Monthly Archives: August 2017

Learning a lot from a Young Girl’s Fears | Review of “The Missing” by Melanie Florence (2016) James Lorimer & Company Ltd. Publishers

Melanie Florence will be participating at the 2017 Toronto Word on the Street festival

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There are many issues that come to our attention via the news. But it is through a good work of literature that one truly gains some insight and understanding to how a situation affects certainly members of our society. While there has been much discussion and focus on the plight of indigenous women in Canadian society recently, it is a work like Melanie Florence’s The Missing that helps bring understanding and empathy to them.

Page 11

I was outraged and – and terrified for Carli. But given the history of the police with the Aboriginal community, I wasn’t that surprised. Carli was a foster kid. We all knew to the police that equalled a high-risk, unwanted kid who got what she deserved. It made me sick I watched the news. Aboriginal women were going missing or being killed across the country and the police just ignored it and turned a blind eye.

A group of girls passed us in the hallway, talking loudly.

“I heard she was giving blow jobs for twenty bucks down by the river bank,” one girl said, smirking.

“Well, I heard she went down to that rec centre to score drugs. Probably got a bad batch of meth or something,” a tall blonde with a pixie cut cackled to her friends. “Aren’t all those Indians on drugs?” My face coloured and I grabbed Mia’s arm as she lunged towards them.

“We’re not all on drugs, bitch. But we do know how to hunt. Remember that,” Mia yelled at the retreating group.

“I don’t know how to hunt,” I commented dryly.

Mia grunted at me, pushing the hair out of her face and glaring down the hallway at the girls.

“Do you know how to hunt?” I asked Mia, trying to distract her.

Mia glanced back at me and smirked. “Oh shut up. Of course not. I was born in St. Boniface and grew up in Osborne Village. I don’t get back to the rez too often.”

I closed my locker and nudged my friend as the bell rang.

“Come on, Mia. We’re going to be late for English.”

Florence has given detailed insight into the concerns and fears of Indigenous women by documenting not only the actions but the thoughts of her protagonist Feather in this book. Readers witness Feather’s anguish as a school friend is found dead in a nearby river. But that anguish turns to shock as she hears that police have ruled that death a suicide. Then Feather’s best friend Mia disappears. And while Mia’s mom and abusive stepfather label Mia a frequent runaway, Feather knows it is up to her to learn the heart-breaking and bitter truth about what is happening to her friends around her.

Pages 40-41

We didn’t often get to have dinner together as a family anymore. My mom worked a lot of hours. With her usually working late and Kiowa away at school, I often spent dinners in front of the TV or reading in my room. Having all three of us home at once called for a big, home-cooked meal. We all pitched in. I chopped veggies for a salad while Kiowa barbecued steaks. My mom made dessert: home strawberry shortcake that looked delicious.

As we sat around the table and talked about Kiowa’s classes, which neither my mother o=nor me actually understood, I couldn’t help but think again about how different my home life was from Mia’s. We both had single mothers but my mother had focused on raising my brother and me. She worked hard to provide for us, while Mia’s mom paraded one useless boyfriend after another through Mia’s life. Now she had to lock her bedroom door against her creepy molester stepfather. I knew if my mom ever brought home a guy who touched me like that, I could tell her and he’d be gone in a heartbeat. Probably with a black eye.

This led my thoughts back to Carli. She was shuttled from house to house and expected to fit in and not complain. I didn’t know as much about what happened in her foster homes as I’m sure Ben did, but I knew had been with a family who liked to hit their foster kids for any wrongdoing – real or imagined. I had seen her with black eyes and an arm in a cast. That wasn’t even the worst situation she had been in. I couldn’t imagine being Carli, moving from place to place and having to fly under the radar so you don’t make waves. I couldn’t conceive of a home where I didn’t feel safe and secure with people looking out for me. What choice did she have but to find other kids like her and seek a refuge where they could all eat hot meals and not worry about being hurt or touched? It was starting to make sense. Not everyone had someone to talk to or count on. Not everyone had someone who worried about them.

