by Rosemary Gray-Snelgrove
I love getting into a contemporary Canadian novel. Older work is also satisfying. The Canada Reads competition run by CBC, just completed, put non-fiction front and center – more good reading.
Humble Hockey Stars
Those Canada Reads discussions were fun to listen in on. It was delightful that Ken Dryden’s “The Game”, from 29 years ago, was included. I’d loved the book at the time. Dryden was already a hero to me in the early 70’s (from the Canadiens/Boston series and then the Russia-Canada contest) but to realize that intelligent thoughtful people could play and write about the game was an eye-opener and helped me see my hockey-playing husband in a very favourable light. Rick Salutin was a neighbour and said that he’d worked a little with Dryden on the book, and that the latter wasn’t confident that he’d written something of real value. That was one of my first realizations that authors were people with the same self-doubts as anybody else, no matter how erudite and successful their books were. I was on my way to liking authors with whom I could identify.
Poetry and Montreal
Earlier, in my early 20’s, in Montreal, I had been a fan of Irving Layton, who lectured at Sir George, a University for those of us who had to work and were inching our way toward degrees with night courses. One night, in a basement classroom, he and Leonard Cohen traded verses, and seduced the rapt audience of students: afterward I went to a local late-night bookstore, buying my first non-compulsory books of Canadian poetry.
Richler I read like fairy tales – great stories and characters acting out in the part of town my mother, as a young immigrant, had grown up in.
Courage and the Heart
In the 70’s, living in Toronto, I was guided toward Atwood, Shields and Marion Engel. Good moments with each of them, and others. Engel and “Bear” was in tune with the liberating times.
Yet Margaret Laurence was the one who most grabbed my soul, maybe because she moved past a correctness that felt aligned with the academy – the world of the university, my then environment, congenial but also coldly competitive and somewhat heartless. Laurence – I could identify with her making human sense of powerful painful emotion. In “The Stone Angel” I glimpsed my possible future. After “The Diviners” I imagined becoming a woman writing at a table by a window by a river, looking out on flat but peaceful countryside.
So Much Brilliant Current Work
But it has only been in the last 15 years that I’ve found my countrymen and women repeatedly pulling me into their freed-up imaginations, mingled with heart and realism. They take me into a life I may never experience but they also clarify and amplify things I do know and that I can now grasp and examine. Might be a stage of life thing – don’t know. Jane Urquhart (particularly “The Stone Carvers”, my candidate for the Great Canadian Novel), Elizabeth Hay (“Late Nights on Air”), Joseph Boynton with “Three Day Road”. And more, more, more.
Encounter on a Train
I was recently on a train, sitting beside a woman whom I found interesting to look at: the colours she wore and the crafted touches on her garments. Luckily she asked me a question and Poof! we were talking about writing, about the impact of big life-events – her first husband had died while they lived in tough rural circumstances – and spiritual journeys that we had left behind but that weren’t yet dispensed with. We spoke of our daughters and of Newfoundland, Montreal, and the life of a Canadian writer. Because she is one!
She had published a book 18 months before that had been very successful – prizes and short-listing for all the Canadian awards. The book is “Annabel,” and she is Kathleen Winter. I’ve given the book all around this Christmas and for birthdays because I quite love it. She’s taken me into the utter peace of living on a trap-line – an extension of my own remembered times alone in the woods. The unintended abuse of a child’s love allows compassion for both victims. How could this story about a trans-gendered child in Labrador reach out to a 71-year old lady in St. Catharines and open up so much of what I know. Great writing, that’s how!
There’s never enough time to read. Or to celebrate the writers. Because we move on to real life and then on to the next book. Or the next blog. Kathleen was encouraging about keeping on writing. Do it.
Bravo to the women and men who put fingers to the keys, or pen to paper, and heart and mind into reaching out to the rest of us.