Saturday, 26 October 2013

Ada Blackjack: A True Story of Survival in the Arctic by Jennifer Niven

Whilst researching her book The Ice Master: The Doomed 1913 Voyage of the Karluk, author Jennifer Niven encountered information about Ada Blackjack, the lone survivor of an arctic venture in the early 1920s.  A wealth of documentary evidence in the form of diaries, letters, articles and books aided Jennifer Niven in piecing together this utterly compelling narrative and the story of the ill-fated Wrangel Island expedition became the subject of her second book Ada Blackjack: A True Story of Survival in the Arctic

Vilhjalmur Stefansson was a charismatic explorer with a belief in what he called "The Friendly Arctic".  He believed that the arctic was not the harsh, dangerous environment it was reputed to be, but with minimal equipment could be a perfectly safe, hospitable home.  He had his eye on an island in the Arctic Ocean and was determined to claim rights for future commercial ventures (an airstrip, caribou farming) regardless of the internationally accepted Soviet claim on the land.

As the first phase of this goal, Stefansson hired four young men to colonise the island off the Siberian coast for a year.  They were given supplies to sustain them, which they would need to supplement through hunting and trapping, until a relief ship would arrive the following summer.  They were advised to hire a few families of Eskimos to aid with the hunting and cooking, but in the end, all the native Alaskans except Ada Blackjack backed out at the last moment. Stefansson himself left all the planning and preparation for the expedition to the four young men, two of whom had never actually been to the arctic before.

Ada Blackjack was a young seamstress working in Nome, Alaska when she was ofered a job sewing and cooking for an expedition on Wrangel Island.  With an ill son who needed medical treatment for tuberculosis, the offered salary of fifty dollars a month for a whole year was too much for her to refuse.  Without any experience living off the land, Ada was given the tasks of cooking and sewing for the four male explorers who were filled with a sense of excitement and enthusiasm.

Ada Blackjack, centre, with the expedition members.

Ill-prepared and inexperienced, Jennifer Niven documents the events from the time they were left on Wrangel Island in late summer 1921 until a relief ship finally arrives almost twenty-four months later to find Ada Blackjack living alone, having taught herself to trap, shoot a gun, hunt seals and chop wood.  A story of heart-breaking loss, racism, greed, and exploitation, Ada Blackjack's life was forever changed by her experiences on Wrangel Island. Vilhjalmur Stefannson is exposed as a self-serving charlatan whose instinct for self-preservation trumped everything.  The responsibility for the disaster is placed solely at his feet by the author, and she supports this conclusion with a weight of countless documents (the most damning written by Stefansson himself).  Jennifer Niven has drawn the personalities of each of the characters out from these documents.  Each comes alive in this skillful narrative, none more so than Ada herslef, notwithstanding her reticence to discuss the events of the almost 24 months she spent in the arctic.

Jennifer Niven

Ada Blackjack's story is incredibly inspirational.  She rejected the classification of heroine that many were eager to bestow upon her after her return from the arctic.  Using her limited resources, Ada Blackjack was able to motivate herself enough to persevere through fear, isolation, starvation and utter solitude.  She took on the responsibility that was thrust upon her by circumstance and rose to the challenge by taking control of what she could.  She fought against her overwhelming fear of polar bears and guns and she taught herself to hunt and trap.  She built a platform from which she could search for the rescue ship.  She was filled with gratitude for being alive and expressed it in her journal entries daily.  She found within herself the drive to struggle on, to perform the necessary tasks in the moment, and to look toward her return home so she could provide service for her young son.  This was a wonderful story of courage and resilience.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading by Nina Sankovitch

Everywhere I have sought rest and not found it, except sitting in a corner by myself with a little book.
- Thomas à Kempis

When Nina Sankovitch's older sister Anne-Marie died suddenly after only a few months of illness, Nina spent three years not coping particularly well with her grief.  When it became clear that she needed to do some work to come to a better understanding and acceptance of her devastating loss, rather than merely running away from it, she decided to spend a year immersing herself in reading, as a way to connect with her book-loving sister, as a comfort, as therapeutic self-reflection, but mostly as a path to restore her focus on living a good life.  Throughout the book, the story of the whole Sankovitch family is told, from Nina's Belarussian parents and grandparents experiences in WWI, with life, death, love and loss in every generation.  The feeling of family prevades - a family deeply connected to reading.

