(at) eleven with laurie lewis: little comrades

I don’t know of (m)any other memoirs about growing up in a Communist family, in Canada or elsewhere, or why such an account might be scarce. The habit of secrecy perhaps, not wanting to name names? Whatever the case, in Little Comrades, Laurie Lewis has chosen to leap where few have leapt.

And I’m pretty sure the result is not what 9780889843424you think.

There is a strong-willed mother, a departure from the west to Toronto, another to New York City, an abortion in the 50’s, alcoholism, The Great Depression (and how to survive with style; the lost art of great style is everywhere…), the war, few women’s rights (women could be ‘legally bedded’ at age eighteen). There is Kill a Commie for Christ, racism, sexism. And secrets. Always secrets.

There is also Mulberry Street and her love of NYC. In fact, despite all the ‘isms’ of the era, it’s love that comes out strongest. For her mother, for freedom, for the people who helped them, for Sol whose loud, robust family, culture and food she craved after a fairly white-bread upbringing that didn’t encourage independence, creativity or opinions outside party lines.

“My father had written a letter to the Communist Party Central Committee… so they’d know that he had given his wife permission to leave him.”

While describing the larger issues of the day, the unorthodox turbulence of her home life and the difficulties of being a little comrade in general, Lewis manages to maintain a voice appropriate to her youth and still-innocence. Describing a visit to an avant garde cinema as a young teen, Lewis writes: “The theatre showed ‘foreign’ movies. Sometimes British, sometimes European, with sub-titles, so you’d know what people were saying.”

Her writing is beautifully precise, often tactile, so that the reading at times feels a little like wandering about with the author as she confidently points things out that, pretty soon, we can also see just as plainly.

I’m delighted to have read this book (which ends in 1952) and have already purchased the sequel: Love and All that Jazz.

So without further blather, and with enormous thanks to the author, here is (at) eleven with Laurie Lewis:

1.   The first question I always ask in this series is what literary character did you relate to as a child. Given your unusual childhood, I’ve never been more curious to know the answer.

LL—I’m afraid I can’t tell you the answer to this. Perhaps something will come to me as I get further along into this process.

2.   What were you reading at fifteen?

LL—Oh, that I do remember clearly… two very different things: In my early teens I was very interested in math and science, and one of the books I received (from my father, a great surprise) was Mathematics for the Millions, by… how good is my memory? Yes, Lancelot Hogben, or a name very much like that. I could probably ask Mr. Google right now and get the right answer!! [Yes!! He’s there, and the book is there, still in print! Amazing!] The other thing I was reading was Dorothy Parker, who had a new collection of short stories out just then, 1945. I remember reading them to my mother when she was ill. She was a smart sassy woman speaking her mind. Very avant-garde. What a role model! And Robert Benchley, Ogden Nash, James Thurber. The New Yorker writers of the period… my mother’s choices, of course. Elizabeth Barrett Browning. And I remember my very first Virginia Woolf story, although I don’t know how old I was, perhaps younger than 15, I believe. “Flush”.

(I should say here that my mother didn’t believe in “children’s books” as such. She grew up in a working-class home of a skilled carpenter from England, with a room full of Dickens, which she regarded as books for children, since that’s what she had read.) To my own daughter, I read Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, of course, and Mary Poppins. The Mary Poppins movie came out shortly after she and I moved to Toronto, when Amanda was 8 years old. I vividly remember that when a school friend asked her if she had seen the movie, she told her, “No, but I’ve read the book.”)

Pre-teen poetry: Vachel Lindsay (a sort of pre-beat poet. Sort of “tribal” as I recall.) Emily Dickinson, of course. Robert Burns from the Scottish side of the family.

3.   Did it ever occur to you that it wasn’t the norm for children to be as aware politically as you were? Looking back on it, how did this awareness, this lifestyle, affect friendships? Did you feel different from other children; did you see the difference in your family?

LL—I think you are perhaps not correct in thinking it was not the norm. Those were intensely political times in the history of the world, both during the Depression and World War II. During the “Great” Depression politics were part of people’s lives, I think. Not only mine. (In the way that the Vietnam war was a part of the lives of Americans during that difficult time. And everyone had an opinion.) Extreme, extreme(!) poverty creates its own awareness. Yes, I was generally aware of how it might have affected friendships… One of the pieces I wrote about, called “Lumpen”, was about a potential friendship that was out of bounds because the parents were “lumpen” (i.e. non-political working class – non-politically aware). And I remember being invited somewhere by a little girl of about my own age, a girl who put on a pretty dress every Sunday and went to some sort of party. Sunday School. I asked my mother if I could go, and she dressed me up in my best dress, my school dress. (Perhaps you know that a poor girl in those times might have two dresses. One for school and one for play. No jeans, or anything like that, of course.) I’m sorry to report that I was asked to leave when I, at about six years old, questioned the story of Adam and Eve (since I knew about Darwin).

Also, I became very aware of a class divide. We were definitely not “middle class” in either our economic circumstances or our outlook on life. I think the children we now call “disadvantaged” (not “poor”… we never say that anyone is “poor”!) are very aware of a class divide, regardless of what it is called. I assume it affects their friendship patterns. To some extent I think economic disparity affects our friendships at any age.

4.   In the New York City chapters, while you were often worried, knowing that you or your mother might at any time be questioned, or worse, for communist connections, and despite the many moves and difficult encounters, I sense that the city offered you a new kind of happiness and freedom. Was this a turning point in your life? Would you say your mother experienced something similar?

LL—Yes, certainly there was a kind of freedom. The important thing, especially for my mother as a newly-separated intelligent and creative woman, was that the city was wide open for anyone who had talent and drive, and she had both. That’s not quite the same thing as “happiness”, but I’m not sure what that word means. I was a young teenager. Certainly I had more opportunities than I would have had in a small town, or in a “provincial” city like Vancouver. There was freedom from the coercion of the domestic politics of power, and a more cosmopolitan, more diverse “ethnic” environment. More people from more places, not the homogeneity that was Canada at the time. (A tad more financial security would have helped both of us, of course.!) Yes, certainly it was a turning point. When I got my first job, as an usher in the movies (they had them then!), I was terribly proud of myself. I could earn a living!

5.   Also, those chapters so beautifully and vividly describe a city that it’s said no longer exists. What was it like to revisit in the writing? And what are some of the more regrettable losses?

LL—Yes, we revisit places and “social environments” when we remember. I don’t think I have ever tried to compare the old and the new… Well, yes, I suppose I have, but what can I say? The buildings have changed, the people have changed, the way of life has changed. And I have changed. Especially now, in my old age, I am more aware of the vast spaces where people I knew, people I loved, do not exist any more. That is the most regrettable loss, the loss of those we loved, cared for. The rest is just history, just “stuff”. Beat was beat; hip was hip; hippy was hippy. So vastly different! And what is cool today will be passé tomorrow.

6.   Despite being surrounded by writers in your family, and in your publishing career, you didn’t begin writing seriously until your sixties. This rather late start not only makes you an inspiration to many late starters, it also gives you a rare perspective, i.e. how differently, if at all, might the story of Little Comrades have been presented had you written it at, say, age 35 or 40?

LL—A very tricky question. I’m not sure how different the story would have been, but if I had written it then, when communism and therefore anti-communism were still very powerful and antagonistic forces in the world, the reception would undoubtedly have been different. Communism, these days, is looked back on almost with nostalgia. (Not the specifics of Russia, of Stalin, but the economic principles.) As far as I, personally, am concerned I think it’s important to say that age gives me a kind of power, through the freedom to say whatever I damned please. This is a power that perhaps young people with young careers rarely really have. And I certainly felt the freedom to present my story with – well, of all things! – the dignity it deserved. I think I was aiming for something like social history, told through the mind of a child.

