Category Archives: Musings

Stories and book, tv and movie reviews

Fur Babies

I’m reading Michael Schaffer’s very interesting book  One Nation Under Dog. He talks about the term “pet parent.”  When I first encountered this phrase, I saw it as, yes, a bit ‘politically correct’, as in it’s bad to think of yourself as an authority figure over another being.  It’s like trying to be ‘friends’ with your kids, discussing why they shouldn’t do something, instead of being ‘mom’ explaining only with “because I said so”.

Amazon link for One Nation Under Dog
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However, I thought it was good to frame the pet/human relationship in terms other than ownership or mastery.  “Ownership” means complete control over and ability to acquire or dispose of at will.  “Mastery” implies the same plus some innate superiority which justifies that control.  So dog owner and dog master are terms fraught with the history of dominance and hierarchical power.

I liked the use of “pet parent” in shelter and rescue writings, seeing it as a way of reminding people that getting a dog or cat is not the same as getting a new dress or car.  When you’re tired of the dress or the car doesn’t fit your lifestyle any more, it’s not going to distress the car or dress if you sell it or give it to the Goodwill.

Relationship of responsibility

But giving your dog away because you’re moving into a new apartment and “they don’t allow dogs”???  If you have a dog, why are you even looking at apartments where dogs aren’t allowed?  If you have children, do you look at an adults-only building and then give the kids away if you really really like the apartment?  Taking on a living, breathing creature makes that creature part of your life and its well-being your responsibility.  The word parent stresses the relationship of responsibility and caretaking instead of the notion of possession.  It also gets away from the nastier connotations of ‘mastery’.

Yes, you have to be the dog’s master in the sense that you ought to be the pack leader.  But are you the master in the sense of having the right to abuse the dog?  No, but it can get muddled in people’s minds.  Spike getting a slap or kick every time he doesn’t sit or heel exactly right is not good ‘mastery’ of the techniques of dog training, but the right to kick or slap is implicit in the notion of being the master (i.e. owner) of something or someone.

However, ‘parent’ requires ‘child’, and so the next term circulating in the pet world was fur babies.  Oh dear.  Granted, some dogs it’s easy Jack & Dot on porch swing Fur Babiesto think of that way, to coo at and cuddle.  The little fuzzy ones.  But a great big German Shepherd – fur baby?   I did babytalk with my late Shepherd and he liked it. In my defense, I raised him from a puppy so he was always my baby.  However, he quickly outgrew any possibility of being thought of as a “furbaby” in his looks and demeanor.  Other dogs in the past, I never thought of as being their ‘mommy’.  We were friends.

Fur Babies or Friends

My present two?  They were adult when we got them, but I use ‘mommy’ and ‘daddy’ with them.  Yes, one is little and fuzzy and likes to be carried and cuddled.  But the other isn’t.  I have no excuse, other than the parent/child terminology with pets has so permeated our society that I have internalized it.  I catch myself calling myself ‘mommy’ to my old cat.  She’s been with me since before the days of pet-parenting.  I feel silly when I say it to her, we always had the relationship of friends and roommates. Something that now comes naturally with the dogs seems cloying and demeaning with her.

Does framing our relationship with pets as one of pet parent and fur babies lead us to infantilize our animals?  Does it cause us to forget their natural traits?   Most dogs have strong protective and hunting instincts.  Your dog, or cat, can save your life.  They can also take life.  Do we run the risk of not respecting both those traits when we think of them as kids in fur coats?

From my St. Thomas Dog Blog, Mar. 15/10

The Wolf in the Parlor

It took me a few months to read The Wolf in the Parlor: How the dog came to share your brain by Jon Franklin. It was my ‘morning coffee’ book.  Those always are read slowly.  But I had trouble with this one.  I considered not finishing it, but I’m glad I did.

Amazon link for Wolf in the Parlor by Jon Franklin
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Franklin’s premise is that humans and dogs evolved together and, in fact, became parts of each other in terms of brain function. ‘Tame wolves’, he says, began to develop about 50,000 years ago when some wolves became essentially camp followers of humans.  They realized putting up with human contact was an easy way of getting food.  The humans realized that putting up with these less aggressive wolves was an easy way to have protection from wilder animals and to have a constant food supply if needed (wolf meat).  Wolves evolved into dogs, humans evolved to a form more like us, and the interconnectedness between wolf/dog and human grew.

