Sunday, 18 December 2011

Wild Geese by Martha Ostenso

 'I spent some time farther north - went up to a mission when I was only a kid with one of the priests, and later after I had grown up,' Mark told her.  'That's a country for you.  If there's a God, I imagine that's where he sits and does his thinking.  The silence is awful.  You feel immense things going on, invisibly.  There is that eternal sky - light and darkness - the endless plains of snow - a few fir trees, maybe a hill or a frozen stream.  And the human beings are like totems - figures of wood with mysterious legends upon them that you can never make out.  The austerity of nature reduces the outward expression in life.  Simply, I think, because there is not such an abundance of natural objects for the spirit to react to.  We are, after all, only the mirror of our environment.  Life here in Oeland, even, may seem a negation but it's only a reflection from so few exterior natural objects that it has the semblance of negation.  These people are thrown inward upon themselves, their passions stored up, they are intensified figures of life with no outward expression - no releasing gesture.'

'Yes, I think perhaps human life, or at least human contact, is just as barren here as farther north,' Lind remarked.  'The struggle against conditions must have the same effect as passivity would have, ultimately.  It seems to me that one would be as dulling as the other - one would extort as much from human capacity for expression as the other.  There's no feeling left after the soil and the livestock have taken their share.' (p.93)

Lind Archer, a young teacher, arrives from the city to board on the farm of the Gare family in the farm district of Oeland of northern Manitoba.  The family's father, Caleb Gare, is a member of the school board, and the wealthiest farmer in the area, and he runs his house with unflinching control.  It is through Lind's eyes that we experience life in Oeland as he insidiously bullies and manipulates everyone he encounters.  His neighbours are scared to defy him; over his wife Amelia, his sons Martin and Charlie, and daughter Ellen, he has total control; his daughter Judith offers only surface obedience, and when she has motivation to defy his plan for her, the stage is set for a show down.  Judith is passion personified, a powerful force of nature.  When the handsome and young Mark Jordan arrives in the neighbourhood, he unknowingly sets off a chain of events that has far-reaching effects for everyone in the community.

Using both realism and naturalism, Ostenso explores the big themes of passion, power, morality, and the psychological effects of tyranny on different personalities, of the destructive power of secrets, lies, and hatred, jealousy and greed.  It sounds like a very grim book, doesn't it?  Well, it is, but in a good way.  There is no gratuitous violence, no graphic scenes that are painful to read (at least for me, an I have a sensitive radar for that sort of thing); the violence for most of the book lies bubbling just below the surface.  And this psychological drama is where Ostenso shines.  But rest assured, there is an immense sense of satisfaction as the story unfolds; the good are rewarded and protected, the bad are punished with total destruction, the misguided are set back on the path of rightness.

This is my third reading of Wild Geese.  I fell in love with it on first reading, when Ostenso's use of figurative language knocked my socks off.  She frequently gives clues to how we should read the book, making those connections for us through similes, or obvious comparisons.  Some might say that Ostenso is heavy handed in her use of figurative language, especially in her frequent reference to the wild geese as symbolically important.  She is not always subtle, but she is effective.

The second time I read this book I recorded in my book journal that I was a bit turned off by how Ostenseo wrote the romance between Lind and Mark.  It seemed as though she didn't know how to write about love in a way that didn't sound like a poorly written romance novel.  Perhaps it was my mood, because I didn't notice that in the least this time.  What struck me with this reading is how Ostenso has under-drawn both Mark and Lind.  I have enough faith in her as a writer to believe that she chose to write them this way intentionally.  We do not get to know them the way we get to know the members of the Gare family; they are "types" rather than fully drawn characters.  They are written as the Everyman foil against the harsh realities of the Gares and an emotional entry point for the reader into the novel.  Amelia thinks of Lind as, like she herself had been at one time.  Judith tries to be more like her.  We are able to put ourselves, as readers into the place of either Lind (the prettiest) or Mark (the handsomest).  They are characters the reader can relate to as Ostenso takes us into this isolated, rural community.

This is close to a perfect novel, so well crafted, and absolutely clever in its ability to show us any number of points of view without jarring transitions between perspectives.  It wasn't till close to the end of the novel that I realized how smoothly that was being accomplished.

