18 April 2018

In 1977, I Hope I Go to Heaven

The Box Garden
Carol Shields
Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1977
213 pages

In 1977, I finished Edgar Rice Burrough's Pellucidar series and was a regular reader of The Savage Sword of Conan. A novel about a middle-aged woman's trip to Toronto would not have appealed to my adolescent self.

In adulthood, I met Carol Shields exactly three times. The first was at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, an unusual event in which she shared the bill with realist painter Mary Pratt. This was followed a few years later by the Toronto launch for Larry's Party. The last was at a Random House reception held in a forgotten pub. Toronto or Vancouver? All I remember was that Mordecai Richler was also there. Maybe Michael Ondaatje.

Mrs Shields was always very kind, and remembered my brother-in-law, a university friend of her daughter Sara, sleeping on the floor of her home office. She happily signed every book presented. Thirteen of the twenty Carol Shields books in my collection bear her signature, and yet until last week I'd never read one. I blame her publishers, who so often positioned her as a writer of women's novels.

McGraw-Hill Ryerson positioned The Box Garden as a woman's novel, but I vaulted over the gender barrier with ease, aided by this first paragraph:
What was it that Brother Adam wrote me last week? That here are no certainties in life. That we change hourly or even from one minute to the next, our entire cycle of being altered, our selves shaken with the violence of change.
The narrator is protagonist Charleen Forrest, a divorcée living in Vancouver with her teenage son Seth. Ex-husband Watson, apparently living on an Ontario commune, sends regular child payments. Charleen keeps it all afloat editing the quarterly National Botanical Journal.

Charleen's new man is orthodontist Eugene Redding. He holds certain attraction as another damaged survivor of of a failed marriage. "We are losers," says narrator Charleen. "The hapless rejects, the jilted partners of people stronger than ourselves." Charleen looks for confirmation of her worth in every story Eugene shares about his ex:
"She was always something of a bitch," Eugene said about his wife, Jeri, shortly after I met him, "but at least in the early days she confined her bitchiness to outsiders. Like waiters in restaurants. The first time I took her out to dinner – I'd only known her a week or so then and I wanted to take her somewhere, you know, impressive. To show her that country boys don't necessarily dribble soup out of the corners of their mouths. We went to the Top of the Captain and she sent the rolls back because they were cold."
     "No!" I gasped delightedly. "Really?"
     "Really. She said that she thought more people should take that kind of responsibility when the service wasn't up to standard. Sort of a battlecry with her."
     "And you married her after that! Oh, Eugene, how could you?"
     "There's one born every minute, you know."
     "What else did she do?" I asked greedily.
Dialogue that is all too real, all too mundane; what makes it live is "delightedly" and "greedily."

Though Eugene is unaware, the most important man in Charleen's life is Brother Adam – he of the novel's very first sentence – who once submitted a paper to the Journal. The subject was grass. A generous correspondent, he is ever ready with words of advice sent from "The Priory" in far-off Toronto. The Box Garden begins as Charleen makes final preparations to visit that very city. Her widowed mother is getting married. Eugene accompanies her on the trip, which happens to coincide with a orthodontist convention. Son Seth is left in the care of old friends Doug and Greta Savage. This appears a good thing – what with Eugene, Charlene, sister Judith, and Judith's husband, the old family home is a bit tight. Concerns over sleeping arrangements and the supply of sliced bread look to dominate the two days leading to the wedding. And then Charlene's life is thrown.

I read The Box Garden as an admirer of Simon and Karen's book clubs, in which readers are encouraged to read and discuss works published in a specific year. Thus far, they've covered 1924, 1938, 1947, 1951, and 1968. I've long wanted to join in, but the weeklong events always seemed to sneak up on me.

Not this time.

Because The Box Garden was read for its 1977 pub date, I couldn't help but focus on its time. Vancouver, a city I'd visited for the first time the year before (I'd end up living there through much of the nineties and aughts), was much smaller then. Seth is fifteen, the age I turned that summer. Reading the novel, I was alert to fashion, decor, and money, all of which are referenced more than in most novels. This scene in which Charleen has her hair done at Mr Mario's Beauty Box is a favourite:
Light spills through the shirred Austrian curtains and twinkles off the plastic chandeliers. Little bulbs blaze around the mirrors reminding me of movie stars' dressing rooms. Pink hairdryers buzz and air conditioners churn. The wet, white sunlight of the street is miles away. I wait for Mr. Mario in a slippery vinyl chair, suddenly struck with  the fear that this rosy elegance might hint at unkempt of prices. Much more than fifteen dollars, maybe even eighteen. Or as much as twenty. Twenty dollars for a hair cut, am I crazy? I turn to the kidney desk in panic, but the receptionist eyes me coldly, leanly. "Now," she says.
This focus made me wish it was possible to revisit the Canada of my youth, if only to compare to today. Women wore dresses more often back then, bus drivers gave change, long distance phone calls were a big deal, and Pierre Trudeau, not Justin, was prime minister. I wonder, was it really possible to support oneself working mornings at an academic journal?

