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All Things Consoled by Elizabeth Hay

Entirely by coincidence – or demographics – Elizabeth Hay’s new book All Things Consoled arrived in the store just before I was heading west to see my elderly mother. My mother was in hospital recovering from a fall, a fractured pelvis. She was recovering very well, but her increasing loss of memory is more of a concern. She is now living with me as we make plans to move her into assisted living. She will not be happy – to say the very least. Many baby boomers are in exactly the same situation, making difficult decisions for their aging parents.

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I was very pleased to learn that All Things Consoled was awarded the 2018 Hilary Weston Writer’s Trust Prize for Nonfiction. The jury stated, "Elizabeth Hay’s loving, exacting memoir, All Things Consoled, details the decline of her elderly parents with unflinching tenderness. The path she and her family travel is crooked and long, filled with hospital beds and doctors’ visits, foggy minds, and shuffling confusion. But Hay’s prose elevates this ordinary rite of passage — the death of one’s parents — to something rare and poetic. All Things Consoled becomes, itself, a consolation for anyone despairing at the loose ends that parents leave behind. Page-after-page this is a masterclass in observation — a lesson in how meaning can emerge from grief."

Elizabeth Hay grew up moving around Ontario, with a brief time in England, with her family, her father a teacher, her mother a painter. When her parents became a worry – concern about falls, mostly her mother – the children arranged for them to move into a retirement residence in Ottawa, close to the home of daughter Elizabeth. Elizabeth then spent the next several years being advocate and very “hands on” care giver for her parents for the rest of their lives.

Most interesting to me was the dynamics of the family and the behaviour of the parents, Jean and Gordon Hay. Gordon was a man with a violent temper – as was my father when I was young, my own family home not so very different. And, as with Elizabeth’s family, it was one child who experienced most of the abuse. I, fortunately, unlike Elizabeth, rebelled and like her younger sister I stood my ground. Jean Hay kept the peace, as women, mothers, wives of her generation were wont to do. Jean also ran the household like a stingy quartermaster – nothing was wasted, nothing. It was only after her children became independent that Jean made a bit of a life of her own and turned to painting as a serious pursuit, gaining a reputation as a painter of some importance.

Apart for Elizabeth Hay’s unwavering care and kindness – beyond anything many of us could come close to, I found myself wondering how she could be so kind and forgiving to her father. I know – we love our fathers regardless of whether or not we respect their actions. But – how could she forgive him for leaving behind, in the family home, all of her own books, as each were published, with loving salutations to her parents. And, how sad that Jean had to live in a place where she did not have a studio – no matter that she could no longer work as she had before.

For Elizabeth the death of her parents was the end of their need for her – though perhaps not her need for them. I imagine that All Things Consoled was a way of putting both her childhood and her years as caregiver to her parents into some sort of order. And for all of us, perhaps a way of coming to terms with moving on, and letting go of the need for parental love and approval, as we look to the future, letting the past be truly behind us.

 

MATTHEW BYRNE AT TRESTLE BREWING - WEDNESDAY 14 NOVEMBER 2018

Matthew Byrne – Storytelling through Song

I have read and reviewed a lot of books by writers from Newfoundland over the years. There is a rich literary culture in Newfoundland, and there is also very much a musical culture. In Newfoundland it has been the tradition for family and friends to gather and make music – it is in the blood.

My husband and I had the good fortune a few years to be invited to a party in St. John’s where we meet some of Newfoundland’s most talented musicians. This was a gathering of musicians, young and old, family and friends of Joe and Linda, and of their sons Matthew and Alan. Everyone there sang a song, played an instrument or recited a poem or story – it was an amazing evening and my first introduction to the truly astounding talent of Newfoundlanders, young and old. The next day I headed to Fred’s on Duckworth Street and loaded up on CDs by many of those I met the evening before.

As Matthew says “music is in my blood”. His father, Joe, and his uncle, Pat Byrne, and their friend Baxter Wareham are some of Newfoundland’s most revered musicians. Their recording, made 35 years ago, Towards the Sunset, is still one of the most moving you’ll ever hear.

“Both my parents are from ‘resettled’ communities”, says Matthew Byrne, “these were once fishing villages that have now ceased to exist. Dad was a singer and guitarist, who recorded an album, and Mom was a song collector as well as a singer, and between them they had a huge repertoire that included songs from my grandmother, my great aunt, my great uncle. My mother recorded and wrote down songs from them and our neighbours, and I’m so grateful she did that.”

In 2010 Matthew Byrne released his first album, titled Ballads. He was also performing as a member of the Dardanelles, a band that takes traditional music and ratchets it up a notch.  By 2014 Matthew quit his job at Memorial University to pursue a career as a musician. His second album Hearts & Heroes earned Traditional Album of the Year at the 2015 Canadian Folk Music Awards and widespread praise in North America and abroad. 

Taken with his music, we have followed Matthew Byrne’s career, attending performances and over time we have become friends. His most recent album Horizon Lines explores a unique repertoire of songs from both sides of the Atlantic and continues Matthew’s journey through his own unique musical lineage.

