Maritime Literature:: Place, Past, and Poetry
- Hilary Thompson (Editor)
Children's Voices in Atlantic Literature and Culture: Essays on Childhood. Canadian Children's Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Carol Corbin (Editor) and Judith A. Rolls (Editor)
The Centre of the World at the Edge of the Continent. University College of Cape Breton Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- John DeMont (Author)
The Last Best Place: Lost in the Heart of Nova Scotia. Doubleday Canada (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Jim TaylorCape Breton step-dancing, the card game Tarbish as a metaphor, Bingo as subculture, and Mary Morrison as the quintessential Cape Bretoner: these provide thoroughfares into a collection that explores the paradoxes of Cape Breton and attempts to explain its artistic renaissance. Contributions include essays by scholars, teachers, journalists, artists, and aficionados of Cape Breton life. All are informative; many are witty; and some are gems.
In her introduction "Culture for Sale," Judith Rolls discusses Cape Breton humour in light of Ian McKay’s claim that Premier Angus L. Macdonald (1933-1954) "was instrumental in the tartanization of Nova Scotia’s cultural heritage." McKay uses the term reconstructed ethnicity to describe the "transformation of ethnic identities in response to the pressures of tourism." Tartanization was partly responsible for the notion that all Cape Bretoners were "simple, stupid, kind, tough, similar-looking Celts." Rolls points to the film Margaret’s Museum as an example. The hero Neil Currie courts Margaret with bagpipe music. Rolls notes that the bagpipes were rare in Cape Breton, but fails to appreciate that Neil Curry from St. Andrews Channel—with his wit, prowess, and bagpipes—is meant to symbolize humanity and culture destroyed by the exploitation of Glace Bay’s miners. Nevertheless, McKay presents convincing evidence that tourism required a stereotype of the Great Scot.
Many ethnic groups find voice in this collection. Scottish fiddling and step-dancing are featured. Lilian MacLean’s memories of childhood on MacLean’s Island are captivating. The charming speaker and Gaelic cadences echo an Alistair MacLeod story. But engaging articles also comment on the Irish, Italian, and Native people of Cape Breton. "The Irish of Rocky Bay" offers authentic descriptions of life in the old days. "Kaqietaq ’All Gone’" deals with Mi’kmaw rites honoring the dead, and "Wine, Health, and Sociability"celebrates the Italian experience in Cape Breton.
Joanne Kennedy’s essays on Tarbish illustrate the Cape Bretoner’s penchant for blurring the distinctions between games and life. Tarbish is a game of complex rules and discussions: arguments about the subtleties of these rules constitute an important part of the game which is curiously post-modern in its self-referential preoccupations. Ellison Robertson distinguishes between General John Cabot Trail’s humour, which personifies the myth of the idiot Cape Bretoner, and the more inclusive self-parody of Mary Morrison (beloved for her signature greeting "Good, Dear, good"), which moves beyond parody to the shock of recognition.
On the architecture in Tompkinsville Richard MacKinnon argues that the plain box-like houses in Reserve should be recognized "as a significant part of Nova Scotia’s built heritage." One hopes that Halifax officials heed MacKinnon’s conclusion. Tompkinsville deserves proper representation among our historic buildings; it does "offer [. ..] a realistic portrayal" of working class life. MacKinnon and William Davey also examine Cape Breton nicknames. Their judicious tone makes the humorous names marvellously outrageous. With admirable reserve they trace the derivation of names like "Malcolm Is That You Norman, the Pickle Arse MacLeans, and Ten-to-six (for the tilt of his head)."
Editor Carol Corbin unabashedly identifies herself as a come-from-away, enchanted by her adopted home. Co-editor Judith Rolls, the returned expatriate, knows how "small things give big meaning." Holding all together is the belief that the medium of cultural influence is communication; and Cape Bretoners have a wealth of rituals that enrich and renew their communities. Corbin acknowledges technology’s power, through instant communication, to reduce everything to Muzak and American TV shows. Yet she insists that to cross the Causeway is to discover a culture blessedly free from such influence and determined to resist it. The Centre of the World at the Edge of the Continent pays tribute to this resistance.
