Indian Horse – Richard Wagamese (2012)

book316Not certain where I came across this title, but this was one of the best reads this year so far. Richard Wagamese has written “Indian Horse”, a novel that revolves around a First Nations person with a drinking problem who is trying to dry out at an inpatient facility. Part of his ongoing therapy asks him to track back down his past years to try to understand why he’s chosen the paths that he has throughout his life. “You can’t change the present if you don’t understand the past” idea…

This was one of the titles chosen as part of the Canada Reads program featured in 2013, so I knew that it had a good chance of being a good read even if I’d never heard of the title or the author. And it was, my friends. It was.

Saul Indian Horse, the protagonist, has lived a tough life. His childhood was spent in the wild bush with his extended family of the Ojibway tribe from the Wabaseemong First Nation in the northern end of Ontario. (It’s also the same tribe as the author so it makes it pretty autobiographical, I would think, at least historically speaking.) As Saul gets older, his family goes through some horrible situations, and the one constant in his unstable life is his love and talent for ice hockey.

It is the comradery of the team and also his uncanny ability to “see” the game (as the elders would see into the mystical world of old) that keeps Saul on track from self-destruction for some time, but eventually, the outside world overcomes his inside strength and things change from then on.

Richard-WagameseThis was far outside my normal reading, but I loved it. (It’s good to push the boundaries every now and then.) Wagamese is a great author who obviously knew what he was writing about, from the collective pain as a disenfranchised and abused child isolated from his family to the thrill of the game on the ice hockey rink. (And here I was surprised at just how exciting he made ice hockey games to read about. He described learning and playing the game in such great detail that even I, who have never played ice hockey, was involved with the outcome of each game his team played.)

The narrative builds up as the story progresses, and once it seems to reach its apex, I (as the reader) thought that was how life was going to stay for Saul. But then there is a huge twist at the end which brings things together and it took my breath away as, by that time, I’d fallen in love with troubled Saul. Interestedly, the story starts off with Saul being kept (willingly) in a residential treatment facility for his addiction, but that later more informal incarceration was a direct result of an earlier forcible incarceration of a kind during his childhood when he went to the school of hell. The earlier one put him in a cage – does the later prison cage (though of his own choices) set him free?

When the Indian Act of 1876 passed in Canada, it became compulsory for First Nation kids to attend a day, industrial or residential school as part of a large plan to assimilate Native Canadians into European-Canadian society (because we all know now that that’s the right thing to do. Sigh.) In fact, one of the key goals of this program was stated as “killing the Indian in the child” which affected more than 150,000 First Nation children and their families for generations.

ice_hockeyWith Canada being so large and spread out, this ruling (the Indian Act of 1876) meant that some young children were forced to attend boarding (or residential) schools run by mostly Catholic and Anglican churches where there was limited learning and excessive hard labor for the student body. The schools were funded in small part by the Canadian government, but not enough to meet all their financial needs which meant that the school children were frequently used in hard and manual labor, the products of which were income-producing for the schools. It was all a big mess (which might qualify for “Understatement 0f the Year”…)

Numerous records attest that, whilst in these residential schools, the students were forcibly removed from their families, their culture and their languages, some children were sterilized and purposely malnourished, and there were significant amounts of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of both other students and staff. There were also high mortality rates for illness (notably TB) for students with inadequate (or nonexistent) medical care from untrained staff, and numerous children went missing with their families never to hear from them again.

The schools were spread across the nation, and for tribal children far from towns or landed communities, it meant being kidnapped and forcibly removed from everything they knew to a pretty hostile environment. (Not every government school engaged in this abuse, but it was quite widespread – enough that there was a government public apology not only by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper but also the leaders of all the other parties in the Canadian House of Commons. And just nine days prior to this had been the establishment of the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission to uncover the truth about this situation.)

The last residential school didn’t close until 1996. (Blimey!) They sound like a terrible idea, but par for the course in early English colonial days. (See also Australia, USA, etc.) However, kudos to Canada for developing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that provided a $1.9 billion compensation package to benefit tens of thousands of former residential school students who had been affected, both as families and through support of more and better educational opportunities for First Nation peoples.

