Category Archives: Canadian Literature

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.

*****

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.

******

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.

******

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

Enlightened by the Works of the Fan Brothers | Review of “The Night Gardener” by Eric and Terry Fan (2016) Simon & Schuster

Eric and Terry Fan will be at the 2017 Toronto Word on the Street Festival

 

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Front cover of “The Night Gardener” by Eric and Terry Fan. Image linked off of the publisher’s website

I allowed myself to be absorbed into the magic of the world of books this past weekend, amid the hurry-burly of the modern adult world. I turned off the ringer on all the phones, I shut-down the computer. I even pull the batteries from the remote control for the television set. And I allowed myself the luxury of child-wonderment of entering the world of The Night Gardener by the Fan Brothers. And, boy was I pleasantly amused.

(Excerpt)

William looked out his window

to find a commotion on the street.

He quicly dressed, ran downstairs,

and raced out the door to discover . . .

The wise owl had appeared overnight, as if by magic.

William spent the whole day staring at it in wonder,

and he continued to stare until it

became too dark to see.

I am often asked my opinions by parents looking for items for their children to read which allows me to look at wonderful things like this book. The Fan Brothers (Eric and Terry) have carefully crafted a wonderful item here which is lyrical in both in the story and its images. Readers easily witness the main character William trying to figure out how large topairies appear in his neighbourhood every morning and gain his curiosity through the story.

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Pages from “The Night Gardener” by Terry & Eric Fan. Image linked from the publisher’s website.

The images are detailed and exciting even on their own to look at. One – no matter what age the person may be – can almost spend hours alone admiring the small elements of shading, the use of lines and the sparing use of colour on each page.

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Pages from “The Night Gardener” by Terry & Eric Fan. Image linked from the publisher’s website.

The Night Gardener by Terry and Eric Fan was certainly a wonderfully crafted book to escape the hurry-burly of the modern world for a while. The words and images come together to tell a lyrical story which would enlighten and engage any reader of any age.

*****

Link to Simon & Schuster Canada’s website for The Night Gardener

Link to the Fan Brothers’ website

 

“I wrote these books because there was nothing written about the Algonquin (Omàmiwinini) people and I wanted to find out who I was.” | Q&A with novelist Rick Revelle

Literature can allow readers to grasp realities outside their own. That is at least what happened to me when I read Rick Revelle’s book I am Algonquin this past month. (Link to my review) By reading it I was able to learn about the lives of the Indigenous peoples who lived in the area I grew up and lived in before Europeans arrived. But as I was researching and talking with Revelle, I realized his writing his Algonquin Quest series was an equally profound a journey for him as reading them was an enlightening one for me. Revelle was kind enough to answer a few questions for me and share his story about writing these books.

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1) First off, could you give a bit of an outline of the “Algonquin Quest” novels for anybody who may not be familiar with the series?

 My three novels in the Algonquin Quest series take place in the early 1300’s pre-contact, of what is now Eastern Canada, the Ottawa Valley, Northern New York State, Southwestern Ontario, Minnesota and The Dakotas. They follow the lives of four brothers and their family unit as they try to survive against the elements and their enemies. The brothers names are Mahingan (Wolf), Wàgosh (Fox), Kag (Porcupine) and Mitigomij (Red Oak). You will be introduced to shape shifters, Native legends, powerful warriors men and women.  There are two warrior women who are part of this family group that are two spirited and feared by all their enemies in battle, there is a handicapped warrior who is mysterious and powerful. My stories tell the reader how the Native people accepted these people and why.  The novels use the Native languages of the Anishinaabe, Lakota, Mi´kmaq, Mohawk,  Omàmiwinini (Algonquin), and Ouendat (Huron), in the vernacular. All the geographical places in the books that I talk about you can physically walk up to them today and know there were Native people there 700 years ago. The books are fiction, however the culture and way of life that I talk about are non-fictional. My books are a story of survival, family, love and respect for you allies and your enemies. They are stories of what Turtle Island was like before the coming of the Europeans. A society that cared for the people around them and would die defending them.  

2) What were your personally reasons for writing these books? How are you finding the reaction to the series so far ? Have there been any memorable reactions to the book you care to share?

