Saturday, August 28, 2010

Canadian Book Challenge 4: On My Way To 13

O, my Canadians! Once I put my mind to it, it didn't take long to get off to a good start. Here's what I've read so far for this challenge:

Gone To An Aunt's: Remembering Canada's Homes for Unwed Mothers - Anne Petrie. From the 1930s through the 1960s, unmarried Canadian girls who found themselves unexpectedly pregnant were whisked away from their homes and families under the most secret conditions and sent to serve out their pregnancies at homes designed for unwed mothers. When neighbors or friends remarked on the girls' absences, they were told vaguely by family members that they'd "gone to an aunt's."
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If the term "serve out" sounds a little prison-like, it's not accidental. Many of these institutions, especially the earlier ones, had strict rules about keeping these young women cloistered from society until their babies were born (for example, they could go out into the backyard, but never the front yard in some places or they could only venture out as a group after dark). In some instances, the girls had to assume false names to increase the probability that word wouldn't get out about the girl which could soil her family's reputation.
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Anne Petrie writes about how the girls including her own story, from the late 1960s) were often made to feel ashamed of themselves, hired out as servants to unsympathetic employers, pressured to give up their children for adoption (unless an unwed father could be brought to the altar) and if a girl wanted to keep her baby, she was met with a brick wall of the staunchest disapproval from everyone. Whether the homes were good or bad, sympathetic or strict, all the women interviewed for the book remembered with anger that their feelings and their wishes weren't taken into account -- weren't even considered a thing of importance.
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Much the same thing went on the United States, so I wasn't surprised by these stories. Recently, my mother told me about a relative who turned up unmarried and pregnant. The father of the child was willing to marry her, but the two sets of parents were vain and worried about what the neighbors would think, so without any input from the couple, they arranged for them to be married at a courthouse more than 100 miles away then collaborated on a bogus wedding announcement for the newspaper saying that the couple had eloped 6 months before and had only just revealed their marriage.

I feel as if I'm not so far from those days, either. When I was in high school, once a pregnant female student started to show, she disappeared from classes and finished out the term (hers or the school's, whichever came first) at Marie Detty, the local detention center. When I was a senior, one girl managed to fly under the radar since she was already stockily built and big shirts layered with scarves or vests were the fashion at that time. I remember feeling a flash of admiration that she put one over on the administration. It seemed wrong to me that these girls had to go where the really incorrigible kids went. After all, they hadn't destroyed property or harmed anyone.
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Anne Petrie did good and thorough research and her interviews were in-depth and poignant, but instead of telling each young woman's story in successive chapters, she chronicled their ordeals by the stages of pregnancy. This made it difficult to keep each person straight in my mind as I read. I recommend this book to readers from younger generations so they can compare how much society has changed -- and improved -- in this regard.
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The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz - Mordecai Richler. Like most of the memorable characters in fiction, Duddy doesn't seem so much created as unleashed. The younger of two sons, (his father and uncle have pinned all their hopes on the older son, who's in medical school) he's always in trouble at school for pulling pranks, and in one example, goes too far and drives a teacher over the edge. A cross between Holden Caulfield and Sammy Glick, Duddy would probably be a totally unsympathetic character except that he's fiercely devoted to his family and has decided to make his grandfather's dream of owning land come true, so even before he's graduated from high school, he throws his intellect and creativity into moneymaking schemes. The novel is set in Montreal, and at times, the city seems almost a character in the story. Richler has a nice sense of pacing, an ear for dialogue that crackles and an indefinable gift for making the reader want to punch Duddy in the nose and hug him all at the same time. If you haven't read this book yet, you've got a treat in store. I'm going to try to find the 1974 movie starring Richard Dreyfuss.
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The Diviners - Margaret Laurence. If it isn't already, this should be THE Canadian novel. In the story of Morag Gunn, which spans a few decades, Laurence incorporates Canadian nature, history, a couple of provinces (Manitoba and British Columbia) and splendid Canadian vernacular. Written in 1974, this novel has that 70s kind of earnestness, and in lesser hands, could have been a mess. But it's not that at all, it's brilliant. I also read that it shows up on banned books lists, and, relating back to my first Canadian book in this post, Laurence and this novel have been held responsible by some absurd people for causing all the unwed/teenaged pregnancies in Canada! After I finished The Diviners, I went to Wikipedia and read about Laurence's life. I got a chill when I read about her suicide at 60, since there's an episode in The Diviners that seems eerily like foreshadowing.
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Piling Blood - Al Purdy. I bet Jim and Becka hate to see me coming, because the bookshelves in their living room are getting progressively balder after each visit. I'm not much into poetry, but the evocative images in the title poem made me want to keep reading:
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It was powdered blood
in heavy brown paper bags
supposed to be strong enough
to prevent the stuff from escaping
but didn't
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I forgot to say
the blood was cattle blood
horses sheep and cows
to be used for fertilizer
the foreman said

