll
A woman’s humble name.”

It is indeed a “hard and steep” path; and if any word I can write will assist or encourage another pilgrim along that path, that word I will gladly and willingly write.

The first half of this slender book is devoted to childhood reminiscences, many of which the author mentions as having been used as inspiration and worked-over anecdotes for her personal favourite of her novels, The Story Girl. Then follows some discussion of the years when she attempted to establish herself as a published, and more importantly, paid author, and of course, the story of the manuscript of Anne, which was flatly rejected numerous times, and laid away

in an old hat-box in the clothes room, resolving that some day when I had the time I would take her and reduce her to the original seven chapters of her first incarnation. In that case I was sure of getting thirty-five dollars for her at least, and perhaps even forty.

The manuscript lay in the hat-box until I came across it one winter day while rummaging. I began turning over the leaves, reading here and there. It didn’t seem so very bad. “I’ll try once more”, I thought. The result was that a couple of months later an entry appeared in my journal to the effect that my book had been accepted. After some natural jubilation I wrote: “The book may or may not succeed. I wrote it for love, not money, but very often such books are the most successful, just as everything in the world that is born of true love has life in it, as nothing constructed for purely mercenary ends can ever have.”

And then there’s this comment, which I rather smiled at; the author having too-late second thoughts after killing off a character:

Many people have told me that they regretted Matthew’s death in Green Gables. I regret it myself. If I had the book to write over again I would spare Matthew for several years. But when I wrote it I thought he must die, that there might be a necessity for self-sacrifice on Anne’s part, so poor Matthew joined the long procession of ghosts that haunt my literary path.

After the evocative descriptions of her Prince Edward Island childhood, the part of the book I enjoyed the very most was the selection of journal entries from L.M.M.’s winter in 1901 of working on the staff of the Halifax Daily Echo, where she performed all sorts of different roles, from chasing down advertisers for copy – once unexpectedly scoring a new hat from a satisfied client – to proof-reading, and making up endings for serials whose manuscripts are inexplicably incomplete. Grand training for an aspiring writer, as L.M.M. points out, with much good humour!

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the roving i eric nicolThe Roving I by Eric Nicol ~ 1950. This edition: Ryerson Press, 1951. Hardcover. 134 pages.

My rating: 7/10, after some inner debate.

I  am rather sad to have to say that much of the humour is groaningly dated in this one, but despite that single failing, I have a strong affection for Eric’s comic tale of his year on The Continent, some phrases of which are ingrained deeply into my memory. The more eloquent passages obviously resonated deeply when I first read this at an impressionable age.

The Roving I won the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour in 1951, which is commendable but not necessarily a guarantee of, well, of anything! The bits of Roving I which I am fondest of are the more serious bits, hidden beneath the sometimes-forced playfulness of the narrative.

Do I date myself when I assume that everyone knows who Eric Nicol is? As a middle-aged, mostly lifelong British Columbia resident, Vancouverite Nicol has somehow always been there, always on the edges of my awareness, a cultural constant. Exceedingly prolific throughout his writerly life, which began in college – he famously started his career by writing in the Ubyssey under the pen name of Jabez – Nicol went on to write more than 6000 newspaper columns for The Vancouver Province, as well as 40-odd books and a number of mostly-comic plays. Eric Nicol died in 2011, at the age of ninety-one, writing up until the end, despite battling the onset of Alzheimer’s. His last book, Script Tease, a collection of typically whimsical articles, was published in 2010.

But we’re going to go way back, to the early days, to Eric’s more youthful days as a young man after his WW II military service – three years in a non-combat role in the R.C.A.F. –  when he was taking advantage of an opportunity to pursue post-graduate studies for a year at the Sorbonne.

Here’s a sampling, from Chapter One: Debut of a Vagrant, at the start of the long train journey eastward to the embarkation point for ship travel to Europe.

The train lurches forward heavily, trying to take us all out by the roots at once. Mine hang on. Mine and those of the old couple across the aisle, who never thought of buying a newspaper because the news of the day was their being on the train, with a rope around their world.

Another good jerk does it. The station begins slowly to glide out under a full sail of flapping handkerchiefs. No, it’s us. We’re rolling. I and the fat lady sitting opposite me, reluctant to admit one another to the sudden vacuum of our existence, stare out the window at a grey and indifferent Vancouver. Oh, Vancouver, that I’ve given the best years of my life to, how can you dismiss me as though I were just another can of salmon? Is this how I’m to remember you, this motorist stymied by the crossing gate and glad to see the last of us? Couldn’t that woman stop hanging out her laundry for a minute? Is there no one to wave to us, on behalf of the city of Greater Vancouver?

Yes, by heaven! There she is. A little girl, a delegate at large, patting the air slowly and solemnly, making it last for the whole train. The fat lady and I wave back, and, relinquishing Vancouver, smile at each other, having in common someone we both said goodbye to…

That’s a fair sampling of Nicol’s style. Though occasionally it drops into sheer silliness, it is usually redeemed by clever, often very funny phrasings; the man did have – overused cliché fully applicable here – a way with words.

Eric Nicol’s books are quite easy to come by here in B.C., and are – here’s another cliché – well worth dipping into if you come across them in your travels, though some I find more enjoyable than others. The more hectic ones do seem to be trying a bit too hard, but there are little gems of delicious prose in each and every one. The Roving I is one of my personal favourites, a slight little period piece which captures a moment of time in a fast-moving world and frequently makes us smile at the infinite absurdities of life.

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