 I wrote these books because there was nothing written about the Algonquin (Omàmiwinini) people and I wanted to find out who I was.  To do this I decided I would research and travel the country and put what I found in a story for other people to know who these people were. “Unless You know where you have came from you will never know where you are going.”

The reaction to my books so far are surprising me weekly. It is hard to imagine that someone you do not know will come up to you and say I like what you have written. It is surreal at times. The Frontier School Board in Manitoba which is north of the 54th parallel have taken the Algonquin Quest Series from the beginning and introduced it into all their schools as class reading and reference. Currently The Frontier Board and Dundurn Press are working diligently to have I Am Algonquin translated into Cree for these students. The Limestone District School Board in Kingston Ontario told me in May that my books were going to be put in all 60 school libraries in their system. That was a very humbling moment for me. I know that many other school boards use my books. Plus two of the largest owned Native book distributing companies in Canada who distribute Native books written by Natives to schools and universities carry my series. Goodminds from Six Nations Ontario and Strong Nations from Nanaimo British Columbia both have honoured me with distributing my books under their Native banners.

One reaction to my books among the many that stands out was what a Métis fisherman and hunter from Nova Scotia told me. Alvah D´Entremont never in his 50 odd years of life ever had time to read. His brother-in-law Larry Porter gave him my first book I Am Algonquin to read. Among other things he told Larry, who is a good friend of mine, that he was totally amazed at what I had written and how I was able to put him right there in that time frame in the woods and that he couldn’t put the book down. Alvah has read all my books now and has said they are the best books he has ever read in his life. Well the fact is, they are the only books that he has ever read in his life. As a writer that will always stay with me.

3) “I am Algonquin” was published in 2013. “Algonquin Spring” was released in 2015. And “Algonquin Sunset” was released last June. Has your writing style changed much since you first started out? If yes, how so?

 I think I have become obsessed with the research as I moved along in my storylines. I never starting writing until I was 56 and some things have not changed for me, I am terrible on tenses and that keeps my home town editor in business to clean things up before it goes to the Dundurn staff. Thank goodness for editors. I love taking long bus rides and train rides and writing long hand. Twenty pages from my notebook will get my forty once I fill in the research and dialogue. I love writing that way. I am self taught and find it a little harder to sit at the keyboard and pull words out of my head. But when I write in a notebook it like a river sometime, everything flows out of my head. In the end I would have to leave that question to my readers. They would be the ones who could say if they have seen a change.

4) You are slated to appear at the Toronto Word on the Street festival in September. (Link to Revelle’s profile page on the Word on the Street website) Are public events and readings something you enjoy doing? Outside of WOTS, are you participating in any other public events in the near future?

I love public events. During the school year I am kept busy visiting schools and talking about my books and the era they take place in. I travel with a I call a small museum of artifacts of that era that the students love seeing and touching. Children and teens love being read to an I love reading and bring my stories to life.

For the next six or seven months I have a few things booked.

I am in Brockville July 29th at Coles book store from 11AM to 2PM signing books.

On August 5th I am signing books during the Princess Street Promenade in Kingston (Link to the event’s website) at Novel Idea from 10AM to ?. This is a event that runs from 10 AM to 4PM where they shut down the main street of Kingston Ontario for about eight city blocks and merchants and vendors put up tents and of course open their stores. It is done twice a year and attracts 8,000 to 10,000 people.  

On January 16th 2018 at 7:30PM I will be speaking at the (Hastings County) Historical Society monthly meeting at the Maranatha Church. (Link to their website)

Then on May 2nd 2018 I will be speaking at the monthly Probus meeting in Manotick Ontario at the St James Church. (Link to their website)

Plus all the school visits that will be requested once the new fall term starts.

5) You seem to have an active presence on social-media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. How do you as a writer like using those tools? Do many of your fans contact you and give you support for you work via social media?

Well my wife handles my three Facebook pages for the three different books and she tells me that there are comments and likes. (Link to the “Algonquin Sunset” Facebook page) I send her what I would like put on there. Twitter, after many urges from my publisher I have started using that and I find it very helpful in getting the word out as to where I am going and what I am writing about. (Link to Rick Revelle’s Twitter account page) You have to realize I am old tech, I have no cell phone, no bank card and no microwave oven. My wife is amazed that I am self taught on the computer and can do what I do at age 65. Me, I have having the time of my life. In fact I call getting published with three books out at my age, “sugar at the end of my life.”