7.   While still in high school, you had an affair with a man that resulted in your getting an abortion. The affair ended and a few years later you were surprised to see “a new and handsome face” appear in Hollywood movies. “That same face with the high Greek cheekbones, the dark eyes, artfully dishevelled black hair. His name? Yes, it could be a good Anglicization of the one I remembered but never spoke.” You tell us that he eventually became a director and married a ‘10’… all wonderful clues for what is a wonderful parlour game… Was this a promise to the man or a promise to yourself, not to reveal his name?

LL—I am merely being cautious. Two things: First, I can’t be absolutely sure that’s who it was. When I asked Mr. Google about him, the early bio made me a bit unsure. And if I had ever done more than hint, I could have been open to a suit for libel or slander. Probably because of my childhood experiences, I think I tend to be careful about keeping my activities legal. I’m a trifle paranoid, perhaps.

8.   Your memory for detail is extraordinary, adding rich layers to the story, tapping various senses. That you recall people, how they looked, what they wore, what they did for a living, a pawnshop window… What was your process in getting ‘back there’—was it photographs, conversations, general research, letters, all of the above?

LL—I wish I had had letters, photographs, etc, but I didn’t. But I think memory is quite wonderful. My “chicken soup” theory of memory says: The first time I ask my memory about something, there’s almost nothing in there. There’s just sort of a weak chicken broth, warm and salty. The next time I go looking into that memory, there are a couple of peas, maybe a piece of carrot. And so it goes. Every time I look, there is more in that memory-space. [I think recent research shows that the soup in which the synapses operate between the dendrites must be sort of re-assembled, reconstituted, into the memory.] And some of it is pure deductive invention: for example, in a story about my aunt getting married I have said she wore a blue dress. Well, what do I really know? I don’t remember, but the dress wouldn’t have been either black or white. Nor red or pink or purple. Because they were Scots, it would have been unlikely to be green. Given the years of the forties, the colours were apt to be muted and “feminine.” All of that, for me, equalled a light blue.

And just because it’s a memoir doesn’t mean you can’t make things up! I mean, I am a writer! How much do I actually recall of what was in the window of the pawn shop? Two out of five things? One thing? But once I have written it, it becomes true for me, and I can see the window very clearly.

9.   You had a close relationship with your mother, who comes across as a very independent woman for her time. She lived an unconventional life in many ways, not the least of which was leaving your father and giving you the choice of staying or coming with her. Also her work with the Communist party, the risks that involved and the lifestyle it required. Yet at some point it became clear to you that you had different values and ideas about lifestyle. How difficult was it to admit this to yourself and to become independent in your own way?

LL—She was a very independent woman for any time. Most of that was, I think, an independence formed by the combination of pride and desperation. She had some pride in herself, some idea that she had a mind, that what she thought mattered, and she was desperate to get out of a bad personal situation even if that put her into a desperate economic situation. In my mother’s time, if women were desperate to leave their husbands, they usually had another man to help them out… to help them get out, I mean. So then just, a few years later, we were two more-or-less young-ish women living together… when I was 18 and she was 38, for example. We really needed our own spaces. Perhaps the differences you mention – values and lifestyle ­ might have had more to do with the simple matter of generational differences. And the number of years between the generations was much smaller than it is now, thanks to the easy availability of birth control in North America. All young people, male or female, have different outlooks on life than their parents have. I know that some may make choices to stay closer to the zeitgeist of their parents, for whatever reason. In the 1960s, rebellion was in the air, change was in the air. I was just a few years ahead of my time, as Ellen (my mother) was a few years ahead of hers, always.

10.  It feels like a life of many secrets. You say that even today there are names you “won’t name”… people who were once involved in the Communist party. Did you have to think twice about writing this book?

LL—In the beginning I didn’t know I was writing it. I was just writing stories about what I thought I knew. When I began to write some of the early family stories, my mother said, “It wasn’t like that”. We each have our own truths, the things that we believe to be the truth of our lives. And we can’t let anyone else decide for us what it’s okay to reveal. My mother’s memoir, “Always and After” is much more cautious politically. I don’t think mine is a broad tell-all memoir, full of scuttlebutt. I was focussed on specific areas of our lives: politics, gender, personal growth, insight. By the time I had finished writing Little Comrades my mother had died, and so there was no one to tell me I had done it wrong. (And I didn’t name names, as you know from question 7.) Also, I probably still have lingering fears, some paranoia, from the McCarthy era, and so, even with my general “mouthiness” I have some caution in me. I don’t feel that I have said anything truly dangerous, either to myself or to anyone else. (And everyone’s dead now.)

**

I will go back now to the first question, which literary character I related to:

At the end of this, I have come back to the beginning, and what has come to me is Heidi: homeless and hungry. What a surprise that is to me!! Thank you for asking. I think this is the secret of my childhood, Heidi. I could cry, even now, for that poor little girl. But I think I will go out to dinner instead.

11.  Choices:

Coffee or tea?    Tea in Canada, coffee in Mexico.

Poetry or song?   Poetry   

Sweet or savoury?      Savoury

Dessert or Appetizer?      Appetizer

Winter or Summer?     Summer

Pen or Keyboard?  Keyboard, although as a graphic designer I flirted with calligraphy.*

Bicycle or Canoe?  Bicycle… it’s in the garage right now with a flat tire.  

Ocean or Lake?    Lake

Morning or Night?     Morning

Film or theatre?      Theatre

The Ten Commandments or Exodus?      ha ha ha… Exodus.

* Here’s another note about Pen or Keyboard: Keyboard, although as a graphic designer I flirted with calligraphy, and so the “pen” has artistic value rather than any writerly presence. Whereas, I learned to touch type when I was 17, and so I firmly believe that my fingers know stories that they are eager to tell me. My fingers do their work, and then I read what they have said. There is a direct line from a part of my brain into my fingertips.

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Matilda’s Menu for Little Comrades:

Bacon Sandwich

Alymer Soup

Blintzes

Prosecco

As is customary with the (at) eleven series, a meal of my choosing—appropriate to the book—follows the Q&A, because… “Eating is our earliest metaphor, preceding our consciousness of gender difference, race, nationality, and language. We eat before we talk.”  ~Margaret Atwood from The Can Lit Food Book

Happy Reading, and bon appetit

◊♦◊

laurieLaurie Lewis is a Fellow of Graphic Designers of Canada and is editor emerita of  Vista, the publication of the Seniors Association in Kingston, Ontario.

She began writing in 1991 after retirement. Her written work has been on CBC and has been published in Contemporary Verse 2, Queen’s Feminist Review, Kingston Poets’ Gallery, Queen’s Quarterly, and  The Toronto Quarterly. Her memoir, Little Comrades, was published by Porcupine’s Quill in 2011 and was named by the Globe and Mail among the Top 100 Books of the Year. A second memoir, Love, and all that jazz, was published in 2013 by Porcupine’s Quill. She is currently working on a collection of essays and stories about age, but is not persuaded that the title “Mouthy Old Broad” will have much commercial appeal.

this is not a review: ‘the m word’, edited by kerry clare

 
Warning: today’s ‘Not a Review’ includes internal organs. But not until nearly the very end.