The Box Garden is recommended. I'll be reading more Carol Shields, beginning with Small Ceremonies, her debut novel, which concerns Judith, Charleen's sister. Readers seem to like that novel more. Does it have something to do with the writing? The plot? Or is it simply that Judith is more interesting? I must find out, but I won't be writing about it here; Carol Shields  has no place in a blog devoted to Canada's neglected, forgotten and suppressed. I'm discussing The Box Garden today because I'm not sure I would've gained entry to the 1977 Club with my scathing review of the September 1977 Savage Sword of Conan.

Object: A bland hardcover from a publisher that was just about to give up on fiction. The cover illustration is by Alan Daniel. I purchased my copy – a true first edition, then unsigned – in 1992 from a Montreal bookseller. Price: $25.

Access: The McGraw-Hill Ryerson edition (one printing) was followed by a 1979 Totem mass market (one printing), after which it disappeared from bookstores. The novel was revived in 1994 by Vintage Canada after The Stone Diaries took the 1993 Governor General's Award for English-language fiction. Interestingly, Fourth Estate published the first British edition the same year. The first American edition, a Penguin paperback, followed The Stone Diaries being awarded the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

The Box Garden remains in print in all three countries. The most recent Fourth Estate edition has it coupled with Small Ceremonies under the title Duet. At £12.99, it seems a bargain. That said,  used copies of The Box Garden, not at all hard to find, can be bought online for as little as one American penny. At US$375, the most expensive copy is a Very Good Canadian first offered by a Santa Monica bookseller. Ignore it. The second most expensive – US$150 – is not only signed but is in better condition. Ignore it. Another American bookseller offers a Near Fine signed first at US$53.95.

I know of only one translation: the Bulgarian Nebesni tsvetia (Varna: Kompas, 1999). How strange.

The Box Garden is easily found in our larger public libraries. Not strange at all.

12 April 2018

Dorothy Dumbrille is Accepted By the Communists

All This Difference
Dorothy Dumbrille
Toronto: Progress, 1945
208 pages
Progress Books, publishing arm of the Communist Party of Canada, announced April 15, 1945 as the publication date of Dorothy Dumbrille’s All This Difference. I’ve found no evidence that the novel hit the shelves on that day, that month, or in the three months that followed. The earliest reviews — and there were many — are from early August of that year. I can’t help but wonder whether its delay had something to do with the publication of Two Solitudes, which occurred a few weeks before All This Difference was to have been released. 
MacLennan's novel was received not as a book of the season, but a book for all time. Globe and Mail literary editor William Arthur Deacon’s April 7 review begins: 
Spectacular as was Canadian achievement in the novel in 1944, Hugh MacLennan of Montreal has opened 1945 with greater power. In light of Two Solitudes, the excellence of Barometer Rising diminishes to the level of an apprentice piece. The promise of the first book is justified abundantly in the second. Considering style, theme, characters, craftsmanship, significance and integrity, Two Solitudes may well be considered the most important Canadian novel ever published. 
The English press praised the book, as did the French, and sales were strong. By that October, MacLennan’s novel had sold 45,000 copies and was in its sixth printing. I can’t say I’ve ever visited a used bookstore in this country that didn’t stock a copy. And yet, though I kept an eye out, it was years before I first saw a copy of All This Difference. The first was at the home of my Montreal friend Adrian King-Edwards, owner of The Word bookshop. A couple of years later, I spotted another on a dollar cart outside Attic Books in London, Ontario. I haven’t come across another since.
So begins my review of All This Difference, posted yesterday at Canadian Notes & Queries online. You can read the whole thing here:
Dorothy Dumbrille's Communist Manifestation
Her second novel, but first to be published in book form, it's a highly ambitious work, as reflected in this publisher's advert:

The Globe & Mail
4 August 1945
I stopped short of describing All This Difference as "great," but had so much to say that I never got around to discussing the book's appearance. The bland jacket does it a disservice, particularly in light of the illustrations within. Each of its twenty chapters opens with a line drawing by self-taught Glengarry artist Stuart McCormick. Montrealers will recognize the Museum of Fine Arts.

The only other edition of All This Difference followed eighteen years after the first. Lacking the McCormick illustrations, it came from a very different publisher.

