Monday, December 31, 2012

Literary awards and prizes

Governor General’s Literary Awards
  • Established 1937
    • Longest running Canadian literary awards
    • Launched by Canadian Authors’ Association
    • Administered by CAA until 1971
    • Began with nonmonetary prizes
    • No entry fee
    • First cash award
      • $250 in 1951
  • Canadian Council assumed responsibility in 1959
    • Added prizes for works in French
  • Current prize: $15,000
    • Specially bound copy of winning work
    • Reception and gala at Rideau Hall
    • Reading sponsored by National Library
  • Publisher receives $3,000 grant
  • Categories: English & French
    • Children’s literature
      • Text and literature
    • Drama
    • Fiction
    • Poetry
    • Literary nonfiction
    • Translation
  • Eligibility
    • First edition trade books
    • Written, translated or illustrated by a Canadian citizen or permanent resident
    • Published in previous year
      • September to September
    • Short list: October
    • Winners: November
  • Not eligible: non fiction
    • Textbooks, instruction guides
    • Illustrated books (Coffee table books)
    • How to books, guide books
    • Cookbooks
  • Major sponsor: Bank of Montreal
  • Frequency: annual
  • Judges: peer assessment committee
    • writers
  • Books nominated by publishers
  • The Canada Council for the Arts – Governor General’s Literary Awards
The Giller Prize
  • Established: 1994
    • By Jack Rabinvitch
    • To honor his wife, Doris Giller
  • Prize: $25,000
  • Eligibility:
    • Novels or short story collections published in English
  • Shortlist: early October
  • Winner: early November
  • Publisher must spend “appropriate sum” on publicity for winner
  • Frequency: annual
  • Judges: peer committee
  • Publisher must pay $1,250 for shortlist advertising
    • Not called an entry fee
  • The Giller Prize –
Writer’s trust of Canada
  • Founded in 1976
    • By Margaret Atwood, Pierre Berton, Graeme Gibson, David Young and Margaret Laurence
    • “to nurture the growing community of Canadian writers”
  • Run a variety of programs
    • Margaret Laurence Memorial Lecture
  • Fundraisers
    • Great Literary Dinner Party
  • George Woodcock Fund
    • Supported 103 writers
    • Donated $380,000
  • Administers 11 awards
    • Novels, poetry
    • Biography, other non-fiction writers
  • Gerald Lampton Memorial Award
    • Best first book of poetry published by a Canadian
    • Cash award of $1,000
  • Pat Lowther Memorial Award
    • Best book of poetry published by a Canadian woman
    • Cash award of $1,000
  • The League of Canadians –
  • Manitoba writing and publishing awards
    • 14 awards
    • More than $30,000 in prizes
  • Open to
    • Books published in Manitoba
    • Books written by Manitobans but written elsewhere
  • Frequency: annual
  • Co-sponsored by Manitoba Writers’ Guild and Association of Manitoba Book Publishers
  • McNally Robinson Book of the Year
  • Trillium Award
    • For writing excellence in English and French
    • Established in 1987
    • Extended in 1994 to include separate prize for francophone writers and publishers
    • Extended in 2001 to include poetry
    • Awards for
      • Fiction, non-fiction, drama, children’s books and poetry
    • Award for all but poetry
      • $25,000 plus $2,500 to publisher
      • Poetry: $10,000 plus $2,500 to publisher
  • Organization of Book Publishers in Ontario
  • Saskatchewan Book Awards
    • Established in 1993
  • Founded by
    • Saskatchewan Writers’ Guild, Saskatchewan Publishers’ Group, Saskatchewan Library Awards
  • 12 awards
    • Book of the Year, First Book Award, Fiction Award
  • Cash awards
  • Eligible:
    • Residents of Saskatchewan for the last 12 months or 4 out of last 5 years
  • The Saskatchewan Book Awards
  • Man Booker Prize
    • Established in 1968
    • One award
    • Best novel of the year
      • By a citizen of the Commonwealth or Republic of Ireland
      • Anyone writing in English
    • Cash award of £5,000
    • Frequency: annual
    • Judges: critics, writers and academics
    • Most recent Canadian winner
      • Life of Pi by Yann Martel in 2002
  • The Orange Prize
    • Established in 1995
    • Best full length novel written by a woman in English
    • In response to all male Man Booker list in 1995
    • Celebrate women’s critical views as well as their writing
    • Cash award of £30,000 plus bronze figurine
    • Frequency: annual
    • Judges:
      • Five women from the UK:
      • Book trade, media/library trade/book publisher
      • At least one novelist
      • One academic
      • High-achieving role model
    • Orange Prize for fiction
Canadian/International: Griffin Poetry Prize
  • Established in 2000
    • By Scott Griffin, chair, Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Robin Robertson, David Young
  • To serve and encourage excellence in poetry written in English anywhere else in the world
  • Books published between January 1 and December 31 previous year
  • Two annual prizes of $40,000 each
    • One prize to living Canadian
    • One to a poet from any other country including Canada
    • Also publish a poetry anthology
International: Commonwealth Writers Prize
American: Pulitzer prize
  • Established in 1904
  • 21 awards
    • Journalism, literature, music and drama
  • “for distinguished fiction by an American author”
    • Won by Carol Shields in 1995
    • Preferably dealing with American life
    • Cash award of $30,000
  • Open to American citizens only

Monday, December 24, 2012

What is real?

Gary Geddes (Editor). The art of Short Fiction. Harper Collins, 1993.
ALICE MUNRO. What is real?

Whenever people get an opportunity to ask me questions about my writing, I can be sure that some of the questions asked will be these:

“Do you write about real people?”

“Did those things really happen?”

“When you write about a small town are you really writing about Wingham?” (Wingham is the small town in Ontario where I was born and grew up, and it has often been assumed, by people who should know better, that I have simply “fictionalized” this place in my work. Indeed, the local newspaper has taken me to task for making it the “butt of a soured and cruel introspection.”)

The usual thing, for writers, is to regard these either as naive questions, asked by people who don’t really understand the difference between autobiography and fiction, who can’t recognize the device of the first-person narrator, or else as catch-you-out questions posed by journalists who hope to stir up exactly the sort of dreary (and to outsiders, slightly comic) indignation voiced by my hometown paper. Writers answer such questions patiently or crossly according to temperament and the mood they’re in. They say, no, you must understand my characters are composites; no, those things didn’t happen the way I wrote about them; no, of course not, that isn’t Wingham (or whatever other place it may be that has had the queer unsought-after distinction of hatching a writer). Or the writer may, riskily, ask the questioners what is real, anyway? None of this seems to be very satisfactory. People go on asking these same questions because the subject really does interest and bewilder them. It would seem to be quite true that they don’t know what fiction is.

And how could they know, when what it is, changing all the time, and we differ among ourselves, and we don’t really try to explain because it is too difficult?

What I would like to do here is what I can’t do in two or three sentences at the end of a reading. I won’t explain what fiction is, and what short stories are (assuming, which we can’t, that there is any fixed thing that it is and they are), but what short stories are to me, and how I write them, and how I use things that are “real”. I will start by explaining how I read stories written by other people. For one thing, I can start reading them anywhere; from any point in between in either direction. So obviously I don’t take up a story and follow it as if it were a road, taking me somewhere, with views and neat diversions along the way. I go into it, and move back and forth and settle here and there, stay in it for a while. It’s more like a house. Everybody knows what a house does, how it encloses space and makes connections between one enclosed space and another and presents what is outside in a new way. This is the nearest I can come to explaining what a story does for me, and what I want my stories to do for other people.

So when I write a story I want to make a certain kind of structure, and I know the feeling I want to get from being inside that structure. This is the hard part of the explanation, where I have to use a word like “feeling,” which is not very precise, because if I attempt to be more intellectually respectable I will have to be dishonest. “Feeling” will have to do.

There is no blueprint for the structure. It’s not a question of, “I’ll make this kind of house because if I do it right it will have this effect.” I’ve got to make, I’ve got to build up, a house, a story, to fit around the indescribable “feeling” that is like the soul of the story, and which I must insist upon in a dogged, embarrassed way, as being no more definable than that. And I don’t know where it comes from. It seems to already be there, and some unlikely clue, such as a shop window or a bit of conversation, makes me aware of it. Then I start accumulating the material and putting it together. Some of the material I have lying around already, in memories and observations, and some I invent, and some I have to go diligently looking for (factual details), while some is dumped in my lap (anecdotes, bits of speech). I see how this material might go together to make the shape I need, and I try it. I keep trying and seeing where I went wrong and trying again.

I suppose this is the place where I should talk about technical problems and how I solve them. The main reason I can’t is that I’m never sure I do solve anything. Even when I say that I see where I went wrong, I’m being misleading. I never figure out how I’m going to change things, I never say to myself, “That page is heavy going, that paragraph’s clumsy, I need some dialogue and shorter sentences.” I feel a part that’s wrong, like a soggy weight; then I pay attention to the story, as if it were really happening somewhere, not just in my head, and in its own way, not mine. As a result, the sentences may indeed get shorter, there may be more dialogue, and so on. But though I’ve tried to pay attention to the story, I may not have got it right; those shorter sentences may be an evasion, a mistake. Every final draft, every published story, is still only an attempt, an approach, to the story.

