This is the sort of piece I would normally post here. The good folks at The Puritan have given me room in their winter issue to parse my love of Elizabeth Bowen’s writing in their vital, energetic magazine.
This is the sort of piece I would normally post here. The good folks at The Puritan have given me room in their winter issue to parse my love of Elizabeth Bowen’s writing in their vital, energetic magazine.
I first read Salley Vickers’ Miss Garnet’s Angel several months ago, and its atmosphere persists, despite the many stories, poems and essays (some of them undeniably wonderful) that I’ve consumed in the interim. I feel, lingering around me, the musty air within ancient churches; I sense the kind gaze of an angel beaming straight out from the flat plane of a lost panel; I picture and re-picture an unfashionable, timid, yet determined woman traipsing the streets of Venice, driven by some curiosity and need she can’t articulate. I’m revisiting this book to try to understand why its aura is so persistent—why it has stuck.
Factor one: surprises carry extra punch, and this was an unexpected find, on several fronts. One, I had no prior knowledge of Vickers, and what a joy it was to encounter her no-nonsense style, her refusal to resort to obliqueness, her gentle humour and her absolute conviction in the validity of her characters’ experiences and ideas. Two, the Book of Tobit, the apocryphal tale about a righteous blind man, his son, the Angel Rafael and a dog, that Vickers embeds so beautifully and affectingly within her own, was a haunting revelation. Three, I had little prior interest in Venice, the novel’s setting. The place had, for me, taken on the aura of superficiality, nothing more than a tourist must-see. But after spending several fictional months roaming Miss Garnet’s Campo Angelo Raffaele and the wonders of Venice beyond it, I saw how snobbish and stupid my dismissal of the historic city’s seductive powers had been.
That comeuppance aside, it definitely wasn’t Venice that lured me. I plucked the novel, published in 2000 but set several decades prior, off the shelf at the local church’s thrift shop one Friday morning and read this on the back: “When a friend dies, Julia Garnet goes to stay in Venice, where a lifetime of caution is challenged.” As it happens, I was embroiled in revisions on a manuscript inspired by my own lost friend. I’d been lamenting how seldom one encounters this particular loss in literature, how we routinely parse the grief of lovers, spouses, parents, children, siblings, though so many of us would count our dearest friends among the greatest loves of our lives. I turned the book in my hand, looking it over, flipping its soft pages, claiming it. I paid a toonie to the volunteer behind the folding table, and allowed my son, who’d been yanking on my arm, to pull me toward the next room, where the toys are displayed.
I’ve been remembering this as a book about a politically strident, straitjacketed, judgmental woman’s awakening to beauty, mystery and the power of love. In essence, in a kind of trial-by-fire, loss offers life to a dried-out soul. What’s remarkable, coming back to the book, is to realize that Julia Garnet’s transformation begins to take shape so very early in the story. This isn’t a story culminating in a character’s evolution so much as one about what happens to her (and within her) throughout and on the other side of that changing. Though quiet, borne chiefly of seemingly innocuous moments, the initial changes in Miss Garnet are quick and profound. To compare it to your old-fashioned “happily ever after,” if this were a love story, it would be one that begins, as opposed to ends, on the wedding day.
On page 20, shortly after arriving in Venice armed with her steely sense of irony, Miss Garnet encounters Santa Maria della Salute, “like a vast soap bubble formed out of the circling, dove-coloured mists.” She is overcome. “‘Oh!’ cried Miss Garnet. She caught at her throat and then at Harriet’s veil, scrabbling it back from her eyes to see more clearly. And oh, the light! ‘Lord, Lord,’ sighed Julia Garnet. She did not know why she had used those words as she moved off, frightened to stay longer lest the unfamiliar beauty so captivate her that she turn to stone, as she later amusingly phrased it to herself.”
Eight pages later, after a glass cutter refuses payment for repair work on a Bellini portrait of the Virgin and Christ Child, there’s this: “But Miss Garnet, in whom insight, like an incipient forest fire, was beginning to catch and creep, sensed suddenly that there was more to it than that. The glass-cutter, she guessed, also liked the subject of Bellini’s painting and his love of Mary, and the bambino in her arms, was stronger than his love of money. How would Marx or even Lenin have explained that, she wondered…”
A few pages after this, after the opening of a perfunctory letter from a friend back home: “For a moment Julia Garnet remembered the impoverished little ceremony with which she had bidden Harriet a final farewell, and the utilitarian stone with the severely practical information carved upon its stony face, with which she had chosen to mark the passing of her closest friend’s life.”
Jabs of insight, memory and awe are laid like stepping stones throughout the book. Miss Garnet dutifully hops from one to the next, learning as she goes a talent for self-awareness, an openness she’d heretofore never imagined, and a tolerance for ambiguities: a humility before the mysteries of life and death. What’s puzzling is Vickers’ ability to keep us invested in Miss Garnet’s fate while revealing, so early on, that she’s facing and conquering her grief with aplomb. There’s no sense of pending disaster: we don’t fear for her safety or that she’ll be damaged by her new boldness. We do see her suffer for having put herself “out there”—in fact it’s her first broken heart, poignantly late in life—but this suffering, too, becomes part of her changing: it makes her less afraid, and only pushes her further in her reclamation of herself.
On some level it doesn’t matter what happens after Julia has begun to change: She’s finally living, yes? So who cares about the details? But oh, we do care. Vickers makes sure of that. We care about the twin restorers she befriends, and the odd tensions between them. We care about young Nicco who wants to learn English, and Carlos the art historian who pines after him. We care about the wealthy American couple who force Julia to confront her prejudices against the rich, and about the ageing Monsignore, who embodies all the excesses of the Catholic church as well as its redemptive spirit. We care about the intrigue Julia finally becomes embroiled in. But mostly we care how her own journey and her perception of its meaning becomes so elegantly interwoven with the Book of Tobit. Brilliantly, Vickers gives Julia splendid agency here: intrigued by its plot and by the artistic representations around her—especially those of the Angel Rafael and the dog—Julia conducts her own investigation into Tobit’s story. We discover it alongside her. She jots brief, sudden insights into a little notebook that had been intended for history notes on Venice. “Dogs lead the blind. Old Tobit is ‘blind’ because he doesn’t see the limitations of his own values. (Look how he treats his wife when she is working her fingers to the bone for him. He doesn’t ‘see’ her!)” As Julia had failed to see Harriet, an insight into her own ‘blindness’ that she has already begun to grasp. This is the character taking charge of her own evolution, through study of the human heart.