6) You biographies have you listed as living in Glenburnie, Ontario (Just outside of Kingston) How do you like living there as a writer? Are there any social or cultural institutions in that area that inspire you as a writer?

 I have lived in the area all my life. I grew up in two very small towns of under 1000 people. Odessa and Wilton Ontario. We have lived in Glenburnie for 30 years. Our son only went to one elementary school and one high school so he was very happy. Before I was 18 my family moved seven times. In forty years of marriage we have moved three times. My sisters have been regular nomads like our Algonquin ancestors. Living in the Kingston area enables me to get in our car, on a train or a bus and travel within a day’s drive to do research or go to a writers festival or visit a school. Kingston is very central to Toronto, Montreal and all points in between. I am an avid canoeist an hiker and my stories relate to these experiences. I can practically step out my front door to hiking trails, lakes and rivers. What inspires me in this area is the closeness to nature. We live in the country and the coyotes howl at night the birds are at our feeders and the raccoons are in the yard in the evenings. I do not need to go far to get material to write about. Plus I am an avid golfer and from the social aspects of this I get the ideas for the characters in my books.

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

When I finished Algonquin Sunset I closed up a lot of loose ends. Except maybe one. I am working on a book, I do not know if I will finish it. It takes place in Manitoba and Saskatchewan with the characters that went west at the end. It will explore the beginnings of the Saulteaux Nation who were the Anishinaabe that went to this area, plus their foes the powerful Blackfoot Confederacy of the Siksika (Blackfoot), Kainai (Blood) and Apa´tosee (Northern Piegan) Nations. The novel would be called Algonquin Legacy. To do this book properly I will need to travel to Manitoba and Saskatchewan and research these nations and their languages.  

 

I just need a couple of bus and train trips and I will be good to go.

*****

I am extremely honoured to be able to answer these questions for your readers,

Miigwetch,

Rick Revelle

*****

Link to the Algonquin Quest series webpage on the Dundurn Press website

 

Updating the Concept of the ‘Immigrant Experience’|Review of “Soucouyant” by David Chariandy (2007) Arsenal Pulp Press

David Chariandy will be participating at the 2017 Toronto Word on the Street Festival

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For many of us who descend from immigrant backgrounds, we had to deal with a lot more baggage than the label of “multiculturalism” can truly define our families. We had to deal with: racism, ethnic traditions and stereotypes, untold stories and whispers of events that our elders may not what us to know about, etc. etc. Those hardships become more acute as our parents become older and depend on our care for their well-being. And it is that element of the human condition that David Chariandy documents in his novel Soucouyant.

Page 9

I stay with Mother, though I haven’t truly been invited to stay. On that first evening of my return, Mother walks suddenly out of the kitchen and up the stairs to her bedroom on the second floor. I hear the low grate of a deadbolt. later, i make my way up to the other bedroom on the second floor. The bunk bed that I once shared with my brother is still made, though the sheets and pillows smell of dampness.

My bedroom window looks out over the weathered edge of the bluffs to a great lake touched by the dying light of the city. Below, some forty feet down, a few trees lean about on a shore of sand and waterlogged litter. Dancing leaves and the tumble of an empty potato chip bag. Despite the view and the fact that many consider the surrounding neighbourhood ‘a good part of Scarborough,’ our place is difficult to boast of. We are alone in a cul-de-sac once used as a dump for real-estate developers. The house is old and bracing now for the final assaults of erosion. Even in summer, all windows facing south are kept shut. Because of the railway track, scarcely ten feet away.

Chariandy has written an insightful bit of literature here. Readers glide into the thoughts of a son who returns after a two-year absence to his Caribbean-born mother suffering from dementia. Upon his arrival at his childhood home, he not only finds the easily-confused individual who is his mother but also a young woman who also occupies the house. As the son continues his stay at the home, he is forced to confront memories and hidden secrets of his mother and his family.

Pages 47-48

Please, Mother. Please.

There are the ironies, of course. Mother can string together a litany of names and places from the distant past. She can remember the countless varieties of a fruit that doesn’t even grow in this land, but she can’t accomplish the most everyday of tasks. She can’t dress herself or remember to turn off taps and lights. Increasingly, she can’t even remember the meaning of the word ‘on,’ or the function of a toothbrush, or the simple fact that a waste-paper basket isn’t a toilet.

