Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Unknown Country : Canada and Her People

The Unknown Country : Canada and Her People by Bruce Hutchison is a good, but unexceptional narrative of a his trip across Canada. In each chapter, Hutchison presents a small amount of local colour and a brief history of the location. It was one of two Governor-General's Award winners for non fiction in 1942.

The book is well done, and Hutchison provides some nice local snapshots, but overall, it's more of a compendium than a unified work. Plus, Hutchison depends a lot on his own impressions and perceptions rather than trying to weave together a variety of perspectives. As such, it's closer to a travelogue.

It's hard to see why The Unknown Country was so well-regarded as to merit the Governor-General's Award. It's a decent book, but nothing extraordinary.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

'Little Man' by G. Herbert Sallans

Little Man by G. Hervert Sallans won the 1942 Governor General's Award for Fiction. The novel focuses on the life of George Battle largely from his time in the First World War with an artillery unit in the trenches to the beginning ot the Second World War. The bulk of the novel takes place in the Interwar period when George raises a family and attempts to survive the Great Depression.

Little Man is reminiscent of F. Scott Fitzgerald's and Hemingway's novels in a sense. The time period is similar, and while George raises a family, the novel is concerned primarily with George, his wife Joy, their close friend Bo, and George's cousin Pitch. While the four friends are not quite the rollicking characters of Tender is the Night, the dynamic is reminiscent of both Fitzgerald and Hemingway, though not stylistically.

The quartet of Bo, George, Joy, and Pitch drive the novel and Sallans does an excellent job of developing them strongly. In particular, George emerges as very true, possessing both strengths and insecurities and often vascillating rapidly between them. He speaks for the 'little man' because he is one, and yet he shows signs of being able to grow beyond.

Little Man deals with deep issues such as love, war, loss, and (in)equality. However, it does so in a deft touch that never bogs down. It is serious and compelling and too ambiguous to be overly pessimistic. In case it isn't obvious yet, Little Man is an excellent novel, and I highly recommend it.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Klee Wyck by Emily Carr

The 1941 Governor General's Award winner for non fiction is Emily Carr's Klee Wyck, a collection of vignettes of Carr's interactions with native peoples in British Columbia.

The vignettes are done in a style that I would term local colour, and frankly, they're interesting, but nothing special. Perhaps the most significant stories are the ones in which Carr documents the racism that natives faced at this time period. Overall, though, the book is rather unimpressive, and the stories quite simple. I must wonder if they would have even been published had they not been written by Emily Carr.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Review of ''Three Came to Ville Marie''

Next on the list, Three Came to Ville Marie by Alan Sullivan, winner of the 1941 Governor-General's Award for fiction.

Three Came to Ville Marie is set during the reign of Louis XIV. The novel opens in France, but the three main characters all end up in New France (as the title indicates). The titular 3 spend most of the novel as a sort of love triangle. In the beginning of the book, Paul and Jacqueline are going to be married. They both supposedly love each other, but their relationship seems unromantic (but safe) at best. However, their fates change rapidly when Paul's childhood friend, the dashing captain Jules, shows up. Unsurprisingly, Jacqueline is smitten, and she quickly brushes off Paul to marry Jules.

I won't go too much further into the plot, as generally speaking, it's fairly formulaic. There are no real surprises (shock, Jacqueline comes to regret choosing Jules over Paul). Stylistically, it's a good novel. Sullivan has an engaging, yet descriptive style. And, the historical details, particularly Sullivan's depiction of various historical personnages (most notably Frontenac) is quite interesting. It's also hard to get a read on Paul's virulent racism. Eventually, he becomes an Iroquois killing machine, while refusing to kill any Europeans. It is disturbing to say the least.

I would say that overall, Three Came to Ville Marie is an enjoyable summer read, but I'm a bit surprised that it won a literary award. Perhaps good Canadian fiction was hard to come by during the war?

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Slava Bohu by J.F.C. Wright

Slava Bohu: The Story of the Dukhobors by J.F.C. Wright won the Governor-General's Award for Non Fiction in 1940. As the subtitle implies, the book traces the history of a specific Russian Christian religious sect from its birth in 1665 to 1940.

Wright's narrative moves from an idealistic Christian splinter group to a twentieth-century immigrant group that fits into some of the patterns of a cult. For example, among a large number of the faithful, there is an unquestioning loyalty and belief in the leader.