So, why does this book stay with me? When my own friend died, many years ago, I remember the world around me shimmering in a kind of unreal clarity. I felt able to see and understand things that had previously lain beyond perception. The surprise of each day and how much it might contain. My grief gave me an unasked for vitality and power—and even on the worst days, all around me was vivid, translucent. Porch railings, leaves, the faces of strangers. Once, jogging in my Toronto neighbourhood, I paused for a long time to watch a caterpillar cross the sidewalk. Its laborious journey from one grass edge to the next appeared epic. I was grateful, though confused by the fact that the reason for all this intense awareness was a reality I would wish reversed. Bring me back my friend, give her back her life, but don’t take what I’ve gained by her loss. Now there’s an emotional and psychological paradox, one mined to its core by Vickers.
Miss Garnet’s Angel is a story of redemption, one that admits the impossible, that allows for human frailty and the beauty embedded even in that. Some might call this story soft, or “easy,” because of its optimism and its essential kindness toward its characters. We are so afraid, we skeptics, of anything that hints at reverence. But Vickers’ generosity is profoundly political. In her matter-of-fact yet loving telling of Miss Vickers’ journey through gradual enlightenment, Vickers reminds us why we require beauty every bit as much as food, and how because of this, if we allow ourselves, we’re able to find it in the most unlikely, even the most apparently ugly, of circumstances. Imagine being granted permission to simply live, to take in what is placed before you, through all your senses, in all the imperfection of your own humanity. Imagine that.
(This post discusses books by Candace Savage, Dilys Leman and Fred Stenson.)
Since we moved to Toronto two and a half years ago, I’ve been drawn more and more to what we urban folk have been conditioned to call “green space”: the woods of nearby High Park, the trails along the Humber River, the parks along the lakeshore. It’s possible that growing older makes me more desperate for the nourishment of the natural world, which some research has shown actually bolsters cognition and well-being. [See this Globe and Mail article from 2012: “Why is walking in the woods so good for you?”] A lifetime in built-up environments can leave a body parched for the flash of a blood-red cardinal in thick greenery, for the optimistic calls of chickadees, for that barebones x-ray view right into the heart of the forest that winter allows. These days, I take any chance I can to venture into a lingering pocket or reminder of the wilderness that’s been tamed, used up, paved over and all-but obliterated by this smoggy, gridlocked, teeming, loveable city I call home.
A few years ago, I couldn’t tell a chickadee from a house sparrow. I had no idea that cardinals love to eat the sumac’s red fruit in winter, and that this diet is partly what gives them their intense colour—nor that the female cardinal is a dignified, muted brown, with a tuft of bright red feathers atop her head: she’s serious yet playful, mature with a whiff of youth. She reminds me of some of my best friends, women in midlife (or later) who embody a winning combination of hard-won wisdom, defiance, self-deprecation and wit. This stunning lady cardinal knows her worth, and how not to take it too seriously. I’m learning slowly and deliberately, gathering an ability to associate more directly and personally with the world—not the constructed world of humans but the world itself—a skill that, in ages past, most children learned incidentally (in many places they still do).
Basic facts, those I can retain, serve as both decoders and touchstones. Willows like water. Grey squirrels can actually be black, reddish-brown or even white; the true red squirrel is smaller, with a less bushy tail, and more rare around here. Oaks come in several varieties that can be distinguished by the shape of their leaves, the size and colour of their acorns, the texture of their bark. Starlings like to gather in crowds, in the tree tops. If you see a compact little bird skittering down a trunk, beak-first, it’s likely a nuthatch. Those slender, gawky, snow-white birds that tiptoe in the river shallows are egrets, an apt name for a bird that combines awkwardness and grace in such a beguiling way. It’s unofficially okay to harvest as much garlic mustard as you wish from Toronto’s High Park—it’s great in a soup—because this hardy plant is invasive, choking out native species such as trilliums. Teams of volunteers, called “stewards,” give over their Sunday mornings to digging up such undesirables, and seeding native plants in the loose soil left behind. (There exists among naturalists and ecologists and biologists a heated debate about this hands-on approach to native versus so-called invasive species that is too complex to get into here.)
All this forms part of a late education for me—one heavily facilitated by the not-for-profit High Park Nature Centre and its knowledgeable and enthusiastic family programs coordinator, Jon Hayes—and what sticks is random and piecemeal. I might recognize a leaf or a bird that was identified for me just yesterday; I might not. I might remember that the tall reed topped by what looks like a shortened horsetail, a pollution-tolerant invasive squeezing out the cattails of Grenadier Pond, is called phragmites (frag-my-tis), but that’s only because I’ve managed to associate it with the 1980s children’s show “Fraggle Rock,” which my younger sister loved and which starred a cast of gangly, mop-haired muppets.
In part due to the good work done by the local organization Lost Rivers Walks, I’ve also become keenly aware that any densely urban environment is home to hidden, lost or literally buried waterways. The slopes and hills of my chock-a-block neighbourhood streets represent the valleys and riverbanks that once teemed with vegetation and wildlife; the Don River in the east end of the city once meandered snakelike down the valley through which it’s now directed in a straight line through a brick and concrete-lined channel.
I’m grasping for a lost language and a nearly invisible geography, the remnants of which I wander through daily, running errands, exploring with my son, hurrying to appointments. I’m after the history tied to all these changes, which of course involves the people who thrived in that wilder landscape, before European explorers, early settlers, and all the industry and later immigrants that followed. The streets around High Park have names such as Indian Grove, Indian Road, Indian Crescent. There are tales of a lost First Nations burial ground in the park, and on the cliff above the Humber, in the neighbourhood now known as Baby Point, the Iroquoian village of Teiaiagon was home to a Seneca longhouse community during the 17th Century, thought to boast a population of 5,000. The burials of two Seneca women were uncovered here around the closing of the 20th Century, during installation of a natural gas line. The graves were dated to the 1680s, and the women were buried with combs carved from moose antlers, one of them depicting a First Nations figure clad in European-style clothes, the other a human figure, bear and rattle-snake-tailed panther, a possible representation of Mishipizheu, the water lynx. It also looks like a depiction of transformation from life to life, form to form, an appropriate symbol to take down into the grave.
