Gibson Does a Striptease on Stage

When I found myself paired with Vancouver’s John Vaillant (author of The Golden Spruce and The Tiger) I chose to read from my chapter devoted to James Houston. After Jim’s great deeds in the North, he fell in love with a cottage in Haida Gwaii, where I visited him. My book goes on to talk about the Haida people, and mentions the appalling story of the golden spruce, their magical tree that was felled by a crazed logger-crusader. I then praise The Golden Spruce, wishing that I had had the chance to publish it, and calling it “One That Got Away.”

Reading that passage, of course, made a fine segue into John’s reading  Then he revealed that, although he never met James Houston, while he worked on The Golden Spruce (set on the West Coast), for some reason he became fascinated by the distant Inuit art of the far North, and immersed himself in it.

Earlier, when I was talking about James’s key role in spreading Inuit art (“No James Houston, no Inuit art!” as one museum director put it) I was able to demonstrate how Inuit art is now everywhere. As I read, I slyly unbuttoned my long-sleeved white shirt, and opened it wide to reveal – ta-da! – that I was wearing a T-shirt devoted to the The Enchanted Owl, the 1960 print by Kenojuak that became a Canadian postage stamp ten years later.

“And now,” I said, pulling my shirt apart and thrusting out my owl-covered chest, “Inuit art is everywhere!”

I’ve never had such applause for a striptease act before. Something to work on?

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The Mae Wilson Theatre in Moose Jaw

Saturday was a busy day for me, with two readings (James Houston, then W.O. Mitchell) in the morning, then the show at the Mae Wilson Theatre on Main Street. This is a grand old Edwardian Theatre, with all the elaborate plaster trimmings, where touring performers like Sir Harry Lauder have appeared down through the ages.

I did my show (with the help of Eric the soundman, and Shane looking after the lights — and Jane up there in the booth) against a truly massive screen, perhaps 15 feet by 30 feet, which meant that the author caricatures were clear to everyone in the 300 person audience.

The audience was set up by a very generous introduction by the local author Bob Currie, and was notable for the fact that the gallant Jane, who knows the show very well, managed to handle the slide changes perfectly, so that the audience thought that my casual hand gestures automatically changed the screen.

One new part of the show was a special surprise for my good friend Terry Fallis, author of The Best-Laid Plans. I had got the splendid Tony Jenkins to do a caricature of Terry, knowing that he would be at Moose Jaw, although he had seen my show before.  (Terry is that kind of friend). I gave his picture the sub-title “Saint, Little Red Hen, and Prizewinner” and explained each part of the sub-title as Terry gurgled and blushed in the audience at his unexpected appearance in mid-show.

The audience seemed to like the show, and gave me a standing ovation. Later we had a Q and A session (“Did you have any authors you really didn’t like working with?” “They’re not in the book.”) A good day’s work, worth a relaxing spell in the Spa pool.

In Praise of W.O.

For my third reading in Moose Jaw, I saw no obvious link to my fellow reader. This was a very good thing. Jalal Barzanji’s book, The Man in Blue Pajamas, is a prison memoir of his days in Saddam Hussein’s Baghdad, before he and his family finally managed to make it to Canada. Happily, I had no similar stories to write about. So after praising the PEN Canada help that brought Jamal to Edmonton, I simply chose to honour Saskatchewan’s own W.O. Mitchell, from Weyburn, just east of Moose Jaw. Any reading that includes a selection of stories about the unforgettable W.O. is bound to be popular. This selection from my chapter on “W.O.Mitchell: Character and Creator of Characters 1914-1997” was no exception.  People love to hear about this guy.

Later, after a Regina visit with our friends Karen and Trevor Herriot (the subject of a separate birding blog) Jane and I made a pilgrimage to Weyburn. Armed with information provided by Kam and Megan at the library, we walked the streets of the little town, which now has roughly 10,000 people. As everyone who has read Who Has Seen the Wind knows, when W.O. was a boy the open prairie lay just a couple of blocks north of his house, now close to the centre of town.

Thanks to the library’s leaflet we found the Mitchell residence at 319 Sixth Street. Nobody was at home, so we took photos and were giving up and leaving when a car drew up outside. It was Jamieson, the son of the household, who kindly invited us in and showed us around the ground floor. It was just as we had hoped — all maroon furniture against a base of old oak panels — befitting a grand 1903 house that was the best in town. Even the bevelled glass windows and doors in the book cases and the Art Nouveau metal light fixtures spoke to the deliberate standard of excellence from that time.

We also saw the Knox Presbyterian Church that the Mitchells attended, but we did not get to see the inside stained glass, “all grapes and bloody.” We peeked in at the ancient Royal Hotel (once opposite the now-gone Railway Station, although Railway Avenue remains), and visited his father’s grave in the cemetery just south of town.

I must confess that there was no sign of the cheeky gopher at the edge of the tombstone (“O.S. Mitchell. Loved by all who knew him”) that so offended young Brian/Bill when the family solemnly visited the grave.

The Weyburn Museum (the “Soo Line Museum”) contained many photos of the town from W.O.’s boyhood days (“the litmus years”) and one of his father, and of his pharmacy. We roamed the banks of the Little Souris River, in search of the famous swimming hole where W.O. and the other boys swam naked. We even saw some descendants of the cat-tails that provoked such naughty behaviour from some of Sadie Rossdance’s girls.

In the evening, having walked the streets to absorb W.O.’s Weyburn, I gave my show in the Weyburn Public Library to about 15 appreciative local people, including the local author, my friend, Joanne Bannatyne-Cugnet (A Prairie Alphabet). As usual the show ended with a tribute to W.O., and in Weyburn that seemed only right.

Moose Jaw Encounters

The Saskatchewan Festival of Words has been held in Moose Jaw for 16 years now, but this was the first year that I was able to attend. Right away I saw why my authors had always enjoyed it so much.

Invited authors/performers are housed at the downtown Spa hotel, built around some natural hot springs full of healing waters. We found that every day had to involve at least one wallow in the soothingly warm pool on the top floor, where people sunbathe then swim, drink cool water, then repeat the dose. I was right at home because the little café beside the pool was named the Morningside Room, recognising the fact that Peter Gzowski (a sentimental graduate of the Moose Jaw Times-Herald) chose to stage his last Morningside broadcast from the hotel, and a photo of my friend Peter hangs on the café wall.

The festival itself is set a short walk away, in the library and the at gallery on the edge of Crescent Park. This is Moose Jaw’s central park (and indeed its Central Park) and is a fine blend of beauty and endless, active variety, which we explored every day.

I gave three readings, adapting my chosen excerpt to fit in with my co-reader. For example, matched with Harold Johnson, a truly impressive Cree-speaker who is a Crown Prosecutor in Laronge and has a Master’s Law Degree from Harvard, I chose to read about Saskatchewan’s own R.D. Symons, my very first author.

I was so impressed by Harold that I bought a copy of his novel, Charlie Muskrat. The trouble with literary festivals is that you hear so many fine readings that you end up buying lots of books. An occupational hazard.