AMAZING NEWS ABOUT MAVIS GALLANT’S MOTHER

As you know, I was very proud to be Mavis Gallant’s Canadian Publisher.After I brought out From The Fifteenth District in 1978, we were in constant touch, and I was delighted that my suggested title, Home Truths, won the Governor-General’s Award in 1981, in my jubilant words, “truly bringing Mavis home”.
Over the years, in addition to our regular correspondence, we met and chatted in Montreal, Paris, New York, and Toronto. When she was Writer in Residence at The University of Toronto in 1983-4, we saw a lot of each other.
I thought I knew her.
Yet when I wrote my chapter about her in Stories About Storytellers, I was surprised to find how little information there was about her parents. Recently, however, I came across Stephen Henighan’s essay in the Guernica Editions book, Clark Blaise: Essays on His Works (Edited by J.R.(Tim) Struthers.
What a revelation!
Professor Henighan has researched this area with imaginative care and persistence. He writes: ” At the time of Gallant’s death in February 1914, virtually all newspapers echoed The New York Times in repeating the incorrect statement . “Ms Gallant was born in Montreal to an American mother…..”
He goes on: ” It is astonishing that none of the book-length studies of Gallant’s work, published by Neil K. Besner, Lesley D. Clement, Judith Skelton Grant, Janice Kulyk Keefer, Grazia Merler, Danielle Schaub, and Karen E. Smythe, provides the names of Gallant’s parents. Only Grant offers a more detailed, albeit not entirely correct, account: “her mother, Canadian (but raised in the United States) of mixed heritage- German, Breton, Rumanian.””
Thanks to Henighan’s work we know that Mavis’s father was an Anglo Scottish immigrant to Canada, Captain Albert Stewart Young. His mother was, apparently, Scottish. Mavis, in her semi-autobiographical Linnet Muir stories. all set in her decade living and working in Montreal, played up the Scottish connection by naming the father “Angus”.
But let’s turn right away to Mavis’s astonishing mother.
Benedictine (Bennie) Wiseman was born around 1899 , either in Montreal or Romania. In 1913, according to York University criminologist Amanda Glasbeek, Bennie left Montreal ” cropped her hair, donned her brother’s clothing, and became Jimmy”. She worked by day at a Toronto department store and at night singing at a nickelodeon, once winning a singing prize for young men
Henighan takes up the tale: “After two months in Toronto, “Jimmy” was arrested at the corner of Yonge and Queen Streets by Constable McBurney…..Unmasked as a cross-dresser, she was tried for vagrancy. Newspaper accounts remarked on her defiance in court, and her unrepentant pride at having earned men’s wages of seven dollars a week…..On being questioned about her cross-dressing she answered: ‘What chance is there for a girl?’….As a girl I couldn’t get work, and I’ll just go back to boy’s clothes when I get a chance.”…..
The Toronto World provided this report of the conclusion of Bennie’s trial:” Passing out of the door she encountered the grinning policeman who had arrested her “I am sorry for you, so sorry!” she said, at which the grin disappeared, and Constable McBurney visibly lot two inches of his five foot eleven” (‘ Boy-Girl expresses Pity”)
Mavis was to inherit the ability to employ a devastating put-down,(“I’ll Kill Him!”) and also her mother’s concern for fair pay for both sexes.
Then,in April 1921, Bennie was arrested in New York State, for living with a man, R.O. Earl, to whom she was not married. She served three months in prison in Jamesville, near Syracuse, and then was deported to Canada (proving that she was indeed not American.)
This criminal record alarmed Captain Albert Stewart Young’s father, a colonel in the British army, who opposed his son’s plan to marry Bennie. But by then Bennie was pregnant, and the marriage went ahead, Mavis was born in 1922.