Complementary brains

12,000 years ago, he says, human and dog brains got smaller.  His argument is that the rational, thinking part of dogs’ brains decreased as did simultaneously the emotional and sensory part of humans’ brains.  The dog handed the thinking over to humans and the humans handed emotional and sensory intuition over to dogs.  Together, they have the full spectrum of intelligence and perception.  Apart, they do not.

I know nothing about evolution or neurology, so I can’t comment on his scientific accuracy.  However, like religion, his thesis seems as good a framework as any for thinking.  It ‘feels’ right to me and, in thinking about my history with dogs, I can ‘see’ it.

My persistence in reading paid off in the final chapters.  He discusses how humans too often now have forgotten the mutuality of the bond with dogs.  There’s a horrible tale of a day he spent with an animal control officer.  That story introduces his argument in favour of purebred dogs.  In essence, he says that if you expect the dog to fit into your lifestyle and match your needs, get one where you can be pretty sure that the innate traits and needs of the dog will be that match.  The best way is get a purebred from a breeder who knows his or her dogs and their lineage.

Persistence needed

Why I say my “persistence” is that I had some problems with the writing.  First, the beginning of the first four chapters all read like introductions.  It felt like he had several good openings and couldn’t decide on one so used them all.  Second, no references.  I was shocked.  I’d seen he had no foot- or endnote numbers, but I thought he must be using chapter-by-chapter summary citation at the end.  Then I read about Standard Poodles in the Iditarod and wanted to know more.  I flipped to the back – nothing, not even a bibliography.  Yes, I can google it but I think that, within a book, I should be able to find out where a fact came from.  Isn’t lack of citation plagiarism?

So the scientific bases of his evolutionary, neurological and paleontology arguments are only sporadically backed up with sources in in-text form.  This particularly surprised me because he’s a science journalist.  Reference, reference, reference.

Anyway, you can read a Q & A with him about the book on his website. He says you’ll have to read it to find out how the story ends. For me, the ending did make reading it all worthwhile.

Here is a review of The Wolf in the Parlor’s first 60 pages in The Other End of the Leash, an interesting dog blog. I think the leash should have extended to the end of the book. (From my St. Thomas Dog Blog, May 20, 2011)

Lab Mysteries

Click for Amazon link for Randolph A Dog About Town
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If you like dogs and mystery novels, or even just one or the other, have a look at J. F. Englert’s Bull Moose Dog Run series.  There are three so far; A Dog About Town (2007), A Dog Among Diplomats (2008) and A Dog At Sea (2009). The ‘sleuth’ who tells the story is Randolph, a middle-aged black Labrador Retriever.

A sucker for animal stories, I’ve read some of the other dog- and cat-perspective mystery series.  I’ve liked them, found them kind of cute, kind of funny. One of the Midnight Louie books by Carole Nelson Douglas made me think about feral cat life and TNR (trap, neuter, release) from the cats’ point of view.  Not as straightforwardly beneficial as people may think it to be. While I’ve enjoyed the animal-detective books I’ve read, I haven’t felt a pressing need to immediately get the next one.

Randolph, a literate Lab

As soon as I finished A Dog About Town, I went back to the library and took out the second, A Dog Among Diplomats.  Now I want to read the third.  I want to know what happens next. Randolph’s take on being an intelligent dog in a human world made me think about many dog behaviours, and people’s behaviour in relating to dogs.  You learn a lot (Randolph is a very literate dog), you are given lots of little doggy asides to think about, and the mysteries at the heart of the books are interesting and well-presented.

As with all novels featuring non-human protagonists, disbelief has to be suspended.  But it wasn’t a lot of work doing that with Randolph.  This is despite him being able to read (a skill learned while being papertrained in puppyhood), and not just reading the cereal box.  He reads Dante’s Inferno, Proust, Kierkegaard and, for light reading, Dickens.  He teaches himself how to use the internet and succeeds in setting up a hotmail account for himself faster than I’ve ever been able to do. But these improbabilities do not get in the way  – I found myself quickly accepting Randolph’s extraordinary skills and just got on with the story.

Dog park behaviour

Randolph’s observations on human-dog interaction are shrewd, even cringe-making sometimes when you recognize yourself.  He also observes the child-dog relationship in a refreshing way, especially coming from a Lab, the perceived ‘kids’ dog’. Randolph takes you into his Manhattan – the streets, Central Park and the dog parks.  He gives you the dog perspective on dog park politics of dogs and people.  He notes the types of dog behaviours in meeting each other and even in their toilet habits.  After you read his descriptions of dog habits, you find yourself watching dogs to see if they fit Randolph’s classification system.  By and large, they do.

