A Woman’s Agenda by Karen Helm

It’s that time of the year when you turn a new page, start afresh, begin a new chapter…I am, of course, talking about diaries and calendars.

Back in my corporate life  I used the Time Manager to plan my workday. The corporation gave this agenda to all its management employees; I was young enough to be gratified by such accouterments.  The Time Manager consisted of the “binder, dividers, a box with approx. a year’s supply of forms including dated plans for the current year, a pen/pencil, and a user guide.” It looked like this, except mine was in black leather.

This one costs $255.76. Seriously. Follow the link.

Now that I’m self-employed (oh how I miss you, corporate expense account), and now that my interests have shifted from money to literature and women’s rights and race and immigration (wait! I still like money!), this agenda seems excessive, not to mention unaffordable.  An interesting alternative appeared in my mailbox not long ago–A Woman’s Agenda, published by Second Story Press, a feminist publishing house in Toronto.

Yes, instant love. And this one is priced at $14.85.

A Woman’s Agenda consists of a spiral-bound binder, and, uh, paper. The layout is pretty roomy, with 3 weekdays per page; the weekends get a little less space. There’s place for note-taking, and a chunk of pages for addresses and phone numbers. All pretty standard; the interesting stuff is the lunar calendar (useful for werewolves and menstruating women!) and the woman-specific material. No, the agenda doesn’t tell us to go in for regular Pap Smears or to cap the lip-balm tight before tossing it into the handbag, useful as those reminders would be. A Woman’s Agenda features twelve stories of kick-ass women from all over the world–January is Aung San Suu Kyi, February is black US congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, March is Canadian hockey heroine Cassie Campbell, April is Indian environmental activist Vandana Shiva, and so on. Each month begins with a new story, and the weekends showcase quotes from the featured person. The women are all spectacular, each with a strong story to tell, and the narrative concentrates on the facts without sentimentalization.

What I like best about this agenda is its arrangement. A Woman’s Agenda insinuates the good stuff into our chore-ridden lives without interrupting the flow of the calendar.  We sometimes get sucked into the daily routine without ever surfacing for deeper contemplation–it takes real effort to shrug off duty and think of what’s important than what’s urgent. By juxtaposing the struggles and achievements of these women next to our daily plans, this agenda nudges us to weigh our priorities, and to be grateful for the stuff that works. Family. Books. Friends. A back that lets me shovel snow. Books. Central heating. Books.

I was, however, a bit bewildered while looking for a match between month and story. The choices seem mostly arbitrary; wouldn’t it be so much more satisfying to make  a connection between the person and the month? For instance, February is Black History Month, and the choice of Shirley Chisholm is meaningful in this context. But the agenda mentions that May is Asian Heritage Month, and then features  Dr. Cornelia Wieman, an Aboriginal psychiatrist. And June (the month National Aboriginal Day is celebrated in Canada) features Zaha Hadid, the Iraq-born, London-based architect.  An unforced organic fit between the chosen women and the events on the calendar could have been beautifully engineered had someone spent an extra five minutes.  Ah, well, perhaps it’s on the agenda for 2012.

Despite my quibbling, I recommend this agenda wholeheartedly. You can order it off the Second Story Press website; I doubt the mainstream outlets will make space amongst their Time Manager clones for this one.

A reading by Alissa York, Camilla Gibb

and Kate Taylor occurred a few days ago in my part of the world.  I wasn’t acquainted with Taylor’s work, but I knew and liked the others’ writing, and so made it a point to attend. Despite my son’s bathroom incident, I arrived before the event began (albeit after everyone else was seated).

It was a memorable evening, and not only account of the  unlimited FREE wine. First, I was the only person of color in the entire room. You’d think I’d be used to that by now. Second, I think I was the only person under  forty in the audience.  I hesitate to generalize, but: thirty-somethings, it’s  time to discover fiction that isn’t a  vampire/Vatican conspiracy.  And because I should stop talking about myself and start on the authors, I’ll come to the third notable feature later.

