Articles by: Don MacLeanDon MacLean
Don MacLean holds graduate degrees in political science and environmental studies. He is a staff writer with an interest in politics, economics, the environment and books. He can be reached at

Book Review: Mothering Sunday

August 29, 2016 10:33 am
Book Review: Mothering Sunday

Graham Swift’s latest novel explores the mystery of a woman discovering herself

The premise of Graham Swift’s slim, new novel Mothering Sunday is familiar: the arc of a human life is sometimes altered by the most innocuous and unexpected of developments.

It’s March 1924 and Jane Fairchild is a maid living in Berkshire, England. Jane and her lover Paul are sharing their last day together before Paul marries another woman. It’s Mothering Sunday. Paul’s family and their servants are out of the house and Jane has been given the day off by her employer, Mr. Nivens. Their late morning liaison in Paul’s home must be of short duration. Paul has a luncheon to attend with his and his fiancé’s family. As it turns out, he will allow himself to run late, but not so late as to cast doubt in his fiancé’s mind about his desire to marry her. Everything Paul does on this day is carefully calibrated.  There is a small window of opportunity and both he and Jane seize it.

So too does Swift himself. His prose is masterful: it’s at once spare, concise, layered and sensual. This is the novel’s greatest attribute. The scene in question is straightforward enough: two lovers languorously passing a morning in bed on an atypically warm day in March. Nevertheless the reader is not sure of the nature of their connection. Is it inspired by love or convenience? Is it their contrasting places in the social order – he the son of an aristocrat, she a maid in the service of another aristocrat – that prevents them from making public their union? Or is Paul, like so many aristocrats before him, merely exploiting his privilege to satisfy his sexual needs? Paul maintains a measured distance even as they’re lying naked together, but Jane is seemingly at ease with their arrangement. Her expectations of Paul do not seem to exceed what he’s in a position to give.

29BOOK-facebookJumboPaul does not want Jane to rush off on account of his leaving. She has no intention of doing so. It’s her day off and, not having a mother, Jane has no one with whom to celebrate the special day. Besides, she’s not ready for this opportunity to bask in the afterglow of lovemaking to be over. She does not need to be back at her own home until much later in the afternoon. The best moments in the novel feature Jane walking around a large, empty house she’s in for the first and last time completely naked. She’s taking a big risk in doing so. What if someone living at the house was to suddenly return? What if Paul’s fiancé arrives at the house looking for him? What would she think as she approached and saw an unfamiliar bicycle parked out front? In more ways than one, Jane is exposed.

In various respects, Mothering Sunday is a novel about modernity. The Great War was, of course, the most brutal manifestation of this ushering in of something new. That four year exercise in barbarism casts a long shadow over the wealthy aristocrats in particular. Sons have been lost to fighting. Their grief renders them numb to changes swirling in the air, changes characterized by the gradual erosion of seemingly rigid hierarchies. As a maid Jane was aware of her place, not only in the Niven’s household but in the wider society. Swift crafts wonderfully revealing sentences highlighting the contradictory expectations employers had of their maids: to be at once present but invisible, knowledgeable but discreet. Everything they do is in the service of their employers. A maid’s inferior social standing by definition means she is intellectually inferior as well. But Jane has stirrings, emotional, physical and intellectual. She will eventually shatter the social expectations surrounding herself.


Author Graham Swift

Swift’s novel, however, is as much about chance as it is about modernity.  The afternoon spent first making love and then walking naked and alone in someone else’s house was not an experience Jane could have expected to have when she woke up that morning. Yet it initiates a process of self transformation and discovery that ultimately alters the trajectory of her life. For a time that afternoon she becomes like a ghost, at once familiar and unfamiliar to herself. At one moment she looks at herself in a large mirror, as if for the first time. She knows it’s her, but senses dimensions that she hitherto didn’t know she possessed. What she also senses is the prospect of liberty: in those moments spent gazing at her naked reflection she perceives the possibility of being something other than what she believed she’s destined to be. The prospect is at once exhilarating and terrifying. It’s hard to imagine that the same sort of transformation would have occurred had there never been this sort of detour in the familiar path of her everyday existence.

Related: An Imperfect Offering

Through Jane, Swift has struck a tone of optimism and possibility. She defies odds. However, Swift doesn’t pretend to render her life in its entirety. Nor is Jane’s transcendence merely attributable to modernity or chance. Her good fortune also flows, in a real sense, from other people’s shared tragedy. In the end, Swift seems to be suggesting there is a deeper mystery to  the direction a life takes. Mothering Sunday doesn’t so much explain the mystery as celebrate it.

An Imperfect Offering

July 13, 2016 3:11 pm
An Imperfect Offering

Some Rain Must Fall
By Karl Ove Knausgaard

Reviewed by Don MacLean

Why has Karl Ove Knausgaard’s 5 volume autobiography made him an international literary sensation?

Karl Ove Knausgaard begins the fifth volume of his autobiography Some Rain Must Fall with a surprising admission.  The volume will cover the part of his life spent in Bergen, Norway from 1988 – 2002. Yet, he declares, there are few remnants left of the time in question. He has burned his dairies from those years and only kept a few photographs. He concedes that his memories are fading, incomplete and tinged with shame. The reader is left with the impression that what follows will be a series of imprecise, sweeping reflections on an otherwise long forgotten phase of the man’s life.

91QYxIVrBjLInstead, Some Rain Must Fall is a meticulously detailed account of the formative years in Knausgaard’s development as a writer and a young man. He arrives in Bergen to attend a prestigious writing academy. He’s also in love with a young woman with whom he’s exchanged countless letters but who he has only met once. She too will be arriving in Bergen to attend school. His expectation is thus that he’s on the cusp of a literary break through and sexual and romantic bliss. Alas, his experience at the school does more to shatter his confidence as a writer than to build it. The love affair ends on a hurtful note before it even begins. And so, like so many nineteen and twenty year olds before him, he’s plunged into a sea of insecurity and despair. Will he ever be a good writer? Will he ever publish the sort of novels that have for so long fuelled his imagination and his ambition? Will he find love? These are the burning questions at the heart of the fifth instalment of Knausgaard’s autobiography.