I did promise to talk about using reality. “Why, if Jubilee isn’t Wingham, has it got Shutter Street in it?” people want to know. Why have I described somebody’s real ceramic elephant sitting on the mantelpiece? I could say I get momentum from doing things like this. The fictional room, town, world, needs a bit of starter dough from the real world. It’s a device to help the writer – at least it helps me – but it arouses a certain baulked fury in the people who really do live on Shutter Street and the lady who owns the ceramic elephant. “Why do you put in something true and then go on and tell lies?” they say, and anybody who has been on the receiving end of this kind of thing knows how they feel.

“I do it for the sake of my art and to make this structure which encloses the soul of my story, that I’ve been telling you about,” says the writer. “That is more important than anything.”

Not to everybody, it isn’t.

So I can see there might be a case, once you’ve written the story and got the momentum, for going back and changing the elephant to a camel (though there’s always a chance the lady might complain that you made a nasty camel out of a beautiful elephant), and changing Shutter Street to Blank Street. But what about the big chunks of reality, without which your story can’t exist? In the story Royal Beatings, I use a big chunk of reality: the story of a butcher, and of the young men who may have been egged on to “get” him. This is a story out of an old newspaper; it really did happen in a town I know. There is no legal difficulty about using it because it has been printed in a newspaper, and besides, the people who figure in it are all long dead. But there is a difficulty in offending people in that town who would feel that use of this story is a deliberate exposure, taunt and insult. Other people who have no connection with the real happening would say, “Why write about anything so hideous?” And lest you think that such an objection could be raised by simple folk who read nothing but Harlequin Romances, let me tell you that one of the questions most frequently asked at universities is, “Why do you write about things that are so depressing?” People can accept almost any amount of ugliness if it is contained in a familiar formula, as it is on television, but when they come closer to their own place, their own lives, they are much offended by a lack of editing.

There are ways I can defend myself against such objections. I can say, “I do it in the interests of historical reality. That is what the old days are like.” Or, “I do it to show the dark side of human nature, the beast let loose, the evil we can run up against in communities and families.” In certain countries I could say, “I do it to show how bad things were under the old system when there were prosperous butchers and young fellows hanging around livery stables and nobody thought about building a new society.” But the fact is, the minute I say to show I am telling a lie. I don’t do it to show anything. I put this story at the heart of my story because I need it there and it belongs there. It is the black room at the centre of the house will all other rooms leading to and away from it. That is all. A strange defence. Who told me to write this story? Who feels any need of it before it is written? I do. I do, so that I might grab off this piece of horrid reality and install it where I see fit, even if Nat Hettleton and his friends were still around to make me sorry.

The answer seems to be as confusing as ever. Lots of true answers are. Yes and no. Yes, I use bits of what is real, in the sense of really being there and really happening, in the world, as most people see it, and I transform it into something that is really there and really happening, in my story. No, I am not concerned with using what is real to make any sort of record or prove any sort of point, and I am not concerned with any methods of selection but my own, which I can’t fully explain. This is quite presumptuous, and if writers are not allowed to be so – and quite often, in many places, they are not – I see no point in the writing of fiction.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Thanks for the ride

Thanks for the ride
Alice Munro

My cousin George and I were sitting in a restaurant called Pop’s Cafe, in a little town close to the Lake. It was getting dark in there, and they had not turned the lights on, but you could still read the signs plastered against the mirror between the fly-speckled and slightly yellowed cutouts of strawberry sundaes and tomato sandwiches.

“Don’t ask for information,” George read. “If we knew anything we wouldn’t be here” and “If you’ve got nothing to do, you picked a hell of a good place to do it in.” George always read everything out loud – posters, billboards, Burma-Shave signs, “Mission Creek. Population 1700. Gateway to the Bruce. We love our children.”

I was wondering whose sense of humour provided us with the signs. I thought it would be the man behind the cash register. Pop? Chewing on a match, looking out at the street, not watching for anything except for somebody to trip over a crack in the sidewalk or have a blowout or make a fool of himself in some way that Pop, rooted behind the cash register, huge and cynical and incurious, was never likely to do. Maybe not even that; maybe just by walking up and down, going places, the rest of the world proved its absurdity. You see that judgment on the faces of people looking out of windows, sitting on front steps in some little towns; so deeply, deeply uncaring they are, as if they had sources of disillusionment which they would keep, with some satisfaction, in the dark.

There was only the one waitress, a pudgy girl who leaned over the counter and scraped at the polish on her fingernails. When she had flaked most of the polish off her thumbnail she put the thumb against her teeth and rubbed the nail back and forth absorbedly. We asked her what her name was and she didn’t answer. Two or three minutes later the thumb came out of her mouth and she said, inspecting it: “That’s for me to know and you to find out.”

“All right,” George said. “Okay if I call you Mickey?”

“I don’t care.”

“Because you remind me of Mickey Rooney,” George said. “Hey, where’s everybody go in this town? Where’s everybody go?” Mickey had turned her back and begun to drain out the coffee. It looked as if she didn’t mean to talk any more, so George got a little jumpy, as he did when he was threatened with having to be quiet or be by himself. “Hey, aren’t there any girls or dances or anything? We’re strangers in town,” he said. “Don’t you want to help us out?”

“Dance hall down on the beach closed up Labour Day,” Mickey said coldly.

“There any other dance halls?”

“There’s a dance tonight out at Wilson’s school,” Mickey said.

“That old time? No, no, I don’t go for that old-time. All-a-man left and that, used to have that down in the basement of the church. Yeah, ever’body swing – I don’t go for that. Inna basement of the church,” George said, obscurely angered. “You don’t remember that,” he said to me. “Too young.”

I was just out of high-school at this time, and George had been working for three years in the Men’s Shoes in a downtown department store, so there was that difference. But we had never bothered with each other back in the city. We were together now because we had met unexpectedly in a strange place and because I had a little money, while George was broke. Also I had my father’s car, and George was in one of his periods between cars, which made him always a little touchy and dissatisfied. But he would have to rearrange these facts a bit, they made him uneasy. I could feel him manufacturing a sufficiency of good feeling, old-pal feeling, and dressing me up as Old Dick, good kid, real character – which did not matter one way or the other, though I did not think, looking at his tender blond piggish handsomeness, the nudity of his pink mouth, and the surprised, angry creases that frequent puzzlement was beginning to put into his forehead, that I would be able to work up an Old George.

I had driven up to the Lake to bring my mother home from a beach resort for women, a place where they had fruit juice and cottage cheese for reducing, and early-morning swims in the Lake, and some religion, apparently, for there was a little chapel attached. My aunt, George’s mother, was staying there at the same time, and George arrived about an hour after I did, not to take his mother home, but to get some money out of her. He did not get along well with his father, and he did not make much money in the shoe department, so he was very often broke. His mother said he could have a loan if he would stay over with her and got to church with her the next day. George said he would. Then George and I got away and drove half a mile along the lake to this little town neither of us had seen before, which George said would be full of bootleggers and girls.

It was a town of unpaved, wide, sandy streets and bare yards. Only the hardy things like red and yellow nasturtiums, or a lilac bush with brown curled leaves, grew out of that cracked earth. The houses were set wide apart, with their own pumps and sheds and privies out behind; most of them were built of wood and painted green or grey or yellow. The trees that grew there were big willows or poplars, their fine leaves greyed with the dust. There were no trees along the main street, but spaces of tall grass and dandelions and blowing thistles – open country between the store buildings. The town hall was surprisingly large, with a great bell in a tower, the red brick rather glaring in the midst of the town’s walls of faded, pale-painted wood. The sign beside the door said that it was a memorial to the shoulders who had died in the First World War. We had a drink out of the fountain in front.

We drove up and down the main street for a while, with George saying: “What a dump! Jesus, what a dump!” and “Hey, look at that! Aw, not so good either.” The people on the street went home to supper, the shadows of the store buildings lay solid across the street, and we went into Pop’s.

“Hey,” George said, “is there any other restaurant in this town? Did you see any other restaurant?”

“No,” I said.

“Any other town I ever been,” George said, “pigs hangin’ out the windows, practically hangin’ off the trees. Not here. Jesus! I guess it’s late in the season,” he said.
“You want to go to a show?”

The door opened. A girl came in, walked up and sat on a stool, with most of her skirt bunched up underneath her. She had a long somnolent face, no bust, frizzy hair; she was pale, almost ugly, but she had that inexplicable aura of sexuality. George brightened, though not a great deal. “Never mind,” he said. “This’ll do. This’ll do in a pinch, eh? In a pinch.”

He went to the end of the counter and sat down beside her and started to talk. In about five minutes they came back to me, the girl drinking a bottle of orange pop.

“This is Adelaide,” George said. “Adelaide, Adeline – Sweet Adeline. I’m going to call her Sweet A, Sweet A.”

Adelaide sucked at her straw, paying not much attention.

“Doesn’t hear half what you say to her,” George said. “Adelaide, Sweet A, have you got any friends? Have you got any nice, young little girl friend to go out with Dickie? You and me and her and Dickie?”

“Depends,” said Adelaide. “Where do you want to go?”

“Anywhere you say. Go for a drive. Drive up to Owen Sound, maybe.”

“You got a car?”

“Yeah, yeah, we got a car. C’mon, you must have some nice little friend for Dickie.” He put his arm around this girl, spreading his fingers over her blouse. “C’mon out and I’ll show you the car.”

Adelaide said: “I know one girl might come. The guy she goes around with, he’s engaged, and his girl came up and she’s staying at his place up at the beach, his mother and dad’s place, and –“

“Well, that is certainly int-er-esting,” George said. “What’s her name? Come on, let’s go round and get her. You want to sit around drinking pop all night?”

