Thursday, 31 January 2013

Mad Shadows by Marie-Claire Blais

The 
train 
was 
leaving 
town.
     Lying back with his head against his mother's shoulder, Patrice followed the dappled countryside with a melancholy expression.  Behind his forehead everything grew confused, like a billowing stormcloud on a screen.  He watched in silence and did not understand, but his idiot face was so dazzling that it made one think of genius.  His mother caressed the nape of his neck with the palm of her hand.  With a gentle slip of her all-too-supple wrist she could lower Patrice's head to her bosom and hear his breathing more easily.
     On the other side, aloof and motionless, her daughter Isabelle-Marie sat pressing her sharp features against the window.  Louise often said to herself, "Isabelle-Marie never really had the face of a child... But Patrice... Oh, Patrice!"
     Isabelle-Marie was thirteen.  She was tall and emaciated; her alarming eyes, so often full of anger, seemed glued to black bone.  When she scowled, the lower part of her face twisted into a look of fierce contempt.  It was almost frightening.
 So begins the first novel of Marie-Claire Blais (translated from the French by Merloyd Lawrence), written when she was just twenty years old and entitled, in the original French, La Belle Bête.  Isabelle-Marie, the neglected, unattractive daughter represses a ferocious and anguished desire to repay her mother for emotionally abandonning her.  Patrice is her ten-year old brother, the "beautiful beast" to whom their mother Louise is devoted.  He is is so beautiful that strangers cannot help but stare, but he is intellectually vois with "large green eyes as empty as the night."  Marie-Claire Blais creates this family full of real psychological pathology but sets it in a fairy tale-like setting full of symbolic meaning.

While evidently a social commentary on parochial Quebec society, an important theme in Mad Shadows for me is the soul-destroying indulgence in superficial attributes such as beauty and riches.  This is a cautionary tale of what happens when the dark side takes over and revenge overshadows forgiveness, kindness to others is overwhelmed by self-interest, and the pursuit and adoration of beauty and money come before the nurturing and loving of children.  Each character is lacking a crucial element to their personality; Patrice has no conscience, no intelligence, no memory; Louise has no compassion and no feelings for others beyond their use in fulfilling her own desires; Isabelle-Marie lacks the ability to control her rage.  Rather than acknowledging their failings and reaching out to one another for support, each character is ruled by them and remains isolated and ultimately destructive to themselves and everyone else.

This is a dark and at times disturbing story, a gothic tale of festering, diseased souls eating away from within and, finally, bursting forth in all-encompassing destruction.  I enjoyed the skill of the writer and the depth of her character-building.  This is an astounding first novel, and I am looking forward to reading Tête Blanche which was her second novel, published in 1960 which is sitting on my shelf.

Marie-Claire Blais
author image from here

Marie-Claire Blais in the Canadian Encyclopedia

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood


The Handmaid's Tale begins in Margaret Atwood's typically understated style.  We begin in the middle, and slowly the past and the present unfold like the drawing back of curtain to reveal the complete diarama.

This is the story of one woman in a society that has recently transitioned very quickly from the contemporary American reality of 1985 (the publication year of the text) into a totalitarian regime now called Gilead.  The narrator, unnamed at the beginning of the story, has been forced into the role of handmaid, or surrogate child-bearer, for a high-ranking Commander and his wife.  The position of a handmaid in a household in Gilead is ambiguous.  For, although these women fill an essential role because of the declining fertility rates, they are scorned members of society.  The narrator cautiously makes her way through each day, attempting to remain below the radar, for there are spies everywhere in Gilead.  Fear is the method of ensuring complete obedience, and death or exile is the punishment.

The narrator's behaviour is guided by the dictates of the dystopian society, but her inner voice has a morality that fights everything she sees and does.  In her first person narration, she records her attempt to walk a fine line between staying out of trouble and following her conscience.  The repressive message of Gilead is to "blame the victim" and the indoctrination, isolation and lack of human connection allows the narrator to doubt herself even while feeling unsettled about what surrounds her. It is through her thoughts that she keeps alive her connection with the past, recalling the life she had before Gilead.

Gilead is a theocracy, but the religious dogma is hollow.  When religious rhetoric is used solely for political means, it loses its spiritual dimension and is just another empty tool of the powerful to gain more power.  The religious observances in The Handmaid's Tale are hollow words, spoken only out of fear and conformity, never reflecting any true Christian teaching of compassion and forgiveness.  So, Margaret Atwood is not condemning religion in this novel, but exploring how the rhetoric of religion can be used for the purpose of mass conformity.  She is making a distinction between, for instance, the Quakers and the Baptists and the others who do not identify themselves as Christian who risk their own lives to save others, and go to great lengths to sacrifice themselves for others.

The power in The Handmaid's Tale for me is in the exploration of the effects of the removal of all human interaction in a society.  Individuals in Gilead are forbidden to look one another in the eye, to touch one other (except in specially sanctioned impersonal "ceremonies"), or to interact with anyone else on a personal level.  What happens when this basic human need is denied?  In small ways, the narrator sees evidence of the break down of the society, of cracks in the very foundation because of this inhuman condition.  People are willing to take great risks to have these needs met.

I loved this book.  Every single time I read a book by Margaret Atwood I remember once again how much I enjoy her view of the world. Even when it is this dark and horrifying.

Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood at the Canadian Encyclopedia (including video of her interview with Alan Gregg on the topic of her 2008 Massey Lecture entitled Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth)

Sunday, 27 January 2013

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.  In the first forty days a boy had been with him.  But after forty days without a fish the boy's parents had told him that the old man was now definitely and finally salao, which is the worst form of unlucky, and the boy had gone at their orders in another boat which caught three good fish the first week.  It made the boy sad to see the old man come in each day with his skiff empty and he always went down to help him carry either the coiled lines or the gaff and harpoon and the sail that was furled around the mast.  The sail was patched with flour sacks and, furled, it looked like the flag of permanent defeat.

The old man was thin and gaunt with deep wrinkles in the back of his neck.  The brown blotches of the benevolent skin cancer the sun brings from its reflection on the tropic sea were on his cheeks.  The blotches ran well down the sides of his face and his hands had the deep-creased scars from handling heavy fish on the cords.  But none of these scars were fresh.  They were as old as erosions in a fishless desert.

Everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same color as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated.
So begins Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, a work of brilliant contrasts; a novel of staggering complexity hidden in simple prose, of a poverty-stricken old man who is rich in love and confidence in the future.  He has faith in the Yankees, and in Joe DiMaggio, and even after a string of fishless days, "his hope and his confidence had never gone."  On the eighty-fifth day Santiago sets out diligently determined to try his luck again because, he says, "eighty-five is a lucky number." 

The Old Man and the Sea is an allegorical tale of suffering and redemption.  Santiago is marked as a Christ-like figure by his occupation as fisherman, by his scarred and bleeding hands - his stigmata, by his disciple Manolin who has faith in him, serves him, and ministers his wounds, by his call to God for help, and by the images depicted in the scenes of him carrying his mast on his shoulders.  I was most intrigued by the behaviour of the Old Man.  He is humble, well-mannered, lives in harmony with nature and he is full of encouragement for himself when things are not going well despite his poverty.  He never falters in his positive self-talk.  He never complains about his situation, no matter how dire, but is appreciative for every small favour given to him.  He has a beautiful attitude toward life, work, and friendship.

The Old Man has an empathetic understanding of the suffering of all the creatures in the ocean, and the air.  The challenges of the small birds to capture fish to eat excites his compassion, as does the hook in the mouth of a fish.  The Old Man pits his wits and endurance against the fish he catches.  He considers fish his worthy opponents because "man is not much beside the great birds and beasts."  His victory comes not in the way one might expect - with riches and fanfare - but quietly and subtly and his victory is a redemption.

Ernest Hemingway by Yousuf Karsh [1957]

Saturday, 26 January 2013

Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) by Ann-Marie MacDonald


You've heard of fractured fairy tales?  Well, Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) is like that - except with Shakespeare's plays.  Ann-Marie MacDonald has created a witty and clever and hilarious exploration of the characters and themes in Romeo and Juliet and Othello.  I really, really wish a theatre company would stage it right now so I could see this live.

The play begins in the office of Assistant Professor Constance Ledbelly at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario (my alma mater!) where Constance is working on her Ph.D. dissertation.  She is working to analyze an old manuscript which, she believes, contains the two source comedies that Shakespeare used to write his tragedies. Constance is warped into the Shakespearean world where she needs to find the author of the manuscript.  In the process, she must also find her own true identity, in a Jungian voyage of re-birth.

In an interview with Melanie Lynn Lockhart in 2005, Ann-Marie MacDonald stated:
I think [Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet)] ended up as a tribute to Shakespeare. It’s a testimonial. Because it was done in the spirit of ransacking –and that’s what Shakespeare did. And I think the greatest thing you can do for an author is to make free with them, ultimately, or they won’t survive. If they’re going to survive, they have to survive all kinds of things.
Drawing not just from Romeo and Juliet and Othello, Ann-Marie MacDonald uses characters and lines from other works by Shakespeare often for comedic purposes.  Here is an example of how she plays with the original Romeo and Juliet:
SAMPSON. Nay, as they dare. I will bite my thumb at them; which is a disgrace to them, if they bear it.
ABRAHAM. Do you bite your thumb at us, sir? 

SAMPSON. I do bite my thumb, sir. 
ABRAHAM. Do you bite your thumb at us, sir? 
SAMPSON. [Aside]  Is the law of our side, if I say ay? 
GREGORY. No. 
SAMPSON. No, sir, I do not bite my thumb at you, sir, but I bite my thumb, sir. (1.1. 33-40)
And here is the corresponding section from Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet):
TYBALT. [laughter – CONSTANCE nervously bites her thumbnail] Do you bite your thumb at me sir?!
CONSTANCE. No! I just bite my nails, that’s all. 

TYBALT. Do you bite your nails at me sir? 
CONSTANCE. No I swear! Look, I’ll never bite them again. This’ll be a great chance for me to quit once and for all. Thanks.
[Pause. The boys tense. Will there be a fight?]
TYBALT. You’re welcome. (51-52)
Ann-Marie MacDonald uses not just Shakespeare's words, but his themes and symbols and his love of gender-bending and mistaken identities to great comedic effect.

Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) is full of intelligent fun.  I would highly recommend this play as a wonderful read.  Now... does anyone know if there is a dvd available of a stage performance?

Ann-Marie MacDonald
author image from here

Recipient of the Governor General's Award for English Language Drama, the Floyd S. Chalmer's Canadian Play Award and the Canadian Author's Association Award, Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) is the much lauded play by the much lauded over-achiever, Ann-Marie MacDonald. 

Ann-Marie MacDonald is an actor, a playwright, a novelist (Fall On Your Knees, and The Way The Crow Flies), television host of Life & Times for seven years, and currently for The Doc Zone on the CBC.  She's written an opera libretto based on Jungian theories (Nigredo Hotel), and won both Genie and Gemini Awards and a Dora Award, and her novel Fall On Your Knees was chosen by Oprah's Book Club.

Friday, 25 January 2013

Ysabel by Guy Gavriel Kay


Many years ago I read the first book in Guy Gavriel Kay's Fionavar Tapestry trilogy entitled The Summer Tree (1984).  What I remember most clearly about that book was how much I enjoyed the introduction.  Five students at the University of Toronto attend a lecture and find out that the guest lecturer is actually a magical person from the land of Fionavar.  He invites them to travel with him back to his country.  The U of T setting being so familiar to me I was really excited by the book.  However, when they left Toronto and arrived in the magical kingdom I was reminded why I never read fantasy.  This is the same reason I've never been able to get through more than 30 pages of Lord of the Rings (and I am determined to give it my best shot this year!).  I appear unable to concentrate as soon as the characters start wearing cloaks or sprout horns.  Suddenly, the laundry needs doing, my in-box needs sorting, some string needs winding...  So, I'm really not sure why I picked up Guy Gavriel Kay's Ysabel.  Perhaps it was the compelling and gorgeous cover.  Yes.  I'll admit it.  It was the cover that did it.

The setting of the novel is Aix-en-Provence, France, and fifteen-year-old Canadian Ned Marriner is accompanying his famous photographer father, Edward, while he captures images of the area for his latest book.  Ned enters the Saint-Sauveur Cathedral in Aix while his father is attempting to capture the facade, and there meets an American exchange student named Kate Wenger.  Together they have a strange encounter with a bald, scarred man who rises up through a grate in the floor.  Ned and his family and friends appear to be at the vortex of a dangerous upheaval when the past and present begin to collide and old animosities spill over into the present.

I enjoyed the book for the first 150 pages, and then came the supernatural spirit wolves and the cloaked druids and the horned man-beast and I had to fight to keep my focus. I was determined to forge on to the end, and luckily it did pick up again after another 200 pages.  That still left another 150 pages to go (and trust me, I was counting!).

