Frank Gutch Jr: Travels With Farley: Canada’s Legacy in Words— Plus Notes
I have this very large book sitting on my shelf titled Canada: A Modern History. At the time I purchased it, I was beginning a journey into Canadian literature thanks to a bookstore in Seattle known as Magus, a large store in the University District of Seattle containing books of all sizes and flavors, mostly paperbacks. I had stumbled upon this book quite by chance at the first Friends of the Library sale I attended upon arriving in Seattle and, having this unquenched thirst for what I now know as America’s Hat, purchased it on a whim.
I read two pages a night, so few because I was already reading two books. I learned about Canada’s history— at least, the Anglo version. I read about trappers and the fur trade and wars— wars known to us Americans as King William’s War, Queen Anne’s War, King George’s War, and especially the French and Indian War but in Canada referred to as the War of the League of Augsburg, the War of the Spanish Succession, the War of Austrian Succession, and the Seven Years’ War (it is no wonder countries do not get along— they cannot even name wars so that the others recognize them). I learned of the expansion into the prairies and the building of the railroads and the search for the Northwest Passage. Fascinating stuff, if presented as dry toast.
At that same book sale, I happened to have picked up a hardback copy of Robert J.C. Stead‘s ‘Grain’ thinking it might parallel American novelist Frank Norris‘s ‘The Octopus’ which delved into the world of the buying and selling of grain, then a most crucial food source. It did to a degree and gave me a look at Canada as a separate nation. The book outlined a parallel universe to the north, yet there were differences. To that point, I had always thought of Canada as part of the U.S. I still do, but to a lesser degree.
By the time I found Magus, I was more than curious. I knew that Farley Mowat was Canadian, having been turned onto him by a librarian friend. I had read what I could find— ‘Never Cry Wolf’, ‘People of the Deer’, ‘The Siberians’. I found a string of Mowat’s works and bought them all. I had read Stead. I had read Mordecai Richler‘s ‘The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz’ and had later seen the movie. I read ‘Shoeless Joe’ before Hollywood turned it into an embarrassment on film (Field of Dreams)— my opinion, of course. (I had read Bernard Malamud‘s ‘The Natural’ before Hollywood did the same to that novel— it is no wonder so many people correlate Hollywood with crap). But what Magus did was open up the world of Canada’s best writers and their works based upon if not necessarily based in their country.
There is this series, you see, known as the New Canadian Library which brought many works of those writers to my attention, alongside a plethora of others. I set upon acquiring as many of them as I could. I bought books much faster than I could read them back then and confess to having purchased NCL books with the idea of reading them quickly but still have a few on the shelf, yet unread. The ones I did read, though, sucked me deeper and deeper into the Canadian Vortex.
I adopted the name Ringuet as a username on eBay years ago. Not that the name impressed me that much, rather that after what seemed like a thousand attempts of a more common nature were rejected. Out of frustration, I looked up at the bookshelf and typed the name in and sonofagun if it wasn’t accepted. But there is more to it than that. For one thing, I had read the book twice by that time (an oddity in my world due to the fact that hundreds and thousands of books remained to be read and I was never one to retread. It encapsulated a part of Canada of which I had never thought— the age old French versus English conundrum. To be French in Quebec that last century or so (and probably earlier) had to have been a mental struggle and ‘Thirty Acres’ took it on head on. A story of a man so attached to the land and the church that both the English and progress chew him up and spit him out. During my second reading of the novel, Canada was going through the dreaded two-language crisis and it struck home. Many people in British Columbia were outraged that their province was forced to re-sign everything in both languages made the French very unpopular there. More than one Canadian pointed out to me that they (the French) needed to learn the national language and pointed to Quebec, which at that time was threatening to secede from Canada, as the culprit. (Sound familiar, America?) The problems had started long before that, the book showed. A clash of cultures. Enough to tear some countries apart. Originally published in 1940.