‘It happen . . .’ she tries again. ‘It happen on fore-day morning when the sun just a stain on the sky. When the moon not under as yet. Me, I was a young girl running . . .’

‘I know, Mother. It doesn’t matter. You’re here now.’

‘You’re here now . . .?’

‘You arrived, Mother. You told me the story, remember? There were lights . . .’

She had trouble arriving. The plane banked around the airport for almost an hour and the pilot had announced that an ice storm was hitting the city and the ground crews were clearing the runway. An ice storm, she thought. What on earth could that be like? What fearsome beauty, falling jewels of ice? When the plane banked a last time for the approach, she looked out of the wind to see the city once more. No buildings at all, only countless dazzling lights. A land of lights.

She came here as a domestic, through a scheme that offered landed status to single women from the Caribbean after a year of household work. This was in the early sixties, before the complexion of the cities and suburbs of this land looked anything like it does today. The administrators of the domestic scheme set her up in a small apartment above a building housing a butcher’s shop and a Negro hair-cutting salon, hope that she would feel at home., realizing that no other person would be willing to put her up. It was smelly and the cockroaches ran and ran when the overhead bulb was turned on, but she didn’t mind. Everything seemed wonderful to her, even the scraggly trees and slushy sidewalks. The snow-accented trees.

The snow.

While the details that Chariandy documents in the story are unique to immigrants from the Caribbean region, the experiences his Canadian-born and residing protagonist endures are universal to any descendant of any immigrant of any background. The attempts of trying to fit into the mainstream society, the questions of past experiences of one’s parents, the embarrassment of old mores and customs from an old culture that no longer fit in our modern society. And Chariandy documents the situation of a child trying to deal with an elderly parent whose actions are not proper in any situation.

Page 83

Later in the evening, I stumble upon her in the kitchen spilling sugar from a large sack over wedges of lemon and then eating away, rind and all. There’s a grainy stickiness all over the linoleum and white streaks on the rug leading out of the kitchen. Mother winces with each of her mouthfuls. ‘Like eating lightning,’ she says. She looks at the leaking bag of sugar and explains it is broken would some please call the  . . . electrician. She insists that the whole house deserves a good sweeping, and starts calling for the girl to give her a bath.

‘I can bathe you.’

You can . . .?’

‘I can do it too. I’m your son.’

She nods warily at this. I accept the bag of sugar from her and guide her upstairs to the bathroom. I make sure the water in the tub is just right, and I add the salts. I help her out of her clothes, her hands balancing on my shoulders while I slip her underwear off. Her private skin so pale and unwrinkled, even childlike. Her elbows pressed tight against her sides.

‘Don’t get my head wet,’ she says.

David Chariandy has documented an important and delicate element about the human condition in his novel Soucouyant. The book is lyrically and well-crafted and is certainly a great read. One worthy of any serious reader’s time and thoughts.

*****

Link to Arsenal Pulp Press’ website for Soucouyant

Link to a page on Wikipedia about David Chariandy

Link to Penguin/Random House Canada’s website for Brother –  David Chariandy’s newest book – to be released on Sept. 26, 2017.

 

 

Thrilling the Mind out of its Slumber | Review of “The Substitute” by Nicole Lundrigan (2017) House of Anansi

A big thank you to Anne Logan at “I’ve Read This.” for bringing this book to my attention.

I purchased this book at Ben McNally Books in Toronto. A great bookstore!

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There is something about an excellent psychological thriller in the way it awakens the mind out of a state of slumber. A reader is forced to consider plot twists of a story plus become enveloped in the moral dilemmas of the characters. Then the reader of the story seems to become obsessed with finishing the story at all costs. Nicole Lundrigan is an expert in writing great fiction, and her book The Substitute is a perfect example of how great she is in her craft.