The most important thing you should know about Camilla Gibb is that she isn’t human. She has a ten-week old baby, and instead of looking like her body and soul were ripped apart by childbirth not long ago, appears to have recently exited a spa. When my son was ten weeks old, I was a whimpering blob leaking bodily fluids from orifices whose existence I hadn’t reckoned upon, and I’d forget  stuff like shutting refrigerator doors or buttoning up a shirt.  Gibb was articulate and collected, her left shoe matched her right, and even though she confessed to feeling tired all the time,  I didn’t really believe her. Anyway. Gibb read the opening chapter of her new novel  The Beauty of Humanity Movement, set in Vietnam. The reading style was quiet, for Gibb didn’t really work the text, relying on the prose instead to supply dramatic effect. The overall impression was one of restraint and intelligence.

In comparison, Alissa York’s reading from her new novel Fauna was filled with drama. York read a section packed with  dialogue, and she carried it off effortlessly; even though the characters spoke in short, non-specific sentence, I never had trouble following the conversation (it helped that I had read the book). Her performance was full of passion and flair, and  I wondered at one point if she had a background in theatre–she was that good.  The crowd, well-lubricated by wine and by Gibb’s earlier effort,  loved it.

.Fauna cover

Next came Taylor ( I’m not talking about her as I still haven’t read her work), and then came  question time, where my impressions of the two authors crystallized further. York’s vivid charm showed to full advantage when talking to the crowd; Gibb was a bit more intimidating (I doubt anyone would ask her to read their unpublished work-of-genius). Then we all got up to circulate and chat with the writers, and it was at that time that I discovered the Third Thing: I was, possibly, the shortest person in the room. Dear blog readers, I am a hair under  5′ 4″, but I have never felt so hobbit-like. When I went to talk to York, she had to hunch over as though rolling up a stocking to get to my eye-level. And Gibb’s at least six feet, so I’m not going there. Add to their height their savoir-faire and their talent, and Gibb and York literally seemed like Big People to my short, insignificant, second-breakfast eating self.   Or perhaps I am normal, and the two have merely been at the Ent water. But I think not.

And as for the books themselves, I’m reviewing both for other publications  and will post those pieces in due course. But here are the publisher blurbs FYI.

FAUNA: In her highly anticipated new novel, Scotiabank Giller Prize-nominated author Alissa York creates a contemporary human fable that taps into the great tenderness and drama at the heart of the animal world.
The wide ravine that bisects the city is home to countless species of urban wildlife, including human waifs and strays. When Edal Jones can’t cope with the casual cruelty she encounters in her job as a federal wildlife officer, she finds herself drawn to a beacon of solace nestled in the valley under the unlikely banner of an auto-wrecker’s yard. Guy Howell, the handsome proprietor, offers sanctuary to animals and people alike: a half-starved hawk and a brood of orphaned raccoon kits, a young soldier whose spirit failed him during his first tour of duty, a teenage runaway and her massive black dog. Guy is well versed in the delicate workings of damaged beings, and he might just stand a chance at mending Edal’s heart.
But before love can bloom, the little community must come to terms with a different breed of lost soul — a young man whose brutal backwoods childhood is catching up with him, causing him to persecute the creatures that call the valley home.

BEAUTY…:Maggie, an art curator who is Vietnamese by birth but who has lived most of her life in the United States, has returned to her country of origin in search of clues to her dissident father’s disappearance. She remembers him only in fragments, as an injured artist from whom she and her mother were separated during the war. In her journey, Maggie finds herself at a makeshift pho stall, where the rich aroma of beef noodle soup lures people off Hanoi’s busy streets and into a quiet morning ritual.
Old Man Hung, the enlightened proprietor of the beloved pho stall, has survived decades of poverty and political upheaval. Hung once had a shop that served as a meeting place for dissident artists. As Maggie discovers, this old man may hold the key to both her past and her future.
Among Hung’s most faithful customers is Tu’, a dynamic young tour guide who works for a company called New Dawn. Tu’ leads tourists through the city, including American vets on war tours, but he has begun to wonder what it is they are seeing of Vietnam-and what they miss entirely. In Maggie, he finds a young Americanized woman in search of something quite different, leading him beyond his realm of expertise. In sensual, interwoven narratives, Maggie, Hung, and Tu’ come together in a highly charged season that will mark all of them forever.
The Beauty of Humanity Movement is a skillfully wrought novel about the reverberation of conflict through generations, the enduring legacy of art, and the redemption and renewal of love. The story of these characters is tinged with longing for worlds and loved ones lost but also filled with the hope that faith can heal the pain of their shared country’s turbulent past. This is the distinct and complex story of contemporary Vietnam, a country undergoing momentous change, and a story of how family is defined-not always by bloodlines, but by heart.