This reader, meanwhile, has his own questions. Why has Knausgaard become an international literary sensation? Why have the first four volumes of his autobiography captured people’s imaginations they way they have? Based on Some Rain Must Fall the answers are not necessarily obvious, for a couple of significant reasons. The first is the book’s uneven prose. To be sure, there are wonderful stretches on almost every page. Knausgaard’s depictions of Bergen’s rain soaked streets perfectly match his own often melancholy temperament.  Nonetheless almost every other page is also marred by some unseemly prose. Knausgaard has a propensity for run on sentences. When well put together, there is nothing wrong with sentences that stretch out over 4 or 5 lines of a page. Knausgaard’s, however, suffer from a problem all too familiar to undergrad students and the professors who must grade their papers. That is to say, they are too often grammatically unsound. He seems to think a few well placed commas is all an unduly long sentence needs to render it grammatically correct. It almost pains me to write about something as tedious as poor sentence structure, but it must be pointed out. Some Rain Must Fall suffers for it.

The other reason has to do with the arc of Knausgaard’s development. He desperately wants to live and, equally desperately, wants to write. He’s a young man with seemingly boundless energy and insatiable yearnings: for music and alcohol, for literature, for women and for love. Moderation is not an idea with which he is familiar. Much of his life seems to have been spent in a drunken haze. He is constantly out with his brother Yngve and their mutual friends drinking and smoking. Too much alcohol, however, renders him unpredictable: he steals bikes for fun and is prone to angry outbursts. On one evening after too much to drink he hurls a beer mug at Yngve, hitting him in the face. He rushes out of the bar after seeing the blood stream down his brother’s cheek.

On other nights, his drunkenness leads to infidelity. On one such occasion he meets a woman at a bar and, within minutes, they step into a taxi, rush back to his place, tear their clothes off and have sex. He wakes up the next morning and sees a beautiful but unfamiliar face lying next to him. He’s horrified: what has he done? How could he possibly be unfaithful when he has such a wonderful girlfriend who loves him with all her heart? He’s consumed by regret and guilt. He demands that the woman dress, ushers her to the door and begs her to never say a word to anyone about what transpired. The reader detects a pattern which, in turn, prompts an expectation. At some stage, one feels, Knausgaard will start to drink less, grow less impulsive and act more responsibly  where women in his life are concerned.  In other words, he’ll grow up.

The reader waits and waits. Indeed, that Knausgaard writes so much about his incessant drinking, his perpetual preoccupation with women and the self loathing it inspires is precisely why he has been accused of narcissism. There is much truth in this charge. For his excessive preoccupation with himself is at the expense of a larger vision. He writes very little, for example, about Norway as a country – the politics or the history or the culture. There’s even less written about the wider world. There is a reference to 9/11, but precious little else.  What are his politics? Where does he see himself in the world? The reader ends the book none the wiser on these questions then when she started. Similarly, he’s a student of literature but the insights into the books he reads are few and far between. He refers to writers he has read without ever actually telling the reader why he loved or loathed so and so.

Yet for all his narcissism there is something about Knausgaard’s life story that draws in the reader. His appeal begins with his insatiable appetites and his love for life. But it goes deeper than that. It’s also his elevation of the utterly mundane as worthy of literary treatment. Knausgaard writes about his coffee in the morning or the dinner he had that evening.  He seemingly mentions every cigarette he’s smoked, which is many. (To paraphrase the Canadian comedian Ron James, Knausgaard smokes like its a cure for cancer.) He describes countless nights out with friends at bars. In some writer’s hands, the mundane becomes the tedious. In Knausgaard’s hands, the effect of elevating the mundane is to elevate a life. It’s one of his great gifts as a writer.

There is also his vulnerability and the frank, shameless way he reveals it to the reader. For all of his love of life, he’s also brooding and, as a young man, often awkward around women. Like most young men, he must find ways to compensate for a lack of physical intimacy. Knausgaard describes how he would hide books with pictures of beautiful women in his pants, go the washroom and masturbate. His tortured relationship with his father leaves him desperate for approval and forever insecure about his writing. He persuades himself that he isn’t smart or wise enough to ever be a literary writer.  When he’s at dinner parties with his writerly friends he is so intimidated that he often is suddenly quiet and withdrawn and plagued by dark thoughts. It’s this vulnerability with which many readers, despite the book’s recurring flaws, identify.

Related: A Good Life, A Flawed Novel.

He then meets Tonje. Like a school boy, he falls madly in love. By this point in his life, women are drawn to him and he is at ease around them. Tonje is different. He is at once tentative and awkward around her. He doesn’t lust after her, like he did so many other women. Such a feeling is too shallow; doesn’t come close to matching the depth of his love. So they instead get to know each other relatively slowly: they have a magical walk to her home on a cold, snowy night. They have tea as the day dawns. But when he leaves her home he can’t muster the courage to give her a hug, let alone a kiss. Intimacy would have to wait.

At this relatively late point in the book it appears as though Knausgaard is changing. He is less self absorbed. He is still writing exclusively about his life, his struggle, but his focus is more on the death of his father, the passage of time and his evolution as a writer. He finally establishes the discipline required to produce a novel. To spend an evening drinking would jeopardize a rhythm he struggled so hard to discover and which was so conducive to prose worthy of praise and publication. So he stays put days and evenings on end to the point that Tonje begins to suffer for it. She wants to be out with him, wants them to together experience the world outside of their little home. He promises that the endless nights spent writing would cease the moment his novel is finished and published. He keeps his word. The novel is published to great acclaim. Normalcy – and happiness – returns to their lives.

The reader’s expectation of Knausgaard’s growth is, at long last, realized. He’s an accomplished writer and happily in love.  Doubts, however, persist. Can his contentment possibly be sustained? Will he and Tonje still be together by the book’s end? Or will Knausgaard find a way to sabotage both his and Tonje’s happiness? Is it only a matter of time before he makes another horrible transgression? For all of his new found love and happiness the reader senses Knausgaard’s dark, brooding centre remains intact. For him at least, the light will never extinguish the darkness.

A Good Life, A Flawed Novel

June 3, 2016 3:17 pm
Email sent from: "Dundas, Deborah"  Subject: FW: God in Ruins Date: 6 May, 2015 4:26:41 PM EDT kate atkinson a god in ruinsEmail sent from: Iwasutiak, Adria [] Sent: Wednesday, May 06, 2015 11:42 AM To: Dundas, Deborah Subject: RE: God in Ruins Hi Deborah, Please see attached. Thanks AdriaEmail sent from: Dundas, Deborah [] 

Sent: Wednesday, May 06, 2015 11:41 AM

To: Iwasutiak, Adria

Subject: God in Ruins Hi, Adria, Would you please arrange to send the usual two .jpegs for this book - author photo and cover jacket? I'm running a review this weekend. Thanks so much, Deborah Deborah Dundas, Books Editor and Book Reporter 416-869-4502

A God in Ruins – Kate Atkinson
Reviewed by Don MacLean
June 2016

Kate Atkinson likes to write about ordinary individuals swept up in extraordinary circumstances. In two separate but companion novels, Life After Life and A God In Ruins, Atkinson tells the stories of Isabel Todd and Teddy Todd, respectively. The Todds are an English family living in England through World War Two. Isabel and Teddy are sister and brother. In Life After Life the reader follows different variations on Ursula’s life. In so doing Atkinson explores the competing roles of choices and chance in shaping one’s fate. In a nod to the possibility of a brighter future, the novel closes with Ursula celebrating the war’s end with Teddy and his girlfriend Nancy in the most English of ways: over a beer at a pub. And why not? Peace has been restored and fascism defeated. Liberty to drink and be merry are among the rewards for those who survived the four plus years of barbarism.