I wasn't expecting this to be a Young Adult book which it most definitely is.  I have nothing against Young Adult books if they are well written, but this fell into the trap of starting with the smart alecky, angsty teenager with an iPod and a bad attitude in predictable and uninspired prose.  I never came to care for any of the characters in the novel and continued to be confused about the objective, other than placing Ned in a situation where his coming-of-age is accelerated by pitting him against mythological bad guys with horns.  I would have liked to have spent more time with the exchange student, but she seemed to disappear when the action heated up, along with Melanie who had a lot of promise as a character that was never realized.

Clearly, I was not the intended audience.  Sorry GGK.

Guy Gavriel Kay
author image from here

Monday, 21 January 2013

The Double Hook by Sheila Watson


The Double Hook is a book that requires a lot from its readers.  It's not the kind of book one can read casually, and it's not the kind of book you can read whilst doing anything else.  There must be no holding it in one hand whilst making a sandwich.  There can be no letting the mind wander for even a sentence or two, for it requires total dedication.  It is the kind of book that ensures the security of tenured professors of Canadian Literature.  While I disagree with Earle Birney calling it  “monotonous, self-conscious, artificial, and lacking in real fictional interest, ” I do concur with his confession: “I just don’t know what the damned novel is about.”

The publication history of The Double Hook is epic and obstacle-strewn!  Rejected by a Who's Who of the 1950s publishing world: Cecil Day-Lewis, T. S. Eliot and Rupert Hart-Davis all turned it away, along with American publishers Random House, Harcourt-Brace, Knopf, New Directions and Atheneum.  The consensus seems to have been that although not without merit, The Double Hook would be virtually unsaleable.  Canadian Jack McClelland took a chance and against the odds The Double Hook has never been out of print since its 1959 publication.

Written in a poetic prose style in short sentences and phrases, this novel is stylistically experimental and unique.  Disregarding the literary conventions of quotation marks, identifying new characters with name or motif, and establishing new settings, the reader must infer from subtle clues the details in the story.  This is the first page of the novel - the first section in Part One:

In the folds of the hills

under Coyote's eye

lived

the old lady, mother of William
of James and of Greta

lived James and Greta
lived William and Ara his wife
lived the Widow Wagner
the Widow's girl Lenchen
the Widow's boy
lived Felix Prosper and Angel
lived Theophil
and Kip

until one morning in July

Greta was at the stove.  Turning hotcakes.  Reaching for the coffee beans.  Grinding away James's voice.
James was at the top of the stairs.  His hand half-raised.  His voice in the rafters.
James walking away.  The old lady falling.  There under the jaw of the roof.  In the vault of the bed loft.  Into the shadow of death.  Pushed by James's will.  By James's hand.  By James's words:  This is my day.  You will not fish today.

The Double Hook begins with the murder of "the old lady, mother of William of James and of Greta," after which various neighbours see her in the river during the day.  A large cast of characters people the novel, each with a story - a true ensemble cast - and they move in and out of the scenes interwoven and entwined with each of the other characters. At times, the writing seems to be depicting life in a dream in which only certain scenes and symbols are evident, and we have to piece together the characters' motivations, and sometimes even the plot, like a puzzle.

I have to admit that for me, this novel would require more attention than I feel compelled to give it right at this moment.  It is not that I didn't like it.  It is just that, for me right now, it is less a story to enjoy reading, and more a novel to study with a notepad and highlighters (perhaps multi-coloured) to fully appreciate its complexity and weight.  When the mood is right and I do feel in the mood for digging deeper, this will be the book I pull off the shelf.  



I very much enjoyed this description of the author by John Grube in his introduction to The Double Hook:
Mrs. Watson is a small, bird-like creature who lives on coffee and cigarettes.  Charming, sly, humorous, she deals like Eliot's Madame Sosostris "a wicked pack of cards."  The reader must pick up his hand and play it with intelligence and perception, and if he does will find her writing among the most rewarding ever produced in this country.  With The Double Hook she indubitably takes her place in the forefront of Canadian literature.

Here is an article about the publication history of The Double Hook; Sheila Watson's bibliography; and a fascinating glimpse at a contemporary review here.

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Happy Birthday, Dad!

My Dad at the cottage

In memory of my dad who would have been 73 today, and who loved the poetry of Robert W. Service, I found a LibriVox recording of a poem I remember him reciting when I was a girl:

The Shooting of Dan McGrew by Robert W. Service (read by Glen Hallstrom)

The Shooting of Dan McGrew


A bunch of the boys were whooping it up in the Malamute saloon;
The kid that handles the music-box was hitting a jag-time tune;
Back of the bar, in a solo game, sat Dangerous Dan McGrew,
And watching his luck was his light-o'-love, the lady that's known as Lou.

When out of the night, which was fifty below, and into the din and the glare,
There stumbled a miner fresh from the creeks, dog-dirty, and loaded for bear.
He looked like a man with a foot in the grave and scarcely the strength of a louse,
Yet he tilted a poke of dust on the bar, and he called for drinks for the house.
There was none could place the stranger's face, though we searched ourselves for a clue;
But we drank his health, and the last to drink was Dangerous Dan McGrew.

There's men that somehow just grip your eyes, and hold them hard like a spell;
And such was he, and he looked to me like a man who had lived in hell;
With a face most hair, and the dreary stare of a dog whose day is done,
As he watered the green stuff in his glass, and the drops fell one by one.
Then I got to figgering who he was, and wondering what he'd do,
And I turned my head — and there watching him was the lady that's known as Lou.

His eyes went rubbering round the room, and he seemed in a kind of daze,
Till at last that old piano fell in the way of his wandering gaze.
The rag-time kid was having a drink; there was no one else on the stool,
So the stranger stumbles across the room, and flops down there like a fool.
In a buckskin shirt that was glazed with dirt he sat, and I saw him sway;
Then he clutched the keys with his talon hands — my God! but that man could play.

Were you ever out in the Great Alone, when the moon was awful clear,
And the icy mountains hemmed you in with a silence you most could hear;
With only the howl of a timber wolf, and you camped there in the cold,
A half-dead thing in a stark, dead world, clean mad for the muck called gold;
While high overhead, green, yellow and red, the North Lights swept in bars? —
Then you've a hunch what the music meant. . . hunger and night and the stars.