The most arresting article in Hilary Thompson’s anthology Children’s Voices is John Stockdale’s analysis of Norman Duncan’s Harbour Tales Down North, a collection he considers Duncan’s finest work. The stories recount the stark plight of Newfoundland’s boys being "hardened" into young men fitted to weather life as fishermen in perhaps the harshest environment on the continent. Imagination and art are subordinated to wresting a living from the sea and producing offspring to carry on the struggle. Talent for anything but coping with the fickle ocean is a curse, as "The Art of Terry Lute" ironically explores. Other articles on how Maritime children were casually neglected or abused include "Small Bodies: Death and the Child in Maritime Fiction" by David Creelman, "Childhood in Limbo" by Theresia Quigley, and "Runaway Girls and Sharp Knives" by Dierdre Kessler. Muriel Whitaker in "Missing Fathers" explores the pain of paternal absence; and "Revenge and Revolt" by Sharon Myers is a fine study of boys’ struggles in a New Brunswick reformatory.
These essays explain why Philip Girard’s "Three Tales of Child Custody in Nova Scotia" opens the collection. He traces changes in Maritime courts’ attitude towards children’s rights. Recorded in 1753, the first case details a custody battle over an infant girl whose deceased mother attempted to secure her child’s future. Although the case was lost and the child died, the executors urged "the court to look to the best interests of the child" a century before that test became standard. Carole Gerson ("Fitted to Earn Her Own Living") and Laura M. Robinson ("Pruned Down and Branched Out") explore emerging feminism in Lucy Maud Montgomery, that unwitting Maritime icon of the feminist movement, who wrote poignantly about the trials of childhood—particularly the trials of impoverished, feisty females. On a lighter note, "The Gauthier Girls: Growing Up on Miscou Island" details the independence young Maritime women could enjoy, and Alan Wilson’s recollections of the 1930s and ’40s have similar charm and optimism. Even Isabelle Knockwood’s memoir of her Mi’kmaw childhood, though touched by bitterness, has the sweetness of innocence maturing into wisdom. This is a good collection, interesting and various. And as David Staines notes in his summation, "Atlantic children laugh and cry, suffer and grow as do children throughout the world."
For John DeMont Nova Scotia’s landscape and people are heroic. In energetic prose he describes larger-than-life tribal characters, gargantuan Scottish heavyweight competitors at the Antigonish Highland Games, moonshiners in places with undisclosable names, tuna smugglers near the Tusket Islands. The form of The Last Best Place allows DeMont to introduce interesting snippets of Nova Scotian history and belongs to a genre best described as adventure travel literature, which uses the journey as a metaphor for the personal search. DeMont’s sojourns through Nova Scotia provide occasion for his serious but witty reflections on the expatriate Nova Scotian’s need to go Down East.
Sometimes DeMont’s notion that the world’s rich and famous have found salvation in this Eden seems stretched. (They’re holed up in every nook and inlet.) He tends to believe their presence authenticates the province’s worth. He also unfortunately often lionizes the stereotype of hard-drinking, scrapping, brawling Nova Scotian men. But DeMont’s discussion of the Black settlement in Birchtown is excellent, as is his commentary on the eccentricity and style of the new Halifax, the old city with the salty past. A lively read to keep in your car along with the more traditional guidebooks, it offers captivating anecdotes and minutiae about well-known and not-so-well-known Nova Scotian towns and scenic spots. The book offers an even-handed coverage of a charming old province.
- Ornamentalism by Maria Noëlle Ng
Books reviewed: Ornamentalism: How the British Saw Their Empire by David Cannadine and Collecting Colonialism: Material Culture and Colonial Change by Chris Gosden and Chantal Knowles
- Voices of Hope by Brenda Payne
Books reviewed: How to Paint by Chris Harris and bloodriver woman by Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm
- Power of Stories by Sophie McCall
Books reviewed: Ragged Company by Richard Wagamese and The Moon of Letting Go by Richard Van Camp
- Place, Space, Identity by Ursula Mathis-Moser
Books reviewed: Frontières flottantes. Lieu et espace dans les cultures francophones du Canada: Shifting Boundaries. Place and Space in the Francophone Cultures of Canada by Jaap Lintvelt and François Paré
- Isn't That Funny? by Lisa Close
Books reviewed: Humor in Contemporary Native North American Literature: Reimagining Nativeness by Eva Gruber, Drew Hayden Taylor: Essays on His Work by Robert C. Nunn, and Me Sexy: An Exploration of Native Sex and Sexuality by Drew Hayden Taylor
MLA: Taylor, Jim. Maritime Literature:: Place, Past, and Poetry. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 21 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #172 (Spring 2002), Auto / biography. (pg. 158 - 160)
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