Florence’s prose is direct, simple and frank yet it gives readers insight into the lives of Indigenous women in today’s era. Her descriptions of emotions, thoughts and even the whole mise-en-scene that she gives describing Feather’s world, easily create understanding and empathy with any reader of any age group. This is a book that is simply written but works like a great piece of literature.

Pages 161-162

I hadn’t been down to the river at night before. It was completely different when it was dark. During the day, the Riverwalk was populated with young moms with jogging strollers and tourists with cameras slung around their necks. Couples strolled hand-in-hand along the riverbank on romantic dates. It was a safe place to walk and get some nice views of the city during the day.

But at night, the riverfront came alive with street kids, homeless people, people looking to score drugs and sex workers looking for dates. I felt completely out of place until I remembered that I was in disguise. I walked past a group of kids about my own age, passing a joint back and forth. They nodded at me as I walked by, maybe thinking they knew me from some other night below the overpass.

As I walked toward the bridge, I looked at each person I passed, hoping one would be Mia. It never was. But the sheer number of Aboriginal girls hanging out alone or just with one other girl was mind-boggling. Didn’t they know how dangerous it was for them Hadn’t they read the statistics? I wanted to yell, “Get out of here! We’re four times more likely to be killed than that white girl over there! But I didn’t.

I saw places where the street lights didn’t penetrate the darkness. I was afraid to look too closely after hearing some of the moaning sounds coming from the darkness. There were too many places where someone could hide. Could watch. Could reach out and grab. Far too many places where someone could drag a girl and make it sound like they were on a “date.”

Melanie Florence has given readers a deeper understanding of issues of Indigenous women with her novel The Missing. While the language is simple and frank, it is a read that is enlightening for anybody who reads the book. In short, a great piece of literature.

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Link to Melanie Florence’s website

Link to James Lorimer & Company’s website for “The Missing.”

The Causes and their Effects on our Lives | Review of “The Gallery of Lost Species” by Nina Berkhout (2015) House of Anansi

Nina Berkhout will be appearing at the 2017 Toronto Word on the Street Festival

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There are a number of things we collect through our lives. Artifacts. Memories. Friends. Thoughts. Ideas. It is what we do with those items as we get older that makes us who we are. And to ponder and reflect on those items we have collected, lost or tossed away can be an interesting thought process for any serious reader of literature to endeavour. And Nina Berkhout has given us something to start our own journeys of personal reflection with her novel The Gallery of Lost Species.

Page 17

Of the four of us, only Viv didn’t have the compulsion to gather objects around her.

You’d think she’d have copied Constance, cluttering her vanity with makeup and costume jewellery, but outside the pageant world. my sister remained unadorned.

She ignored her shelves of trophies and her reams of rosette ribbons. Her room had minimal furnishings and laced decoration other than the jagged mirrors and a dark mound of clothes at the foot of her bed. She didn’t look into the mirrors and draped her sweatshirts over them when she wasn’t practising at the barre. Regularly I peered beneath the fabrics to examine myself, squeezing at the overhang of fat above my waist and striking poses to appear thinner.

Unlike Viv’s Spartan quarters, my room was jammed with books that Henry told me were important to my future education. I read before school and at night and whenever I could in between. I still didn’t get through all the tomes, and the ones I did finish, I couldn’t make sense of.

 Berkhout has divided this book into two sections; the first part where she has her protagonist Edith Walker growing up with her somewhat dysfunctional family and the second part that has her trying to deal with the results of her upbringing as an adult. We see Edith witnessing her overbearing mother drag her sister from beauty competition to competition then Edith must try to deal with her sister’s drug and alcohol abuse later in life. Berkhout has brilliantly documented not only a coming-of-age novel but also shown cause/effect issues which occurs in all people’s complex lives.

Pages 164-165

I found Viv outside the Laff, talking to a guy in a toque whose jeans were so low-riding I wanted to pull them up for him. I called to her from across the street. She pecked him on the cheek and ran over. She was so thin her purse looked like weighed more than she did.

“Garbage head,” she said breathlessly.

“Huh?”

“That guy. He’s a garbage head.”

What’s that?”

“A junkie.”

