STRENGTH IN NUMBERS

For Toronto friends, I’m happy to spread the word about an intriguing new show at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, on the south-east corner of the fortified Robarts Library. It is STRENGTH IN NUMBERS: The CanLit Community. It will be open to the public until May 1.

The fascinating Catalogue is designed  by Stan Bevington, and printed by his Coach House Press (with more detail about the Goluska typeface than a casual reader might expect: “Goluska is sturdier and the x-height is larger than Electra.” Now you know.)

But the exhibition, on two floors, provides hours of happy roaming for true admirers of Canadian writing, from The Confederation Poets to George Elliott Clarke. There is simply too much, and too many display cases full of astonishing tidbits, for me to suggest a route for a set tour. Just wander around, peering into the cases, admiring the author photos, or reading about Mazo De La Roche’s Jalna series, with over 11 million copies sold, or Lucy Maud confessing that she’s sick of writing about Anne with an E. Or enjoy the letter from Robertson Davies to the popular novelist Arthur Hailey (Hotel, and Airport) sympathising with him over the savagery poured over his work by jealous reviewers.

I spent a very happy time there on the opening night on Friday January 31. I especially enjoyed meeting the two Librarians who designed the show, choosing from the University Library’s wealth of original literary documents.  Natalya Rattan was appealingly modest about her fine work, but John Shoesmith reminded me that I had turned him down for a job at M&S (allowing him to escape a life of penury , working in publishing). He seems to have forgiven me.

I did meet a number of old friends, including a woman who still remembers me as her daughter’s soccer coach from almost 40  years ago. And I was delighted to read a promotional blurb about the excellence of CanLit that names the following authors……Robertson Davies, Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje and Mavis Gallant….all of whom (modest cough) I proudly published.

SAD NEWS FROM WINNIPEG

My good friend Gordon Sinclair (who wrote for me the fine book about the police murder of the native leader J.J. Harper, COWBOYS AND INDIANS) contacted me yesterday to tell me that Jake McDonald had died in a fall in Mexico.

Jake was one of the bravest men I ever knew. His refusal to let his terrible spine deformities impede his life as a writer was truly inspiring. He wrote hundreds of fine articles in places like Canadian Geographic, the Globe, and The Beaver. He also created many books, the best-known being his HOUSEBOAT CHRONICLES. As the title implies, this man moved around the country, by hook or by crook, and inspired his many friends to get out there and live.

I remember one visit to Winnipeg, as the M&S Publisher, where Jake proudly drove me north to Selkirk. There he showed me the airport  that was used by bush pilots heading north. We wandered happily around, clambering into bush planes where you could see where the dogs went, and where their sled was stowed. We chatted eagerly with the determined pilots, hearing low-key tales of adventures in the North that almost defied belief. But the pilots were happy to talk with us, because they really liked Jake, who could chat with anyone.

And I was lucky enough to be the guy with Jake.

We’ll miss him.

WALKING THROUGH AN EXCELLENT READ

I’ve just had an experience that I can recommend to you . I was in the middle of reading a fine novel when I realised that its local setting meant that I could stroll through its pages.  I’ve just done so today…a fine brisk day, good for a walk in the fresh air… and I found that the walk enriched my reading, when I returned home to finish the book.

The book in question is A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY by John Irving…..or, as Owen himself would put it, “BY JOHN IRVING”. Of course I’ve read, and enjoyed, other books by John. But  as you know, we all have gaps in our reading.  Somehow I had never  read this  book, although it was on our shelves. It was time to change that. So I opened this book from 1989 ( aha! I was only one year into my new role as Publisher at M&S, so I had other things on my mind!)  with the keenest interest.

As I settled into this very unusual novel, I learned a lot about its setting in New Hampshire.  Small-town Gravesend in northern New Hampshire is described in great detail, almost snowflake by snowflake, house by house, shingle by shingle. As the group of kids around our narrator and his friend Owen ages, we go from scene by scene classroom activity (and literally scene by scene Nativity plays) to summer jobs that involve work in the woods, or in the local granite quarries, or to Hester the Molester waitressing in local dining spots where lobster is a specialty.

Then , to our surprise, Canada comes into the picture.

The book’s narrator, John Wheelwright, is notable for two things. First, his protective love of his tiny friend Owen Meany, an astonishing character with a larger than life voice, personality, and brain. Second, his political conscience. John is a member of the generation scarred by the Vietnam War. So scarred that although an amputated finger leaves him unfit for the U.S. draft, after he leaves university he feels obliged to leave his country in disgust, and move to Canada.

To Toronto. As the lengthy plot moves forward, the main activity continues to centre on Owen  and John and New  Hampshire. But whenever we move to John’s present life, we roam around a specific part of Toronto. So that’s what I decided to do. I put down the unfinished book, and became an Owen Meany tourist.

I walked to Avenue Road and St. Clair, heading north to Upper Canada College. I looked with interest up the  driveway, studying the buildings, remembering that John had compared them to the Gravesend private school where Owen and he spent their young lives. Then, impressed by the rich history on the  plaque outside U.C.C., I walked west. After  four blocks of elegant Forest Hill neighbourhood houses I came to Bishop Strachan School. It is, famously, the female equivalent of the boys-only U.C.C.. In the book it is the school where John Wheelwright becomes a teacher of English. His discussion of that role allows him to speak warmly of the writers he most admires, from Thomas Hardy to Robertson Davies and Alice Munro.

I did not enter the good, grey, Gothic walls of B.S.S., (“Hi, can I look at a classroom like the one that John Irving’s character would have taught in?” seemed an unpromising approach) but I did walk two blocks north to get a sense of the school. And I did recall that John Irving’s wife, the former Canadian Publisher, Janet Turnbull Irving, (now a notable tennis player) had attended B.S.S. as a literary teenager, so John did have inside knowledge of the place.

In the novel Owen , and his friend John, care deeply about God and the mysteries of religion. So it’s appropriate that in Toronto John Wheelwright falls in love with the gentle charms of the building due west of Bishop Strachan, the old Grace Church on the Hill. I slipped into the church and relaxed in a pew. gazing around me with slow pleasure.  Very soon, I had come up with a rule for this new programme for literary walks: it should — perhaps must — include a spell spent sitting in a church, or other religious space. Doing nothing but looking around, and thinking.

A slow tour of the stained glass windows, and the monuments, revealed, yet again, how the First World War obliterated  a whole generation of young Canadians. Twenty-year-olds who should have been sunning themselves in Toronto parks were chewed up by a war machine they could not even have imagined. I thought of what R.H.Thompson’s brilliant work to remember those millions of lost First World War lives had achieved, and how proud I had been to help him.

A final, personal look at the lives lost in that war from that little church. I always look for possible relatives. Yes, there was one Gibson, one Young and one Thomson.

A slow walk out of the Church led to Russell Hill Road, along which John Wheelwright would walk every day, to and from his classes. I trudged thoughtfully south to St. Clair, noticing the new houses that have been recently inserted, but enjoying the traditional homes that John Wheelwright would have passed. Then, with a turn at St. Clair, past the Timothy Eaton United Church, I walked east twenty minutes to reach home.

There a lively book awaited me, greatly enriched by my walking tour.

Try the idea!