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ROBINSON JEFFERS WROTE THIS POEM 100 YEARS AGO

THE ANSWER

Then what is the answer? — Not to be deluded by dreams.
To know that great civilizations have broken down into
violence, and their tyrants come, many times before.
When open violence appears, to avoid it with honor or choose
the least ugly faction ; these evils are essential.
To keep one’s own integrity, to be merciful and uncorrupted
and not wish for evil; and not be duped
By dreams of universal justice or happiness. These dreams
will not be fulfilled.
To know this, and know that however ugly the parts appear
the whole remains beautiful. A severed hand
Is an ugly thing, and man dissevered from the earth and stars
and his history… for contemplation or in fact…
Often appears atrociously ugly. Integrity is wholeness, the
greatest beauty is
Organic wholeness, the wholeness of life and things, the
divine beauty of the universe. Love that, not man
Apart from that, or else you will share man’s pitiful conclusions,
or drown in despair when his days darken.

In his observation tower near Carmel, on the Californian coast, he also wrote a poem with clear lessons for today’s United States, and its benighted leader. The title is
SHINE, PERISHING REPUBLIC.
It begins…

While this America settles in the mould of its vulgarity,
heavily thickening to empire,
And protest, only a bubble in the molten mass, pops and
sighs out, and the mass hardens,

I sadly smiling remember that the flower fades to make
fruit, the fruit rots to make earth…….

A very fine poet. I recommend his work.

A NICE SURPRISE AT INDIGO

This week Jane and I were roaming around an Indigo store, just before seeing”The Post”, at a nearby theatre. Around 1980 I spent three years as a Movie Reviewer for “Sunday Morning” on CBC Radio. I was very lucky to have a guy named Stuart Maclean as our Producer, and the superb Suanne Kelman as my dictator in the booth. She not only made sound editorial decisions, she taught me how to BREATHE on the air. The CBC desperately needs her back, to stop regular reporters slurping up gallons of oxygen at the end of every sentence. In some cases they sound as if they’ve just emerged from a very deep dive, and are fighting for life.
And nobody seems to be teaching them how to talk on the air, like, (dare I say it?) professionals.
Bring back Suanne Kelman!
This introduces the fact that I’m recommending “The Post” to you, dear reader, because it is an excellent piece of work. The pacing of the movie, where Meryl Streep slowly grows in confidence as Katherine Graham, is beautifully done, and in the role of Ben Bradlee Tom Hanks is very fine. Speaking as an old movie reviewer, I think you’ll enjoy this film.
As we roamed around Indigo, Jane had the idea of looking up my first book, STORIES ABOUT STORYTELLERS. When we did so,the electronic screen hurt my feelings, by saying that no copies of this 2011 book were in stock in this particular branch.
BUT there was a review available. A bright reviewer named David Nichols (whom I do not know, I’m sorry to say) wrote this:–
OUR MARVELOUS LITERARY HERITAGE
“Gibson unfolds a beautiful expression of Canada’s literary heritage in a heartwarming, perspicaceous, witty and inspiring adventure about the fascinating lives of Canadian authors and their work. This masterpiece will open your eyes to the wonders and magnitude of Canadian literature. If ever a book should be placed on the curriculum of our schools right across the country, this is it. It is a beautiful expression of Canada’s literary beauty and Mr. Gibson’s love of Canada. I have never wanted a book not to end so badly.”
And I, Mr. Nichols, have never been so sorry to see a review end. Many,many thanks for your kind FIVE STAR REVIEW. “A masterpiece”,indeed.

REMEMBERING MAVIS GALLANT

My old friend Mavis died in Paris four years ago today. Her books, of course, live on. If anyone doesn’t know her work, please tell them to read HOME TRUTHS (which won the Governor-general’s Award in 1982) or the SELECTED STORIES. 1996,
But any of her books will show her genius, and will demonstrate why other writers admire her so much. From the U.S. Fran Lebowitz perhaps put it best : “The irrefutable master of the short story in English, Mavis Gallant has, among her colleagues, many admirers but no peer. She is the standout. She is the standard-bearer. She is the standard.”
Now Mavis is at the centre of a literary storm raging in American waters. To put it briefly (and I will write a fuller account) a younger American writer has been accused of stealing from one of Mavis’s classic stories, “The Ice wagon Going Down The Street”.
The New Yorker published that story in 1963. In January this year the same magazine (which had a huge role in shaping Mavis’s career) published a “new” story by Sadia Shepard entitled “Foreign-Returned”.
In a furious letter of protest to the magazine the well-known author Francine Prose claims that Shepard’s story about Pakistani immigrants in Connecticut is very closely modelled on Mavis’s story about Canadians in Geneva.
And the debate exploded, which I’ll describe later
There may be a welcome result from this unwelcome incident. It may remind many readers of the pleasures of reading Mavis.