I was very surprised to read in the Afterward by David Arnason about the life of Martha Ostenso, clearly a very clever woman.  She wrote the first draft of Wild Geese in about six weeks for a contest, and was awarded the cash prize of $13 500 - a princely sum in 1926!  The novel was published in serial, in novel, and in film form (silent film!).  Martha Ostenso was Norwegian born, and lived in Canada for only about six years from ages 15-21 where she worked as a rural school teacher after finishing high school, and then attended the University of Manitoba in 1918.  Beginning a relationshi with her professor, she followed him to America.where she attended Columbia University from 1921-1922.  I look forward to reading more of her novels, although there is suspicion that she and her professor/lover collaborated on her later work.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Anne of Windy Poplars by L. M. Montgomery

Anne of Windy Poplars is the fourth book in L.M. Montgomery's Anne series.  Set during the period while Anne is principal at Summerside High School, the novel frequently takes the form of letters between Anne and Gilbert Blythe.  Other than the occassional syrupy sweet passage, the book is typical of L.M. Montgomery's style of writing.  The plot is almost non-existent, as she paints little vignettes of sleepy characters in a sleepy village.  None of the characters is fully drawn, and it unfortunately contains all of my least favourite aspects of L. M. Montgomery's writing with little of the best.  I had the distinct feeling that she was drawing from incidences in her own life and embellishing them for dramatic effect.  It is possible that such a person as Aunt Mouser exists, but her gloom is beyond the scope of the believable.

The character of Anne was not nearly as endearing as childhood Anne who loses some of her charm as she ages and seems to gain a too-perfect, idealised young professional veneer, that we never see beyond.  Her youthful optimism turns to Pollyanna sweetness when she encounters "challenges" in her new role  (eg. being disliked by the Pringles).  Her life is a little too rosy and her previously charming faults and foibles just give her a Goody Two-Shoes aura.  She charms every old biddy but fails to reveal why anyone should be charmed.  The events are scattered and haphazard, giving the impression of random stories that are plunked into the plot with Anne's involvement added as an afterthought.  It seemed like one of the books Montgomery wrote to satisfy publisher's greed and reader's appetites, but not from the heart.

All that said, I wouldn't have missed it, if only because I, like all her contemporary eager readers would have hated not knowing what happened to Anne between those childhood years, and the years when her own children were growing up.  L.M. Montgomery is strongest when writing about children and childhood.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Anne of the Island by L. M. Montgomery

It has been a very long time since I last read this book.  I can't remember if I read it since becoming an adult.  As I read it aloud to Elizabeth I remembered Mum reading bits of it to me and the image I had of Anne's meeting with Royal Gardner was much more dramatic and damsel-in-distress/knight-in-shining-armour than it seemed this time. 

I very much enjoyed the story of Anne's years at Redmond, but found it interesting how little there was about her actual school work.  It seemed that Lucy Maud Montgomery intentionally omited all mention of her classwork, and focused instead on her living arrangements and social life.  I have a special interest in historical curriculum and would have loved to have seen more mention of the books Anne was studying.

What she does do well, is what she always does well;  Lucy Maud Montgomery describes the interactions of the girls at Patty's Place so well that it takes me back to my own days of the comradery and cosiness of the big house on Johnson St. with all my housemates.

There is a stop-and-go hesitancy to the rhythm of the story at times as Anne moves from Kingsport to Avonlea over and over and with the visits to Echo Lodge and Bollingsbrook and her teaching stint one summer.  Those bits, although lovely somewhat interrupted the flow of the story.

I did love that Lucy Maud Montgomery was able to draw so much of the past in and wrap a few things up in nice little bows: Anne recieving her mother's letters, the death of Aunt Josephine, the weddings of Diana, and Jane, and of course, her own engagement to Gilbert.  The death of Ruby Gillis seemed very much an episode that was over and done when the funeral was over.  That thread didn't seem to flow naturally through the story as it might have.  Death at such an age should have more profoundly affected Anne than it seems to, even in such a time.  It is a pognant prelude to the anguish she does feel when Gilert is "knocking  on heaven's door."

I do love Lucy Maud Montgomery's writing, even when she gets overblown and flowery (five proposals!).  Anne is, as always, incorrigible, and yet Montgomery keeps her from being to syrupy sweet an over-achiever by allowing us into Anne's reality.  Yes, she was smart, but she wanted to do something with her life, and was striving to get there.  Yes, she was beautiful but her hair was still red and Philippa Gordon was much prettier.  Yes, she was popular, but she was still discerning about where to place her confidences (she rejects one Gardner sister as a close friend) and still has to work to impress others (such as Mrs. Gardner).  Yes, she is ambitious and accomplishes all she dreams, but we don't begrudge her what she earns because we see that she works hard for all of it and sometimes gets tired too.  But mostly we love Anne because she is emotionally available and we feel that she would love us, and have high hopes that she would find in us, as we find in her, a kindred spirit.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence

I first read this book in my final year of high school when one girl complained to the teacher because she didn't think it was right for us to have to read a boring old story about some old lady dying.  My seventeen-year-old self scorned her. I remember being in complete awe of the skill of Margaret Laurence, and if truth be told, in awe of any author who had achieved the definition of success: the published novel.  I was willing to accept the value of a book merely because someone had deemed it worthy enough to print.  Although my definiton for literary success has become somewhat stricter, The Stone Angel has never wavered from it's position amongst my favourites.

