Thursday, February 24, 2011

Tom's Midnight Garden

I read a lot of classics when I was a kid. The majority of them were set in Victorian England, either in the London or in some country manor house. In some ways, these kinds of settings become a comfortable standard; the idea that the characters will find secret passageways or discover the answer to some longstanding family secret is a given, and you can sit back and enjoy the rest of the details, knowing that something will be solved in the end. The protagonists are typically children who are either orphaned and sent to live with distant and aloof relatives, or children whose parents are far away for some reason and as a result are in the clutches of someone less than desirable. Philippa Pearce's novel Tom's Midnight Garden turns most of these tropes on their heads. The book is set in 1950s England, in a block of flats, and Tom – our child protagonist – is staying with his doting aunt and uncle.

Tom is staying with his aunt and uncle because his brother got measles. And, worst of all, he is sent away at the very beginning of the summer holidays. His parents' home has a big back garden and he had all kinds of summer projects and adventures planned for it, but his aunt and uncle live on a second-floor flat, in a building without a garden, and he is confined to inside because he might be contagious. For an 10- or 11-year-old boy, this may as well be a prison sentence. 

After a few days of dismally poking around and basically sulking that he isn't at home, Tom is lying in bed one night wide awake when he hears something strange: the grandfather clock in the downstairs entry hall, which is notoriously confused about the time, strikes 13. This is beyond any of Tom's experience. The clock often strikes the wrong hour, but never has it struck an hour that doesn't exist. Naturally, Tom decides to investigate. He heads out of the flat, quite quietly, and down the stairs. The hall is dark, though, so Tom goes opens the back door to get a better look at the clock, whose hands point to midnight, like they ought to. A bit disappointed, Tom heads back to close the door when he gets a glimpse of a huge garden. Jackpot.

Tom starts spending every night in the garden, a past time aided by the discovery that the time he spends in the garden is negligible in the apartment – hours spent climbing trees and exploring all the different areas don't even rack up minutes in the upstairs world. Now, after weeks of languishing inside, eating rich meals and getting no exercise or fresh air, Tom can play outdoors all night long and not even lose sleep. Things improve further when Tom meets Hatty, a little girl who is also in the garden, and the only person there who seems able to see Tom. Strangely, although Tom can climb the trees and walk around, he is unable to leave any kind of trace in the garden, or open any of the gates or greenhouse doors. He is, in a way, like a ghost. He and Hatty actually get into a fight about that. She says he must be a ghost because he is dressed so strangely (in his pajamas) and only appears every so often; he declares that she must be a ghost because she is dressed in old-fashioned clothes.

Hatty also ages much more quickly than Tom, and although he visits the garden each night in his own time, the seasons change and she grows older at a rapid rate. Although their friendship began with him as the older child, soon she passes him in age. Just when you begin to wonder whether it's all a dreamland of a bored child, winter in the garden arrives and Tom makes Hatty promise that when she leaves the house she will hide her skates under the floorboards in her bedroom, which he has discovered to be the same room he sleeps in. The next morning he checks the space under the floorboards and, voila, skates. Hatty is, or at least was, real.

Tom's Midnight Garden plays a lot on Victorian stories about lonely children and ghostly encounters, but it does so while harnessing the angst of a bored and confused 20th century boy. The two halves of the narrative – split between Tom's days and nights – tell a kind of coming-to-age story that is more about Tom coming to understand how the world changes and moves on than about him falling in love. Of course, the mystery of the garden is solved in the end, but the night that Tom goes to find it and it isn't there waiting for him is truly devastating. He is heartbroken that the garden isn't there, and his realization of the truth – and reunion with the real-life Hatty – is as joyous as the earlier scene is disastrous. 

Pearce is a subtle writer, and although this is a story aimed at children, what she says about our secret desires and how we feel when things don't work out is as applicable to adults as kids. Tom needed the midnight garden, just as Hatty – who grew up to be the old woman who lives upstairs – needed to relive her childhood memories, which made the garden real again. The story is a relatively simple one, but it's honestly and unguarded emotion are enough to draw you in. Much like both Hatty and Tom, Pearce's vision of a midnight garden is somewhere you will want to revisit again and again.