And hunger not of the belly kind, that's banished with bacon and beans,
But the gnawing hunger of lonely men for a home and all that it means;
For a fireside far from the cares that are, four walls and a roof above;
But oh! so cramful of cosy joy, and crowned with a woman's love —
A woman dearer than all the world, and true as Heaven is true —
(God! how ghastly she looks through her rouge, — the lady that's known as Lou).

Then on a sudden the music changed, so soft that you scarce could hear;
But you felt that your life had been looted clean of all that it once held dear;
That someone had stolen the woman you loved; that her love was a devil's lie;
That your guts were gone, and the best for you was to crawl away and die.
'Twas the crowning cry of a heart's despair, and it thrilled you through and through —
"I guess I'll make it a spread misere", said Dangerous Dan McGrew.

The music almost died away. . .then it burst like a pent-up flood;
And it seemed to say, "Repay, repay", and my eyes were blind with blood.
The thought came back of an ancient wrong, and it stung like a frozen lash,
And the lust awoke to kill, to kill. . . then the music stopped with a crash,
And the stranger turned, and his eyes they burned in a most peculiar way;
In a buckskin shirt that was glazed with dirt he sat, and I saw him sway;
Then his lips went in in a kind of grin, and he spoke, and his voice was calm,
And "Boys," says he, "you don't know me, and none of you care a damn;
But I want to state, and my words are straight, and I'll bet my poke they're true,
That one of you is a hound of hell. . .and that one is Dan McGrew."

Then I ducked my head, and the lights went out, and two guns blazed in the dark,
And a woman screamed, and the lights went up, and two men lay stiff and stark.
Pitched on his head, and pumped full of lead, was Dangerous Dan McGrew,
While the man from the creeks lay clutched to the breast of the lady that's known as Lou.

These are the simple facts of the case, and I guess I ought to know.
They say the stranger was crazed with "hooch", and I'm not denying it's so.
I'm not so wise as the lawyer guys, but strictly between us two —
The woman that kissed him and — pinched his poke — was the lady that's known as Lou.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen


Happy 200th Birthday, Pride and Prejudice!  First published in January of 1813, and still just as relevant as ever, minus a frilled bonnet or two.

The first time I read Pride and Prejudice was the March Break when I was 15 and Lisa and I went to spend a few days with Carmen in Cornwall where she had started her first job as a speech therapist after graduation.  I think I had read Emma the year before, and although I enjoyed the story, did NOT like Emma herself.  She reminded me a little too much of a pretentious girl I knew and I'm afraid Emma's good qualities were overlooked as I melded the two in my mind.  Emma has never been a favourite, and I suspect that early association is the cause.

Elizabeth Bennet is something else, however.  Never had I read a book about a character so quick-witted and playful, so adaptable and socially at ease that inspired me to better myself.  Elizabeth Bennet was everything I wanted to be and felt I was not.  She was my mentor and my guiding light, my model for unattainable ideal of womanhood for which to strive.  If only I could think of such snappy come-backs, and craft my speech in such a polished and elevated manner!

Melodramatic?  Why yes!  I was 15.

But there remains an aspect of my own desire for self-improvement to Pride and Prejudice that for me is so often a part of characters I love.  If only I had the patience of Margaret Hale in North and South, or the self-assurance in her own quirkiness of Muriel Pritchett in The Accidental Tourist, or the bravery and selflessness of Nancy in Oliver Twist.  Self-improvement is not the only reason I loved books then, or now, but especially in the years between childhood and young adulthood these models of womanhood were something to hold on to.

Of course, Mr. Darcy was also a big draw.  While Elizabeth learns not to jump to conclusions about new acquaintances quite so quickly, it is Mr. Darcy's transformation that fascinates me the most.  He learns through his interactions with Elizabeth how to overcome his extreme shyness and more honestly reflect through his physical actions what he is feeling and thinking.  Shyness can often be interpreted as arrogance when we first meet an unfamiliar person; reticence in groups, holding oneself apart, social anxiety are all traits that Darcy exhibits when he is first introduced into the society surrounding Netherfield.   Mr. Darcy overcompensates for his discomfort with emotional distance and erects his personal shield which is universally interpreted as arrogance.

Not to say he isn't rude... but I think that after his initial snub of Elizabeth Bennet, Mr. Darcy has an opportunity to see more of her and regrets his rash words to Mr. Bingley.  He is drawn to her (just as we all are!) because of her social ease, her playfulness, her lively nature and her beauty.  He hovers on the edge of conversations, anxious to take part but not able to overcome his reticence enough to step outside his comfort zone.  It is the Bingley sisters who are the real snobs in the Netherfield crowd yet when they are being their most cruelly snobbish, Darcy does not join in with their favourite hobby of Bennet-bashing.

For Elizabeth and all of the members of the neighbourhood, Darcy's every behaviour is seen through the lens of that first impression regardless of his true intentions.  When Mrs. Bennet is visiting Netherfield to check on the ailing Jane, Mr Darcy, in conversation with Elizabeth is misunderstood by Mrs. Bennet:
     "I did not know before," continued Bingley immediately, "that you were a studier of character.  It must be an amusing study."
     "Yes; but intricate characters are the most amusing.  They have at least that advantage."
     "The country," said Darcy, "can in general supply but few subjects for such a study.  In a country neighbourhood you move in a very confined and unvarying society."
     "But people themselves alter so much, that there is something new to be observed in them for ever."
     "Yes, indeed," cried Mrs. Bennet, offended by his manner of mentioning a country neighbourhood.  "I assure you there is quite as much of that going on in the country as in town."
     Every body was surprised; and Darcy, after looking at her for a moment, turned silently away.
     [...] "Indeed, Mamma, you are mistaken," said Elizabeth, blushing for her mother.  "You quite mistook Mr. Darcy.  He only meant that there were not such a variety of people to be met with in the country as in town, which you must acknowledge to be true."
Actors playing Mr. Darcy always seem to make this a moment where he is being intentionally unpleasant regarding the deficiencies of the country lifestyle, and snobbishly turn away from Mrs. Bennet as an unworthy conversation partner.  I've always felt sorry for Mr. Darcy here, and feel that he is merely attempting to join the conversation by acknowledging a simple fact, only to be misinterpreted by the defensive Mrs. Bennet.  The "after looking at her for a moment, [he] turned silently away" breaks my heart a little, for I think he turns away not out of pomposity, but of utter embarrassment.