The value I saw in fiction was, and is, empathic travel inside the world of another.  It is easy to dismiss others as losers and idiots from our comfortable positions in front of the television screen or behind the wheel of the car, but when we sit beside, or attempt to get inside the mind of another, we see the fine line between Me and You, Us and Other.  We have the potential to see and understand that action is not always just a random and meaningless act, that people all around us have a full and complete history we may know nothing about; it is that personal history that informs their behaviour, their preferences, their actions.

Hagar Shipley is different on the inside and the outside.  The two parts of herself are separate and although we can see the Why in some of her actions, she is not able to make those connections herself.  We hear Hagar's internal dialogue; we hear her say exactly the opposite at times of what she is thinking.  She prides herself on being the one in her marriage with manners, and despises Bram Shipley's tendency to say what he thinks without regard for proper decorum.  By the end of her life, Hagar has become exactly that which she despises.  She alienates her son and daughter-in-law who take care of her.  She continually speaks before thinking, or even realizing she has spoke aloud.

This is a story about the pendulum of life finding an equilibrium.  From one extreme to the other, Nature is the great equalizer.  By the end of his life, Bram Shipley, the n'er-do-well of the town has a farm that looks just like all the others.  The drought had effected all.  The final great leveller is Death.  In death, Bram Shipley is on the same level as his father-in-law, pioneer farmers with headstones in the town cemetary.

Hagar has lived long enough to see the great fall and the lowly rise.  But as the cemetary caretaker explains to them the history of the stones, Hagar offers no information of her own; she turns away and sits in the car.  She is the Stone Angel, enduring, blind and misunderstood.  She was the child of status who fell and was righted by her own efforts to respectability.  Actually, righted by her son.  But she sat precariously, the topple inevitable.  Hagar was so shut within herself that she was divorced from her own emotions.  She was incapable of connecting intimately with her husband, and observed or overheard the tender interactions between other couples without any understanding of herself.  She did not understand what she was overhearing when John and Arlene thought they were alone together.

You feel sorry that Hagar was never able to open herself to real communication in her life, and never had the kind of conversation the Jardines in the hospital were able to have after years of shared life.  She tries to warn the little girl on the beach not to be so bossy, but does she see herself in the little girl's cruelty?  Instead of being able to pass on the wisdom of her years to the children, she once again miscommunicates and scares them off.   There is no sense for me that Hagar is able to achieve full reconciliation of her own responsibilty for her life before she dies.  I sense that she is taking small steps in that direction, when she makes an effort to retrieve the bed pan for Sandra Wong in the hospital.  Is this the first truly altruistic effort she has made?

The book cover I owned in secondary school.
Even her attempts to save money for John to attend university is not truly for his benefit.  Hagar wanted to retrieve her elevated status through her son.  She discards Marvin as a less-worthy son when she thinks she sees that he takes after her husband.  He leaves home never having received the words of praise he so desperately wants and cannot ask for.  He has worked hard for her recognition and when it comes at the end - the last thing she says to him - it is as a comparison with John, her favourite son.  Hollow words for Marvin to hear, and offensive. Marvin leaves, calling her "a terror" which is justifiable.

Poor Hagar.  She lived the proverb, "Marry in haste, repent at leisure."  She even acknowledges this to her rival, Lottie, when John and Arlene are dating.  The ingredient missing from Hagar's life is respect, for herself and others.  She cannot respect her own family, her father, husband or sons, nor even herself.  She gives no heed to the emotional needs of others nor of herself.  When Mr. Lees talks with her through the night she finds herself at times drawn in to his story, alternatively disinterested and bored.  She sees his pain only as it is relevant to her pain.  When he seeks help for her, she is angry, rude, and dismissive of him.  A glimmer of recognition appears just as they are parting and she is able to acknowledge his pain in the loss of his son... not as it relates to her own loss, but seeing his loss, his emotions as real and valid and worthy.

I take away from this novel the importance of respect, and how hurtful the thoughtless selfishness can be.  Hagar never considers the feelings of others.  She hardly ever tempers her snarkiness, although because she does, we know she can.  She speaks with civility to the ladies in the seniors home and to Sandra Wong but not to her own family.  She never sees that she has never left Bram but taken over his harshness without knowing.

Saturday, 15 October 2011