Monday, December 8, 2008

Review of T.B.R. Newspaper Pieces by Thomas B. Roberton

The first winner of the Governor General's Award in the category of non-fiction (1936) is:

T.B.R. Newspaper Pieces by Thomas B. Roberton

This is a collection of newspaper articles written by Thomas B. Roberton, columnist for the Winnipeg Free Press from 1918-1936. The book was assembled posthumously by J.B. McGeachy. It includes a smattering of articles on a variety of subjects from the early twentieth century. Surprisingly, there are few articles relating to Winnipeg itself. Perhaps this was a conscious decision by McGeachy to reach and to appeal to a broader audience.

While the book demonstrates Roberton's significant literary talents, it's hard to gain any sort of larger sense of the work. Upon completing my reading, I was struck by Roberton's strong concern for his native Scotland and for Canada, but it is hard to see any stronger, underlying theme, other than perhaps Christianity. Obviously, since these are newspaper columns, they tend not to lend themselves to larger issues. However, I must take issue with McGeachy's selection and ordering of articles based on ''variety in reading'' (Roberton xv).

Overall, the book represents an interesting sample from a talented newspaper columnist, but as a whole, it falls short.

I would like to add that Roberton's column ''Women in Trousers'' will interest 21st century readers. Additionally, ''Poor Dying Scotland'' succeeds brilliantly as a biting, sarcastic criticism.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Governor General's Award Project and Review of "Think of the Earth by Bertram Brooker"

As part of my efforts to learn more about my new country and to read good books, I have decided to read every Governor General's Award for Literary Merit winner. It's obviously going to be a multi-year project, but I thought it would make for some interesting reading. I'm proceeding in chronological order, and I aspire to write a review of each one in this blog. First up, the 1936 fiction winner:

Think of the Earth by Bertram Brooker

Think of the Earth takes place in a small Manitoba town in the midst of the industrial revolution. Or, perhaps, to put it more aptly, past the peak of industrialization. The novel focuses primarily on two characters: Tavistock and Laura. Tavistock is an Englishman who spends most of the novel consumed with the idea that the world can only be saved through the actions of The Comforter, who will teach people the importance of the innocence of good and evil. Intrinsic to Tavistock's conception of the world is the idea that innocence of good and evil is better than being able to judge good from evil. Tavistock believes that he will play a central role in an innocent death, which will result in the redemption of humanity. If this all seems confusing, it confused me as well. One of the open questions in the book is whether Tavistock is insane. In some ways, he is incisively rational, but in others, he is deeply spiritual.

Laura is the minister's daughter. She is dating a stereotypical, angry young man, but falls in love with Tavistock. At one point, as she tried to break up with Harry (the young man), on the lake, he becomes aggressive, and she throws herself out of the boat, causing it to tip, and Harry drowns. This seemed to be the pivotal point of the book, but I still can't quite wrap my head around it. For one thing, Harry's exact motives are somewhat ambiguous. Does he want to rape Laura? Does he want to kill her? Or does he merely want to force her to stay and listen to him? The other main question for me: is the death of Harry the innocent act that will redeem humanity? At the point she tips over the boat, according to her later recollection, Laura did not remember that Harry could not swim. Moreover, she may have leapt out of the boat in self-defence. However, to counter this interpretation, Laura claims that she leapt out to avoid having to listen to him rather than self-defence. Additionally, there does not seem to be any larger redemption of humanity. Most importantly, in the end, Tavistock renounces his earlier philosophy and, in a sense, returns to sanity.

Overall, I found this book very ambiguous. In the end, is it an affirmation of the spirit of Christianity? Or should we look deeper and see Tavistock's "Comforter" philosophy more compelling? It seems clear that Brooker has meaningful things to say, but I'm not sure what they are. Perhaps, he is simply espousing two different Christian philosophies, offering them as food for the thought for the reader. I may look into some contemporary reviews for some further insight, but I prefer to get my own reactions down before I read others.

I should also note, that stylistically, this is an excellent book. Brooker's language is clear and descriptive. Additionlly, the book is divided into 3 parts (one for each day): Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Clearly, the climax occuring on Sunday only furthers the deeply religious nature of the novel. Also, interestingly, Brooker will often have section breaks in the middle of a conversation. It's an effective way to divide up different subjects.

On the whole, Think of the Earth is a well-written, thoughtful, book. It is complex, and I'm not sure of the overall message, but it is a very enjoyable work of fiction.