Ralph Connor at one time was an extremely popular author in Canada and had quite the following in the US as well. When ‘The Man From Glengarry’ was published in 1901, it became an immediate success. The story itself was one not of the Old West, as it might have been if it had taken place in Arizona or Colorado, but of the old days in Canada at the time of the confederation. As much of us in The States believe, Canada was not always the ten provinces and three territories we know today. In the beginning, which was 1867, they were four— Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick. I know— it’s hard to tell the provinces apart without a scorecard (and, for awhile, the National Hockey League), but they probably don’t know the history of The States, either. (Hell, people in The States don’t know the history of The States, fer chrissakes) When you look at early life in the Dominion of Canada, you realize that life is an ongoing process. Canada grows as this novel progresses and the story it tells is engrossing. The main character, one Ranald Macdonald (not to be confused with Ronald MacDonald of burger fame), watches the confederation take hold and eventually heads back to British Columbia to help those poor buggers along. After all, they were lumberjacks and they’re okay…..
Mordecai Richler, when The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz hit the silver screen, should have become a household word in American households. Irreverent, edgy and funny (sometimes downright hilarious), the movie seemed a favorite among the younger set. The movie did well enough, the book sold well enough, but Richler’s name outside of the trade was still relatively unknown. And yet what an amazing body of work he gave us. The book, published shortly after Kravitz, is my favorite, passed along to me by friend Joseph Lee who had listened too many times to my raves about Candian literature— ‘The Incomparable Atuk’. Short and sweet, it covers a period of a Canadian Inuit who has been brought to the Big City (Toronto) from the bush. It is satirical, as many stories were in those days (50s and 60s), but there is Truth between the lines. Atuk, after being swayed by the modern world, turns things to his own liking. A satirical look at not just modern Canada, but the modern world.
Know what a Curlew is? Neither did I until I read Fred Bodsworth‘s ‘Last of the Curlews’. A curlew is one of those long-legged birds you see walking the marshes, fishing with that long curved beak. When Bodsworth decided to use it as the main subject in a book, he gave it historical importance. He followed one bird on a migration path, wrapping a years life into one ‘characters’ existence. For uncountable years, the Curlews flew from southern feeding grounds to northern nesting areas (or was it the opposite?) until Man finally took them down to one. Well, according to Bodsworth’s account. And then… none. It is Man’s way. Destroy an unending resource until you find that it is not endless and then end it. Callously. Without regard to future generations or its effect on the world as a whole. When you see it through the birds eyes, it suddenly becomes alive. Or in this case, dead.
The people who don’t know W.P. Kinsella evidently don’t read at all. ‘Shoeless Joe’ was a best-seller and one of the few fictionalized accounts of baseball ever written that was worth a crap (though even it was not Robert Coover‘s ‘The Universal Baseball Association, Inc. J. Henry Waugh, Prop.). A simple tale of a man’s urge to build a baseball field in the midst of corn, it captured America enough to force a movie upon us: Field of Dreams. I hated the movie, from the screenwriting to the casting, but I loved the book. Kinsella turned that book into a franchise, of sorts, a series of stories books about and built around baseball, including ‘The Iowa Baseball Confederacy’, ‘The Thrill of the Grass’, ‘Box Socials’ and more. But there was another side to his writing which thrilled me even more. The books about life on the reservation.
After reading ‘Shoeless Joe’, I had a hunger for more Kinsella, so after devouring the few books on baseball available back then, I stumbled upon a copy of ‘Dance Me Outside’ at a cool little bookstore in Salem (Oregon). Short stories about life on the Rez, indeed. It is a look at life on an Indian (or is that acceptable these days) reservation in Central Alberta in Canada as seen through the eyes of one Silas Ermineskin. I laughed all the way through it, unable to put it down. Of course, in this politically correct world, someone (and in this case, a lot of someones) had to take offense and the series of books featuring Ermineskin and crew died a horrific death. That series included some of Kinsella’s best works— ‘The Fencepost Chronicles’ (which featured Frank Fencepost), ‘The Moccasin Telegraph’, and ‘Brother Frank’s Gospel Hour’. Last year, I spent a week in Victoria B.C. I walked into a used book store and asked about Kinsella. The guy asked which one. I said any of the Ermineskin books. Ah, he said, before he was labeled PI (meaning politically incorrect). He did not have any, he said, implying that the publishers had either taken them off the market or but back the numbers drastically. He worked here, you know, he said. He was a character.
My good friend Nadia Elkharadly has found a few of those old titles for me. She has no idea how much I appreciate them (and her). I can only think of one other author I will pull off the shelves just to read a few pages— well, make that two. Patrick McManus and H. Allen Smith. God, but how they make me laugh.
