Monday, August 8, 2016
"Turning 'bad dog' into 'good job'/ "Wordsworth in the Ottawa Valley"
May 23, 2016 "Turning 'bad dog' into 'good job': I cut out this article by Anisa Arsenault in the Metro on Oct. 15, 2013. I only found the Pressreader edition. It's about Pascale Lemire who put a picture of her dog who ate and ruined a pair of underwear. Then her Tumblr blog took off. She then started getting lots of posts and emails and got her blog to book. It's called "Dog Shaming."
"Mr. Tiger Goes Wild": I cut out this article by Frida, Phoenix, and Andrew Kaufman in the Globe and Mail on Dec. 21, 2013. They review a picture book by Peter Brown. It's about a tiger and other animals that all wear top hats and mind their manners. Then one day Mr. Tiger decides to walk on all fours and goes into the jungle.
"Wordsworth in the Ottawa Valley": I cut out this article by Philip Marchand in the National Post on Apr. 30, 2011:
There is a Wordsworthian strain to Canadian literature that is embodied in Alone in the Classroom, by Giller Prize-winning novelist Elizabeth Hay. I’m not sure what the antithesis of this strain is — perhaps the work of Mordecai Richler, whose heroes are city dwellers at heart, shrewd in the ways of the world, caustically articulate and for the most part comic rather than tragic figures.
In Wordsworth mode, by contrast, no smart-ass stuff is allowed. The hero humbly learns from the garter snake and the warbler. Nature, as the poet says, is the anchor of our purest thoughts, the guardian of our hearts, the soul of all our moral being. The Wordsworth hero is not bookish, over-educated, bent over a laptop, but works with his hands in a healthy outdoors occupation. “How it lulls a person, the sight of work done easily and well and without conscious thought,” muses the novel’s narrator, admiring the way a young man peels an apple with virtuoso skill.
In Alone in the Classroom, this skilful apple peeler is named Michael — the title, by coincidence, of a pastoral poem by Wordsworth. The reader never enters directly into the point of view of this hero — but then the Wordsworthian hero, the simple shepherd or leech gatherer or solitary Highland reaper, is always presented from the rather distant perspective of the poet. In similar fashion, Michael throughout this novel is always seen from the point of view of the two women who are his lovers.
We meet him as a student in an elementary school in the town of Jewel, Sask. His teacher, Connie Flood, is an 18-year-old from the Ottawa Valley, “full of stories and laughs.” It is the fall of 1929, and disasters loom — the Great Depression, the dust bowl, the Second World War — but the biggest menace is the school principal, a fastidiously dressed fellow native of the Ottawa Valley named Parley Burns. Burns is a frustrated actor, playwright and aficionado of the French language. “English has a monosyllabic soul,” he says scornfully.
Easy to spot this man as the anti-Wordsworth. “The children were more intelligent as soon as they stepped outside,” the narrator remarks, but Burns is “not an outdoorsman” and “there is nothing of the field” in his “dustless, airless room, hostile to children.” Partly no doubt as a consequence of his divorce from the outdoors, Parley has a mean streak, defying convention by strapping girls — with vigour — humiliating others mentally and physically with his “ranking, comparing, depressing mind,” subtly forcing the school to enter his moods. He even sports a Hitler moustache.
Naturally he despises Michael, a dyslexic, and denigrates Connie’s hopeless attempt to teach the boy to read. But Connie knows better. If the printed page defeats him, Michael knows plants and animals. What is it, Connie wonders, that “unlocks the mind and frees it to go deeper, unfreezes the mind and allows it to learn? In Michael’s case, the out-of-doors and doing things by hand and being left alone.” In later life Michael will tell Connie that “every day he heard or saw something so beautiful it was like tapping into all the sorrows of the world.” We can see Wordsworth gravely nod his head in approbation.
As the school year progresses, Burns becomes an ever more disturbing presence. He stages a dramatic adaptation of Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles — somewhat improbably for a Prairie school in 1929 — a production that, like the school, is “bursting with sex and yet leached of it.” The girl who plays Tess is subsequently assaulted by Burns, with tragic results. Connie and Parley leave Jewel forever at the end of the school year, returning to the Ottawa Valley.
At this point we are little more than one third of the way through the novel, and the focus slowly shifts from Connie to the first person narrator, her niece Anne Flood, a sort of disciple of Connie’s. In the fullness of time, both women sleep with Michael, who has also settled in the Ottawa region and who seems to have parlayed his outdoorsy, “easy-moving body” into quite a magnet for schoolmarms and other men’s wives. This is not quite the note of Wordsworth and indeed, by the end of the novel, the reader wonders if Michael is a true child of nature, working with his hands as a craftsman, or merely another in a long line of exploitative males. (The only man in the novel who is clearly not exploitative is a fellow teacher named Syd Goodwin, briefly married to Connie. Michael calls him “the sweetest man alive.” Alas, he is no match for Michael in bed.)
The affairs of Michael and the Flood women are not sufficient to carry the final two thirds of the novel and Anne subsequently finds occupation in the role of family historian, unearthing the reasons why unhappiness has stalked her own family. “It seemed to me that going deeper into my mother’s past would help me understand all the life that was blocked up inside me, that is blocked up inside each of us,” Anne Flood reflects. It’s a form of psychotherapy, which has some connections, to be sure, with Wordsworth and nature worship. There is also a mystery connected with the murder of a young girl, with a hint of suspicion falling on Burns, but Burns is only fleetingly present in the last two-thirds of the novel and so these plot and thematic developments sputter along. His villainy, and the conflicts he provoked, fuelled the first third of the narrative. Without him the novel is drained of energy. Oddly enough, for all the emphasis on his deadening, killjoy ways, Parley Burns is the character in the novel with the most vitality.
What remains of the Alone in the Classroom is a series of ruminations on the part of the author, some of them intriguing, some bordering on cliché. I like the rumination attributed to Connie by the narrator, early in the novel: “In those days nothing animated her mind more than fantasies of rescue, and of those fantasies, the most vivid involved rescuing not a friend, but an enemy. To rescue a lamb has merit; to rescue a wolf quickens the pulse.” There is a novel waiting to be written on that observation alone, although it is not this novel.