“I’m finished,” Adelaide said. “She might not come. I don’t know.”

We went out and got into the car, George and Adelaide in the back. On the main street about a block from the cafe we passed a thin, fair-haired girl in slacks and Adelaide cried: “Hey stop! That’s her! That’s Lois!”

I pulled in and George stuck his head out the window, whistling. Adelaide yelled, and the girl came unhesitatingly, unhurriedly to the car. She smiled, rather coldly and politely, when Adelaide explained to her. All the time George kept saying: “Hurry up, come on, get in! We can talk in the car.” The girl smiled, did not really look at any of us, and in a few moments, to my surprise, she opened the door and slid into the car.

“I don’t have anything to do,” she said. “My boy friend’s away.”

“That so?” said George, and I saw Adelaide, in the rear-vision mirror, make a cross warning face. Lois did not seem to have heard him.

“We better drive around to my house,” she said. “I was just going down to get some Cokes, that’s why I only have my slacks on. We better drive around to my house and I’ll put on something else.”

“Where are we going to go,” she said, “so I know what to put on?”

I said: “Where do you want to go?”

“Okay, okay,” George said. “First things first. We gotta get a bottle, then we’ll decide. You know where to get one?” Adelaide and Lois both said yes, and then Lois said to me: “You can come in the house and wait while I change, if you want to.” I glanced in the rear mirror and thought that there was probably some agreement she had with Adelaide.

Lois’s house had an old couch on the porch and some rugs hanging down over the railing. She walked ahead of me across the yard. She had her long pale hair tied at the back of her neck; her skin was dustily freckled, but not tanned; even her eyes were light-coloured. She was cold and narrow and pale. There was derision, and also great gravity, about her mouth. I thought she was about my age or a little older.

She opened the front door and said in a clear, stilted voice: “I would like you to meet my family.”

The little front room had linoleum on the floor and flowered paper curtains at the windows. There was a glossy chesterfield with a Niagara Falls and a To Mother cushion on it, and there was a little black stove with a screen around it for summer, and a big vase of paper apple blossoms. A tall, frail woman came into the room drying her hands on a dishtowel, which she flung into a chair. Her mouth was full of blue-white china teeth, the long cords trembled in her neck. I said how-do-you-do to her, embarrassed by Lois’s announcement, so suddenly and purposefully conventional. I wondered if she had any misconceptions about this date, engineered by George for such specific purposes. I did not think so. Her face had no innocence in it that I could see; it was knowledgeable, calm, and hostile. She might have done it then, to mock me, to make me into this caricature of The D ate, the boy who grins and shuffles in the front hall and waits to be presented to the nice girl’s family. But that was a little far-fetched. Why should she want to embarrass me when she had agreed to go out with me without even looking at my face? Why should she care enough?

Lois’s mother and I sat down on the chesterfield. She began to make conversation, giving this the Date interpretation. I noticed the smell of stale small rooms, bedclothes, frying, washing, and medicated ointments. And dirt, though it did not look dirty. Lois’s mother said: “That’s a nice car you got out front. Is that your car?”

“My father’s.”

“Isn’t that lovely! Your father has such a nice car. I always think it’s lovely for people to have things. I’ve got no time for these people that’s just eaten up with malice ‘n envy. I say it’s lovely. I bet your mother, every time she wants anything, she just goes down to the store and buys it – new coat, bedspread, pots and pans. What does your father do? Is he a lawyer or doctor or something like that?”

“He’s a chartered accountant.”

“Oh. That’s in an office, is it?”


“My brother, Lois’s uncle, he’s in the office of the CPR in London. He’s quite high up there, I understand.”

She began to tell me about how Lois’s father had been killed in an accident at the mill. I noticed an old woman, the grandmother probably, standing in the doorway of the room. She was not thin like the others, but as soft and shapeless as a collapsed pudding, pale brown spots melting together on her face and arms, bristles of hairs in the moisture around her mouth. Some of the smell in the house seemed to have come from her. It was a smell of hidden decay, such as there is when some obscure little animal has died under the verandah. The smell, the slovenly, confiding voice – something about this life I had not known, something about these people. I thought: my mother, George’s mother, they are innocent. Even George, George is innocent. But these others are born sly and sad and knowing.

I did not hear much about Lois’s father except that his head was cut off.

“Clean off, imagine, and rolled on the floor! Couldn’t open the coffin. It was June, the hot weather. And everybody in town just stripped their gardens, stripped them for the funeral. Stripped their spirea bushes and peenies and climbin’ clemantis. I guess it was the worst accident ever took place in this town.

“Lois had a nice boy friend this summer,” she said. “Used to take her out and sometimes stay here overnight when his folks weren’t up at the cottage and he didn’t feel like passin’ his time there all alone. He’d bring the kids candy and even me he’d bring presents. That china elephant up there, you can plant flowers in it, he brought me that. He fixed the radio for me and I never had to take it into the shop. Do your folks have a summer cottage up here?”

I said no, and Lois came in, wearing a dress of yellow-green stuff – stiff and shiny like Christmas wrappings – high-heeled shoes, rhinestones, and a lot of dark powder over her freckles. Her mother was excited.

“You like that dress?” she said. “She went all the way to London and brought that dress, didn’t get it anywhere round here!”

We had to pass by the old woman as we went out. She looked up at us with sudden recognition, a steadying of her pale, jellied eyes. Her mouth trembled open, she stuck her face out at me.

“You can do what you like with my gran’daughter,” she said in her old, strong voice, the rough voice of a country woman. “But you be careful. And you know what I mean!”
Lois’ mother pushed the old woman behind her, smiling tightly, eyebrows lifted, skin straining over her temples. “Never mind,” she mouthed at me, grimacing distractedly. “Never mind. Second childhood.” The smile stayed on her face; the skin pulled back from it. She seemed to be listening all the time to a perpetual din and racket in her head. She grabbed my hand as I followed Lois out. “Lois is a nice girl,” she whispered. “You have a nice time, don’t let her mope!” There was a quick, grotesque, and, I suppose, originally flirtatious, flickering of brows and lids. “Night!”

Lois walked stiffly ahead of me, rustling her papery skirt. I said: “Did you want to go to a dance or something?”

“No,” she said. “I don’t care.”

“Well you got all dressed up –“

“I always get dressed up on Saturday night,” Lois said, her voice floating back to me, low and scornful. Then she began to laugh, and I had a glimpse of her mother in her, that jaggedness and hysteria. “Oh, my God!” she whispered. I knew she meant what had happened in the house, and I laughed too, not knowing what else to do. So we went back to the car laughing as if we were friends, but we were not.

We drove out of town to a farmhouse where a woman sold us a whisky bottle full of muddy-looking homemade liquor, something George and I had never had before. Adelaide had said that this woman would probably let us use her front room, but it turned out she would not, and that was because of Lois. When the woman peered up at me from under the man’s cap she had on her head and said to Lois, “Change’s as good as a rest, eh?” Lois did not answer, kept a cold face. Then later the woman said if we were so stuck-up tonight her front room wouldn’t be good enough for us and we better go back to the bush. All the way back down the lane Adelaide kept saying: “Some people can’t take a joke, can they? Yeah, stuck-up is right-“ until I passed her the bottle to keep her quiet. I saw George did not mind, thinking this had taken her mind off driving to Owen Sound.

We parked at the end of the lane and sat in the car drinking. George and Adelaide drank more than we did. They did not talk, just reached for the bottle and then passed it back. This stuff was different from anything I had tasted before; it was heavy and sickening in my stomach. There was no other effect, and I began to have the depressing feeling that I was not going to get drunk. Each time Lois handed the bottle back to me she said “Thank you” in a mannerly and subtly contemptuous way. I put my arm around her, not much wanting to. I was wondering what was the matter. This girl lay against my arm, scornful, acquiescent, angry, inarticulate and out-of-reach. I wanted to talk to her then more than to touch her, and that was out of the question; talk was not so little a thing to her as touching. Meanwhile I was aware that I should be beyond this, beyond the first stage and well into the second (for I had a knowledge, though it was not very comprehensive, of the orderly progression of stages, the ritual of back- and front-seat seduction). Almost I wished I was with Adelaide.

“Do you want to go for a walk?” I said.

“That’s the first bright idea you’ve had all night,” George told me from the back seat. “Don’t hurry,” he said as we got out. He and Adelaide were muffled and laughing together. “Don’t hurry back!”

Lois and I walked along a wagon track close to the bush. The fields were moonlit, chilly and blowing. Now I felt vengeful, and I said softly, “I had quite a talk with your mother.”

“I can imagine,” said Lois.

“She told me about that guy you went out with last summer.”

“This summer.”

“It’s last summer now. He was engaged or something, wasn’t he?”


I was not going to let her go. “Did he like you better?” I said. “Was that it? Did he like you better?”

“No, I wouldn’t say he liked me,” Lois said. I thought, by some thickening of the sarcasm in her voice, that she was beginning to be drunk. “He liked Momma and the kids okay but he didn’t like me. Like me,” she said. “What’s that?”

“Well, he went out with you –“

“He just went around with me for the summer. That’s what those guys from up the beach always do. They come down here to the dances and get a girl to go around with. For the summer. They always do.

“How I know he didn’t like me,” she said, “he said I was always bitching. You have to act grateful to those guys, you know, or they say you’re bitching.”