“You don’t do drugs, then?” I stopped walking and stood in front of her.

“Hell no.”

“I found a pipe in your room once.”

“That’s a lifetime ago.” She turned to keep walking.

I grabbed her wrist. “Promise?”

“Yes. Let go.” She wrenched her arm away. pulling sunglasses from her purse and checking a cellphone.

“How can you afford a cell?” When she didn’t respond. I studied her protruding cheekbones. “Why are you so gaunt?”

“I have a fast metabolism. You know that.”

I didn’t warn her that Liam was staying with me. I needed him to see her as she was now. So he’d be over her once and for all.

When we got home, Viv asked if she could use the shower. I offered to put her clothes in the laundry and I made up the pullout. Then I ran to the pizza place on the corner. By the time I returned, Liam was storming out of the house.

“What the fuck!”

Berkhout is brilliant in the use of her prose in this book. The thoughts and conversations that Edith has are done in such a modern-day tone and feeling that a reader can almost feel as if they were standing by the young woman as she expresses herself. Yet the moments where Edith is quietly contemplating a piece of art or a person’s expression are vivid. Berkhout is not only an expert wordsmith but also a detailed observer of the human condition.

Page 181

The next day at lunch, I dropped the millefiori into my cardigan pocket, grabbed my purse, and roamed through the Canadian galleries. I thought about how Henry likely came here on his lunch breaks too, before his years on night shift. He probably stood in the exact same spot I was standing in now, in front of The Jack Pine by Tom Thomson.

Pictured was a dark green, solitary tree on a rocky shore, its threadbare branches deformed against the yellows, m father’s favourite work. We sold laser reproductions, mugs serviettes, T-shirts, and magnets of it in the gift shop. I bought Liam the Jack Pine hotpot holder after we’d planned to go camping in Algonquin Park, but I never saw him use it.

In the same room was The Tangled Garden. This painting, which soothed my mother all those years ago, had the opposite effect on me. The closer I got to it, the more I felt the tumultuous garden of all summer endings. Where cyclopetals in the shadows, surrounding the viewer in vibrant mayhem. There was no sky, no air. I passed it as quickly as possible, puffing on my inhaler and detouring through the Hirst room on my way back to the office.

Nina Berkhout has not only written an excellent coming-of-age novel with The Gallery of Lost Species but also looks at the effects of the events of youth on a adult. A great read and a notable work of literature.

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Link to House of Anansi’s website for The Gallery of Lost Species

 

A Coming-of-Age novel Worth Pondering Over | Review of “Life in the Court of Matane” by Eric Dupont – Translated by Peter McCambridge (2015) QC Fiction

A “Thank you” to QC Fiction for sending me a sample of their work!

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It is amazing the amount of baggage of memories we carry with us from our childhoods.  While the incidents may have occurred many decades ago, the simplest thoughts and emotions from that period of our lives still haunt our thoughts and dreams, almost still bringing us to paralysis. But somehow reliving some of memories of other people help up get over our own fears and memories. And one such classic coming-of-age novel is Eric Dupont’s Life in the Court of Mantane.

Pages 9-10

I turned forty recently, the age my grandmother was when I came into the world. This made me wonder how I would react if, on a trip back in time, I happened to come across the little boy I once was. I wonder if he would agree to become my friend  and, especially, if he would let me be his friend. I very much doubt it. In his eyes, I would have all the flaws his parents had – or at least those he would be able to see on the rare occasions we managed to meet, since I work all the time. He would certainly not my appalling propensity, inherited from my father, to suspect others of being as dumb as a stump. Although we might both like the same music. One thing’s for sure: I’d probably get on his nerves, telling him to calm down all the time, insisting that things would work out just fine, that becoming an adult would end many of the torments of childhood. Far from being consoled, he would think I wasn’t taking he troubles seriously. In short, I wonder if we would have much in common. His verbosity would annoy me, I’m sure. Plus, I don’t like people who live in fear, and this boy was, if memory serves, absolutely terrorized three days out of five. He would have a very strong country accent, too. Concerned for his education, I would correct his pronunciation. He would be offended and end up hating me forever. Perhaps it’s for the best that we never did meet.

