I’ve said before on this blog that Margaret Laurence is my number 1 favorite author. It is because of her I fell in love with Canadian Literature and reading in general. Laurence died relatively young and had very little output after her magnum-opus, The Diviners, was published. Over the years, I kept a few of Laurence’s works on reserve for future reading because I don’t like the finality of reading everything she has published. He last book, and only major work after The Diviners, is her posthumously published 1989 memoir Dance on the Earth. Laurence died in 1987, shortly after completing a semi-final draft and before publication. In the foreword, her daughter Jocelyn does an excellent job of describing the last few months of Laurence’s life and the rush and struggle to finish this book. Her cause of death wasn’t actually revealed until James King’s biography was published many years later. There is no particular reason why I decided to read this now, I just felt that it was time. Dance on the Earth was an excellent coda on the writing career of a masterful author. In fact, this strong woman being ripped from this world while writing her memoirs could even be described as Laurence-esque.
Laurence crafts an autobiography that is all her own. She doesn’t follow a standard A-to-B-to-C structure. Instead, she frames each of the four primary chapters in terms of the important mothers in her life: her biological mother, her step-mother, her mother-in-law, and finally herself. Within each of these frames, Laurence discusses the major events, important people, and central places that made her who she was and helped shape her pacifist and feminist views. Interestingly, she doesn’t really get into discussing her own writing until the chapter where she focuses on herself. Laurence gets into her state-of-mind with her works, her reactions of reviewers, her dislike of the publicity/business end of it, and why The Diviners was her last major work. This section more than the rest is really a fascinating glimpse into a brilliant creative mind. Additionally, the memoir is peppered with wonderful letters between Laurence and others, with the letters to Adele Wiseman being a definite highlight.
The main bulk of the book is written with the same understated powerful prose that punctuated her Manawaka cycle, except Laurence herself takes the place of Hagar, Rachael, Stacey, Vanessa, and Morag. She is very open, vulnerable, and pulls no punches. My one negative critique of the book is some of the items included in the “Afterwords” section. The previously published essays, including articles on nuclear disarmament, feminism, and a convocation address were fantastic, they were wonderfully written, articulate, and quite persuasive in their arguments. But, the poems that were included were not that great. It upsets me a little bit that the final work of Laurence’s career is concluded with a bit of mediocre poetry that seems to have been written for personal occasions, not publication. I’m sure this was an editorial decision made after Laurence had left us.
It’s clear that Margaret Laurence knew her life was coming to an end (as we now know she made the decision herself on when it would end). This was also clear in the way the memoir ended. She seemed to wrap things up quickly and almost suddenly because she knew that’s how it had to be. This is not a criticism of the book or even something that takes away from it. Instead it further punctuates that the fact that this great author had a lot more to give to our country, even if her prime writing days were behind her.
Finalist for the 2002 Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Prize
Finalist for the 2002 City of Vancouver Book Prize
Golf season is winding down so I guess it’s time to start reviewing some books again. I recently moved my bookshelves around and I wanted to read a book from the top shelf of the first case, which happens to be my paperback non-fiction shelf. The book that caught my eye was Bart Campbell’s The Door is Open: Memoir of a Soup Kitchen Volunteer.
This memoir tells the story of a hospital lab technician who volunteers at a drop in centre in Vancouver’s East Hastings area after he and his wife separate. Across Canada, East Hastings has the reputation of being a very poor, hard, and drug and crime infested area. Images are conjured up of prostitutes, heroin, and destitution. This memoir was published in 2001 so it was before the opening of the safe-injection site InSite, and other focused government efforts, started to make a very small dent in the visible poverty.
This book is very short, with the epilogue it clocks in at only 144 pages, but it is 144 very well used pages. Each of the 10 short chapters pack a very strong punch. The Door is Open is more than simply a memoir filled with anecdotes about the characters he came across while volunteering, of which there are lots; Campbell looks at the nature of poverty and all of the complications that go along with it. In methodical fashion, he explores concepts of poverty and homelessness, crime, addiction, prostitution, mental health and suicide, and survival. Campbell beautifully pieces together cold-hard facts, personal observations, anecdotes, and expert opinions to paint a brutally honest portrait of East Hastings, which is, as he points out, the “poorest forward sortation area of all 7,000 postal prefixes” in Canada.
At the end of each chapter, Campbell has a coda of sorts with excepts from diaries he kept while volunteering. These excerpts act as real human examples of the themes he explored in the preceding pages. Also peppered throughout the book are beautiful black and white photographs of the East Hastings landscape.
I’ve been fortunate in my life that I’ve never had to stare down the prospect of real poverty. When I was younger I was the stereotypical “poor student,” but this was far from being “poor.” It just meant I had to call my parents to borrow a few bucks. I always had a job, a roof over my head, cable TV and internet, food, a car, and a few books to read. Poverty and desperation on this level is something middle-class Canadians like myself just don’t have to think about, even though, as Campbell mentions, Statistics Canada points out that most Canadians are only a few months away from homelessness. The Door is Open is a hard read because it forces you to face this world. The author pulls no punches and maybe, just maybe, he might change a few minds on the homeless.
Canada is in the midst of a federal election and we recently had a provincial election here in PEI. As I finished this book last night, it actually got me thinking (which was likely a goal Bart Campbell had), about the political approaches that are the typical go-to’s in this country. Over the last few years, it’s been all “affordable housing.” Just last week Liberal leader Justin Trudeau promised tax credits to developers to build low income housing. If Trudeau came to my door step right now, I would hand him a copy of this book, and ask him how this would help the people Campbell writes about (answer is, it wouldn’t).
The Door is Open was on the longlist for Canada Reads this year; I hadn’t actually heard of the book prior to this. Even though it is almost 15 years old at this point, it is still, quite sadly, very relevant. In a country with an economy worth over $2,000,000,000,000, there is no need for people to have such a meager existence. This is a fantastic book and a must read