I’m not normally drawn to mothering books but I like Kerry Clare’s work, so it was impossible not to be drawn to her anthology, The M Word: Conversations about Motherhood. I knew I’d be in the hands of good taste and good writing, even if, as a Childless Woman, I couldn’t actually relate. Well, what happened was this: I found myself not only enjoying the read, but relating. In a major way. Because, as it turns out, the essays are both about mothering and not mothering, about the exultant and the reluctant, the non-mothers by choice, the stepmothers by circumstance, women who will do anything to be come a mother and those who will do anything to not. And in every scenario, the difficulties, joys, fears, the way life is changed for the better and sometimes for the not entirely better. There are celebrations, regrets, and such honesty that it’s really quite impossible not to relate.

In other words, there’s something for everyone. Even me. Because if you’re a woman, you fall into some category where motherhood is concerned. This, whether you like it or not. You have the parts. And if you don’t, that may be the problem, or the celebration, depending on your outlook, your personal goals.

And that it is so personal is what I most enjoyed about the book. The writing, yes, but I wasn’t merely reading, you see, I was being drawn into this conversation, being reminded that yes, I also have a story, some history on this subject. And let’s hear it, the conversation seemed to say, because as you can see, no woman is excluded from this club, for here is a truth: if you’re a woman it’s pretty hard not to have a few thoughts on the motherhood thing.m-word-cover

The book is arranged alphabetically, which happens to fit nicely with its ‘lettery’ title, but more importantly it allows for accidental juxtapositions rather than any kind of predictable narrative.
I read it backwards.

Michele Landsberg in the Afterword, on the surprising role of grandmother: “Even though I haven’t had to consider the effect of a child on my lifestyle, the negative or the positive, less is said about that—guilt? It’s interest/improving to help understand friends who’ve been through it because still decades later they talk about it.”

And on over-thinking, a beautifully rendered piece by Julia Zarankin. “If I have a baby in March, when should my husband begin taking driving lessons?”

Sara Yi-Mei Tsian considers the implications on her work: “Motherhood is a study in conflicts, which is why it attracts me as a writer.” and this… I just love this: “…there is a certain nugget of truth… that all writers would like to avoid. We cannot give voice to a character based on someone real without silencing, at least in part, the person who inspired us.”

Patricia Storms presents a graphic essay about the joy of “working for” kids and living without them. And how that’s not something a lot of people seem to understand.

Kerry Ryan on ambivalence about motherhood: “Do you have to have a maternal instinct from the get-go, or does it kick in with your breast milk? And if not, can you wing it, or is your child destined to become a serial killer?”

Heidi Reimer begins with ambivalence, then an adopted daughter, then gets to the “bone of my bone”, “the flesh of my fleshness” when she gives birth and experiences a different kind of love. “I had made a person! I would never do or become anything more important than this.” (Actually, that statement made me wonder about generations past. Did they feel this rush of omnipotence? Now there’s a conversation.)

To her credit, Reimer is painfully honest when writing about these differences.

“I am in love with Aphra, a feeling as effortless and unstoppable as breathing. My relationship with Maia is more akin to an arranged marriage: I made a choice I believed was right, and through that choice, over time a bond solid and close and beautiful as grown. A connection inextricable. If I am sometimes aware that this love was a choice, if that choice is sometimes taxed, so, too, are my relationships with almost everyone I love. Of the several people integral to my existence, Aphra is the only one who came from my body.”

On single motherhood: Fiona Tinwei Lam writes, “Not wanting to be married didn’t mean I didn’t want to have a child.”

And from Ariel Gordon, the need to protect her writing time and space and the choice to have only one child. “When it came right down to it I didn’t think I could be a working writer with more than one child. And I was unwilling to take a break when my writing and my writing life—the time I spent in the company of other writers at readings and conferences and retreats—were finally starting to gel.”

I admire her conviction, the wisdom to know her limits insofar as achieving her goals and how she sees there is more to give her child than a brother or sister to grow up with… but it’s interesting that the ‘maternal’ concern is still there.  “And so, even though the girl won’t have siblings to lean on… I’m hoping that she can lean on the texts I’ve left behind.”

Nicole Dixon chose to not have kids for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is an over-populated planet and consumerism run amok. More diapers and toys don’t help the situation. She justifies her position with a desire to allow herself to be a good citizen in so many other ways. that parents may not always put first.

“People often think that saying no to having kids means saying no to life. My choice not to have kids, however, is a choice made from love. I’ve realized that the legacy I want to leave on the earth after I’m gone is as small a mark, as tiny a footprint, as possible… My choice not to have kids does not close me off from my community or my planet. Instead, it allows me to nurture my own life and to mother everyone’s mother, Earth.”

Most are young or youngish mothers. Myrl Coulter is perhaps the single entry from a very different generation, and this is nice to see. Her piece on unwed mothers in the 60’s is especially moving. She was eighteen and in love with a seemingly nice guy. But marriage didn’t make sense. She became a ‘girl in trouble’ and was whisked away to one of the maternity homes that existed from the 1940’s through the 80’s.

“To call these places maternity homes is highly ironic: maternity homes were not homes nor did they function to promote maternity. They were institutions to house and hide those deemed maternally inappropriate. Also known as homes for unwed mothers, they were busy places in those days. Winnipeg, a small city, had three.”

These girls were not just thought to have made a bad decision one night in the rumble seat, but their whole character was judged and they were vilified. They were also thought to be without maternal instincts yet, curiously, they were denied contact with the babies they delivered, which only proves that everyone, even judgmental pricks, realizes the connection between mother and child.

**

So yes. I read, I enjoyed, I related, I remembered, and the remembering led me to a few other words. The N-D word for instance, as in Near-Death, because it seems fallopian tubes are not a welcoming environment for growing children and near death follows for the host but, before that, after much mysterious pain, internal bleeding, a severe drop in blood pressure and eventually, in the Emergency Department through an increasing haze as one slowly drifts away, the words: you’re pregnant. The only time I would ever hear that sentence where the ‘you’ was me. I remember it was oddly euphoric, even as I lay nearly dying.

The S word is also in my repertoire. Stepmother. I keep forgetting. Easy enough to do in a society that likes its consumers clearly defined as demographics and that doesn’t apologize for the twisted version of things that results when we slap a narrow label on something as big as ‘mother’.

The bottom line is this: The M-Word does what the best conversations do… it shares the stories of others while reminding you of your own.

**

Small note: If forced to offer a quibble it would only be with the choice of colours for the cover. In an effort to leave the pink and blue behind as we move forward, I’d have preferred anything but.

two things for a holiday monday

1.   Dear Moody Long Weekend Mornings… that conspire to keep their skies grey long enough to insist that I linger in bed fluffed with pillows and layered with pages—books, newspapers—and a pot of tea. Peppermint. Sometimes even going so far as to demand I have a square of dark chocolate.

My deep gratitude.
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AND 2.   Dear Literary Press Group… who sent me a box of books that fit so well in the above-mentioned fluffing and layering. And all I did was like you on FB. How lovely you are, but please know my like is sincere and goes beyond any number of books (having said that, please also know I am beyond thrilled).

As for the books, well, they are perfectly exquisite gifts. The cover of each is a joy in itself.

I’ve already dived deeply into Rosemary Nixon’s Are You Ready to Be Lucky? because how can I do otherwise with an opening that goes: “Roslyn high-steps up Bantry Street on an icy Alberta evening buffeted by late-December gusts, holding high her sixty by forty centimetre tray of pineapple-stuffed meatballs, trying not to look like a woman who, at the yearly No Commitment Book Club Christmas gift exchange, received a can of gravy and… How to Seem Like a Better Person Without Actually Improving Yourself…”

There is also The Wondrous Woo, by Carrianne K.Y. Leung, and The Fleece Era, poetry by Joanna Lilley, which I’ve only peeked at and already love—not to mention that exquisite stock, the typeset, the black flyleaf. The words, did I mention the words? “I don’t look at paintings/ but at the walls on which they hang.”

