Friday, June 10, 2011

Hecla Island - Grindstone Provincial Park

The weather reports had called for rain all weekend but we packed our gear and headed for the park anyway. It wasn't as warm as earlier in the week but we were prepared for chilly nights and wet weather. We drove past Winnipeg Beach and Gimli where many people were opening their cottages over the long weekend and from there the traffic decreased rapidly.

We were on our way north to Hecla Island. Hecla Island was first settled in the 1800s by Icelandic people. In 1875, the Republic of New Iceland was established by the Canadian government exclusively for those coming from Iceland to build new lives, fishing and farming as they had done in Iceland. But there were differences the newcomers had to face. Canadians wanted fresh fish, not the smoked fish that was popular in Iceland so ice houses had to be built. Instead of fishing on an ocean that didn't freeze, the people had to learn how to hack through the thick ice that formed on Lake Winnipeg and in the short summers, grow enough food to feed their families. Many of the original settlers were persuaded to leave by the clergy who served the community. They were convinced the settlement would fail and led all but eight of the original families to what is now Icelandic State Park in North Dakota. But other hardy Icelanders arrived and the community survived. 

Hecla Village
View of Hecla village from the shoreline. Rugged terrain, harsh winters and isolation were some of the challenges early settlers faced.
Pier at Hecla Village
Hecla village pier - still a very cold wind off the water but beautiful and if you are hardy, patient, and dressed warmly, the fishing is very rewarding!

Hecla Fish Station
One of the original fish stations, this one is now a museum that houses some of the artifacts used by the island's intrepid inhabitants.
The islanders were self-sufficient and bartered for what they did not produce on their own homesteads. A general store carried items like coffee, tea, sugar, dishes, and fabric. The church played an integral role in community life and continues to have services today. A school was built in 1922 but closed in 1966 under a school consolidation program. At this point, many families with school age children left the island. 
Hecla Harbor
Early evening at the Hecla pier.
Hecla was completely isolated. Riverton was the closest town and there had been no ferry service until 1953. Even then, the trip took four hours through the Grassy Narrows marshlands. In the late 60s, the residents approached the government to have the area declared a Provincial Park. The steady decline in forestry and fishing gave the Islanders little choice if they were to survive. In 1969, the park became a reality. Eventually, a causeway was built in the 1970s and the trip by car was only 40 minutes. Hecla Island life was changed forever.
Hecla Ferry Dock
Remnants of the Hecla Ferry dock - it was discontinued after a causeway was built in the '70s. From the time of the first settlement in the 1800s, the community on Hecla Island was completely isolated with no electricity or other modern convenience until more than half the 20th century had passed.
Ferries Past

Another piece of the past from the Hecla Island Ferry that made the trip though what is now Grassy Narrows Provincial Park. The ferry ran from the early '50s until the causeway was completed in the '70s.
Grassy Narrows Passage
Narrow inlets weave their way through this vast bird sanctuary.
Grassy Narrows
Finding the way by boat through this area of wetlands must have been challenging. It took 4 hours by ferry to do what is now done in 40 minutes by car. In the summer, the mosquitoes must have been frequent companions on the ferry!
Today, the island industry is tourism. The marshland is a protected santuary for birds and offers a wonderful opportunity for photographers. Fishing spots are abundant and many are equipped with cleaning stations. Foxes dart in and out of the forest and black bears are active in the campgrounds when given the opportunity.
Pelicans are the most patient fisherman of all!
This fox stopped for a moment to watch me take the photo before he disappeared back into the forest.
In spite of all the changes, Hecla Island remains the same. Its inhabitants live in harmony with nature and it's not unusual to see a fox being hand-fed by one of the islanders. It is wild, windswept, and not just a little enchanted. 

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Mordecai Richler: Iconic Canadian Author

