Monthly Archives: December 2016

When That One Person Appears to Fail Us | Review of “The Best Kind of People” by Zoe Whittall (2016) House of Anansi

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We all rely on that one person. Be it a family member or a trained professional or even a politician. We need them to be strong people who support and care for us. Yet when that one person even gives the appearance of faltering or failing us, our whole world falls apart and we are sometimes too stunned to move. That element of the human condition is what Zoe Whittall brilliantly documents in her novel The Best Kind of People.

Page 20-21

Sadie felt a brief moment of birthday excitement, and then the house seemed to shake with a pounding on the front door, followed by an insistent baritone call: “We’re looking for George Alistair Woodbury!”

“What’s going on?” Sadie said, peering through the kitchen entrance and down the hall to the foyer. Red and blue flashed through the open windows, a light show for the symphony of cicadas. She approached the door tentatively. George sat back down at the table, staring into his glass of wine.

“Sadie, don’t. I’ll get it,” Joan said as she approached the door, peering through the peephole cautiously. She opened it slowly to find two plainclothes detectives and several uniformed officers.

“Hello, ma’am, is your husband home?”

They made it only a few feet down the front hall before spotting him through the living room, still at the kitchen table. He stood, knocking over his glass. It pooled, then slowly dripped onto the kitchen floor.

For months Joan would replay this moment, trying to decipher the look on her husband’s face. Was it guilt? Confusion? Indignation? Stoicism? Acting? But nothing, not even a revolving camera of omniscience, a floating momentary opportunity to narrate, would allow anyone to truly understand the truth about George. He became a hard statue, an obstacle, a symbol.

The father and the husband, from that moment, had been transformed.

The brilliance of this novel is that the main character is rarely allowed to make an appearance or speak. We have George Woodbury – teacher, husband and father – whisked away and arrested for sexual impropriety at the local school. Each member of his family must endure the community’s scorn while dealing with their own questions of his guilt or innocence. A whole wash of thoughts and emotions are dealt with as we read through the book.

Page 202-203

The next afternoon, she drove thirty-six miles to the Woodbridge health clinic that hosted the support group for women with partners in prison. She arrived half an hour early, sat in the car, and watched women park their cars and go in through the side door. It was windy, and she put her hat in the glove compartment lest it blow away but then didn’t get out of the car. More women arrived, some in minivans, others in compact cars; a few walked from the busy stop. She felt the same way she had felt when she was young and travelled to different countries: surprised that the world still looked familiar. The parks in Sweden and Morocco looked like regular parks she’d seen at home. The women who parked their cars and walked into the centre looked like anyone. It’s not as though she expected them to be wearing neon signs that said Married to a Pervert, but she had expected to see something that would give away their status, an indication however subtle, some sort of obvious physical sign of weakness. She looked at her phone, turned it to silent, and applied some Carmex to her lips. They were dry and flaking, no matter how much water she drank. The stress showed on her face. Every step felt heavy as she made her way inside.

Joan lingered outside in the basement hallway in front of a display of health pamphlets. She pretended to be interested in the details of diabetes treatment, as though she couldn’t have written the entire pamphlet herself from memory. She waited so long to actually enter that she was a few minutes late, and walked in while a woman was speaking.

“The way I see it, he’s sick. It’s a sickness. You can’t control what you’re born with, right? My one kid’s got the Down’s syndrome. He can’t help that neither. Now he’s been found out and he can get help and he wants to get help. Who am I to leave now? I believe in second chances.”

The woman who was talking resembled a pug dog; she had one of those smooshed-up faces. Joan took one of the two empty seats around the circle and couldn’t stop herself from thinking that if the woman didn’t hang on to this guy, she’d probably have a hard time finding some other man to replace him. then she felt awful for thinking that.

Whittall does an excellent job of going through the thoughts of a wide-range characters and describing their range of emotions. The prose she uses in a everyday kind of language, making the book easy to understand. But make no mistake, this isn’t a type of book that should be rushed through either. There is well-crafted detail and thought put in here and any reader should ponder the well-chosen words carefully.