The Strike by Anand Mahadevan

The Strike by India-born, Toronto-based Anand Mahadevan combines a setting of great specificity—the world of high-caste South Indian Brahmins—with a universal coming-of-age tale. Twelve-year-old Hari lives in Nagpur in North India, and is growing curious about girls, the forbidden taste of fish, and the cultural divide between his family and that of the Northerner locals. When he accidentally sets off events leading to his grandmother’s death, Hari is caught in that no-man’s land between childhood and adulthood where he is old enough to understand his culpability, but young enough to be powerless. The first half of the novel is beautifully paced, with Hari gradually realizing that adults sometimes break the rules of fair-play without incurring penalties.

Every year, Hari and his mother take a train to Madras in South India to spend the winter holidays with his grandparents. During the journey, news of a much-beloved actor-turned-politician death arrives, and mourners on the train want the world to stop functioning in acknowledgement of their grief and rage. They hence decide to prevent
the train from completing the journey by lying upon the train tracks (such spontaneous demonstrations are common in the great Indian democratic circus, I add.) Hari is in the wrong place at a dangerous time, and matters take their course.

One of the chief issues in a book so firmly located in a particular culture is to do with the proposed audience. Said differently: where will the reader meet the author? The political landscape of South India is vastly complicated, peppered with movie stars and their mistresses, atheists and casteists, and much more. Mahadevan’s potted history of Tamil politics, I felt, would neither satisfy those looking for a meaningful analysis nor the reader who just wanted to get on with the story. Another case in point is Mahadevan’s usage of Indian (Tamil language) words in his novel. One of terms he uses is eccil , a purity-associated reference to saliva. It’s a word most (Indians) would not understand, and one that the author chooses not to explain. In a subsequent scene, however, Mahadevan mentions that a dosa (or dosai) is a sourdough crepe griddled in peanut oil. Google dosa, and you’ll get over two million hits; eccil is a LOT more obscure. I’m hard pressed to account for Mahadevan’s seeming arbitrariness in such matters of translation. The Strike is published by a Canadian small press and surely intended for a general North American audience as much as an Indian one, and I fear the Tamil words will daunt many readers—a pity indeed, because The Strike is a fine novel, with vivid, insightful prose that captures with finesse a child’s eye-view of an increasingly unpredictable universe.

Note:  I reviewed this book as a YA novel, though it isn’t explicitly marketed as such. Novels featuring young protagonists are rare in India, and I felt this book was an important addition to the genre.

(This piece originally appeared in a  slightly different form in Eclectica.)

The Strike by Anand Mahadevan

TSAR  Publications (October 30, 2006)

Genre: Literary fiction, YA

The Sudden Disappearance of Seetha by Andrea Gunraj

The Caribbean town of Marasaw is home to young Navi and Neela, whose mother must leave to find employment in the West—as a child minder. That bleak irony sets the tone for Toronto-based Andrea Gunraj’s promising novel The Sudden Disappearance of Seetha.

Brother and sister grow up competing for attention under their grandmother’s care, longing to escape each other and Marasaw. While math prodigy Navi wins an academic scholarship, Neela spurns family and her friends to elope with local bad boy Jaroon to a tourist resort “Eden” in the rainforest.

The Caribbean is considered a tourist paradise, but, asks Gunraj,  what is the cost to the locals? Eden proves anything but idyllic, for corruption breeds at the heart of the  enterprise. Neela, who planned to be a school teacher, discovers that the school building comprises four sticks on a concrete slab, that she won’t be paid for her work, and that there’s no going back to Marasaw. Inevitably, Jaroon prospers amidst such lawlessness, and an isolated Neela begins to face his abuse. Gunraj searingly describes the  powerlessness and humiliation experienced by victims of domestic violence; Neela, slapped by Jaroon, feels thrust into “that clumsy, in-between condition of part-child, part woman, foolish and slighted and put in her place.