Richler in a Montreal Park, October 1983
Richler in a Montreal Park, October 1983. Source: Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press
"Coming from Canada, being a writer and Jewish as well, I have impeccable paranoia credentials."
If you type the name Mordecai Richler into a search bar, you will get results as varied as the literature he penned and no small indication of controversy. What you will not find are Canadian schools and universities where his books are being studied other than maybe one or two courses offered occasionally at a teacher's discretion. Doesn’t it seem odd that an author who is the recipient of numerous awards including the Governor General’s Award, Companion of the Order of Canada, Screenwriters Guild of America Award, the Giller Prize, and an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from McGill University in Montreal, would have his work largely excluded from literary studies at Canadian universities? Oh, Canada!
During Richler’s lifetime, he provoked people to think outside the box but this is a distinctly un-Canadian activity. Nobody knew quite what to do with his sometimes (okay, often) caustic observations of Canadian society so they did what comes naturally. They declared him racist and attempted to ban one of his books, Oh Canada! Oh Quebec.
He was deliberately misquoted and duly penalized with death threats, anti-semitic Nazi-type reactions (from a journalist) and with political cartoons in the French press depicting him as Hitler. It didn’t seem to matter if the insults made any sense as long as some sort of negativity was hurled in his direction. Oh, Quebec!
Richler was born January 27, 1931 and raised in a Jewish working class neighbourhood in Montreal, Canada. He left Montreal at the age of nineteen and lived in Europe for about twenty years, eighteen of them spent in London. When he left in the early '50s, he felt Canada was not a good place for an aspiring writer and in Richler's own words, was "a very narrow and parochial society...the standards weren't very high". He returned to Canada with his family in 1972.
The reason for his return was quite simple.
After writing several novels in England, he was beginning to run into problems constructing the characters’ ordinary experiences to work within the novel's precepts. He felt he was missing the more banal aspects of the cultural life that makes a novel ring true. In order to achieve a sense of authenticity, there were hours of research involved that a writer within that culture would have at his fingertips. In other words, it came down to what every English literature professor tells the students: write what you know.
He published his first novel around the tender age of twenty-one and received a £100 (British pound) advance; not much of a salary on which to live. However, he began writing for The New Statesman and The Observer as well as several British periodicals and that kept the wolf from the door. He also did a little film work but it wasn't until his novels started being fully recognized that his life became more comfortable and that took a few years.
He wasn't completely outside the Canadian experience during this time. In the last 10 years of his self-imposed exile, he returned to Canada about once a year on visits usually associated with magazine assignments.
By this time, he was married and had five children. The family returned to Canada for a test year in 1968 while Richler worked as a writer in residence at Sir George Williams University in Montreal, a post he held until 1979. He made the move permanent four years later. Richler had been careful to ensure that his children were able to adjust to Canadian life. They did, although he stated that what was available in Montreal at the time did not compare with what the family had left behind in London, England.
As for his feelings about the parochial nature of Canadian society he experienced in the early '50s, he found them very changed twenty or thirty years later.
Asked this question in an interview with WCBS New York, December 5, 1983, Richler had this to say: "There's been a remarkable swing of the pendulum, almost too far in that we're now going through a period of cultural merely to be Canadian makes you a writer. So there are a lot of inflated reputations...a certain amount of nationalists' cultural nonsense being taught. On the other hand, there are some very talented people. I mean there's Robertson Davies, and there's Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood, Margaret Laurence.. the climate has changed and there are some very reputable publishers."

An interview with Charles Foran, author of Mordecai: The Life and Times

Richler died in 2001 at the age of seventy. His last novel, Barney's Version , was published in 1997 and made into a movie in 2010. It subsequently won nine awards and an Oscar nomination.
Other novels by Richler include:
  • The Acrobats (1954) (also published as Wicked We Love , July 1955)
  • Son of a Smaller Hero (1955)
  • A Choice of Enemies (1957)
  • The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1959)
  • The Incomparable Atuk (1963)
  • Cocksure (1968)
  • St. Urbain's Horseman (1971)
  • Joshua Then and Now (1980)
  • Solomon Gursky Was Here(1989)
His forays into screenwriting produced, among others, such memorable films as:
  • The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz  (1974)
  • The Street (1976) - nominated for an Oscar
  • Fun with Dick and Jane ( 1977)
  • Joshua Then and Now (1985)
He also produced a large body of work in essays and anthologies. He was opinionated and clever, a combination not easily embraced by his contemporaries.

So why aren't we studying Richler?

So why isn’t Richler, one of Canada’s foremost authors, on the required reading list in Canadian schools? It comes down to a simple answer. Most of Canada doesn’t care if students read any Canadian literature at all. We are one of the few developed nations that don’t bother to read and study our own literature.
Education is a provincial matter, not federal. British Columbia and Saskatchewan have legislation that ensures the study of Canadian work, both fiction and non-fiction. Quebec and Newfoundland are a little different. They have a culture unto their own and enjoy celebrating it. The rest of Canada is apathetic at best and at worst, still under the impression that Canadian work is inferior. This is what drove our authors out of the country 60 years ago. Isn’t it time we grow up?
Budget cuts are another reason. It’s too expensive to supply copies of Canadian work to schools so we still rely on the old novels that have been taught since the ‘50s and before. They are not Canadian. Now we have entered the less expensive digital age.
One of the recent changes as a direct result of this is the inclusion of blogs, newspaper ads and Facebook as part of the definition of literary text in the Ontario School curriculum.
Personally, I find this horrifying. It’s like finding a spray painted Jen is a whore on the underside of a bridge and including it in the Art History curriculum. I’m embarrassed by the pathetic scrambling to be contemporary in schools. Just because it is written somewhere doesn’t make it worth studying.
If we want to fully understand what it means to be Canadian, we need to stop asking self-proclaimed pundits whose only claim to fame is Canadian government television. Don't get me wrong. I'm glad one of our networks is government owned. It makes a nice counterpoint to others that are driven only by greed and as a result, does create an interesting balance.
We need to stop being ‘liberal and inclusive” with whatever scribbling is on the Internet and start reading Canadian authors like Margaret Laurence, Carol Shields, Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood and Mordecai Richler. We will be surprised. Not only will we develop a sense of what it means to be Canadian, we just might continue on discovering more like Leonard Cohen (Beautiful Losers), Douglas Coupland (Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture), Michael Ondaatje (The English Patient), and Robert James Sawyer (Flash Forward). This list of gifted authors is by no means complete. There are many more.
In my opinion, we have lost our collective minds when it comes to eduction. Let's get back to learning the basics and growing new ideas from a good foundation. Save Facebook and blogs for a course in urban sociology. If we read Richler, we might actually learn a thing or two. Who knows? We may even produce more interesting graffiti!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence: Book Review with a Novel Perspective

