Cultivating Hope

  • Luciana Erregue-Sacchi (Author)
    Beyond the Food Court: An Anthology of Literary Cuisines. Laberinto Press (purchase at
  • Jenna Butler (Author)
    Revery: A Year of Bees. Wolsak and Wynn Publishers Ltd. (purchase at
  • Neil Besner (Author)
    Fishing with Tardelli: A Memoir of Family in Time Lost. ECW Press (purchase at
Reviewed by Julie Cairnie

It is difficult to avoid reading texts written, edited, and published since 2020 through a pandemic lens. Three memoirs about relationships explore palpable sites of experience for many of us these last few years: time, loss, and importantly, hope. All three books are compact, easily digestible, but also notably distinct: one is a life memoir, one is a chronicle of a year, and the other includes many voices and perspectives in the form of short personal essays. The settings of all three are varied: Besner’s memoir is centred in Brazil, but radiates to other locations; Butler’s chronicle is set in an off-grid organic farm and apiary on the edge of Alberta’s boreal forest, but also touches other locations, all in the past; and Erregue-Sacchi’s anthology is situated in Edmonton, but the various writers explore the connections between their origins and their new home through food. All three texts deepen our understanding of relationship to others—human, non-human, land, place—as well as our profound and complicated experiences of time and loss during the last few years. Ultimately, all three function as documents of the past, records of the present, and map a way forward to sustainable relationships.


I expected a fishing tale, thought Neil Besner’s Fishing with Tardelli (2022) would be a suitable complement to two books about farming and food. It is only a bit about fishing, but mostly works to trace and thus clarify Besner’s relationship to five people, including Tardelli, the older Brazilian fisherman who schools young Neil in sex and masculinity. Much of the story of Besner’s past is misty, and the memoir is an attempt to achieve clarity. He understands the basic plot of his childhood: his parents switched partners with another couple, and Neil’s mother and stepdad whisked him and his brother off to Brazil, while his dad and stepmom stayed in Montreal with her two boys. The book is divided into five sections, each one centred on a relationship with a core person in his life, past and present: Tardelli, Besner’s stepfather Senhor Valter, his mother Dona Judite, his father Mort the Sport, and his partner Gail. There is a refrain throughout the memoir, “time lost” or “out of time,” and the effect of the memoir is to bring those relationships into focus and, therefore, time.


Besner’s family story is slow and emerging, full of gaps and unknowns. There is a vividness and detail in the section on Tardelli that is absent from the other sections profiling his parents and stepfather. In keeping with this uncertainty, Besner struggles to identify the genre—novel, love story, fairy tale, memoir—and isn’t satisfied with any single category. His parents are volatile, unpredictable: Dona Judite is cold and racist (she refers to the servants as “the slaves”), and Mort the Sport is an emotionally distant addict. Senhor Valter, not a blood relative, is a constant in Neil’s life; the relationship has flaws, but it continues into the present. The text ends with a Coda that focuses on his relationship with Gail, from whom he was separated 1971 to 2016. Besner describes their walks across Toronto during the early part of the pandemic, in which they “make up for lost time” (148). Neil Besner’s Fishing with Tardelli imagines and narrates a future, critical for a family that “fell out of time” (64) and for someone disappointed by blood relations, and perhaps especially now for many of us in the midst of the uncertainty of the Covid-19 pandemic.


Jenna Butler’s Revery: A Year of Bees (2020), a finalist for the 2021 Governor General’s Literary Award for non-fiction, is a “chronicle” (16) of a year with bees on the edge of the boreal forest in northern Alberta. The bees—imported honey bees and wild native bees—bring hope and heal trauma, including Butler’s own, which she touches on lightly and briefly: “I came to beekeeping in a last-ditch attempt to heal my body and spirit” (93). I found myself wanting to read more about Butler’s own life experiences, but someone living with trauma has a right to decide what to disclose and what to keep close. Butler spends a lot of time describing the bee yard and its healing powers, its ability to produce “calm” (78) in those who receive its “magic” (77). Her descriptions of the place and people who visit to recover from trauma, to seek peace, to take a break from regular routines is possibly the most beautiful part of this account of “a year of bees,” and reminds the reader that Butler is a gifted poet and generous teacher.


Revery is an impressive balance of technical knowledge/expertise and a passion for “working with the land” (21), as well as a desire to “deepen our dialogue” (32-33). Butler keeps honey bees and encourages wild bees, a unique position given the polarity between “save the [honey] bees” campaigns and environmentalists who insist, like Butler herself, that the importation of honey bees is “nouveau global colonialism” (37). We live in an era where folks are divided over critical issues—Covid-19, climate change, honey bees—and Butler’s narrative is beautifully written, informative, and encourages conversation about divisive and emotionally-fraught issues. It is a conversation starter, a poetic ode to all bees, a demonstration of a reciprocal relationship with the land, and in the end offers readers a glimpse of a sustainable future. As Butler puts it, “I’ll hope” (117), and readers are invited, like visitors to the bee yard, to join her.


Beyond the Food Court (2020) is “an anthology of literary cuisines,” fourteen stories of food by writers, activists, and academics living in Edmonton. The editor, Lucianna Erregue-Sacchi, hopes that the anthology as a whole “satiates our hunger to open up the field of CanLit” (9). The arrangement of the pieces encourages “new connections” (10) and challenges the logic of neat geographical, generic, and thematic categories. All of the essays are concerned with the ways in which food is rooted in familial, cultural, and political relationships. Covid-19 happened as the book was being written and compiled, and there is some commensurability between exile (from home, family, childhood/the past) and the experience of isolation during quarantine. We could no longer eat together, travel to consume familiar and adored foods. Most of us were bereft, “out of time” as Besner puts it. The essays here resituate the narrators in time, as they reflect on dishes left behind and recovered in Edmonton, explore the political implications of food, and loss as a result of Covid. Anna Marie Sewell’s piece is a wonderful co-mingling of food: her Polish mother’s cabbage rolls, her Anishinaabe father’s Swiss steak, and her Chinese friends’ Hainan Chicken. This, in relationship with the text’s other samplings, creates creative and empathetic conversations. I would have liked to read more and varied Indigenous perspectives on food and land—the recovery of traditional hunting practices, the cultivation of native plants, the learning of subsumed food preparation practices. Beyond the Food Court is a necessary and tantalizing start to the conversation, and in the end inspires hope about the ways in which we can learn from the rich food cultures in our midst.

This review “Cultivating Hope” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 18 Aug. 2023. Web.

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