Toronto: Harlequin 1963
As I point out in the review, All This Difference was the very last Harlequin published before committed itself to romance... which is not to say it didn't try to sell the novel as a romance.

It also holds the distinction of being the only "HARLEQUIN CANADIAN."

Wish they'd kept that up. Would've made my work a whole lot easier.

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09 April 2018

Who Is Canada's Outstanding Novelist? (1945)

Critic William Arthur Deacon isn't much discussed these days – or even much recognized – but for a good part of the last century he was Canada's foremost literary champion. As book editor, he held sway for forty years in the pages of the Manitoba Free Press (1921), Saturday Night (1922-28), the Mail & Empire (1928-36), and the Globe & Mail (1936-61),

I've taken a few swipes at Deacon over the years, including this one in defence of Collins White Circle. His judgement was often questionable – Robert Norwood? Really? – but I do admire his enthusiasm and dedication. Looking through his correspondence, it sometimes seems he was in touch with anyone who ever penned a novel, poem or play in this Dominion. Dorothy Dumbrille was one such person. It was in researching her second novel All This Difference (the subject of a forthcoming review), that I came upon the following comments published on 3 February 1945 in "The Fly Leaf," Deacon's weekly Globe & Mail column. It's interesting not only a snapshot of a dire time in the country's literature, but as a reflection of Deacon's aforementioned questionable judgement.

I've added the covers of what were then the most recent books by the authors Deacon mentioned. My comments are in italics.

Most frequently asked and least answerable is the question. Who is Canada's Outstanding Novelist? This week it came in the form of a request to choose between Morley Callaghan, Mazo de la Roche, Frederick Philip Grove and Hugh MacLennan. Fortunately, there is no towering genius in Canadian fiction to prevent others from receiving attention. In these early days, the notable acts are that Canadian authors display the most varied preferences for subject and style treatment and that readers also differ widely in their judgments.
The Building of Jalna
Mazo de la Roche
New York: Little, Brown, 1944
Certainly the works of Miss Mazo de la Roche have attained a world-wide popularity far beyond those of any other Canadian writer in any field. Her Jalna fixation is the result of stupendous demand. Millions of people in many countries are familiar with the Whiteoaks family.
Miss de la Roche's Jalna fixation was then nine novels into its sixteen novel run.
More Joy in Heaven
Morley Callaghan
New York: Random House, 1937

The Master of the Mill
Frederick Philip Grove [pseud. Felix Paul Greve]
Toronto: Macmillan, 1944
Mr. Callaghan showed exceptional talent as a member of the Hemingway school and seems to be going into partial eclipse with it. It is some years since he published a new book. Very different in type, Frederick Philip Grove, a somewhat heavy writers merits too solid to be ignored. He brought into Canadian fiction an intellectual and artistic integrity that was and is important. Neither the novels of Mr. Grove nor those of Mr. Callaghan have been specially popular.
It had been seven years since Callaghan had published a novel. Four more years would pass before the next, Luke Baldwin's Vow. It's considered a children's book.
Barometer Rising
Hugh MacLennan
Toronto: Collins, 1941
It is comment enough on the impression of Barometer Rising that my correspondent should include Hugh MacLennan in the quartet. Two Solitudes, when it is in circulation, will do much to reinforce Mr. MacLennan's position as a potential best Canadian novelist. He will be watched to the last comma.
Two months later, when it was "in circulation," Deacon wrote, "Two Solitudes may well be considered the most important Canadian novel ever published." It remains MacLennan's best-known novel (though The Watch That Ends the Night is much better).
Earth and High Heaven
Gwethalyn Graham
Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1944
But there are plenty of others. Gwethalyn Graham's Swiss Sonata placed her among the leading Canadian novels [sic], as Earth and High Heaven has now elevated her to a similar prominence among American novelists.
Earth and High Heaven was Graham's second novel. It followed Swiss Sonata, her first, by six years. She never wrote another. I speculate as to the reason here.
The Pied Piper of Dipper Creek
Thomas H. Raddall
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1943

