Bastards and Bullies: When Fenelon Falls by Dorothy Palmer

Dorothy Palmer taught high school drama for twenty-three years before publishing  her debut novel, When Fenelon Falls (Coach House Press, 2010). Critics called Palmer “a talented writer with an original voice and a marvellous ear for the nuance (and fun) of language”, and the book earned much acclaim, including a long-list nomination for the Re-Lit award.

When Fenelon Falls is a tragic-comic story set in 1969 in Ontario’s cottage country, featuring a young girl, Jordan, who is adopted and disabled–a protagonist based on Palmer herself. I interviewed Palmer about her activism, her feminism, and her writing, and the resulting piece “Bastards and Bullies” is up at the new issue of Herizons magazine. Here’s an excerpt.

DP: Since I was a teenager, I longed to see someone like me in a book and never did. I wrote to hear a voice I’d never heard, either in Canadian literature or later in broader feminist fiction or academia: the modern doppelganger of Canada’s girl orphan icon, Anne of Green Gables. I wanted to write a novel about a red-haired adoptee who knows it’s more than hair making her angry, who does far more about it than break a slate over Gilbert Blythe’s head. When Fenelon Falls is about things that fall–Jordan, a girl with a limp, Yogi, an entrapped bear, and all of the bystanders who should have stood up and done something about the falling they enabled and witnessed.


Alice Munroe said some years ago that she said she no longer liked the term “autobiographical fiction” because it had the cast of being a smaller, somehow less authentic, kind of writing done by women […] to my mind, Canadian women writers are still more often asked about and somehow tacitly dismissed as writing “just autobiography,” which carries the suggestion that autobiographical content is some kind of safe blueprint, or crutch. “Just” implies that fiction with less autobiographical content is somehow, A: the domain of real writers, namely men and B: real fiction, a more pure or literary art form. Obviously, many novels draw on autobiography, but nobody ever suggested that Faulkner or Dickens wrote “just autobiography.” While the settings are all real, When Fenelon Falls has far too much fiction in it to ever be considered “just” a memoir—its plot and commentary is larger than one life and certainly far larger than mine.

My novel is informed by years of working in my union and school board against other oppressions, against racism, bullying, sexual harassment and homophobia. My analysis and practice was always as two things: as an adult adoptee who almost passed as “normal” and as a disabled woman with a disability that almost let me pass in the walking world. Jordan makes many analogies between sexism, racism and what she calls “bastardism.” She sees bastardism as systemic, as built right into everything – language, children’s stories, television and books, and she knows her brother doesn’t see it because he’s a boy, because he’s privileged, “to the bloodline born.” He never has to think about how painful it is to hear what you are, a bastard, being used as a daily swear word […]

If you’d like to read more, please pick up a copy of Herizons (the piece isn’t online). And here’s an excerpt from my review of the novel, also in Herizons.

It’s the summer of 1969, and fourteen year old Jordan May March is figuring out her tenuous place in her family, in society, and in the world. Jordan is adopted and disabled, and is thus considered fair game for her family’s cruelty, especially from the cousins who gather each summer at the family cottage in Fenelon Falls. Jordan’s fierce intelligence, while enabling small acts of revenge, is also her downfall, for she senses the true animosity that lies beneath the teasing, and is unable to fool herself into thinking that it’ll get better. […]
When Fenelon Falls is saturated with rich detail about Ontario in the fifties and sixties, from the clothes to the music to casual bigotry that was simply how things were back then, and the narrative vividly illustrates what a complex, problematic, fractured, fertile era it was. If you know someone who insists that Canadian society was easier to navigate before the advent of, y’know, multiculturalism and all that new-fangled stuff, give him this book—and then watch him squirm.

It’s a funny, wrenching book, and I recommend do hope you’ll pick it up.