“These songs are windows into the lives of those people, and the time and place in which they lived. The ballads all tell a story, of course, in a way that’s unique. And so, by keeping these ballads alive, this way of telling a story becomes a story in and of itself.” Matthew says, “For me, it’s always been that combination of a beautiful melody with a beautiful story – whether it’s about love or going to sea – which draws me to a song”.

Horizon Lines features not only traditional music from the past, interpreted by Matthew Byrne, but songs and music he has composed himself. Wedding Waltz was composed for his own wedding last fall, and the ballad Adelaide tells the story of an aunt he never knew, a song guaranteed to bring tears to the eyes one and all.

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Some in Parry Sound may think the artwork on the cover of Horizon Lines looks familiar, and will discover that it is taken from the painting Iceberg Off Bonaventure Head, by Alan Stein.

Matthew Byrne will perform at Trestle Brewing Company on Wednesday 14 November at 7 pm. If you have not bought your ticket yet don’t wait any longer – you won’t want to miss this event!

“Matt’s interpretation of traditional songs is somehow fresh and ancient at the same time. And his voice is friggin’ perfect”.  Alan Doyle

 

Follow the Dead by Lin Anderson

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Follow the Dead by Lin Anderson is the 12th in her Rhona MacLeod mystery series, but the first I have read. It certainly will not be the last. I chose this book as it begins in Aviemore, a small town in a valley at the base of the Cairngorm Mountains in the Scottish Highlands. I visited there several years ago on a trip to the Highlands, Orkney and Shetland and thought I’d enjoy the locale as well as the mystery – and I did.

The story begins on 30 December, as villagers and tourists prepare to celebrate Hogmanay (New Years Eve). We meet two couples, long time friends and climbers who have been stranded on the mountain, as they wait out the storm in what is known as Shelter Stone. A place to stay safe until the storm passes and they can descend to Aviemore. However, for these four young climbers it is far from safe.

We also meet DS Michael McNab, about to get a tattoo to disguise the disfiguration of a bullet hole in his back. And, we meet Rhona MacLeod, a forensic scientist who is in Aviemore with her musician boyfriend to celebrate the New Year. Her romantic weekend away is interrupted by the discovery of three bodies in the Shelter Stone, and one missing young woman. There is also a small plane down on a nearby loch, and a missing pilot. The Mountain Rescue crew head to the scene, along with Rhona – and the story begins.

I found Rhona MacLeod’s character especially interesting, her search for forensic evidence and the harvesting of even minute bits that could contain DNA and prove that a particular person was in a particular place. Locard’s principle of “every contact leaves a trace”.

McNab meanwhile is in Glasgow, preparing for a raid on a club that involves both cocaine and underage sex. Here, we are truly into dark territory. A little darker than I am comfortable with, but the story that is developing in the mountains counters the brutality of what is going on in the city. Both the case in Glasgow, and the case in Aviemore are of interest to the Norwegian police, and Detective Alvis Olsen is sent to Scotland to see if there is information available from McNab, and Rhona that will contribute to his own investigation.

Those who have read the earlier novels in the series will know the back-story of the relationship between McNab and MacLeod, and the other secondary characters, but there is enough said that it does not matter if you’ve not read the earlier novels.

I liked all of the characters, and the slowly revealed connections between both investigations that come together during a severe storm on the North Sea, with another horror, that of smuggling of refugee children, is exposed.

Moon of the Crusted Snow by Waubgeshig Rice

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     The crust of the snow he broke was thicker than his snowshoes. He kicked up frozen shrapnel each time he raised a foot. A fine powder lay underneath. The conditions made him think of the specific time of year.

     “Onaabenii Giizis,” he proudly proclaimed out loud. “The moon of the crusted snow.” His words fell flat on the white ground in front of him and he wondered which month that actually was.

     Onaabenii Giizis usually referred to February but it could also apply to early March.

 

These words come closer to the end, than the beginning, of the novel Moon of the Crusted Snow by Waubgeshig Rice.


Waubgeshig Rice grew up in Parry Sound, living most of his life on the Wasauksing First Nation, attending Rosseau Lake College, and Parry Sound High School. He began writing while still in high school and sent on to study Journalism at Ryerson in Toronto, and then to work for the CBC, now hosting CBC's afternoon program Up North.

With parents of both cultures, Waubgeshig grew up in both the native and non-native worlds, in a “totally harmonious, respectful and loving” environment. He brings this unique perspective to his writing.

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Waubgeshig Rice is one of the new wave of young aboriginal people who have chosen to make a success of their lives. By taking control of their future and choosing a path of accomplishment and hard work, rather than becoming victims to substance abuse or mired in the recent history of the oppression of their aboriginal culture. The results of the destruction of the aboriginal way of life, the removal of children from their families, and the establishment of the reservation system are what fuel Waubgeshig’s writing. His earlier two novels, Midnight Sweatlodge and Legacy explore these themes. Most importantly, for me, is that he writes with an honesty that is not coloured by malice. He will change prejudicial attitudes while making all of his readers more aware of the native experience.

