THE ICE CREAM TRUCK GOING DOWN THE STREET

Mavis Gallant died at the age of 91 exactly four years ago, on February 18. She died in Paris, an ex-patriate Canadian writer who was admired by other fine writers around the world. Yet now she is at the centre of a scandal rocking the American literary firmament, from coast to coast.

Not that Mavis has any responsibility here, or is in any way to blame. On the contrary, one side in the noisy fight claims that it is defending her against a modern author who is stealing her work.

The story begins in the pages of “The New Yorker”, the magazine that for decades published Mavis Gallant’s work. In fact, only John Updike had more fiction appear in the magazine over the years than Mavis, and the role the magazine played in revealing her genius to the world is well known. On January 9th this year, however, the magazine published a piece of fiction by Sadia Shepard entitled “Foreign-Returned”.

That is the simple heading for the story. No reference is made to Mavis Gallant there, as in “A Tribute to Mavis Gallant”. There is also no specific reference such as “Based on the Mavis Gallant story, The Ice Wagon Going Down The Street.” To the unsuspecting reader, the story stands alone.

However, in a separate interview with the story’s editor, Deborah Treisman, Sadia Shepard acknowledges “a great debt” to the Mavis Gallant Story “The Ice Wagon Going Down The Street”, which she names.

Enter Francine Prose, the well-known American novelist. In a letter that sends lightning bolts from the page she accuses Shepard of stealing from the Gallant story. Her letter appeared in the The New Yorker on January 22, is and worth reading in its powerful entirety.

To summarize, it begins with Prose noting that a few sentences into the Shepard story “I began to get the eerie feeling that I knew exactly what was coming next. And, in fact I did, because almost everything that happens in Shepard’s story happens in Mavis Gallant’s story, The Ice Wagon Going Down The Street, published in The New Yorker, in 1963. Scene by scene, plot turn by plot turn, gesture by gesture, the Shepard story follows the Gallant – the main difference being that the characters are Pakistanis in Connecticut rather than Canadians in Geneva. Some phrases and sentences are mirrored with only a few words changed.”

Prose concludes by arguing strongly that “the correspondences far exceed the bounds of “debt”, or even of “homage, or of a “translation” into a different ethnicity and historical period.”

She ends with the thunderclap: “Is it really acceptable to change the names and identities of fictional characters and then claim the story as one’s own original work? Why, then, do we bother having copyright laws?”

BANG! The debate blew up with a number of writers in the New Yorker and The Los Angeles Review of Books accusing Francine Prose (and many others who criticized Shepard’s story) of racial insensitivity. Jess Row in a letter to The New Yorker actually says “…we’re not talking about the mechanics of story composition; this is a conversation about racial and cultural power and prestige”.

So where does this leave a Canadian reader? Well, I’m far from being a typical Canadian reader here, although I made my living as a Publisher, trying to anticipate the reactions of that elusive reader. But I had the honour to publish Mavis’s work, introducing her to Canadians as one of our best writers with From The Fifteenth District in 1978. We were friends, as I continued to visit her in Paris, see her in Toronto and Montreal, and to publish her magnificent stories. The classic story in question, “The Ice Wagon Going Down The Street” appears in two of our books: Home Truths: Canadians At Home and Abroad (1981, which won the Governor-General’s Award) and Selected Stories (1996).

A Canadian reader, I think will see more than an outsider in this classic story with the distinctive title. It concerns a childhood memory shared by Agnes Bruser, who grew up, Mavis suggests, “small, mole-faced, round-shouldered because she has always carried a younger child”, in a hard-striving, large Norwegian family in a small town in the Prairies. The house was so lacking in privacy that her happiest time was to slip out early in the morning in the summer. So early that, in those days before refrigerators, she could see the ice wagon making its deliveries, door to door.

Her memory of that apparently trivial moment, “Once in your life alone in the universe”, is so important to her she remembers telling it to the other Canadian she’s assigned to share an office with in Geneva. In fact, it’s the only real conversation she ever has with Peter Frazier (of the Toronto Fraziers, descended from “granite Presbyterian immigrants from Scotland” who made the family fortune that Peter at first was able to live off, until the old money ran out.)

Peter Frazier is the central character in the story, and he has little in common with Agnes from the prairies. He has never been in the West. He has never felt it necessary to gain a university degree. Agnes is so proud of hers that when she moves into the office that she has been given to share with this other Canadian she hangs her framed university degree on the wall. “It was one of the gritty, prideful gestures that stand for push, toil and family sacrifice.” On her desk she places a Bible.

You may be surprised to learn that in the, let’s say,” parallel” story by Sadia Shepard, what is placed on the desk by the Pakistani woman, Hina, to the alarm of her new colleague Hassan, is a copy of the Koran.