Page 146

“Thanks,” Andrew said, watching Stuart take another paranoid scan. “I’m sorry for snapping. It’s happened really quickly and I’ve been buried in legal documents and I don’t really have perspective, you. My dad and I, we were starting to get close again. It’s so fuckin’ weird.

“Yeah . . .”

Andrew started back towards the door. Stuart called after him.

“I just wanted you to know that you really were my true love . . . ”

Andrew turned. Stuart was standing close to him now. He could smell hours of beer on his breath and was slightly revolted, yet at the same time he felt a familiar wave of nostalgic attraction. Stuart leaned in to kiss Andrew, holding his hands at the waist like they were kids at a school dance. The kiss was gentle, and Andrew pulled back before it got sloppy, or before he tried to draw him into a hug. the smell of Stuart’s cologne and cigarettes was enough to make Andrew feel as though he could fall over from the associated emotions.

The Best Kind of People by Zoe Whittall is a brilliant, modern novel dealing with important elements of the human condition. It is well-thought out and well written. In short a great read to ponder over.

*****

Link to Zoe Whittall’s website

Link to House of Anansi’s website for The Best Kind of People

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Enlightening Readers About Residential Schools | Review of “I Am Not A Number” written by Jenny Kay Dupuis & Kathy Kacer – Illustrated by Gillian Newland (2016) Second Story Press

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Cover image linked from the publisher’s website

Indigenous issues have certainly come into the forefront of Canadian publishing in the last little while – especially the tragic situation of the residential school system upon the First Nations communities. Yet, as I documented some of those works here, I have been finding that there is international interest in some of those works as well. So it seems fitting that I mention here children’s book I Am Not A Number written by Jenny Kay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer. Illustrated by Gillian Newland.

From I Am Not A Number

The dark figure, backlit by the sun filled the doorway of our home on Nipissing Reserve Number 10.

“I’m here for the children,” the shadowy giant said, point a long finger at me. “You! How old?’

I shrank behind my mother. Here for the Children?

“How old?” he repeated.

“Eight.” The whisper floated from my mouth.

The Indian agent marched into our house and approached my father. “You knew I would come, Ernest,” he said. “The children are going with me to the residential school. They are wards of the government, now They belong to us.”

“Not Irene! She needs to be with her family.” My mother wrapped her arms around me. “I won’t let you take her.”

The man shrugged. “Give me all three or you’ll be fine or sent to jail.”

“We have no choice, Mary Ann,” my father replied, sounding defeated. “It was only a matter of time before they came for the children.”

Fear rose inside me, filling my throat. My brothers George and Ephraim stood with their heads bowed low. Are they as scared as I am? I wondered. My other brothers and sisters, those too old and too young to be taken, huddled together, watching.

The brutal actions of the residential  schools and the effects they had on Canada’s Indigenous population is for many people just coming to light now. This book does a great job in telling the story of how children were taken away from their parents and forced to endure severe institutional conditions all in the name of ‘betterment.’

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Scanned image from I Am Not A Number. Illustration by Gillian Newland

The illustrations in the book are bold and daring. They are muted when the protagonist’s mood is saddened and brightened when she is surrounded by the clutches of her family. Those changes help any reader of any age build empathy with the situation and gain understanding of the tragic events of the residential school system.

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Scanned image from I Am Not A Number. Illustration by Gillian Newland.

The story is vivid and honest. A reader can sense the emotions of the protagonist with its use of simple, clear terms. No doubt this book should be included in the list of books that are bringing awareness to the issues of Indigenous peoples.

Afterword by Jenny Kay Dupuis

I Am Not a Number is based on the true story of my granny, Irene Couchie Dupuis, an Anishinaabe woman who was born into a First Nation community that stretched along the shores of Lake Nipissing in Northern Ontario. Granny’s father was chief of the community, and her mother looked after their fourteen children. The Couchie house was modest, with no electricity or running water. Everyone helped with daily chores. They didn’t have a lot of material goods, but they valued family, and that was more important than almost anything else.