The Stone Angel at the cemetery in Manawaka (Neepawa)
The Stone Angel at the cemetery in Manawaka (Neepawa)
The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence is not a novel for the faint of heart and nor is it one that will leave you feeling comfortably satisfied. In fact, it's profoundly disturbing but not in any overt way. As in life, it's the subtleties of each action or inaction that creates the final picture. Such is the case with Hagar Shipley, an elderly woman at the end of her life who, when looking back over more than ninety years, finds no joy. She is not sure if she has ever experienced love.
The Stone Angel is part of the reading curriculum in many high schools at the grade twelve level. Perhaps by reading it early in life, it can serve as a cautionary tale.
Laurence does not relent. The character's conviction carries Hagar from her rather forbidding Scottish father's home to a less than reasonable marriage where she repeats mistakes and favours one son over another. She has shared nothing of herself with anyone in her life, including her children. Her rigid sense of morality and what constitutes acceptable behaviour results in outward appearances that are at odds with the twisted and withered state of the soul and its ability to feel and to give. Add to this, Laurence's uncanny ability to cut to the heart of the matter with grace and grit and you have a novel that can't be ignored.
Hagar's pride is her undoing and throughout the novel there are instances that provoke, illuminate and endear despite their connotations. It's perhaps the honesty that draws us close to a personality that is intent on solitude and bitter in old age.
Hagar about her husband, Bram: "Whatever anyone said of him, no one could deny he was a good looking man … I could have been proud, going to town or church with him, if only he'd never opened his mouth".
Her thoughts on a visit from her daughter-in-law's minister: "I sit uncomfortably. I am bloated, full, weighted down, and I fear I may pass wind. Nevertheless, for the minister's call I have at least put on my gray flowered dress…and the flowers, sprinkled liberally, almost overcome the gray".
As for the stone angel, it had always perplexed her. Hagar peers into the distance from the train on her way back to Manawaka and sees the angel "sightlessly guarding the gardens of snow, the empty places and the deep-lying dead".
Don't expect a formula story wrapped up tidily at the end in ribbons of moral correctness. Nor will there be any predictable radiant outcomes involving forgiveness and group hugs.
Instead, Laurence paints a vivid picture of characters true to their time and their convictions.
Hagar in a moment of clarity: "Hard to imagine a world and I not in it. Will everything stop when I do? Stupid old baggage, who do you think you are? Hagar. There's no one else like me in this world".
Is is possible to resolve a life lived joylessly? Perhaps it is. The Stone Angel is honest, uncomfortable, uncompromising, endearing and brilliant!
"Pride was my wilderness, and the demon that led me there was fear." - Hagar Shipley
Read a short biography of Margaret Laurence, author of the Manawaka novels and First Lady of Neepawa
In 2007, The Stone Angel was made into a film with Ellen Burstyn in the starring role as Hagar. With a screenplay by Kari Skogland (50 Dead Men Walking) and based on the award winning novel of the same name by Margaret Laurence, The Stone Angel explores a rather unconventional and troubled life through the reminiscences of a woman nearing ninety.
The Stone Angel (Phoenix Fiction)The Stone Angel (Phoenix Fiction)
Amazon Price: $8.00
List Price: $15.00