It was a matter of some delicacy
to plop the bags down softly
as if you were piling dynamite
if you weren't gentle
the stuff would belly out
from bags in brown clouds
settle on your sweating face
cover hands and arms
enter ears and nose
seep inside pants and shirt
reverting back to liquid blood...
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Purdy's range is wide -- he writes about diverse topics such as relationships, Minnesota Fats and his wife, Menelaus and Helen of Troy, his trips to Mexico, the Galapagos Islands, Moscow and other places. I really like that because poetry often feels to me a little cramped up and claustrophobic -- practically airless. Purdy's sense of humor and his sense of wonder emerge in a poem about animals mating. "A Typical Day in Winnipeg" reads like some of the best of Raymond Carver. Purdy is obviously a D.H. Lawrence fan, because there are a couple of poems about him, and the animal-mating poem's title ("The Elephant is Slow to Mate") is from a Lawrence poem. "The Death of DHL" is so immediate, so sad but so beautiful. The last poem, "In The Early Cretaceous" imagines what flowers' first day on the planet was like and how the rest of nature responded to them:
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They came overnight
a hundred million years ago
the first flowers ever
a new thing under the sun
invented by plants
It must have been around 7 A.M.
when a shrew-like mammal stumbled
out of its dark burrow
and peered nearsightedly
at the first flower whiff
an expression close to amazement
and decided it wasn't dangerous
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Happily, I'll have the opportunity to read more of Purdy, because Becka and Jim loaned me another volume called To Paris Never Again, which I'll discuss in my next roundup of Can Lit.

4 comments:

John Mutford said...

I've read the Richler, Laurence and some of the poems in Purdy's book.

The Apprenticeship was probably my least favourite of the 3 Richler novels that I've read (not including the Jacob Two Two books, of course), the other two being Cocksure and Barney's Version. I liked seeing the seeds of what Richler's satire would eventually become, but I definitely think his writing got better with each book.

The Diviners is such a great novel, isn't it? I'd have no problem with it being picked as THE Canadian novel.

raidergirl3 said...

I read Duddy and The Diviners for the first CBC and was impressed as well. I had the same reaction to Duddy as you did - punch and hug him. I've got Barney's Version out from the library now, and hope to get to it soon.

The Aunt book sounds great, a look at recent history for sure.

Keep up the great Canadian reads!

Sandra said...

In my former life as a manuscripts curator, I cataloged the records of a famous maternity home in Chicago. I learned that it got its start in the late 1800s as a refuge for single mothers, to save them from a life on the streets. The women who lived there were adult women in their 20s and 30s, and they lived there with their kids. Amazingly, they were also integrated--I saw photos of black and white women living and working together in the homes. The mission of the homes changed gradually, until by mid-century they were practically baby mills filled with captive white teenagers.

Eva said...

A couple years ago, I read The Girls Who Went Away, which was about the same topic only in the US. It was fascinating and sad.

My sister was pregnant her senior year of high school, and I was impressed by how far things had come: there was a woman who worked for the school district whose sole job was to advocate for the pregnant girls and make sure none of their rights were infringed (my sister was in JROTC, and if she had wanted to, she could have requested a special maternity uniform). That being said, I'm sure that's not the case in every school district, and I'm sure it was still really hard for my sister to go to school each day from the social pressure. I greatly admire how strong she is!