Unlike many challenge-for-a-year memoirs, this quickly settles in to telling the story of the real learning and transformational thinking that occurred during the year.  Rather than dwelling on the logistics and obstacles of meeting her daily challenge, she quickly (thankfully!) settles in to a rhythm of reading.  I was sceptical that she would actually have anything insightful to say reading at such a rapid pace, but Nina Sankovitch seems to have real moments of clarity, and does a wonderful job of translating that to the page.  She does not attempt to discuss every book she reads (although she does include a booklist of title and author at the end of the book), but in a natural progression makes connections to her past, her heritage, and the events which unfold very coherently and in an unforced manner.

Books loved anyone who opened them, they gave you security and friendship and didn't ask anything in return; they never went away, never, not even when you treated them badly.  Love, truth, beauty, wisdom and consolation against death.  Who had said that?  Someone else who loved books.
- Cornelia Funke, Inkheart

I found this book inspirational in a way I had not anticipated.  Because I am a relatively slow reader, I assume that reading quickly for that long would not facilitate deep reading.  I assumed that some days the "challenge" aspect would overwhelm the actual purpose of the project.  But then I remembered that in 2010, I did a photography project in which I challenged myself to take a photograph a day. 
(Now, I realise that taking a picture and reading a whole book require significantly different time commitments, but I could identify with her experience through my own.)  Some days I took a picture just to keep up my streak.  In fact, once, very sick in bed, I called for my camera and took a photo of the ceiling.  But I know that I grew immensely as a photographer that year and had many insights into the beauty that surrounds us, even on a grey day in January spent entirely in the kitchen.

Clearly, Nina Sankovitch had a similar experience with the books she read.  By forcing herself to push beyond what was typical, by forcefully immersing herself in other worlds, by commiting to it, focusing on it, and sticking with it, she was able to find some of the answers she needed to heal from her loss and come to terms with issues from many other aspects of her life.  She writes about her relationship with her children, her husband, her extended family and friends and how the reading she did gave her greater understanding into each of these facets of her life and identity.

Nina Sankovitch
image found here at the author's website

 I enjoyed this book much more than I was expecting.  Nina Sankovitch is a talented writer with an ability to delve below the surface to find meaning in books.  As escape and as entertainment books are wonderful, but they often have much to teach us about our own lives, how to live, and how to be happy.  I can safely say that I will never take on the challenge of reading a book a day for a year.  But her experience did offer wonderful insights about how to use books as tools of healing and guidance.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Lost in the Barrens and The Curse of the Viking Grave by Farley Mowat

Originally published in 1956, Lost in the Barrens is one of the earliest of Farley Mowat's numerous publications.  It was the winner of the Governor General's Award for Juvenile Literature, the Book of the Year Medal from the Canadian Association of Children's Librarians, and the Boys' Club of America Junior Book Award.

One of Canada's most well-known writers, Farley Mowat has explored the themes of environmentalism, indigenous culture, the arctic, and early exploration in all his work.  All of these concerns are at the forefront of this well-written and engaging novel.

Jamie Mcnair, a white boy from "down south" (Toronto) is being raised by his uncle, a Scottish fur trapper, in the wilderness of northern Manitoba after the death of his parents.  Jamie becomes lost in the barrens with his friend Awasin Meewasin, the son of a Cree chief.  Forced to live by their wits and rely on their knowledge of the land, the boys survive through months of isolation on the arctic tundra.

Jamie may be a southern white boy, but he has lived in the north for a full year and learned the ways of the inhabitants; he has grown strong and independent under the tutelage of his uncle and the local natives. On the other hand, Awasin is a native boy who has spent the past three years at school in Pelican Narrows learning English. So, the boys almost meet in the middle, culturally speaking. This element of cultural exchange where the boys work in co-operation is the real point, and the real strength of the story.  This is a story of the sharing of the best of each culture for the common good, rather than the domination of one over the other.

