Michael Crummey wrote of Kathleen Winter’s novel Annabel, “a beautiful book, brimming with heart and uncommon wisdom.” That’s on the book jacket. It’s true. This is a beautiful love story – of two young people, a family, friends, and a big land.
It was one of the books chosen for 2014’s Canada Reads on CBC Radio. Despite (or because of) the praise it received, I decided to avoid it at all costs.
Its Labrador setting interested me – but. It sounded too much like it was good for you. “Diversity” and “inclusiveness” were used to describe its story. These are words that I used to like but now make me gak like a cat with a hairball. Hearing them now used too earnestly, too combatively, too often, too everywhere.
Last time I was at the library, there was Annabel in a display rack. I stopped and looked at it, went on, then came back. I took it, reasoning that if I didn’t like it, I didn’t have to finish it. Too quickly I finished it, even reading and rereading as slowly as I could. I wanted it to go on forever.
People and Places of Annabel
It took a few pages to overcome my resistance and hook me. I still feared it would be a misery of a read, filled with horrible, heartbreaking things happening. And there are those. But, as the characters do, you get past them somehow. It’s how Kathleen Winter tells the story, I guess. You care about the people, and they all have something very good in them (well, all but a few of them). I’m not going to tell you anything about the plot. You’ll have to take my word that it is a rare and joyful experience to read.
You move into the story – into the houses and the towns and the landscape. And the story moves into you. I realized just how much when I said aloud to the book “You’re up by Bannerman Park!” when a character, lost, describes what’s around him to another character over the phone.
Books can make you laugh out loud and cry. Rarely do they make you simply smile as you read passages that are so lovely you want to imprint them on your mind and memory. Annabel is one of those books. You want to know what happens after the story ends, and you also just want to remember what was in the pages.
Bill Smallwood takes a complicated period of history and makes it more complicated – and 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’.
Connecting the dots of history
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.
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.
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 publisher Borealis.
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. It also refers to times of conflict between personal life and duty in their reigns. Conflicts that caused crises for the individuals, the monarchy and the nation.
The book is set in an unspecified future. It is 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 problems include the political and religious 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 a man broke into Buckingham Palace in 1982. The intruder succeeded in getting into Queen Elizabeth’s bedroom. When The Queen’s Secret was published, media attention on the Royals was high. Particularly so for Diana and Sarah, wives of Charles and Andrew.
Critic: “quaint and archaic”
We had not yet reached the apex of attention, and tragedy. But we did not know that then, of course. A 1987 review of Templeton’s novel considered the plot outdated. “[T]he glory days of royalty are clearly waning,” the reviewer said. He called stories about mésalliances of Royals “quaint and archaic to a generation weaned on People magazine 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 in the novel to the problem of reconciling the personal and political would not be possible now. Queen Elizabeth made a change in succession protocol 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 was the “heir presumptive”. If a boy was born later, he would displace her in the line of succession.
Victoria is the name of Templeton’s heir presumptive. That’s the name I’m betting on if William and Kate’s baby is a girl.
Today, the great Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe died at the age of 82. If you have never read his books, this would be as good a time as any to do so.Things Fall Apart, published in 1958, is wonderful in its telling of the history of Nigeria and British colonialism. Things, you could say, fell apart.
I borrowed from his book in the titling of my thesis on Newfoundland Mi’kmaq cultural regeneration, “Putting It Back Together.” The passage from his novel that inspired my choice was, “The white man is very clever… He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.”
Read. Our. Books.
A New Yorker obituary quotes him as having said about African writers and Africa, “Read. Our. Books.” Good advice.
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.
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
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”. 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 Plantagenets 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).
History from women’s point of view
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.
Dr. Gregory always appends a bibliography to her books. I read it thoroughly and make a list of the books I want to find. 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. 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. I also want to know where
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.
The back cover of Dick Francis: A Racing Life, a 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 Graham 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 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.
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.
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
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.
I stayed with my brother for a couple weeks once. I never thought of him as a reader, I was the “bookworm” in the family. But in his living room was a lovely big bookshelf that he had made, filled with books.
The largest single collection was Louis L’Amour paperback westerns. I was far too politically correct to ever have read a Louis L’Amour, but they were handy when I needed a book so I started my very first one. When my brother got home from work several hours later, I was just finishing it. I hadn’t moved from my chair. I read all the Louis L’Amours he had, averaging one a day.
My brother said what he liked about Louis L’Amour was the books were short, easy to read and told “a good story and you learn a lot.” If he wanted to know more about something he read in L’Amour, he’d go to the library or bookstore and look further. Louis L’Amour got rid of my academic and political snobbery. I continued reading his books – Westerns and adventures. They tell heroic tales of physical and emotional achievement. They include information on places and ways of doing things. Also they read quickly, keep you entertained, and pose questions about morality and human behaviour.