Of course, Elizabeth does not always give Mr. Darcy the benefit of the doubt either, and is just as quick to take offence when none is intended when she perceives that her own pride is at stake.  During one of the evenings of Jane's illness Elizabeth immediately assumes the worst of Mr. Darcy's motivations:
     After playing some Italian songs, Miss Bingley varied the charm by a lively Scotch air; and soon afterwards Mr. Darcy, drawing near Elizabeth, said to her -
     "Do not you feel a great inclination, Miss Bennet, to seize such an opportunity of dancing a reel?"
     She smiled, but made no answer.  He repeated the question, with some surprise at her silence.
     "Oh!" said she, "I heard you before; but I could not immediately determine what to say in reply.  You wanted me, I know, to say 'Yes,' that you might have the pleasure of despising my taste; but I always delight in overthrowing those kind of schemes, and cheating a person of their premeditated contempt.  I have therefore made up my mind to tell you, that I do not want to dance a reel at all - and now despise me if you dare."
     "Indeed I do not dare."
Poor Mr. Darcy.  Shot down!  During those evenings at Netherfield while he is circling around Elizabeth at a safely discreet distance, he makes little forays of interaction by trying to include her in conversations, by paying subtle compliments ("and to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading") but she only sees these in the light with which she first viewed him.

But Elizabeth and Mrs. Bennet are not the only people who misinterpret Mr. Darcy's shyness for arrogance.  It is generally stated a number of times that he was generally thought to be a proud and disdainful young man by the general population of Hertfordshire.  His stand-offish manners are compared to the easy amiability of Mr. Bingley and he falls short.  Because the general population is in awe of him because of his status as rich and powerful, they are disappointed that he does not take pains to put them at ease in his presence.  This is too much to expect from such a painfully shy man, rich or not!  With the responsibility of making acquaintances and conversation all on his side, poor Mrs. Long, and everyone else, felt snubbed when he did not "chatter on" to set her at ease.  But, with the introduction of Miss Georgiana Darcy, about whom much the same opinion is held amongst the locals around Pemberley, we are given a clue as to how to read her brother's character.
Miss Darcy and her brother appeared, and this formidable introduction took place.  With astonishment did Elizabeth see, that her new acquaintance was at least as much embarrassed as herself.  Since her being at Lambton, she had heard that Miss Darcy was exceedingly proud; but the observation of a very few minutes convinced her, that she was only exceedingly shy.  She found it difficult to obtain even a word from her beyond a monosyllable.
But Mr. Darcy begins to find his voice half way through the novel when, Elizabeth Bennet plays the piano at Rosings Park and he is able to respond to her more than a few words at a time.
     When coffee was over, Colonel Fitzwilliam reminded Elizabeth of having promised to play to him; and she sat down directly to the instrument.  He drew a chair near her.  Lady Catherine listened to half a song, and then talked, as before, to her other nephew; till the latter walked away from her, and moving with his usual deliberation towards the piano-forte, stationed himself so as to command a full view of the fair performer's countenance.  Elizabeth saw what he was doing, and at the first convenient pause, turned to him with an arch smile, and said,
     "You mean to frighten me, Mr. Darcy, by coming in all this state to hear me?  But I will not be alarmed though your sister does play so well.  There is a stubbornness about me that never can bear to be frightened at the will of others.  My courage always rises with every attempt to intimidate me."
     "I shall not say that you are mistaken," he replied, "because you could not really believe me to entertain any design of alarming you; and I have had the pleasure of your acquaintance long enough to know, that you find great enjoyment in occasionally professing opinions which in fact are not your own."
Luckily for our reading enjoyment, Elizabeth Bennet becomes a little more reticent like Mr. Darcy, and Mr. Darcy in his turn gains some of Elizabeth Bennet's liveliness through their interaction and continued acquaintanceship.  Like all the best marriages, they begin to understand each others true nature and motivations and value them.  The real wonder is that after such a disastrous first impression they have enough opportunity in such a society to finally work out their misunderstandings and appreciate each other fully.

Although the main obstacle Mr. Darcy is trying to overlook when he initially falls in love with Elizabeth Bennet is the behaviour of her family, he is given time as a result of her rejection to examine the behaviour of his own friends and family a little more closely.  He blushes when he thinks of how Lady Catherine's arrogance and bossiness must be interpreted by Elizabeth.  While Elizabeth is eventually able to recognize the truth of his intentions in retrospect by her own self-examination, Mr. Darcy is able to see what part of the misunderstandings have been a result of his own behaviour.  Because they are both willing to adapt and adjust to their new perceptions they come together in harmony at last.



{Update: It appears this topic is in the ether for there is quite a conversation raging over at Simon's blog post "Rethinking Darcy" on this very topic!  Check it out!  And also have a look at the list of Mr. Darcy links on Claire's blog post "In Lieu of a Review" which led me to Simon's in the first place.}

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Generals Die in Bed by Charles Yale Harrison


First published in 1930, Generals Die in Bed by Charles Yale Harrison is a powerful and harrowing anti-war novel based on Harrison's own experiences serving as a machine gunner in France and Belgium with the Royal Montreal Regiment in the First World War.  Narrated in the first person, present tense (a tricky one to get right!) by an unnamed young Canadian soldier who, by the time he is wounded at Amiens, is the sole surviving member of his section, General Die in Bed is a story that will stick with you long after you put the book down.

In the introduction of my edition (the one pictured above), Robert F. Nielson quotes the English novelist Ford Madox Ford: 
I think this is a hell of a good book.  It is a plain unvarnished account of things without any literary frills - it ought to be a good antidote for all the gush of ain't-it-awful literature which romanticizes war in a subtle sort of way.  Generals Die in Bed has a sort of flat-footed straightness about it that gets down the torture of the front line about as accurately as one can ever get it, I think.
That "flat-footed straightness" is reminiscent of Ernest Hemingway's writing style with it's short sentences and lack of emotion.  For example:
We are filthy, our bodies are the colour of the earth we have been living in these past months.  We are alive with vermin and sit picking at ourselves like baboons.  It is months since we have been out of our clothes.  We begin to talk of the last time we slept between sheets.  A flood of reminiscences begins. (39)
and, 
     I stumble along the trench looking for my section.  It is quite dark, there are no lights in the sky.  No moon, no stars.
      I reach the front line.  I recognize faces.  My name is called.  It is Fry.  He grasps my hand and shakes it heartily.  His face is serious.
      "You did fine, I hear," he says.  "They're all talking about it.  You're going to get he M.M."
      "Where's Cleary?" I ask.
      "He got it," Fry replies.
      "Where? How?" I ask.
      "Right over here."  He points a finger.  "As soon as the barrage started they sent over a couple of heavies.  A hunk of shell caved his helmet in.  He's down at the M.O.'s dugout."
      I dash off down the trench.  I begin to cry.  Tears stream down my face.
      It begins to rain.
      The drops fall on my tin helmet, making a ping-pong noise.  The water splashes my face.  It trickles down the gaping collar of my tunic. (126-127)
Events that are too horrifying to contemplate are related in this factual manner, which offers the appearance of them being less horrifying than they really are, and replicates the coping mechanisms used by the soldier.  Yet, at the same time, this emotional detachment increases the horror we, the readers, feel at the brutalizing effects of the trench conditions, and the effects of warfare on the soldiers.  Harrison repeatedly uses imagery to reveal through contrast or irony such as the rain concealing his tears, and gently pinging his helmet in contrast to what has just happened to Cleary's helmet.


