Our Places

  • Kevin Van Tighem
    Our Place: Changing the Nature of Alberta. Rocky Mountain Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Jennifer Bowering Delisle
    The Bosun Chair. NeWest Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Suzanne James

Both of these works explore the nature of place, of home, and of identity, though in very different ways. Kevin Van Tighem, a conservationist and a former superintendent at Banff National Park, writes of the Alberta that was, of the changes that are potentially destroying it, and of the Alberta he hopes to preserve and safeguard. In contrast, Jennifer Bowering Delisle, also a native Albertan, writes of Newfoundland, of the home her parents left at twenty-three, and of attempts to recreate the lives and history of her grandparents and great-grandparents.

Van Tighem describes Our Place: Changing the Nature of Alberta as a “book of chronicles, reflections[,] and polemics.” The collection touches upon animal and forest-fire management, fishing, mining, hunting, development, family history, religion, politics, and environmental concerns of all kinds. Although exploring ways in which Albertans, from the earlier colonists through contemporary corporations and land-hungry citizens, have changed the province’s natural environment, Van Tighem focuses primarily on ways that “we” need to change to protect endangered ecosystems. He writes for an audience he assumes will share his values and concerns, positioning himself as a quintessential Albertan: an individual deeply rooted in the landscape, its natural beauty and its cultural history, yet passionately committed to reasoned dialogue and sustainable development in an environment at risk; an individual who declares, “[i]t’s never too late to get it right. This place is worth it. So are we.”

Van Tighem is fond of such short pithy statements; his prose is workmanlike and journalistic, and he often uses this style to express a controlled frustration. In a typical passage, he writes that a “meeting runs out of steam quickly. Outside it is nearly dark. Everyone wants to go home. An air of palpable cynicism has settled among the ranks of the wilderness contingent. They have been here ‘before’ . . .” The author, too, has clearly “been here before,” which is the greatest disappointment of this collection. Many of the essays and articles seem too obviously revised and republished; the anecdotes and arguments feel rehearsed, rather than fresh. Van Tighem clearly feels strongly about the significant issues he explores, but his claims become predictable, and—sadly—I can’t envision this work reaching the Albertans whose behaviours and beliefs he would like to change.

Jennifer Bowering Delisle’s The Bosun Chair is a far gentler text, a poetic recreation of life in a bygone Newfoundland, that foreign place where her parents were raised. As she works to fit together scraps of family fact and fiction, Delisle conveys the multicultural nature of Canadian society in a way that we rarely use the term. She blends memoir, lyric poetry, interview transcripts, newspaper articles, historical letters, and the ballad of a shipwreck written by her great-grandfather into a loose historical recreation of the lives of the previous three generations of her family. She attempts to identify with, and to understand, a community that seems worlds away from the Edmonton in which she was raised. Delisle describes her anger at her parents for leaving their childhood home, as well as her sentimental teenage longing for heritage, a “rootedness, a kind of belonging” she associated with Newfoundland. Through reflections and lyric poems she explores this land she never knew, focusing on the turns of speech that convey the otherworldliness of her parents’ childhood home. As she writes to her father, “The wharves, the boat, speech[,] and memories rolling fast now, calling it by Heartsease [Little Heart’s Ease, the outport], run together in a single word with stress on the first syllable, and easy as the shaker of salt, you pass me your nostalgia.”

The author closes with the story of the bosun chair of the title; supposedly, her sixteen-year-old great-grandmother saved the crew of the doomed Duchess as she “made a bosun chair, to lower the crew into the lifeboats sent from shore.” And although she “could not find any descriptions in books on schooners or Newfoundland history, no pictures on the internet,” she chooses this version of history: “I have nothing to prove that this is true. But of all the ways to remember her, I like this one, this story.”

An obvious comparison is Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family, also a blend of poetry, recreated family history, and reportage, and although The Bosun Chair lacks the humour and energy of the former, it resonates with a subtle charm and quiet beauty, and the small outports of Newfoundland indeed become our imagined place, as well as Delisle’s.

This review “Our Places” originally appeared in Lost and Found Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 236 (2018): 170-171.

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