Then there’s Swarm by Lauren Carter, a mildly dystopian novel about “a world only one turn of the dial from our own”, and a matter of survival by fishing, farming and beekeeping. My sort of thing. Finally—as if this bounty isn’t enough—A History of Breathing, a play by Daniel MacDonald that, based on a quick scan, I can’t wait to properly spend time with.

All of which to say: a thousand thanks, dear Literary Press Group. A box of books is no small event in this house.
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(at) eleven with barbara lambert: the whirling girl

 

I have a thing for Italy. For its food and the sound of its language, for its chianti and soave wines, for the way people yell at you to eat more (I adore people who yell at me to eat more); for what I imagine is the quality of the setting sun in the countryside and the voices from piazzas in the city as heard from a balcony.

I was in Venice once. I was ten. It’s not a romantic story, although I did paddle a gondola. I need to go back. In the meantime, the next best thing is reading and vicarious travel and Barbara Lambert’s The Whirling Girl  is one ticket to that chianti’d world.

In a nutshell: Clare Livingston, a botanical artist, has inherited a house and property in Tuscany from an uncle who leaves a cryptic message in his will.
A message that niggles and eventually works its way into the deeper spaces of her memory, to a place that touches on the painful, and seems so very incongruous with the quality of that setting sun…

She arrives in Tuscany, to claim her house, to wonder about the why of this gift, and with the idea of researching material for a book of flora (the descriptions of the images can be quite steamy) “Those stamens with their delicate stems… striations on the ovary at the centre of this cluster, and the almost-invisible hairs on the closed bud and on the poppy. But a distraction presents itself in the form of an ongoing Etruscan archeological dig and the people involved with it, which, ultimately, changes her life.

There is love. There is magic. There is history and mystery. There is food.whirling_girl_large

“…tagliatelle  with seafood bathed in saffron, and a noble white wine from Montepulciano… a sorbetto  of passion fruit.”

There is a most wonderful character in the form of Marta, a housekeeper, who is every matriarch that ever lived in any society. A woman who understands life, who has a whole lot to teach anyone who cares to learn.

There are unicorns. As metaphor anyway, insofar as representing that you either believe in something or you don’t; that not everything is provable. This is no small philosophy as Clare tries to unearth her uncomfortable past and to weigh the realities of the present.

Have I mentioned the humour? Lambert writes with a dry wit: “A word of warning, though. Never try to carry a fountain pen through airport security in Brazil. They’re terrified you’ll barge up into the cockpit and try to write a sonnet.”

Annabel Lyon calls this a fairytale for grownups  and I agree. It has just that quality. It’s a book of revealing history, in relationships and in society, the things we search for, what’s left behind, and why. It’s also about a small slice of Italy, a place its author clearly adores. At its essence though, it’s a book about the importance of finding something to believe in—starting with yourself.

But enough from me… I’m thrilled to present, by way of Eleven Questions, Ms. Lambert herself… to whom I’m so very grateful for taking this time.

So, without further ado, the extremely bellissimo  Barbara Lambert…

1.   What literary character did you want to be as a child?

BL— Bagheera, from The Jungle Book — the first story I recall my mother reading to me (the Rudyard Kipling original version). And now, reminded what a thrilling character Bagheera is, I can’t resist quoting two passages. (Substitute “she” for “he”, and imagine a tiny girl becoming that glorious powerful creature):

“A black shadow dropped down into the circle … inky black all over, but with the panther markings showing up in certain lights like the pattern of watered silk. Everybody knew Bagheera, and nobody cared to cross his path, for he was as cunning as Tabaqui, as bold as the wild buffalo, and as reckless as the wounded elephant. But he had a voice as soft as wild honey dripping from a tree, and a skin softer than down.”

And here, “she” speaks for herself:

“I had never seen the jungle, they fed me behind bars from an iron pan till one night I felt I was Bagheera – the panther – and no man’s plaything, and I broke the silly lock with one blow of my paw and came away; and because I had learned the ways of men, I became more terrible in the jungle than Shere Khan.”

2.   What’s a favourite passage from any book, and why?

BL— I am currently reading the collected stories of Anton Chekhov, in 13 volumes, some already familiar to me (or so I’d thought), and many more that I’d never come upon. I remembered The Kiss as a brilliant “Chekhovian” example of a story in which nothing – and at the same time everything – happens. But I had forgotten the searing poignancy of the final sentence, summing up as it does the entire future of a young soldier, in one lethal blow.

“For an instant there was a flash of joy in Ryabovitch’s heart, but he quenched it at once, got into bed, and in his wrath with his fate, as though to spite it, did not go to the General’s.”

3.   Do you sometimes find themes in your work that you weren’t aware of?

BL— What an interesting thought. And looking over my answer to your first question, I’m wondering if those passages appeal to me particularly because in my own work I do seem to keep dealing with people who secretly picture themselves as capable of dropping down like black shadows, but who may never break the locks imposed by their need for safety, self defeat. Is this what The Whirling Girl is really all about? Art and archaeology, yes, and love and lies, as the jacket suggests: but at heart, the exploration of a character so imprisoned by secrets in her past, that in truth even I kept wondering, as her “Tuscan adventure” progressed, whether she’d ever be able to break free?

4.   My theory is that we write what we need to learn. Not directly, of course, but on some, perhaps, subconscious level. So, if that’s true, what do you think you were “exploring” in writing The Whirling Girl? (Of course you may well debunk this theory.)

BL— It’s hard for me to separate out what I needed to learn as a person from what I needed (and need!) to learn as a writer. At first I was going to talk about archaeology, here, as I certainly did need to learn a lot about that fascinating discipline. But on reflection, what I most needed to learn was to trust my characters, trust their true natures I mean: not merely to allow those characters go the way they needed to go in the story, but to look really closely at what their story was: and also, not let them bamboozle me into looking away from some things they wanted to hide.

There is one particular episode in my central character’s background that she really didn’t want to look at; and for a long time I didn’t look squarely at it, either. I changed it, made it less creepy. I suspect that, subconsciously, I feared that readers would also find this episode a place they did not want to go. I have to thank my brilliant editor, Marc Coté, for catching me out on that, giving me the courage to write my complex character Clare as she truly was. What did I learn? Well, aside from what a huge mistake it is to try to appease readers, I hope I have learned to trust the true needs of my characters – and to develop the kind of ruthless bullshit detector that a fiction writer needs, to tell the truth.

5.   We have to talk about the cover, from a Charles Pachter painting. How did it become “yours” … because it’s perfect.

BL— I’m so glad you think so. Choosing a cover (or just “okaying” one) is a crucial and hair-raising business. But I was lucky. Angel Guerra, of Archetype Design, has done many brilliant covers for Cormorant Books, and when my editor sent me a selection of Angel’s ideas I immediately fell for the detail he’d zeroed in on from Charles Pachter’s painting, “The Party”. There’s a theory that a book cover should not show images of people “full face” for fear or supplanting the reader’s own idea of what the character or characters might look like. (That’s why you see so many showing the back of someone’s head against an evocative scene of some sort.) But the secretive and dreamy and perhaps guileful expression on the face of the woman in the painting struck me as so revealing of Clare’s inner nature…. Plus the whole scene is so rich and compelling. I wanted to be at that party. I hoped that anyone who saw the book would want to be there too. So when I learned that Charles Pachter had given his permission for Cormorant to use the image, I felt very lucky indeed to have work by such an iconic Canadian artist grace my novel.