Tom's Midnight Garden
by Philippa Pearce
First published in 1958 (cover image shown from Greenwillow Books edition)

Thursday, February 17, 2011


It's kind of amazing how much three days can change how we feel about a month. February always feels like it flies by, like it's so much shorter than every other month, but really, it's not that far removed from January. The real difference is that we expect February to make up for its shortness by cramming it full of other things. First there's Groundhog Day, then Valentine's, then Family Day (if you live in Ontario). It's a month filled with manufactured and relatively insincere holidays, but for some reason, having a calendar holiday in almost every week just serves to make the month go by more quickly. Unless, of course, February is an annual reminder of loss, of change, of bleak skies and dangerous storms. The Ocean Ranger, an oil rig off the coast of Newfoundland, sank on Valentine's Day 1982; there were no survivors. For the families of the men who died, February suddenly became the month around which their year pivoted, mercifully short because of the emotional impact it smacked them with every year. In her novel February, Lisa Moore tells the story of Helen O'Mara, whose husband Cal died on the Ocean Ranger. Moore's characters are fictional, but her story, and the way it ebbs and flows around the events of Feb. 14, 1982, speak of very real lives.

Rather than taking a linear approach to the story, with the Ocean Ranger disaster the initial conflict or later apex, Moore roams through the lives of her characters. The novel's present is more or less now, and its real-time story line takes place over a little more than a year. Moving in and out of this straight and forward-moving plot line run all the lines of Helen's memory, as well as an extended aside about her son John. John doesn't live in St. John's, but after finding out that he is going to have a child with a woman he hardly knows, he decides to come home. His musings and late-night phone calls ground the novel in the present, reminding you that there is more to life – both his and his mother's – than their shared tragedy.

Helen is much less grounded in a day-to-day reality. That isn't to say that she spends all her time in bed crying – she left those days behind her long ago – but her narrative often floats around in time in a way that reminds you of how present the past is for her. Helen's memories of her children growing up, of her early days with Cal, of hearing about the Ocean Ranger, are vivid in their detail and sharp in their emotion. Her desperate need to recreate what happened, to understand the rig and how it worked, as a way to better understand how it could have sunk so quickly, is painful to read, but also understandably cathartic for her. If she can just understand what happened, if she can just picture what Cal was doing, then maybe she can find peace. But there were no survivors, so no one can tell her for sure. 

The way Moore links and builds Helen's memories allows her life to slowly form around you, as if she is someone you are really getting to know. People don't tell their life stories in a straightforward way, they let out big moments and easy details first, not sharing the smaller, more personal, less obviously consequential pieces until later. In some ways, Helen's grief is easier to focus on and talk about then the happy memories below it, or the chance for happiness now. Being sad in the face of great tragedy is much less awkward and embarrassing than sharing the happy, personal memories you have of your dead husband. Reading February is about getting to know Helen by grieving with her. You miss Cal the way she does because of the way she remembers him; as a reader, you regret that you couldn't have met him before his death.

But slowly, Helen's present day begins out win out over her memories. Little by little, her daily routine becomes the more prominent storyline, as if Moore is subtly hinting at the way even people who live in their memories can be pulled back into real life. Moore does this without resorting to cliché moments; there is no eureka moment for Helen, no one action that spurs her toward actively participating in her own life. Rather, she is drawn out. She doesn't say goodbye to Cal exactly, but she allows him to recede in favour of someone new. 

February is one of the most beautifully written books I have read in a long time. The cadence of the language, and the way the word choice reflects the description not just in tangible accuracy but in tone makes for a novel that is greatly coloured by the emotions of the characters. Dialogue flows in and out of description and memory and the consistency of Helen's voice is strangely comforting. February is as much about tone as it is plot, and the way Moore has combined the two makes for a story that is, at times quite breathtaking. If I could spend every month with Moore, I surely would.

by Lisa Moore
First published in 2009 (cover image show from House of Anansi Press edition)

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Canadian Copyright and Bill C-32

The Canadian government is looking to change copyright exceptions for education. Basically, what they want to do is make it so that schools (which comprises everything from elementary schools to universities to any kind of scholarly research, if I'm understanding this correctly) do not have to pay to use and distribute copyright material. What does this mean? Well, on the one hand it means that schools would suddenly have all kinds of free teaching material; on the other hand, it means that the writers who put in all the hard work to produce that material will see no payment for it.

Let me just say that my mum is an author, and her work is often used in schools. Is this a conflict of interest? Well, I'm also a student with an English degree, so I think perhaps those two things cancel each other out. As much as it annoyed me to spend thousands of dollars on books each year, I never begrudged the authors their measly share of that money (and trust me, unless you're a pretty major author you're probably not making a ton of money). 

As author Erna Paris says in the video posted below: "No one else is being asked to subsidize education this way. Principals get paid for their work. ... Computer companies aren't being forced to hand over free machines."And no, that isn't a crazy comparison.