When Jaroon spirits away their baby daughter Seetha, Neela must look for help to the family and friends she’d discarded. The search for Seetha provides the note of suspense in this story.

Gunraj, whose parents emigrated to Canada from Guyana, deals with (other) weighty themes (including racism and the bitter after-taste of colonialism)  in this layered tale, but the most intriguing aspect for me was Neela’s mysterious magic. Neela has a gift, passed down the maternal line, which enables her to influence events as she desires. This power however deserts her when she moves to Eden. Gunraj provides no explanation for this loss; and my guess is that Neela’s thoughtlessness in abandoning her family and friends killed her abilities, for this sort of power must come from a place of goodness and positivity if it is to flourish. And if my solution doesn’t quite cut it for you, well, this rich text gives you plenty to form an alternate theory. Gunraj is one of Knopf’s “New Faces of Fiction” for 2009; well chosen, I say!

(A slightly modified version of this piece appears in Herizons, a Canadian feminist magazine.)

The Sudden Disappearance of Seetha by Andrea Gunraj

Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2009

Literary fiction

Before Green Gables by Budge Wilson

Planning a prequel or sequel to classic works by now-dead authors should bring drops of blood to the writer’s brow. Crafting a plot is fairly easy, but writing in the spirit of the original is virtually impossible. How much ought the new author’s voice inform the piece?  Too much, and the work is no longer faithful to the original creation; too little, and it’s fan fiction. Furthermore, a strong character often becomes a caricature in a sequel, reduced to easily recognized traits and mannerisms, with little further character development.

Before Green Gables was written in 2008 to commemorate the centennial of  a Canadian classic–L.M.Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, featuring the adventures of Anne Shirley, a red-haired orphan girl of unusual spirit and imagination.  Before Green Gables chronicles Anne’s years in Nova Scotia before her departure for Prince Edward Island (and Green Gables).  I couldn’t help but wonder at the chutzpah of a writer who takes on a prequel to one of the most beloved children’s books ever, but now that I’ve read it, I doff my toque to Budge Wilson.  The basic plot outlines have of course been laid out by Montgomery in Anne of Green Gables, but Wilson has immersed herself in Anne-lore and the period, and the result is  an adroitly fashioned, utterly convincing tale. Every sentence spoken by Anne could have been written by Montgomery–there isn’t a single false note in this work.

Before Green Gables begins with Walter and Bertha Shirley’s anticipation of their child’s arrival. Within a tenth of the book, they are dead and the three-month old Anne consigned to the dubious care of the Shirleys’ domestic help, Mrs. Thomas. The household consists of a drunkard father and three (to become seven) children. If Anne’s lot seems unutterably bleak, it soon gets worse–upon the death of Mr. Thomas, Anne is packed off to assist Mrs. Hammond, a mother of six (including two sets of twins), and soon to give birth to yet more twins. This MG book is a stronger argument for birth control than many carefully researched non-fictional works on the topic.

Before Green Gables feels careful-verging-on-unadventurous, but it is satisfyingly done; not one of Anne’s references to her tragical past in AoGG has been missed, from her experience with croup to Lily Jones of the nut-brown hair. If you know the series well, there’s much pleasure gained in playing spot the references. And if  Wilson makes her Anne extraordinarily precocious–walking at eight months,  noting before her third birthday that the name Maurice sounds like a “smooth-running river” , and before her sixth birthday, coaching Mr. Thomas on the secret to finding serenity–I can forgive her the indulgence.

The only real issue I had with  Before Green Gables is its unremitting misery. There isn’t a single funny episode here, nothing to raise the barest chuckle. Anne does find little joys–a good teacher, the accidental gift of a dictionary–but these are valiant victories, pathetic as much in their smallness as in their disproportionate value to Anne. Yes, the context of Anne’s unhappiness in her early years is important to highlight her joy in finally belonging to Green Gables and to Marilla and Mathew. But Montgomery always found pleasure in the ridiculous, even when the scenario was desolate. Look at The Blue Castle, where the heroine, dying of heart disease, decides to cock a snook at convention and start speaking her (decidedly rude) mind to her overbearing family. I’m no Montgomery expert, but I felt that  Wilson didn’t quite capture Montgomery’s philosophy–that in the midst of tragedy and heartbreak, when the big things seem hopelessly wrong, escape lies not just in imagination but also in humor. I like Anne of Nova Scotia, oh I do, but she doesn’t quite have the magic or laughter of Anne of Green Gables.