Although Teddy figures prominently at the novel’s end, he was on the periphery of most of the action in Life After Life. In A God in Ruins, he is the main character and the protagonist. The novel assumes a sort of dual role. It explores the same war and the same family but through the eyes and experiences of Teddy instead of Ursula. Ursula experiences the war as a nurse tending to the injured and dying. Teddy experiences it from the perspective of a British fighter pilot engaged in bombing raids over enemy territory. But A God in Ruins also picks up where the previous novel ends. It takes the reader into the twenty first century. Its sweep is meant to allow for perspective: what did the liberty Teddy helped to win actually wrought?

The effects of war on those who fight are unpredictable. It can be profoundly debilitating for many, as the high number of veterans who are either suicidal or suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder will attest. Others might relish the danger and survive the experience relatively intact. For others, it can liberate the most generous of impulses and instill a sort of wisdom. Teddy is this type of pilot. Atkinson writes of him:

He had made a vow, a private promise to the world in the long watches of the night, that if he did survive then in the great afterward he would always try to kind, to live a good quiet life. Like Candide, he would cultivate his garden. Quietly. And that would be his redemption. Even if he could add only a feather to the balance it would be some kind of repayment for being spared.

Teddy, of course, does survive the war. Indeed much of the novel revolves around his life after the hostilities have ceased. To a large extent the promise he made to himself is kept. He settles down with Nancy, his childhood friend and neighbour growing up. They live a quiet life in the country. Teddy has various dalliances during the war. Women are easily attracted to him and circumstances give rise to fleeting romances. Why not have a night of passionate sex when you know your plane might be shot down over the North Sea the next day? Still after the war both he and Nancy feel as though getting married and sharing their lives together seems like the most natural thing in the world. What their relationship lacks in passion is made up for in a steady, deeply abiding affection. They have a single child, Viola.

Various themes run through A God in Ruins. The most explicit and recurring is summed up in a phrase repeated throughout the novel. Reap what you sow.  The present is pregnant with multiple possibilities. The choices one makes now will shape who you become. This theme, however, runs counter to another, more implicit one. Atkinson’s novel is as much about wartime experiences as it is those of peace time. Yet war is the example, par excellence, of how life can ruthlessly impose itself on individuals. War wrenches men and women from their peace time existences and thrusts them into scenarios over which they have scarcely any control and which are often too horrific to even contemplate, let alone endure. Indeed, not only do these themes conflict, the latter can make the former seem quaint, even trivial. What meaningful choices did World War Two soldiers actually have?  

These conflicting themes feed into another, namely, the challenging relationships between generations. Teddy is a salt of the earth type of guy: brave, honest, loyal and straightforward. The sort of father that any child would typically cherish. Yet, for reasons this review won’t divulge, Viola has a strained relationship with him from a young age. Even as time passes there is forever a gap between them, not only intellectually but emotionally as well. As a young woman Viola thinks of her father as a member of the type of world she fervently rejects. He’s of the generation that brought the world to the brink of ruin. She’s of a generation interested in peace and in cultivating a more sustainable relationship with the earth. The strain between them is rich with narrative possibility.

Alas, Viola as a character does not work. Even though she repeatedly transforms herself, in every version she strikes the reader as one dimensional. Her one dimension, moreover, renders her completely unlikable. As described by Atkinson, she has no redeeming features. She is a fraud and is usually acting selfishly, even cruelly. Her first husband is equally odious and one dimensional. Both are without a trace of nuance. Viola visits Teddy towards the end of his life. Her visits are always an act obligation or worse, never of love or affection. She regards him as little more than a burdensome, wasting piece of flesh who cannot die too soon.

Related: The Walk of Life

Neither the novel’s structure nor Atkinson’s prose compensates for the characters’ shortcomings. The playful, unpredictable element that made Life After Life so enjoyable is, regrettably, absent from A God in Ruins. Without it, moving back and forth in time, as Atkinson does, serves to stall the narrative as much as propel it. Almost all element of surprise is eliminated in later chapters when you discover in early chapters how and when various characters die. Similarly, there were no significant plot twists; no moments in the novel that pushed the story in an unanticipated direction, thereby making those earlier revelations seem less premature.  

As readers, we must be careful not to extrapolate. Teddy and Viola are surely not meant to be entirely representative of their respective generations. Nevertheless it’s hard to escape the idea that Atkinson is making a point about the generation that followed those who sacrificed themselves so as to stop fascism’s relentless advance. If so, what is the point? That one of the risks of liberty is that those who enjoy it may be shallow, selfish, destructive and ungrateful towards those who did so much to bestow it upon them. True enough. In Atkinson’s hands, however, this point too often feels like a sweeping judgement. This is the novel’s great weakness.

The Walk of Life

May 25, 2016 12:00 pm
The Walk of Life

Walking with Abel: Journeys with the Nomads of the African Savannah

Anna Badkhen
Riverhead Books, New York, 2015
Reviewed by Don MacLean

May 2016

Anna Badkhen’s wonderful book Walking with Abel: Journeys with the Nomads of the African Savannah documents her journeys with members of the nomadic Fulani, perhaps the largest group of nomads living today. The Mali based Fulani migrate across the Sahel with their cattle herd. They are moving from a dry season place to a rainy season place. Their particular destination is referred to as ‘the bourgou’ a stretch of swampland by the Niger River rich with grasses upon which the animals feed. For the Fulani’s cattle, hippo grass in particular is the great prize in the middle of a long journey. “Cows went wild for it,” writes Badkhen early in the book. In exchange for temporary grazing rights, the cattle do their part to fertilize the land owned by settled farmers. The Fulani sustain themselves, in large part, through agricultural bartering. Their cattle’s buttermilk and butter is exchanged for basic foodstuffs such as millet and fish. For centuries, this has been the typical sort of mutually beneficial arrangement that allows the Fulani and their cattle to survive their migration without having to trespass to do so.