Wright does a good job of describing the complex process of bringing the Dukhobor's to Canada, and most importantly, he makes it clear that despite later claims by the Dukhobors, the Canadian government made the terms of immigration (such as following Canadian law) explicit from the outset.

I could go on for a while, but I'm tired and I've been delaying this blog post long enough. If you want to learn more about the Dukhobors, this book is highly recommended, otherwise I'm not sure it adds a lot.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Trente Arpents by Ringuet

Technically, Trente Arpents didn't win the 1940 Governor General's Award for fiction, the translation of it did. However, as I understand French, it seemed silly to read the translation when I could read the real thing, though granted, it did take a lot more time. Additionally, I always have to balance between making sure I understand every work vs. interrupting the flow of the novel.

Trente Arpents tells the story of Euchariste Moisan, a Québec farmer as he matures, raises a family, and is in the end, confronted with modernity and the depression of the 1930s. The book starts slowly, depicting the life of the typical farmer in a small rural village. One interesting note, Ringuet writes his dialogue in the vernacular, so some familiarity with Canadian French is helpful. This edition also contained a helpful glossary.

The book is extremely well-written and Ringuet takes his time to describe throughly and vividly each scene. To the reader, both Ringuet's and Moisan's profound attachment to the land (la terre) comes across very strongly. For Moisan, it is the centre of his existence in every dimension. At the same time, one has the sense that Ringuet longs for a pastoral past that is being subverted and destroyed by modern technology. Ringuet also touches on this by depicting the immigration of experience of Québecois who move to the U.S. As a consequence, they lose not only their way of life (farming), but in addition, their language as their spouses and children generally only speak English.

A series of misfortunes, some of his own making, confront Euchariste. His eldes son dies. The new notary runs off with all of his savings, and he engages in a poorly thought-out lawsuit (on the advice of his lawyer) to gain back land he had previously effectively given to his neighbour. However, worst of all, he is effectively dispossessed by his 2nd eldest son, who takes control of the farm.

The novel ends depressingly, as Euchariste is condemned to work as a night watchman in an American factory, isolated from his homeland and the world of agriculture. He is totally disconnected from the familiar.

Overall, this is an excellent novel, and Ringuet's critique of modernity and industrisalism still ring true today.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Review of Under the Sun by Arthur Bourinot

Under the Sun is a nice collection of poems written by Arthur S. Bourinot. The book won the 1939 Governor-General's Award for Literary Merit in poetry and dram. More so than the previous poetry winners, Under the Sun is a very accessible and enjoyable collection. I found Bourinot's poems much easier "to get into" than the others.

Additionally, I would like to draw special attention to "Machinery," a poem about mass production and industrialisation, as a particularly worthy and interesting piece.

So far, Bourinot is by far my favourite Canadian poet.

Review of Confessions of an Immigrant's Daughter by Laura Goodman Salverson

After winning for fiction with The Dark Weaver, Salverson won in 1939 for her autobiography: Confessions of an Immigrant's Daughter.

Salverson's talented writing becomes even more remarkable after reading her autobiography. She had relatively little formal schooling, and English is not her mother tongue.

Most of the book is set during her childhood. She provides numerous vivid anecdotes and does an excellent job of putting herself into her younger mindset. The book also gives a better idea of the Icelandic immigrant experience, which is hardly well-documented.

Overall, it' s not a very exceptional or compelling book, but it's a very enjoyable read.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Review of The Champlain Road by Franklin Davey McDowell

Franklin Davey McDowell's novel The Champlain Road won the 1939 Governor-General's Award for Literary Merit. It's a historical novel set during the war of the French and Hurons against the Iroquois during the 17th century. The Jesuits hoped to create a friendly (some might say puppet) Christian Huron state to support New France.

McDowell romanticizes the war as a desperate and doomed struggle of the French and their Huron allies. It focuses primarily on a few important characters: Godfrey Bethune (commander in chief of the mission effectively), Father Rageneau (the head of the mission), and Diana Woodville (an English woman who grew up as a Mohawk, and later joins the French/Huron alliance). McDowell tells a tale of love and war set in the early 17th cenutry. This is not to imply that the novel is without merit, merely to state that it falls more in the Sir Walter Scott genre.