Before Green Gables by Budge Wilson

Puffin Canada, 2008

Genre: MG/YA fiction

If you like all things Anne, you may also be interested in my review of L.M.Montgomery’s The Blythes are Quoted, which, for reasons I do not understand, is one of my top posts on this blog.

Canadian Book Challenge #4

I’m not a big fan of blog challenges–they are sometimes a bit frantic, and reading is, or should be, a slow pleasure.  But I’ve signed up for a couple this year for causes I believe in, like the Person of Color challenge.  I’m also signing up for the Fourth Canadian Book Challenge–to  read and review thirteen books by Canadian authors over the next twelve months. I’d signed up for the first challenge, and I discovered a couple of terrific Canadian authors in the process–Alistair Macleod, for one, and Joy Kogawa. (I also read some purveyors of deadly boring CanLit, but the law of averages made that inevitable). If you are interested in Canadian writing, do check out this one at The Book Mine Set.

This challenge, I’m shooting for thirteen different genres of books–mystery, YA, picture book, memoir and so on. (I’m defining genre very loosely.) Books I’ve read thus far for the challenge:
1. 500 Years of Resistance by Gord Hill (Graphic novel)
2. How it all Vegan by Sarah Kramer and Tanya Barnard (Cookbook)

2 books by mid-July! If things keep up, I will turn into one of those bloggers who comments regularly and tracks feed subscribers and maintains a blogroll. You know, a real one.

How it all Vegan (10th Anniversary Ed.) by Tanya Barnard and Sarah Kramer

A review of a vegan recipe book  seems to demand an upfront declaration of the reviewer’s dietary position. So: I’m a vegetarian (never eaten meat or fish or fowl)  who has flirted with but never quite committed to veganism. I don’t do leather or cosmetics tested on animals, and I don’t touch those red M&Ms colored with crushed insects. Avoiding eggs is pretty easy if you read ingredient labels, which I do, ever since a seemingly innocuous tomato juice was revealed to contain anchovies.  But it all goes pear-shaped when it comes to dairy–I find tea spiked with soy or rice milk unbearable. More tellingly, I’ve never been quite convinced of the moral urgency to skip dairy–if the cows aren’t destined for slaughter but live peaceful and healthy lives, it doesn’t seem so bad, really, to take a bit of their organic, cruelty-free milk.

Now that’s out of the way, let’s turn to the book. First off, a 10th anniversary for a vegan recipe book is a victory for herbivores everywhere. It wasn’t so long ago that we were  expected to shut up and eat iceberg lettuce; just who did we think we were, checking that our minestrone didn’t have chicken stock and asking for no bacon bits in our Caesar Salads?  That this book is successful is clearly cause to celebrate, and especially so, because it’s a bloody good book. It makes its ethical case without  being preachy, recognizing that each of us arrives at our moral comfort zones at our personal velocities. The tone is conversational and chatty and filled with fun asides “please lock me up so I can eat my way to freedom, straight through these fantastic chocolate chip bars.”  At its heart, this is a book for anyone who enjoys cooking and eating flavorful food, and it’ll appeal  to omnivores and herbivores alike. And, and, and,  the authors are the last word in cool. I mean, just look at them.

How It All Vegan 10th Anniversary Edition by Sarah Kramer Photography.com.

Kramer writes in the foreword “I have countless fan mail from people telling me that they purchased the book without even looking inside because they saw us on the cover and were excited to see someone like themselves reflected back. I also have a few letters from mothers  who ripped off the cover, or covered the book with paper so we wouldn’t influence their kids with our tattoos and piercings.”

Anyone for Tea? by Sarah Kramer Photography.com.

Yes, I have something of a girl crush on Sarah Kramer, she of the piercings and tattoos and Cleopatra eyeliner.

How it all Vegan is divided into user-friendly  categories such as breakfast, sauces and spreads, entrees etc. etc. The recipes all seem to to demand many many ingredients, but they  are nicely laid out, and the cooking itself is uncomplicated. Best, they are written in a sensible, down-to-earth style suitable for dodgy cooks of my ilk. The mains aren’t a poor man’s meat substitute, but would hold their own at a Thanksgiving table. As might be expected, the desserts are the most substitution-based recipes of the lot.  There’s a handy index of alternatives for commonly used animal products–I used the suggested 3 tbsp applesauce instead of an egg in my brownies, and it worked.