Their journey, it almost goes without saying, is not for the faint of heart. The challenges of walking great distances across a desert-like landscape are considerable, especially for anyone not used to the experience. There is first the challenge of walking under a seething sun, the dangers of which are exacerbated during the Holy month of Ramadan when nothing can pass one’s lips between sunrise and sundown. For the Fulani, meeting the challenge has a purifying effect. One can only assume they are physically and spiritually equipped to deal with such a daunting prospect. For a non-Fulani and non-Muslim not used to the rigours of such a journey, the effect could at least potentially be much different. Badkhen, however, is up to the task. Still other dangers lurk. Islamic insurgents in Northern Mali are waging war with the government.  French warplanes encroach upon the desert. French soldiers are searching for the killers of two French journalists.

One obvious question to emerge from Walking with Abel is why? Why did a woman from Philadelphia want to undertake a journey so far from home and so fraught with peril? As it turns out, Badkhen is used to such dangerous undertakings. She spent years in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and Chechnya — places where most would fear to tread — working as a reporter. She is a courageous woman with a passion for the marginalized. There is also a curiosity about a way of life under threat from a variety of forces, some human and some climate related. Part of Badkhen’s task is to, as she puts it, ‘gather stories’ and, in so doing, illuminate an approach to living that most of her readers would find remote.

There is another, more deeply personal reason for Badkhen wanting to embed herself in a community of nomads. The book is peppered with references to a lost love. A married man with whom Badkhen shared a passionate connection ended their affair, much to her deep regret.  The loss leaves her reeling. The decision to immerse herself in a radically different sort of community and engage in a walk across a semi arid landscape seems to be at once an attempt to escape a deep longing and discover an elusive inner peace. “The expanse around you unburdens the space within,” she writes. Yet by the end of the book, it’s not at all clear just how unburdened the experience has left her. “A year had passed since and I still missed him fiercely, every day anew,” she laments towards her journey’s end.

Despite — or perhaps due to — her personal pain, Badkhen is open to Fulani wisdom. Her openness, one feels, is the basis for the book’s many strengths. It serves to dispel suspicions, foster a mutual respect and create a space for heartfelt exchanges.  This is especially evident in her relationship with the Diakayates, the family who essentially adopts her during their journey. The family is led by Oumarou and his wife Fanta. They are travelling with their son Ousman and his wife Bobo as well as their two grandchildren.

Walking, the Diakayates teach Bandkhen, is central to the Fulani’s worldview. The act has an elemental force. “It is solved by walking” a Fulani tells her when discussing the challenge of survival. Walking engenders an intimate familiarity with place. It is also the source of promise. To walk is to move closer to a new source of water, or shade, or shelter. The promise of place, however, seamlessly feeds into the Fulani’s sense of impermanence. Those same sources of life, shade and shelter are the the places the Fulani will leave the next day. They are used to these sorts of acts of separation. It is the basis for their stoicism in the face of death. When a Fulani loses a child they will not cry or mourn in public.

 Intimately connected to the role of walking are the Fulani’s ways of knowing. The Diakayates do  not think of knowledge in the way that any reader of the book or this review would. They do not read or write. They may have heard of Badkhen’s native country America, but they most certainly have never visited or would be able to identity it on a map. This lack of a particular type of knowledge or experience, however, in no way suggests ignorance or ‘backwardness.’ To suggest so is to engage in the sort of chauvinism of which too many western writers have been guilty when writing about non Western peoples. Badkhen, to her credit, does not fall into this trap. On the contrary, she writes with deep respect of the Fulani ways of knowing. We learn, for instance, that Oumarou’s deep knowledge of place and timing is derived from his experience of using the landscape as a travel guide. Constellations are not only maps of stars; for the Fulani they are signifiers of rain, or wind or grinding heat.

Related: History of Medicine and Science

Related: Black in America

The Fulani traditions are ancient. The community’s capacity to cope is formidable. Yet one of the themes that weaves it way through Badkhen’s narrative are the decidedly modern threats to which they are increasingly subject. Their young men and women seem like young men and women everywhere else. They are tempted: by technology, by love and sex and by the possibilities associated with earning income and possibly settling down. The Fulani and the governments that surround them share a deep and mutual distrust. Moreover, as much of the surrounding area is transformed, there is a real risk the Fulani will be, in essence, boxed in.

More fundamentally,  according to Badkhen, the Fulani ways of knowing and living are increasingly compromised by a rapidly  changing climate. If there is one shortcoming in an otherwise thoughtful and beautifully written book, it’s that Badkhen’s scattered references to a changing climate do not do justice to the theme. To what extent are the shifting weather patterns attributable to climate change? How exactly is climate change altering the weather and the landscapes traversed by the Fulani? The answers are not self evident. Yes the Fulani lament the delayed start of the rainy season in June. Yet a shared anxiety about the weather runs like a current through their history. Famines, as the Diakayates themselves know, recur with predictable frequency. Every mention of the dearth of rain, or hardened ground, or ruined harvests, or the growing threat of hunger, or a cow’s withered and deflated udders is an opportunity for Badkhen to more deeply explore how a shifting climate is threatening a formidable yet vulnerable people. Alas, she never does fully seize that opportunity.

Fortunately for the reader, the book has many other compensations, particularly towards the end. The Fulani’s journey culminates in their respective cattle herds’ crossing of the Bani River. Badkhen is at her finest in telling this part of the Fulani’s story. It’s not simply due to being a gifted story teller. It’s that she describes the culmination with a near equal mix of joy and melancholy. The effect is to give the story an added poignancy.

There is first the great gathering of cattle by the river bank. As Badkhen conveys, their numbers are so large that the ground moves as they walk and a low rumbling can be heard from miles away.  The swim across is at once a time of joy and sorrow, anticipation and apprehension. On the one hand, the crossing occurs as the rainy season ends, thus signifying a time when the land is green and lush and the herd is collectively strong and well nourished. Life in full bloom. On the other, the young Fulani men – Fulani ‘cowboys’ as they’re called – must undertake the challenging task of swimming their animals across. It’s not unusual for some of the cowboys to perish before reaching the other side. Nor do all cattle successfully pass this crucial test. Indeed, Oumarou learns of one among his own herd who failed. The cow was thus taken from the water, skinned, it’s various parts separated for the purpose of selling, consuming and properly mourning its passing.  Their sadness, however, is tempered by relief: Ousman was otherwise successful in getting the herd to the other side. In short order they will start to prepare for the walk back. For as long as they’ve walked, the Fulani’s journey is only just beginning.