Harrison explores many themes in his short novel.  The soldiers experience animorphism as they burrow into the sides of trenches for protection from the rain of shrapnel, and as they wolf their rations and scramble for the food of the recently deceased.  The demeaning effects of living with the dirt and vermin is detailed in this factual manner.  The most anti-war aspect of the novel is the repudiation of the propaganda that this was a "gentleman's war."  The uninformed and brutalized foot soldiers were not fighting the same enemy as the public at home.  At home, the newspapers were casting the Germans in the roll of the enemy, but for the soldiers in the trenches it was a different focus altogether:
     We have learned who our enemies are - the lice, some of our officers and Death.  Of the first two we speak continually, the last we rarely refer to.
     Strangely, we never refer to the Germans as our enemy.  In the week-old newspaper which comes up from the base we read of the enemy and the Hun, but this is newspaper talk and we place no stock in it.  Instead we call him Heinie and Fritz.  The nearest we get to unfriendliness is when we call him "square-head."  But our persistent and ever-present foe is the louse.
But this blase attitude toward the enemy does not stop them from the terrible acts they were forced to commit against the boys in the other trench just as innocent and pathetic as themselves.  The real enemy are the voices that propagate the need for war, such as businessmen who are getting rich from the manufacture of wartime necessities.

When the narrator is granted a ten-day leave in London he indulges in all the commonplace activities about which he has fantasized whilst in the trenches.  He sleeps between clean sheets, fills his belly with food and drink, and visits the entertainment halls with a girl named Gladys.  He is appalled by the comedy routines in the music halls:
     I buy the tickets for the theatre.  Inside the performance has started.
     On the stage a vulgar-faced comic is prancing up and down the apron of the stage singing.  Behind him about fifty girls dressed in gauzy khaki stage uniforms, who look like lewd female Tommies, dance to the tune of the music.  Their breasts bob up and down as they dance and sing:
Oh, it's a lovely war.
What do we care for eggs and ham
When we have plum and apple jam?
Quick march, right turn.
What do we do with the money we earn?
Oh, oh, oh, it's a lovely war.
     The tempo is quick, the orchestra crashes, the trombones slide, the comic pulls impossible faces.
     The audience shrieks with laughter.  Gladys laughs until tears roll down her face.
     The chorus marches into the wings.  A Union Jack comes down at the back of the stage.  The audience applauds and cheers.
     I feel miserable.
     The fat comic - the half undressed actresses - somehow make me think of the line.  I look about me.  There are very few men on leave in the theater.  The place is full of smooth-faced civilians.  I feel they have no right to laugh at jokes about the war.
     I hear Gladys' voice.
     "Don't you like it, boy?"
     "No, these people have no right to laugh."
     "But, silly, they are trying to forget."
     "They have no business to forget.  They should be made to remember."
     [...] I cannot formulate my hatred of these people.  My head is fuzzy but I feel that people should not be sitting laughing at jokes about plum and apple jam when boys are dying out in France.  They sit here in stiff shirts, their faces and jowls are smooth with daily shaving and dainty cosmetics, their bellies are full, and out there were are being eaten by lice, we are sitting trembling in shivering dugouts...
The narrator expresses more outrage at the behaviour of the Londoner's in the music hall than he ever does at the Germans he is fighting.

I highly recommend this novel!  Anyone who enjoys novels about the First World War, or books written with a sparse, reportorial style similar to Ernest Hemingway's will find Generals Die in Bed a stunning achievement.  The imagery will stay with you long after you put the book down.  This moving anti-war novel is most impressive when he allows us to experience the real trauma and sacrifice as well as sharing the narrator's realization of the futility to all the suffering.  The truth of his perspective lies in the authenticity of his words.  He is not there to prove or disprove any philosophical arguments about war - he records his experiences and allows the reader to draw his/her own conclusions.


Recommended Reading:

All Our Yesterdays by H. M. Tomlinson
God's Sparrows by Philip Child
Her Privates We by Frederick Manning
A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves
Memoirs of an Infantry Officer by Siegfried Sassoon

Thursday, 10 January 2013

The Sacrifice by Adele Wiseman


I came to this novel without a single pre-conceived notion.  I am somewhat ashamed to say that I knew nothing beyond the title, which is suitably evocative and mysterious.  My copy's cover (Macmillan Paperback 1988) depicts a silhouette of a train car and the image of a young man in one window.  All I knew about Adele Wiseman was that she had been friends with Margaret Laurence - that both had originated in Manitoba, and that they corresponded frequently enough that their letters have been published in book form (John Lennox, ed.).  Reading this book "blind" was a wonderful experience, for the story unfolds in a gentle manner.  I hardly know what to say here because I so much enjoyed this gradual unfolding.  I will therefore be very vague about what I write so as not to ruin the experience for anyone else.

I will say that, if not exactly a modern reworking of the biblical story of the life of Abraham, The Sacrifice draws heavily upon it.  Ahhh, Abraham... the sacrifice... for those of us with Judeo-Christian heritage this may ring some bells!  This Abraham, like his biblical counterpart has a son named Isaac (and a wife named Sarah, to bring the point home).  The biblical Abraham obeys the message from God and is on the verge of sacrificing his son when God spares Isaac and presents Abraham with an animal to sacrifice instead.  Adele Wiseman explores many themes, beginning most obviously with the nature of sacrifice.  There are as many variations on the theme as there are characters.