The book ends with tips on making vegan household products, including mouthwash and baby wipes and bug repellent. There’s also an excellent index of ingredients that contain animal products. You may not be convinced about going vegan after reading this book, but you can’t cite a dearth of foods or resources  as a reason anymore.

I wish though, that there were more pictures of the food.  I’m surely not the only one to read recipe books like others read fashion magazines, and eight full-page photographs–two of which feature (the admittedly toothsome) Kramer–just aren’t enough for this book.  The photos are all clumped together in the middle, and you have to go back and forth to match them to the recipes. And I think they could have really selected more interesting recipes to photograph. Two pictures of peppermint patties? One for a generic glop-on-the plate cilantro ginger tempeh toss? The one photo that actually got me moaning was the butter tarts.


Better Than Butter Tarts by Sarah Kramer Photography.com.

I’d never tried these tarts till I came to Canada. Oh, my wasted life.

Better Than Butter Tarts

1 cup raisins
1 tbsp vegan margarine
3/4 cup sugar
2 tbsp ground flax seeds
3 tbsp water
1 tsp vanilla extract
12 unbaked pre-made pastry shells (3 inch)
1/2 cup walnuts, finely chopped

Preheat oven to 400F. Put raisins into a medium bowl and cover with very hot water. Set aside for 10 minutes. Drain hot water off raisins and add margarine, sugar, flax seeds, water, and vanilla. Stir together well. Spoon 1 tbsp of mixture evenly into each tart shell. Sprinkle each tart with finely chopped walnuts. Bake for 15 minutes and serve at room temperature. Makes 12 tarts.


How it all Vegan (10th Anniversary edition) by Tanya Barnard and Sarah Kramer

Arsenal Pulp Press, 2010

Genre: Cookbook


500 Years of Resistance by Gord Hill

(This review appeared on 24 June in  rabble.ca I wanted to post this piece for Canada Day, so it appears here today.)

500 Years of Resistance is a comic book depicting a Native American view of colonial history. It seemed somewhat presumptuous of me to review this book, and for this week’s National Aboriginal Day, no less. I am not Native American; by some benchmarks, I am not even North American, having moved to Canada less than 10 years ago.

And yet. I am from India, the country Columbus set out to discover before he washed up on the American continent, a country intimately acquainted with European colonialism. It seems to me that the most prevalent approach today to a colonial past is to assert that colonialism was a mix of good and bad (mostly bad). But dwelling on that past is deemed morbid and pointless; what really matters, in this view, is a calculated embrace of capitalism so as to beat the erstwhile colonizers at their own game. But another perspective sees the struggle between colonizer and colonized as an ongoing resistance — colonialism, rather than being eradicated, is deemed to have simply taken on new shapes, and Gord Hill belongs to this school of thought. In his introduction, Hill states that the mainstream depiction of Indigenous people as (mostly) passive victims of European colonization now resigned to (or even willing accomplices of) the activities of the settler-state is a deliberate falsehood. The 60 pages of extensively-researched graphics that follow depict his world-view and his reasoning.

500 Years of Resistance

500 Years of Resistance takes as its scope the Americas, North and South, and roughly follows the chronological order of colonial expansion. The book is divided into four parts with the self-explanatory titles Invasion, Resistance, Assimilation and Renewed Resistance. Invasion focuses on the methods adopted by European settlers to acquire Native land, while the section on Resistance takes up specific episodes such as the Inca Insurgency and the Seminole Wars, and includes details such as the deliberate distribution of smallpox-infected blankets by the British forces to facilitate quicker genocide of the Native people. Interestingly, the last section (Renewed Resistance) describes the kinship between Native Americans and other peoples of the world, citing the civil rights movement and the Vietnam anti-war movement as examples of a global struggle against oppression.