Neither boy could have survived without the other, for they each contribute to the mission. Yet, in the end, they are both foreigners in the treeless tundra. The environment is unforgiving and as long as they work in harmony with nature they are safe. When they both become so eager to be home that they ignore all they have learned about the north, they put themselves in the greatest danger of all. Before their mistakes are fatal, they are saved by the native dwellers on the land (then called the Eskimo, now known as the Inuit), the people who are most in tune to living in the harsh northern world. This "rescue of the foreigner" theme is a familiar one in northern literature, 

The Curse of the Viking Grave, sequel to Lost in the Barrens, was published eleven years later, in 1966, and picks up the story of Jamie, Awasin, and their new Inuit friend, Peetyuk. On their first adventure in Lost in the Barrens, Jamie and Awasin had ventured to the Stone House, the reputed home of a Norseman who had integrated into the society of the Barren Lands, married an Inuit wife, and remained behind when his Norse crew abandonned them in their attempt to find their way home.  In the Stone House of the Norseman, Jamie and Awasin had found Viking artefacts buried with the long-dead Norseman.  When the northern natives face health challenges in the form of a devastating influenza outbreak and starvation, the boys decide to retrieve the artefacts and sell them to raise money to provide much needed assistance for their suffering northern community.

Farley Mowat explores the expected themes of isolation, governmental neglect, and environmentalism that we have come to expect from his writing, but he also looks more closely at inter-tribal rivalries in the north, and the role of women in Inuit, Cree and white society. Having apparently worked out the centuries-old hostilities between the Inuit and the woodland Indians in the first book (!), there is a new hostility introduced between the Chipeweyans and the Cree with the shifty character of Zabadees.  This threat fades without developing when Zabadees abandons them without effect.  The introduction and inclusion of Angeline, the sister of Awasin allows Farley Mowat to explore the role of women in both Cree and Inuit society.  Jamie, the representative for white society is a bit of a Neanderthal who constantly underestimates and misjudges Angeline's value to their mission.

Farley Mowat

Farley Mowat has been a controversial writer with his tendency to blur the lines between fiction and non-fiction, and for his unsubstantiated historical theories. One of these is his belief that the early Norse explorers travelled much further inland than has been accepted by the scientific community. Lost in the Barrens, although an independent story, also acts as the set-up to the sequel The Curse of the Viking Grave, in which Jamie and Awasin return to explore a site first visited in Lost in the Barrens. The Curse of the Viking Grave expands his exploration of Farley Mowat's theory of early Norse exploration in Northern Manitoba.

These are really interesting, well-written adventure stories full of action and suspense.  Full of detailed explanations of living in the harsh north these are in some ways a Canadian equivalent to Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books, but rather than watching Ma make butter and Pa kill a pig, we watch these able teenagers kill and skin a caribou, properly cache meat on a frozen river, build a shelter capable of withstanding a northern winter, and navigate bolder-strewn rapids in a canoe.  If you didn't read them when you were a kid, read them now.

October 2013

The girls flying a kite with their grandparents and Panda the dog.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

The History of Emily Montague by Frances Brooke

The History of Emily Montague is part travelogue, part political report, part love story.  A fascinating first-hand glimpse into the colony of Quebec just ten years following the 1759 Battle of the Plains of Abraham, the subsequent fall of New France, and Québec becoming a British colony.

John Brooke, the husband of author Frances Brooke, was a Church of England minister who joined the British army in 1757, was engaged in the Seven Years War as a chaplain in Halifax, Fort William Henry, and Louisbourg, before relocating to Québec in 1760.  There, he was appointed chaplain to the town of Québec, as parish priest to the civilians, and, in 1761, to the British garrison.  He was the only Protestant minister in Québec.  His wife, Frances Moore Brooke left London in 1763 with her sister and her son to join him. Three days after their arrival in Québec, on 7 October 1763, martial law came to an end with the creation of the British colony of Québec.

While she was in Québec, Frances Brooke wrote the manuscript for her novel, The History of Emily Montague.  An epistolary novel, it followed the format she had used in her previously published The History of Lady Julia Mandeville, and one that was in vogue at the time.  Written for an English audience, The History of Emily Montague is a compilation of letters exchanged between the eight main characters.  The vast majority of the letters relate to the ongoing relationships (friendly and romantic) amongst these relatives and friends.  The challenges, obstacles and drama (yes, lots of that!) associated with the eventual pairing of three sets of couples dominate the content of most of the letters.  Although at times a stilted device, the epistolary format does convey the distance of the colony from England, and the isolation, especially during the winter months when dramatic news would be months in arriving.