So – a pretty serious book on serious topics, but it reads so quickly and I was so drawn into the story that it passed incredibly fast. I just loved this book on so many different levels, and you may as well.

 

August 2014 Reading Wrap-Up

August

Similar to most other book bloggers, I enjoy looking back at the past month to see what I read and what I thought about. (It’s also fun to keep track of numbers for the year, so this blog post is doing that.) Enjoy!

In August, I read the following titles (with links to blog posts about said book where there is one):

Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret – Judy Blume (No blog post)

Showing the Flag – Jane Gardam (F – short stories)

Campaign for Domestic Happiness – Isabella Beeton (NF)

Moonwalking with Einstein – Joshua Foer (NF)

Only in London – Hana al-Shaykh (F)

Talking Dirt (speed home cleaning) – Jeff Campbell (NF) (no blog post)

Of Love and Hunger – Julian McLaren-Ross (F)

Homeward Bound – Emily Matchar (NF)

Total number of books read in August:  7

Total number of pages read1477 pages (av.211)

Fiction/Non-Fiction: 4 F and 3 NF

Library books vs. books I owned (and thus removed from the home abode): 2 library books and 5 owned books. (No e-books this month.)

Things on Cowboy’s Head – Part 49

 

Things on Cowboy's Head. No. 50: Miniature snowshoes.

Things on Cowboy’s Head. No. 50: Miniature snowshoes.

Background Note: Cowboy, as you know, is one of our cats. She is big and friendly and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. She naps a lot. All of which helps with this ongoing project I have going on…

It’s called “Things on Cowboy’s Head” and I am just seeing what I can balance on the top of her head when she’s amenable to that. It’s been fun so far, and she seems quite happy to play along. (She just moves when she doesn’t want to participate.)

(Cowboy’s posts are all gathered in one spot on her own blog.)

 

Homeward Bound – Emily Matchar (2012)

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This title has been pretty high on my TBR for about the last year or so. Why I haven’t read it is a question for the ages, but eventually I pulled it off the shelf. Written by Emily Matchar (who writes the New Domesticity blog), I was familiar with the general tack of the narrative and the whole book stayed quite close to that, overall. Material-wise, it wore a bit thin in places and there was some repetition (probably to keep a word count up there), but as mentioned, there were salient points in it.

Matcher takes a critical look at the world of what she calls “New Domesticity” – the Gen Y-ers who are embracing back-to-nature “crunchy” lifestyles of urban homesteading (keeping chickens, growing veg etc.) and home crafts such as knitting or making jewelry. This is not that notable in and of itself, but Matcher’s perspective is through more of a feminist lens which studies what this rejection of the workplace in lieu of being a SAHM/F (but mostly mothers) could mean for women in the future. It’s really quite an interesting read to consider this return to domesticity being viewed as a political statement (which some participants would argue it is).

From the book, it seems that quite a few Gen Y-ers (more than 95% female in this particular non-academic study) appreciate the steps that the first-wave and second-wave feminists have taken but blame this early feminism for their retreat from the workplace to the remolded idea of June Cleaver life, saying that their parents rejected domestic life to work and parent, and now they want to reclaim it back (“except it’s different”).

“New Domesticity is most attractive to people who are removed enough from the horrors of rural poverty to find canning charming, yet struggle to find genuinely fulfilling careers and decent ways to balance work and life.”

Emily Matcher.

She likens the people in their 20’s and 30’s as being raised by the “I’m OK You’re OK” parents who taught their offspring the lovely (but rather idealistic) idea of everyone being “as special as a snowflake” and thus having unrealistic expectations of beginning jobs once they’re graduated.

Additionally, as a human, one tends to make friends who reflect what you individually believe (“birds of a feather flock together”) which is both strengthening for their beliefs but also adds a great deal of peer pressure. Matcher reports groups of friends aligning very strict parenting behaviors (e.g. intensive attachment parenting styles) with almost a moral quality, seeing peers who don’t follow their way of acting as being “worse” or even “bad” parents at times. (Obviously, not everyone holds that opinion, but it was quite a common occurrence in the book. May have been the sample though which did seem rather limited at times.)

