GOLD RUSH, A JUST-PUBLISHED BOOK OF POETRY BY CLAIRE CALDWELL

These are difficult days for all of us. Imagine how hard it must be for a young author to bring out a new book. And for the gallant publisher, in this case Invisible Books, trying to give an exciting new book a virtual launch on April 1, 2020, into a world we barely recognise.

I’m glad to play my part in beating an enthusiastic drum, or ten, because I know Claire Caldwell and her work very well. She is a cousin of mine! Her grandfather, Douglas Caldwell (after whom I was named) was my mother’s first cousin. Her father, Doug Caldwell, and her mother Judy McAlpine, both CBC Radio stalwarts in their day, are good friends. And right now they’re bursting their britches with pride at Claire’s new book.

GOLD RUSH is an 80-page collection of poems. The publisher’s catalogue description is intriguing. You can read the entire description at the website invisiblepublishing.com/product/gold-rush . It begins: “From the Klondike to an all-girls summer camp to the frontier of outer space, GOLD RUSH explores what it means to be a settler woman in the wilderness.” The description ends: “Whether they’re trekking the Chilkoot Trail, exploring the frontiers of their own bodies and desires, or navigating an unstable, unfamiliar climate, the girls and women in these poems are pioneers — in all the complexities contained by the term.”

Obviously, I’m too much of a cheerleader to be totally reliable guide to the quality of Claire’s poems. So let’s turn to JOHN IRVING:    “A salute to Neil Young’s enduring prophecy “mother nature on the run”, but it’s scarier now — it’s not the 1970s. Claire Caldwell is an environmental doomsayer, but she’s also a comedic, antic storyteller, and she’s great at dark endings. Wilderness women are her storytellers; they speak with the melancholy of country music. “One day, I vanished,” says one. Another says, “To wear the moon like a breast.” From actresses fording a river: “Applause had softened us.” Nothing soft about these poems.”

Thank you, John Irving.

ABOUT CLAIRE CALDWELL. Claire is a children’s book editor at Annick Press (another fine reason to give her our support, an editor who writes!). She is also a kids’ writing workshop facilitator. Her debut poetry collection Invasive Species (Wolsak and Wynn) was named one of The National Post’s top 5 poetry books of 2014. Claire, who spent many of her early years in the Yukon, was a 2016 writer in residence at the Berton House in Dawson City, Yukon. She was the 2013 winner of The Malahat Review’s Long Poem Prize. She has a BA from McGill, and an MFA from the University of Guelph.

MOVIE REVIEW: “NEVER CRY WOLF” November 1983

From 1981 to 1984 I provided weekly film reviews for the CBC Radio programme “Sunday Morning”. During much of that time the Executive Producer was Stuart McLean, bound for later glory. My Producer was the heroic Suanne Kelman, who steered me through many gasping, spluttering takes.

Here (with family names added) is one example:

Since “Never Cry Wolf” is that rare and wonderful thing, a family movie, I took along the Gibson Girls, aged 6 (Katie), 8 (Meg), and 37 (Sally). Happily, the outing was a success, marred only by the loud enquiry addressed to your discreet reviewer , “Daddy , why are you writing things down?” And despite my notes , my critical thunder was stolen by the 8-year old, who really enjoyed it, especially the mountains and the wolves, but felt that it didn’t add up to a real movie.

Like The Right Stuff, the other Wolfe movie around, the film suffers from the lack of a traditional plot. It’s based, of course, on Farley Mowat’s non-fiction classic, although the period has shifted from the late Forties to more modern times. And the setting has gone West — from the Barren Lands way north of Churchill, Manitoba, to the well-treed country on the B.C. border just south of Whitehorse, where the scenery is glorious. In fact the camera lingers so lovingly on the lakes and lichen  and lonely Lawren Harris hills that I kept expecting John and Janet Foster to appear.

It’s a beautiful film — and it catches the spirit, and the humour, of Farley’s book. The voice-over by the Mowat character reveals the same terror when he’s dumped by bush plane in the snowy middle of nowhere — encircled by crates of Ottawa requisition forms, and equally useless lightbulbs — with instructions to follow wolves. This hero is hilariously unheroic, whether he’s hiding under a canoe to escape from what he thinks are wolves, or cowering in his tent as a real wolf prowls around ready to huff and puff and blow his house down.

And the theme of both book and film, of course, is that our nursery rhyme view of wolves is wrong. So we watch our boy timidly learning to co-exist with his wolf neighbours, even marking out his territory, wolf-style, fuelled by 27 cups of tea. In time he becomes very fond of the wolves, playing the buffoon (as well as the bassoon) for them, giving them names, and watching with pleasure as the romping cubs discover that Dad has a tail for the pulling.

There are other scenes certain to delight young audiences, including the famous mice-eating incident, whereby hangs a tale…… of happy shrieks of “Oooh, that’s gross!” Other crowd-pleasers have our boy showing his “bare bum” — presumably an in-joke of which the famously kilted Mr. Mowat is the butt. Add a death-defying flight through the mountains and a scary fall through lake ice and you’ve got lots of the right stuff.

That being so, it’s too bad that the film drags a bit towards the end as it tries to show not just a change of seasons but a change of mind, as the hero comes to love the North, and despise so-called “civilisation” — a process that’s not so easy to show on film. But thanks to wonderful camera work and a witty performance by Charles Martin Smith as Mowat, all of the Gibsons can promise you — if you’ll excuse the gallant pun —  a Farley good time.

In Toronto this is Doug Gibson for Sunday Morning.