Hill concludes with the mention of recent armed conflicts between Natives and the state (such as the Six Nations standoff with the Ontario police in 2006), effectively making his point: for some, the resistance never ended. Even if you don’t agree with Hill’s approach, you’ll understand his sense of outrage after reading this book. The black-and-white artwork brings home the weight of accumulated injustices with an intensity few other formats could match.

Is any form of reconciliation possible (or even desirable) to a people whose histories and identities have been forcibly recast for centuries? 500 Years… emphasizes the actualities of the past and our interpretation of the present, but gives no vision for the future. The ultimate aim of any resistance movement is presumably to bring about social and political change that obviates the need for its existence. Hill, however, presents resistance as an end in itself — a problematic conclusion, given that this work is targeted at the youth. Fortunately, the book includes four-and-a-half pages of recommended readings, with titles that suggest a broader vision.

Consider yourselves warned: this book is a warrior’s celebration of armed resistance, and it’s not for the faint-hearted. The violence of colonialism and the Indigenous people’s bloody resistance is laid out in detail, from the European settlers raping local women and chopping off the hands and noses of those who failed to supply them with enough gold, to the severed heads of the crew members of an American ship attacked by Nuu-Chah-Nulth warriors. Hill writes that the comic book format “…uses minimal text with graphic art to tell the story. This format is useful in reaching children, youth, and adults…” This book is definitely not for children, but it should be read by everyone else.


500 Years of Resistance by Gord Hill

Arsenal Pulp Press, 2010

Genre/format: Graphic novel, history

The Last River Child by Lori Ann Bloomfield

Last River ChildThis debut novel by Toronto writer Lori Ann Bloomfield offers many riches: a vivid potted history of Canada in the time surrounding WWI, a nicely detailed account of small town life in rural Ontario, plus a rousing reminder of why the women’s movement was necessary in the first place.

A river child is an evil spirit that lives in a river, waiting to drown children in order to assume their shape and then live on land. The river child brings bad luck, withering crops and killing farm animals. Or so the inhabitants of the small village of Walvern in Ontario, Canada believe.  

The arrival of a meteorite during Peg’s baptism, combined with the fact of her pale eyes and her habit of walking by the river soon make the villagers suspect that Peg is indeed the dreaded spirit. Crazy stuff, yes, but not back in the early nineteen hundreds, when religion and superstition were inextricably knotted together, and not in rural Ontario, where the failure of one crop could result in permanent tragedy for a family. 

As is usually the case, enough coincidences occur to rapidly cement the belief amongst  the villagers that Peg is a river child. But despite being a social outcast, Peg grows up loving Walvern, even as her sister Sarah longs to get away to the big city. It takes nothing less than a World War to shake the good villagers out of their silliness and superstitions.   

Apart from a too-tidy ending for my taste, this novel is finely shaped and paced, and very readable indeed.  But Bloomfield at times pulls her punches—the story doesn’t quite deliver the emotional goods the outline suggests, mostly because the adult Peg’s internal life isn’t realized deeply enough.  (The first part of the novel, which deals with the young Peg and her mother, is near perfect). Bloomfield holds back when she should burrow her way into her protagonist’s heart, with the result that I didn’t care for Peg as passionately as I might have.  For instance, (SEMI-SPOILER WARNING!) when Sarah runs away to Toronto leaving Peg to manage the farm single-handedly, Peg is “consumed by rage” at Sarah’s selfishness. “Beneath the rage, determination began to glow, forged in the heat of her fury. A plan started to form in her mind. She only needed to feed herself and a few of the animals.”  The thrill of evoked emotion is mild with this sort of writing.  The bottom line: The Last River Child is a promising debut, definitely good if not great.  

PS: This book is published by a lovely little feminist publishing house  Second Story Press. Do check out their site, for their other offerings look pretty interesting too.

The Blythes are Quoted by L.M.Montgomery

A new collection featuring Anne of Green Gables has just been published, and redheads all over the world (not to mention the Japanese) are celebrating. But “new” is somewhat misleading–all but one of the stories in The Blythes are Quoted appear (in slightly abbreviated form) in 1974’s The Road to Yesterday. (Note: TRtY was published after Montgomery’s death as well.)