Englert is an astute observer of dogs and people, or he has been taught a lot by his own Lab.  I’ve never been a big Lab person – they’re too boisterous and single-minded (usually involving a tennis ball) for me.  But I look at them a bit differently now, after ‘meeting’ Randolph.  He reminds me of Labs I have known and liked, nice old sensible ones.  I also look at my dogs a bit differently, wondering if there’s more going on in their heads than what I have thought.

From my St. Thomas Dog Blog, Apr. 24, 2010.

The Acadians: Review

Bill Smallwood takes a complicated period of history and makes it more complicated – Smallwood-Acadiansand that’s good. The Acadians, the first novel in his Abuse of Power series starts in 1749 with the British looking for a site to build a fort in Nova Scotia. They choose a harbour they rename Halifax. It ends in 1757 with British soldiers and sailors choosing tracts of “unoccupied” Nova Scotia land to homestead. The Acadians have been deported and the Mi’kmaq are being ‘cleared’ off their lands. The French have been driven back, and Nova Scotia is open for British business.

The facts of it: war between the French and British for control of North America, deportation of long-time Acadian settlers to France and the future United States, and war with and suppression of First Nations. We know these things from living in the Maritimes or reading history. By situating the facts in a story, Smallwood brings them to life and explains the intricacies of ‘who’, ‘when’ and ‘why’.

Deportation_Grand-Pré-wikicommons
Deportation at Grand Pré 1755, by George Craig 1893

I have read a lot about the colonization of North America and the history of the Mi’kmaq and Acadians. I have been to Halifax many times and traveled around Nova Scotia. So I thought I had a fairly good understanding of the history and geography of the region. But this book made so many things click into place for me. Instead of a spreadsheet of facts, the story gave me a flow of events, places and reasons. The dots were connected.

Deportation_of_Acadians_order 1755 Grand Pre,_painting_by_Chas Wm Jefferys 1923
Col. Winslow reads Order of expulsion, Grand Pré 1755, by C. W. Jefferys 1923

The main character in The Acadians is William Gray who was in real life a clerk to Governor Cornwallis. Smallwood promotes him to British Navy Lieutenant in order to permit him to travel to the extent he does and be privy to the discussions that he is. But it is not only from his perspective that we look. We get to know all the players involved; British, colonial American, French, Acadian and Mi’kmaq. Fear and confusion, bravery and avarice – we see the emotions and actions of all sides. Only the Mi’kmaq remain relatively unknown to us, and I’m sure that is remedied in later volumes.

Smallwood lets history shape story

It is history that shaped Smallwood’s story and character rather than the other way around. Most of his characters are real people. Events are based on letters, logs and other documentation of the time. When he creates or alters events or characters, he explains why and gives what is actually known in notes. So you can become involved in the story and also keep track of the real events. He references his sources and changes in chapter endnotes.

Citadel Hill Fort-photo-D-Stewart
Fort at Citadel Hill, Halifax, today

My only quibble is that footnotes would save having to flick to the end of the chapter each time. You can, of course, ignore the notes but they contain archival sources as well as additional bits of information, quotes from letters and official records as well as the points at which history and this story deviate. That, I found, adds to the story.

The Acadians, 1749-1757 is the first of seven in the Abuse of Power series: The Colonials and the Acadians, 1757-1761; Crooked Paths, 1755-1862; The Planters, 1761-1921; Expulsion and Survival, 1758-1902; Rebels, Royalists and Railroaders, 1841-1910, and Lives of Courage. You can read more at Mr. Smallwood’s website or the publisher Borealis.

Turcotte, the movie

If you live in or are from New Brunswick, if you’re Canadian, if you like horseracing, the dvd cover Secretariat's Jockey Ron TurcotteNFB has a film for you:  Secretariat’s Jockey:  Ron Turcotte (2013).  In 1973 Mr. Turcotte, already well known in racing circles, became famous world wide as the man who rode Secretariat.

The Triple Crown has been won only eleven times since it was established as the pinnacle of Thoroughbred racing in America.  Never has a horse won it in such jaw-dropping style as Secretariat did.   And Ron Turcotte was on his back for all three rides.

