Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Glass Castle

Jeannette Walls' memoir is lightly written tale of a childhood lived below the poverty line, surviving on barely enough calories, with unwashed clothes in a makeshift shack. The parents are educated and pass on a love of learning and books, but intermittently unemployed and irresponsible, they do not provide the basic necessities for their children. From the Jacket,
    What is so astonishing about Jeannette Walls is not just that she had the guts and tenacity and intelligence to get out, but that she describes her parents with such deep affection and generosity. Hers is a story of triumph against all odds, but also a tender, moving tale of unconditional love in a family that despite its profound flaws gave her the fiery determination to carve out a successful life on her own terms.
Similar memoirs include Frank McCourts Angela's Ashes, and Helen Forrester's series, beginning with Twopence to Cross the Mersey . All of Forrester's books make excellent reading.

A Definition of a Memoir

    A memoir is a piece of autobiographical writing which is often shorter than a comprehensive autobiography. The span of time covered in the memoir is often brief compared to the person's complete life span. The memoir often tries to capture certain highlights or meaningful events in one's past. Included in the memoir is a contemplation of the meaning of that event at the time of the writing. The memoir may be more emotional and descriptive, and concerned with capturing the feelings of the event, rather than documenting every fact and detail of a person's life. A memoir usually has a particular focus of attention, focusing on the selected events from a perspective that may not include other facts and details from the person's life. In other words, the memoir is highly focused and selective in the memories it includes.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

John Buchan

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the incipient racism of John Buchan, a much admired British statesman and author. I often find that the inner dialogue of the fiction writer displays subconsciously the social context of his period in intriguing ways. In my first post I showed how Buchan, writing in 1940, characterized the First Nations as fungi, the halfbreeds as grassy filaments, the American as a shrub with deeper roots, and the British as a solid oak.

While this is of particular significance in Canada, it is representative of the racism of the 1930's elsewhere. I cannot help but find Buchan's views so pervasive as to be unremarkable in his time.

Here is what Grumpy Old Bookman has to say about Buchan and his attitudes. He rightly points out Buchan's about face on Jews. However, I shall not be so forgiving because of his attitudes, expressed in 1940, towards the Native people of North America.
    But one cannot, I suppose – and I say this with a deep sigh – one cannot leave Buchan without touching, briefly, upon his alleged ‘anti-semitism’ and racism.

    It is perfectly true that the 2005 reader, who has had an awareness of political correctness injected into his veins, will wince a bit at some of Buchan’s throwaway remarks. There are references, for example, to a ‘nigger band’ playing in a nightclub. And there are indeed derogatory references to Jews, as in the description of the same nightclub’s clientele: ‘the usual rastaquouère crowd of men and women… mixed with fat Jews and blue-black dagos.’

    Before we get too excited about this, we do have to remember that we are talking about the English (a term which in this instance includes Scottish) upper classes here. Buchan married into the aristocracy, and he mixed with the greatest in the land. It is undeniable that, in the 1920s and 1930s, such people were typically arrogant, and were dismissive of almost everyone on earth apart from those few who came from their own select background. See the film Gosford Park if you want to know how they treated their servants.

    Furthermore, we need to bear in mind that words such as Frog (for Frenchman), and Wog (for an Arab) were in frequent use well into my lifetime. Indeed, when I was a boy we were sometimes cautioned that ‘Wogs begin at Calais’. In other words, you can’t trust anyone but an Englishman; and you can only trust him if he went to the right sort of school.

    With the benefit of hindsight such attitudes are unattractive; but in their day they were commonplace, and it is a little hard to abuse Buchan for being a man of his time.

    Once anti-semitism, in its virulent form, appeared in Nazi Germany, Buchan was quick to condemn it publicly; so much so that Hitler promptly added him to the list of men who, after the proposed German invasion of England, were to be imprisoned for ‘Pro-Jewish activity’. In due course Buchan realised the sensitivity of some of his earlier (and entirely trivial) references to Jews, and eliminated them from his later work. If you wish to know more, the issue has been dealt with in Roger Kimball’s valuable essay on Buchan.

    It would be unfortunate, to say the least, if such a remarkable body of work, by such a remarkably far-sighted man, were to be ignored, or, worse, condemned, on the strength of a few lines here and there.
    My intent is to move next to an examination of Archibald Flemings experiences with the First Nations of Canada.

    Friday, June 22, 2007

    Jesus H. Christ

    Is it Jesus H. Christ or Jesus J. Christ, I wonder? Iyov has blogged about a case of litigation in which Jesus is mentioned as Jesus J. Christ. I am puzzled. Earlier this year I blogged about the anagram JHS or IHS. This has possibly lead to the name Jesus H. Christ, but I don't know where the J. could have come from.

      The IHS monogram is an abbreviation or shortening of Jesus' name in Greek to the first three letters. Thus ΙΗΣΟΥΣ, ιησυς (iēsus, "Jesus"), is shortened to ΙΗΣ (iota-eta-sigma), sometimes transliterated into Latin or English characters as IHS or ΙΗC.

