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.
Winner of the 2013 Governor General’s Award for Drama
Plays are often times collected together in a similar way to short stories and published as a multi-work volume. The works can sometimes be related – by setting, characters, themes, etc – but often times are not. Some of these collections have been mainstays in drama libraries and curriculum across the country (The East End Plays by George F Walker for example). Occasionally as well, these books have won the Governor General’s Award for Drama because they are better able to show off a writer’s skill and depth; in fact three of the last eight winners have been collections, including 2013 and 2014. Fault Lines: Three Plays is the first such volume that I have read. Nicolas Billon’s collection, his second published book, contains three plays, 2009’s Greenland, 2012’s Iceland and 2013’s Faroe Islands. This book absolutely blew me away; Fault Lines was one of the best books I have read all year. Full stop. End of statement.
Looking at the titles of the three individual plays, there is an obvious relation – all are northern island nations (and Scandinavian states as Greenland, for now, is still under Danish rule) with small populations and insular cultures. But, the relation of the three plays for the most part ends there. There is no character crossover, no related plot lines, and even thematically, other than some very broad ideas which I’ll get into later, there is only minimal crossover. Each of these plays has its own set of circumstances and fascinating characters. Greenland uses the discovery of a small new island by a glaciologist as a reflector of his disintegrating family situation. Iceland, set in Toronto, uses an Estonian prostitute, a bible thumper, and a greasy real estate agent as an allegory for capitalism and the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. And Faroe Islands deals with the whale hunt in that country and looks at the hypocrisy often present in the most vocal of activists. Each of these plays has its own writing and staging style, themes, structure, and its own charm.
The delivery of these works is very different from any play I’ve ever read. All three unfold using monologues. Greenland and Iceland are told through intertwined monologues by three different characters, and Faroe Islands is told by a single character. In a way, Fault Lines closely resembles a series of short stories being relayed to you directly by the characters (not simply a first person POV). There is no back-and-forth dialogue and very few stage directions. Even set design would be very minimalistic; I get the impression that any of these three plays could be staged with nothing but a stool on a stage with maybe a small blank screen to project a few pictures for context. This method allowed Billon to have much more three-dimensional characters than I typically find while reading plays and, oddly enough, the author creates some of the most unlikeable people I’ve ever come across in CanLit.
Iceland was my favorite of the three. Billon uses this monologue structure to bring together three unrelated characters into a very sad and brutal story. These three characters are also the highlight of this collection. Kassandra, the Estonian prostitute, is a very heartrending and sympathetic character – pulled into the world of sex work to help her family in Europe; Halim, the real estate agent, is an absolutely horrible excuse of human and deserves the fate that ultimately befalls him; and Anna, the young lady who is the glue of the play, is a fascinating and tragically ludicrous character. Iceland takes on a lot in only 40 pages, but most interestingly is how it deals with dreams of freedom and the nature of capitalism and capitalists.
Throughout the whole collection, there is a desire to be part of something larger than what exists now. Jonathan in Greenland yearns to be a leader in field of climate change; Kassandra in Iceland wants to live up to her mother’s expectations and take advantage of the promise offered by the revolution at home; and Dara in Faroe Islands literally wants to save the whales. This theme is the glue that holds these plays together. Additionally, as a student of English Literature and a graduate student in Island Studies, I see a lot going in all of these plays that uses the tropes of small island life and literature. Greenland uses notions of isolation and environmental vulnerability as an important part of the story. In Iceland, while no action whatsoever takes place in that country, the island is used as a microcosm of the wider world. And in Faroe Islands the idea of insularity and traditional customs being misunderstood by the outsider is central. I can easily see Fault Lines being added to small island literature courses (I would add it).
This is essential reading accessible to everyone. Even if you don’t want to delve deeply into the highly complex themes, the characters and plot are engrossing to even the most casual reader. Also, since the three plays are done with monologues, it is much more accessible than a lot of drama in that there isn’t that initial shock of confusion with who’s who in the opening scenes. Fault Lines is without question the best book I’ve read from 2013.
Winner of Canada Reads – 2005
First published in 1928, Rockbound by Nova Scotian Frank Parker Day was long relegated to the depths of CanLit obscurity, even after it was reissued by the University of Toronto Press in 1973. But, this fantastic novel has been brought back into the canon of classic Canadian literature. Initially, this happened because of its frequent inclusion in Canadian Literature courses at universities – in both survey courses and as a mainstay in Atlantic Canadian Lit classes (and it is typically required reading in the few Island Studies literature courses taught around the world). For the general public, its inclusion and subsequent victory in the 2005 edition of Canada Reads was what brought Rockbound to prominence (Rockbound has the distinction of being the oldest book to win the competition and it currently stands as the only novel from the Maritimes to take the title).