The dean of Canadian authors is, to my mind, Farley Mowat. I never believed that Canada knew what they had in him— a man before his time in a lot of the issues facing the world today— environmentalism, climate change, appreciation of different cultures. He was green before they found more than two shades of it. And could he write! Just a short time ago, my sister brought back a book I had forgotten I had loaned her— ‘No Man’s River’— and I was introduced to the earliest work, as history would have it, of Mowat’s far northern chronicles. He had just returned from WWII and had tired of war and all of its trappings. He wanted peace and quiet. So he signed on for work in the far north. It would be the experience which would have him returning again and again to the wilds to study not just wildlife, but life. The following is a short piece I had written some time ago. I believe it fitting here to repeat it. We join the program in progress…
Before I delve into it though, I want to mention another artist who passed over. Farley Mowat. Writers are artists, are they not? Craftsmen (and -women)? Okay. But when you master a craft, it is an art, and Mowat mastered his like few others.
You might know him for Never Cry Wolf, the Disney flick, but long before Disney and the film it was a book. And a damn good one. I first crossed paths with him around ’72 after dating a girl named Debby. Debby’s mother found that I had an interest in literature and, being’s how she was a school librarian (Marylhurst in Portland, Oregon, I believe), she began passing me slips of papers with names of authors I needed to read. Mowat’s name was there along with Gene Fowler, Ben Hecht, Thorne Smith, H. Allen Smith and so many others I came to know and love. All were unique, none more than Mowat.
Mowat, an environmentalist, wrote about many things but his best works involved nature. I knew he was special the second I picked up People of the Deer and discovered the depth of truth. He made a simple gesture which should have worked seem a disaster, which it probably was. You see, Canada, in its bureaucratic wisdom, decided they needed to save the Unuit from themselves so the government, shall we say, changed their ways. They forbade certain practices and foods and substituted others in their stead, thereby causing problems unforeseen. If you find it confusing, imagine the confusion of the natives. No, I will not tell the story myself. You should read it yourself. (Click here) That and Never Cry Wolf and The Siberians and A Whale For the Killing and Death of a People— The Ihalmiut and a long string of books Mowat-penned. The last I read was And No Birds Sang, a book which confirmed to me the terror of war.
Farley Mowat was a national treasure of Canada. His voice will be missed. The following clip proves it.
I loved this man and I didn’t even know him.
With that, let’s cool you down with a few…
Notes….. This week’s guest documentary comes courtesy of, uh, Spokane, Washington? Holy crap! How did that happen? Turns out Spokane was quite the hotbed of punk during the Reagan era (Reagan always had this habit of turning everything sour) and here is the trailer to prove it. Just a hint of what went down in the Palouse. Spokane was a bit isolated, for those of you geographically challenged, and it is difficult for me to envision a punk scene there, but it happened. How truthful documentaries like this really are is dependent upon the people who lived it, but even if it was a minuscule part of life, it is enough. I would love to see the whole film. Here is the clip. Spokanarchy!
I have mentioned Fleurie before and have posted her videos. She is quite outside the perameters of what I normally listen to but I find her approach to music intriguing. I would hope that more people would be picking up on her. Maybe Sweden? Two soundcheck vids for your listening pleasure.
I have been listening a lot to a new band calling themselves Elouise and which in fact has Elouise Walker doing the vocals. Trust me when I tell you that this is the most normal of the tracks they play. They call what they do “Blackgrass.” I call it bizarre, but bizarre in a very good way. The music is dense and intense and downright orchestral at times, if demons play in orchestras. One of my favorites so far this year, the album is titled Deep Water.
Frank’s column appears every Tuesday
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“Frank Gutch Jr. looks like Cary Grant, writes like Hemingway and smells like Pepe Le Pew. He has been thrown out of more hotels than Keith Moon, is only slightly less pompous than Garth Brooks and at one time got laid at least once a year (one year in a row). He has written for various publications, all of which have threatened to sue if mentioned in any of his columns, and takes pride in the fact that he has never been quoted. Read at your own peril.”
This entry was posted on April 26, 2016 at 2:21 pm and is filed under Opinion, Review with tags Books, Canadian Authors, DBAWIS, Don't Believe a Word I Say, Elouise, Farley Mowat, Fleurie, Frank Gutch Jr., Fred Bodsworth, Indie Artists, Indie Music, Mordecai Richler, New Canadian Library, Ralph Connor, Ringuet, segarini, Spokanarchy, Sweet Home Oregon, W.P. Kinsella. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.