Edward Rivers, a British soldier has recently retired to Québec where his meagre salary will stretch further than it would in England.  He writes to his sister Lucy and satisfies her curiosity regarding life in the new colony.  Of the 228 letters, only five originate from Lucy, for she is the stand-in for the audience - the "relatable character" for the reading public in England.  Edward also continues a correspondence with an old friend, John Temple, a cad with a propensity to break young hearts.  Almost immediately, Edward Rivers meets and falls in love with Emily Montague, a young British woman living in Québec.  Emily, in turn reveals her true feelings through letters to her friend Arabella "Bell" Fermor, a charmingly well-developed character who is a flirtatious, fun-loving drama queen, with pragmatism and an amusing turn of phrase. [As an aside, Frances Brooke gave a nod to Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock with the naming of this character: his fictional Belinda was named for the real-life Arabella Fermor]. Arabella falls in love with Fitgerald, another retired soldier, and must reconcile her feelings for one man, and her love of coquetry to all, while her father, William Fermor, contributes the bulk of the political commentary in his letters to an unnamed English earl.

By setting this love story in the "exotic locale" of colonial British North America, Frances Brooke is able to have her characters express their love of nature and the grandeur of their environment to their English correspondents.  The repeated adjectives "noble," "awe-inspiring," and "sublime," capture the drama of the unspoiled landscape; for Québec is a kind of Edenic paradise to the characters:

I know not what the winter may be, but I am enchanted with the beauty of this country in summer; bold, picturesque, romantic, adorned by a thousand wild graces which mock the cultivated beauties of Europe.  The scenery about the town is infinitely lovely; the prospect extensive, and diversified by a variety of hills, woods, rivers, cascades, intermingled with smiling farms and cottages, and bounded by a distant mountains which seem to scale the very Heavens.
(Letter X from Arabella Fermor to Lucy Rivers)

Day trips to nearby sites of natural splendor were popular amongst the colonists, and from the accuracy of the descriptions, it is clear that Frances Brooke had first-hand experience with the local spots of interest.

The Ice Cone, Montmorency Falls, Québec, c.1845, by Robert Clow Todd
image found here

One of my favourite paintings from Early Canada is this depiction of the ice cone at the Montmorency Falls by Robert Todd.  The mist from the water freezes and drops beside the falls in a pyramid, or ice cone.

I am just returned from one of the most agreable jaunts imagination can point, to the island of Orleans, by the falls of Montmorenci; the latter is almost nine miles distant, across the great bason of Quebec; but as we are obliged to reach it in winter by the waving line, our direct road being intercepted by the inequalities of the ice, it is now perhaps a third more...the serene blue sky above, the dazling brightness of the sun, and the colors from the refraction of its rays on the transparent part of these ridges of ice, the winding course these oblige you to make...

Your dull foggy climate affords nothing that can give you the least idea of our frost pieces in Canada; nor can you form any notion of our amusements, of the agreableness of a covered carriole, with a sprightly fellow, rendered more sprightly by the keen air and romatic scene about him; to say nothing of the fair lady at his side...

As you gradually approach the bay, you are struck with an awe, which increases every moment, as you come nearer, from the grandeur of a scene, which is one of the noblest works of nature: the beauty, the proportion, the solemnity, the wild magnificence of which, surpassing every possible effect of art, impress one strongly with the idea of its Divine Almighty Architect.

(from Letters LXXX and LXXXI from Arabella Fermor to Lucy Rivers)

But although the natural world excites Arabella to raptures, none of the letter-writers are quite so complimentary to the French Canadiens, nor to natives they encounter.  In fact, they are more likely to be described with the words "idle," and "indolent," "ignorant," "lazy," "dirty," and "stupid."  The vagueness of these descriptions give the impression that perhaps Frances Brooke may have had only limited exposure to those outside her own class, and also re-enforces the superiority of the British over the conquered races.

Frances Brooke uses The History of Emily Montague as a political tool to forward her belief in a colonial assimilation agenda, and to counter the leadership of Governor James Murray.  Murray served as governor from 1760-1768, although because of his conflict with the British merchants, and men like John Brooke, he was recalled from his post in 1766.  Murray believed that the smartest way to rule over the Canadian population was in a tone of tolerance.  He wished to allow them to maintain their own Roman Catholic religion with their own clergy and bishop, and even to allow Protestants to convert and remarry according to Roman Catholic rites when desired.  This did not suit John Brooke, or, presumably Frances Brooke, who believed the colony should have a national religion (Anglican), with little allowance for those of different beliefs. Brooke worked to facilitate the transfer of the colony from Roman Catholic to Anglican (including all property), and believed this conversion should occur as quickly as possible with the enforcement of English language and laws. The letters from William Fermor to an unnamed English earl summarise this conflict, and even Arabella contributes her thoughts about religion. 