Pages 1-2

Though I am not afflicted by it, I wonder about guilt. When I was a child, I would crouch on the cement floor of our basement, building elaborate contraptions, and thinking, Which piece of this system is culpable? Sometimes a slender knife would fly forward and mar the wallpaper, or a needle would lift and destroy a balloon. Once I even built a system where the sharpened legs of a scissors closed on photographs of my father. Straight through his skinny neck. As the grainy image of his face drifted left, and his suited body drifted right, I questioned what part of my machine was responsible for that destruction. The systems were nomore than a mess of inanimate objects: croquet balls, yardsticks, greasy springs, plastic bowls, and bent spoons. If each one followed the simple rules of cause and effect, could the steel bearing be accused if it never came in contact with the flying paint? Would the rubber band be guilty when it had no choice but to stretch and snap? I imagined the liability lay somewhere within them all. Guilt trapped inside the weighty potential of the machine. Never in the tip of my finger. Never in the bend of my wrist. Never cupped in the palm of my hand.

I have adored Lundrigan previous writings (Link to my review of The Widow Tree) and this book is just as thought-provoking as her previous works. Here we are vaulted into the life of poor Warren Botts. He is in the process of attempting to teach middle-school science and having a rough time of it. In the thick of the his attempts is thirteen-year old Amanda – soft-spoken and introverted – who is in desperate search of acceptance and guidance. When Amanda is found dead, hanging in Botts’ backyard. Botts becomes somewhat confused and unglued and is unable to give the police proper explanations for what had happened. Suspicions mount from both the police and his neighbours and Botts becomes even more frayed. Meanwhile another voice appears in the story – unknown whom it is to us – giving us chilling details and showing strong emotional detachment to the events swirling around the story.

Page 23

My father looked peaceful in the casket at the funeral home. They had his hair combed straight down to disguise the wreck of his forehead. Thick beige makeup was substantial, and while there was too much pink in the cheek, my swollen mother had insisted on extra. “He doesn’t look well,” she tearfully told the director. “His colour is off.” No joke.

His hands were folded together across his chest. Nails trimmed, four fingers resting upon four fingers. When I stood near the box, I reached out, touched his cool skin. I could almost detect a hint of warmth still lingering there, and I entertained the thought he would wake up once weighted under the soil.

Glancing behind me, I noticed funeral-goers were granting me some time alone. A tender moment to say goodbye. I ran my hand over his, then gripped his middle finger, his “swearing finger,” as I had heard kids say at school, and I squeezed it. “Oh Dad,” I whispered, “Where are you now?” With another quick look over my shoulder, I cranked his finger backward, pressed down, felt dead ligaments tearing a distinct and pleasant pop.

When I stepped aside, his finger remained displaced. My mother waddled up for a subsequent pass, and noticed. Cheeks flushing the same natural colour as her husband’s, she tried to reposition it, tried to slip it underneath his index finger. Tried to bend it the other way. No luck. It rose up again. Telling the world what he thought of them. I noticed the other mourners smirking, nodding. I hope the bastard stayed like that forever.

There are some deep thoughts that run through this book. I found myself reading and rereading some of the passages over and over again just to simply regain some of the  emotions that Lundrigan has so brilliantly conceived with her wording. A carefully patient reader with this book can’t help but gain empathy for certain characters, even if their actions are questionable or even horrid.

Page 233

“Yes. Overwhelmed.” For a moment, he closed his eyes, imagined the cube-shaped room flipping outward, and instead of being on the inside of the die, he was standing on one of the faces. All he had to do was shuffle backward, and he would tip over an edge. Detective Reed would stay on the six, and he would slip ninety degrees onto the four. No longer facing each other, a right angle between them.

“Botts?” She continued to crunch, pulverizing the sugar in her mouth. “You got my attention.”

The Substitute by Nicole Lundrigan was certainly one of the boldest reads I came across in 2017 and will be, no doubt, one of my favourites of this year. It is a thriller that kept me thinking and reviewing. And certainly a great piece of literature.

******

Link to House of Anansi’s website for The Substitute

Link to Nicole Lundrigan’s website

A Great Piece of Literature Showing the Importance of a Great Piece of Literature | Review of “Jane, the Fox and Me” by Fanny Britt and Isabelle Arsenault (2013) Groundwood Books

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Fanny Britt will be appearing at the 2017 Toronto Word on the Street Festival

The beauty of getting involved with a piece of literature is the ability is has to sweep us away from our existence. We can forget the hardships of our world and absorb the reality of somebody else for a while. And perhaps in doing so, we can take the lessons of their reality and improve our own lives. It is that aspect of literature that is brilliantly documented in the graphic novel Jane, the Fox and Me by Fanny Britt and Isabelle Arsenault. (Translated by Christelle Morelli and Susan Ouriou)