As a young man in northern New Brunswick, Mr. Turcotte worked in the woods with his father and brothers.  With a downturn in that industry, he moved to Toronto in search of a job.  He had worked with horses at home and knew them well, and he was a small man.  Still, working as a jockey was a suggestion that came from someone sports illustrated cover 1973 with Secretariat and Ron Turcotteelse.  He tried it, liked it and found he was good at it.  Eventually he went to the big leagues – Kentucky.  There he met Penny Chenery and her horses and the rest is wonderful horseracing history.

His riding career ended horribly in 1978 with a race accident that paralyzed him.  But he stayed associated with horseracing, not as the trainer that many said he would have been so good at, but as an ambassador for the sport and for jockeys.  He knows firsthand the physical, psychological and financial costs of such a risky occupation.  He also knows the hard work of training, and the thrill of race days and wins.

Ron Turcotte takes us to the races

Mr. Turcotte takes us on a road trip to Kentucky.  There we meet the other two jockeys of those five years of three Triple Crowns, Jean Cruguet (Seattle Slew 1977) and Steve Cauthen secretariat running the belmont stakes(1978 Affirmed). We go with him to Churchill Downs on Derby Day 2012.  We go on to Maryland, where Triple Crown talk is in the air when I’ll Have Another wins the second leg.  Then to New York and the dashing of hopes when I’ll Have Another is pulled from the Belmont Stakes due to the threat of laminitis.  The Triple Crown wait continues, a much longer dry stretch than even the 25 year one after Citation in 1948 that Secretariat and Ron Turcotte broke.

Ron Turcotte at Ron Turcotte Bridge Grand Falls NBWe go back home to Grand Falls, NB, driving over the magnificent falls on the “Ron Turcotte Bridge.” We meet his family and friends and go to his home.  Seeing the photographs, trophies and statues in his living room, I thought of the house of a man similar in many ways to Mr. Turcotte.

Dale Dufty, harness racing driver

It is a small house near St. Thomas where the late Dale Dufty, a retired harness racing driver, lived.  I had the good fortune of Harness racing driver Dale Duftybuying a saddle from him.  Good fortune both because I really like the saddle and because I got to meet him.  His house was filled with awards, photos and memorabilia of his favourite horses.  He repaired and made tack and racing harness, usually while watching races on a specialty channel.   Like Mr. Turcotte, his love of horses and the sport of horse racing never disappeared. He too was happy to share his great knowledge of horses and tracks, owners and fellow drivers, great risks and great joy.

Click for Amazon link to The Will to Win book
If you want to learn more about Mr. Turcotte, he and Bill Heller wrote his life story in The Will to Win.  It is an excellent read. (click cover for Amazon link)

For my take on the 2012 Triple Crown run, see I’ll Have Another.

Queen’s Secret: Review

Amazon link for Charles Templeton The Queen's Secret
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Last week I saw a book called The Queen’s Secret by Charles Templeton.  Curious to see if it was by the late Canadian journalist of that name, I pulled it off the shelf.  Yes and even better, due to my being in a Royal mood with the expected arrival of HRH Baby, the plot hinges on the line of succession to the throne.

It was published in 1986.  Its queen is a fictitious Mary III who has one heir, a daughter.   References are made to previous monarchs, including Elizabeth II and her father and uncle, and to periods in their reigns when conflict between personal life and duty to country caused crises for the individuals, the monarchy and the nation.

The book is set in an unspecified future, one in which scientific discoveries and technologies now commonplace clearly have not been invented.  Problems that have beset the monarchy in past and present times move the story along.  Those include the political and Daily-Mirror-July-1982 Palace prowler headlinereligious aspects of marital choice for Royals, especially those who are heir presumptive or apparent, and the intrusion of media attention into the private lives of Royals and the governance of the country.

According to the book jacket, Templeton got the idea for the book after news broke in 1982 about a man breaking into Buckingham Palace and succeeding in getting into Queen Elizabeth’s bedroom.  When The Queen’s Secret was published, media attention on the Royals, particularly on the wives of Charles and Andrew, was high.  It was before the apex of attention, and tragedy, was reached.  A 1987 review of Templeton’s novel considered the plot outdated. “[T]he glory days of royalty are clearly waning,”  the reviewer said, calling stories about mésalliances of Royals “quaint and archaic to a generation weaned on People Andrew_Sarah_wedding_1986-07-23_wikimediamagazine and prime-time soap operas. The British nobility itself is now in decline…”  Little did the reviewer know in 1987 that the Royal soap opera had barely begun.