6.   I’m interested in how characters develop. How do you get to know yours? Do you outline, assign qualities and give them strict orders, or do you allow them to surprise you en route? If the latter, can you share one of those surprises?

BL— I suspect that the process, if I can call it that, goes back to before I was school age, an only child on an Okanagan orchard, where I spent most of my time wandering around under the trees “imagining”. I didn’t realize I was making up stories – or that later in life the imagining process might lead to writing. The people in the adventures I made up were not pretend friends though. I never imagined myself as part of that gang of bold girls who swung through the jungle on vines to rescue captured princesses in Indian temples, or out-rode and out-shot bad guys in the wild west, or captivated the hearts of desert sheiks, generally by astounding skill with very sharp scimitars – leaving the whole veiled dancing thing to shadowy others. Though now I do recall that those adventures would often involve a delicious moment when — veiled, or crinolined, or meekly aproned — one of those girls would throw off the socially demanded bonds, and flash a hidden six-gun or scale a mountain peak to rescue the handsome man who’d somehow foolishly come a cropper, thereby winning his stunned admiration and love.

So now your question has made me wonder if what most interests me about the men and women who inhabit my adult imagination is whether they are also packing hidden six-guns so to speak, in the form of suppressed emotions, histories, desires: and whether they are going to turn those powerful forces on themselves, to subvert their own desires, or if they will manage to call on them, at last, to free themselves?

Certainly, as a writer, the moments when a character does burst the bonds of what I’d scripted are the most exciting moments. One example in The Whirling Girl involves the young Italian, Gianni, whose imagination frequently leaps beyond the practical. He runs a sanctuary for endangered species. Clare – who is trying to resist falling disastrously in love with him — has not allowed herself to take his elaborate and fanciful plans too seriously, till, unexpectedly, he makes up a poem for her — of the names of all the butterflies in Europe that have gone extinct. And she is sunk. So was I.

7.   “Tonight a man who believed in unicorns would take Clare Livingston to a wedding that had happened seven hundred years before.”The Whirling Girl has a distinctly ethereal feel at times, the beauty of the Tuscan landscape, the heat, mysterious doings, the unicorns! Okay, the last is merely an in-joke between characters, but so appropriate in this enchanted tale. In the acknowledgements, you refer [tongue in cheek?] to long hours in a hammock… My question is this: how much effect did place have on the style and tone of the novel? [In other words, what would have been different were it not for that hammock…? Be it real or metaphoric.]

BL— I think place had everything to do with the style and tone of the novel. But there’s nothing metaphoric about that hammock. On my initial trip to Tuscany, day-long explorations of the countryside almost always ended with me settling into the gently gently-swaying netting outside the 500-year-old mill house where we stayed, in the valley below the ancient hill town of Cortona. Journal in hand, I’d begin to record the day’s adventures; and even then — well before I began conjuring up a novel set in that countryside — as I drifted off into a sweet rocking snooze, “she” began creeping into my thoughts – someone who (unlike me) might never have to leave this enchanting setting, Now who would she be…? Many pages of my Tuscan journals are tinted grassy-green where the book slipped from the writer’s hands and the scent of flowering lime trees drifted in, spinning magic in my dreams.

But as to unicorns, I must protest. The young man (Gianni) really did believe in them: as a symbol, at the very least, of the possibility — if we humans put all our energy and belief into imagining the seemingly impossible – that we can, by practical effort, save our expiring world.

8.   What was it about Etruscan history that compelled you to write this book?

BL— The Etruscans played no part in my original concept for the novel. But the longer I spent in Tuscany, on succeeding trips, the more fascinated I became by this puzzling race that once ruled almost the whole of Italy, and who — after their conquest by the Romans — disappeared almost completely from the historical record. When their culture did come to light again, little by little, it was mainly through the contents of their underground tombs. But what a culture! The twelve hilltop cities of the Etruscan League were architectural dazzlers looming over countryside made fertile by brilliantly engineered irrigation schemes. At the society’s peak, Etruscan merchant ships dominated the surrounding seas, bringing back riches to their avidly-collecting families. Indeed, it’s thanks to their love of finely-crafted objects that we know so much about Greek society of the same period; for the majority of the famous Attic pottery in museums around the world, with those finely-painted and detailed scenes, were discovered in Etruscan tombs, part of the furnishings the wealthy intended to take along to the “after world”. Those same tombs give us proof that Etruscan women were powerful and literate (a unique combo in ancient times) and stunningly dressed and be-jewelled (we are talking about the “elites” of course; though tomb frescoes do portray the clothing and accouterments of many levels of society in fascinating detail). The Etruscans were avid lovers of food and wine and dance, too, as so many frescoes reveal.

Yet here is a conundrum. This was a culture deeply steeped in religion and a sense of fate.

It was this split mind-set that particularly intrigued me, in relation to my novel. The Etruscans believed that their civilization would last just ten generations. And indeed that was almost exactly its span before it was swallowed by the Romans. How did one thing work upon the other? Did a priestly assurance that it would all end (and when) spur on the vibrant and uncannily beautiful art objects of every sort that they created: even the most every-day utensils packing a wallop of intriguing design? Did this ominous foreknowledge set them free to live with an artistic intensity not seen again until the Renaissance? Or is this theory “a load of codswollop!” (as one of the characters in the novel kept declaring, though in the end he got edited out)? In any case, an aspect of comparable tension between two very different cultural traits seemed to seep in and enrich what I came to know about my central character, Clare: an artist, and idealist — living an undermining life of secrets and lies.

9.   Marta is a favourite character, a sort of inherited housekeeper. She doesn’t have a lot of ‘stage time’ but, in her own way, is essential to the quality of life on the Tuscan property. This is true of so many matriarchs, especially those in patriarchal societies. What drew you to this quality? How is she different from Clare? And… how did she come to have her own blog on your website where she so passionately discusses tradition and food?

BL— Marta has always felt to me to be a downright gift. I don’t know where she came from. She just plonked herself down in the novel and everything she said or did felt right, what a gift indeed. So really, all I can say is that this is what drew me to her, and that through her I felt the novel was able to connect with some essential qualities of Tuscan country life. Also, thinking it over now, I liked that she was so much the opposite of the members of the quasi-aristocracy whom Clare, for better or worse, shortly becomes involved with. But how is Marta different from Clare? Perhaps, not very. They both have their shifty aspects, don’t they: and Marta’s canniness is certainly match for Clare’s secretive nature.

As to Marta’s blogging career: Not long after the novel was published, I was out walking – feeling a little blue, because I’d spent so long on the novel, and I just plain missed being in Tuscany. For that matter I missed the whole process of being immersed in the writing. I started thinking of an early scene, the one where Marta Dottorelli first appears, with a bag of nettles that she’s gathered by the roadside on her way. Marta starts making a pot of nettle soup. She insists that Clare sit down and eat it, which Clare is dubious about…. And as I walked, suddenly a voice popped into my head. “Don’t make me have to tell you how you got that wrong!” Marta’s voice. Complaining that not only did I, the author, know nothing about making nettle soup, but that I knew nothing nothing nothing about her life, and had absolutely no business trying to trap her inside a novel, and that she had not the least intention of staying there. Well. I rushed home and channeled that voice, setting up a blog (starting with her recipe for Nettle Soup) where right off the bat she sets things right about what life on a Tuscan farm is like, and how I have got everything wrong not just with her life but with Clare’s life. And since then, every now and then, a new recipe of hers appears, often with seasonal descriptions of her life, and always with something snarky to say about “that writer”. There are a number of her recipes up there now, at: http://www.barbaralambert.com/writer/author/books/161-Tuscan%2BRecipes/subject/11

10.  Which do you find harder to write… the first sentence or the last? What was the first scene [you wrote] of The Whirling Girl? And did you always know how it would end?