It’s unclear what happened to these communities, except that around the time these women were buried, the village, which was ideally situated for control of traffic along the all-important Toronto Carrying Place (a portage route from Lake Ontario to Lake Simcoe) was abandoned. It’s telling, with regards to our faith in recorded history, that the graves are variously reported to have been discovered in 1999, 2000, 2002 and 2007. Mohawk community member Haleigh Fox writes on FirstStoryTO, a blog dedicated to sharing the Aboriginal history of Toronto, that the locals may have moved on naturally (“Haudenosaunee villages are not meant to be permanent”) or returned to their New York homelands under duress, due to military threat from the Marquis de Denonville, Governor General of New France. Other articles I found contend Denonville actually destroyed the village. There’s also a recorded tale of a supposed three-day drunk at the village during the 1670s involving French brandy and every man, woman and child, during which two women were stabbed (the source is early Toronto historian Percy Robinson, but from my thus-far cursory studies I know little about his sources or their veracity). Prior to the Seneca, the location was inhabited by Huron-Wendat, who, Fox writes, may have “dispersed due to a combination of warfare, disease, and starvation brought on by inter-Indigenous and European conflict.” With few historical records and archeological clues to go on, Fox is pretty much covering all the bases.
In years past I would have noticed such markers and bits of history (and missing or conflicting history) in passing, without much thought. I’d have walked the steeply sloping Glenlake Road, which I descend after dropping my son at daycare, without thinking that it may once have led down to a pond teeming with cattails, ducks and fish. Now I want and need this more basic knowledge of things that precede us, or that persist despite us: I want to know what I’ve missed, what we’ve forgotten or are in danger of forgetting, the stories and memories and former ways of life connected with the spaces I inhabit.
Filling gaps, reclaiming lost or obscured history. This kind of impulse is in the air these days. To me, it feels more and more like an imperative. Or a compulsion. A necessary step in redressing the darker aspects of Canadian history, and possibly also a necessary step toward regaining respect—and with that comes a measure of awe—for the ailing world that sustains us. Three books, one nonfiction, one poetry, and one fiction, went a long way toward nudging me forward in this direction last year.
To follow the stone circles where they lead
In her heart-wrenching, myth-buster of a book, A Geography of Bood: Unearthing the Memory of a Prairie Landscape, which was published in 2012 and won the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Nonfiction Prize, Candace Savage collects and presents the counter-story to the “brave pioneers in the wilderness” history of Canada we’ve been fed since elementary school. There is truth in that old familiar history, sure, but there is more to it, so much more, and some of that has to do with the near-decimation of the plains buffalo—which was no mystery or act of God but a full-on, no-holds-barred, textbook unsustainable harvest—and the attendant near-decimation of various groups of plains First Nations, the latter of which involved broken treaties, massacres and intentional starving-out strategies.
Savage stumbles on such tragedies as the Hunger Camp at Cypress Lake in the early 1880s while escaping into the prairies, her childhood home, on holidays with her husband. Because she is curious about anything to which she’s drawn, she starts following her nose, looking into such phenomena as mysterious ancient tipi rings, asking questions. A Geography of Blood is born out of this appreciative looking, which first transforms into research, then into discovery (not happy discovery) over and over again. It becomes a painful exposé of a stain on Canada’s past, but it’s also a love story between a woman and the land, between human and geography, and a simple commitment to face up. “All I wanted to know,” writes Savage, “was who had made the stone circles, and yet here I am instead, surrounded by desperation and the nameless bodies of the dead. Yet if these memories are part of my inheritance as a prairie person, I am determined to accept them as my own. I will let them settle around me quietly, layer after layer, loss upon loss.”
It sounds passive, but this kind of work takes willingness, stamina and guts. What difference does it make? Who cares about this stuff, from so long ago, that’s mostly forgotten? I do! Savage calls, raising her hand. Standing to her full height, looking us straight in the eye. And maybe you should, too. Savage would have had to hold this defiant, uncomfortable posture for years, while continuing to follow her nose toward ever more unpleasant realities, before presenting us with this book and the honest, hardscrabble journey toward some semblance of truth that it relates. It takes time and determination to hunt through obscure museums and archives for unofficial but very real histories—it takes the existence of obscure museums and archives. It takes a willingness to accept implication. We are implicated by where and how we live today, how our own position in Canadian society—where we are nearly all immigrants or the progeny of immigrants—has come to pass. More to the point, we are implicated simply by being human and thereby capable, in some hidden corner of all ourselves, of committing or condoning or turning away from the very atrocities Savage doggedly, obediently unearths—surprise!—from under generations of denial and indifference and dust.
Cypress Hills Recipes
Dilys Leman’s 2014 poetry collection, The Winter Count, crosses time and space with Savage’s book: we’re on the prairies in the late 19th Century, when the buffalo (technically bison) are failing, tensions between hungry First Nations and Europeans (de facto ruled by the Hudson’s Bay Company) are high, and our nascent federal government has growing designs on the land, and the means (and will) to get what it wants. By bringing historical characters to light—by giving them voice through their own letters and through imagined inner monologues—Leman also challenges the more commonly known versions of Canadian history, which come to feel sanitized, and blindly patriotic. The impetus for her investigations was not geography but blood ties: her great-great-grandfather, Augustus Jukes, was a senior surgeon with the North-West Mounted Police assigned to the medical commission assessing the sanity of Louis Riel during his incarceration—an assessment that would determine whether Riel was put to death for treason. Dr. Jukes was also a thinker and a poet. He left letters and records that called and called to Leman, three generations on.