The solution to the problem of reconciling the personal and political given in the story would not be possible now due to a change in succession protocol made by the Queen in anticipation of William and Kate’s baby.  As the firstborn, their child, whether female or male, will in time be the heir apparent.  Prior to that change, a firstborn daughter of the monarch would be called “heir presumptive” because the birth of a younger brother would displace her in the line of the succession.

Templeton’s heir presumptive is named Victoria, something that pleased me because that’s the name I’m betting on if William and Kate’s baby is a girl.

Frissell’s The Viking

The Newfoundland Museum, when still on Duckworth Street, had a small collection of films to screen for visitors.  The first one I ever showed was The Viking.  I had never heard of the film or the story behind it.  After I got the reel running, I stood in the doorway to make sure it was working okay.  And I began watching.  Finally I pulled a chair over so I could watch the movie more comfortably while also keeping an eye on the lobby.  It was spellbinding – the 1930 seal hunt with ice and cold and deprivation, and a romance and survival story.

Later I learned that the sealing ship, SS Viking, had exploded during the filming and 27 men had died.  One of them was the film’s producer Varick Frissell, along with his dog Cabot.  The real life story was as filled with ice and cold and deprivation as the fictional one, and it had a much worse ending.

Pilgrim cover Varick Frissell and dog CabotI read Earl B. Pilgrim’s book The Day of Varick Frissell.  It is wonderful.  Pilgrim tells how Frissell came to Newfoundland and how he came up with the idea for a movie he called White Thunder and got practical and financial backing for it.  The Viking sailed to the sealing grounds with a film crew aboard.  She had two captains for that 1930 voyage: Captain Sid Jones commanded her and real-life captain and explorer Bob Bartlett portrayed her captain in the movie.

Frissell didn’t get the dramatic shots of the huge ice fields, the “white thunder,” that he wanted.  The following year, in March of 1931, the film crew sailed with the Viking again with Captain Abram Kean Jr. in command.  The objective was less to seal and more to film, and dynamite, the northerly ice fields.  The journey soon became disastrous, due to human error as much as nature.

Loss of the SS Viking

Camera Crew The Viking CNS MUNPilgrim includes a full list of all aboard the Viking on her final voyage and of the men who lost their lives on her.  Despite the loss of the ship and men and presumably the footage shot on that second journey, the film was released in 1931 as The Viking.

It is a tribute to the men who sailed on the Viking and other sealing vessels.  It is also a tribute to Varick Frissell who saw the beauty in the sea-ice and the men who battled it every spring. He also believed it was important to share that dangerous beauty with a world that enjoyed seal fur without thinking of the rigour of its production.  Pilgrim’s book pays further tribute by giving us a ssviking-1glimpse of the real and tragic events, through reconstruction of known facts and surmise of what may have happened.  He tells also of romance in Frissell’s life, with a Grenfell Mission nurse named Sarah who came from north of St. Anthony.  If her existence is fact, I wonder who she was.

The Day of Varick Frissel is available on Amazon.  If you are connected to the Northern Peninsula Kean family of ship captains, you’ll be especially interested in this story.  If you would like to see the movie, you no longer have to wait for a museum attendant to show it.  You can buy it here on Amazon.  Brooklyn newspaper accounts are here.

 

Reading History

Well-written and well-researched historical fiction gives the reader a two-fer:  a good story and a history lesson that you may have slept through during school.

Amazon link for The Boleyn Inheritance historical fiction
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Recently, I’ve been living in the Tudor and Plantagenet eras courtesy of Philippa Gregory.  I started with the Boleyn sisters books, made into movies that I haven’t seen but I hope do justice to the books and their subjects.  I don’t know how it would be possible to make a bad movie out of the historical material itself and the treatment given the characters by Ms. Gregory.

Next I read the novels about the other characters in the Henry VIII saga:  The Constant Princess tells of his Amazon link for The Queen's Fool
first wife, Katherine of Aragon.   The Queen’s Fool tells of his childrens’ reigns, Edward, then Mary and ending with the ascension of Elizabeth.  The Other Queen is about Mary Queen of Scots in the later years of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign.  It is the only one that I kind of wanted to end.  I knew what happened to her:  she ended up “with ‘er ‘ead tucked underneath her arm” and, with the interminable plotting and moving about the countryside, I found myself thinking “please somebody, chop her head off and be done with it.”