The adoption of this “new domesticity” is also very class-oriented, with only people who have reliable and middle-class working partners to support them and make them able to reject working in a full-time job. As the saying goes, “only those with enough money can say that money doesn’t matter”…)

It takes resources to do lovely but expensive and time-consuming hobbies like quilting or making jam, especially when you add in the common pipe-dream of making a sustainable living from a small Etsy on-line shop. (Most people don’t succeed, but it’s a nice idea. The reality, according to Matcher, is that the majority of these micro-crafting enterprises either don’t sell anything (re: the former website Regretsy) or do sell some but with the owners having to turn into temporary mini-sweat shops to get the orders out. (“I’d like 150 mini jars of home-made plum jam for my wedding please. It’s on this next Saturday.”)

Additionally, other critics and Matchar have linked this withdrawal from working life to the domestic front as changing how society views its community problems and rejects the social good. For example, numerous examples shown in the book report that people want to follow Ghandi’s “be the change you want to see in the world” , which is a lovely idea, but does move the focus from solving community problems as a whole to just solving your own immediate family’s problems (and pooey to everyone else).

The misguided anti-vaccination movement is a good example of this, along with some cases of home schooling where the parenting “teacher” is in absolutely no position to be teaching science or other subjects and, despite their intentions, are only putting the “protected child” at a disadvantage when they enter public school life. (Not everyone, of course, but I do worry about the more extreme examples.)

There was also some repetition from chapter to chapter, but I think it was because each chapter had been written at a different time with specified word counts (or page counts), and the author was struggling to meet those parameters. (Maybe not the case, but I’m going to give benefit of doubt here.) Oh, and If the author mentioned “crunchy” as a description of the eco lifestyle one more time, I was going to throw the book at the wall.

Still, I enjoyed the critical perusal of the world of cupcakes (and more) and I still don’t really get why people try to follow such extraordinarily complicated parenting rules (such as attachment parenting guides describe) which only seem to add an extra unnecessary level of stress to their lives…

I also don’t really get why these (mostly) women force themselves to live a work-intensive home life – “from scratch” is a common refrain – like their great-grandmothers whilst rejecting working life. Why not put that home-focused effort into something that pays good money (like a job) that will be able to support you in the unpredictable future? This lifestyle seems almost selfish in a way.

It also brings to the fore the risk that this New Domesticity population bring to their lives whilst they completely reject the serious side of working life (like having a job). Removing themselves from the workforce places a huge financial risk on themselves – the kids will grow up, their relationship/ supporting spouse could leave or die, and then what happens to the domestic maven? One cannot live on cupcakes and hand-made bread alone forever. (I might be of a more pragmatic bent than others though.)

It might well be that this book was just focused on a very small sample of people and that the majority of New Domesticity fans are well-intentioned and sensible; if that’s the case, then the world can relax, but if this is true to form, then it’s a bit concerning to think about.

Needless to say, if anyone would like me to taste-test any cupcakes, please feel free to send me one. :-)

Things on Cowboy’s Head – Part 48

Things on Cowboy's Head. No. 47: Fruitcan.

Things on Cowboy’s Head. No. 47: Fruitcan.

Background Note: Cowboy, as you know, is one of our cats. She is big and friendly and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. She naps a lot. All of which helps with this ongoing project I have going on…

It’s called “Things on Cowboy’s Head” and I am just seeing what I can balance on the top of her head when she’s amenable to that. It’s been fun so far, and she seems quite happy to play along. (She just moves when she doesn’t want to participate.)

(Cowboy’s posts are all gathered in one spot on her own blog.)

 

Things on Cowboy’s Head – Part 47

Cowboy's Head is taking a break today. She is taking a rest cure in the sink as she's been working *really* hard perfecting her nap skills.