One of the most striking aspects, is the complexity with which McDowell treats the aborigines. Although, they are not the focus of the novel, certain characters play highly significant roles. There are no simple stereotypes either of noble savages or primitives. While the French often express condescension toward the first nations, the narrator remains ambiguous. I think it is fair to say that this is a novel more based on individuals than types.

I could continue this blog post at length, but I have already delayed long enough. The Champlain Road is a well-written adventure novel that proves to be quite a page turner. It is fine entertainment, and while the plot may offer little original or exceptional, it is a very enjoyable book through and through.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Response to Kenneth Leslie's By Stubborn Stars and Other Poems

I really don't have much to say about the Govenor General's Award for Poetry and Drama winner: By Stubborn Stars by Kenneth Leslie. It's a pleasant enough collection of poetry, but I didn't really connect with it. I often find poetry hit or miss, and while the language is quite nice, it was pretty much a miss for me. Hopefully, I'll enjoy some of the other poetry winners better.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Review of Canadian Mosaic by John Murray Gibbon

The 1938 recipient of the Governor General's Award for Literary Merit is John Murray Gibbon's Canadian Mosaic : The Making of a Northern Nation

Gibbon uses this book to prove his thesis that Canada is made from a variety of peoples of different cultures and national origins, who together, form a strong, cohesive country. Gibbon's book very much serves as a counterweight to Nazi theories of racial ideology and purity. Gibbon uses the terms of his contemporaries to present a positive perspective of racial diversity. He traces the origins of nearly every wave of European immigration to Canada. The language is clearly racial in nature, but Gibbon uses it to argue for the merits of a heterogeneous society.

I admire Gibbon's thesis, but his writing works better as a concept than as a book. He proves his theory that Canada is a diverse country made up of numerous generations of European immigrants (Gibbon focuses almost exclusively on people of European origin). However, stylistically, he does so by often listing numerous Canadians of various national origins. In other words, this book is effectively a series of lists of notable immigrants to Canada. It provides sufficient evidence, but I don't know that I would categorize this approach as deserving of literary merit.

Those looking for a pro-diversity racialist argument from the 1930's will find much interesting about Gibbon, however those looking for a truly great work of Canadian nonfiction should look elsewhere. This is very much a period piece, and while I am hesitant to criticize it according to the standards of today, I imagine that even to its contemporaries it worked better as a compilation than a unified literary work.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Review of Swiss Sonata by Gwethalyn Graham

Gwethalyn Graham's Swiss Sonata is an intriguing and well-written novel, which received the 1938 Governor-General's Award. It takes place over three days: Thursday January 10, 1935 to Saturday, January 11, 1935 in a Swiss finishing school for "girls" near Lausanne.

I put girls in quotes, because the age range is from the mid-teens to the mid 20's, although throughout the novel they are referred to as girls. To the audience of the 21st century, they are mostly young women. These women inhabit a bizarre, intermediary zone. They come from different countries and are away from their families, but for most of them, there is little inclination towards university or careers. They are adult women, and yet, they live in a girls' school. The bizarreness of this situation is emphasized during one scene in which the girls are forced to demonstrate to the teachers that they are wearing their wool underwear.

To me, the novel represents a transition to modernity. Though Graham has written her novel before the Second World War, the rampant nationalism and threat of fascism are omnipresent. Two characters in particular, Anna and Ilse are victims of the Nazis. Anna's father is trying to subvert the Nazi government, while Ilse is a Jew from the Saar. They both suffer persecution in the school at the hands of a clique of other Germans.

However, while nationalism is one theme, a nascent feminism is another. In particular, Graham focuses on the dual geographical and generational conflicts between the North American students and the European teachers. The novel is largely focused on Vicky Morrison, a young woman from Toronto with an uncanny skill for comforting others. Her best friend, Theodora Cohen, is an exaggerated spunky American Jew. While Ilse plays the role of victim, Theodora is aggressive in her behaviour. Meanwhile, Mary Ellerton, a young English women, who serves as the physical education teacher works as a bridge character between the generations and the continents. She manages to inhabit both the world of the students and the world of the teachers. Rather obviously, both in terms of age and origin, Mary Ellerton connects the traditional European teachers with Vicky and Theodora.