History of Medicine and Science

March 29, 2016 3:55 pm
History of Medicine and Science

Wounded British soldiers, 10 April 1918. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. 

Felix d’Herelle and the Discovery of Therapeutic Viruses

Felix d’Herelle was a Canadian scientist who co-discovered bacteriophages. Bacteriophages are viruses that thrive on and kill disease and infection causing bacteria. Why was phage therapy’s promise never realized in the West? The answers are varied, but intimately connected. D’Herelle conducted research in highly volatile political and social environments.  The science of phages was highly contested, particularly around the time d’Herelle was conducting his most important research. Eventually antibiotics displaced phage therapy completely. But antibiotic resistant bacteria points to the limits of antibiotics in the treatment of communicable disease. Scientists are thus reconsidering d’Herelle’s legacy and phage therapy’s promise.

Natural Cures

By Don MacLean and Alberto Martin

  1. The Ravages of War

France 1917.  Allied soldiers are sitting uncomfortably in a mile long trench designed to protect them from enemy fire. The sky assumes great importance for men who must otherwise stare at walls of mud. When they look up from their crouched position they see an expansive sky brightened by the sun or the evening stars. It acts as a reminder of the world of beauty, promise and mobility that war forced them to leave behind. For now they must struggle to survive in nightmare conditions for which they could not possibly be prepared. They do not raise their head above ground level for fear of being shot. Beyond the trench is a formerly verdant field transformed by war into a muddy wasteland lined with barbed wire and littered with dead soldiers. The once lush field, the soldiers understand, is now a death trap. As for the trench, soldiers are aware that it too can be a death trap, albeit of a different sort. Lice are a fact of life from which is no real escape. Rats too numerous to count infest the trench and feed on the dead.

An even more insidious threat is posed by the Shigella Bacillus, the pathogen that causes dysentery and thrives in precisely these sorts of settings. The bacteria typically enter the body orally through the ingestion of contaminated food and water. If the soldier is lucky, he will be stricken with a relatively mild case. He will have severe stomach pains and the persistent passage of stool. Within days the infection might pass and he will return to normal health. The more severe cases, by contrast, will produce sustained abdominal pain, delirium, fever and the vomiting of blood. Some soldiers will die of the disease.


British hospital at the First World War’s Western Front. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Indeed for soldiers fighting in the Great War, the spread of communicable disease was a constant threat against which there was often little defence. The greatest communicable disease episode came towards the end of the war. Between 1918-1920 twenty to fifty million people died from the Spanish influenza pandemic. It’s staggering toll and relentless spread was the twentieth century’s first example of a disease’s global potential.  But the virus responsible was hardly the only pathogen causing havoc on human beings. Other types of disease-causing microorganisms – bacteria, parasites and other viruses – were also distressingly prevalent. Scarlet fever, tuberculosis, diphtheria, small pox: all were common communicable diseases.  As for dysentery, by 1917 it had also exacted a heavy toll on Allied soldiers. As was true of other bacterial diseases, the gap was large between our understanding of the nature of dysentery and our ability to treat it. Scientists and doctors understood that the source of dysentery among soldiers was the Shigella Bacillus. Knowing this, however, did not translate into commensurate therapies. Treatment for dysentery involved a combination of administering castor oil, followed by repeated doses of saline. The diets of those suffering from the disease were reduced to a combination of gruels, rice water and barley water.[1] Such a change in diet would have had little therapeutic effect.

At the time, a Canadian scientist named Felix d’Herelle was working at the Pasteur Institute in France. Bridging the extraordinary gulf between our knowledge of disease causing pathogens and their effective treatment was among the Institute’s most important objectives.  D’Herelle was conducting research on dysentery in the hope of alleviating the suffering of Allied soldiers. When studying the stools of those infected he observed the presence of “invisible microbe antagonistic to the dysentery bacillus.”[2] The microbe in question would kill the bacteria causing the infection. If enough of the bacteria were killed, d’Herelle reasoned, the patient would return to good health. By 1919 he used the ‘invisible microbe’ to cure many children suffering from dysentery.[3]  As the scientist and writer William Summers remarks, “This invisible microbe he named the bacteriophage.”[4]  There were not, moreover, seemingly any deleterious side effects. The writer Carl Zimmer tells the story of how D’Herelle would consume phages to demonstrate how harmless they were to a healthy human being.[5] His therapeutic breakthrough came too late to help Allied soldiers suffering in the trenches. Nevertheless D’Herelle, it seemed, had made an important discovery in the struggle to understand and better treat bacteria based communicable disease and infections.

  1. A Restless Spirit, A Curious Mind


Felix d’Herelle. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Felix d’Herelle was born in Montreal on April 25, 1873. His father was a free thinker, his mother Roman Catholic. Felix’s father died when he was just a young boy. As Summers relates in his fine biography Felix d’Herelle and the Origins of Molecular Biology, d’Herelle’s mother either inculcated or merely did nothing to quell her son’s desire to explore the world. His love of travel was only matched by his love of learning. These twin passions would shape d’Herelle’s life. When he was sixteen years old, Felix’s mother gave him a bike and enough money to travel through the Rhine. In the year 1890 she gave him enough money for a trip through South America. While leaving Rio de Janeiro on a boat there was an outbreak of yellow fever. As was true of dysentery, yellow fever produces a range of symptoms.  Relatively mild cases ended in remission after bouts of muscle and joint pain, headaches and fever. Severe cases, however, were much direr. The infection would eventually produce organ failures. The heart, liver and kidney would all be subject to attack. There would be bleeding disorders, seizures and delirium. Many at this stage would then slip into a coma from which they would not emerge. Although the ship had a medical staff on board, there was little they could do to contain the spread and to save lives. In the end, 22 people perished. As Summers indicates, d’Herelle had a grim sort of fascination with the entire episode. “One morning seven bodies, one by one, slid into the sea,” the young d’Herelle writes in his diary. At the tender age of seventeen, d’Herelle also noticed that his reaction to the spread of disease was different from that of his fellow passengers. Most were understandably nervous and fearful, if not hysterical. D’Herelle, by contrast, remained cool, almost detached and stubbornly clung to the belief that he wouldn’t be infected with the disease that had stolen the lives of so many other passengers and crew members. It was one of many formative experiences for the young d’Herelle. It confirmed his love of travel and established both his fascination with disease and his readiness to immerse himself in various locales in order to understand and treat even the most dreaded infections.