BL —Often a story starts for me with the final sentence popping into my head. And the question: Okay, so who is this about, what’s been going on? But with everything I’ve ever written, by the time I get to the end, that sentence has to go. The first scene I wrote of The Whirling Girl involved Clare driving up the Italian autostrada to Cortona to the property she’d inherited from her uncle. It gave me a huge amount of trouble, draft after draft. There seemed to be so much information I had to get in, right at the start. Eventually I somewhat resolved this by starting with her uncle’s obituary instead. But (a confession) when I do readings, now, from the start of the novel, there are still a few bits that seem superfluous, which I chop. As to whether I always knew how the novel would end — yes. But, in this case, not just the final sentence got cut, but – in a very last-minute edit — the final several paragraphs. A Wow moment.

11.  Choices:

Pasta or Pizza? Pasta

Chianti or Coffee? I refuse to choose.

Ocean or Lake? Lake (if it can be either Trasimeno or the Okanagan)

Thesaurus or Dictionary? Can’t live without either but the Thesaurus comes more frequently into play.

Primary or Pastel? Can I go with some rich in-between shades, like for example (quoting from the novel) terra rosa, ultramarine, moonglow, raw umber…?

Salmon or Steak? Salmon.

Poetry or Song? That’s tough. But I’ll have to say “song”.

Theatre or Film? Theatre.

Canoe or Bike? Canoe.

Cherry or Eggplant? Well I live on a cherry orchard, so…! On the other hand, I hear Marta’s got a bumper crop of eggplant this summer. I wonder…!

Florence or Rome? Florence.

andre-kertesz_the_fork_1928_500px

 Matilda’s Menu for The Whirling Girl

 Antipasti

Zuppa di Ortiche (Nettle Soup)

Pasta Puttanesca

Spiedini al Limone (Skewered Meat in Lemon Juice)

Insalata Verde

Melone di Vino Dolce (Melon with Sweet Wine)

Pan Forte

(But I’m a mere amateur. For the REAL meal to eat with this book,
talk to Marta…)

lambert571 highresBarbara Lambert’s novel The Whirling Girl was published in the fall of 2012. Her previous work includes A Message for Mr. Lazarus (2000) and The Allegra Series (1999). She has won the Danuta Gleed Award for Best First Collection of Short Fiction and The Malahat Review Novella Prize, and been a finalist for the Ethel Wilson Prize and the Journey Prize. Lambert is currently editor of Dr. Johnson’s Corner, an online gathering place for writers too in love with their own words. Further information about The Whirling Girl and Lambert’s previous work is available at: www.barbaralambert.com .

The Whirling Girl is available online at Blue Heron Books. Support indies!

 

 

 

 

 

this is not a review — ‘in the spice house’, by marnie woodrow

 
Only just recently discovered this quirky and quite lovely book, published in 1996—another testament to the riches that are CanLit and the fact that so many gems are present for but a moment, before the next thing takes its place… for but a moment.

In other words, it’s easy to miss a few.

I divide books into four categories: new-new, old-new, old favourites, and books I’ve heard nothing about and got merely on a whim. Often, that’s where the treasures are found and, to be honest, it’s my favourite pile. No prejudice nor expectation, no hoopla to live up to… a book from this pile can just be a book.
[Is it just me or does it seem that titles receiving the most hoopla are very often the least hoopla-worthy, while so many gems fly under the radar….]

Blather aside, in the spice house was a delicious find indeed. And a much-needed palate cleanser from the recently hoopla’d.

The food references are not accidental.

Each story [there are 16] in this collection centres around or focuses on or incorporates food and relationships in bold and unexpected ways, which, in my world, is more important than plot. Although there’s plenty of that detail also.

In ‘Mamamilk’ a woman is confronted by a child she lost due to neglect and other slovenly habits. ‘Belly’ is a bit of sarcastic pleasure about home ownership. It begins: “I’m holding a brunch in honour of my lucky friends, the ones with two-car garages and split level lives.” [FYI: brunch takes an ominous turn.]  ‘Suck’ is about a chef who loses all self control while watching people eat, and ‘King Cake’ offers up traditional New Orleans fare along with some distinctly original revenge. In ’32 Flavours’ a rapist rues the day he walked into an ice-cream parlour. ‘To Market To Market’ takes us on a ride in more ways than one, and in ‘Obvious Need and Senseless Longing’ Elizabeth David’s death leads to a dangerous romance with the knife obsessed. It begins, “I gave up drinking in favour of buying cookbooks.” 

The shortest piece is ‘One Lip’, a sort of fairy tale about the end of love and its inherent difficulties.41twt9hKaVL__SL500_AA300_

The longest, ‘Madame Frye’, is about an unhappily married woman who works in a fish and chips shop and longs to go to Bora Bora or have an affair with a patron named Melinda, whichever comes first. It takes the form of something like diary entries, alternating in the wife’s voice and that of her ultra savvy daughter Penny [it’s her voice that makes it].

The stories are short, bite-sized things, and written in prose that feels like a conversation over lunch with some wonderfully wild and free-thinking companion who never uses the same voice twice in her ‘tellings’—here, listen to this one, each narrator seems to be saying as we sip our Chardonnay, break a piece of baguette, lean forward.

And then we start on the cheese, the olives, order some more wine, all the while leaning in even further…

Viva long-lost gems.

 

(at) eleven with fran kimmel: the shore girl

They’re everywhere. A certain kind of young mother, single, unemployed, pushing prams, kids in tow as they walk and walk… yet something suggests there’s no real destination—that hours, days, years, are merely something to get through… until… what?  More kids maybe, another guy, another unfortunate choice. Because for some people life is a series of unfortunate choices or, worse, unfortunate events. Whatever the reason, they keep moving, these mothers, as if in the hope it’ll all somehow ‘become’ right. They’re recognizable—not by any expression of hope—but by their sadness, sometimes by the look of fear in their eyes. We worry about them for a moment but mostly do nothing. We wring our hands for the children: what chance do they stand?
and then we drive on by…

This is the impression we take. We of the narrow minds.

Fran Kimmel either doesn’t have a narrow mind or is just a lot brighter than many of us. Or more aware. Her book The Shore Girl, the story of Rebee Shore, shows the world of single The%20Shore%20Girl_1motherhood and their kids from the inside out, through a child’s eyes and [in dedicated chapters] through the eyes of everyone who is—by blood or choice—connected to her.

But there’s a difference: Rebee’s mother [Elizabeth, who prefers to go by Harmony] isn’t a pram pushing sort of mum. She’s on the run, rejecting her past and doing her best to dodge the present, which happens to include her daughter. From infancy into her teens, Rebee’s life alternates between moving constantly from van to motel to trailer to relative’s couch. “… Harmony gets restless. For her, a new place has a three-month expiry date, same as fruit bars.”

And if she’s not moving with her mother, she’s being temporarily abandoned by her.

In other words, the kid has every reason to be angry, to follow suit, to make a mess of her life. She has the excuses. But that’s not what happens. Rebee is one of those miracles who, instead of becoming resentful, learns through the very debris of her childhood that she has to be strong because her mother is preoccupied just keeping them alive.

“I thought how rage must hurt in the beginning,
but a person gets so used to it, she thinks it’s
a heat a body’s supposed to feel.”

She gets it.