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Scanned image of page 18 from Jane, the Fox and Me by Fanny Britt and Isabelle Arsenault. (2013 Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press)

There is something extremely heartbreaking about the life surrounding the life of protagonist Hélène – and something truly universal. She is being bullied at school to the point of having no friends. Her mother is overworked and exhausted for caring for her and her little brothers, that she has no time to help with Hélène’s emotional issues. And to top everything else off, Hélène – like a lot of other teenage girls her age – is totally convinced that she is overweight. But the one thing that seems to give Hélène a bit of colour in her life is her copy of Jane Eyre.

Page 28-29

Because she grew up to be clever, slender and wise, no one calls Jane Eyre a liar, a thief or and ugly duckling again. She tutors a young girl, Adèle, who loves her, even though all she has to her name are three plain dresses. Adèle thinks Jane Eyre’s smart and always tells her so.

Even Mr. Rochester agrees.

He’s the master of the house. slightly older and mysterious and with his feverish eyebrows. He’s always asking Jane to come and talk to him in the evenings, by the fire. Because she grew up to be clever, slender and wise, Jane Eyre isn’t even all that taken aback to find out she isn’t a monster after all.

There is a beauty in the way this graphic novel moves forward with the story of Hélène in both the images and the words. They are both frank and direct, yet the complexities of Hélène’s issues come through. This book is a pleasure to read and contemplate, no matter what the gender or the age of the reader is.

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Jane, the Fox and Me by Fanny Britt and illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault is certainly a unique graphic novel. The plot moves in a frank manner via both the words and the images. Definitely a great piece of literature showing the importance of a great piece of literature.

*****

Link to a Wikipedia page about Fanny Britt

Link to Isabelle Arsenault’s website

Link to Groundwood Books website for Jane, the Fox and Me.

Link to the 2017 Toronto Word on the Street website

 

 

 

Reflecting on the Ties We Bind | Review of “Little Sister” by Barbara Gowdy (2017) Patrick Crean Editions

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There always seems to be a magical and unexplainable bond between people at times. Be it friends, family members or even total strangers, we seem attracted to certain people so much that we are able to sense their thoughts and emotions without even saying a word out loud. And it is that sense of connectivity with certain individuals that Barbara Gowdy has her characters explore in her book Little Sister.

Page 6

Her nose bled.

She overreached the Kleenex and had to steer her hand back. An aftermath of misery clung to her, and she let herself cry a bit. She must have fallen asleep, except the precise, mundane details, not just the spider and the skirt but also her cold fingers, her childish grip on the pen, the background noises – that whole ordinary, filled-in world and its myriad sensations –  had felt as real as this, only (she looked around) in much clearer focus.

Harriet? Who was Harriet? Rose had never before dreamed that she was someone else. Or inside someone else. Yes, inside more accurately described the feeling of visiting, as opposed to having, the woman’s body. She sniffed her empty coffee cup and thought of their new employee, Lloyd, the former drug dealer.

Gowdy has given us readers something profound and unique to ponder over with her protagonist Rose Bowan. Every time a thunderstorm hits, Rose loses consciousness and has visions inhabiting another woman’s body. And while inside that body, Rose witnesses actions and emotions of ‘Harriet’, a professional woman who’s life is about upended by a pregnancy due to a affair with a married co-worker. And while Rose is encased by Harriet’s life and emotions, she begins to ponder her own relationships – a boyfriend, a mother with dementia, a sister who mysterious passed away years ago. It is through Rose’s eyes and thoughts, readers are given ground to carefully consider their own relationships in their lives.

Page 143-144

Ava’s papier-mâché parrot, Tobikumu, gazed sightlessly toward the window. He had been a Christmas present from a great-uncle who had lived for several years in Tokyo. Rose had gotten Kazuyuki, a delicate papier-mâché cellist with elongated fingers resting on fine strings that might have been dental floss. One day she had taken him to the house of a new Japanese friend, and there, within five minutes, the friend’s poodle had town him to confetti.