In 1928, when Irene was still a young girl, she and her two brothers were taken from their community of Nipissing First Nation to live at Spanish Indian Residential School. While she was a student there, Irene suffered neglect and abuse. She and the others were regularly strapped or shamed for not following the many harsh school rules. The children were not permitted any regular contact with their parents. Their names were replaced by numbers. My granny’s number was 759.

I Am Not A Number  – written by Jenny Kay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer/illustrated by Gillian Newland – is a bold book that is enlightening readers about the situation that that Indigenous People of Canada endured in the Residential School System. A great read for people of all ages who view it.

*****

Link to Second Story Press’ website for I Am Not A Number

Link to Jenny Kay Dupuis’ website

Link to Kathy Kacer’s website

Link to Gillian Newland’s (Illustration) website

 

 

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On the Path to a New Awareness | Review of “Secret Path” by Gord Downie and Jeff Lemire (2016) Simon & Schuster

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Cover of Secret Path by Gord Downie and Jeff Lemire. Image linked from the Secret Path website

The beauty of a well-crafted book is in the detail that goes into the enlightenment that a reader receives into an element about the human condition. The right combination of words plus the perfect shades of light and dark colours of an illustration can bring light an injustice that occurred in the world. Readers can ponder carefully over those details of that book and slowly become aware of the injustice and  – in turn –  start dialogs with other individuals about that sad element. And that complex process is what Gord Downie and Jeff Lemire have done with their graphic novel Secret Path.

The Stranger (Excerpt)

I am the Stranger

You can’t see me

I am the Stranger

Do you know what I mean?

I navigate the mud

I walk above the path

Jumping to the right

And I jump to the left

On the Secret Path

The one that nobody knows

And I’m moving fast

On the path that nobody knows

And what I’m feeling

Is anyone’s guess

What is in my head

And what’s in my chest

I’m not gonna stop

I’m just catching my breath

They’re not gonna stop

Please, just let me catch my breath

I am the Stranger

You can’t see me

I am the Stranger

Do you know what I mean?

 Downie and Lemire have done something brilliant here by bringing the story of Chanie Wenjack and the residential school system to light for the reading public. Wenjack died a young man trying to get back to his First-Nations community after experiencing brutal institutional care at a residential school. He attempted a 400-mile trek along a railway line to get home, yet the journey proved to be too much for him.

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Illustration from Secret Path by Jeff Lemire. Image linked from the Secret Path website

Lemire has described Wenjack’s story with his illustrations in a bold fashion. The frames that show Wenjack’s memories of his home have a warm rose feeling to them while the cells that show his experiences at the residential school and on his attempted journey home at cold, dark with a tinge of blue. A reader clearly senses the range of emotions that Wenjack felt as they follow the story of his trek home.

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Scanned image from Secret Path. Illustration by Jeff Lemire

Gord Downie has not only proven himself here as a classic wordsmith but also a great storyteller. While many of his fans know him as the front man for the musical group The Tragically Hip, it is bringing this story of Wenjack to life for us readers that shows his consciousness and the depth of his soul. He has carefully crafted a few brilliant phrases into our memories about Wenjack, breeding empathy in our minds for the tragic wanderer and causing us to discuss him to our peers and our leaders.

 

 

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Scanned image of “Son” by Gord Downie. From Secret Path (2016) Simon & Shuster

This book does exactly what great literature does. It brings to light an important element of the human condition that may of been overlooked through other means and creates thought, discussion and discourse among readers. It is a brilliant book and one that should be pondered over.

Quote from the back cover of Secret Path:

Chanie Wenjack haunts us. His story is Canada’s story. We are not the country we think we are. History will be re-written. All of the Residential Schools will be pulled apart and studied. The next hundred years are going to be painful and unsettling as we meet Chanie Wenjack and thousands like him – as we find out about ourselves, about all of us – and when we do, we can truly call ourselves “Canada.”

Secret Path by Gord Downie and Jeff Lemire is a brilliant book which should be held in prominence on any bookshelf. It breeds empathy and creates thought and discuss which, no doubt, will lead to action on improving an injustice to the human condition.

*****

Link to the Secret Path website

Link to Gord Downie’s website

Link to Jeff Lemire’s blog