Researching Jukes’s papers, as well as the context and times in which he lived and worked, led Leman to a tour of horrors similar to Savage’s, and to an understanding of the role the federal government’s policies and deliberate mythmaking played in the notions that First Nations were a rising threat to nation-building—a strategy with implications and reverberations that continue to this day. Leman’s poems, like Savage’s prose, are wrenching but not wholly despairing. That’s because they’re simultaneously subversive and inventive, angry and elegant, sorrowful and sinuous, horrific and funny. By recasting actual letters and documents, by imagining the inner monologues of historical characters—with her gruesome “Cypress Hills Recipes and lines from “Big Bear’s Speech,” with her “How to Hang Eight Indians (at Once) at Battleford” and her “Notes on Band Behaviour During Rebellion,” with her “Rules for Polite Tea” and her notes on the “Lunacy Commission”—by building a rich, polyphonic chorus of testimony, Leman stages a reenactment of that lost, shameful past. In doing so she also offers us a glimpse of a way (painful but possible) through it.
So you think you know what the fur trade was all about?
Now a touch further back in time, to Fred Stenson’s 2000 novel The Trade: a gripping and often hilarious (and horrendous) wild west romp that takes us to the Bow River, Fort Edmonton, Fort Vancouver, Fort Assiniboine, Piegan Post, Fort Carlton and York Factory on Hudson Bay through the reign of the Hudson’s Bay Company during through the first half of the 1800s. Stenson isn’t out to glorify the fur traders or to sanctify the First Nations they traded with—there is, for example, no breathless homage to the coureurs de bois such as I recall from Canadian history class—but to immerse us in that hubristic economic empire of the Company, which ran like a dictatorship, and let us see and feel its fallout: the alliances and connections formed and broken (some military, some mercenary, some in the form of marriage), the missionary work facilitated (for better or worse), the damage wrought to creatures and land, the egos supported, the tensions and misunderstandings, the lure, the cost. In short, the humanity.
Stenson’s story, aside from being a great read, a colourful page-turner filled with cruelty and compassion and killer dialogue, is a reminder that history is made up of people, that the play of money and power is dangerous and far-reaching, that every event we learn about in a textbook might have happened differently, or not at all, given another mood, moment, happenstance, person in charge or kind of weather. It’s a reminder of the history beneath history, which can be partly filled in with research and facts, but must always, in some measure—because it’s driven by human beings, whose thoughts and motivations belong wholly to themselves, yet may not be wholly or even partially understood by themselves—be imagined.
What did the egret see?
There is a big picture and there are the individual lives within it. Redemption and its first cousins, awareness and understanding, can only ever move piecemeal through the scene, soul by soul, waving their little flags. Sometimes, some of us see them beckoning. Sometimes none of us do. Sometimes one of us is compelled to raise our own ragged bit of cloth against the official story, against the only version easily and widely accessible to common memory.
I don’t know where my newfound love of egrets and female cardinals will lead, nor my belated awareness of hidden waterways and ghost First Nations villages. But one thing I know. Walking through my neighbourhood, I can feel that my eyes are more open than they used to be. That is not a metaphor: they literally feel more wide open. When I see the contours of a road, I now see more than the contours of a road. I see invisible creek beds, boulders, leaning willows with beaver-gnawed trunks. When I see a tidy, compact, rock-enclosed garden on the tip of the ravine, I also see a corn field that may once have been cultivated here. I see a tangle of herbs that a woman three hundred years before my time would have assessed with a practiced eye: her living pharmacy. The child on her back ails from some mysterious illness that arrived with the newcomers. The exquisite moose antler comb is tucked into her hair, keeping the strands back from her face, as she bends to collect greens and roots that represent hope. Way down the ravine, beyond the high flat lands where the corn and squash grow in rows, down there in the river shallows, an egret (much like the one I saw yesterday) stands stock still, its thin neck curled like a rope. It has spotted a fish…
This scene, built around the barest of facts, doesn’t seem like anything concrete. But it’s made of actual stuff, some of which constitutes my own attempts to see and understand, and some of which is real: little clues; sediment, residue. Layers. Layers that have always existed, that I never used to wonder about, or bother trying to see.
One of the alchemic qualities of Savage’s book is her belief—and the extension of that belief to her reader—that history lives on in the places where it happened, in the rocks and the soil and the trees, in the very air. She tells how she came to love visiting Ravenscrag, about 14 miles west of her home-away-from-home, Eastend, Saskatchewan. In between the two was a valley she describes as a “broad-floored, walled-in trench” from where “steep, dissected cutbanks rise to clip the horizon, enclosing a river of sky.” She writes that the embankments are ever-changing, “sometimes towering and majestic, sometimes hazy and withdrawn, sometimes outlined with snow so that their bones show.” Can you feel her love of this place, the permission she allows herself to wallow in beauty even when it comes bearing shadows? Maybe especially then?
The real wonder of this place, Savage learns, is what’s missing. She finds a geological guide book to the area that describes an “unconformity” at the top of the cliffs, a missing layer of sediment that amounts to a thousand metres of soil, or “the erasure of thirty million years.” Savage looks hard through binoculars and begins to see a “coarse jumble of stones” that, in some places, is absent. In its place lies far more recent debris and silt, left by receding glaciers. “Yet to an unschooled eye, nothing looked amiss; one layer overlaid another in complete innocence. Apparently, an unconformity could exist between the present and what we knew of the past, and very few of us would ever notice it.”
Few of us would notice, but it would be there.
Maurice Sendak is one of many children’s authors who cite Crocket Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon as an inspiration and influence. When Harold turned 50 in 2005, NPR invited Sendak to reflect on the delightful classic, in which a young boy builds his own story, scene by scene, using a fat crayon. Sendak said Harold was “immense fun,” nothing but fun: “There are no lessons in Harold. You do what you like, you have fun, and no one’s going to punish you. You’re just a kid.”
Given that Sendak writes for kids himself, and given that he knew Johnson and his wife Ruth Krauss, another celebrated children’s author (Sendak illustrated several of her books), I should probably put some faith in his perspective. But having read Harold enough times to my two-year-old to be able to recite it, I find myself disagreeing. From where I sit, Harold is teeming with lessons. Not those tedious, obvious morals that conscientious people love to stuff into so-called children’s literature, but lessons about human nature, and about the messy, exciting business of navigating your way, scene by scene, moment by moment, through the adventure that is your very own life. I believe that even a toddler can appreciate this kind of truth mirrored and plumbed in a story. Real literature ought not have an Adults Only designation.
On the surface, Harold is a charming tale enhanced by lovely line drawings and elegant language. One evening, after thinking it over for some time, Harold decided to go for a walk in the moonlight. This is the unassuming way the story begins. It’s simple and direct, yet already we have the makings of a plot and a sense of Harold’s character. He’s a deliberate child: he thinks things through.