The background: Benjamin Lefebvre came across Montgomery’s original typescript of TBaQ, and realized it contained several never-published poems and Blythe family vignettes, as well as the unedited versions of the stories in TRtY. TBaQ was also far bleaker in its approach to war than Montgomery’s earlier writing. Believing that the manuscript “could change the way readers perceived the author and her work”, Lefebvre gives us “as close a reproduction of Montgomery’s [original] text as possible.”

Let’s cut to the chase: should you pay $25 plus tax for this book?

TBaQ boasts one story that was not included in TRtY. Titled “Some Fools and a Saint”, this one isn’t amongst Montgomery’s stronger efforts–I found it both tedious and unconvincing. (Warning: this rest of this post will mean little if you aren’t intimately acquainted with Anne’s world.)

Regarding the edited stories, I don’t find the pruning of Montgomery’s writing inherently objectionable–she can get way purple, and I’ve often wished for a sterner editorial hand. (This doesn’t mean I love Valancy or Emily any less, just that like Mr. Harrison, I would have preferred that the sunsets be left out.) I think the edits in TRtY are mostly justified—Montgomery’s weakness for ellipses has been reined in, the errors corrected, and the wishy-washier parts have been pruned. Here is an excerpt from the story “The Twins Pretend”, where millionaire Anthony Lennox has just agreed to let two young children, Jill and P.G., redecorate his house.

The Road to Yesterday: “…Well, are you coming in with me?” [Lennox asked]

“You bet,” said Jill and P.G. together.

It would have been incredible to anyone else, but nothing was ever incredible to the twins. They had sojourned so often in the land where wishes come true that nothing amazed them much or long.”

The Blythes are Quoted: “…Well, are you coming in with me?”

“You bet,” said Jill and P.G. together.

Bored? They didn’t know the meaning of such an expression. Wasn’t this just the last word in words! To think of a thing like this falling down on you, right out of the blue, so to speak!

It would have been incredible to anyone else, but nothing was ever incredible to the twins. They had sojourned so often in the land where wishes come true that nothing amazed them much or long.”

No complaints from me here about the edit. And the original story has some errors–e.g. Anthony Lennox thinks about Mrs. Dr. Blythe’s appearance, but later says he knew Anne (and Gilbert) in college. Surely you don’t think about your old college mate as Mrs. Dr. Lastname? TRtY cleans this sort of thing up very successfully.

One of the things I disliked most about TRtY was that the Blythes seemed too good to be true. The accumulation of admiration verges on the ridiculous in TBaQ. Anne is miraculously youthful looking, an ideal wife and mother, never mistaken in her judgment, and beloved by everyone. She sets the standard for behavior, beauty, style, and goodness for PEI. For instance, Anthony Lennox, who’s moped for fifteen years over a lost love, recalls his beloved’s eyes as “suggestive of wild, secret, unfettered delights…very like Mrs. Dr. Blythe’s…” Ummm…creepy. Gilbert Blythe and the Blythe children also receive generous servings of adulation; this book could have been titled The Mary Sues are Quoted.

What’s really interesting about TBaQ is Montgomery’s shifting perception of war. The stories don’t really reflect these changes (perhaps a Montgomery scholar might differ?), but the poems are something else. The first set deals with purple stars and elfin chimes and other Anne-ish fancies. Then war breaks, and the poems get progressively grimmer. The last poem “The Aftermath” is as bitter a repudiation of war as any I’ve read, and Anne says “I am thankful now … that Walter did not come back. He could never have lived with his memories…” Is this the same author who  in Rilla of Ingleside contemptuously dismissed “a pacifist appeal of the rankest sort?” Who believed the First World War was fought “for the preservation and safety of all sweet, wholesome things?” I think some readers will find this side of Montgomery fairly unsettling; as for me, I like her even more now.

(Major Spoilers Ahead.)

And I do love the family vignettes. I enjoyed seeing the Blythe children married, with families of their own, though Faith Blythe (nee Meredith, remember?) calling Anne “Mother Blythe” is rather disconcerting. Jem and Faith have two sons, Jem Jr. and Walter. Rilla is now Rilla Ford, and Nan is Nan Meredith. If you are sufficiently invested in Anne’s world, this kind of detail is utterly satisfying; in my mind, I have already married Shirley to one of Diana’s children, and I must end this post here to figure out names for their three children.

Update: If you like this post, you may want to check out my review of Budge Wilson’s Before Green Gables.