Cowboy’s Head is taking a break today. She is taking a rest cure in the sink as she’s been working *really* hard perfecting her nap skills. (She looks a bit crabby here, but she’s not in real life. I think I interrupted her “private” time.)

Background Note: Cowboy, as you know, is one of our cats. She is big and friendly and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. She naps a lot. All of which helps with this ongoing project I have going on…

It’s called “Things on Cowboy’s Head” and I am just seeing what I can balance on the top of her head when she’s amenable to that. It’s been fun so far, and she seems quite happy to play along. (She just moves when she doesn’t want to participate.)

(Cowboy’s posts are all gathered in one spot on her own blog.)

 

Of Love and Hunger – Julian MacLaren-Ross (1947)

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Saw this novel somewhere on the interwebs, and it sounded just like something that I wanted to read at this point in the year when I am usually pining for autumn, cooler temps and a bit of rain. “Of Love and Hunger” has it all and it was great: cold, rainy, seaside, UK, 1940’s, realist, dingy bedsits, disaffected young men type of novel. (A bit early to be considered an “Angry Young Man” novel, but you can definitely see the beginnings here.) All of this sounds hideous, but it was a great read at the right time.

Richard Francis Fanshawe has been returned to England from his stint in India as a journalist for quite some time, but he is having a tough time finding work that fits him. (He’s not what I would call “the greatest employee in the world” though.) He finds himself working as a door-to-door vacuum-cleaner sales person in a rather run-down seaside town, living in a grimy boarding house, drinking and gambling after work and constantly being hounded by creditors and his ongoing debts.

Fanshawe makes friends with another cleaner sales person who ends up being fired and who takes a job as a worker on a three-month cruise line at sea. The friend asks Fanshawe, quite innocently, to “keep an eye” on his fairly new and young wife whilst he’s at sea, and the story goes from there.

Of courses, shenanigans ensue…

julian_mrWhat I really enjoyed about this novel was how it was written. It’s in first-person from the POV of Fanshawe, and the reader only knows and sees what Fanshawe knows and sees. The reader is also treated to the accent of this character and his way of speech – North (Norf) London and full of idioms and other dialect characteristics.

By the end of the read, I could really “hear” how Fanshawe talked, and found that this was a really well-drawn fleshed-out character for me. It rains a lot, he wears shabby macs (raincoats), he has to walk the pavement carrying a heavy box to demonstrate his wears, is behind with his rent, and is generally unhappy with his situation. Although he hates the whole set-up, there seems to be little determination to change his circumstances. He’d rather just float through life at this point (and complain about it to others in a similar situation). It’s a sense of lassitude with a heavy touch of fatalism. The war is coming, conscription is on the horizon and moving this way fast, so why try to change things even if he could?

Set in 1939, England was on the brink of war with Germany (war was declared in September of that year), conscription was just about to be introduced, and child evacuations and blackouts had started to take place. At the same time, politically speaking, there were ripples of Communism, Stalinism, and the implementation of the Great Terror in Russia where Stalin systematically killed “enemies of the people”. England was on edge, Hitler was moving west fast, the future was uncertain, unemployment was increasing, prices were rising, and this feeling of unease is really well described in the undertones of this book.

Julian MacLaren-Ross was a man who enjoyed drinking, social discourse, and not working, and who would rather hang out with others who also had a similar philosophy at the pubs in Fitzrovia, so it was rather a debauched group of friends that he had. He seems to have been a rule-breaker and rebel-without-much-cause, and after conscription, he was kicked out of the British army after deserting and going AWOL with a female friend. (It doesn’t sound like military life was a life he would enjoy much…)

In fact, even his biographer has referred to him as “the mediocre caretaker of his own immense talent,” due to his preference for lounging around and drinking than doing something productive. He published some books and articles, but his reputation as a professional layabout would precede his literary output for years. (I imagine that there was a DSM diagnosis in there somewhere. He just happened to live at a time when that wasn’t widely in use or as generally accepted as it is now.)

So – overall this was a really good read, and thanks to whoever it was who brought it to my attention. I’d never had found it otherwise.