And clearly, he’s not afraid of the dark.
With his magic crayon, Harold draws himself a “long, straight path” so he won’t get lost. But he quickly deviates from this plan: he takes a short cut. The moon goes with him. Harold takes precautions as he journeys. He doesn’t want to get lost in the woods, so he draws a forest containing only one tree. The tree’s apples seem so precious, he throws in a dragon to guard them. Alas, Harold’s dragon is convincing! Shaking with fear, he accidentally sketches waves, under which he starts to sink. He makes himself a boat, climbs in and sails away. Later, after slipping off a mountaintop, he draws a balloon, and then a basket under the balloon, “big enough to stand in.” When Harold is ready to go home, he starts drawing houses and buildings, filling their walls with windows, trying to find his own. Here is where the crayon’s magic fails. It can make a million windows, but none of them is his window.
I love how Harold’s crayon suggests that (to a point) superhuman powers might be within reach of any ordinary boy or girl. Who needs delivery owls, capes, wizards, magic wands? The matter-of-fact way that Harold takes ownership of the world and its possibilities is deeply satisfying. It’s refreshing to encounter this bold, imaginative, capable child—who’s still young enough to be wearing one-piece pajamas with feet—in a time when it’s no longer socially acceptable to let your child walk to school alone. Harold finds himself in danger over and over, and finally quite lost. In all events, he calmly uses what he has at hand: his crayon, his knowledge of how things work, and his understanding that when all else fails he can turn to an adult for help. Or can he? Unfortunately, the policeman Harold draws “points the way Harold was going anyway.” This reads (to the grown-up) like an unforgivable failure on the part of the adult world: a child has been abandoned to fate and his own devices. Harold, however, simply thanks the policeman before going on his way.
The magic of this book doesn’t reside in the crayon alone, but in the understated elegance of Johnson’s writing. He has a way with rhythm, with the gentle pun, with the apt, judicious and occasionally unexpected adjective. When Harold falls beneath the waves he comes up “thinking fast,” and climbs aboard “a trim little boat.” He “makes” land without much trouble. He “draws up the covers” on his bed. When our hero gets hungry, he lays out a “nice simple picnic lunch” featuring “all nine kinds of pie that Harold liked best.” The “deserving” porcupine that Harold leaves behind to help a hungry moose finish off this feast has won a spot, alongside far more illustrious literary characters, in my heart.
“Wow,” my son Henry says as we’re reading. “Mooooon.” When Harold finally figures out where his bedroom window is—“it’s always right around the moon”—we have closure. Our tired little boy has found his way home. Or has he? I think the ending of Harold, though it wears a sheen of comfort, is radical. Harold gets into a bed that he draws with his own crayon, beneath a window he has also drawn—around his own, purple-crayon moon. Is he truly home, or is he curling up in a make-believe substitute? It’s possible that Harold has come too far, that he may never find his way back, but his solution suggests that it doesn’t matter. Home is within you, home can be anywhere. The essentials—the moon, your own self—will not change.
In the course of his travels, it’s not the outside world that scares Harold most: it’s the dragon he draws, a creature that springs from his own mind. This is not what Harold, or the reader, expects, but it rings awfully true. I don’t know whether Crockett Johnson, whose real name was David Jonathan Leisk (1906-1975), was thinking about all of this when he wrote Harold. I don’t know whether he saw how Harold’s story works as a metaphor for so much about life—but then, don’t all journey tales become metaphors for life?
Harold has never gone out of print. It was still on the U.S. National Education Association’s “Teacher’s Top 100 Books for Children” in 2007 and on the School Library Journal’s “Top 100 Picture Books” in 2012. Sendak was right: this book is wickedly fun, and that must account for its success, at least in part. But no bit of fun, in the absence of deeper substance, has that much longevity. Harold shows us that we’re bound, in the course of life, to frighten ourselves, to make some disastrous moves, and to, at least temporarily, lose our way. Sometimes we’ll have to make do, no matter how desolate the figurative or literal locale we find ourselves in. This is the price of giving ourselves a story in which to live, our own plot. Harold’s journey is no heroic quest, no Jason and the Golden Fleece. He’s not out looking for treasure, he’s not trying to save anyone. He’s just going for a walk. He’s curious what will happen along the way, what he’ll conjure up. And so are we.
Here is an analysis of Harold and the Purple Crayon through the window of cognitive science: The Frontal Cortex
I’ve also come across an online essay that asserts Harold is a story about deciphering reality from fiction. I don’t think real vs. imaginary is the point of Harold at all. There is, however, one worthwhile and somewhat chilling question in this blog entry: “Can there be accidents in Harold’s world even if he’s drawing them?”
And here is the NPR interview with Maurice Sendak about Harold
And here is the Crocket Johnson homepage, run by Philip Nel, director of the graduate program in children’s literature at Kansas State University, where you’ll learn, among other fascinating things, that Johnson’s editor’s first reaction to Harold was decidedly lukewarm.
Often these days the novels we pick up tell of people we would wish to be, or at least spend time with. They might have flaws and failings, they may not rise to the potential we are induced to see in them, they may have the odds stacked against them, but at heart they are good, well-meaning. We relate to them. We feel their pain.
Allow me to introduce you to Leo Krauss, one of the main characters in Jacqueline Baker’s engrossing novel The Horseman’s Graves (HarperCollins, 2007). As a boy in 1909, Leo journeys with his family from Odessa to the Saskatchewan-Alberta border, where his father sets up a homestead on “a hundred and sixty pitiable acres tucked right up against the Sand Hills,” in “the worst possible corner of that parched, sifting region.” Old Krauss, Leo’s father—a nasty specimen who makes Leo’s mother run to catch up with the wagon if she needs to go to town—is known to one and all as the embodiment of meanness: “Mean in the old country, mean over here.” “Mean as crossed rattlers, those Krausses.” “Can’t shake that kind of thing out of the blood.”
