Winner of the 1975 Governor General’s Award for Poetry or Drama
When someone thinks of PEI literature, the first image to pop into their mind would be that of Lucy Maud Montgomery and her little redhead Anne. I’ve written on this blog many times before about the development and current state of PEI literature and how the last 25 years has really been a high point for writing in the province. There was very little early (pre-1950s) PEI literature worth discussing. Lucy Maud really was the grandmother of PEI writing and her contemporary Sir Andrew Macphail was the grandfather with his masterpiece The Master’s Wife. But, PEI lit as we know it now was really founded in earnest with Milton Acorn’s 1956 self-published mimeographed chapbook In Love and Anger. Acorn was a very different voice from his contemporaries; he was a working man’s poet. A World War II veteran with little formal education, The People’s Poet spent most of his life living off a Veteran’s Affairs pension due to war injuries. Some of his titles were best-sellers in Canada and he was a superstar in the world of poetry – even marrying Gwendolyn MacEwen for a short time. The 1975 collection The Island Means Minago, his only collection to win the Governor General’s Award, is Acorn’s most ambitions treatise on his home province and contains many of his signature poems.
The Island Means Minago is a very cohesive volume, both in terms of narrative and themes. It mixes narrative poems, lyrics, prose pieces, dramatic scenes, and photos to tell the story of his people. Right in the opening poem, Acorn’s love of his island is evident:
In the fanged jaws of the Gulf,
a red tongue.
Indians say a musical God
took up his brush and painted it,
named it in His own language
In terms of narrative, Acorn takes on a number of issues prominent in Island history (honestly, if you’re familiar with these items it makes this a much more enjoyable book): the absentee landlord problem from the 19th century and Island Development Plan that began in the 1960s that would be top of mind in 1975. Acorn uses these narratives to tie together the thematic concept of this book. It is no secret that he was a far-left socialist, and that is the lens through which the author writes. He lambastes capitalism, roasts the ineffective administration of the government for not representing the people, and takes up the cause of the proletariat.
As I mentioned, Acorn was the working man’s poet. He was a big personality and it is easy to envision him reciting these poems in a pub throwing back beers and shots of whiskey. His language is accessible and free of those 20-dollar-words too often used by MFA graduates. But, that is not to say that these poems are “simple,” quite the opposite. Acorn manipulates genre and form in fascinating ways, he often uses an isolated rhyme as a narrative turning point, he creates intriguing imagery while using down-home dialect, and he is very cognizant of the sound, the music so to speak, of his poetry by doing interesting things with repetition, dialogue, and syllable structure.
An element of this book that was interesting was the collection of prose pieces. Each of the three sections has one prose piece, with each being about 10 pages in length. It is hard to classify these parts – as I said, he does interesting things with genre. These three pieces are not prose poems, but they’re not exactly stories either. They’re something of a blend of history, storytelling, social commentary, and political treatise. These prose pieces were excellent additions to the poems because they provide some historical and socio-economic context and further entrench Acorn’s socialist themes.
Finally, the actual physical volume itself is an interesting specimen. It was published by NC Press, who according to the ads in the back of the book, published the paper New Canada, that reported “on the struggles being waged across the country for independence and socialism” and was also the leading publisher of books and documents from the People’s Republic of China. So, the strong leftist overtones shouldn’t be surprising.
I’ve said before that PEI has the most nationalistic literature and sense of identity in general in English Canada. This collection was one the flashpoints for this Island literary tradition. The Island Means Minago is a great example of Maritime and PEI poetry, an excellent collection of historical poetry, an interesting political exposition, and just an overall engaging read.
In the last couple months I’ve read novels about a mother and son being held captive for years, a photographer with PTSD working at a porn studio, a family drama, and two books of very dark and somber poetry; so I figured it was time to lighten it up a bit with a novel for children. There is a great tradition in Canada of great writers contributing wonderful books to the world of children’s lit; Mordecai Richler, Margaret Atwood, Adele Wiseman, and Margaret Laurence have all contributed greatly to the genre. Jason’s Quest, published in 1970, is Margaret Laurence’s first children’s book and her only children’s novel – her other three titles for kids are picture style books. Margaret Laurence has long been my favorite writer and was without a doubt the catalyst for my love of Canadian writing. This book has been sitting on my shelf for a long time – at least 5 years. Like my other favorite CanLit icon Mordecai Richler, I’ve be very leery to finish all of Laurence’s books; once I’ve finished them all, that’s it, no more are going to appear. Now that this title is on the “read” shelf, I’m down to only 4 Margaret Laurence books left to read for the first time.