The Sacrifice is a story of the immigrant experience.  This family is the Everyman family, reflecting through their relative anonymity their symbolic state.  The intentional vagueness not only of their names (we never learn their surname), their origins (an unnamed village in Ukraine), the exact time period, as well as the North American city in which they eventually settle (although it is commonly supposed to be Winnipeg). Abraham, Sarah and Isaac are on the train west, but unlike most immigrant stories in which the newcomers are represented as gibbering, gesticulating, poorly educated and meekly aware of his own deficiencies, we find in The Sacrifice a curious reversal:

As though summoned, the conductor entered the coach.  Abraham turned his head and beckoned imperatively.

"Where are we?" he asked in Ukrainian, tentatively, his red-rimmed eyes gleaming with excitement, his loud voice muted to a hoarse whisper.

The man stooped, his face polite, questioning, and to Abraham offensively vacant in its noncomprehension.  "I beg your pardon?" he said in English.

"Where are we stopping, please?" Abraham asked urgently in Yiddish, speaking slowly and patiently so that the man must understand.

The conductor shook his head.  "No speak, no speak," he said, pointing to Abraham's mouth, then to his own, with a deprecating gesture.

Abraham looked at the man with irritation.  Was there anyone on the train who could do anything but make faces and smile?  "Why does the train stop?" he asked suddenly, hopefully, in Polish.

The conductor shook his head helplessly.

Abraham leaned forward and gestured wildly toward the window to where the lights blinked in the distance.

The conductor, as though realizing something, smiled a broad, reassuring smile, shook his head vigorously, patted Abraham lightly on the arm, and made as if to move on.

"The train! stop! why? What city? roared the Jew in exasperation, spitting out the words in broken German.

[...] "Animals here," muttered Abraham, subsiding and turning helplessly to his son.  "They can only gibber and gesticulate."
It is the native who is uneducated and unintelligible, bestial in his ability to "only gibber and gesticulate," as viewed by the multilingual immigrant.  This play with perspective continues throughout the novel as Adele Wiseman explores each character from various points of view: we learn through the omniscient narrator, through their own inner dialogue, and their actual dialogue the true nature of each character.  This free access allows us a clearer view into their personalities and motivations.  The well-intentioned are understood even when their actions cause pain; the shallow and misguided are not redeemed through their thoughts.  Because we become so well acquainted with each character there is a verisimilitude in every action.  We experience such a range of emotions in The Sacrifice: there is the loneliness of the aging widow, the grief over lost family members, guilt of the survivor, pride of father for son, love and pain and joy and terror.

Awarded the Governor General's Literary Prize for Fiction in 1956, this was Adele Wiseman's first novel.  Her parents were Russian Jews who had fled the pogroms.  Although she was writing no doubt from her own experience there is never a feeling of the autobiographical first novel (no angst-ridden young writer character madly scribbling in the corner!).  With the sublety of an old pro, Adele Wiseman creates a complex character-driven story.  It is one of those "not much happens" kind of books, until all of a sudden it does and then all the character building pays off, and we have real insight into the motivations that drive the action.  Although I really, really enjoyed this novel, I will admit that even while enjoying every page, The Sacrifice felt slow-moving at times.  But, it drew me in to the community, focusing on the family and a small circle of their friends and associates.  Just as my enthusiasm was on the verge of dipping, I once again became riveted and the last quarter of the novel is thought provoking and dramatic and had me on the edge of my seat.  This novel will reward repeated re-readings, and I enjoyed it enough to do just that.  In fact, this would make a wonderful subject for an indepth study. 

Adele Wiseman
(image from here)


Other Books by Adele Wiseman:

Crackpot (1974)
Old Markets, New World (1964) - her reminiscences of the Winnipeg Farmers' Market
Testimonial Dinner (1978) - a play
Kenji and the Cricket (1986) - a children's story
Memoirs of a Book-Molesting Childhood (1987) - essays
Puccini and the Prowlers (1992) - a children's story

Selected Letters of Margaret Laurence and Adele Wiseman.  John Lennox and Ruth Panofsky (ed.) (1997)

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

The Old Capital by Yasunari Kawabata


A beautiful evocation of the city of Kyoto, The Old Capital by Yasunari Kawabata is a masterpiece.  It was cited as one of three works by Kawabata when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968 along with Snow Country and Thousand Cranes.  Kawabata lived from 1899 to 1972.


The story focuses on Chieko, a young woman both good, and beautiful who loves and honours her adoptive parents.  There are inconsistent stories of how she came to live with the couple she thinks of as her parents; was she stolen, or was she a foundling?  But Chieko becomes more curious about her past when she encounters a lost connection she never knew she had.

I know that there was a lot that I missed from this book because I am not familiar with all the locations, or the festivals, or the cultural significance of important aspects of the story.  I was at a total loss to understand the significance of, for instance The Imperial Offering of Cucumbers, although it certainly sounds like something I'd enjoy, being a fan of the vegetable myself.

I am reading the 1987 version of J. Martin Holman's translation.  I am interested to do a comparison with the 2006 updated edition to see if some of the difficulty I had with the text was my failure to understand the conventions of Japanese literature.  I was well aware through the entire novel that I was reading a translation.  Is this a bad thing?  To tell the truth, I'm not sure.  It is a translation, so there is an honesty in reading something that sounds like a translation.  I am always aware that I am reading through an intermediary.  However, this creates a distance from the characters when the dialogue sounds like they are not speaking their own language.  There is a jerkiness, a halting manner that may or may not be the author's style.

If I knew more about Japanese culture I think the symbolism and significance in the novel would have added a great deal to the writing.  However, the book is a delight just from a narrative point of view.  The characters of Chieko and Naeko are delightful, and their interactions with the other characters honest and varied.  The way Chieko can be playful with Shin'ichi, and yet so thoughtful with her parents gave her a depth of character that revealed her personality in a subtle, indirect manner.

Yasunari Kawabata (from here)

I had a wonderful browse through some photos from Kyoto as I read The Old Capital.  These are from our trip there a few years ago.  We visited the Ninnaji Temple and Arashiyama so I was fascinated to read about both of those locations in the novel.  Through the magic of Google Streetview I was able to look up some of the locations in The Old Capital.

In Arashiyama, Kyoto

In Arashiyama, Kyoto

At the Ninnaji Temple, Kyoto
Bamboo grove in Kyoto
My niece in her yukata

Kyoto

Sunday, 6 January 2013

The Japan We Never Knew by David Suzuki and Keibo Oiwa


Published in 1996, The Japan We Never Knew: A Journey of Discovery is the collaborative work of David Suzuki, a third-generation Japanese-Canadian biologist, professor, writer and broadcaster who is also the founder of an internationally renowned environmental organization, and Keibo Oiwa an anthropologist, writer and translator who was raised in Japan and now teaches International Studies at Meiji Gakuin University in Yokohama.  They journeyed in search of a world that exists contrary to the prevailing images of Japan as the economic powerhouse and the environmental transgressor.  As they travelled, they met and interviewed individuals with fascinating stories to tell about the work they are doing for justice, equality, awareness and reparation for past wrongs.