Margaret Wemyss Laurence: A Style All Her Own

The First Lady of Manawaka

There are some writers who have had a profound influence on me. Among my favorites are Alice Munro, Carol Shields (if you haven't read Larry's Party, you are missing a gem) and Margaret Laurence. Margaret Laurence had the most effect on how I saw the world. Perhaps that's because I read her novels at a particularly vulnerable time of life - as a teen and young adult woman. So it was with great pleasure and no small sense of awe that I stopped at the small town of Neepawa, Manitoba where she spent her early years. This is Manawaka - the setting for The Stone AngelA Jest of God (upon which the film Rachel, Rachel was based), The Fire-Dwellers, and The Diviners.
Neepawa - the real Manawaka
Neepawa - the real Manawaka
On the surface, it's a very ordinary farming community in rural Manitoba. Canola fields surround the town and fill the air with sweet fragrance.
Sometimes wild seed escapes and fills the cracks in the highway pavement with sudden bursts of yellow.
Margaret Laurence's childhood home.
Margaret Laurence's childhood home.
A Masonic sword graces the parlour wall.
A Masonic sword graces the parlour wall.
Elm trees line the streets and their embrace forms a kind of benevolent green gauntlet. Along one of these streets, First Avenue, is the childhood home of Margaret Laurence.
It is now lovingly tended by the Margaret Laurence Home Committee, a dedicated group of people who are not only welcoming but very knowledgeable.
She was born Jean Margaret Wemyss on July 18, 1926 to solicitor Robert Wemyss and his wife, Verna Jean Simpson. Margaret's mother died a few days after her fourth birthday. Her maternal aunt, Margaret Simpson, came to help care for the family and a year later, married Robert. He died five years later.
Little Margaret was raised by her aunt/stepmother and her maternal grandfather, John Simpson. My understanding is that he was a rather austere man of Scottish extraction. He was also a cabinetmaker and made the furniture in their front parlour.
On the wall are portraits of her grandparents and her grandfather's Masonic sword.
Despite the tragic and difficult circumstances of her early years, Margaret's writing flourished with the encouragement of her aunt and a high school English teacher, Ms. Musgrove. Upstairs is the room where she read and did her homework. Photographing it seemed somehow intrusive so I was content to read the names of the childhood novels on her bookshelf and imagine her curled up on the divan under the window.

On the wall is a collection of personal photographs from her early years.
In 1947, she graduated from Winnipeg United College (now the University of Winnipeg) and began work as  a reporter for a local newspaper covering labour news and doing book reviews. She married an engineer, John Laurence, whose job took them to England in 1949 and then to Africa; Somaliland until 1952 and then Ghana until shortly before its independence in 1957. The family left Africa with their two children and moved to Vancouver, Canada where they lived until their separation in 1962.
She had begun writing short stories during these years, as did her husband, but she continued to expand on her writing after their separation. She moved to London, England for a year and then to Elm Cottage in Buckinghamshire where she lived for the next decade. This was a very prolific period in her writing career.
Her divorce became final in 1969. Upon her return to Canada, she became writer-in-residence at the University of Toronto and a short time later, moved to Lakefield, Ontario. She purchased a cabin on the Otonabee River where she was able to relax in the rural quiet and beauty of her surroundings. It was here that she wrote The Diviners over the summers of 1971 to 1973. The book was published in 1974 and won the Governor General's award. It became part of the reading curriculum in many Canadian high schools but not without some controversy. It was banned for a while in Laurence's own town of Lakefield!
In the last decade of her life, Margaret Laurence became actively involved with environmental concerns, nuclear disarmament, literacy and many other social issues she felt would make the world a better place for people of all nations. She was deeply committed to these causes and won many prestigious awards for her efforts. She has left a powerful legacy.
The Stone Angel
The Stone Angel

The Stone Angel

A short distance away in the northeast corner of Neepawa is the Riverside Cemetery. Here you will find the stone angel - the one that inspired the book of the same name, the first of the 'Manawaka' novels.
In 1986 she was diagnosed with late stage lung cancer and on January 5, 1987, Margaret Laurence slipped from this earth on her own terms.
Her ashes are interred only steps away from the stone angel.
Thank you to the Margaret Laurence Home Committee for their ongoing efforts to maintain this historical tribute and to the Laurence family for sharing many of the personal items found in the museum.
© Alexandra Lucas 2010. All Rights Reserved.
All photos are provided with permission by SilverGenes on Flickr.
Please contact for permission to reproduce any portion of this article.
Some of her published work:
  • A Tree for Poverty. 1954 (essays and translations of Somali poetry)
  • This Side of Jordan, 1960
  • The Tomorrow Tamer, 1963
  • The Stone Angel, 1964
  • A Jest of God, 1966
  • The Fire-Dwellers, 1969
  • A Bird in the House, 1970
  • The Diviners, 1974
  • Heart of a Stranger, Essays 1976
  • Dance on the Earth, Memoirs 1987 (published posthumously)
Books for children:
  • Jason's Quest, 1970
  • The Olden Days Coat, 1979
  • Six Dam Cows, 1979
  • The Christmas Birthday Story, 1980
Read a review of Margaret Laurence's The Stone Angel.
Dealing with colonialism and anti-colonialism in Somaliland in her travelogue/memoir The Prophet's Camel Bell (1965) is discussed in this interesting article in the Somaliland Press. Laurence's views and her eventual ability to see herself through Somali eyes is summed up in her statement, "We were neither Ingrese nor Italiano. We came from another and unknown tribe.”