Then I moved to The White Queen and The Red Queen, books about the predecessors of the Tudors, the Amazon link for The Lady of the Rivers by P GregoryPlantagenets and the War of the Roses.  There are two more books in this series, telling the stories of the mother of Edward IV’s Queen Elizabeth (The Lady of the Rivers) and the daughters of the Earl of Warwick (The Kingmaker’s Daughter).

You’ll notice a similarity in topic here – these are stories told from the woman’s point of view.  Even if you were the most dedicated history student, you may well have not been taught much about the queen consorts or dowager queens of England.  Ms. Gregory will fill in those gaps for you as well as bringing to life the monarchs they married or mothered.

A bibliography is always appended to Ms Gregory’s books.  I read it thoroughly and make a list of the books I want to Amazon link for The Other Boleyn Girl dvdfind.  She also writes a note explaining what is historical fact and what is speculation or fiction.  After finishing one of her novels, I always spend an evening googling the people and the era.  She makes me want to know more about them and what I find matches pretty well with what I’ve read in her books.

A while ago, I listened to a CBC radio interview with a writer about his novel set in the American West (sorry, can’t find the details online).  He said he doesn’t worry about historical accuracy because readers want a good story, not to learn about an era so he just creates his own world.  I guess that applies for some readers but not me.  If I’m going to invest my time reading an era-specific book, I want it to accurately tell me about that era and I want to know where Amazon link for The Last Templar by Michael Jecks
it deviates from history.  Philippa Gregory does that, as does Michael Jecks in his medieval England mysteries.  I would think that if you are going to research and travel in order to get the flavour of a historical era and the people living in it, as the writer I heard interviewed said he does, you might as well present your fictional story in a historically accurate setting.  As my father always said, if a job is worth doing, it’s worth doing right.

Tempting Providence TNL

If you’re near London Ont. you’ve got a couple days left to see a grand play at the Grand Poster for Grand Theatre's Tempting ProvidenceTheatre.  Tempting Providence, by Theatre Newfoundland and Labrador, runs until Friday March 31st.

It’s the story of Myra Bennett, a British nurse who came in 1921 to Newfoundland for a planned two years.  She married Angus Bennett from Daniel’s Harbour and stayed on the Northern Peninsula until she died in 1990 at the age of 100.  We saw the play several years ago in Cow Head, near where Mrs. Bennett lived.  My dentist, who knows nothing about Newfoundland or outpost nursing, saw it in London last week.  Like us, she loved it.

Tempting Providence  tells her story, but it’s really the story of all the nurses who looked after the health of those living in far-flung and isolated communities on Newfoundland’s west Myra Bennett from northernpeninsula.cacoast.  They did everything from birthing babies to surgery if need be.  Many, like Nurse Bennett, came from England.  Others were from Newfoundland and took nursing training in St. John’s.

In remote areas of the island, nurses were pretty much the entire medical system.  There were Grenfell Mission doctors based in St. Anthony and a few cottage hospitals, but the nurses scattered in small communities were those first called upon and sometimes the only source of medical help.  Today, we would call them nurse-practitioners in that they did much more than nurse training alone teaches.  Many stayed for their allotted time only but others, like Mrs. Bennett, stayed and nursed those who had become their neighbours and family throughout their lives.

Midwives and Healers

Mary Francis Webb, Flat BayThere were also local midwives and healers without formal education who learned by assisting someone more experienced.  Many local healers were Mi’kmaq, using barks, berries and animal parts in medicines.  Some were believed to be able to “charm” illness away.  Mary Francis Webb of Flat Bay was one of them.  Well-known and respected, she served a huge area extending way south of her Bay St. George community right up to Corner Brook.

Nurses, midwives and healers traveled anywhere any time they were needed.  They also raised children, grew gardens, tended animals and did all the work that other Newfoundland outport women did.  Some of the informally trained midwives supplemented their education with formal training if they could.  All worked with doctors, calling on them when they needed specialized skills.  But if the doctor couldn’t get there, they had to rely on their own skills.  Cecilia Benoit wrote Midwives in Passage about Newfoundland’s traditional and professional midwifery.

scene from Tempting ProvidenceTheatre Newfoundland and Labrador’s Tempting Providence conveys the hardship and the beauty of an outport nurse’s life – the place and the work.  It’s a lovely play, transporting you to the Great Northern Peninsula of a century ago with the use of a simple white sheet and talented actors.