What's at stake her is more than the idea of copyright and intellectual property, though. Authors' abilities to produce the wonderful literature that we celebrate is being threatened, because if their pay cheques are cut any further, they won't be able to dedicate the time to creating the kind of work we want to study in schools, or read, period. Bill C-32 not only cripples authors financially, but it tells them that their work isn't worth anything. That kind of blatant disrespect for our national literature and those who create it is outrageous. 

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Come, Thou Tortoise

When I was a kid, I grew up with cats. We always had a cat (usually two) in the house, and we could never get any other animals (fish, birds, etc.) because it just wouldn't be fair to the cats. We lived too close to the road for a dog. There's something about having an animal in the house – one you look after and whose life you're invested in – that informs the way you grow up. In Jessica Grant's novel Come, Thou Tortoise, Audrey Flowers doesn't have conventional pets. Rather, she has a hand-me-down tortoise named Winnifred and a rescued white lab mouse named Wedge.

Audrey, Oddly, Flowers is living in Portland, Oregon, at the beginning of the novel. She cuts grass and does other general maintenance work, and lives with her tortoise Winnifred, who lives in a purple papier mâché castle that Audrey built after Cliff left. Cliff was the apartment's previous tenant. Cliff brought Audrey to Portland after they met in the Yelps – Alps (wordplay, both in meaning and sound, is a big part of Audrey's world) – and fell in love. Then Cliff left, and gave the tortoise to Audrey. Cliff received the tortoise in the same manner. Winnifred, as it turns out, has been passed down from tenant to tenant for years, undergoing name and status changes each time. Audrey and Winnifred are living relatively contentedly in Portland at the beginning of the novel, but then Audrey gets a phone call.

Her father is in a coma. He was hit by a Christmas tree that was hanging out the side of a pickup, and Audrey must steel herself to get on a plane and fly home to Newfoundland, leaving Winnifred with friends. Before Audrey disembarks in St. John's it's clear she is an unusual woman. Besides the language play, she manages to cause all kinds of trouble both on the plane and in the subsequent airport. Audrey is not a good flyer. It gets worse when she lands, sees her Uncle Thoby, and realizes that she is too late. It's Christmas and there's a provincial election in the works – her dad's two most favourite things – and he won't be around for either.

Audrey is a mess and Uncle Thoby is worse because in Audrey's refusal to deal with it, he has to handle everything. What follows is the most hilarious grief-stricken story I have ever read. Audrey's refusal to face reality is as devastating as the strange things she does to avoid it. Really, the more you get to know her, the more magnetic she becomes, which is certainly because of the care Grant put into her prose – not just the language she uses, but also the way she has structured her novel, from sections to the lack of quotation marks delineating her lively dialogue.

Sometimes odd characters come across as self-consciously different; as if the writer has picked each name and character detail specifically to craft quirky characters who do strange things. Come, Thou Tortoiseis filled with unusual people, but rather than having them seem disingenuous for it, the characters Grant has written are strange because their honesty allows you to see them for who they really are, and deep down, all people are pretty strange, they just know how to hide it.

It says a lot about the atmosphere of Audrey's childhood that she was never taught to put away her strange inner life when other people were around. It's this lack of self-consciousness that allows her to not only believe Wedge, her mouse, was stolen from her father's wake, but to actually go around looking for him and accusing possible suspects – as though life can be solved as easily as Clue, her favourite game. And then her Uncle Thoby goes missing. Well, he leaves without saying goodbye, and suddenly Audrey is alone in St. John's, in her father's old house, with no Wedge and no Winnifred.

But Grant doesn't let her characters, or her readers, give up in despair. Audrey is plucky, and when there's a mystery to work out, she is on the case. And that's one of the best things about Come, Thou Tortoise: it refuses to let you be sad for more than a moment, and instead offers up wonderful moments of insight and observation, coupled with a whimsical, word-play-filled, sense of humour. Add that to a movement between Audrey's present, Audrey's past, and scenes from Winnifred's perspective, and you have a novel that climbs into your head and won't let you think about anything else.Come, Thou Tortoiseis a novel about a lot of things – grief, family, secrets, love – but mostly it is about learning to accept change, and the wonder that is returning home.

Come, Thou Tortoise
by Jessica Grant
First published in 2009 (cover image shown from Vintage Canada edition)

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Canada Reads... The Best Laid Plans

In quite a turnaround, Terry Fallis' novel The Best Laid Plans won this year's Canada Reads, beating The Birth House by Ami McKay in the final round, 4-1. I have to say, I'm pretty surprised, but after a rather predictable start I'm glad to see that Canada Reads can still keep things interesting.