Dysentery among French children was the first bacterial communicable disease d’Herelle successfully treated with phage therapy. Researching and refining his therapies, however, would take d’Herelle well beyond Europe’s borders and involve other types of bacterial infections.  The afflictions he chose to treat suggest a fascination with diseases with the grimmest reputations. A case in point is d’Herelle’s treatment with bacteriophages of patients in Alexandria, Egypt diagnosed with bubonic plague, a bacterial infection caused by Yersinia Pestis. For centuries, plague was a recurring problem in Egypt, as elsewhere in the Middle East and Europe. Disease incidence in Egypt was facilitated by its proximity to Black sea ports. The ports acted as a bridge allowing for the transport of bacteria carrying agents both to and from Europe. The plague was feared because its course was often swift and devastating.

The therapeutic potential of phages was sometimes striking to behold. Individuals on the threshold of death were sometimes not beyond saving. D’Herelle himself documents how an 18 year old male suffering from bubonic plague was experiencing “fever, lassitude, vertigo and bilateral tonsillitis.” His symptoms grew more severe over the next couple of days, following which he was hospitalized. After one day in the hospital his temperature was soaring, his pulse was 130, “the face was congested, the eyes were injected and drooping and prostration was extreme.” D’Herelle proceeded to inject bacteriophage into the center of the two buboes. The condition appeared to worsen over the course of the rest of the day but by next morning had improved dramatically. The young man’s symptoms hadn’t yet subsided, but he was in less pain and was more alert, and the buboes started to shrink. Within a couple of days they had shrunk further and the patient’s appetite returned. Within 15 days of his initial diagnosis, the buboes were removed painlessly and altogether. Two weeks later, as d’Herelle relates, “healing was complete.”[6]

Cholera was another scourge that drew d’Herelle’s attention. By that time – the early 1920s – the disease had become global in scope. In his book Plagues and Peoples William McNeill describes how shipping routes originating in India served to spread cholera to, among other hitherto unaffected places, China, Japan and Indonesia. Russian military adventures in the 1830s facilitated its entry into as far west as Poland. From there it traveled to first England and then Ireland before finally traveling across the Atlantic to Canada and then eventually America. By the time of d’Herelle’s arrival in India it was also understood that the vibrio cholerae was the bacterial source of the disease. So too was the connection between unsanitary conditions and its spread. Water contaminated with feces was the most important source fuelling its proliferation. Accordingly, securing clean water was crucial in any effort to curb its spread. In most western cities the installation of clean water infrastructure eliminated the threat cholera had hitherto posed.

Elsewhere, however, that sort of knowledge was not always acted upon. Indeed in India cholera remained common and a source of dread.  Full of confidence, d’Herelle arrived there in the 1920s to help contain its spread. His case studies, however, took place within a context hardly conducive to well funded and orderly medical investigations. To be sure, in some respects the conditions were ideal: cholera was rampant, morbidity and mortality rates high. Politically, economically and socially, however, there were many obstacles with which d’Herelle had to contend. In the 1920s there was growing opposition to British rule. Communal tensions were on the rise and the British medical establishment was notoriously conservative. Suffering Indians were not their first priority. Clinical trials were challenging to say the least. Yet the case studies did proceed, sometimes with remarkable results. For example, there were 198 cases of cholera from selected villages investigated. Of those 198 cases, 124 were not given “the antivibrio phages.” The other 74 cases were given the phage treatment. The mortality rate among the first and larger group was 63%. The mortality rate among the other group was 8%. That constitutes a remarkable difference.

This sort of therapeutic success was hardly unique. Nor was it always d’Herelle who was conducting trials. Abedon et al highlight the findings published in a 1936 issue of La Medicine of a trial in which phages were used to treat typhoid fever. Twenty one patients suffering from the fever caused by the salmonella typhi were administered phages for 3-5 days. This was in contrast to another sixty four patients administered the conventional therapy. The results were noteworthy. Mortality rates among those given the conventional therapy were 15.6%, as compared to 4.8% for those administered phages.[7]

The French scientist Suave was astounded by the ability of phages to effectively and painlessly eliminate breast and dental abscesses stemming from bacterial infections. It was simply a matter of time, he believed, before phage therapy would eliminate the need for anesthesia and surgery in the treatment of similar type infections.[8]

  1. A Contested Discovery

Bacteriophage therapy was emerging as a focal point of scientific study. Its promise appeared to be great.  D’Herelle was hardly the only scientist working with phages, but it was his name more than any other that was associated with phage therapy. His star was rising. He had thus seemingly made an important contribution in the struggle against communicable diseases, but what exactly had he discovered? What was the nature of the process that resulted in the elimination of pathogenic, disease and infection causing bacteria? Were bacteriophages autonomous, living organisms? If so, what was the nature of these organisms? Bacteriophages are viruses that thrive on bacteria. Bacteriophages destroy the bacteria by inserting themselves into the bacteria and assuming control of its machinery. In so doing, the bacteriophage reproduces and eventually bursts through the bacterial cell wall. More remarkably, the virus will then migrate to other areas of the body harbouring the infection and repeat the process.[9]

But little of this was known at the time of d’Herelle’s research and trials. Molecular biology was still in its infancy, the tools at the disposal of researchers relatively primitive by today’s standards. Something resembling the modern microscope, it’s worth recalling, was only invented in the 1800s. Not long before d’Herelle’s time, the prevailing orthodoxy was that cholera, plague and other scourges were caused by a noxious vapor emanating from things in the ground – dead bodies and decaying matter were the preferred culprits – that would target those who were ill or otherwise compromised. The miasma theory of disease transmission, as it was known, had been only recently been discarded for one more rooted in fact. That a world of microbes invisible to the naked eye was causing the spread of the most fearsome diseases was understood – but only dimly by today’s standards. Nothing of bacteria’s constituent parts was known. Science was decades away, for example, from the discovery of DNA and RNA. Similarly, bacteria’s dynamism – their ability to evolve in the face of threats – was not yet appreciated. Even less was known about viruses.

From the outset the nature of the bacteriophage was thus contested. Many of d’Herelle’s contemporaries were persuaded of the therapeutic promise of phages. Another scientist of the day, Tamezo Kabeshima, found “bacteriophages worked exactly as d’Herelle said they would in rabbits infected with shiga bacillus.” However, he went on to claim that phages were not “living beings….it is nothing but a sort of catalyzer.” This feeling was echoed by Bordet, another contemporary of d’Herelle. He countered d’Herelle with his theory of “transmissible bacterial lysis. “Lytic activity,” Bordet maintained, “was of bacterial origin….it’s production was provoked by an immune reaction in the infected animal.”[10]

D’Herelle was not persuaded by any argument that insisted bacteriophages were not autonomous from bacteria. His experiments demonstrated that enzymes would not act the way bacteriophages do. Yet his own understanding was incomplete. Thus, for example, d’Herelle initially conceived of bacteriophages as an ‘ultramicrobe’ and not specifically as a virus. But his sense of the process by which phages interacted with bacteria was essentially correct, albeit relatively unrefined. Referring to the ultramicrobes as ‘corpuscles’, d’Herelle recognized that their proliferation was at the expense of the bacteria. The ultramicrobe took over the bacterial cell’s machinery. The increase in their numbers, moreover, did not proceed in an incremental but rather exponential fashion.

