- Verna Thomas (Author)
Invisible Shadows: A Black Woman's Life in Nova Scotia. Nimbus Publishing (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Barbara McClean (Author)
Lambsquarters: Scenes from a Handmade Life. Random House (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Stella Algoo-Baksh
Reminiscent of work by female African Canadian writers such as Carol Talbot, Carrie Best, and Cheryl Foggo, Verna Thomas’ Invisible Shadows: A Black Woman’s Life in Nova Scotia presents a vivid and moving documentation of Thomas’s discovery of the “lived history” of black Nova Scotians, in particular of their ascent from lives of slavery, neglect, and exploitation and of the on-going effects of such experiences on contemporary generations. Thomas’s memoir—her personal odyssey—poignantly communicates to the reader the uniqueness and significance of blacks in Nova Scotian society and the social and other deprivations they have experienced in the past and, to a certain extent, still do today. The book, an amalgam of personal experience and oral and official histories, contrasts a romanticised and bucolic past in the Edenic Annapolis Valley with the crippling inhumanity of life in a small urban Nova Scotian community specifically, and in Nova Scotia as a whole.
A Canadian woman of African, Irish and Native descent, Thomas brings to her writing a unique perspective on racism, that of both insider and outsider, a perspective consolidated by the fact that she grew up in the predominantly white community of Mount Denson where she was aware of her colour, though not of racism, but experienced a rude awakening after she married and moved with her husband to Preston. Here she suddenly discovered that “colour had something to do with the way people are treated” and that the “colour bar meant that black people were barred from everything except the barnyard.” As George Elliott Clarke’s father (like Verna Thomas, an African Canadian of mixed blood) told Clarke when the latter first encountered racism, “some white-sugar folk don’t like brown-sugar folk.”
Written in simple, uncluttered language, which incorporates the homeliness and humour of the oral tradition (e.g., “as sassy as a blue-ass fly,” “backsides”), Invisible Shadows foregrounds the history and traditions of black Nova Scotians, recording the “past struggles and successes of our ancestors that helped fashion” the present-day black community. With striking objectivity, however, Thomas notes that, while her life writing has revealed “some shadows from the past and has shed light . . . on the battle of oppression, racism and neglect which the black community has endured to reach its present stand,” it has also demonstrated to her “the need for ‘self examination’.” Apparently unafraid of the controversy such a stance might engender, Thomas espouses a change in focus: the centre should be North America rather than the shores of Africa. She strongly advocates that present generations of black Nova Scotians move on, that they shoulder their “share in the blame” for what blacks have done to one another and that they privilege the “present and future needs” of their communities, rather than “remain at the border between the work of progress and the world of decay reminding others [whites] of the moral and political sins of their forefathers.” Quite importantly, she recommends as well the uprooting of “entrenched jealous hatred” among blacks themselves.
Invisible Shadows, a provocative memoir recording Thomas’s daily personal challenges as wife and mother as well as the social and political struggles that have historically generated divisions between blacks and whites and among blacks themselves, is a valuable addition to Canadian history and literature. In many ways, it is a daring exposure of the many obstacles created by both whites and blacks which have stymied the growth of Nova Scotian and Canadian society. Constructively, however, it lights a path to a better future for all.
While Thomas found it necessary to surrender the satisfactions of rural life, Barbara McClean—accompanied by her husband—pursued them with gusto. McClean’s Lambsquarters: Scenes from a Handmade Life is an account of the quest by the author and her husband “for land, a house, a barn, hill and grass and rocks.” The book is a lyrical paean to pastoral life, describing its joys and sorrows as well as its hardships and rewards. It elaborates, too, on the McCleans’ ignorance and discoveries, their hopes and frustrations, and their tenacity as a new breed of pioneers following in the footsteps of such notables as Catharine Parr Traill and Susanna Moodie, whose “lives course through” their veins “from pre-memory.” The memoir records the McCleans’ intrepid attempt to establish a home of their own.
With a sharp eye for concrete detail, McClean depicts in memorable fashion the “mighty world of eye and ear” which encompassed the newcomers. She records the rhythm of the days, the seasons, and the years. In a collection of moving vignettes, she conveys the excitement of discovering the secrets of the flora and fauna of the environment—the jewel weed, the elderberry, the alfalfa and wild berries which provided the family with magical dyes for their “spun skeins of wool,” wool shorn from sheep they had themselves bought, bred and nurtured. She plunges enthusiastically into the varied challenges of farming— the lambing, shearing and planting seasons and the renovation of their dilapidated house and of a barn that seemed on the verge of toppling over but never did. She delves into such varied subjects as farm tools, plants, weeds, bluebirds, racoons and wolves that threatened the livestock, and turtles “which spoke of time and endlessness and the unknown.”
Lambsquarters certainly does not romanticise farm life, for it highlights demanding experiences confronted by the McCleans. It paints a graphic picture, for instance, of cold winters, sleet, mud, isolation and the trauma of facing still-born lambs or lambs whose mothers had rejected them. Primarily, however, it is a memoir recording the joys of discovery and celebrating the landscape as well as the indomitable human spirit that enables human beings to transcend the most pressing of obstacles. Lambsquarters is indeed a book for those with an interest in or love for the land. With well-honed sentences and evocative language, it denotes the potentially salutary effects of nature on the human being.
Lambsquarters is a fascinating and informative book written with verve and sophistication. It is unfortunate, therefore, that such well-wrought work is marred by certain infelicities of editing and/or printing. Specific sections listed in the table of contents (namely, “School Bus,” “Hay Cutter,” “Bus Box,” “Blue Bird” and “Feasts”) are nonexistent in the text. In their place appear such pieces as “Hero,” “Confrontation,” “Who’s Crazy Now,” “Aftermath,” “Important People,” and “Sabbath Gasbags,” which are unrelated to the main part of the book in theme and content. The occurrence of these exclusions and inclusions is a monumental disservice to an otherwise elegant publication.
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MLA: Algoo-Baksh, Stella. Life-Writing. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 21 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #182 (Autumn 2004), Black Writing in Canada. (pg. 178 - 180)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.