I was a little startled at having loosed all this. I said: “Did you like him?”

“Oh, sure! I should, shouldn’t I? I should just get down on my knees and thank him. That’s what my mother does. He brings her a cheap old spotted elephant-“

“Was this guy the first?” I said.

“The first steady. Is that what you mean?”

It wasn’t. “How old are you?”

She considered. “I’m almost seventeen. I can pass for eighteen or nineteen. I can pass in a beer parlour. I did once.”

“What grade are you in school?’

She looked at me, rather amazed. “Did you think I still went to school? I quit that two years ago. I’ve got a job at the glove-works in town.”

“That must have been against the law. When you quit.”

“Oh, you can get a permit if your father’s dead or something.”

“What do you do at the glove-works?” I said.

“Oh, I run a machine. It’s like a sewing machine. I’ll be getting on piecework soon. You make more money.”

“Do you like it?”

“Oh, I wouldn’t say I loved it. It’s a job – you ask a lot of questions,” she said.

“Do you mind?”

“I don’t have to answer you,” she said, her voice flat and small again. “Only if I like.” She picked up her skirt and spread it out in her hands. “I’ve got burrs on my skirt,” she said. She bent over, pulling them one by one. “I’ve got burrs on my dress,” she said. “It’s my good dress. Will they leave a mark? If I pull them all – slowly – I won’t pull any threads.”

“You shouldn’t have worn that dress,” I said. “What’d you wear that dress for?”

She shook the skirt, tossing a burr loose. “I don’t know,” she said. She held it out, the stiff, shining stiff, with faintly drunken satisfaction. “I wanted to show you guys!” she said, with a sudden small explosion of viciousness. The drunken, nose-thumbing, toe-twirling satisfaction could not now be mistaken as she stood there foolishly, tauntingly, with her skirt spread out. “I’ve got an imitation cashmere sweater at home. It cost me twelve dollars,” she said. “I’ve got a fur coat I’m paying on, paying on for next winter. I’ve got a fur coat-“

“That’s nice,” I said. “I think it’s lovely for people to have things.”

She dropped the skirt and struck the flat of her hand on my face. This was a relief to me, to both of us. We felt a fight had been building in us all along. We faced each other as warily as we could, considering we were both a little drunk, she tensing to slap me again and I to grab her or slap her back. We would have it out, what we had against each other. But the moment of this keenness passed. We let out our breath; we had not moved in time. And the next moment, not bothering to shake off our enmity, not thinking how the one thing could give way to the other, we kissed. It was the first time, for me, that a kiss was accomplished without premeditation, or hesitancy, or over-haste, or the usual vague ensuing disappointment. And laughing shakily against me, she began to talk again, going back to the earlier part of our conversation as if nothing had come between.

“Isn’t it funny?” she said. “You know, all winter all those girls do is talk about last summer, talk and talk about those guys, and I bet those guys have forgotten even what their names were-“

But I did not want to talk any more, having discovered another force in her that lay side by side with her hostility, that was, in fact, just as enveloping and impersonal. After a while I whispered: “Isn’t there some place we can go?”

And she answered: “There’s a barn in the next field.”

She knew the countryside; she had been there before.

We drove back into town after midnight. George and Adelaide were asleep in the back seat. I did not think Lois was asleep, though she had kept her eyes closed and did not say anything. I had read somewhere about Omne animal, and I was going to tell her, but then I thought she would not know Latin words and would think I was being – oh, pretentious and superior. Afterwards I wished I had told her. She would have known what it meant.

Afterwards the lassitude of the body, and the cold; the separation. To brush away the bits of hay and tidy ourselves with heavy unconnected movements, to come out of the barn and find the moon gone down, but the flat stubble fields still there, and the poplar trees, and the stars. To find our same selves, chilled and shaken, who had gone that headlong journey and were here still. To go back to the car and find the others sprawled asleep. That is what it is: triste. Triste est.

That headlong journey. Was it like that because it was the first time, because I was a little, strangely drunk? No. It was because of Lois. There are some people who can go only a little way with the act of love, and some others who can go very far, who can make a great surrender, like the mystics. And Lois, this mystic of love, sat now on the far side of the car-seat, looking cold and rumpled, and utterly closed up in herself. All the things I wanted to say to her went clattering emptily through my head. Come and see you again – Remember – Love – I could not say any of these things. They would not even seem even half-true across the space that had come between us. I thought: I will say something to her before the next tree, the next telephone pole. But I did not. I only drove faster, too fast, making the town come nearer.

The street lights bloomed out of the dark streets ahead; there were stirrings in the back seat.

“What time is it?” George said.

“Twenty past twelve.”

“We musta finished that bottle. I don’t feel so good. Oh, Christ, I don’t feel so good. How do you feel?”


“Fine, eh? Feel like you finished your education tonight, eh? That how you feel? Is yours asleep? Mine is.”

“I am not,” said Adelaide drowsily. “Where’s my belt? George – oh. Now where’s my other shoe? It’s early for Saturday night, isn’t it? We could go and get something to eat.”

“I don’t feel like food,” George said. “I gotta get some sleep. Gotta get up early tomorrow and go to church with my mother.”

“Yeah, I know,” said Adelaide, disbelieving, though not too ill-humoured. “You could’ve anyways bought me a hamburger!”

I had driven around to Lois’s house. Lois did not open her eyes until the car stopped.
She sat still a moment, and then pressed her hands down over the skirt of her dress, flattening it out. She did not look at me. I moved to kiss her, but she seemed to draw slightly away, and I felt that there had after all been something fraudulent and theatrical about this final gesture. She was not like that.

George said to Adelaide: “Where do you live? You live near here?”

“Yeah. Half a block down.”

“Okay. How be you get out here too? We gotta get home sometime tonight.”

He kissed her and both the girls got out.

I started the car. We began to pull away, George settling down on the back seat to sleep. And then we heard the female voice calling after us, the loud, crude, female voice, abusive and forlorn:

“Thanks for the ride!”

It was not Adelaide calling; it was Lois.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Margaret Laurence On The Loons

This story was first published in The Atlantic Advocate, in 1966. The roots of it go back a very long way into my childhood. The ways in which memories and “created” events intertwine in this story probably illustrate a few things about the nature of fiction. When I was about eleven or twelve, I got to know a young Métis girl who was several years younger than I. The Matron of Neepawa Hospital was a close friend of our family, and the Métis child was in her care because the girl had tuberculosis of the bone in one leg. When the girl was well enough to walk (first with a cast, then with an awkward leg brace), she used to visit our house often. She was, not surprisingly, very shy and withdrawn, and I was puzzled by her at the time. Only many years later did I realize how unhappy she must have been. I learned something about her when we were both grown up – she did indeed marry an English-Canadian, and the marriage turned out quite badly. I never heard anything more. She became the basis of the character of Piquette Tonnerre.

The character of Vanessa is based on myself as a child, and the MacLeod family is based on my own childhood family, but here is where the process of fiction becomes interesting. When I knew the Métis girl, my father had died several years previously. He was in fact a lawyer, not a doctor. We did indeed have a cottage at Clear Lake, Riding Mountain, and this is the very beloved place I am describing in the fictional Diamond Lake, Galloping Mountain. The loons used to be there, nesting on the shore, when I was a child, and we used to hear their eerie unforgettable cry. The loons did move away when the cottages increased in number and more and more people came in. All these things somehow wove themselves into the story. Other things surfaced, part of the mental baggage which one carries inside one’s head always. When I was young, fires in winter among the collection of destitute shacks at the foot of the hill, in the valley below town, were tragically common. Years later, when I lived in Vancouver, I used to read in the newspapers about fires destroying the flimsy shanties of native peoples. All these various things combined in my mind with a sense of outrage at the treatment of Indian and Métis people in this country throughout our history. History for me, as with social issues, is personalized – these events happen to real people; people with names, families and places of belonging. The loons seemed to symbolize in some way the despair, the uprootedness, the loss of the land that many Indians and Métis must feel. And so, by some mysterious process which I don’t claim to understand, the story gradually grew in my mind until it found its own shape and form.

I never knew a family exactly like the Tonnerre family, but the fictional family first appeared in my writing in The Stone Angel. Next came the writing of the short story, “The Loons”. Something about that fire, and the terrible and unnecessary waste of lives, must have almost obsessed me, for that event came into my fiction twice more after that short story – a relatively brief reference in my novel The Fire-Dwellers, and a long scene and many other references in my novel The Diviners.

Although certain details are taken from one’s own life, and from memories of places and people, I think that the fiction comes to have its own special reality. In fact, the fictional town of Manawaka often seems real to me as my own town of Neepawa, and its people seem very real in my mind. Of course, the odd thing about fiction is that even when the characters are based to some extent on actual people, they cease to be those people and become themselves. Ultimately, Vanessa is herself and not me at all, just as Piquette is herself.

And the process of fiction remains, thank God, mysterious.

Monday, December 3, 2012

The Loons

Laurence, Margaret. A Bird in the House. McClleland & Stewart. 1970

Just below Manawaka, where the Wachakwa River ran brown and noisy over the pebbles, the scrub oak and grey-green willow and chokecherry bushes grew in a dense thicket. In a clearing at the centre of the thicket stood the Tonnerre family’s shack. The basis of this dwelling was a small square cabin made of poplar poles and chinked with mud, which had been built by Jules Tonnerre some fifty years before, when he came back from Batoche with a bullet in his thigh, the year that Riel was hung and the voices of the Metis entered their long silence. Jules had only intended to stay the winter in the Wachakwa Valley, but the family were still there in the thirties, when I was a child. As Tonnerres had increased, their settlement had been added to, until the clearing at the foot of the town hill was a chaos of lean-tos, wooden packing cases, warped lumber, discarded car tires, ramshackle chicken coops, tangled strands of barbed wire and rusty tin cans.