Dupont documents well the thoughts of a young lad living in the Gaspé region of Quebec in the 1970s. We witness the turmoils and dreams of this boy as he patiently plans his escape from his father and his wife. Readers are literally vaulted between a boy watching Nadia Comaneci’s performance at the Olympic Games to elements of bullying and abuse in the school yard to a odd family home life all in one book.  He must try to not only deal with these elements but try to define them in some manner. And his vivid imagination leads him to bitterly hope to escape one day.

Page 189

For my twelfth birthday, Henry VIII (my father) gave me twelve hens. It was, he said, time for me to take on my responsibilities, and the birds were the perfect way to teach me. Some fathers try to do the same by offering their children a magnificent pony of a gleaming moped to ride, making all the other children instantly envious and proving key to their popularity in the schoolyard. The idea of becoming a teenager while raising poultry left me skeptical, but I was willing to give the king the benefit of the doubt.

When Jewish boys turn thirteen, they celebrate their bar mitzvah, where they are given the world on a silver platter. The world or a condo in Florida, depending on the family’s means.

In our house, it was hens that were given. By the dozen.

He had chosen Rhode Island Reds, perfect for budding poultry farmers looking for high egg returns. Hens of this breed lay somewhere between two hundred fifty and three hundred eggs per year. A phenomenal return. Rhode Island Reds are considered docile and low-maintenance. Now, I’m willing to take the farming brochures at their word, but after my terrible experience with hens in 1982, I swore never to encourage the reproduction of what I still to this day consider to be feathered vermin. The Rhode Island Red is the state bird of Rhode Island. Naturally. It had no say in the matter.

In practice, I think the hens were a roundabout way for the king to put me back in my place.

I know I have said it often enough on this blog but I will state it again. ‘This is a coming-of-age novel that a reader needs to carefully read and ponder over in a quiet space.” Even with the book being set in rural Quebec, there are elements that Dupont brings forward in the plot that are universal in all our experiences growing up during the 1970s and 80s. And reviewing those issues now and reconsidering them sort of helps with the traumas

Page 153

Supper in Saint-Ulric invariably ended with an order from the king or queen. “The dishes.” Staring out at the forest from the kitchen window, my hands in warm soapy water, I wondered who would help my sister do the dishes if I blasted my brains out all over the ceiling. I wasn’t cruel enough to leave my chores to her. “You can dry, Sis! And make sure you wipe off all the sauce stains. Otherwise Anne Boleyn will shout at us again.” Just behind us we could hear the wet sounds of the sovereigns kissing. Their bellies full, they rubbed their moist snouts together. It turned my stomach in the most indescribable way. Nausea.

Life in the Court of Matane by Eric Dupont is certainly a unique coming-of-age novel that documents the emotions of growing up in the 1970s well. A read that is worth pondering over making it definitely a good piece of literature.

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Link to QC Fiction’s website for Life in the Court of Matane

“Place plays an important role in most of my work and I like to bring my readers here, to my home, through my words.”| Q&A with writer Jean E. Pendziwol.

Writers who are versatile to write for different audiences usually impress me. But writers who can craft books for different audiences about the settings around themselves impress me even more. Jean E. Pendziwol has done both those things. Writing about the Northwestern Ontario region that she grew up and lives in for both adults and children, she is becoming a writer who works should be read and savored. Pendziwol was kind enough to answer a few questions for me.

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1) First off, could you give a bit of an outline of “The Lightkeeper’s Daughters?”

“The Lightkeeper’s Daughters” is an atmospheric story of Lake Superior and lighthouses, about love and loss, about isolation and belonging, and what it means to be family. Though Elizabeth’s mind is still sharp, her bones have aged and her eyes have failed. No longer able to linger over her beloved books or gaze at the paintings that move her spirit, she fills her days at the retirement home with music and with memories of her family, especially of her beloved twin sister, Emily. When her late father’s journals are discovered after a tragic accident, she seizes the opportunity to piece together the mysteries of her childhood. With the help of Morgan, a delinquent teenager performing community service at the home, Elizabeth delves into the diaries—a journey through time that brings the two women closer together. Each entry draws these unlikely friends deep into a world far removed—to Porphyry Island on Lake Superior, where Elizabeth’s father served as lighthouse keeper and raised his young family in the years before and during World War II. As a complex web of secrets unravels, Elizabeth and Morgan realize that their fates are connected to each other and to the isolated island in ways that are at once heartbreaking and healing.