It’s why she keeps a box of fingernail clippings, mostly Harmony’s, the various shades of nail polish reminding her of places they’ve stayed; it’s the only constant in her life, the only thing that reminds her of where she’s been and the only part of her mother that she can protect from disappearing.

“We rumble along the highway under a watery sky, past wheat rolled into giant soup cans, cows frozen in muck. I think about where we just came from. I can’t remember the colour of the walls or feel of the curtains or shape of the bathroom sink. Blank as water, like on a test day in a new school and I end up at the fountain, gulping, drowning… I slip off my runners and slide my toe across my bag until it touches my nail box. We’ll get to wherever we’re going tonight… I’ll wait awhile. Sprinkle the brittle bits on my blanket. Sift them like seashells.”

While often told from Rebee’s perspective, it’s very much Harmony’s story too, one that has her cemented in shame and anger.

All that and yet… The Shore Girl  is ultimately hopeful. It’s about connection, the small and unfathomable ways we touch each other and thereby save each other. About reclaiming what’s ours and how family comes in various forms. It’s about getting beyond what’s ‘normal’. About using the scraps you’ve been tossed.

Above all, it reminds us that our story is never obvious to others, nor is it entirely ours alone.

**

As is customary with the (at) Eleven series, a meal of my choosing—appropriate to the book—follows the Q&A, because… “Eating is our earliest metaphor, preceding our consciousness of gender difference, race, nationality, and language. We eat before we talk.”  ~Margaret Atwood from The Can Lit Food Book

And now, without further ado, may I introduce Fran Kimmel… who I thank so very much for her time, her insight and her kind heart.

**

1.   What literary character did you most identify with as a child?

FK—As a young kid, I devoured Trixie Beldon books. I loved all her insecurities and her grumbling about chores and homework and brothers.

2.   Can you recall one of your earliest pieces? (Crayola poem, a finger-painting storyboard…?)

FK—Okay, here goes:

Across the shadow of the moon and ever so slowly gliding

Through the leafy-figured trees, a starlit shape was sliding

Up and down with swirling streaks, across the snowy hills

With patterns of rejoicing grace, and lacy moving frills

It’s so bad, it’s memorable. This poem won a contest in Grade 4 and I had to read it in front of the whole school on assembly day. I cried a lot beforehand, trying to get out of going on stage, but neither my teacher nor my mother would give in. I made it to the end without collapsing, but this marked the end of my poetry career.  (Likely a good thing)

3.   What were you reading at fifteen?

FK—Girl gets boy stories, killer gets caught stories, town goes berserk stories, world on verge of collapse stories. Lots of junk sprinkled with a hearty dose of the Bronte sisters, which I could not get enough of back then.

4.   Can you describe what was on the bookshelves, or on one specific shelf, in your childhood home?

FK—While my sisters and I usually had stacks of library books beside our beds, our family bookshelves were pretty sparse. I remember a shiny set of A-Z Encyclopaedias with more pictures than words, as well as a few volumes of Girl’s Own Annuals, leftovers from Grandma’s house. These were huge tomes from the 1930s, 800 plus pages, packed with illustrated stories and ridiculous amounts of sage advice about how to sit still,  take care of your stockings, or knit the perfect skating outfit.  Hah!

5.   A favourite passage from any book and why.

FK—This is such a hard question. Every week I read a new passage that blows me away. But here is a long-time favourite taken from Girls by Frederick Busch.

“The dog and I live where it doesn’t snow. I can’t look at snow and stay calm. Sometimes it gets so warm, I wear navy blue uniform shorts with a reinforced long pocket down the left hip for the radio. I patrol on foot and sometimes on a white motor scooter, and it’s hard for me to believe, a cop on a scooter in shorts. But someone who enforces the law, laws, somebody’s laws, fall down like that. Whether it’s because he drinks or takes money or swallows amphetamines or has to be powerful, or he’s one of those people who is always scared or because he’s me, that’s how he goes—state or federal agency or a big-city police force, down to working large towns or the dead little cities underneath the Great Lakes, say, then down to smaller towns, then maybe a campus, maybe a mall, or a hotel that used to be fine.”

This quiet, understated passage comes early on, page two. With these words alone, the reader is given everything needed to fall hard for Jack, the book’s main character. Such tension and bitter regret here, the unravelling of a life. You know Jack will get only halfway near the harsh truth, but you’re rooting for him already. My favourite passages and phrases are almost always deceptively simple.  The eight-word sentence, “I can’t look at snow and stay calm,” gives me shivers.

6.   Do you ever find recurring themes in your work, things that surprise you?

FK—I seem to want to write about life’s damages. (My husband grumbles, Can’t you try to be a bit funny?) And it does surprise me that loss keeps coming back again and again. I’m not sure why exactly, except that I’ve been forever interested in the fragile connections that hold us together and what happens when these connections are broken.  I think I’m drawn to what I don’t want to know about myself.

7.   The Shore Girl opens with the heartbreaking scene of Rebee as a toddler, alone in a motel room, thirsty for a glass of water and yet reluctant to disobey the parent who isn’t there. How do children like Rebee manage to find such resilience?

FK—I’m left speechless by what children are able to endure. I think that kids like Rebee are always on the outside looking in, which gives them a lot of time to observe and to reflect on what they’re observing.  They learn to somehow distance themselves emotionally (and physically) from the source of their heartache. Some of these kids – the lucky ones – are able to become stronger in the process. I’ve met some amazing women at book clubs who endured childhoods much like Rebee’s and they’ve gone on to lead brilliant lives.

8.   Rebee’s mother, ‘Harmony’, is a wonderfully drawn character, and the only one [of the central cast] that we don’t hear from directly. She’s alluded to, pined for, despised, misunderstood, tolerated, fallen in love with; she makes us want to give her a shake one minute and then breaks our heart the next. No matter what, she’s the ‘always elephant in the room’ There’s an expectation, a desire to hear Harmony tell her side of things, yet if she did, the book would be less. It’s the very absence of Harmony’s voice that creates the character; she emerges as both the problem and the appeal and the lack of her own platform is a kind of metaphor for her life, also her choices. The ‘silence’ fits her confusion and her abdication of so many things and, most importantly, it reflects for the reader some of the mystery, frustration and longing that Rebee feels. My question is this: how did you ever find the courage [read: wisdom] to NOT give her a platform? It surely must have been tempting to do otherwise. [and I’m guessing she probably kicked up quite a fuss!]

FK—Harmony did kick up a huge fuss. She was a powerful presence underneath everything else that went on in this book, and I was inside her head and heart all the way through. I feel a huge swell of tenderness towards Harmony, but if I had given her a voice, she would have taken over the book and the story would be hers and hers alone.  I wanted more for Rebee than that. It took me a ridiculously long time to figure this out.

9.   Was there any unexpected outcome in writing the book that you might share? (I’m thinking of characters that resisted where you wanted them to go or who walked on or off the stage spontaneously; something you discovered in research, elements that you cut/added because of info gleaned ‘en route’…)

FK—The book itself was its own unexpected outcome. I’d been writing short stories for some time and this, too, began as just that – a short story about Rebee and her fingernail clippings.  After I sold the fingernail story, I thought well that’s that, but then I’d wake up night thinking about her. I wanted to know what it would feel like to run across a girl like Rebee, a girl who stumbles out of a run-down van, bedraggled, and then just disappears again. Who would reach out to her? Who would turn away? I wrote and wrote, character after character, story after story. It wasn’t until a long way in that I started to see these pieces melding into a book.