Dick Francis: A racing life

Amazon link for Dick Francis A Racing Life
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The back cover of Dick Francis: A Racing Lifea biography by Graham Lord, calls it “warm, affectionate, yet sharp and perceptive.” I usually read the jacket information before starting a book. This time I didn’t. I’m glad because I know it didn’t skew my impressions of the book.

The only word of that description with which I would agree is “sharp.” I found the book sharp to the point of nasty and petty. The first page puts the thesis forth that Dick’s wife Mary probably wrote the novels. Throughout 373 pages of text, Lord jibes and pokes about it at every chance.

The argument is that Dick Francis did not like or do well in school and that Mary did. Dick quit school as soon as he could to become a horseman. Mary went on to university, gaining a degree in French and English. Lord illustrates with facts and speculation what he calls “the most amusing literary camouflage since Marian Evans pretended to be George Eliot.”

An apparent fact is that Dick repeatedly said that Mary should be named as co-author.  But Mary and the publishers thought the books were more marketable under the name of a champion jockey. Lord does paint a picture of the personalities of both Dick and Mary. What I take from his portrayal of Dick is of an unassuming man who was honest as a jockey and in all other aspects of his life. The impression of Mary that I gained from Lord is that, as they say, she wasn’t backward about putting herself forward.

Mary Francis – Researcher or writer?

There has never been any hiding of the fact that Mary did much of the research for the books. In Lord’s book, I learned that she turned many of the novels’ subjects into businesses or avocations for herself. She became a pilot and ran an air taxi service, she bought into a wine importing business and she took up photography to the professional level. All this was to better research Dick Francis books. With the literary aspirations that Lord says she had, I am amazed that she did not claim the credit for them if she believed herself to be the sole or major author.

Lord says that the physical afflictions suffered by characters are those suffered by Mary, not Dick. She had polio as a young woman, so does a character. She suffered from asthma, so does a character. Literary allusions are ones that would only be known to Mary with her education, not Dick with his. The portrayal of the male heroes and the female characters seem to be written more from a woman’s perspective than a man’s. It is Mary’s sensibilities, interests and afflictions that fuel the books, Lord says.

Racing and horses are central

Ok, but I would argue that those are story elements attainable through good research Dick Francis on Devon Loch 1956 Grand National and from drawing on experiences of others. At the heart of Dick Francis novels is racing and horses. You are riding in the Grand National with the book’s hero.  You know the horses as sentient beings through the eyes of jockeys or grooms.  And that is not Mary’s experience. She didn’t particularly like horses or racing. And physical afflictions? The descriptions of broken collarbones and dislocated shoulders are from Dick’s experience.

Amazon link for The Sport of Queens
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Lord is disparaging toward Dick about his respect for the Royal Family. As an example of what he sees as Dick’s fawning, he says that Dick asked the Queen Mother’s permission before entitling his autobiography The Sport of Queens. Why, Lord asks, should Dick think it necessary to ask permission to use that phrase? Perhaps because the phrase is actually The Sport of Kings? By changing it to Queens, Francis was making direct reference to his riding career. At that time there were two Queens and no King. As well, he rode for the Queen Mother. Perhaps he was just being polite.

Writing process

Graham Lord makes much of Dick saying that writing was hard for him. Hard to believe, Lord says. Maybe, but I’ve read more interviews with best-selling authors about the difficulty of writing than those saying oh, it’s a snap. There’s also cringe-making recitations of interviews with Francis by writers for literary journals where Dick could not discuss concepts of formalism or semiotics in literature. Oh, for heaven’s sakes, not being au courant with literary analyses is hardly proof that someone can’t put pen to paper and write a good story.

Before and after reading Lord’s book, I did not think that Dick wrote the books entirely on his own. Why wouldn’t Mary contribute, edit, add her own words? Especially with their long symbiotic marriage, it seems they became almost inseparable. Their son Felix also became part of the writing machine. But at the core of all Dick Francis books are horses, racing and jockeys. Neither Mary nor Felix lived in that world. Dick did.

Graham Lord better on James Herriot

Amazon link for James Herriot bio by Graham Lord
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In 1997, two years before A Racing Life, Graham Lord published James Herriot: The Life of a Country Vet – the “warm but incisive” biography its cover promised. Dick Francis: A racing life is not. At 262 pages, his Herriot biography is the length  A Racing Life would be if Lord cut out the waffle. That would be most of the first three chapters and the long descriptive word lists throughout. I began skimming very early.