2) You have also just released “Me and You and the Red Canoe.” Could you give an outline of that book?

A celebration of the simple gifts of life, “Me and You and the Red Canoe” begins at dawn when two siblings leave their campsite with fishing rods, tackle and bait, and push a red canoe into the lake. A perfect morning on the water unfolds, with glimpses of wildlife along the way. Trailing a lure through the blue-green depths, the siblings paddle around a point, spotting a moose in the shallows, a beaver swimming towards its home and an eagle returning to its nest. Suddenly there is a sharp tug and the rod bends to meet the water. A few heart-stopping moments later, the pair pull a silvery trout from the water, then paddle back to the campsite to fry up a delicious breakfast.

 

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3) So now you have written for both adults and children. Do you find any notable differences in writing for the two audience groups? If yes, how so?

While there are some differences writing for the two audiences, most notably the complexity of language, themes, plot, and characters, what strikes me most are the similarities. Even though most of my work for children is in the picture book format — where the text is usually less than 1000 words — writing for children is not simple nor simplistic. The craft requires the same respect for the reader, the same careful choice of words, the same commitment to story. To me, choosing to write for adults doesn’t mean I have “graduated” or even switched from writing for children, I am still challenged by the picture book format, I love the concept of co-creation combining text and illustration and I love, love, love connecting with young readers.

4) How have you found the reactions to your published works? Are there any memorable comments or actions to your works you care to share?

The most memorable reaction to The Lightkeeper’s Daughters was from Francis McKay whose husband served as lightkeeper at Porphyry Island for several decades, and who herself spent many years assisting with the functions of the light station and living on the island during shipping season.  After she read an early draft of the manuscript, she told me that the story made her feel like she was right back on the island again and that it brought back so many wonderful memories of her time there. A writer could receive no greater praise. 

5) You are scheduled to appear at the 2017 Toronto Word on the Street festival. Do you participate in many public events/discussions of your work? Outside of WOTS, are there any other events you are looking forward to attending?

Yes – I will be at WOTS in the TD Children’s Literature tent with my latest picture book Me and You and the Red Canoe (Groundwood Books). (Link to the WOTS website here) I will also be participating in the Heartland Fall Forum in Chicago October 13, (Link here) and the International Festival of Authors in Toronto and Thunder Bay towards the end of October. (Link here)

6) You seem to have an have an active presence on some social-media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. How do you like using those applications in relation to your work?

Social media can be distracting, but it’s also a great way for me to connect with readers. (Link to Jean E. Pendziwol’s Facebook page) (Link to Jean E. Pendziwol’s Twitter account) I’m a visual person, so I like Instagram, although I’m not quite sure I’ve figured it out yet. Between pictures of books, I’ll also post snapshots of my chickens (I have five layers), images of Lake Superior (my muse) and some of the crazy activities my kiddos drag me into (among other things, they had me climbing a frozen waterfall this winter.) (Link to Jean E. Pendziwol’s Instagram account)

7) Are you working on anything new right now? If yes, are there details you care to share?

I have a few projects on the go, but nothing I can tease you with yet. 😉

8) Your books seem to be set in and near the Northwestern Ontario region to which your website states you were born and raised. Is that where you are living right now? Are there any specific elements to that area that inspire you to write?

I was born and raised in Northwestern Ontario and still live in Thunder Bay on the shore of Lake Superior. I find that I’m very much inspired by where I live; by my time spent sailing as a child with my family on the temperamental but beautiful Lake, snowshoeing or skiing in the boreal forest, climbing and hiking in the Nor’Westers with my family, or paddling the many lakes and rivers. Place plays an important role in most of my work and I like to bring my readers here, to my home, through my words.
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