The Tonnerres were French half-breeds, and among themselves they spoke a patois that was neither Cree nor French. Their English was broken and full of obscenities. They did not belong among the Cree of the Galloping Mountain reservation, further north, and they did not belong among the Scots-Irish and Ukrainians of Manawaka, either. They were, as my Grandmother MacLeod would have put it, neither flesh, fowl, nor good salt herring. When their men were not working at odd jobs or as section hands on the C.P.R., they lived on relief. In the summer, one of the Tonnerre youngsters, with a face that seemed totally unfamiliar with laughter, would knock at the door of the town’s brick houses and offer for sale a lard-pail of bruised wild strawberries, and if he got as much as a quarter he would grab the coin and run before the customer had time to change her mind. Sometimes old Jules, or his son Lazarus, would get mixed up in a Saturday-night brawl, and would hit out at whoever was nearest, or howl drunkenly among the offended shoppers on Main Street, and then the Mountie would put them for the night in the barred cell underneath the Court House, and the next morning they would be quiet again.

Piquette Tonnerre, the daughter of Lazarus, was in my class at school. She was older than I, but she had failed several grades, perhaps because her attendance had always been sporadic and her interest in schoolwork negligible. Part of the reason she had missed a lot of school was that she had had tuberculosis of the bone, and had once spent many months in hospital. I knew this because my father was the doctor who had looked after her. Her sickness was almost the only thing I knew about her, however. Otherwise, she existed for me only as a vaguely embarrassing presence, with her hoarse voice and her clumsy limping walk and her grimy cotton dresses that were always miles too long. I was neither friendly nor unfriendly towards her. She dwelt and moved somewhere within my scope of vision, but I did not actually notice her very much until that particular summer when I was eleven.

“I don’t what to do about that kid,” my father said at dinner one evening. “Piquette Tonnerre, I mean. The damn bone’s flared up again. I’ve had her in hospital for quite a while now, and it’s under control all right, but I hate like the dickens to send her home again.”

“Couldn’t you explain to her mother that she has to rest a lot?” my mother said.

“The mother’s not there,” my father replied. “She took off a few years back. Can’t say I blame her. Piquette cooks for them, and she says Lazarus would never do anything for himself as long as she’s there. Anyway, I don’t think she’d take much care of herself, once she got back. She’s only thirteen, after all. Beth, I was thinking – what about taking her up to Diamond Lake with us this summer? A couple of months rest would give that bone a much better chance.”

My mother looked stunned.

“But Ewen – what about Roddie and Vanessa?”

“She’s not contagious,” my father said. “And it would be company for Vanessa.”

“Oh dear,” my mother said in distress, “I’ll bet anything she has nits in her hair.”

“For Pete’s sake,” my father said crossly, “do you think Matron would let her stay in the hospital for all that time like that? Don’t be silly, Beth.”

Grandmother MacLeod, her delicately featured face as rigid as a cameo, now brought her mauve-veined hands together as though she were about to begin a prayer.

“Ewen, if that half-bred youngster comes along to Diamond Lake, I’m not going,” she announced. “I’ll go to Morag’s for the summer.”

I had trouble in stifling my urge to laugh, for my mother brightened visibly and quickly tried to hide it. If it came to a choice between Grandmother MacLeod and Piquette, Piquette would win hands down, nits or not.

“It might be quite nice for you, at that,” she mused. “You haven’t seen Morag in over a year, and you might enjoy being in the city for a while. Well, Ewen dear, you do what you think best. If you think it would do Piquette some good, then we’ll be glad to have her, as long as she behaves herself.”

So it happened that several weeks later, when we all piled into my father’s old Nash, surrounded by suitcases and boxes of provisions and toys for my ten-month-old brother, Piquette was with us and not Grandmother MacLeod, miraculously, was not. My father would only be staying at the cottage for a couple of weeks, for he had to get back to his practice, but the rest of us would stay at Diamond Lake until the end of August.

Our cottage was not named, as many were, “Dew Drop Inn” or “Bide-a-Wee,” or “Bonnie Doon.” The sign on the roadway bore in austere letters only our name, Macleod. It was not a large cottage, but it was on the lakefront. You could look out the windows and see, through the filigree of the spruce trees, the water glistening greenly as the sun caught it. All around the cottage were ferns, and sharp-branched raspberry bushes, and moss that had grown over fallen tree trucks. If you looked carefully among the weeds and grass, you could find wild strawberry plants which were in white flower now and in another month would bear fruit, the fragrant globes hanging like miniature scarlet lanterns on the thin hairy stems. The two grey squirrels were still there, gossiping at us from the tall spruce between the cottage, and by the end of the summer they would again be tame enough to take pieces of crust from my hands. The broad moose antlers that hung above the back door were a little more bleached and fissured after the winter, but otherwise everything was the same. I raced joyfully around my kingdom, greeting all the places I had not seen for a year. My brother, Roderick, who had not been born when we were here last summer, sat on the car rug in the sunshine and examined a brown spruce cone, meticulously turning it round and round in his small and curious hands. My mother and father toted the luggage from car to cottage, exclaiming over hoe well the place had wintered, no broken windows, thank goodness, no apparent damage from storm-felled branches or snow.

Only after I had finished looking around did I notice Piquette. She was sitting on the swing, her lame leg held stiffly out, and her other foot scuffing the ground as she swung slowly back and forth. Her long hair hung back and straight around her shoulders, and her broad coarse-featured face bore no expression – it was blank, as though she no longer dwelt within her own skull, as though she had gone elsewhere. I approached her very hesitantly.

“Want to come and play?”

Piquette looked at me with a sudden flash of scorn.

“I ain’t a kid,” she said.

Wounded, I stamped angrily away, swearing I would not speak to her for the rest of the summer. In the days that followed, however, Piquette began to interest me, and I began to want to interest her. My reasons did not appear bizarre to me. Unlikely as it may seem, I had only just realized that the Tonnerre family, whom I had always heard called half-breeds, were actually Indians, or as near as made no difference. I did not remember ever having seen a real Indian, and my new awareness that Piquette sprang from the people of Big Bear and Poundmaker, of Tecumseh, of the Iroquois who had eaten Father Brebeuf’s heart – all this gave her an instant attraction in my eyes. I was a devoted reader of Pauline Johnson at this age, and sometimes would orate aloud and in an exalted voice, West Wind, blow from your prairie nest; Blow from the mountains, blow from the west – and so on. It seemed to me that Piquette must be in some way a daughter of the forest, a kind of junior prophetess of the wilds, who might impart to me, if I took the right approach, some of the secrets which she undoubtedly knew – where the whippoorwill made her nest, how the coyote reared her young, or whatever it was that it said in Hiawatha.

I set about gaining Piquette’s trust. She was not allowed to go swimming, with her bad leg, but I managed to lure her down to the beach – or rather, she came because there was nothing else to do. The water was always icy, for the lake was fed by springs, but I swam like a dog, thrashing my arms and legs around at such speed and with such an output of energy that I never grew cold. Finally, when I had had enough, I came out and sat beside Piquette on the sand. When she saw me approaching, her hand squashed flat the sand castle she had been building, and she looked at me sullenly, without speaking.

“Do you like this place?” I asked, after a while, intending to lead on from there into the question of the forest lore.

Piquette shrugged. “It’s okay. Good as anywhere.”

“I love it,” I said. “We come here every summer.”

“So what?” Her voice was distant, and I glanced at her uncertainly, wondering what I could have said wrong.

“Do you want to come for a walk?” I asked her. ”We wouldn’t need to go far. If you walk just around the point there, you come to a bay where great big reeds grow in the water, and kinds of fish hang around there. Want to? Come on.”

She shook her head.

“Your dad said I ain’t supposed to do no more walking than I got to.”

I tried another line.

“I bet you know a lot about the woods and all that, eh?” I began respectfully.

Piquette looked at me from her large dark unsmiling eyes.

“I don’t know what in hell you’re talkin’ about,” she replied. “You nuts or somethin’? If you mean where my old man, and me, and all them live, you better shut up, by Jesus, you hear?”

I was startled and my feelings were hurt, but I had a kind of dogged perseverance. I ignored her rebuff. 
“You know something, Piquette? There’s loons here, on this lake. You can see their nests just up the shore there, behind those logs. At night, you can hear them even from the cottage, but it’s better to listen from the beach. My dad says we should listen and try to remember how they sound, because in a few years when more cottages are built at Diamond Lake and more people come in, the loons will go away.”

Piquette was picking up stones and snail shells and then dropping them again.
“Who gives a good goddamn?” she said.

It became increasingly obvious that, as an Indian, Piquette was a dead loss. That evening I went out by myself, scrambling through the bushes that overhung the steep path, my feet slipping on the fallen spruce needles that covered the ground. When I reached the shore, I walked along the firm damp sand to the small pier that my father had built, and sat down there. I heard someone else crashing through the undergrowth and the bracken, and for a moment I thought Piquette had changed her mind, but it turned out to be my father. He sat beside me on the pier and we waited, without speaking.