Jason’s Quest tells the story of Jason, a mole from Molanium who is worried about his town-folk being infected with an “invisible sickness.” He decides to go on a quest to London to find a cure. On the way to London, he teams up with Oliver, a motor-mouthed owl who is on the hunt for some wisdom, and a pair of stray cats – Calico and Topaz – who want to perform noble deeds to give cats around the world a better name. Along their journey they run into memorable villains, interesting new friends, and have wild adventures that are fun for readers of any age.
The 193-page Wizard of Oz-inspired story is kid-friendly but not watered down. There are some violent scenes, including a villain being killed, there are some scenes of Jason’s posse doing questionable things to achieve their goals, and there are a number of shady characters. Like a lot of great novels for kids, Jason’s Quest is jam-packed with allegory. Laurence takes on urban decay, crime, religion, and generational change in very subtle ways. The book is also highlighted by wonderful black-and-white illustrations by Leslie Morrill. Each chapter is highlighted by a picture that really captures the mood and themes of the book, so there are enough illustrations to be an important element of the story but not so many that the text is overwhelmed.
I read very little children’s lit, but when I do, I look for a few things: I want the story to be as cohesive and the plot to be as consistent as would be expected in any high-caliber adult novel; the text must be kid friendly but not talk down to the reader; and I want the story to be filled with allegory so as to make the book relevant and more than just a cute story. Jason’s Quest met all of those expectations and then some. Laurence brought her signature strong character development, great dialogue, and solid vignette-style story telling that was so prevalent in her Manawaka Cycle to this book for young readers. This is essential reading for any Margaret Laurence fan and a great choice for someone looking for a warm yet action filled story for their young reader.
As promised, my first book review of 2013! Alistair MacLeod. Just his name evokes images of the Cape Breton landscape. I really think that there are no Canadian writers whose worldwide reputation is built on such little writing; that is a testament to just how good his books are. MacLeod has five books published, three of which are completely original works: The Lost Salt Gift of Blood, As Birds Bring Forth the Sun, and his only novel, No Great Mischief. He also has two books where existing writing was essentially repackaged: the story “To Every Thing There is a Season,” from his second collection, was reworked into an illustrated Christmas book and, the book I am reviewing here, Island, is all of the stories from his two previously published collections plus two unpublished stories. On the back cover of Island, Michael Ondaatje compares MacLeod to Faulkner and Chekhov in his use of regionalism to tell universal stories. This is the essence of Alistair MacLeod’s short stories. In his writing, Cape Breton Island acts as living laboratory to examine the larger changing world.
If you were to sit through an Island Studies class, you would learn the four primary characteristics of island life: totality, intimacy, monopoly, and exile. MacLeod’s stories embody all of these elements. They show the insularity of island life and some of the common challenges of isolation in the North Atlantic. But, more universally, they take on the ramifications of monumental social change on small traditional communities. MacLeod’s stories are set in a time when choosing to attend university instead of work the fishing boats is an insult to the family; where reading is considered a waste of time; where tourists are seen as threatening; and where living off the land is simply a way of life. The magic of MacLeod’s writing though is its exploration on what happens when these traditional beliefs get turned upside down.
Most of the stories in Island are framed. By that, for those of you who haven’t toiled away in English classes for years and years, I mean they are told through a series of flashbacks. This provides an interesting contrast and juxtaposition to the “then” and “now.” Typically, the “present” in the narrative centers on a middle-aged man looking back on important events that took place anywhere from childhood to young adulthood. The range of events is as diverse as the population of Cape Breton: abandoning the traditional family trade (fishing, mining, etc), leaving the island, or even finding out Santa is not real (sorry folks). While the immediate conflict is “local” to Cape Breton, the sense of place that emerges from the themes is universal. With a few modifications, these stories could take place anywhere.
