Recent Reading (sort of):
I had elaborate hopes for this page — an up-to-date record of books read, along with pithy comments. But over the last year it’s turned out to be all helmet and no pith (as a great uncle might have said).
So many books read during that year (yes, all real books with real pages) and so essential they have been, the ones I loved most and even the ones I loved least: welcome shade from the glare of everyday demands. But they were read as sustenance, in the addictive way that book lovers know so well — the need to push on immediately — so that all those “cogent” thoughts about the one just finished get set aside in the need to move on to the unopened next one on the bedside table, with its enticing cover….
Now I am looking at a mosaic of covers spread completely across the surface of a king-sized bed, and I’ve selected just nine to mention here, for the reason that (aside from the essential thing that a book can do: take one deep into the being of some other person, some other mind) each of these also took me deep into another place and time.
Where better to start than with DURING MY TIME, Florence Edenshaw Davidson, A Haida Woman, by Margaret B. Blackman.
Daughter of the great Haida carver Charles Edenshaw, mother of thirteen children and beloved grandmother of the famous contemporary Haida artists Robert Davidson and Reg Davidson, this intimate story of her life, told mainly in her own words, makes us the generous gift of an equally intimate picture of life in the village of Massett on Haida Gwaii over the past more-than-hundred years.
In a very different vein, the novel The Reinvention of Love, by Helen Humphries, tells (in a manner heart-breaking and yet so beautifully crafted that the telling heals the wounds) the story of the love affair between the Parisian journalist Charles Saint-Beuve and Adele, the wife of the towering (and in some ways monstrous) literary figure, Victor Hugo.
…Which led me to re-read Helen Humphries The Lost Garden, the story of a young woman horticulturist, during World War II. A novel evocative in many ways, but above all, as in none other I’ve ever read, evoking the searing physical reality of desire.
Then Galore, by Michael Crummy. “A portrait of the improbably medieval world of rural Newfoundland” (as the book jacket says) spanning some seven generations. An epic saga, yes — but with characters that still live with me long after meeting them, and above all a whooshing sense of where they all come from, those charming and often over-the-top-seeming real people out there on that rock.
Two other very “historical” novels now —
Into the Heart of the Country, by Pauline Holdsstock, a remarkable immersion into the life of those living at the Hudson’s Bay Company trading post of Prince of Wales Fort in northern Manitoba — both the “incomers” and the indigenous — again spanning several generations, but focusing on the relationship of the explorer Samuel Hearne and his “country” wife Molly Norton, the indigenous daughter of the fort’s half-Dene Governor. All the characters are vividly drawn, perhaps particularly the Governor’s adopted brother, the Dene chief Matonabbee, a regal, complex and ultimately heart-breaking character. But the real character is the land itself, the Country that Holdstock takes us into the very heart of — our country — into that enormous frozen northern quadrant so often now ignored, where so much of our history began.
And going even further back to our beginnings, Bride of New France, by Suzanne Desrochers. What can I say? Read this book. In Desrocher’s hands, nothing was as we cozily and vaguely imagine, when (if!) we think of those hundreds of young women sent out by the King to populate a new country.
Then a complete change of scene, with Marina Endicott’s The Little Shadows. An endearing and fascinating look into the lives of three young girls and their Mama as they travel the vaudeville circuit of western Canada and the States, in the years before and during the First World War — a life requiring grit and talent in equal parts — and an ability to live on bread and hot milk between engagements — and, if necessary, to go right back on stage after giving birth. I loved this book, and didn’t want to leave the Avery sisters’ company (made me want to sing and dance!).
Come from Afar, on the other hand, takes us into the heart of the Spanish Civil War, a conflict that these days tends to wear a certain aura of the romantic, because of the way it drew idealistic young people from all over the world (and because of Hemingway, of course!) but which, in its reality, was not romantic in the least. This account, told in the voice of a young Australian nurse who is drawn both into the conflict in Spain and an inner one involving love and betrayal, is sharp, acerbic, haunting.
And last to my own province, with Shelter, by Frances Greenslade. The story of two young girls whose mother goes missing. A novel redolent of the smells, tastes, voices, attitudes, shifting weathers, waters, forests, twisting roads of the Chilcotin region of northern British Columbia, a landscape whose realities enfold us as we follow the gradual layering of acceptance in little Maggie, “the worrier”, the resilient searcher, as she grows towards an understanding of the truth of her mother’s story.
All “historical” fiction — to an extent.
But to my mind embodying the nub of what the best of such fiction can bring us: not just a journey through another place and time, but an encounter with people so true, so pervaded by the same inner demands and desires that enliven us today, that these are not really “historical” at all.