Rockbound is one of the most magical novels I’ve read in many years. I grew up in Nova Scotia and spent a lot of time in the region where this book is set; I had family on the South Shore and my High School’s district included much of the upper half of the shore. Many of the family names in Day’s classic novel reminded me of home – Jung, Kraus, Slaughnwhite, Boutilier, and Born to name a few. Additionally, my father worked his way through school by fishing, and my uncle and father-in-law are both lifelong fishermen. So as I read through this book, I felt a very strong connection to its story and characters.
Rockbound is both a book of its time and a timeless story of the human condition. In the 1920s, fishing in Atlantic Canada was still a very lucrative career and had a certain unspoken romanticism to it. For men especially, hard work and manual labour were valued over all else, especially formal education. Every outport and village had its own unique dialect and set of rules – essentially existing as its own nation in a way. Being a fisherman wasn’t simply an occupation or even a way of life, it was a state of being as natural as breathing. The magic of Frank Parker Day’s novel is how he pulls the reader into this long-forgotten world. His use of dialect would rival Mark Twain and his landscape imagery is equally as good as any of the Confederation Poets from the previous generation.
While the imagery and landscape is essential to Rockbound, this is a character driven novel. Uriah Jung is one of the great not-so-subtle antagonists of early Canadian fiction. The undisputed king of the island of Rockbound, Uriah is the domineering and scheming patriarch of the Jung clan. He has three sons whom he rules with an iron fist and works to the bone, but his world is turned upside-down with the arrival of the novel’s protagonist, his nephew David Jung, claiming a sliver of land he is legally entitled to. Uriah and David are the primary drivers of the drama on Rockbound, but this is an ensemble piece. Uriah’s trio of sons – Martin, Joseph, and Casper, Gershom, the Kraus family, and Mary each lend important elements to life on Rockbound and help make this story what it is.
Rockbound is now part of the public domain in Canada so there are a number of discount ebook copies available, but I strongly recommend dropping the few extra dollars for the UTP publication which includes a fantastic afterword by Gwendolyn Davies of UNB. The afterword provides great historical and regional context and some fascinating biographical background on Frank Parker Day.
This book can be read in so many ways that it begs for deeper critical analysis – the struggle and plight of the working man, island notions of totality and intimacy, familial bonds and social customs, the role of women in a man’s world, and the list goes on. I think this is why Rockbound ultimately won Canada Reads and became a bestseller: it is a fun read that can be taken in by a general audience as a superficially good story and, for the more advanced readers, Day has crafted a thematically complex novel that can pull you in a variety of directions.
As a brief post-script, this novel is just begging to be made into a CBC mini-series.
It’s been over a year since my last book review and what a year it’s been. I completed a year of graduate studies in the fascinating, yet obscure, field of Island Studies. And, last but not least, my wife and I had a baby; our little bundle Gavin was born on November 4th, 2013. Now that he’s almost ten months old and actually sleeps through the night, and since I’ve completed all of the academic pursuits I’ll be pursuing for a while, I’m able to start pleasure reading again; so of course, that means new blog posts. Hopefully I haven’t forgotten how to review books, but surely you’ll forgive me if this first one in 15 months seems a little rusty.
For my first book read in almost a year, I decided to start with another title in Penguin’s History of Canada Series that I seem to lust after (in the literary sense). Death on Two Fronts: National Tragedies and the Fate of Democracy in Newfoundland, 1914-34 by Sean Cadigan is one the latest additions to the series. This book charts two decades of political culture in Newfoundland, spanning the years 1914 to 1934. The history is book-ended with the infamous Newfoundland sealing disaster of 1914 (which Kent Stetson dramatized in The Harps of God) and the end of responsible government culminating with the defacto return to crown colony status in 1934. The focus during the intervening years is obviously World War I and its effect on the Dominion of Newfoundland. Cadigan works his story around Newfoundland’s two fronts: the war front in Europe and the domestic political struggles at home.
Cadigan chronicles all of important events during this period with the vivid details and meticulously researched insight – the Newfoundland disaster, WWI battles like Beaumont Hamel and Gallipoli, and the rise of progressive politics and its subsequent collapse. The major political players during the time are the primary figures and Cadigan often uses contemporaneous newspaper editorials to set the stage and situate the contrasting views prevailing in the Dominion at the time.