A NEW SHOW is now in preparation, and I’ll be in Montreal in April (on the 5th) and in Quebec City on (May 8). My presentations are deliberately rare in the depths of winter, when travel is difficult. Many more events will be in spring and summer, and in Fall we’ll be in the Maritimes.

BUT THERE WILL BE A VERSION OF “ACROSS CANADA BY STORY” IN TORONTO THIS WEEK. The host is the East York Historical Society, at the S. Walter Stewart Library, at 170 Memorial Park Avenue (near Coxwell and Mortimer). The time is 2pm, on WEDNESDAY, 21 February. It would be nice to see you there.

My big project right now is my PODCAST, a decade-by-decade look at Canada’s Greatest Storytellers, from 1867 to today. Watch this space!

THE ORDER OF CANADA……..AS SEEN BY ROBERTSON DAVIES

On January 25 at Rideau Hall I had the honour of being inducted into the Order of Canada.
It was a marvellous day for Jane and me, and my daughters Meg and Katie , who joined us from Toronto. The actual event struck me as a perfect example of what Canada does best. The morning ceremony is uplifting, and makes you proud. Then, as the biographies of the other honorees are read out, you are humbled, and left wondering if you really belong with all of these remarkable people. They come from right across the country, like Vancouver’s Christine Sinclair, our superb soccer captain, or Newfoundland’s Indigenous Chief Mis’el Joe, an old friend from Adventure Canada’s cruise to Labrador. The Governor General’s staff cleverly arranged for us to sit together at the formal dinner that evening, for a happy reunion.

Thanks to Julie Payette’s warm friendliness — “Here’s Glenn Gould’s piano. Would anyone like to play it, after our two opera singers have had their fun?”– the formal dinner turned into a sort of house party, and at the end we all piled into the buses back to the hotel as friends.

When I edited MURTHER & WALKING SPIRITS in 1991 I paid little special attention to what Rob Davies had to say about the Order of Canada. Here’s what we find early in the book, as he describes a grand opening event for a Toronto Film Festival, where the Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario attends:

“He himself was resolutely democratic, but his hovering uniformed aides, and the splendour that attended his appearance, made it clear that he was indeed a grandee, though of course one who owed his place to the approval of the people — which meant, in effect, the government in office. A curious grandee, surely, for though he bore the democratic stamp of approval he was primarily the representative  of the Queen. The provincial premier was not present because he had to be two hundred miles away, warming up the voters in an important by-election, but his wife came, gracious in the highest degree but also unaffectedly democratic. Ontario wines, and especially Ontario champagne, flowed without stint, and were consumed in quantity befitting the occasion. They too were democratic — quite without affectation of superiority. The guests in the room were in evening dress, and those who possessed the Order of Canada wore their enamelled marks of distinction with pride tempered by democratic bonhomie, as though to say, “I wear this because I have been awarded it, but I am very much aware that there are many here more worthy of such meritorious ornaments than my humble self.”

AHA, you no doubt noted my use of “humble”!

Davies continues: “It was, indeed, one of those Canadian occasions where the vestiges of a monarchical system of government vie with the determination to prove that everybody is, when all is said, exactly  like everybody else. These disquiets are inseparable from a country which is, in effect, a socialist monarchy, and is resolved to make it work — and, to an astonishing degree, achieves its aim; for though an egalitarian system appeals to the head, monarchy is enthroned in the heart.”