Under Ava’s care, Tobikumu, the parrot, stayed perfect. Under Rose’s he lost his glass eyes. She put him on her bedside table so that before falling asleep she could look at his sockets and recover the guilt she’d shed during the day, in those moments when she’d been lighthearted or animated or – the most bewildering offence – pleased with herself. She thought of the guilt as survivor’s guilt, and of survivor’s guilt as a guilt necessary for survival. Tobikumu was her victim and accuser both. She counted on him to get her to cry herself to sleep.

She cried secretly, in near silence. Still, her parents saw her misery and sent her to a child psychologist, an old woman who was half deaf and therefore needed to sit next to Rose on the sofa. Rose didn’t mind. Dr. Grewal’s baked-bread grandmotherly smell and her cracked brown face like dried mud were unthreatening and a little heartbreaking. She spoke in a soft, accented voice. She had a tendency to repeat Rose’s answers, for both their sakes, Rose understood, in order that Rose might hear them said back to her, and that Dr. Grewal might verify she’d heard them correctly. Rose never mentioned Tobikumu, and when the subject came around to Ava, she said what any normal girl getting better would say: Yes, I’m still sad. No, not as sad as I was. Yes, I understand it wasn’t my fault. Mostly the dwelt on Rose’s present circumstance, her friends and school, her shyness. To distract Dr. Grewal from asking about Ava, Rose mad her shyness sound like a more serious problem than it was. Year after year, as Dr. Grewal’s deafness worsened and she sat ever closer, Rose offed up the minor troubles and triumphs of her week.

Gowdy’s writing style has a direct feel to it. The story is not filled with excess descriptions or extra phrases. Readers are thrust into Rose’s train of thoughts or paths of actions without being given any room for second guessing or looking back. Readers are stuck following Rose’s life like poor Rose is stuck observing Harriet’s life during one of her trances.

Page 152

She would never love him, but she wanted him to love her. The man you were with was supposed to love you. Besides, he had loved his wife and often told her so.

Then one morning she stopped caring whether he loved her or not. She went to sleep caring and woke up asking herself, what am I doing? Apart from the strain of listening to his countless specific and indefinite resentments, there was the fact that he preferred to see her mid-morning, during those hours when, normally, she would be having breakfast and doing household chores. But how do you break up with a lonely, recent-immigrant widower?

Barbara Gowdy has certainly given us readers some considerations in regards to our relationships as we read Little Sister. The plot is matter-of-fact and direct, and  it is certainly one that is worthy of reflecting on.

*****

Link to HarperCollins Canada’s website for Little Sister

Link to Barbara Gowdy’s website

 

 

A Unique and Emotional Novel from a Talented Writer | Review of “Quarry” by Catherine Graham (2017) Two Wolves Press

Quarry Cover from Natalie jpeg

There is something about becoming absorbed with a well-crafted, coming-of-age novel. Not only do we learn we are not alone with the pains and sufferings that we all endured during that fundamental time of our lives but we gain a better understanding of the types of confusions that other people endured while growing up. And that is exactly what we get when one reads Catherine Graham’s brilliant novel Quarry.

Pages 9-10 Nobody

I didn’t know what a quarry was until I saw the one that would belong to us. A pit carved for mining. Dig what you need – the dynamite gap –  leave a hole for evidence. Don’t think about air filling it up. Air fills up everything. Water makes the quarry more than it is; the blue we were drawn to. On the dock, looking out. My mother on one side. My father, the other. The big shoulders pressing me in.

It was our first summer living beside a lake that wasn’t a lake, with wind tents of blue moving in the jewelled sunlight, up and gone and up again. the limestone, cut into jagged rock, layered with the weight of dead animals, ancient sea animals, imprints. Lush green trees, they surrounded as a forest. Dad had found the place by chance after spotting the For Sale sign outside a white gate that led to a long gravel driveway, a bend that led to a mini-lake, the house of Mom’s dreams.

We made up dives that summer, me and Cindy. The Watermelon Dive – legs in a V. The About-to-Die Dive – a rambling, dramatic shotgun death off the dock. The Scissor Kick Dive – a flutter of pointed legs in the air. And the Drowning Dive – rise to the surface and float like the dead fish that smacked against the limestone rock, oozing decay’s stink. With a two-year advantage, I gave my nine-year-old cousin a three-second head start whenever we raced off the dock to reach the floating raft. Sometimes a hit of the giggles cut through my determination – a memory of something we’d laughed about while in the dark, tucked in single beds, or while eating Rice Krispies, opening up our food-filled mouths to shout: see-food diet!