ALISTAIR MacLEOD’S CHRISTMAS STORY, “TO EVERY THING THERE IS A SEASON”

On Thursday 19 December, listeners to CBC Radio’s “As It Happens” had a special treat. To help celebrate the time of year, the programme played Les Carlson’s fine reading of the story that Alistair wrote in 1977.
You can hear it on the CBC’s As It Happens website.
Or you can read it in the richly illustrated little book that I published with great pride in 2004. It is entitled “To Every Thing There Is A Season : A Cape Breton Christmas Story”.

The story is simple, seen through the eyes of an eleven-year-old boy. As an adult he remembers the way things were back home on the west coast of Cape Breton. The time was the 1940s, but the hens and the cows and the pigs and the sheep and the horse made it seem ancient. The family of six children excitedly waits for Christmas and two-year-old Kenneth, who liked Halloween a lot, asks, “Who are you going to dress up as at Christmas? I think I’ll be a snowman.” They wait especially for their oldest brother, Neil, working on “the Lake boats” in Ontario, who sends intriguing packages of “clothes” back for Christmas.

Will he arrive in time? Will the narrator be thought old enough to stay up late on Christmas Eve, to join in the adult gift-wrapping role of helping Santa Claus?

The story is simple, short and sweet, but with a foretaste of sorrow, as the biblical title reminds us. Not a word is out of place. Alistair MacLeod’s writing is like a long poem that begs to be read aloud.

Matching and enhancing the story are twenty-five glorious black-and-white illustrations by Cape Breton’s Peter Rankin, a relative of Alistair’s. They make this book a thing of beauty in every way, one that deserves a place in every Canadian home that values a traditional Christmas.

A FINAL THOUGHT

My dear friend Alistair died in April 2014. I have written about him in my books  Stories About Storytellers, and Across Canada By Story . In fact that 2014 book ends with a toast to Alistair that I gritted out through tears at a Writers’ Union event that summer. The church at Broad Cove (which appears on the cover of this Christmas book, drawn by Peter Rankin), was where Alistair’s funeral took place.
On the last page of Across Canada By Story, I write:

“I heard that there were many tears at his funeral in Broad Cove, Cape Breton. In fact his cousin Kevin, a pallbearer, told me that he wept so copiously that a Cape Breton neighbour was highly impressed. “Kevin,” she said, “when I die, I want you at my funeral.”

Laughter and tears.”

I experienced both of them when I heard the reading on the radio, and rushed to re-read the classic book.

 

 

 

REACTIONS FROM CBC LISTENERS TO THE HUGH MACLENNAN CHAT

As you know, I used this blog to spread the word about my forthcoming chat with Michael Enright on The Sunday Edition. But I sat there nervously, listening to the show.

It seems that I was wrong to worry.  Lots of kind people got in touch with me to tell me that they enjoyed it. Sometimes they told me fascinating, moving things. One friend, for instance, really liked the positive spin I put on Hugh’s use of the term “Two Solitudes”. He said that he came from a family with a French-Canadian father and a mother whose language was English. At her funeral  he spoke about the successful touching of the two solitudes in the house where he grew up.

Others wrote about family memories involving The Watch That Ends The Night. One man proudly recalled that his father ran the Bookstore Launch for the book in Montreal in 1959. Another spoke excitedly of her recent discovery of a fine Dartmouth restaurant named The Watch That Ends The Night. Another wrote warmly about the book’s excellence, remembering especially the moonlit escape by canoe by young Jerome after his mother’s murder in the New Brunswick lumber camp. ( I recall when I put together the anthology, Hugh MacLennan’s Best, just after his death, that particular set piece leaped out of the book, although the book was full of very fine essay and novel selections).

As you know, greatly daring, I read aloud the passage in Barometer Rising where Hugh sees Canada, coast to coast, as if from outer space. My claim that this paragraph marked the start of Canadian Literature seems to have pleased a number of people. Many told me that they now had TWO books by Hugh MacLennan on their reading list.

The CBC people keep track of the impact of the programme. Before the show, the Toronto Reference Library had no “holds” on Hugh’s great novel. By Monday there were over 50  such eager requests. Even more today, maybe. It’s the perfect response to a show that’s intended to get people reading neglected books.

One of the other results was that people brought out their memories of Hugh the man. One woman contacted the programme with her memories of being a high school journalist who, with another over-awed colleague, were assigned to interview the great man, in 1962. Hugh was, of course, charming, and the interview went well. Afterwards he bought both of them a chocolate milk-shake. To this day, she says, milk-shakes make her think of Hugh MacLennan!

A West-Coast book trade friend recalled taking Hugh on a publicity tour. Hugh was concerned about my friend’s  limp, the result of weeks of lugging boxes of heavy books. The long-term implications worried Hugh so much that he insisted on taking my friend back to the Hotel Vancouver, showing him important back exercises, and even massaging his back. When he was in mid-massage, there was a knock at the door, and both the masseur and the patient roared with laughter at the gossip column possibilities of the massage.

Under Michael Enright’s shrewd direction of the conversation, I talked about how love was at the centre of Hugh’s great novel. But there was no chance to talk about Anne Coleman’s fine book about how friendly she and “Mr. MacLennan” became in her teenage years in North Hatley. She stresses that it was always “correct”, with nothing physical at any point. As an explanation, I’ve suggested that at the time Hugh was immersed in writing The Watch That Ends The Night, where one of the major characters is young Sally, who, like Anne, was a McGill undergraduate, and thus a very good model for Hugh to study.

Of course, people who have read ACROSS CANADA BY  STORY know that in Montreal I was approached by “Emily” who informed me that she was Hugh MacLennan’s daughter. The details of this proud love-child are in the book, and of the long affair Hugh apparently had with her mother. Fascinating.

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