Other fiction does that too, but westerns slide it in without you even realizing until you find yourself pondering the dilemma of the hero after you’ve finished the book. Reading does not have to be work. It can and sometimes should be. Understanding the existential condition of humanity should not be reduced to simple dictums. Complexity needs to be examined. But sometimes you just want a nice untaxing read. What I learned is that Louis L’Amour gives you that and those existential questions too.
Both sides of Westerns
Then I moved on to other tales of the west. I read Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Doveand rediscovered Tomson Highway’s plays. I read Thomas King’s satirical look at movie Indians. I’d read academic literature on First Nation history, so now I read the cultural histories in fictional form. I watched old Western movies with a new eye, seeing how the cowboys were presented and the Indians. I watched new Westerns, seeing the shifts in perspective. The lore of our existence in popular culture for is situated in a time and place, both in the story and its telling. Both change with time and different narrators. Taken together, you get the fabric of our North American world – history and folklore, ideals and critiques.
My exploration of popular culture cowboys and Indians, armies and warriors led me to the most amazing book on the topic that I’ve ever read. Evan S. Connell’s Son of the Morning Star weaves all those threads of perspective, ‘reality’ and ‘belief,’ between its covers. It’s the story of the Battle of Little Big Horn from everybody’s point of view. It’s not an easy read, being kind of magic realism in style, but it’s riveting. It has to be, to keep straight who’s who and who’s telling the story when. Several years after reading it, I found the movie Son of a Morning Star in the library. I could not imagine a movie of that book. I watched, expecting the worst, and was pleasantly surprised. They managed to tell the story, in all its magical complexity, very well.
In need of a book for bedtime reading, looking through bookshelves – and finding a Dick Francis mystery you haven’t read. That is true happiness.
I thought sadly that I’d read all of Dick Francis’ many novels. Then, twice in a couple months, when library books were finished and I searched my own books for something to tide me over, I found unread Dick Francis novels.
I love mystery novels. You get both a mystery and a glimpse into another world. With Francis, it’s many topics but always with some horse racing, whether steeplechase or flat. He was a top steeplechase rider for many years. Then he began writing about that world, wrapping a lot of horsey information in a good who-dun-it.
I’ve read that mystery novelists are accorded lesser status in the literary world than regular novelists. Like romance novelists, they are considered “genre literature”. I don’t agree with that difference in status ranking. In mysteries, I’ve explored human emotion and reactions, both good and evil, learned about subjects I’ve never really thought about before, and it’s all working toward an end – who did the dastardly deed.
Elizabeth George, Ian Rankin, Quentin Jardine, Michael Jecks, Martha Grimes, Andrew Greeley, Janet Evanovich, P. D. James – these are writers that I have devoured. All different in writing style, lead characters, subplots and settings. All have protagonists whose lives progress throughout the lifespan of the novels. With them, after randomly reading one of a series, I went back to the beginning and tried to read them sequentially. Among Canadian mystery writers I’ve discovered at the library are Lyn Hamilton and her archeological mysteries and the Murdoch books by Maureen Jennings.
Murdoch, a police series set in Victorian Toronto, has been very successfully adapted for television. The tv shows go beyond the books and I find them just as entertaining and insightful as the books themselves. Can’t say the same for the television adaptation of Elizabeth George’s Inspector Lynley series. I enjoy the Lynley shows, but they are not as rich as the books – truncated and not accurately reflective of the books’ characters.
I’m not fussy on the “cozies” – the Miss Marple-ish amateur sleuths (although I love the real Miss Marple). But I love some village series such as M. C. Beaton’s Highlands’ Hamish MacBeth books. I have no time for the young woman P.I. who never has any food in her house, but I make an exception for Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum. Tiresome are protagonists who put themselves in trouble because they insist on refusing help. I don’t like glib, wisecracking heroes or heroines. However, again, I love the originals of this persona in the novels of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett and the incarnation by Robert B. Parker in his Spenser.
Twofer: the human condition and a puzzle
I like books that delve into the human, and societal, condition in their plot lines and characterizations. All the authors I mention above do that, in very different worlds. And, being mysteries, they add a second layer of information processing in figuring out who committed the crime and how they did it. They may be “genre” but it’s a genre that gives you two stories in one.
Above are other really good mystery novels by great jockeys.
Ok, I know John Stape is a lying weasel who spends way too much time feeling sorry for himself and plotting nasty schemes. But, at heart, he is a high school teacher who loves to teach. He likes to read and likes to talk about literature and teaching. He’s not pining to write the great English novel. He isn’t wishing he were teaching at university level or at some fancy school. He loves teaching English to ordinary kids in ordinary schools. He’s not pompous in his knowledge or interests, nor too well-read. He is an ordinary guy with a BA in English who got a teaching degree.