Eventually young Leo, thusly cursed and all grown up, is the only Krauss left on that desolate property. He ventures forth in search of a wife. I am reminded of the folk song “Froggy Went A-Courting,” though even that ill-fated frog, “with his pistol and sword by his side,” seems better suited to the task. For one thing, in Miss Mousy, Froggy has an object in mind. Leo Krauss, on the other hand, rides systematically from one farm to the next, knocking on the door, sitting at the kitchen table, eyeing the resident daughters with a “greasy kind of look,” and getting up to leave without saying a word. He does this week after week until he starts turning up drunk, and then just shouting from his wagon in the yard at whatever girl he’s come to ogle.
When he finally gives up, there is widespread relief. But that’s not all there is, and herein lies the hard beauty of this novel. Baker writes: “But soon his absence became more of an outrage than his presence had ever been, as if he stayed away just so they would notice, and wonder about it, in spite of themselves . . . So after months of suffering bitterly his presence, they found themselves having to suffer his absence.”
The local people tell themselves they should be happy. “‘Ach,’ some said, ‘Be glad he is out of our hair.’” But no one can rest easy knowing Leo is in their midst. Is he OK out there, on that godforsaken piece of land? They’re Christians, they ought to care whether Leo has drunk himself to death, no? Surely someone should ride out and check on him. They gallantly elect the priest, for “what is the church for if not to look to the low and the fallen?”
I love this: how all that concern is deep-fried in plain old curiosity. There is so much about human nature that Baker captures in her portrayal of the community’s relationship with Leo Krauss—a relationship at times harrowing, at times hilarious—that I hardly know where to begin. The people of this isolated German community revile Leo: his behaviour is offensive, unfriendly, appalling. Yet how is it he dares put himself beyond requiring their approval or even their participation in his life? What is he capable of, this man who seems to have no sense of social mores or norms? What might he do next? And how might it affect them? Leo is a puzzle, and a potential threat, both. Because he follows none of the ordinary rules of engagement, people are confused by him, thrown off course. They also feel guilty about their own judgement of him. At the end of the Valentine’s Day social, after watching Leo suffer ridicule and rejection from the local girls, widower Mike Weiser thinks to himself that perhaps “Leo did have a heart there after all. Even if it was fed and pumped by Krauss blood, it was still a heart and he was still a man, not?”
Despite the evident hardship of their lives you get the distinct impression that without Leo and the small struggles he ignites in their minds and in their souls, the people here might grow bored; they might ease into a dangerous complacency. There is no comfort allowed when it comes to Leo. His existence stirs and ruffles the air.
The tale of Leo Krauss—not the whole or even the central tale here, though it is tied to everyone’s fate—makes me wonder about the true impact of an apparently negative presence. Do the Leos in our midst, much like a devastating storm, temporarily (or intermittently) create common cause? Does the instinct to work out the “problem” of Leo bring people together in a tense but unified (and sometimes comical) front? Does Leo simply give everyone a story around which to gather and reflect? “Leo” has so affected me that I feel a twinge of my own guilt writing this: am I suggesting we use the Leos of this world for our own betterment? What I can say for sure is that, unpleasant and confounding as he is, he matters. Like Humbert Humbert in Vladimir Nabakov’s Lolita—who I found so repulsive I nearly gave up on that book in the first chapter—he is the stuff of real literature (and life).
This is a novel about the immigration experience, after the fact. The people in The Horseman’s Graves have left much behind, most of it willingly: there’s a “good riddance” vibe to their survival ethic. What choice do they have? But some things can’t be shed. The Krausses and what they represent are eternal, and add layers (and perhaps generations) of difficulty to breaking in a new life, in a new place: the taint of bloodlines, the lingering power of old grudges, that whiff of the old country and its dark secrets, the day-to-day ups and downs of simply getting along with the people who live next door.
In the real world I’m lucky to know many people I’d be happy to have as neighbours (including my actual neighbours!). But I also know people who leave me at a complete loss, who remind me of Leo Krauss. I am almost always uneasy about my interactions with them. I think of Baker shaping the fictional world of The Horseman’s Graves, and all the time she spent in the company of Leo Krauss. I think of Baker holding the idea of Leo Krauss in her mind—of the building, scene by awkward scene, moment by uncomfortable moment, of Leo Krauss and all the people whose lives and consciences he infiltrates. Am I glad she’s created this ornery, disagreeable character, and stuck him in my mind? Glad is not the word. But Baker has done some hard labour here, some heavy lifting, the kind required for meaningful art to emerge. Leo is not the guy most of us want to hang out with over beers; but he’s among us. His presence, and our reaction to it, is impossible to ignore.
Here is a profile of Jacqueline Baker from Quill and Quire magazine.
And here’s a blog entry by Kerry Clare on Horseman’s Graves from back when the book was released.
I can’t stop thinking about the sauerkraut.
I’ll give you the scene. A young woman in her Toronto apartment. Some workers arrive to fix the plumbing downstairs, and one comes up to turn on the water. Our heroine is wary: her pantry contains a crock of “out-of-control” sauerkraut. Once the plumber is back downstairs, she overhears, through the floorboards, “there’s definitely something rotting up there,” and wants to run down to explain: “how I hate the stink too, how I wish I could just dump the whole fucking crock into the compost…but that I can’t, because, you see, because of my grandfather.” And then there are two increasingly desperate pages of “because.” “Because his house is up for sale.” “Because the man poured pickle juice on his fried rice…” “Because I don’t speak Low German or German or Ukrainian or Russian or Dutch.”
In the closing moment, she’s “kneeling in front of the sauerkraut scooping the scum into a blue plastic cup… holding my breath in the stink and my nose is running and I’m wiping it on my sleeve and trying not to sob too loudly as the plumbers gather their tools below.”
In last week’s entry I mentioned Alayna Munce’s novel When I Was Young & In My Prime (Nightwood Editions, 2005). Though I have been reading some poetry I keenly want to write about (specifically pieces in The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2012), I can’t yet shake When I Was Young. It lingers—I hesitate to say “like the smell from a crock of fermenting cabbage,” but that is kind of what I mean. In a good way.
To recap, Munce’s book follows the narrator’s life in the city, where she works two jobs and struggles in her marriage. Meanwhile, her grandmother, Mary Friesen, recedes into an Alzheimer’s-fogged existence. Grandfather Peter also begins to decline. So, one narrative tracks the wobbly launch of a life, the other tracks the recession of two other lives, and the place where the novel finds its richness is where the two meet, in our narrator’s heart and mind.