Frances Brooke 1724-1789
The History of Emily Montague was originally published in four volumes.  It appears that Frances Brooke may have only had enough material for three volumes for the last fourth of the novel is seriously lacking stylistic continuity with the preciding volumes.  It definitely feels as though it were tacked on to round out the set - a serious case of "Contractual Obligation" leading to a shoddy conclusion.  Although a very long and very predicably plotted book, it is a fast and enjoyable read.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

How the Heather Looks by Joan Bodger

I remember finding an ancient copy of this book on the library shelf in the late 1990's.  Because my arms were already full with other books I left it behind, writing down the name and promising myself I would come back for it.  When I returned to sign it out, it was gone! - removed from the library catalogue never to be seen again.

Fifteen years went by...

I was recently reminded of How the Heather Looks and you can imagine my thrill when I discovered that the book had been re-issued in 1999 with a new Afterword and updated Notes by Joan Bodger.

In 1958, Joan Bodger and her husband John used some inherited money to take their two small children on a tour of England. The holiday becomes a quest:

Our children were so literal!  They besieged us with questions.  Would we see where Rat and Mole had had their picnic?  Could we climb to the Enchanted Place at the Top of the Forest?  Would we go down to towered Camelot?  Could we pay a call on Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle?  Privately we adults told each other that of course such places did not exist in reality, but the children's faith was unfaltering - and unnerving.  Perhaps, we said, a few of the places really did exist.  Perhaps, we said cautiously, we could seek them out.

And after some intense research...

The more I read the more convinced I became that the children were right.  Most places in children's literature are real.  We could find them if we searched.  All we needed was faith.

So, the Bodgers set off on an adventure, and in her wonderfully written narrative we go along for the ride.  Along with her account of the family's adventures, Joan Bodger interjects interesting and relevant research done before and after their trip which fill out the story, adding layers of information that seamlessly combine with the memoir aspect of the book.

One of the most charming aspects of this story is in the quaint and simple way the family actually does its travelling.  To begin, they have taken a steamer across the Atlantic from their home in America, they spend a couple of weeks living in a converted gypsy caravan by the seashore, and very nearly spend a week on a barge.  It's not difficult to see why Joan Bodger has been the recipient of many requests for parenting advice, for the tone she uses when writing about her children is entirely charming.  The writing was done, no doubt with no small amount of nostalgia, for by the time the book was published in 1965, her family of four had broken apart, suffering death and illness.

I would highly recommend this to anyone who loves classics of children's literature, to anyone who enjoys travel memoirs, and to anyone who has children or knows children.  If I were prone to rating books I would give this one a perfect score.  It was worth the wait.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

The Clockmaker by Thomas Chandler Haliburton

In 1836, Nova Scotia was a British colony, still more than a decade away from responsible government and closer in time to the War of 1812 than to Confederation.  Nova Scotia was peopled  mostly by British settlers, and in the last decades of the eighteenth-century had experienced an influx of newcomers (United Empire Loyalists) as a result of the American War of Independence.  Thomas Chandler Haliburton's family, as aristocratic, Loyalist, Tory Anglicans quickly established themselves in Nova Scotian society.  Thomas' father William became a judge, and a member of the legislature, as did Thomas after him.  Educated at the best schools and given the opportunity to travel, Thomas Chandler Haliburton was a member of the ruling class of the colony.  Thomas and his wife Louisa owned a gracious home named "Clifton" on the outskirts of Windsor where, along with his professional responsibilities, they farmed, mined gypsum and raised eight children.  In his last years, Thomas Chandler Haliburton moved to England and became a Member of Parliament until his death in 1865.