Catherine Graham has lyrically told the story of Caitlin Maharg here. Living beside a quarry presents an idyllic childhood of exploration and excitement for the young girl, but all that is shattered when her mother becomes terminally ill. Through the course of the illness  – and the growth of Caitlin –  a series of embarrassing family secrets emerge that require the young girl to attempt to;  understand, deal with, and heal. And the journey requires the young girl to mature a bit too fast at times.

Pages 51-52 Lifeguard

They were bored now that the keg they’d stolen from Cherry Hill Golf Club was empty, the silver carcass found by Chuck. He doesn’t have proof. He doesn’t know it was us. They all said this. But I knew Chuck knew by that look in his eye, that high-beam gaze.

Pac-Man and pinball were no substitution. Darren spent less time in the Games Room, more time in the back field where the keg used to be. I didn’t see him through the pool’s chain-link fence anymore. The stone in my hand, my only comfort.

“What do you guys do back there?” He was walking me to the Malibu like he always did after the end of my shift, but I couldn’t see his face. The plan was for me to come back later with Brenda. “Why are you walking so fast?”

He stopped. And when he turned, the late sunlight hit him; his eyes were glazed with red squiggles.

“Why are your eyes so red?”

He laughed, and when he tilted his neck, I could see how thick the glaze was.

“It’s not right,” I said. I thought of the druggies at school, their long scraggly hair and rocker T-shirts. Skipping school. Failing tests. Losers.

“What do you know?” His eyes narrowed. “Ever try it?”

I froze.

“Caitlin,” he said. “If you don’t want me to, I’ll stop.”

His eyes softened. Too soft, liquid rushing down a drain.

“Don’t you wanna know what I got ya?” He pulled a necklace from his pocket – an arrow on a silver chain – and swung it back and forth.

I stared at the swaying arrow. “Are you trying to hypnotize me?”

“Here. It’s special.” He clasped it around my neck. “Like you.”

Cold on the hollow of my throat.

It is truly amazing how well this story flows. And the plot is memorable. Graham’s previous work in poetry has built a foundation in writing novels that are unique and well-crafted. This is a great piece of literature which explores the range of human emotions of a young girl in some truly stressful situations.

Page 103-104 Three in a Room

She died Christmas Day. I knew she would. A voice had told me. A voice that wasn’t mine but must’ve been. None of this made sense. But sometimes it did, when I tried not to think about it. Like the way you see a star by looking to the left, just a little.

The quarry was cold when she went into the hospital for the last time, but not cold enough to form a skin. It received the snow and turned the snow to water. Eventually, it would scab over, cap the quarry of life. The fish would anchor rock bottom, dormant in their crypt.

Mom said strange things those last few days while I sat by her bedside in her private room, flipping through old magazines. She seemed anxious about someone. The name Geordie passed through her morphined mouth, followed by: don’t . . . stop it.

I touched her arm. “Who’s Geordie, Mom?”

She muttered more nonsense.

Still, I thought, she’ll come through. She always did. I thought of the time (two years ago? three?) when she spat out blood. I’d never seen such vile red. Even that time she’d come through.

I never knew you could lose so much in one day. And on the biggest day of giving, the day set aside to open gifts with loved ones. I should’ve gone to the hospital; I’d heard the voice by then: She’ll die on Christmas Day. But Dad’s shift was first, and his Caddy was already gone by the time I woke up.

I was watching an old episode of Little House on the Prairie in the family room. The horse-drawn covered wagon was trundling across the television screen when I heard the side door open. He came straight through without taking off his boots. He stood in the middle of the family room for what seemed like a long time. Long enough for the snow to slide off and form a blurry puddle.

“She’s gone.”

“I know.”

Round and round. And then the world stopped.

Quarry is a unique and emotional coming-of-age novel from talented writer Catherine Graham. It is lyrical and memorable hence a great piece of literature. One of my favourite reads of 2017 and hopefully not the last novel from this writer.

******

Link to the Blogspot page of Two Wolves Press

Link to Catherine Graham’s website

Link to my Q&A with Catherine Graham about Quarry – (T)he novel is about a young woman who learns to draw on inner strength she didn’t know she had to overcome dramatic challenges on her journey to adulthood.