We are dealing with a narrator who is determined to not let her grandparents’ lives—or their suffering—slip away unstudied. Not unnoticed, but unstudied. She writes poem sequences based on fragments of their history. She extrapolates from old diary entries of her grandmother’s and slips into her mind, her voice, in a time before the narrator’s life began. She does the same with her grandfather. I’m not sure how Munce pulls this off. It might have come across as false, or too cute. Instead, we sink into the voices, while also remaining aware that this is only the narrator’s clumsy attempt to glimpse her grandparents’ secret lives. The tension between these two states of awareness, for the reader, is quietly effective.
I suspect we’ve all looked at a close relation from a previous generation and thought, with a mixture of fascination and dismay: their life is a mystery to me. Because their tale is the precursor to our own, it’s also ours, and we yearn to know it. Munce gently steers her narrator into that usually impenetrable universe: someone else’s existence. It does not feel like invasion so much as homage, a rare empathy. Story being applied to one of its chief purposes, I daresay one of its chief obligations.
The narrator’s effort to learn from her grandfather how to make sauerkraut—before it’s too late remains unspoken—calls forth vivid associations. Once, my cousins asked my maternal grandmother, Babci (our informal version of the Polish babcia), to teach them how to make pierogies. They arrived at her house on the appointed Saturday afternoon. They found the kitchen table laid out with rows of meticulously trimmed ovals of dough. They found bowls brimming with fillings: potato-and-cheese, sauerkraut-mushroom, meat. Their job: to place a dollop of filling into the centre of each round of dough, fold the dough over and pinch it closed. Pierogy assembly.
We still laugh about this, but the incident also troubles me. Did Babci not believe they truly wanted to learn? Did she not want to give up her secrets?
In my thirties, I told this same grandmother that I’d begun to study Polish—a language none of my 16 cousins spoke either, so which, in a single generation, had disappeared. She said, “Why you want speak Polish?” She waved a hand dismissively. “Polish difficult language. You soon forget.” I wanted to say, so I can ask you more questions, better questions, and understand the answers. So I can get a glimpse of how a Polish mind, trained by a whole other system of grammar, works. How it feels to use my mouth in a Polish way, to make Polish sounds. Because I’m half-Polish, I wanted to say, and since you and I talk in broken English, since Polish—which I’ve heard spoken around me my entire life—sounds to me like garbled mutterings, I hardly know what being half-Polish means.
I started too late: my Polish (it is a difficult language) did not progress quickly enough. Babci died in 2006. (I wrote a Lives Lived piece about her for the Globe and Mail. You can read it here.) Now her thoughts about so many things—as well as her particular technique for pierogy preparation—exist somewhere out of time, out of my reach.
There are days when I’m as skeptical as my grandmother was about all this hanging on, cluttering ourselves up with the past. Are we just being sentimental? Trapping people inside our greedy imaginations? Then I read a book like Munce’s, her narrator’s loving, painful itemization of the changes in her grandparents’ lives, their belongings, fragments of history, minor facts. The mason jars, stepladder, hat boxes and butter forms hauled up from the basement for a garage sale. Grandma’s ruminations on the saying it’s all downhill from here: “I couldn’t for the life of me remember whether the phrase is meant to be uplifting or melancholy.” Grandpa’s five languages, “if you included whistling.”
I read this and feel a resurgence of a kind of faith. I ask myself where it’s been. What has happened in my life—and in my craft as a writer—to make me forget that the main thing is to take note? That behind everything we do, this one imperative: pay attention. Maybe I lose faith sometimes because the impulse to “pay attention” is often followed in my mind by: Okay, then what? Is it possible that in choosing to observe—meticulously, unsparingly—we avoid a duty to act? We shy away from a meaningful, useful response?
I finished reading When I Was Young a few days before the 19th anniversary of my Polish grandfather’s death. He died November 5, 1993. Various hospital stays punctuated his later years. Once my sister and I went to visit him in the Henderson, the hospital on the Hamilton mountain, an old building that back then had narrow, stuffy, yellow hallways. (It may still; I have not been back.) When we were saying goodbye, he sat up in bed, watery eyes wide and bright, and said, “I’m go with you. I’m no stay.” He pointed to a knapsack one of us held. “I’m fit in bag.” He grinned. He was joking, but he wasn’t. We held back tears, kissed him—three times each, cheek after cheek, the Polish way—and squeezed his mottled hand and walked out of the room, down the suffocating hallways, back outdoors, squinting into the daylight.
Sometimes action is beside the point. We couldn’t rescue our grandfather from his hospital bed or from his failing body. We could note his struggle, and carry it with us, along with all the other things about him that we remembered and knew. This is what we mean by paying attention. It’s what I mean. And then what? I don’t know. But we have to let the sauerkraut ferment, let the stench work its way into our noses.
‘Henrietta was a literary woman, and the great advantage of being a literary woman was that you could go everywhere and do everything’
Years ago, when I was young and snooty and resentful of obligatory social engagements, I attended a work party with my then-boyfriend (his work, not mine). I found myself sipping wine in a well-appointed Ottawa living room with several wives who, to my relief, turned out to be avid readers. One of them said, “It’s weird, but nothing seems right, everything’s a little tougher, when I’m not in the middle of a good book.”
I wanted to take her by the hand and bring her home. She’d articulated something I’d always sensed but never consciously noted: That an interlude with a passage of fine writing can smooth out the edges, lessen the sting, wrench open the eyes. Forget the apple: a chapter, a poem, an essay a day, this is what is required. That Ottawa woman whose name and face I now forget got it: some of us use—some of us need—the written word as a binding force in life, offering a parallel narrative to backdrop our own, an army of company (and ideas, and even horrors) to trail us on our errands, wanderings, pursuits.