      The symbol is said to appear rarely in the catacombs, only in the catacomb of Priscilla and the atrium of the Capella Græca (Greek Chapel).1 It was popularized in the fifteenth century, however, by Franciscan disciple Bernadine of Sienna as a symbol of peace. In 1541 St. Ignatius Loyola adopted the symbol with three nails below and surrounded by the sun as the seal of the Jesuit order.

      Contrary to some authors, the monogram originally stood for either for Iesus Hominum Salvator ("Jesus Savior of Men") nor for "In His Service." Some attribute its origin to Constantine's vision, where he saw a cross with the inscription "In hoc signo vinces" ("in this sign you shall conquer,"2 which is abbreviated, according to them, as IHS. However, this seems to require a stretch, as do claims that it is really a pagan symbol.3 The simplest explanation, as an abbreviation of Jesus' name, is best.
    Now for the fun stuff. This symbol is the centre of much discussion in Silas Marner by George Eliot, chapter 10,

      Dolly sighed gently as she held out the cakes to Silas, who thanked her kindly and looked very close at them, absently, being accustomed to look so at everything he took into his hand -- eyed all the while by the wondering bright orbs of the small Aaron, who had made an outwork of his mother's chair, and was peeping round from behind it.

      "There's letters pricked on 'em," said Dolly. "I can't read 'em myself, and there's nobody, not Mr. Macey himself, rightly knows what they mean; but they've a good meaning, for they're the same as is on the pulpit-cloth at church. What are they, Aaron, my dear?"

      Aaron retreated completely behind his outwork.

      "Oh, go, that's naughty," said his mother, mildly. "Well, whativer the letters are, they've a good meaning; and it's a stamp as has been in our house, Ben says, ever since he was a little un, and his mother used to put it on the cakes, and I've allays put it on too; for if there's any good, we've need of it i' this world."

      "It's I. H. S.," said Silas, at which proof of learning Aaron peeped round the chair again.

      "Well, to be sure, you can read 'em off," said Dolly. "Ben's read 'em to me many and many a time, but they slip out o' my mind again; the more's the pity, for they're good letters, else they wouldn't be in the church; and so I prick 'em on all the loaves and all the cakes, though sometimes they won't hold, because o' the rising -- for, as I said, if there's any good to be got we've need of it i' this world -- that we have; and I hope they'll bring good to you, Master Marner, for it's wi' that will I brought you the cakes; and you see the letters have held better nor common."

      Silas was as unable to interpret the letters as Dolly, but there was no possibility of misunderstanding the desire to give comfort that made itself heard in her quiet tones. He said, with more feeling than before -- "Thank you -- thank you kindly." But he laid down the cakes and seated himself absently -- drearily unconscious of any distinct benefit towards which the cakes and the letters, or even Dolly's kindness, could tend for him.
    Dear Dolly, I assume from this that she couldn't read but maybe she understood well the meaning of the gospel, to love your neighbour.

    Sunday, June 17, 2007

    The Memory Keeper's Daughter

    Here are excerpts from two different reviews of The Memory Keeper's Daughter which I just finished reading.

    From The Washington Post

      My first daughter was born lifeless and gray-blue. "Like a seal," I remember thinking as the room went bright white and the doctor started suctioning her mouth. I pushed my wife's head back onto the pillow so she wouldn't be able to see the slick form down below. The oxygen tank hissed angrily. In the minutes that followed, as we waited and waited for my daughter to cry, all the hopes we'd stored up were suffocated under the weight of our new future that filled the room with fear.

      Mercifully, few parents experience the shattering birth moment we did, and it may be that memories of my daughter's birth magnified the emotional impact of Kim Edwards's debut novel. But I think anyone would be struck by the extraordinary power and sympathy of The Memory Keeper's Daughter.

      I don't read a lot of fiction and I most especially do not read romances. I'm not sure how this book is categorized but it is the most compulsively readable, emotional, and memorable book I've read since "Gone With the Wind" over 40 years ago. This is an epic story of a doctor who, in an emotional moment and with all his medical knowledge telling him to protect those he loves, makes a decision that affects him and everyone around him forever.
      On a blizzardly night in 1964, David Henry helps his wife give birth to twins, one a perfect boy and the other a girl with Downs Syndrome. At that time, imperfect children were "put away" in institutions where they died young and families and friends spoke of them in shame-filled whispers, if at all. David grew up with a very sickly sister whose death at age 12 ended all meaningful life for his parents. With all good intentions of sparing his wife and new son the pain he and his parents endured, he made a fateful decision and told his wife the little girl had died at birth. It was a decision that, once made, could not be redeemed nor remedied.
    This is a book about the family of a Down's syndrome child and examines the disasterous effect of maintaining silence about her existance and not accepting this child into the family. It is poignant in that it deals with a very real dilemma. It is beautifully written with delicately developed imagery and well drawn emotional and psychological character sketches. The author writes as a Christian although we only get glimpses of this through a few lines of Bible quotations, in the KJV, and other brief references.