The highlights of the collection are “The Boat” (a highly anthologized classic around the world), “The Road to Rankin’s Point,” “As Birds Bring forth the Sun,” “To Every Thing There is a Season,” “Clearances” and “Island.” If you just want to pick away at a few of the stories, these are definitely the ones to tackle.
Island and MacLeod’s only novel, No Great Mischief, are absolute masterpieces of not just Atlantic or Canadian fiction, but of English literature. The quality of writing is flawless. The characters are incredibly well developed. And MacLeod tells a story in only a few pages that would take lesser writers entire books. Thematically, Island feels like over 20 small novels and should be read by everyone.
It is a very rare occurance for me to read two books by the same author back-to-back, but I felt I would be doing a disservice to Donald Creighton and to the early study of Canadian history if I didn’t read this book. Canada’s First Century is essentially a sequel to the last book I reviewed, The Road to Confederation, and judging by the cover design, the folks running the Wynford Project wanted to link the two titles in this way. This book picks up at midnight, July 1st 1867 and ends with Expo ’67. Post-confederation Canada has a rich and multifarious history and capturing a century of our story in 356 pages is a difficult task. For the most part, Creighton recites the political history of Canada’s first hundred years with chapters roughly divided up by who the Prime Minister was at the time. He wrote this book in the late 60s with publication coming in 1970. The historical interpretation and view of the world/Canada is definitely of its time; the Cold War was raging, the Quiet Revolution in Quebec was in full force, we were becoming almost inseparably linked to the US, and the welfare state system which Canadian’s now proudly identify as part of our collective identity was becoming firmly entrenched into the social fabric of this relatively young nation. All this being said, it is understandable that Creighton had an uncertain and pessimistic view of what the future held for his country.
This author was not short on opinions and he liberally inserted them into his book; something that few credible historians have the guts to do today. He was not ideologically or party driven in his clear admiration for certain Prime Ministers. He had high praise for Laurier and Bennett, but harsh criticisms of Borden and St. Laurent. The level of anti-Americanism that oozes from Creighton is almost militant; he only barely stops short of calling the US blatantly evil hypocrits. A similar level of disdain is also reserved for the Quebec nationalism that was growing in the 60s. Of the last 50 pages, at least a third of it is analyzing the issue of “bilingualism and biculturism.” Like every historian I have ever had the pleasure of working with (they really are fascinating humans), Creighton offers no solutions or predictions; he simply points out the lessons that can learned from our collective experience.
Six months ago I read A Short History of Progress by Ronald Wright which examined how everything that happens does so in a cyclical way and that essentially nothing is without precedent. In the context of Canadian political history, this book shows that everything important in Canadian politics in the last decade also has precedent; be it an American snub of Canada over foreign policy, using rules of parliament and prorogation for political gains, party leadership quarrels, or using debate closure to force controversial legislation through the House of Commons.
Canada’s First Century was a fascinating read because it highlighted both the well-known events in Canadian history, like the Manitoba Schools problem or the WWI conscription debate, and lesser-known episodes of our history and politics. This book didn’t read as smoothly as The Road to Confederation and some parts seemed a bit clunky. Despite this, Donald Creighton certainly captured the nuances of Canada as it stood in the 1960s and certainly provides food-for-thought for where we going and where we are at now, on the eve of our sesquicentennial.
Co-Winner of the 1976 Books in Canada First Novel Award
Michael Ondaatje is without a doubt one of Canada’s leading writers. He is tied for the record for the most Governor-General Awards with five, two for poetry and three for fiction, a Giller Prize, and countless others. Most notably Ondaatje’s The English Patient was the first Canadian book awarded the Man Booker Prize. This book was later adapted into the Oscar Winning film of the same name. Michael Ondaatje is, in my opinion, the leader of the powerful movement of immigrant Canadian literature. His first book, The Dainty Monsters, was released in 1967; 30 years later other New Canadian voices started to emerge, most notably M.G. Vassanji and Rohinton Mistry. Michael Ondaatje led this wave.