D’Herelle was prepared to engage in debate with his scientific colleagues and laboratory experiments were crucial in the development of his own understanding of phages. His approach to science, however, demanded that he immerse himself in those settings that were themselves a contributing factor in the spread of disease. He was less interested in the abstract and more interested in applying science to pressing problems of human health. It was as though he knew his discovery was in advance of the current scientific understanding of disease. The science would follow so long as his trials had such promising outcomes. This is no doubt one reason why d’Herelle chose to go to Egypt and India – among other places – rather than letting the debate about the nature of phages remain confined to European laboratories.

  1. The Eclipse of Phage Therapy

D’Herelle possessed a restlessness that was well suited to his peripatetic approach to science. He was wholly committed to his research and to the best approaches to science, but he also seemed impatient and always prepared to uproot himself and his family. Thus, although d’Herelle took a position at Yale, his connection to the university and to the United States was always tentative. Those responsible for recruiting d’Herelle were impatient with his tendency to leave for extended stretches of time. He felt a similar ambivalence to his new home. D’Herelle was dismayed by the state of scientific research in America. The Great Depression had compromised funding, among other things. In the 1930s he received an invitation to conduct his research in the Soviet Union. Stalin’s purges hadn’t yet begun, nor had the persecution of scientists and other intellectuals. For those outside, the Soviet Union at the time represented an untested but promising alternative to western capitalism. D’Herelle believed that ‘scientific’ socialism promised the opportunity to conduct scientific research free of superstition and ‘mysticism.’ There was also a professed commitment to resolving practical problems. He was soon stationed at the Tiflis Bacteriological Institute in Tiflis, Georgia.

Georgiy Eliava was the person responsible for persuading d’Herelle to move from Yale to the Bacteriological Institute. According to Summers, they became close friends. Eliava was a committed scientist who did his best to remain removed from the increasingly toxic political environment dominating the Soviet Union. He was also impressed by the promise of phage therapy. But despite his best efforts to lead a quiet life of scientific discovery he was a victim of Stalinism. He and his wife – a Polish opera singer – were arrested and executed on the same day. It is not known why they were so ruthlessly targeted.

The death of his good friend and his wife was a blow to d’Herelle. They were not the only ones to arbitrarily suffer at the hands of the totalitarian state that had come to dominate the Soviet Union. Darkness had descended and no one living under Stalin could live free of his iron rule. D’Herelle knew this and thus did not return to the Soviet Union after a summer spent in France in 1937, as he had initially planned. He instead remained in France, even as Germany made its ominous advances.  The Nazis did eventually occupy France, but d’Herelle remained in the country’s southern region. His reputation seemed to afford him some protection. He thus continued to work on phages even as war swirled all around him.

Nevertheless by the end of the 1930s and early 1940s forces of change were conspiring to relegate phage therapy to the margins of Western scientific research. A report published by the American Medical Association in 1941 went to great lengths to undermine phage therapy’s credibility. The problem with the report, according to Abedon et al, was that it was error filled and hardly objective. Failed phage therapy trials were not properly contextualized. Proper dosage was essential if phage therapy was to be effective. Similarly, phages could be administered too late in an infection’s progression for them to do much good. The report was entirely unworthy of the impact it had on the scientific community.[11]

Western science, more importantly, was about to undergo a profound shift in direction with the introduction of antibiotics in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Although the development of antibiotics did not begin with Sir Alexander Fleming, it was his discovery of penicillin in 1928 that facilitated the eventual treatment with antibiotics of tuberculosis, gangrene and syphilis. The discovery of other antibiotics – streptomycin, chloramphenicol and tetracycline – fuelled the effective treatment of a long series of other bacterial based infections and diseases. Indeed antibiotics helped to initiate a profoundly steep decrease in the incidence of bacterial disease, particularly in the developed world.

D’Herelle, meanwhile, was getting older and his health would start to decline. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the early 1940s and would die of the disease in 1949.  Phage therapy’s most important proponent was thus removed from the scientific scene.

If phage therapy was relegated to the margins of western science it escaped the dustbin of history. D’Herelle’s time in Georgia ended in tragedy and he was forced to flee. Nevertheless he worked there long enough that the seeds for phage therapy’s continued development were planted. The result has been a historical development that has curiously unexplored: divergent approaches to the treatment of bacteria based communicable diseases and infections when comparing the West and the former Soviet Union.

To be sure, another aspect of d’Herelle’s legacy was the continued use of phages in parts of Europe for decades after his death. In France a phage research laboratory that d’Herelle himself opened was eventually run by his son- in-law. Their use was mostly confined to non-communicable bacterial infections. By the 1990s, however, phage production in France was phased out.  Like everywhere else in the western world, antibiotics seemingly eliminated the need for alternative approaches to treating bacteria based infections and communicable diseases.

Conversely, the Soviet Union used phages to, among other things, treat soldiers. During the cold war access to any data detailing the efficacy of phages was non-existent. We do know, however, that in 1963 the Eliava Institute conducted a study involving 30,769 children designed to test the efficacy of phages in reducing the incidence of dysentery. Among those who did not receive phages, the incidence of dysentery was 6.7/1000. Among those who did receive phages, the incidence of dysentery was 1.8/1000.[12] To an unknown extent, phage therapy was used with some success in the former Soviet Union.

Phage therapy’s apparent promise but uneven application hints at an issue often ignored in the history of science. Science unfolds within wider social, political and economic contexts. Elements of those wider milieus can both facilitate and compromise the conditions necessary for rigorous scientific study and discovery. D’Herelle went to where disease was rampant. When used appropriately, phage therapy was promising. However, that promise must have been partially stymied by the wider political and social upheaval in which d’Herelle often found himself. Would his success in treating cholera in India with phages have been more definitive or embraced if the British medical establishment had been less indifferent to the plight of sick Indians? Similarly, would the results of his work at the Tiflis Institute in Georgia have been better if the Soviet Union under Stalin had remained open to scientific inquiry? Would the Soviet Union’s partial embrace of phage therapy have exerted any influence on western medicine if not for the Cold War? The answers to such questions are impossible to know but still worth considering. For given its early promise it is inconceivable phage therapy would not have been more widely and seriously explored if d’Herelle’s research had taken place in different, more stable environments.