As I said, all those years ago I paid no special attention to what Davies was doing here. But after my own happy experience in Ottawa, I heartily agree that we’ve come up with a system that “to an astonishing degree, achieves its aim”.

I’ll wear my “snowflake” with great pride.

GG05-2018-0023-161
January 24, 2018
Rideau Hall, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada 
Her Excellency the Right Honourable Julie Payette, Governor General of Canada, invested 2 Companions, 8 Officers and 37 Members into the Order of Canada during a ceremony at 
Rideau Hall on January 24, 2018.
Credit: Sgt Johanie Maheu, Rideau Hall, OSGG

TWO STORIES YOU NEED TO SEE

If you, my very literate friends, have the smug sense that things are much better here than south of the border, in President Trump’s America, two stories surfaced today that you should see. And think about.
The first is a story in the December 7 Globe and Mail, by Jessica Leeder headed “Pulp non-fiction debate divides Nova Scotia town.”
The opening paragraph sums up the story : “Nova Scotia-born author Joan Baxter was to spend last Saturday signing copies of her new book about a local pulp mill’s fraught environmental history in Pictou County when Northern Pulp drafted a letter to Coles and its parent company, Indigo Books & Music Inc.”
” Calling the journalistic take insulting and offensive, the letter warned the bookstore in New Glasgow, N.S., there would be consequences for the event…”
As a result of these threatened consequences, a spokeswoman for Indigo said that “a number of events leading up to the signing in New Glasgow led us to cancel” the planned event. The cancellation came , ostensibly, from concerns that customers’ “joyful and safe experience” in the store might be compromised.

So, there you have it. Big, local company turns on a local bookstore, encourages its employees to make trouble ( although the company spokeswoman told us that “employees were not encouraged to take any physical action in protest”) and Coles/ Indigo backs down, and the book signing event is off.

An important freedom of speech issue, I would say.

As it happens, I know New Glasgow, and I know Pictou, and the looming Indonesian-owned pulp mill that dominates the town, in every sense. They are such bad corporate citizens that local resident Paul Sobey (who knows something about responsible corporate citizenship) has lent his name to protests against their environmental actions, all duly recounted in my friend Silver Donald Cameron’s film”Defenders of the Dawn”.

The reconstructed version of “The Hector”, the ship that brought Scottish immigrants to Nova Scotia, behind picturesque bagpipers, lies opposite the mill. Sadly, The Hector is closed to the public, still awaiting refurbishment. If any Nova Scotia friends has good news here, I would be glad to hear it.

THE SECOND IMPORTANT STORY is to be found on the front page of The Toronto Star today. Ainslie Cruickshank’s story is headed: “Music teacher  sues board for defamation over song” The sub-heading reads: “School performance of folk song ‘Land of the Silver Birch’ leads to claims of racism and a lawsuit”.

The story opens: ” A Toronto music teacher is suing her principal, vice-principal and the public school board for defamation after the administrators sent an email to the school community apologizing that a well-known folk song — ”Land of the Silver Birch”–was performed at a school concert, calling it “inappropriate” and “racist”.”

The story is hard to summarise , so you might wish to read it for yourself. It’s especially hard for me to summarise , because THIS IS PERSONAL. In my latest show, taking us through Canadian Storytellers From 1867, decade by decade, I begin with a burst of popular Canadian music from the time. For the 1890s I proudly use “Land of the Silver Birch’, the lyrics written by Pauline Johnson in that decade, and sung by a more recent voice.

And here is what the geniuses behind that email “following concerns from parents about the song” said about Pauline Johnson’s poem. Emphasis mine :”WHILE ITS LYRICS ARE NOT OVERTLY RACIST…THE HISTORICAL CONTEXT OF THE SONG IS RACIST.”

How do I begin to deal with that? We can look at the song itself, familiar to generations of Canadian kids around campfires. They happily sang about “Blue lake and rocky shore”. Then many of them peered nervously into the darkness, hoping to catch a glimpse of a “mighty moose” wandering at will.