The anti-climactic scene in both stories follows a disastrous party at the home of influential friends from their own community. In both cases the male sharing the office resentfully with the female newcomer set above him finds himself conscripted to see her home, drunk. In her apartment, things could go very badly, but as both stories tell us, in these exact words, “Nothing happened.” Except in Mavis’s marvellous telling, when Agnes clumsily emerges from her bathroom to embrace Peter, she is wearing “ a dressing gown of orphanage wool.” Orphanage wool!

As for the Sadia Shepard story, I’m not qualified by personal knowledge to give an informed opinion. I don’t know her other, well regarded work. I know the Connecticut where the story is set, but only through one eight-month academic year in New Haven.  I am amused by her impressions of how men who can do nothing well in the kitchen are expected to spring into action as experts beside the barbecue.  But I can’t express any informed opinion about the accuracy of her portrait of life among expatriate Pakistanis in North America today. Although I note with pleasure that Pakistanis feature in the original Mavis story, when a standing weekend invitation by well-placed Canadian friends to stay at their Swiss summer house suddenly ends. “One Sunday Madge said she needed the two bedrooms the Fraziers usually occupied for a party of sociologists from Pakistan, and that was the end of it.” Could this reference have been what inspired Sadia Shepard to write this indebted tribute?

But I must confess that I read “Foreign-Returned” very much as Francine Prose did. Paragraph by paragraph I read saying “Oh, no, she can’t do this! Surely she’s not going to have her get drunk?” I realise, as many clever readers have written, that adapting anything, however closely, will produce something new. But what would you feel about a “new” work, where its advocate says. “And then there’s this great moment, when the magic potion works, and he wakes up with a donkey’s head on his shoulders! Did you ever hear of such a thing?”

Maybe the fanciful title that I’ve given to this article might have solved all the problems of non-attribution, if the original Shepard story had been graced by it. A Publisher’s solution, which I’m glad to offer for future reprints.

As Mavis Gallant’s friend and defender, let me end by quoting Sadia Shepard. “I believe that creating new work inspired by Gallant honours her legacy and might even bring her new readers, something that Prose and I no doubt agree she deserves.” All very well. But a more definite link with the Mavis Gallant model would send more readers her way, to their great pleasure.

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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.

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.

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.

AN EXCITING FALL….SOME HIGHLIGHTS

The tour that I’ve been advertising in my Blog has ended, until the New Year, so I’d like to bring you up to date with our adventures. Naturally, Jane ( my “techie’, and driver, and dresser, and und….well, let’s leave it there) and I had a fascinating time. We saw many interesting parts of the country, were befriended by socially engaged book-lovers, met lots of memorable authors, and gathered a number of shimmering stories.

The next few blogs will run through some of our best experiences.

Let me jump out of order to talk first about a moving experience in Knowlton, Quebec. We went to the Knowlton Festival in mid-October. Now, I know the Eastern Townships fairly well, because of my links with North Hatley, but I had never visited Knowlton. I knew that Paul Martin ( the former Prime Minister who once alarmed an Ottawa book launch with the news that “If Shakespeare had had Doug Gibson as his editor…..there would be no Shakespeare! All the best stuff cut, and left on the floor!”) had his country home there. In fact, the organisers in Knowlton had planned to hire him to insult me again, but unfortunately he and Sheila were out of the country.

So instead the clever people who run this English-language Book Festival in Quebec found an ideal man to introduce me. It was Gerald Potterton, who produced the National Film Board’s animated cartoon of Stephen Leacock’s story,”My Financial Career”, which played a large part in attracting me to Canada,as I tell in my first book, Stories About Storytellers.

The evening began with that cartoon, which is still very funny. And so is Gerald, born in 1931. Before introducing me, he told me privately that they had been considering a number of major Canadian stars to do the voice-over narration for the Leacock piece. But as a sort of place-holder they asked a guy in Winnipeg to read the piece, and he read it in one take, and it was perfect.

But before our evening event, in exploring Knowlton we came on the ancient Anglican church of St.Paul. And there, very  close to the entrance on the wall we found a Memorial Plaque to “Honor Heward Grafftey”, a woman who died in 1943.

And Hugh MacLennan sprang to mind.

In my chapter on Hugh I talk about how during his time as a teacher at Lower Canada College he befriended a boy in distress, who never forgot his kindness, and later defended the very old MacLennans. I kept that boy anonymous. But I can now reveal that it was Heward Grafftey.

What I wrote was this: “One boy, later a distinguished MP, told me that he was summoned to the headmaster’s study  and briskly informed that his mother had just died. Released into the school corridor, he stood there blinking in shock, until one of his teachers, Hugh MacLennan, came up, threw his arms around him, and held him fast, while the macho crowds flowed around them, gaping.”

It was in that little church in Knowlton that I realised that this had happened in 1943. And I thought about Hugh.