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Cover of issue #220

Current Issue: #220 Tracking CanLit (Spring 2014)

Canadian Literature’s Issue 220 (Spring 2014) is now available. The issue features a wide range of articles and book reviews as well as a selection of new Canadian poetry.

Remembering Fathers

  • Rachel Manley (Author)
    Slipstream: A Daughter Remembers. Knopf Canada (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Charles E. Israel (Author)
    Son's Eye: A Memoir. Mosaic Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)

Reviewed by Peggy Martin

Paradox and contradiction, admiration and disappointment, love and honour connect these two moving memoirs in which the authors commemorate fathers who were both powerful public figures and deeply loved parents. Charles Israel (1920-1999), author of several novels including The Mark, Rizpah, and The Hostages, and award-winning writer for television, film and radio, celebrates in Son’s Eye his father, Edward Leopold Israel, charismatic Rabbi of Baltimore’s Har Sinai Synagogue, brilliant intellectual and champion of various social democratic causes in the 1930s and 1940s. "My father died when I was 20 years old," Israel states in a quotation on the jacket of his book. "He left me a slew of unanswered questions about his life. .. . When [he] had been dead for half a century, I began trying to resolve the riddles and paradoxes that characterized so much of his life. ... I decided to write what I had discovered." The book chronicles Israel’s discoveries. Desiring to revive a memory of someone who "would have accomplished great things" but, because he died young, is little known now, Israel is wary of focusing on unattractive truths that might "make [his father] seem less than he was," and at the same time reluctant to present a revisionist myth that ignores the flaws and frailties.

Slipstream, Rachel Manley’s poetic record of her father’s 72-year life similarly encompasses the personal and the political, but conveys a greater sense of raw grief and immediacy because his death occurred much more recently. Michael Manley (1924-1997); leader of the leftist People’s National Party and the son of Jamaica’s first Prime Minister, Norman Manley, was Prime Minister of Jamaica for three terms between 1972 and 1992. Manley explores her father’s turbulent political career and his equally turbulent relationship with his daughter. Like Manley’s Governor General’s Award-winning Drumblair: The Memory of a Jamaican Childhood, Slipstream articulates in many voices a portrait of a time, a place, a family and a powerful father-daughter bond. Like Israel, Manley writes to ensure her father’s legacy, and, as Israel does, she presents her father and herself as both flawed and heroic.

In Son’s Eye, Israel describes a series of journeys in which he revisited the places of his youth and spoke with others who remembered his father. Rabbi Israel died of a heart attack while visiting Charles, then a student at Cincinnati’s Hebrew University, and Israel begins his memoir with an account of a visit to Cincinnati to examine his father’s archives, talk with old colleagues and to revive memories. Each visit forces a revision of former truths about his father. He discovers a discrepancy between his memory of his father’s heroic rescue of a group of Hunger Marchers in 1932 and the archival records of the event, for example, and he must reconcile his own memories of companionable sun-dappled evenings in his father’s study with his brother’s memory of favoritism of an older brother that is nothing short of brutal. The new information contributes to the "warts and all" portrait the author has been striving to paint, and at the same time underlines the impossibility of ever knowing the absolute truth about anyone. Son’s Eye, like all memoirs, becomes a story about its author as well as its subject, and Israel concludes with a reflection: his coming to "appreciate the chemistry of [his] father’s strengths and weaknesses" has left him at peace with his love for his father and, finally, with his father’s death.

Her father’s final battle with cancer that has metastasized to his spine provides the centre of Manley’s memoir. "How could I face his death when I was still trying to assemble the pieces of his life that were mine?" she writes, and in Slipstream she does both and shares her experience with her readers. The book slips back and forth between a description of Michael Manley’s last weeks and Rachel Manley’s recollections of her joy in her father’s company, her anguish during their separations, her jealousy of her four stepmothers and of what was perhaps her greatest rival, Jamaica, and her growing friendship with her step-siblings.

A series of evocative but not necessarily consistent metaphors define Michael Manley and his daughter’s intense love for him. He "was his own island,... a safe mooring" for a child frightened of water, "a mountain," forcefully emitting life, and a boat. "Slipstream" is Michael’s metaphor for his own political and personal life: "being caught-up" and carried in a powerful current in the wake of his parents, carrying on what Rachel calls their "joyful march towards a new order" of independence, self-sufficiency and social democracy for Jamaica. His daughter includes in her story her need to "pull away from [an emotional] slipstream," and with her father’s strength and resolve "pushing [her] forward," to "become her own Manley." Like Israel, Manley arrives at acceptance through the process of writing. Readers will find both these memoirs a sophisticated addition to the expanding genre of life-writing.

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MLA: Martin, Peggy. Remembering Fathers. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 25 Oct. 2014.

This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #172 (Spring 2002), Auto / biography. (pg. 181 - 182)

***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.

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