Initially published as a series in a newspaper beginning in 1835, Thomas Chandler Haliburton's The Clockmaker was anonymously published in book form a year later.  As the subtitle describes, The Clockmaker consists of The Sayings and Doings of Sam Slick of Slickville.  Sam is an itinerant pedlar and clockmaker from New England who travels the roads of Nova Scotia selling his clocks.  The story is narrated by an English gentleman known only as "The Squire" who is making a tour of the colony on horseback.  The Squire is initally annoyed by Sam and tries to avoid his company, but unable to shake the brash Yankee, he is gradually seduced by his charms and by the end of the story is making plans for a reunion tour.  Sam is thrilled to have such an eager listener to whom he can demonstrate his cunning salesmanship, and to whom he can pontificate on any and all problems encountered by Nova Scotians.

original found here

Although this work is known as the first international bestseller by a writer born in what would become Canada, The Clockmaker has not endured well for a modern audience.  Stylistically, this is a difficult book to read.  Sam Slick's voice is recorded in his strong Yankee dialect which often makes it necessary to read aloud to decipher meaning.  Lack of punctuation means that an entire conversation can be recorded in one paragraph, making it difficult to follow speakers.  Much of the context for the discussion is obscured by time, and references which would no doubt have been easily understood by the contemporary audience are now vague.

"I never seed any folks like 'em except the Indians, and they won't even so much as look; they haven't the least morsel of curiosity in the world; from which one of our Unitarian preachers (they are dreadful hands at doubtin', them - I don't doubt but some day or another, they will doubt whether everything ain't a doubt), in a very learned work, doubts whether they were ever descended from Eve at all.  Old marm Eve's children he says, are all lost, it is said, in consequence of too much curiosity, while these copper-coloured folks are lost from havin' too little   How can they be the same?  Thinks I, that may be logic, old Dubersome, but it ain't sense: don't extremes meet?"

Clearly, this is more than just a series of comical sketches - it is a condemnation of what Thomas Chandler Haliburton considers the laziness of Nova Scotians.  Sam repeatedly asserts that Nova Scotians need to be more like Americans:

"This place is as fertile as Illanoy or Ohio, as healthy as any part of the globe, and right alongside of the salt water; but the folks want three things - Industry, Enterprise, Economy.  These Bluenoses don't know how to vally this location; only look at it and see what a place for bisness it is: the centre of the Province; the nateral capital of the Basin of Minas, and part of the Bay of Fundy; the great thoroughfare to St. John, Canada, and the United States; the exports of lime, gypsum, freestone, and grindstone; the dykes - but it's no use talkin'; I wish we had it, that's all.  Our folks are like a rock-maple tree: stick 'em in anywhere but eend up and top down, and they will take root and grow; but put 'em in a rael good soil like this, and give 'em a fair chance, and they will go ahead and thrive right off, most amazin' fast, that's a fact.  Yes if we had it, we would make another guess place of it from what it is."

Much of the humour falls flat because of the annoying characteristics of the speaker, for Sam Slick is not a funny character.  Here is an example of one of the real knee-slappers:

"I guess," said the Clockmaker, "we know more of Nova Scotia than the Bluenoses themselves do.  The Yankees see further ahead than most folks; they can e'enamost see round t'other side of a thing; indeed, some of them have hurt their eyes by it, and sometimes I think that's the reason such a sight of them wear spectacles." 

Most disturbingly, the attitudes of prejudice and discrimination, violence toward women, acceptance of slavery, lack of universal sufferage are so ingrained in the fabric of the book that they are not even challenged.  C. W. Jefferys was a highly regarded artist, a member of the Royal Canadian Academy, and a renowned illustrator who died in 1951.  He devoted much time to illustrating several of Thomas Chandler Haliburton's works, including The Clockmaker.  One hundred years after The Clockmaker's publication, he reconciled these offences with a shrug:

Haliburton was full of fine old high Tory prejudices and Church and State opinions, but most of these are so antiquated that they are not likely to give any offence and will be more amusing than irritating. 1

Well, I must admit that it was difficult to remain objective reading some of the material in this book, for it was offensive.  I found nothing even vaguely amusing about husbands beating their wives into submission, of slaves being beaten by their masters, of Jews, Irish and Catholics being singled out for ridicule and discrimination.  I found Sam Slick an annoyingly disturbing braggadocio who failed on all counts to humour, educate or inspire.

I would recommend this book to all students who happen to find this book on their Early Canadian Literature course syllabus.   Otherwise, don't bother.

Thomas Chandler Haliburton

1. Sam Slick in Pictures: The Best of the Humour of Thomas Chandler Haliburton.  Illustrated by C. W. Jefferys, R.C.A., L.L.D. (1956), page x.