At night the lake was like black glass with a streak of amber which was the path of the moon. All around, the spruce trees grew tall and close-set, branches blackly sharp against the sky, which was lightened by a cold flickering of stars. Then the loons began their calling. They rose like phantom birds from the nests on the shore, and flew out onto the dark still surface of the water.

No one can ever describe that ululating sound, the crying of the loons, and no one who has heard it can ever forget it. Plaintive, and yet with a quality of chilling mockery, those voices belonged to a world separated by aeons from our neat world of summer cottages and the lighted lamps of home.

“They must have sounded just like that,” my father remarked, “before any person ever set foot here.”

Then he laughed. “You could say the same, of course, about sparrows, or chipmunks, but somehow it only strikes you that way with the loons.”

“I know,” I said.

Neither of us suspected that this would be the last time we would ever sit here together on the shore, listening. We stayed for perhaps half an hour, and then we went back to the cottage. My mother was reading by the fireplace. Piquette was looking at the burning birch log, and not doing anything.

“You should have come along,” I said, although in fact I was glad she had not.

“Not me,” Piquette said. “You wouldn’t catch me walkin’ way down there jus’ for a bunch of squawkin’ birds.”

Piquette and I remained ill at ease with one another. I felt I had somehow failed my father, but I did not know what was the matter, nor why she would not or could not respond when I suggested exploring the woods or playing house. I thought it was probably her slow and difficult walking that held her back. She stayed most of the time in the cottage with my mother, helping her with the dishes or with Roddie, but hardly ever talking. Then the Duncans arrived at their cottage, and I spent my days with Maria, who was my best friend. I could not reach Piquette at all, and I soon lost interest in trying. But all that summer she remained as both a reproach and a mystery to me.

That winter my father died of pneumonia, after less than a week’s illness. For some time I saw nothing around me, being completely immersed in my own pain and my mother’s. When I looked outward once more, I scarcely noticed that Piquette Tonnerre was no longer at school. I do not remember seeing her at all until four years later, one Saturday night when Mavis and I were having Cokes in the Regal Cafe. The jukebox was booming like tuneful thunder, and beside it, leaning lightly on its chrome and its rainbow glass, was a girl.

Piquette must have been about seventeen then, although she looked about twenty. I stared at her, astounded that anyone could have changed so much. Her face, so stolid and expressionless before, was animated now with a gaiety that was almost violent. She laughed and talked very loudly with the boys around her. Her lipstick was bright carmine, and her hair was cut short and frizzily permed. She had not been pretty as a child, and she was not pretty now, for her features were still heavy and blunt. But her dark and slightly slanted eyes were beautiful, and her skin-tight skirt and orange sweater displayed to enviable advantage a soft and slender body.

She saw me, and walked over. She teetered a little, but it was not due to her once-tubercular leg, for her limp was almost gone.

“Hi, Vanessa.” Her voice still had the same hoarseness. “Long time no see, eh?”

“Hi,” I said. “Where’ve you been keeping yourself, Piquette?”

“Oh, I been around,” she said. “I been away almost two years now. Been all over the place – Winnipeg, Regina, Saskatoon. Jesus, what I could tell you! I come back this summer, but I ain’t stayin’. You kids goin’ to the dance?”

“No,” I said abruptly, for this was a sore point with me. I was fifteen, and thought I was old enough to go to the Saturday-night dances at the Flamingo. My mother, however, thought otherwise.

“Y’oughta come,” Piquette said. “I never miss one. It’s just about the on’y thing in this jerkwater town that’s any fun. Boy, you couldn’ catch me stayin’ here. I don’ give a shit about this place. It stinks.”

She sat down beside me, and I caught the harsh over-sweetness of her perfume.

“Listen, you wanna know something, Vanessa?” she confided, her voice only slightly blurred. “Your dad was the only person in Manawaka that ever done anything good to me.”

I nodded speechlessly. I was certain she was telling the truth. I knew a little more than I had that summer at Diamond Lake, but I could not reach her now any more than I had then. I was ashamed, ashamed of my own timidity, the frightened tendency to look the other way. Yet I felt no real warmth towards her – I only felt that I ought to, because of that distant summer and because my father had hoped she would be company for me, or perhaps that I would be for her, but it had not happened that way. At this moment, meeting her again, I had to admit that she repelled and embarrassed me, and I could not help despising the self-pity in her voice. I wished she would go away. I did not want to see her. I did not know what to say to her. It seemed that we had nothing to say to one another.

“I’ll tell you something else,” Piquette went on. “All the old bitches an’ biddies in this town will sure be surprised. I’m gettin’ married this fall – my boyfriend, he’s an English fella, works in the stockyards in the city there, a very tall guy, got blond wavy hair. Gee, is he ever handsome. Got this really classy name. Alvin Gerald Cummings – some handle, eh? They call him Al.”

For the merest instant, then, I saw her. I really did see her, for the first and only time in all the years we had both lived in the same town. Her defiant face, momentarily, became unguarded and unmasked, and in her eyes there was a terrifying hope. 
“Gee, Piquette- “ I burst out awkwardly, “that’s swell. That’s really wonderful. Congratulations – good luck – I hope you’ll be happy-“

As I mouthed the conventional phrases, I could only guess how great her need must have been, that she had been forced to seek the very things she so bitterly rejected.

When I was eighteen, I left Manawaka and went away to college. At the end of my first year, I came back home for the summer. I spent the first few days in talking non-stop with my mother, as we exchanged all the news that somehow had not found its way into letters – what had happened in my life and what had happened here in Manawaka while I was away. My mother searched her memory for events that concerned people I knew.

“Did I ever write you about Piquette Tonnerre, Vanessa?” she asked one morning.

“No, I don’t think so,” I replied. “Last I heard of her, she was going to marry some guy in the city. Is she still there?”

My mother looked perturbed, and it was a moment before she spoke, as though she did not know how to express what she had to tell and wished she did not need to try.

“She’s dead,” she said at last. Then, as I stared at her, “Oh, Vanessa, when it happened, I couldn’t help thinking of her as she was that summer – so sullen and gauche and badly dressed. I couldn’t help wondering if we could have done something more at that time – but what could we do? She used to be around in the cottage there with me all day, and honestly, it was all I could do to get a word out of her. She didn’t even talk to your father very much, although I think she liked him, in her way.”

“What happened?” I asked.

“Either her husband left her, or she left him,” my mother said. “I don’t know which. Anyway, she came back here with two youngsters, both only babies – they must have been born very close together. She kept house, I guess, for Lazarus and her brothers, down in the valley there, in the old Tonnerre place. I used to see her on the street sometimes, but she never spoke to me. She’d put on an awful lot of weight, and she looked a mess, to tell you the truth, a real slattern, dressed any old how. She was up in court a couple of times – drunk and disorderly, of course. One Saturday night last winter, during the coldest weather, Piquette was alone in the shack with the children. The Tonnerres made home brew all the time, so I’ve heard, and Lazarus said later she’d been drinking most of the day when he and the boys went out that evening. They had an old woodstove there – you know the kind, with exposed pipes. The shack caught fire. Piquette didn’t get out, and neither did the children.”

I did not say anything. As so often with Piquette, there did not seem to be anything to say. There was a kind of silence around the image in my mind of the fire and the snow, and I wished I could put from my memory the look that I had seen once in Piquette’s eyes.

I went up to Diamond Lake for a few days that summer, with Mavis and her family. The MacLeod cottage had been sold after my father’s death, and I did not even go to look at it, not wanting to witness my long-ago kingdom possessed now by strangers. But one evening I went down to the shore by myself.

The small pier which my father had built was gone, and in its place there was a large and solid pier built by the government, for Galloping Mountain was now a national park, and Diamond Lake had been re-named Lake Wapakata, for it was felt an Indian name would have a greater appeal to tourists. The one store had become several dozen, and the settlement had all the attributes of a flourishing resort – hotels, a dance-hall, cafes with neon signs, the penetrating odours of potato chips and hot dogs.

I sat on the government pier and looked across the water. At night the lake at least was the same it had always been, darkly shining and bearing within its black glass the streak of amber that was the path of the moon. There was no wind that evening, and everything was quiet all around me. It seemed too quiet, and then I realized that the loons were no longer here. I listened for some time, to make sure, but never once did I hear that long-drawn call, half mocking and half plaintive, spearing through the stillness across the lake.

I did not know what had happened to the birds. Perhaps they had gone away to some far place of belonging. Perhaps they had been unable to find such a place, and had simply died out, having ceased to carer any longer whether they lived or not.

I remembered how Piquette had scorned to come along, when my father and I sat there and listened to the lake birds. It seemed to me now that in some unconscious and totally unrecognized way, Piquette might have been the only one, after all, who had heard the crying of the loons.

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Lamp at noon

Ross, Sinclair. The Lamp at Noon and other stories. McClelland & Stewart. 1968.
A little before noon she lit the lamp. Demented wind fled keening past the house: a wail through the eaves that died every minute or two. Three days now without respite it had held. The dust was thickening to an impenetrable fog.

She lit the lamp, then for a long time stood at the window motionless. In dim, fitful outline the stable and oat granary still were visible; beyond, obscuring fields and landmarks, the lower of dust clouds made the farmyard seem an isolated acre, poised aloft above a sombre void. At each blast of wind it shook, as if to topple and spin hurtling with the dust-reel into space.