There aren’t that many of them on soaps, you know – people with arts degrees, teachers, people who enjoy being well-read. On Coronation Street, Ken is all those things. But for years, he’s also been whining about it – he wants to do more!!! And Deirdre – well, you’d think reading the Guardian or whatever paper it is Ken prefers is the weirdest thing on the planet. She’s constantly moaning about Ken having his nose buried in “his” papers or watching nature programming. Maybe she ought to put her nose in his paper once in a while. Knowledge and awareness of the world isn’t a bad thing for you, Deirdre.
At least Fiz appreciates John’s love of teaching. Maybe, as Deirdre recently suggested, it would wear off over the years (assuming, for the moment, that John didn’t continue doing stupid things). But leaving out his stupid actions and their consequences, even if Fiz doesn’t share his intellectual curiousity, she respects him for having it.
No one else on the street really cares about much outside their own little world. Yes, there are a lot of people like that in the real world but that doesn’t make it the apex of human accomplishment.
On American soaps, there occasionally have been characters interested in the arts and literature. I think of Carl Hutchins, from years ago on Another World. Cultured, refined and erudite (and also English) – he’d have made Audrey swoon! He also was a millionaire, lived in a mansion full of artwork, and had connections with the big-scale criminal world. Not, by any stretch, your average English teacher.
And that’s what John Stape is. Take away the propensity to fall for overly-developed students like Rosie Webster and an apparent lack of understanding of the common English word “no” and you’ve got a regular guy who likes to read and also enjoys transmitting his knowledge and passion for literature to others. That’s admirable, and rare in Coronation Street and all the other serials.
When I was in high school, I discovered the beauty of Dylan Thomas’ writing. I first read Under Milk Wood and then moved on to his poetry. In community college, I was lucky enough to get an English teacher who let me pick my own course content. I picked Dylan Thomas and read everything he wrote and everything about him.
So much later, when I was in Wales for a few days, I wanted to find the places of Dylan Thomas. Laugharne was within easy driving distance of where we were staying. So off we went in our rental Mini to spend the day in the footsteps of the great Welsh poet. I was so excited I had tears in my eyes as we drove into town. We walked the streets, found the houses he and Caitlin had lived in.
Found our way to Brown’s Hotel where he spent a lot of time. We went in, spent a lot of time. Pictures of him and Caitlin on the walls, lots of ambience. Locals looking askance at the tourists looking at everything as if they were in a place of worship. For me, I was.
Another wander through town, then a look at my watch and at my pamphlet. “We gotta go, the Boat House is going to close soon.” The Boat House, on the water at the bottom of a cliff, is where he and Caitlin last lived in Laugharne. Nearby, atop the cliff, is the “writing shed” where Thomas worked. Both are a museum about him. They are a fair walk along the cliff from downtown, where we were.
Walking to the writing place
We started walking through town, leisurely looking around as we went. I was keeping an eye on my watch and realized time was running out, and I sped up. I kept looking back, saying “hurry, hurry”. My partner strolled along, with a “don’t worry, lots of time”. I was getting panicky and the Boat House was farther away than I thought. I should have just run ahead. I did finally, but I got there ten minutes too late. The Boat House had closed for the day. I cried. I was angry at myself for having not just gone on ahead in the first place. At him for dawdling, for not realizing how important this was to me. The town’s atmosphere was indeed lovely, but it would still be there after the Boat House closed.
So I looked in the windows trying to see as much as I could. You can see almost everything inside the writing shed, with his table set up as if he’d just walked away for a minute. But it wasn’t the same. I wanted to be inside the rooms in which Dylan Thomas had spent his time. I wanted to touch the walls, breathe the air inside his place. I wanted to absorb the space of a poet I’d had a crush on for two decades.
My partner felt bad for causing me to miss this. I guess the sight of me with my hands cupped around my face pressed against the window glass while I sniveled must have been pretty pitiful.
The cat in the graveyard
We walked back to town, went to the church graveyard where Dylan is buried. A white cat walked up to us and lay across a nearby gravestone, stretched and rolled, batted at blades of grass. She wanted somebody to play with her and scratch her belly, so I did. There were no flowers on Dylan’s grave, but there were some plastic flowers on another gravestone. I felt bad about what I was about to do, but did it anyway. I took one flower from the bouquet and stuck it in the earth in front of the white cross marking his grave.
We patted the cat good-bye and drove around Laugharne for a farewell look, then left. That visit has stuck in my mind, for what I didn’t see and what I did see. It was devastating to not be able to go in the Boat House, but the cat at the graveyard felt right. It was like she was greeter of Dylan Thomas fans and keeper of the grave.
Newfoundland Mi'kmaq, family history, Coronation Street, etc.