Forges of Freedom
Franklin Davey McDowell
Toronto: Macmillan, 1943

The Higher Hill
Grace Campbell
Toronto: Collins, 1943
Thomas M.H. Raddall, author of Roger Sudden, His Majesty's Yankees and Pied Piper of Dipper Creek, may well wind up as the Canadian novelist whom everyone reads. Franklin Davey McDowell has already, in The Champlain Road, given Canada one novel of permanent worth and his far-finer Forges of Freedom deserves a much wider public than it has reached. Grace Campbell has a very large and ever-growing audience for her two books.
I studied Raddall in university, but not The Pied Piper of Dipper Creek. Decades passed before I so much as heard of The Champlain Road, despite the fact that it won the 1939 Governor General's Award for Fiction (The Pied Piper of Dipper Creek won in 1943). Another decade passed before I learned of Franklin Davey McDowell's "far-finer" Forges of Freedom. I've never so much as seen a copy, and could find no better image of the book than the screen grab presented above. Grace Campbell was much easier.
Carrying Place
Angus Mowat
Toronto: Saunders, 1944
Among the new writers of higher promise is Angus Mowat, who is sure to be a writer intensely admired by other writers. I think his books will endure as long as any written in our generation.
Father of Farley, Angus Mowat wrote just two novels: Then I'll Look Up (1938) and Carrying Place (1944). His enduring books have been out-of-print for over seven decades. 
Thirty Acres [Trente arpents]
Ringuet [pseud. Philippe Panneton; trans. Felix & Dorothy Walter]
Toronto: Macmillan, 1940
But there are now so many dozens of these Canadian novelists. Ringuet's Thirty Acres, for instance, comes pretty near to  being a perfect performance. Alan Roy Evans [sic] is another up near the top in merit. I have faith in the sensitive abilities of Jessie L. Beattie and wish she would publish more. Alexander Knox, playwright and actor, did one exquisite novel of the Ottawa Valley, called Bride of Quietness, before turning to better-paid work. He should be induced to continue with fiction. And so on... and so on.
The English translation of Ringuet's Trente arpents was a stable of the New Canadian Library and is still published in the original French. Allen Roy Evans is one of those odd Canadian writers who achieved far greater sales in a language other than their own. Der Zug der Rentiere, the German translation of his 1935 fictionalized memoir Reindeer Trek, has enjoyed at least six different editions. When Deacon wrote his column, Evans' newest work was All in a Twilight (1944). I've never seen a copy, and can find no image online. Ditto Jessie L. Beattie's Three Measures (1938) and Alexander Knox's Bride of Quietness (1933). That said, I have seen Knox in film adaptations of Nicolas and Alexandra, Joshua Then and NowTinker Tailer Soldier Spy, and Gorky Park. More than anything, I remember him acting opposite Edward G. Robinson in The Sea Wolf.
It may be of great ultimate advantage in our literature that the variety of cultural backgrounds among Canadians precludes any uniformity in our fiction and in the tastes of Canadian readers. But we waste talent shockingly. I think of a woman like Irene Baird writing two novels like John and Waste Heritage and then being allowed to sit back and write no more. Darkly the River Flows will be along shortly to launch a new novelist, John MacDonald, and the manuscripts of other men in the armed services will presently be in print. Florence Randal Livesay, also, might do another novel to the advantage of all and sundry.
Darkly the River Flows
John MacDonald
New York: Coward-McCann, 1945
Deacon seems unaware that Irene Baird followed up John (1937) and Waste Heritage (1939) with He Rides the Sky (1941)... another book I've never seen. I've had better luck with John MacDonald's Darkly the River Flows. Sadly, the novel-writing days of Florence Randal Livesay, Dorothy's mother, were in the past. Her last novel, Savour of Salt, was published in 1927 by Dent.
We have not had time yet to acquire perspective, but I have no doubt that the fiction of this era will finally be judged to be relatively as fine as the Canadian poetry produced between 1880 and 1920.
Deacon lived another three decades after writing those words. Did they offer enough perspective to make him realize he'd been wrong? Most of the fiction of that era pales beside Carman and Lampman. You may take issue, but can we at least agree that the absence of a towering genius is not "fortunate"?

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07 April 2018

Thomas D'Arcy McGee: 150 Years

He has gone from us, and it will be long ere we find such a happy mixture of eloquence and wisdom, wit and earnestness. His was no artificial or meretricious eloquence, every word of his was as he believed, and every belief, every thought of his, was in the direction of what was good and true.
— Sir John A. Macdonald, 7 April 1868
The great Thomas D'Arcy McGee was murdered 150 years ago today, nine months after Confederation. His remains the only assassination of a federal politician in our history. Is it unseemly that I take some pride in this?

McGee became my hero at Allancroft Elementary School. He was never mentioned in class; I first learned about him through a book, Pierre Berton's Historic Headlines (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1967), borrowed from the school library.

These past nine years I've marked the anniversary of McGee's death with verse written as news of the tragedy swept across the Dominion he'd brought into being. This year, a unfinished poem composed by McGee himself. Appropriate, I think.

The Poems of Thomas D'Arcy McGee
New York: Sadlier, 1869
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