From the window she went to the door, opening it a little, and peering toward the stable again. He was not coming yet. As she watched there was a sudden rift overhead, and for a moment through the tattered clouds the sun raced like a wizened orange. It shed a soft, diffused light, dim and yellow as if it were the light from the lamp reaching out through the open door.

She closed the door, and going to the stove tried the potatoes with a fork. Her eyes all the while were fixed and wide with a curious immobility. It was the window. Standing at it, she had let her forehead press against the pane until the eyes were strained apart and rigid. Wide like that they had looked out to the deepening ruin of the storm. Now she could not close them.

The baby started to cry. He was lying in a homemade crib over which she had arranged a tent of muslin. Careful not to disturb the folds of it, she knelt and tried to still him, whispering huskily in a singsong voice that he must hush and go to sleep again. She would have liked to rock him, to feel the comfort of his little body in his arms, but a fear had obsessed her that in the dust-filled air he might contract pneumonia. There was dust sifting everywhere. Her own throat was parched with it. The table had been set less than ten minutes, and already a film was gathering on the dishes. The little cry continued, and with wincing, frightened lips she glanced around as if to find a corner where the air was less oppressive. But while the lips winced the eyes maintained their wide, immobile stare. “Sleep,” she whispered again. “It’s too soon for you to be hungry. Daddy’s coming for his dinner.”

He seemed a long time. Even the clock, still a few minutes off noon, could not dispel a foreboding sense that he was longer than he should be. She went to the door again – and then recoiled slowly to stand white and breathless in the middle of the room. She musn’t. He would only despise her if she ran to the stable looking for him. There was too much grim endurance in his nature ever to let him understand the fear and weakness of a woman. She must stay quiet and wait. Nothing was wrong. At noon he would come – and perhaps after dinner stay with her awhile.

Yesterday, and again at breakfast this morning, they had quarrelled bitterly. She wanted him now, the assurance of his strength and nearness, but he would stand aloof, wary, remembering the words she had flung at him in her anger, unable to understand it was only the dust and wind that had driven her.

Tense, she fixed her eyes upon the clock, listening. There were two winds: the wind in flight, and the wind that pursued. The one sought refuge in the eaves, whimpering, in fear; the other assailed it there, and shook the eaves apart to make it flee again. Once as she listened this first wind sprang inside the room, distraught like a bird that has felt the graze of talons on its wing; while furious the other wind shook the walls, and thudded tumbleweeds against the window till its quarry glanced away again in fright. But only to return – to return and quake among the feeble eaves, as if in all this dust-mad wilderness it knew no other sanctuary.

Then Paul came. At his step she hurried to the stove, intent upon the pots and frying-pan. “The worst wind yet,” he ventured, hanging up his cap and smock. “I had to light the lantern in the tool shed, too.”

They looked at each other, then away. She wanted to go to him, to feel his arms supporting her, to cry just a little just that he might soothe her, but because his presence made the menace of the wind seem less, she gripped herself and thought, “I’m in the right. I won’t give in. For his sake, too, I won’t.”

He washed, hurriedly, so that a few dark welts of dust remained to indent upon his face a haggard strength. It was all she could see as she wiped the dishes and set the food before him : the strength, the grimness, the young Paul growing old and hard, buckled against a desert even grimmer than his will. “Hungry?” she asked, touched to a twinge of pity she had not intended. “There’s dust in everything. It keeps coming faster than I can clean up.”

He nodded. “Tonight, though, you’ll see it go down. This is the third day.”

She looked at him in silence a moment, and then as if to herself muttered broodingly, “Until the next time. Until it starts again.”

There was a dark resentment in her voice now that boded another quarrel. He waited, his eyes on her dubiously as she mashed a potato with her fork. The lamp between them threw strong lights and shadows on their faces. Dust and drought, earth that betrayed alike his labour and his faith, to him the struggle had given sternness, an impassive courage. Beneath the whip of sand his youth had been effaced. Youth, zest, exuberance – there remained only a harsh and clenched virility that yet became him, that seemed at the cost of more engaging qualities to be fulfilment of his inmost and essential nature. Whereas to her the same debts and poverty had brought a plaintive indignation, a nervous dread of what was still to come. The eyes were hollowed, the lips pinched dry and colourless. It was the face of a woman that had aged without maturing, that had loved the vanities of life, and lost them wistfully.

“I’m afraid, Paul,” she said suddenly. “I can’t stand it any longer. He cries all the time. You will go, Paul – say you will. We aren’t living here – not really living-“

The pleading in her voice now, after its shrill bitterness yesterday, made him think that this was another way to persuade him. He answered evenly, “I told you this morning, Ellen; we keep on right where we are. At least I do. It’s yourself you’re thinking about, not the baby.”

This morning such an accusation would have stung her to rage; now, her voice swift and panting, she pressed on, “Listen, Paul – I’m thinking of all of us – you, too. Look at the sky – what’s happening. Are you blind? Thistles and tumbleweeds – it’s a desert. You won’t have a straw this fall. You won’t be able to feed a cow or a chicken. Please, Paul, say we’ll go away-“

“Go where?” His voice as he answered was still remote and even, inflexibly in unison with the narrowed eyes and the great hunch of muscle-knotted shoulder. “Even as a desert it’s better than sweeping out your father’s store and running his errands. That’s all I’ve got ahead of me if I do what you.”

“And here –“ she faltered. “What’s ahead of you here? At least we’ll get enough to eat and wear when you’re sweeping out his store. Look at it – look at it, you fool. Desert – the lamp lit at noon –“

“You’ll see it come back. There’s good wheat in it yet.”

“But in the meantime – year after year – can’t you understand, Paul? We’ll never get them back-“

He put down his knife and fork and leaned toward her across the table. “I can’t go, Ellen. Living off your people – charity – stop and think of it. This is where I belong. I can’t do anything else.”

“Charity!” she repeated after him, letting her voice rise in derision. “And this – you call this independence! Borrowed money you can’t even pay the interest on, seed from the government – grocery bills – doctor bills –“

“We’ll have crops again,” he persisted. “Good crops – the land will come back. It’s worth waiting for.”

“And while we’re waiting, Paul!” It was not anger now, but a kind of sob. “Think of me – and him. It’s not fair. We have our lives, too, to live.”

“And you think that going home to your family - taking your husband with you –“

“I don’t care – anything would be better than this. Look at the air he’s breathing. He cries all the time. For his sake, Paul. What’s ahead of him here, even if you do get crops?”

He clenched his lips a minute, then, with his eyes hard and contemptuous, struck back, “As much as in town, growing up a pauper. You’re the one who wants to go, it’s not for his sake. You think that in town you’d have a better time – not so much work – more clothes –“

“Maybe –“ She dropped her head defencelessly. “I’m young still. I like pretty things.”

There was silence now – a deep fastness of it enclosed by rushing wind and creaking walls. It seemed the yellow lamplight cast a hush upon them. Through the haze of dusty air the walls receded, dimmed, and came again. At last she raised her head and said listlessly, “Go on – your dinner’s getting cold. Don’t sit and stare at me. I’ve said it all.”

The spent quietness in her voice was even harder to endure than her anger. It reproached him, against his will insisted that he see and understand her lot. To justify himself he tried, “I was a poor man when you married me. You said you didn’t mind. Farming’s never been easy, and never will be.”

“I wouldn’t mind the work or the skimping if there was something to look forward to. It’s the hopelessness – going on – watching the land blow away.”

“The land’s all right,” he repeated. “The dry years won’t last forever.”

“But it’s not just dry years, Paul!” The little sob in her voice gave way suddenly to a ring of exasperation. “Will you never see? It’s the land itself – the soil. You’ve plowed and harrowed it until there’s not a root or fibre left to hold it down. That’s why the soil drifts – that’s why in a year or two there’ll be nothing left but the bare clay. If in the first place you farmers had taken care of your land – if you hadn’t been so greedy for wheat every year -“

She had taught school before she married him, and of late in her anger there had been a kind of disdain, an attitude almost of condescension, as if she no longer looked upon farmers as her equals. He sat still, his eyes fixed on the yellow lamp flame, and seeming to know how her words had hurt him, she went on softly, “I want to help you, Paul. That’s why I won’t sit quiet while you go on wasting your life. You’re only thirty – you owe it to yourself as well as me.”

He sat staring at the lamp without answering, his mouth sullen. It seemed indifference now, as if he were ignoring her, and stung to anger again she cried, “Do you ever think what my life is? Two rooms to live in – once a month to town, and nothing to spend when I get there. I’m still young – I wasn’t brought up this way.”

“You’re a farmer’s wife now. It doesn’t matter what you used to be, or how you were brought up. You get enough to eat and wear. Just now that’s all I can do. I’m not to blame that we’ve been dried out five years.”

“Enough to eat!” she laughed back shrilly. “Enough salt pork – enough potatoes and eggs. And look –“ Springing to the middle of the room she thrust out a foot for him to see the scuffed old slipper. “When they’re completely gone I suppose you’ll tell me I can go barefoot – that I’m a farmer’s wife – that it’s not your fault we’re dried out-“

“And what about these?” He pushed his chair away from the table now to let her see what he was wearing. “Cowhide – hard as boards – but my feet are so calloused I don’t feel them anymore.”

Then he stood up, ashamed of having tried to match her hardships with his own. But frightened now as he reached for his smock she pressed close to him. “Don’t go yet. I brood and worry when I’m left alone. Please, Paul – you can’t work on the land anyway.”