Mary Ellerton's important and clear role leads to one of my criticisms of the novel, namely, that Graham has a tendency to be heavy-handed. The young Torontonian up against the tradition of Europe, while simultaneously understanding that tradition, can be a bit much. Additionally, the end of the novel feels a bit rushed and unsatisfying. I feel that things are too well-resolved.

Overall, though, I would like to emphasize that this is a fine novel both in terms of literary merit and entertainment. Moreover, the prescient predictions and portrayal of a 1930s Swiss girls' boarding school make the novel very interesting in and of themselves. More importantly, Graham's depiction of the conflict between traditional and more modern views of gender roles is fascinating. Graham combines a great deal of thought with vivid characters.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Response to The Fable of the Goats and Other Poems

The first winnter of the Governor-General's award for poetry and drama is: The Fable of the Goats and Other Poems by E.J. Pratt.  Pratt's poetry collection won in 1937.  

I have to say, that for me, poetry if often a hit and miss type of experience, and this collection was mostly misses.  The title poem (''The Fable of the Goats'') struck me as an allegory, but of what?  I don't know.  Whether because I was tired, or just not in a good place to read poetry (the bus), I just couldn't get into this collection.  

There is, however, one notable exception, ''A Prayer-Medley,'' which provides a sarcastic criticism of Christianity, particularly its violent past.  Pratt critiques the many un-Christian aspects of the Old Testament.  It is humourous and thought-provoking.

Overall, I feel like in a sense, I didn't give The Fable of the Goats and Other Poems a fair chance, so I'm hesitant to pan the whole collection.  I could have gone back and re-read all the poems, or done research to give them better context, but I'm doing this for fun, so I'm not going to.  Hopefully, I will connect better with the next poetry collection.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Review of My Discover of the West by Stephen Leacock

The second nonfiction winner of the Governor-General's award is Stephen Leacock's My Discover of the West. Leacock, a McGill University professor, went on a Western lecture tour. In order to create this book, he pieced together his thoughts on various current events and current issues facing Canada. Additionally, he describes the West and tries to explain the country as a whole.

As a means to access interwar Canada, My Discovery works extraordinarily well. Leacock addresses many issues of the day such as economic depression, social credit, railways, regionalism, and immigration. In a sense, My Discovery is a survey of the issues of the day, explained in a very humourous manner. Indeed, Leacock is a very talented writer both in elucidating complex material and doing so in an entertaining way.

Reading My Discovery today, I couldn't help but be struck by the relvance, particularly in economics. Leacock seems relatively middle-of-the road from what I gather. This is a book that discusses economics, but it is most certainly not a treatise, and there is no theory. As a matter of fact, the only economic theory Leacock discusses in-depth is social credit, and only to criticise it. Leacock seems most concerned with practicality over theory and more about describing and explaining than persuading.

Overall, Leacock is a talented, humouous writer, and this book provides a nice window into 1930s Canada, particularly the West. Readers will be struck by how many of his observations, particularly his regional ones, still contain truth today.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Review of L. G. Salverson's The Dark Weaver

The 1937 winner of the Governor General's Award for fiction is:

The Dark Weaver by L.G. Salverson

The Dark Weaver is an epic novel that tells the story of a group of immigrants from Europe to Canada and their children. The novel touches on many themes in an elaborately woven story including generational differences, the building of Canada, immigration, the development of the West, tensiosn between European tradition and North American newness, and industrialisation. The book opens in the mid-nineteenth century and ends during the First World War.

It is a long and well-plotted story with well-developed characters. Salverson excels at communicating the emotions of her characters and provides very detailed descriptions. In this sense, stylistically, the novel is more akin to the Victorian era and the Interwar period.

In a sense, this novel is too big to simply summarize, but sufficed to say, there is an engaging alaborate story. It would be trite to call it the Canadian War and Peace, but while reading it, Tolstoy's masterpiece kept popping into my haed.

The most striking part of the novel is its conclusion. Without giving too much away, the destructive theme of the end is very interesting. Does it represent the all-consuming annihilation of modern, total war? Does it represent that Canada and North America are inexorably anchored to Europe? In a sense, the end seems to undercut the theme of a new continent and new country that the vast majority of the novel builds to. Is the ending a warning? Or pessimism?

Salverson is clearly a talented author and The Dark Weaver provides an engaging story with excellent characters and a conclusion that leaves the reader questioning everything. Needless to add, I highly recommend it.