Locating the Self
- Laurie Ricou (Author)
A Field Guide to "A Field Guide to Dungeness Spit". Oolichan Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Judy Schultz (Author)
Mamie's Children: Three Generations of Prairie Women. Red Deer Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Paul Jones (Author)
Pembina Country. Caitlin Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Thelma Poirer (Author)
Rock Creek. Coteau Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Alison Calder
Simply put, Mamie’s Children is a good book. Judy Schultz focuses on the life of her grandmother, Mamie Elizabeth Yockey Harris, a woman who lived "an ordinary existence" on a farm in southern Saskatchewan during the Depression. But the story rises above the over-written genre of the family history because it is about more than just one pioneer life. As Schultz writes, "None of life’s journeys is truly solitary. There’s always somebody slipping away in front of us or elbowing for room or dogging our footsteps, and as the journey progresses, our path grows crowded with the amiable company of ancestral ghosts and the hopeful promise of children not yet born." Thus, the book starts with an account of the immigration of Mamie’s own grandmother, Magdalena, and continues through the generations, focusing on the female line, until Shultz herself concludes the narrative. Comparatively little has been recorded about the lives of ordinary women, but Schultz has researched available historical sources thoroughly, so that where the unique details of a journey, for example, are unknown, she can extrapolate from other contemporary accounts. As a result, Mamie’s Children is able to gesture towards a general historical movement without losing sight of the specifics. Schultz’s narrative includes interviews with relatives and neighbours as well as family photographs, and so provides a variety of perspectives and voices. Schultz’s belief in connections, particularly connections between women, is most strongly supported by her inclusion of excerpts from Mamie’s "Cash Book," a sort of diary. These extracts, encompassing weather reports, recipes, medical advice, poems, and gardening details, clearly show the centrality of the "ordinary woman" to the pioneer experience, and the strong female network that made that experience possible. In putting the experiences of Mamie’s family into social and historical context, Schultz provides a valuable document of Western Canadian history.
Like Schultz’s book, Paul Jones’s Pembina Country is a memoir of a failed home-steading experience. Through a series of misadventures, Jones’s parents homestead on a farm outside of Sangudo, Alberta, where the three Jones children, Olwyn, Paul, and Owen, are born. Jones’s father, Jack, proves to be an incompetent farmer and seems unable to hold a job, perhaps owing to mental illness resulting from his World War I experiences. Jones’s mother, Ann, a British immigrant, is similarly unsuited for farm life, becoming obese and seemingly suffering several nervous breakdowns. As a result, the family endures extreme financial hardship, accompanied by natural disasters like drought, blizzards, and fires. In due course the family leaves the farm and moves to town, where Paul attends school for a short time before being forced to leave to find work. Eventually it becomes impossible for the family to support itself in Sangudo, and the book closes with them selling their belongings at an auction and boarding a train for what they hope will be a better life on the West Coast. But while the events Jones relates are dramatic, his narrative is not. The episodic plot allows for little reflection: events simply occur and then are left behind. The difficulty with Pembina Country may be that Paul, the central figure, is not a particularly interesting character. As Jones describes his younger self, Paul simply moves through the tumult around him, neither reflecting nor commenting on it. This reticence may be related to Jones’s expressed wish not to "cast an unkind shadow" on any of his characters, a wish that may be admirable but that also produces a bland narrative. Given the mental illnesses of his parents, Jones’s reluctance to delve deeply into emotional issues is understandable but regrettable. As a result, Pembina Country emerges as a decently written narrative, without the resonance of Mamie’s Children.
Thelma Poirer’s Rock Creek is also a memoir, firmly grounded in place. Poirer structures her narrative around her decision to walk the length of the creek that crosses the land on which she grew up: "I have seen two oceans, but I have not seen all of the creek in my own backyard. It is as though I have been wearing blinders, only removing them at certain places, long enough for glimpses of the creek, the edges of the water." Her attempt to walk the creek structures the narrative. This journey is not only episodic, as she moves from one point to the next, but also lyric. The landmarks by which Poirer navigates mark not only place but also time: each feature of the landscape is imbued with her memories of people and events. The effect of this solitary journey is paradoxically to underscore the importance of community to Poirer, and to imbue the landscape she describes with life. Poirer’s detailed knowledge of prairie animals and plants underpins her descriptions of them. Most criticism of prairie writing is governed by the idea of human alienation from the landscape, but Poirer clearly demonstrates her connection to place. Her walk along the creek is depicted not as an attempt to claim a foreign land, but rather as a chance to revisit places and people she always knew. Unfortunately, not all of those places and people are interesting. Describing a particular point on Rock Creek, she recalls an earlier trip by her father and sister, speculating that "maybe this was the way they traveled the day they stopped at Ed McPherson’s place, cold and hungry, the day they rode on without eating because no one was home." That’s the height of drama along Rock Creek. Poirer comes across as a rather endearingly incompetent hiker, who gets lost, falls in the creek, and is hobbled by blisters. Despite some tedious sections, the book provides a record of a life lived fully in place. The final section, in which Poirer drives to Rock Creek’s confluence in Montana and is welcomed by strangers and relatives alike, underlines her message of continuity and coherence.