“And keep on like this? You start before I’m through the door. Week in and week out – I’ve troubles enough of my own.”

“Paul – please stay –“ The eyes were glazed now, distended a little as if with the intensity of her dread and pleading. “We won’t quarrel any more. Hear it! I can’t work – I just stand still and listen –“

The eyes frightened him, but responding to a kind of instinct that he must withstand her, that it was his self-respect and manhood against the fretful weakness of a woman, he answered unfeelingly, “In here safe and quiet – you don’t know how well off you are. If you were out in it – fighting it – swallowing it-“

“Sometimes, Paul, I wish I was. I’m so caged – if I could only break away and run. See – I stand like this all day. I can’t relax. My throat’s so tight it aches-“

With a jerk he freed his smock from her clutch. “If I stay we’ll only keep on all afternoon. Wait till tomorrow – we’ll talk things over when the wind goes down.”

Then without meeting her eyes again he swung outside, and doubled low against the buffets of the wind, fought his way slowly toward the stable. There was a deep hollow calm within, a vast darkness engulfed beneath the ties of moaning wind. He stood breathless a moment, hushed almost to a stupor by the sudden extinction of the storm and the stillness than enfolded him. It was a long, far-reaching stillness. The first dim stalls and rafters led the way into cavern-like obscurity, into vaults and recesses that extended far beyond the stable walls. Nor in these first quiet moments did he forbid the illusion, the sense of release from a harsh, familiar world into one of peace and darkness. The contentious mood that his stand against Ellen had roused him to, his tenacity and clenched despair before the ravages of wind, it was ebbing now, losing himself in the cover of darkness. Ellen and the wheat seemed remote, unimportant. At a whinny from the bay mare, Bess, he went forward and into her stall. She seemed grateful for his presence, and thrust her nose deep between his arm and body. They stood a long time motionless, comforting and assuring each other.

For soon again the first deep sense of quiet and peace was shrunken to the battered shelter of the stable. Instead of a release or escape from the assaulting wind, the walls were but a feeble stand against it. They creaked and sawed as if the fingers of a giant hand were tightening to collapse them; the empty loft sustained a pipelike cry that rose and fell but never ended. He saw the dust-black sky again, and his fields blown smooth with drifted soil.

But always, even while listening to the storm outside, he could feel the tense and apprehensive stillness of the stable. There was not a hoof that clumped or shifted, not a rub of halter against manger. And yet, though it had been a strange stable, he would have known, despite the darkness, that every stall was filled. They, too, were all listening.

From Bess he went to the big grey gelding, Prince. Prince was twenty years old, with rib-grooved sides, and high, protruding hipbones. Paul ran his head over the ribs, and felt a sudden shame, a sting of fear that Ellen might be right in what she said. For wasn’t it true – nine years a farmer now on his own land, and still he couldn’t even feed his horses? What, then, could he do for his wife and son?

There was much he planned. And so vivid was the future of his planning, so real and constant, that often the actual present was but half felt, but half endured. Its difficulties were lessened by a confidence in what lay beyond them. A new house – land for the boy – land and still more land – or education, whatever he might want.

But all the time was he only a blind and stubborn fool? Was Ellen right? Was he trampling on her life, and throwing away his own? The five years since he married her, were they to go on repeating themselves, five, ten, twenty, until all the brave future he looked forward to was but a stark and futile past?

She looked forward to no future. She had no faith or dream with which to make the dust and poverty less real. He understood suddenly. He saw her face again as only a few minutes ago it had begged him not to leave her. The darkness round him now was as a slate on which her lonely terror lined itself. He went from Prince to the other horses, combing their manes and forelocks with his fingers, but always it was her face before him, its staring eyes and twisted sufferings. ‘See Paul – I stand like this all day. I just stand still – My throat’s so tight it aches-“

And always the wind, the creak of walls, the wild lipless wailing through the loft. Until at last as he stood there, staring into the livid face before him, it seemed that this scream of wind was a cry from her parched and frantic lips. He knew it couldn’t be, he knew that she was safe within the house, but still the wind persisted as a woman’s cry. The cry of a woman with eyes like those that watched him through the dark. Eyes that were mad now – lips that even as they cried still pleaded, “See, Paul – I stand like this all day. I just stand still – so caged! If I could only run!”

He saw her running, pulled and driven headlong by the wind, but when at last he returned to the house, compelled by his anxiety, she was walking quietly back and forth with the baby in her arms. Careful, despite his concern, not to reveal a fear or weakness that she might think capitulation to her wishes, he watched a moment through the window, and then went off to the tool shed to mend harness. All afternoon he stitched and riveted. It was easier with the lantern lit and his hands occupied. There was a wind whining high past the tool shed too, but it was only wind. He remembered the arguments with which Ellen had tried to persuade him away from the farm, and one by one he defeated them. There would be rain again – next year or the next. Maybe in his ignorance he had farmed his land the wrong way, seeding wheat every year, working the soil till it was lifeless dust – but he would do better now. He would plant clover and alfalfa, breed cattle, acre by acre and year by year restore to his land its fibre and fertility. That was something to work for, a way to prove himself. It was ruthless wind, blackening the sky with his earth, but it was not his master. Out of his land it had made a wilderness. He now, out of the wilderness, would make a farm and home again.

Tonight he must talk with Ellen. Patiently, when the wind was down, and they were both quiet again. It was she who had told him to grow fibrous crops, who had called him an ignorant fool because he kept on with summer fallow and wheat. Now she might be gratified to find him acknowledging her wisdom. Perhaps she would begin to feel the power and steadfastness of the land, to take a pride in it, to understand that he was not a fool, but working for her future and their son’s.

And already the wind was slackening. At four o’ clock he could sense a lull. At five, straining his eyes from the tool shed doorway, he could make out a neighbour’s buildings half a mile away. It was over – three days of blight and havoc like a scourge – three days so bitter and so long that for a moment he stood still, unseeing, his senses idle with a numbness of relief.

But only for a moment. Suddenly he emerged from the numbness; suddenly the fields before him struck his eyes to comprehension. They lay black, naked. Beaten and mounded smooth with dust as if a sea in gentle swell had turned to stone. And though he had tried to prepare himself for such a scene, though he had known since yesterday that not a blade would last through the storm, still now, before the utter waste confronting him, he sickened and stood cold. Suddenly like the fields he was naked. Everything that had sheathed him a little from the realities of existence: vision and purpose, faith in the land, in the future, in himself – it was all rent now, striped away. “Desert,” he heard her voice begin to sob. “Desert, you fool – the lamp lit at noon!”

In the stable again, measuring out their feed to the horses, he wondered what he would say to her tonight. For so deep were his instincts of loyalty to the land that still, even with the images of his betrayal stark upon his mind, his concern was how to withstand her, how to go on again and justify himself. It had not occurred to him yet that he might or should abandon the land. He had lived with it too long. Rather was his impulse still to defend it – as a man defends against the scorn of strangers even his most worthless kin.

He fed his horses, then waited. She too would be waiting, ready to cry at him, “Look now – that crop was to feed and clothe us! And you’ll still keep on! You’ll still say ‘Next year - there’ll be rain next year’!’

But she was gone when he reached the house. The door was open, the lamp blown out, the crib empty. The dishes from their meal at noon were still on the table. She had perhaps begun to sweep, for the broom was lying in the middle of the floor. In the wan, returning light it seemed that even the deserted kitchen was straining to whisper what it had seen. The tatters of the storm still whimpered through the eaves, and in their moaning told the desolation of the miles they had traversed. On tiptoe at last he crossed to the adjoining room; then at the threshold, without even a glance inside to satisfy himself that she was really gone, he wheeled again and plunged outside.

He ran a long time – distraught and headlong as a few hours ago he had seemed to watch her run – around the farmyard, a little distance into the pasture, back again blindly to the house to see whether she had returned – and then at a stumble down the road for help.

They joined in the search, rode away for others, spread calling across the fields in the direction she might have been carried by the wind – but nearly two hours later it was himself who came upon her. Crouched down against a drift of sand as if for shelter, her hair in matted strands around her neck and face, the child clasped tightly in her arms.

The child was quite cold. It had been her arms, perhaps, too frantic to protect him, or the smother of dust upon his throat and lungs. “Hold him,” she said as he knelt beside her. “So – with his face away from the wind. Hold him until I tidy my hair.”

Her eyes were still wide in an immobile stare, but with her lips she smiled at him. For a long time he knelt transfixed, trying to speak to her, touching fearfully with his fingertips the dust-grimed cheeks and eyelids of the child. At last she said, “I’ll take him again. Such clumsy hands – you don’t know how to hold a baby yet. See how his head falls forward on your arm.”

Yet it all seemed so familiar – a confirmation of what he had known since noon. He gave her the child, then, gathering them up in his arms, struggled to his feet, and turned toward home.

It was evening now. Across the fields a few spent clouds of dust still shook and fled. Beyond, as if through smoke, the sunset smouldered like a distant fire.

He walked with a long dull stride, his eyes before him, heedless of her weight. Once he glanced down and with her eyes she still was smiling. “Such strong arms, Paul – and I was so tired just carrying him...”

He tried to answer, but it seemed that now the dusk was drawn apart in breathless waiting, a finger on its lips until they passed. “You were right, Paul...” Her voice came whispering, as if she too could feel the hush. “You said tonight we’d see the storm go down. So still now, and a red sky – it means tomorrow will be fine."