For about the first ten years of his career, Michael Ondaatje was known primarily as a poet. He won the 1970 GG for his ground breaking collection The Collected Works of Billy the Kid. In 1976 he released his first novel, another ground breaking book, Coming Through Slaughter. This book falls into two general categories: it is both a jazz novel and piece of historiographic metafiction. Coming Through Slaughter is a fictionalized account of the last few years of the legendary jazz musician Buddy Bolden in New Orleans during the years between the turn of the century and shortly before World War II. Bolden was known as one of the best cornet players of his time but there is very little record of his life. Towards the end of his time he went mad, disappeared, and was eventually institutionalized. This narrative pieces together the story through a variety of vignettes from different characters and different times.
You cannot discuss this novel without discussing the style that it is written in. In 1976 post-modernism was in full swing, the bar being set in 1963 with Leonard Cohen’s novel Beautiful Losers, and many of Canada’s leading writers were putting their own stamp on this movement. The narration is done is a sharp and staccato style of prose. With every line you see Ondaatje’s prowess as a poet coming through; every word is deliberately chosen and every sentence is intricately weaved within each paragraph. Now that being said, this book is sometimes difficult to follow. The narrator and point-of-view changes frequently and sometimes does so mid-chapter. You often have to reread a page or paragraph once you realize who the narrator is. Dialog is often incorporated right into paragraphs without any indication that someone is speaking. Occasionally a poem or brief interview or song is thrown in to add to the story. Ultimately the style is very beautiful; you just need to be patient and read slowly.
The writer’s skill as a poet again is evident when you are looking at the character development and physical settings. You get a sense that you are right in downtown New Orleans, in the brothels, in the gambling houses, in a night club listening to this new sensation they call jazz. The web of characters that is weaved is as diverse as it is entertaining. For the bulk of the story, the central character is a police officer named Webb who is on the hunt for the missing Bolden. Through the natural course of the narration we meet Bolden’s wife, lover, children, a photographer who took a picture of him, and various prostitutes, gamblers, and musicians. The snippets of Buddy Bolden are just a preview of the true character that is revealed once Webb finally finds his man.
Michael Ondaatje has done a masterful job on his apprentice novel. He has blended fact and fiction using a style that is completely his own. Every one of his novels has won at least one major Canadian literary award; Coming Through Slaughter won the inaugural Books in Canada First Novel Award. Ondaatje has never released another novel written in this same style. I would group this with books of his like Running in the Family and The Collected Works of Billy the Kid instead of his better known novels like The English Patient, Anil’s Ghost, or In the Skin of a Lion. This novel breaks down the walls between the real and the story; this novel breaks down genres. This is a short novel well worth reading.
On the Job is a not one of Canada’s best known plays but it does occasionally creep its way into the odd Canadian Drama class here and there. I found a copy of this at a local used book store and after reading a few random pages I figured it was worth the $2. David Fennario is well known in the theatre community but not as well known in the general literary community. The Anglophone from Montreal’s most prominent moment likely came in 1990 with the production of his infamous The Death of René Lévesque at his home theatre, The Centaur. On the Job was his first play, produced in 1975, starring Hollywood mainstay Bruce Greenwood (Thirteen Days, I, Robot, Dinner for Schmucks), opening to rave reviews and eventually being produced on CBC.
This play moves very fast as a written work; you could likely get through the 110 pages in 2 hours. One thing that I found very strange about the written text was the lack of stage directions. Contemporary playwrights are prone to give very detailed directions to aid in their original vision coming to life. On the Job seems to take more minimalistic approach primarily only using entrances and exits for directions. This requires you, as either a reader or director, to really use your imagination. The dialog is very punchy and has a heavy staccato rhythm. Lines are rarely longer than 10 or so words.
Now for the actual story; the play is set in the shipping room of a dress factory on Christmas Eve in 1970. Thanks to a new manger, the crew is upset because they are not going to have the afternoon off like they have every other year. This eventually escalates into a druken wildcat strike with lots of laughs along the way. On the Job is ultimately a play looking at Canadian class structures of the time. You have the lower level workers, middle management, upper management, and the ownership. Each of these characters are written as their archetypal class representations and done so rather effectively.
One comment I do have is that as a play to be produced for live theatre it has not aged well. If I were a producer I would need to do quite a bit of updating; a young audience member would likely have no idea what Eaton’s is for instance. As a piece of literature capturing the mood at the tail end of the Sixties it is very effective. By turns funny, rhapsodic, sad, and brutally honest; On the Job is definitely worth the read but I would never produce it or see it live.