This is a book of hope for we meet some truly amazing people who are doing some truly amazing things.  Artists and farmers and activists and mayors and children and protesters are all featured as well as many, many others.  I enjoyed how the stories were told most poignantly in their own words, and Suzuki and Oiwa maintain the integrity of their interview subject's words by quoting them directly and extensively.  I would wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone interested in looking below the surface of the stereotypes and exploring another side to the predominant image of Japan.  I learned many things I did not know about Japan, even after visiting the country.  I am fascinated by the history of Okinawa, a region about which I remain woefully ignorant, and the affects of the Second World War on the people and landscape.

Beyond the stated purpose of the book there is an underlying theme of the search for individual identity.  As a sansei (third-generation émigré) David Suzuki struggled with growing up Canadian with a Japanese face, and feeling disconnected with the culture of Japan although physically he fit in.  Born in 1936, he was subject to the loss of family property and internment of Japanese-Canadians during the war.  Keibo Oiwa's life was also dramatically altered by the war, since his father was unable to return, post-war, to his native Korea and so adopted his Japanese identity, not even telling Keibo, who believed himself to be Japanese, of his Korean heritage.  Both of the authors lost their fathers soon before the publication of this book and there is a poignancy to the epilogue I found sincerely touching.

David Suzuki

Keibo Oiwa

Friday, 4 January 2013

The Jade Peony by Wayson Choy


Set in the 1930s and 1940s, The Jade Peony is the story of an immigrant Chinese family living in Vancouver, British Columbia and told in three separate first person accounts.  First, we hear the story of Jook-Liang, the only daughter in the Chen family.  A young girl fascinated by Shirley Temple, tap dance and Chinese fables, Liang is comfortable in her position in the middle ground between Chinese and Canadian cultures.  She befriends, and is befriended by an old Chinese man with a kind heart and a deformed body whom she first thinks is the Monkey King, a figure in Chinese folklore. We then learn about the life of the second brother, Jung-Sum, who finds his place in the boxing gym but is confused about his personal identity and how he fits into his society.  Third brother, Sek-Lung tells a poignant story of overcoming childhood illness, attending school, and of befriending his babysitter and her forbidden boyfriend.  Each of the children has to forge his or her own identity from the Chinese and Canadian cultures that surround the family as well as from their own personalities.  In the background of the story is the omnipresence of the war between Japan and China.

Wayson Choy does a wonderful job evoking the difficulty with communication between China and Canada for the immigrants who left their families and friends behind, and the anxieties in the adult world about the family they have left behind.  Although the children are aware that the adults around them are anxious, the war to them is a distant and abstract notion.  The children in the novel search to find what the distant war means to each of them.  The events in China have direct and person affects on the adults but these ties are removed from the children emotionally, having no first hand knowledge of the country or the people.  His ability to speak with such realism in the voice of a child left me marvelling!

Wayson Choy

The construction of this novel reminded me of three separate but related novellas or short fiction.  Each story had a distinct voice and time period in the history of the family.  It was like reading a 3D  portrait of the changing landscape in family life.  As a child from a large family, I enjoyed this aspect of the novel's construction.  My siblings' childhoods were as different as the three children in this family although we all shared the same parents and home.  Each child lives in a different time and space by the very nature of being born in different years. I was more interested in the first and last sections and found the middle part of the book to drag a little.   The winner of the 1995 Trillium Book Award, (also awarded to its sequel All That Matters), and of the 1995 City of Vancouver Book Award and chosen as one of the five books in the 2010 CBC Canada ReadsThe Jade Peony deserves these accolades and more!

Also by Wayson Choy:

Paper Shadows: A Chinatown Childhood (1999) - memoir
All That Matters (2004) - a return to the story of the Chen family

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

My Ántonia by Willa Cather


My Ántonia by Willa Cather, originally published in 1918 is the story of Ántonia Shimerda, a Bohemian immigrant to the Nebraska prairie in the early days of western settlement.  Written by the fictional narrator Jim Burden who first meets her when he is ten years old.  Recently orphaned, he travels by train from Virginia to Nebraska in the company of a hired hand.  On the same train is Ántonia's family, poor and ill-equipped for the mental and physical hardships that await them.  As their life paths intersect and diverge again and again, the beautiful lifelong friendship between Jim and Ántonia survives against the odds.

Although Ántonia is the title character, it is the bond between she and Jim that resonates with me as the central focus of the novel.  There is a beautiful poignancy to the arch of their relationship, and the way Jim and Ántonia care so much for each other with unrelenting dedication regardless of barriers of language, gender, social class and education.

The beauty of the land is ever-present, and although harsh, the grandeur and freedom of life in it captivates young Jim.  It is a place of vitality and energy, unforgiving to the lazy, the old or the infirm.  That vitality and movement is one of the first thing Jim notices when he arrives in Nebraska:
As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea.  The red of the grass made all the great prairie the colour of wine-stains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up.  And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running.
The land is the country, and the country is the nation.  For it is on the shoulders of these early pioneers that America was built.  Willa Cather tells the story of these pioneers from the inside, for we become part of the community of farmers and townsfolk who survive together to develop lives a little less difficult than their predecessors.
  
Willa Cather
This was a novel that felt like a letter from the past.  It was easy reading full of fascinating characters, peppered with lovely descriptive passages of the land, and riveting stories that became like a mythology of the growing country.  I loved the stories the characters tell - I was riveted by the story of Russian Peter and the wolves! - and the histories Cather gives to many characters that extend beyond the time and space of the novel.  But above all this loveliness and truth are the characters of Jim and Antonia who are so real, so true and so beautiful.

Willa Cather's Novels:

Alexander's Bridge (1912)
O Pioneers! (1913) (Prairie Trilogy)
The Song of the Lark (1915) (Prairie Trilogy)
My Ántonia (1918) (Prairie Trilogy)
One of Ours (1922)
A Lost Lady (1923)
The Professor's House (1925)
My Mortal Enemy (1926)
Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927)
Shadows on the Rock (1931)
Lucy Gayheart (1935)
Sapphira and the Slave Girl (1940)