Newfoundland, during the period Cadigan explores, is a perfect example of “the island” acting as a microcosm of what was, and currently is, taking place in larger states. What I most enjoyed about Cadigan’s book was how relevant it is to today’s political and economic situations. Newfoundland was faced with an extremely polarized political culture and media (a la Fox News and MSNBC), a populace that increasingly demanded publicly funded services with no thoughts given to the cost, public debt that was completely unmanageable, and rising disillusionment with the political process and liberal democracy as a whole. While it is obvious to the reader with a century of hindsight how desperate the government was becoming (selling Labrador was considered a viable option to raise cash) and what the ultimate fate of Newfoundland would be, it was not clear to those involved until the very last moment.
This book worked for me on many levels: the writing was fabulous, the book was well researched, the selection of photographs were wonderful, the subject matter is as relevant today and it was in the early 20th century, the history was analyzed intelligently without being written in social-scienese (which is a challenging task) and the author masterfully balanced details with wide-lens scene-setting. Death on Two Fronts is a fantastic addition to The History of Canada series.
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.
Now that the semester is over, I hope to return to discussing books very shortly – starting with a review of Island by Alistair MacLeod in the next week. In September, my academic focus is going to be shifting full-time to the study of islands (with the end goal of earning my MA); my concentration is going to be on the arts industry of PEI, Newfoundland, and Iceland, with a focus on publishing and its interaction with commercial, political and economic forces. So, over the summer, I will be reading lots of island related books, concentrating on PEI literature (a new passion of mine). Here are some upcoming books I plan on reading and reviewing over the next couple months (some are not Canadian – don’t panic):
• I am an Islander by Patrick Ledwell
• Growing Up with Julie by Gerry Steele
• Afternoon Horses by Deirdre Kessler
• Her Teeth Were Stones by Judy Gaudet
• Causeway by Linden MacIntyre
• History of Prince Edward Island by Duncan Campbell (a late 19th century history)
• Song of the Dodo by David Quammen
• Pulling Strings by Godfrey Baldacchino
• A Geography of Islands by Stephen Royle
• … and many more, hopefully.
I have become very fascinated in the last year with the idea of literary “canons,” particularly national and regional canons within Canadian literature (potential PhD topic maybe?). As of late, in my book collecting, research for school, and both required and pleasure reading, I find myself constantly coming back to the questions “Why was this worth reading?”, “Why was this worth publishing?”, “Will this be read 50 years from now?”, “What constitutes enduring literature versus Tom Clancy-esque garbage?” (for the record, I enjoy Clancy), and finally, “Should this be part of a provincial, national, or language-wide literary canon and who gets to decide that?” My view on what makes up an English, Canadian, Atlantic or even a PEI canon has evolved.
In my years of both formally studying literature and reading for fun, I developed a way of approaching literature – which many of my undergraduate classmates disagree with when I bring it up. I see a piece of writing, be it a novel, poem, collection, play, or whatever, as the recorded intersection of a number of variables, but primarily and invariably geography, history, and psychology. Could Mordecai Richler have written Duddy Kravitz, St. Urbain’s Horseman, or Barney’s Version if he hadn’t grown up in the ghettos of Montreal in the post-holocaust world? No. Would Matthew Lewis have written The Monk without the backdrop of the French Revolution and the seedy underbelly of England’s Hellfire Clubs? I would argue no. Many English professors of mine over the years have told me that “an author and their writing must be separated!” I disagree with this with every fiber of my being. Who else could have written The Diviners other than Margaret Laurence? Who else could have written Adventures of Huckleberry Finn other than Sam Clements? One of my favorite English professors, after I told her my geography-history-psychology approach, nodded approvingly and added “true, and each time we read something, we re-evaluate those things on multiple levels.” (This comment gave her extra “awesome points”).
Why have I rambled on about canons and approaches to literary analysis? I’m getting to that. In Island Studies, there are three fundamental attributes to island life: totality, intimacy, and monopoly. Small islands – small enough to produce a culture of insularity (i.e. “islandness”) – produce sociological conditions like no other geographical location on our blue rock; in turn, this produces a unique body of literature and literary culture. Islands act as a living-lab, allowing someone (me) to closely examine the interplay of geography, history, and psychology in literature. Social science methodological approaches can be applied to literature without sucking the fun out of reading. That is why I love islands and, especially, island literature.
On a closing note, consider this. A coworker recently asked me, “What do you considered good writing? [in terms of books I read]” I pondered for a moment and said, “I can’t define ‘good’ writing, but I would define ‘bad’ writing, as a book that could have been written by anyone, at any time, in any place. That kind of writing lacks a soul, and ‘soul’ is the key ingredient to good writing.”