Great  stuff. A fine, historical folksong. I hope the kids sang it well at the concert.

But “racist”? This brings us to Pauline Johnson, whom I’m delighted to include in my show. She was born in Brantford, and went to high school there with my selected storyteller, Sara Jeannette Duncan. Later, when Sara became The Globe’s first woman writer ( protected by the male nom-de-plume”Garth Grafton”) she published an interview with her interesting friend Pauline. And “interesting” is an under-statement. Her father was a hereditary Mohawk chief, while her mother was English. Pauline drew on both sides of her inheritance. In time , she made her living with a literary act on-stage. In the first half, before the Intermission, she dressed and performed as a Mohawk princess, with poems like “The Song My Paddle Sings”. In the second half she became her mother’s very modern daughter.

Audiences far and wide loved it, as she toured North America and Europe . When she retired to the West Coast, her book Legends of Vancouver, became a great success. In 1913 her funeral in Vancouver was the largest in the city’s history.

“The historical context of the song is racist.” Utter nonsense. I’m proud to have it in my show.

AHOY…DO YOU HAVE ANY BEER?

One of the great pleasures of my public appearances is that I often stumble across great stories about our authors. In Guelph, after my November 30 event introducing my new show GREAT SCOTS: CANADA’S FINEST STORYTELLERS WITH SCOTTISH LINKS, I was signing books when I met Neil Darroch. He told me about a childhood encounter with Farley Mowat.
When Neil was about 10 he was sailing one summer on the Ottawa River. More precisely, with their skipper, Julian Biggs, he and his father were in a race at the wide part of the river on the Lake of Two Mountains, at Hudson, Quebec. Jane and I know Hudson well, from our October show in the restored railway station theatre there, which will be the subject of a future blog.
The sailing around Hudson is still so good that the Montreal writer, my old friend Trevor Ferguson, was apparently lured to move there by its summer delights.
That summer, around 1970, young Neil was awaiting the start of the race, postponed due to light air. In his words :
“Aboard another sailboat about 100 feet away, a small, bearded fellow hailed us with the immortal words, “Ahoy! Do you have any beer?”
When my father Jim said yes, and politely offered him one, the bearded guy dived into the water, and swam to our boat. He clambered aboard. He was wearing shorts only. Very pale skin, pot belly and large beard. He looked like a pirate.
My father asked me if I knew who this man is? I replied no. My father said, “This is Farley Mowat. He is a writer!”
Mr. Mowat looked at me, scrubbed the top of my head with his hand, and said hello.
I don’t remember what was discussed between my father, our skipper, and Farley Mowat,although I assume it involved lack of wind, and the lack of beer on Mr. Mowat’s pal’s boat. I do remember that he downed a bottle quickly, thanked us, then dived off our boat, and swam back to the boat from which he came. I was left with a vivid impression of a real character. Someone who did not hesitate to do what was necessary at the moment, and damn the torpedos!
I have read most of Mr. Mowat’s works. A great writer!”

I’m sure that one of the books that Neil must have read was The Boat That Wouldn’t Float, which became a huge best-seller when it came out in 1969, just before this encounter. Yet from Neil we learn that Farley’s dicing with death among small boats had not put him off sailing for ever…….and the even more astonishing fact that his dangerous voyages with Jack McClelland around Newfoundland had been floated on a tide of rum, yet now he was content with a simple beer.
I have my own memories of Farley in those days, and he features in Across Canada By Story. The man who helped Farley select the Non-Floating Boat, was my Newfoundland author, Harold Horwood. Farley liked Harold, and would send in helpful quotes to advance Harold’s career. But because he hated the USA (he used to, famously, fire his shotgun at American planes flying overhead…high overhead) any letter from Farley to me at Doubleday Canada arrived in an envelope defaced by Farley’s indignant hand with comments about just how “Canadian” we were.
In my 2015 book you might like to read about the fun I had publishing him. As Neil Darroch says, he was a great writer.