On the other hand, I am not convinced that The Best Laid Plans is the "essential book" of the last decade.  I'm not entirely sure we're quite removed enough from the past decade to go about declaring what the essential book was (it seems like the sort of thing some serious hindsight is needed for). However, I do think it's telling that the debates became about which novels would promote societal change and how they presented the role of women. If this is how we see the legacy of the last decade, then I think I'm okay with that.

In the past, Canada Reads has been about recommending a novel to the country, but the form was spiced up this year and I'm not sure I totally agree with this format (I mentioned this earlier). But, that isn't to take about from Fallis' win. He self-published the novel, won the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour, got a publishing deal from McLelland & Stewart, and has now won Canada Reads. Any way you look at it, that's a spectacular run and it says a lot of good things about Canadian literature.

So, congratulations to Terry Fallis – and Ali Velshi, who did a great job defending the novel – and all the other novelists and defenders on the panel this year. These were the most interesting Canada Reads debates in quite some time, a trend that I sure hope will continue.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Little Women

I'm not sure what it is about cold weather that makes me want to read stories about families, but there you go. I suppose it could be related to fond memories of winter fun as a kid: board games after dinner, building snow houses with my dad and sisters, baking cookies with my mum, and, of course, reading in front of the wood stove. That is a very cosy feeling, and nothing quite brings it back like a dip into Louisa May Alcott's classic, Little Women. Perhaps I'm slightly biased because I have sisters, but Little Women has to be one of the best books on how the relationship between sisters works, at least based on my experience.

Alcott's story of the March sisters Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, their Marmee, and their neighbour, Laurie. It's a coming-of-age story, really – a bildungsroman with a composite cast, although it focuses most on Jo, the second-eldest of the sisters. Jo is a dramatist, a writer, and a bit of a free spirit. The novel is set, as best as I can tell, during the American Civil War (not that war has much to do with the story, except to explain the father's absence for most of it as well as the March family's relative poverty); this kind of explains why the family, despite seeming modern in its sensibilities, remains staunchly conservative in many ways. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, though. A novel about the tension between propriety and impropriety, about women who are growing up in a world that is subtly changing, makes small details (such as the whereabouts of a glove) rather shocking and exciting.

Of course, Little Women hinges on the relationship between the sisters and Marmee. As in every family, there is jealousy and favouritism (Meg and Amy together, Jo and Beth together), but mostly their is camaraderie and love. There is no real mention of outside female friends, which leads the reader to the conclusion that the sisters really just have each other and Marmee to rely on and learn from. But, of course, there is also Laurie, their handsome scamp and kindred spirit from next door.

Laurie's name is actually Theodore Laurence. He lives with his grandfather and is tutored by Mr. Brooke so that one day he can take on the family business. Laurie, like Jo, has a great imagination and as an implied only child, he delights in the company of Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy. After gaining entry to the sisters' secret world of games and society, Laurie quickly becomes a focal point. His grandfather helps out when Beth falls ill, he creates some romantic tension, but mostly he is a wonderful friend, in on all the jokes and rather desperately in love with Jo. I must admit – and I'm sure I'm not alone here – that I had quite a crush on Laurie through most of the book, a feeling that would be inevitably dashed by the end, only to return with each subsequent read.

And that is the power of Alcott's story. She makes you believe that this time, for this one reread of the story, things will work out differently. Maybe this time you'll find out what would have happened if Jo had married Laurie (although, secretly, I was always glad she ended up with an intellectual); maybe this time Beth won't die, I mean, she makes it through her first illness, right? Little Women is such a rich and textural story that Alcott gets you all caught up in the detail and carefully woven fabric of her characters' lives – really, you don't stand a chance. Even though you know what will happen, you still hope it might not, or hold your breath until it does, squirming at the edge of your seat.

Little Women was originally published in two parts: Little Women and Good Wives, but most versions are sold as a combined story under the better-known title. Together, the story carries you from youth into adulthood. The March sisters grown and change, but don't let go of their childhood personalities completely. In many ways, Alcott's characters are real people in their habits and styles, and by allowing them to grow into, rather than out of, themselves, they become more like friends or family than names on a page – perfect for visiting on a cold and snowy day.

Little Women
by Louisa May Alcott
First published in two parts in 1868 and 1869 (cover image shown from Signet Classics edition)
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