I can’t figure out how to categorize Laurie Ricou’s fascinating A Field Guide to "A Field Guide to Dungeness Spit," so I’ll describe it instead. The book centres on David Wagoner’s poem "A Field Guide to Dungeness Spit," which describes an encounter with the Dungeness Spit, a narrow strip of sand that extends from Washington’s Olympic Peninsula about five and a half miles into the Juan de Fuca Strait. The Spit has two personalities, separated at points by only a few metres of sand: the seaward side is dangerous, the repository of many shipwrecks, while the sheltered lee side is an environmental marvel, a sanctuary to many bird species. Ricou assembles a wide variety of extracts written about the Spit itself, drawing from guide books, dictionaries, environmental reports, newspaper articles, personal letters, and sailors’ logs, to name a few sources. The book is thus in some ways a field guide to the actual Spit, to its flora, fauna, inhabitants, and history. In this context, Wagoner’s poem can be read as one more interpretation of place. But things are further complicated by Ricou’s glossing of Wagoner’s text. These passages of scholarly analysis, interpolated with the extracts about the Spit, have the effect of blurring the distinction between the empirical Spit and Wagoner’s description of it. The poem, itself a guide to a place, becomes the place to which Ricou guides us. Such self-reflexivity invites readers to critique Ricou’s "guiding" as he critiques Wagoner’s, and provides a gentle but ironic commentary on the academic project in general. Ricou’s academic "guiding" further calls itself into question through the contradictions in the guidebooks he quotes. Some sources say one thing, some another, and the empirical truth turns out to be as shifting as the sands of the Spit itself. In the face of such uncertainty, the language employed by the academic figure appears hopelessly inadequate, an inadequacy underscored (deliberately, I think) by the overly pedantic tone of some of the passages. A section on the origin of the name "Dungeness" quotes four different sources in fifteen short lines, for example, clarifying nothing. The authority of the academic voice is further undercut by the inclusion of several excerpts from other sources commenting on Wagoner’s poem. Many readers’ only experience of Dungeness Spit will be a textual one; that is, they will read this book without ever having been to the real Spit. Ricou’s book turns full circle with the coneluding extract, a poem by Robert Kroetsch and Ron Smith about a trip to Dungeness Spit with Laurie and Treva Ricou, in which the author/editor/academic assumes the role of guide to the Spit itself, and also becomes the guide-character in Wagoner’s poem. I haven’t finished thinking about that one yet. To sum up, I can only echo Beatrice Roethke’s words, which Ricou cites at the very end of A Field Guide: "P.S. I love that ’Dungeness Spit’ poem."
- De l'espace et du temps by Emmanuel Bouchard
Books reviewed: La Grande Sortie by Pierre Raphaël Pelletier, Sur le parvis des nuages by Marcil Cossette, and L'étincelle suffit à la constellation by Julius Baltazar, Frédèric Benrath, Guy Cloutier, and René Laubiès
- The Two Cohens by Norman Ravvin
Books reviewed: Intricate Preparations: Writing Leonard Cohen by Stephen Scobie and Uncommon Ground: A Celebration of Matt Cohen by Graeme Gibson, Wayne Grady, Dennis Lee, and Priscilla Uppal
- Vies précaires by Mariloue Sainte-Marie
Books reviewed: Les espions de Dieu by André Roy, Le Livre Des Absents by Hugues Corriveau, and Agonie d'André Breton by Jean Yves Collette
- To the New World by Bryan N. S. Gooch
Books reviewed: The Desire of Every Living Thing: A Search for Home by Don N. S. Gillmor and Gentlemen Engineers: The Working Lives of Frank and Walter Shanly by Richard White
- E. Pauline Johnson, Tekahionwake: The Texts by Cecily Devereux
Books reviewed: E. Pauline Johnson, Tekahionwake: Collected Poems and Selected Prose by Carole Gerson and Veronica Strong-Boag
MLA: Calder, Alison. Locating the Self. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 18 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #172 (Spring 2002), Auto / biography. (pg. 189 - 192)
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