AN ASTONISHING STORY ABOUT HUGH MACLENNAN

As you know from Stories About Storytellers I’ve long had a huge admiration for Hugh MacLennan. There’s a whole chapter in that book about him, full of admiring stories, showing how this man bestrode Canadian culture, carving a trail for other writers. You’ll recall that he won three Governor-General’s Awards for Fiction, but — just as important — also two for Non-Fiction, thanks to his wide-ranging essays.

My new book will have a chapter on him.  While most of the chapters are centred on a Province (“Saskatchewan!” or “The Coasts of B.C.”) his is simply “Hugh MacLennan’s Canada”. As you’d expect, it deals with Halifax, and Montreal, and Quebec City, and Sherbrooke and his beloved Eastern Townships, including North Hatley, where he died in 1990.

But since Hugh was also the author of The Colour of Canada, and The Rivers of Canada (where as a young editor I played a role as a minor tributary) for this book of Literary Tourism  I have him take us right across the country, to the roaring Fraser in the West, and the mighty Mackenzie in the north. His love of the country comes through in every line he wrote.

He was such a major Canadian figure that he was often called up for national assignments. In 1958 the country was facing a General Election, with two leaders who  were not well known, Lester Pearson and John Diefenbaker (who had just won an unexpected minority). To allow people to get to know them better Maclean’s magazine selected Hugh to be one of a panel of three interviewers, with Pierre Berton as the Chair.

The interview with Diefenbaker did not go well . Here is how Pierre Berton described it in his memoir, My Times :  “When the interview ended and the prime minister left, I looked at Hugh MacLennan, who was clearly badly shaken by the encounter.   “The thought of that man being prime minister…” he kept saying. Suddenly he hurried to the washroom and threw up.”

There are other, much more surprising revelations about Hugh in the book.

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Recommended Reading: The Free World

Recently I had the pleasure of being one of the three judges of the Amazon.ca First Novel Award. I accepted the role when asked by my friend Stuart Woods, the editor of Quill & Quire, before the Amazon link became a major embarrassment. (Amazon is throwing its weight around, and if publishers don’t automatically agree with the new, worse terms they’re offered, their books are automatically de-listed – in their electronic form, at least – from all Amazon websites. That has happened to my book, and to all books published by ECW. There are other ways, of course, to get our books electronically, but doing business with bullies is not good.)

The judging process put me in touch with five fine books, by authors who were mostly new to me. In every single case I was glad to be introduced to the book, and enjoyed reading it. The judging process, expertly arranged by Stuart Woods, brought pleasant contact with Nathan Whitlock, whom I knew slightly and whose work I admired, and my old friend Kelly Duffin. I suspect that with the variety of opinions we brought to the (metaphorical) table we could have spent a week putting the five books in order, but after a full discussion it was clear that we all agreed on The Free World by David Bezmozgis as the winner.

The plot is simple. Three generations of a family of Latvian Jews escape to “the free world” of the title. In this case, that world is Rome, and the life that various refugee organizations offer to people in transit, while they choose their new home, and – after a tense time — are accepted by the officials of that country.

All of the family members adapt to their new life in different ways, including the grandfather who preferred the way things were back home. It’s a very sophisticated piece of fiction and is full of wry humour. (At one point, when an amorous young man suggests a horizontal tree branch as a solution to the lack of a private bedroom, the offended lady retorts, “What are we? Squirrels?” )

I recommend the book without reservation, and look forward to many more fine books coming from David Bezmozgis. But watch out, too, for more fine books from the other nominated authors.