More and more, Waubgeshig Rice has realized the importance of his Anishinaabe heritage as something to take pride in and to cherish, and to learn more about. Now in his late-30s, married and the father of a young son, Waubgeshig has also matured as a writer. He brings not only his own experience to his writing, but also a more mature view of the world in which he lives, and the characters he writes about in his new novel.

Moon of the Crusted Snow takes us into the near north – an imagined place – I imagine someplace south of James Bay but well north of Sudbury. This close knit community is doing well. The hydro line put in a few years earlier has provided electricity to the town and the road now makes it possible to drive in supplies in the winter. There is a school, the children are now being taught their own language and culture. Some of the parents who had none of this are learning too. There are still some older people who grew up in the old ways and are eager to share it with the younger people. Things are good. Food is expensive in the Northern store, many still hunt and fish to provide for their families. There are new homes with electric heaters but many still use wood stoves and wood furnaces. Most have satellite television and cell phones.

We meet Evan Whitesky first. He has just shot a moose – one more to put in the freezer for the long winter, enough now to share with his parents and others. He and Nicole McCloud, are young parents of a son and daughter. Evan also works for the band office, and drives a snowplow in winter. All is well.

Then, one day, the television does not get reception. Cell phone service is unavailable. A few days later the landlines do not work. The electricity goes out. Each of these things has happened before, so at first there is no great concern. As days pass there is growing worry. It is not until two of the young men return from the closest town to the south that some of what has happened is revealed.

Waubgeshig Rice has masterfully succeeded in writing a story about how one small community of people find the resources within themselves to survive without the support of the modern world. And, what Waub has done once again, is balance a bleak story with hope.

And again, as he has done before, he portrays his Native culture with unblinking honesty. Readers of all cultures will learn about both the strength and the challenges of the Anishinaabe people in this country.

Waub, unlike so many of the young people in his stories, grew up in a “totally harmonious, respectful and loving” environment, though he is certainly not blind to the situation of many native people in our country, who live in poverty and desperation.

Yet this young writer is, in fact, optimistic about the future of the people he writes about. there is optimism that the community is now in healing, reclaiming their culture and their language.

Waubgeshig Rice will be reading from, and talking about, Moon of the Crusted Snow the evening of 10 November 2018 at Trestle Brewing Company. SOLD OUT

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Refuge by Merilyn Simonds

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Merilyn Simonds will be one of four authors taking part in the Parry Sound Festival of Authors at the Charles W. Stockey Centre the evening of Wednesday 24 October 2018. Merilyn will be reading from her most recent book, Refuge.

Refuge is a story that takes place in Canada, the United States and Mexico, a landscape that Merilyn knows well as she divides her time between Kingston, Ontario and San Miquel de Allende, Mexico.

The novel begins with Cassandra MacCallum, now an elderly woman living in the countryside in Ontario, on an island in a lake, on what was once her family’s farm. Cassandra has received an email from a young woman who claims to be the granddaughter of Cassandra’s son, Charlie O’Brien. But, is she or is she not. Cassandra believed her son to be long dead and had not expected that he would have fathered a child. Is this girl correct in her belief, or is she simply a clever fraud, escaping from Burma, to a refugee camp in Thailand, and then to Canada. Cassandra is not about to believe the girl, but with the encouragement of a young neighbour she is drawn into an attempt to help her.

With each day that passes we are also drawn into the past, and read about Cassandra’s story beginning with her birth on the farm, one of many sisters. After her mother’s death, shortly after giving birth, Cassandra becomes the son her father never had, his constant companion, and student of his scientific experiments.

Much later Cassandra leaves the farm, becoming a nurse, a career that takes her to Mexico, the United States and finally back to Canada. Along the way there are friendships and a love affair resulting in a son who was raised by his mother in New York City, but spent summers with his aunt on the family farm in Ontario.

Born near the beginning of the last century, Cassandra, in her long life lived through the First World War and it’s aftermath, the Great Depression, the Second World War, the polio epidemic and much more. During her time in Mexico City she worked as a nurse caring for Frieda Kahlo before becoming pregnant and fleeing to New York City, where she became Sandra O’Brien and the mother of her son, Charlie.

Cassandra was also a photographer, passionate and inquisitive. An observer who chronicled her discoveries just as her father had when she was a girl. Her photographs and her papers are now with her on the island in Canada. They are part of her past, and now part of her present as she seeks answers to the questions she must now ask about her son, and of this young woman who may, or may not, be her great-grand-daughter.

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I have to say I loved everything about this book. Cassandra’s thoughts as she looks back at her life, recalling comments her father made, thinking about her family and her place in it. Her observations about the time in which she lived, the regret at unkindness and her acknowledgement of the needs of others that she did not see at the time. And, the grief she holds as close as the memories of her son.

Cassandra often thinks of the father she loved so much and the things he said, “Change one thing and the whole world shifts” and “The future can belong to anyone, but the past is ours” are among the many gems of wisdom he shared with his daughter, always remembered.

Merilyn Simonds will be joined by Katherine Ashenburg, James FitzGerald and Wayne Grady at the Charles W. Stockey Centre the evening of 24 October 2018.

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