In earlier drafts, I had a large section told from the town’s point of view after Rebee moved to Chesterfield. And a section by a crusty old neighbour named Gunther who I absolutely adored. But in the end, I cut huge swaths and whittled the writing down to this small band of characters who I felt told Rebee’s story best. On a side note, I didn’t intend for Joey to keep puking. No matter how many times I wrote that out, I’d turn around, and he’d puked again.

10.  In your opinion, what are some positives in the ‘new publishing industry’?

FK—Since the self-publishing industry has blown wide open, there is an infinitely large space for writers who want to go it alone. New spaces for writers is a positive. Some excellent books are coming online that might not have made it past the gatekeepers in the old publishing world.  This brings a crazy surplus of junk, too, but that’s a whole other issue.

And despite doom and gloom forecasts, small independent publishers are still alive and well in Canada. If I want to be assured of a good reading pick, I check out my favourite inde publishers’ new line up and am seldom disappointed.

11.  Choices:

Pen or Keyboard? Keyboard definitely. In a coffee shop, I’m one of those high-maintenance laptop users who pulls out the wireless mouse and huge portable keyboard and cushy wrist rest.

Tent or Trailer? Tent trailer.  I love the smell of canvas and all the zipping before bed, a solid floor beneath my feet and the half-aluminum door between me and the bears.

Poetry or Song? Leonard Cohen.

Theatre or Film? Film if I want to kick back and absorb. Theatre if I want to lean in and participate. I love both (but nothing coming out of Hollywood these days).

Prairie or Lake? Yellow fields and the big, open sky. Although prairie lakes are pretty cool too.

eReading or Paper?  Paper. I keep promising to buy myself an e-reader, but really, how serious can I be.

Salad or Cheese? I’ve become a bit more flexible since my tuna-salad decade, but lunch without lettuce doesn’t work for me. I throw in everything I can find, including lots of cheese.

andre-kertesz_the_fork_1928_500px

Matilda’s Menu for The Shore Girl:

Peanut Butter on Graham Crackers

Choice of grape juice or bottomless pitcher of cool, fresh water

Wintergreen Lifesavers for dessert

(to be eaten in the dark)

◊♦◊

Fran 2013 for CarinBorn and raised in Calgary, Fran Kimmel has worked all kinds of jobs including youth worker, career counselor, proposal writer, communications coordinator, and VP for a career consulting firm. Fran’s short stories have appeared in a number of anthologies, including twice in The Journey Prize Stories, and her first novel, The Shore Girl, was a 2013 Canada Reads Top Forty selection and winner of the 2013 Alberta Readers’ Choice Award.  Fran now writes and teaches in the small prairie town of Lacombe, Alberta, where she lives with her husband and overly enthusiastic Labrador retriever. www.frankimmel.com

The Shore Girl is published by NeWest Press.

this is not a review: indian horse by richard wagamese

 

I didn’t know exactly what to expect when I began reading Richard Wagamese’s Indian Horse . Everyone seems to be talking about it, I’d seen reviews, it’s a Canada Reads contender. I knew there was hockey. I’d heard the descriptions: ‘powerful’, ‘stunning’, ‘heartbreaking’. But I hadn’t heard the details.

Now I understand why.

The details are hard to talk about, hard to accept. Harder still to read but impossible to stop reading.

The in-a-nutshell version is this: An Ojibway man who is a mess due to a family history of residential schools, booze and unemployment, ends up in rehab after almost making it to the NHL.

If you think you’ve heard the story before, believe me, you haven’t. Not like this.

The book opens with images of life before the white man, before indigenous peoples were made to accept a pittance for the job of helping the government devastate their own land, before they beganindianhorse trading berries for bottles.

It soon moves ahead a few generations with the focus on Saul Indian Horse’s childhood and family: a nurturing grandmother; a father who’s fine when he’s working but work for Indians is rare; a mother who is already a wreck from her own years at residential school and is now forced to watch as her children are taken to the same place, one at gunpoint.

Saul himself ends up at the school—where, among other atrocities, children die standing up, bodies hang from rafters, wrists are slashed on bathroom floors and a young girl fills her pockets with stones and calmly walks into the creek to drown. Where another child, already dead inside, speaks matter-of-factly about the priest and the nuns coming to her in the night to share “god’s love”.

“They called it a school, but it was never that….There were no tests or examinations. The only test was our ability to survive.”

Despite the horrors there is not a trace of rancour in the writing, not one gratuitous scene to drive home a point. Quite the opposite in fact. Wagamese wields a strong but subtle hand on the subject, the power being in what’s left unsaid. One gets the terrible idea that what Saul knows, what any of us know, is merely the tip of the iceberg.

How Wagamese kept what must be his own deeply rooted feelings out of the story, focussing only on Saul, telling The Bigger Story through him… is a feat not many writers manage, much less manage so beautifully.

“When your innocence is stripped from you, when your people are denigrated, when the family you came from is denounced and your tribal ways and rituals are pronounced backward, primitive, savage, you come to see yourself as less than human. That is hell on earth, that sense of unworthiness.”

Escape for Saul comes in the form of hockey—and these are some of the most beautiful passages in the book. While I can watch a game and be soothed by the sound of skates on ice, puck meeting wood—even though I really know very little about what’s going on—I didn’t think I’d like reading about hockey and it was one of the reasons I initially hesitated picking up the book. Turns out reading about hockey the way Wagamese writes it is an utter joy, even for someone who doesn’t know a crease from a blue line. The passion and lyricism of those chapters could easily be applied to a description of any artist or athlete doing what they love.

Saul has the talent of a Gretzky or a Crosbie and he moves quickly up the ranks, becomes a local hero where ‘hockey brings unity to a fractured society’ and “Every reserve in the North had a team.” But the system has him move up even higher, to minor leagues, to big city games in the south where an Indian on skates is an event, a cause for racist headlines, jeering and jokes.

“During one game [the fans] broke into a ridiculous war chant whenever I stepped onto the ice…. When I scored, the ice was littered with plastic Indian dolls… A cartoon in one of the papers showed me in a hockey helmet festooned with eagle feathers, holding a war lance instead of a hockey stick.”

What once was his salvation proves to be just another thing that belongs to the white man. Hockey is metaphor for the “white man’s game”… the game of life. They expect him to play the role of savage Indian, and eventually, fueled by a lifetime of suppressed rage, and against his better instincts, he obliges them.

From there he spirals down until he’s at the New Dawn Rehab Centre where he discovers perhaps the most difficult layer of his past [a shocker I did not see coming…] and begins the long process of healing.

This is the part of the book that was hardest to take. We white folk in Canada pride ourselves on our multiculturalism, our supposedly easy acceptance of all races. But we don’t talk about the aboriginal population when we talk about race and racism. We don’t talk about the aboriginal population at all. Because, well, they live “up there somewhere” and very little that happens to them is reported in mainstream media, and even when it is, it’s a news blip not a serious problem. Contaminated water in Walkerton? A very big deal. Heads rolled. In Attawapiskat? Where’s that?

Ditto mould, insufficient housing, suicide.

But it’s not that we don’t care, it’s that we don’t know.

The Idle No More Movement has shown, at least to some degree, that there are large numbers of us, people of all description, that do care. And we crave information. Yes, we can ferret it out online, but perhaps the day has come where equal air time and ink in mainstream media is given to aboriginal issues.

The long and short of it is this: we know too little about the history of native communities. For this reason books like Indian Horse are important in that they convey a hard story that needs not only to be told to heal the teller—but heard, to help heal our world.

Indian Horse  is available for purchase on-line at Blue Heron Books. 

And Hunter Street Books.

Support indies!