Welcome to my blog, which borrows the spirit of Henrietta Stackpole, a character—minor yet key—in Henry James’s novel The Portrait of a Lady. I read this book last winter, holed up, nursing my newborn son. I would sit in an armchair, lie baby Henry on a wide flat pillow, latch him on, and prop the book on the pillow behind him. It is a coincidence that James and the baby share a first name, I swear. And don’t worry: this is not a blog about all things Henry James. Nor is it about how reading saved me in the early days of motherhood (though, yeah, it did). And it ain’t no book review blog. More like a book report. Informal and wide-ranging. I hope to share ideas, reactions and thoughts on what I’ve been reading. Nothing fancy or grand or—what is that annoyingly popular concept?—innovative. But it seems to matter. I aim to muddle through that watery space between the lines where most good writing leaves you, paddling and spinning, trying to figure out how you got there, where the shore is, what’s lurking beneath your feet.
Back to Henrietta Stackpole, our guardian angel. A friend of Isabel’s, the protagonist, Henrietta is a journalist “in the van of progress,” first introduced as a “high example of useful activity,” Isabel’s “proof that a woman might suffice to herself and be happy.” In the social context surrounding Portrait of a Lady, Henrietta is a lady possessing a shocking, almost distasteful sense of personal freedom. She comes and goes as she pleases; can attend the opera or stay at an inn without concern over which male figure, if any, serves as escort. James explains, with that hint of comic relief that accompanies most of his passages on Miss Stackpole, “Henrietta was a literary woman, and the great advantage of being a literary woman was that you could go everywhere and do everything.”
I fell for her from the get-go.
It is out of fashion these days to describe a fictional character with the heartiness that James applied to the task. Here she is upon first appearing to Ralph, Isabel’s invalid cousin, who had hoped to disapprove of her but was forced instead into a reluctant admiration: “She resulted, she shimmered, in fresh, dove-coloured draperies, and Ralph saw at a glance that she was as crisp and new and comprehensive as a first issue before the folding. From top to toe she had probably no misprint.”
Then she fixes her eyes upon him and “there was something in their character that reminded him of large polished buttons—buttons that might have fixed the elastic loops of some tense receptacle: he seemed to see the reflection of surrounding objects on the pupil. The expression of a button is not usually deemed human, but there was something in Miss Stackpole’s gaze that made him, as a very modest man, feel vaguely embarrassed—less inviolate, more dishonoured, than he liked.”
Finally, upon further reflection by Ralph: “She was wanting in distinction, but, as Isabel had said, she was brave: she went into cages, she flourished lashes, like a spangled lion-tamer.”
James’s lush descriptions are enough to make me lament, a little, the sparsity of contemporary letters. I am currently reading, and deeply admiring, Toronto author Alayna Munce’s novel When I Was Young & In My Prime (Nightwood Editions, 2005). It’s a compassionate study of a young woman struggling through early adulthood (two jobs, faltering marriage) while, outside the city, her grandparents are declining. It’s also wonderfully natural the way it’s written and told, its diary-like passages interspersed with poem sequences that delve into issues raised during incidents that are recounted in prose. But Munce’s style is definitely of our time. We are introduced to Mom, Grandma, Grandpa, James and various other characters. We learn them through their words and actions and various talismans, through setting and implication, impression and voice, but we are not literally shown them: their size, their hair, their eyes, their noses, their hands. We writers don’t do that these days. And of course all that description was overbearing. It left no room for the power of suggestion, for the character to fit a heretofore undiscovered nook in your mind. Good for us that we’ve moved on: call it progress. Even so, when I turn a page and encounter Henrietta as Madame Merle does— “[she] surveyed her with a single glance, took her in from head to foot, and after a pang of despair determined to endure her. She determined indeed to delight in her. She mightn’t be inhaled as a rose, but she might be grasped as a nettle”—I glory in all that exposition. I pause and read the lines again, following their snaking through Madame Merle’s calculating mind. The nettle pricking. Henrietta flowering.
James clearly had a ball writing Henrietta. With apologies to James scholars, I can’t help but wonder if he was using her as a vehicle to poke fun at himself. The name is a flag, of course. And then there are her incessant efforts to report on “the inner life,” which becomes a kind of running joke throughout the novel: Henrietta’s ideas about the “inner life” are already set, we “the reader” understand, but she must pin down examples. She must poke about the English estates and the lives of their inhabitants. James plumbed his own society, the dramas (or types of dramas) played out in his own circles, for his novels: to peel back the “inner” life” for real was his literary calling. But of course at times—as for any writer—it felt ridiculous, futile, intrusive. The opportunity for gentle, though exuberant, mockery afforded by Henrietta must have been a welcome release.
(For a magnificent exploration of all that, even if you aren’t a James fan—and especially if you are a writer—read Colm Toibin’s The Master, a novel based on James’ life, a real digging down into the unsettling aspects of the author’s toil and trade. Click here for the Guardian review.)
Such is my theory. Henrietta is brilliant in that she’s both a break from all that painstaking psychic excavation—and with James as guide it can be remarkably painstaking—while at the same time a key source of revelation. The only forthright, trustworthy character in the novel, Henrietta is blunt and intrusive, at times hilariously lacking tact, and thus a caricature of a “modern woman” that I am willing to bet sets some feminist scholars teeth on edge. She exudes guts and principal; she’s without guile, and is the one person in Isabel’s life who cares about her without self-interest.
Henrietta was on the hunt. As was James. As am I. (And I daresay I can be just as awkward and cringe-worthy as she.) Nowadays, nobody I know needs the cover of being a “literary woman” to follow her nose, to explore the world. However, there are far too many women I don’t know directly, women in oppressive societies—and in restrictive circumstances right here in contemporary Canada—for whom no “literary woman” guise would help. I can’t read or write, pursue any autonomous endeavour, without my thoughts shifting the way of those women, without anger bubbling—and simmering equally on behalf of women in times past, the Isabels reduced to looking upon the bold, unusual Henriettas with admiration.
I was happy and lucky when I read Portrait of a Lady, a new mother in the throes of all that entails. I was also desperate. Desperate to engage my mind while my body was doing its work, while I was kept stationary for lengthy stretches, sating the baby’s hunger. James brought me England and Rome and Henrietta, in all her shimmering certainty. Her usefulness. The book led me out of the living room and my own ordinary dramas and duties while also bringing what was before me into sharp relief: exactly how, I don’t know, but the one effect makes the other possible. A good read leaves me both rinsed and brimming. It was important to find that hadn’t changed, though so much else had. It is no great discovery, yet it is a discovery, each time it happens: The book is a gateway. A literary woman can go anywhere.