    The book is easy to read and provides numerous characters to identify with. I would highly recommend it for those with handicapped children or those who know someone with a handicapped child. However, I find the treatment of the Down's syndrome child herself to be disappointingly undeveloped. The book is more about her birth family. It is still an important book about a very important topic and I'm glad that I took time out to read this book. It is a good read for anyone. Lots of romance, family drama, strong visual imagery and exquisite language. Okay, there were a few improbable events in the storyline but I managed to enjoy it just the same.

        Monday, June 11, 2007

        Sick Heart River

        Going through my books recently I happened on Sick Heart River, John Buchan's final book, written shortly before he died in 1940. This book is available to buy or read online.

        John Buchan is best known as the author of the spy thriller Richard Hannay series. He also wrote Prester John, many biographies and other books. Buchan was a British politician and the Governor General of Canada from 1936 to 1940. He had been a correspondant and speech writer in WWI and it was with great reluctance that he signed the papers which entered Canada in WWII.

        Buchan was the son of a Scottish minister and was himself later twice Lord High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. He was influential as a writer, politican and Christian and was greatly loved by those who knew him.

        Sick Heart River is a dying man's last conversations with God. In this story Buchan's familiar hero, Leithen, undertakes a journey to northern Canada in search of an American businessman who has disappeared into the wilderness. After many adventures, worthy of such an author, Leithen finds the American. He realizes that this is not the end of the journey, but turns his attention to reflecting on the will to live. A nearby group of Hare Indians are dying of an epidemic. Leithen aids their village, saves lives, loses his own through ill health and overwork, but in the process experiences redemption. Buchan himself died shortly after writing this book.

        Although there is much to admire in this book it is also fraught with conflict and rebellion against human frailty and mortality. Buchan contemplates Job,

          As he lay wakeful, scarcely conscious of the dull pain in his chestor of the spasms in his breathing, but desperately aware of hisweakness, he felt the shadow of eternity deepening over him. Like Job, the last calamities had come on him. Thank Heaven he was free from loquacious friends. Like Job he bowed his head and had no impulse to rebel. The majesty of God filled his universe. He was coming face to face with his religion.

          Like Job, he was abashed by the divine majesty and could put his face in the dust. It was the temper in which he wished to pass out of life. He asked for nothing--"nut in the husk, nor dawn in the dusk, nor life beyond death." He had already much more than his deserts! and what Omnipotence proposed to do with him was the business of Omnipotence; he was too sick and weary to dream or hope. He lay passive in all-potent hands.
        and then rejects the lesson of Job.

          There had been a sense of his littleness and the omnipotence of God, and a resignation like Job's to the divine purpose. And then there had come a nobler mood, when he had been conscious not only of the greatness but of the mercy of God, and had realised the vein of tenderness in the hard rock of fate.
        He will not submit to his circumstances but must triumph. He believes that God has given this to him. Leithen is empowered to reach out to his fellow man and give himself to them. The writing is powerful and comes directly from the heart of a man who knows that he himself is dying.

        On a more disturbing level, one must consider the role which Leithen takes as he steps in to organize and rehabilitate the demoralized Indian village. Instead of writing of the white man as the cause of the epidemic, Buchan paints Leithen as saviour, although at the same time experiencing his own redemption. Buchan writes,

          And yet . . . As Leithen brooded in the flicker of the firelight before he fell asleep he came to have a different picture. He saw the Indians as tenuous growths, fungi which had no hold on the soil. They existed in sufferance; the North had only to tighten its grip and they would disappear. Lew and Johnny, too. They were not mushrooms, for they had roots and they had the power to yield under strain and spring back again, but were they any better than grassy filaments which swayed in the wind but might any day be pinched out of existence? Johnny was steadfast enough, but only because he had a formal and sluggish mind; the quicker, abler Lew could be unsettled by his dreams. They, too, lived on sufferance. . . . And Galliard? He had deeper roots, but they were not healthy enough to permit transplanting. Compared to his companions Leithen suddenly saw himself founded solidly like an oak. He was drawing life from deep sources. Death, if it came, was no blind trick of fate, but a thing accepted and therefore mastered. He fell asleep in a new mood of confidence.
        So in this one book we can celebrate both the human opening himself up to God, and at the same time, the hero Leithen offering his superior British cultural heritage as a remedy for the disease and misfortune of others. It is significant as it represents the dying thoughts of a leading and influential British statesman going into WWII. The war has begun as Buchan writes and he reflects on the news in this novel.

        Buchan is revered as a great man and I don't intend to tear that down. In fact, I don't find Buchan's attitudes out of line with the way others were writing in the 1930's. But we must also look into our heritage and be willing to see the vein of self-worship and incipient racism, and be critical of the ways that we defend our own traditions.

        I recommend this book as a representative conversation with God. However, I intend to write next about another man who encountered Buchan in the north, a man who actually lived his life among the native people of northern Canada and left us his autobiography.

        Archibald Fleming, a contemporary of Buchan, was able to reflect on and reject the racism of his own era. His book represents the flip side of the racism of the 1930's, the thoughtful reaction of a sensitive and honest Christian leader. If Buchan's book presents the problem of racism within oneself, then Fleming's book reminds us that there is another way to live.