Friday, 4 October 2013

My Leaky Body: Tales from the Gurney by Julie Devaney

Julie Devaney writes about her experiences with Ulcerative Colitis, a type of Inflammatory Bowel Disease in My Leaky Body: Tales from the Gurney.  From the onset of her illness at the age of 22, through the challenges of repeated hospitalisations, medical procedures and surgery, she shares the details of her illness and recovery with candour - sometimes graphic candour.  But she also writes with humour, and a self-deprecating charm that is endearing.  We root for her as this illness affects every aspect of her life: her relationships, her education, her activities and interests are all sidelined or must adapt to her compromised health.

Yet, this is not merely a medical memoir.  Her stated purpose in writing and sharing her very personal story is to reach the medical establishment and open eyes about her experiences "from the gurney" - to raise awareness in the medical community that bedside manner matters; that the way the system trains doctors does not support healthy interaction.  In the process, she became a health care activist working within the system to bring awareness to the systemic imbalances of power in doctor/patient and nurse/patient interactions.

photo credit: Nadia Cheema
This was a fascinating story!  Julie Devaney shares her experiences in a no-holds-barred narration with a disease that social custom dictates remain quietly behind the triage curtain.  She writes with truth and humour. At times it feels as though she transcribed straight from her diary, and I would have preferred some judicious editing, as hospital visits and attending physicians became a blur without adding much to the point she's already made.  However, this is an important voice in the world of health care reform, and I would highly recommend this book to everyone.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Canada Reads 2014

Have you heard? Jian Ghomeshi announced today the theme for the Canada Reads 2014!  I am really looking forward to hearing some of the recommendations people come up with; it is a sure fire way of finding new-to-me authors.  Although the topic this time around has Shades of Oprah, the recommendations never fail to excite me and I am sure the same will be true this year.

Who would you suggest for this challenge?

What is the one novel that could change Canada?

That's the question we are putting to Canadians for Canada Reads 2014. We want the final contenders to be great stories, but we also want them to address the issues facing Canada today. In these times of political change, economic uncertainty and civil upheaval around the world, what's the one book we can look to for inspiration? That will compel Canadians to make a change in their lives, whether it's at home or work, in their community, in their country or around the world? Perhaps Canada needs a novel to inspire compassion, humour, political engagement, environmental awareness, insight into the lives of First Nations, or a new lexicon for mental illness?
We want you to recommend the novels that have this power. In order to be eligible for Canada Reads 2014, novels must be written by a Canadian, published by a traditional publisher, available in print and in English and readily available. They cannot be a previous Canada Reads finalist.
Because Canada Reads is about five novels facing off, you can nominate up to five titles if you feel so inclined.
But if you have only one suggestion, that's okay too!

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Cue for Treason by Geoffrey Trease

I found a battered old copy of Cue for Treason: A Tale of Shakespearian England by Geoffrey Trease in my school library when I was 14 years old.  In those days I eschewed any books that looked glossy and new, preferring instead the obscure monochromatic clothbound hard covers with titles such as The Everlasting Tapesty or The Knight's Chalice.   Although I have very few memories from that first reading, the enjoyment I experienced stayed with me all these years, for when I found a similarly battered copy at a charity shop this summer I picked it up hoping to share it with my 11-year old.

This morning we bombed through the last third of the book, unable to put it down until we knew the final fate of Peter Brownrigg and Kit Kirkstone.

Cue for Treason is Geoffrey Trease's nineteenth published work - an astounding accomplishment when considering that it was published a mere six years after his first!  Publishing 113 in his lifetime, he was a prolific writer of fiction and nonfiction for both children and adults, along with his television and radio plays, biographies and autobiographies.  He was fascinated by history, and combined meticulous research with adventure stories to bring events from different eras to life.

Geoffrey Trease

Cue for Treason is an excellent introduction to Shakespearian England.  Written to appeal to both boys and girls, with a realism unfamiliar in children's adventure stories at the time, it is unfortunate that Trease's work has not maintained enough of an audience to keep it in print.  While certainly having a very linear plot, without figurative language or character depth, the writing has strengths which render any criticisms insignificant.  True to its genre, it is replete with cliff-hangers and breathless near-misses that can at times defy belief, but there is never a sense that the author goes too far to work the plot around the action.  Although Peter is definitely the protagonist, the inclusion of such a strong female character is refreshing, or Kit is anything but a prissy damsel in distress!  Trease beautifully weaves the historically relevant information into the fabric of the story, creating a narrative of Living History.  His evident concern with social justice permeates the novel without becoming moral pap.

It's a sort of Famous Five or Hardy Boys for the Thinking Person.