The issue of context is also important when considering the fate of phage therapy in an era characterized by the overuse of antibiotics. Is the relegation of phage therapy to the margins of science indicative of its therapeutic limitations?  Or did phage therapy’s promise become a moot point with the ascendance of antibiotics?  These sorts of questions are no longer simply academic. For all of our enhanced medical understanding, the threat of communicable diseases to human populations has only waned, not disappeared. Since their discovery and development, antibiotics have been regarded as the great equalizer. For a long time this has been true. It is less so today. Antibiotics, despite their impressive record in treating bacterial infections and diseases, are subject to a single profound limitation. They are static. Bacteria, by contrast, are dynamic; they evolve in response to threats. This elementary truth is the underlying source of the growing emergence of antibiotic resistant bacteria. Phages, like their bacterial counterparts, are similarly dynamic and are thus not subject to the same limitation as antibiotics. Phage therapy, from this perspective, may yet prove to be crucial to stabilizing our relationship with disease causing organisms. If so, it will act as further proof that d’Herelle was a scientist well ahead of his time.

[1] A.A. Fletcher, “Notes on the Treatment of Bacillary Dysentery,” The Canadian Medical Association Journal, July 1917, p.1094

[2] Carl Zimmer, A Planet of Viruses, University of Chicago Press, p.36

[3] Abedon et al., “Phage Treatment of Human Infections,” p.67.

[4] William Summers, Felix d’Herelle and the Origins of Molecular Biology, p.48

[5] Carl Zimmer, op.cit,  p.36

[6] William Summers, pp.125-126.

[7] Abedon et al, “Phage Treatment of Human Infections,” p.67.

[8] Abedon et al, “Phage Treatment of Human Infections,” p.69.

[9] Abedon et al, “Phage Treatment of Human Infections,” p.66.

[10] See also Carl Zimmer, A Planet of Viruses, chp 4 for an extended discussion on the disagreement between Bordet and d’Herelle.

[11] See Abedon et al, “Phage Treatment of Human Infections.” The report in question is the 1941 JAMA Review by Krueger and Scribner. The report, according to Abedon et al, “reflected a singular lack of care in researching the available data, if not outright personal bias in the conclusions.” p.71. It’s worth noting that the damaging effects of this report were most acute in the US.

[12] Carl Zimmer, A Planet of Viruses, p.37.

Black in America

February 23, 2016 1:55 pm
Black in America

Between the World and Me

By: Ta-Nehisi Coates

Reviewed by Don MacLean

In the October 6, 2014 issue of the New Yorker Jennifer Gonnerman tells the remarkably tragic story of Kalief Browder, a Black 16 year old male living in the Bronx. On a Saturday evening in May 2010 Kalief was walking home with a friend. They had been at a party. Seemingly out of nowhere New York City police cruisers surrounded the two young men. An officer informed them they were being charged with robbery. Another young man’s backpack had been stolen, they were told. The boys informed the police they had the wrong guys. They pointed out the obvious: they had no backpack in their possession, stolen or otherwise. The officer’s response was to tell them the robbery had happened weeks earlier. They were arrested and taken to a nearby precinct.

Although his friend was eventually released, Kalief experienced no such luck. As Gonnerman reveals, he never made it home and within days was sent to Rikers Island, New York’s notoriously violent jail complex. The initial absurdity of his arrest was now entering the much darker phase of tragedy. At Rikers he would be subject to arbitrary violence on a regular basis. Forced to defend himself, Kalief repeatedly landed in solitary confinement, often for extended stretches of time. He clung to his innocence like a starving man clings to his last loaf of bread. His innocence made no difference. Days at Rikers turned into months. Months turned into years. “Plead guilty,” he was repeatedly told, “and you’ll be released for time served.” Kalief had been violated and ruthlessly, shamelessly stripped of his rights. He wasn’t about to stripped of his dignity too. He refused to plead guilty even though it meant risking years more in the hell hole into which he had been pushed. Finally, after more than three years spent at Rikers he was released. The prosecution never had any evidence against Kalief and so dropped the case. They had succeeded, however, in destroying him. More than three formative years in the young man’s life had been stolen. The violence and torture to which he had been subject could not so easily be shrugged aside. After struggling to adjust to life on the outside, Kalief committed suicide.

rencontre-avec-l-ecrivain-americain-ta-nehisi-coates,M301944This particular miscarriage of justice committed against a young black man in America is not written about in Ta-Nehisi Coate’s timely book, Between the World and Me. It could have been. The book is written as a letter to Coates’ son, Samori. It’s a letter inspired by love but firmly rooted in the experience of being black in America. That experience, for Coates, is shaped in part by the seemingly endless string of examples of black men and women being killed – often, although by no means always, at the hands of police. The fact of their deaths is tragic enough; the tragedy is compounded, however, by the lack of sanction of those guilty of killing. Trayvon Martin was killed while walking back to his parent’s home. He was unarmed. Trayvon was followed and  aggressively confronted by his armed killer. Yet his killer was acquitted on the basis that he had to have been acting in “self defence.” Eric Garner’s alleged crime was selling knock off cigarettes. For this he was surrounded by officers before being choked to death. His last desperate cries – “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe” – made no difference to the officer applying the deadly choke.

Coates’ anger about these types of tragic episodes is visceral. They serve as proof that Black lives still do not matter in America. Part of his aim in writing the book is to channel that anger into a deeper understanding of the historical roots of such violence towards Blacks. He then draws a direct line between those roots and the present. Establishing this sort of connection is among the various reasons why Between the World and Me is such an important book. For there is still no doubt a tendency towards historical amnesia, particularly among a certain segment of whites in America. They don’t necessarily see any connection between America’s long history of slavery and Jim Crow laws and a black teenager being arrested and locked away for years for an obscenely petty crime that he didn’t even commit or for an unarmed black man being shot multiple times in the back as he tried to flee a white police officer after a routine traffic stop. Don’t see that such examples of brutality are merely the latest manifestations of a dominant culture that believes in its inherent right to exercise control over and commit violence towards black bodies. This problem of historical amnesia is compounded, according to Coates, by the twin myths of American ‘exceptionalism’ and democratic virtue.

Between the World and Me is difficult to classify. The book has a stirring, polemical quality about it; it is designed to pull back the curtain, to debunk myths and expose harsh truths about the nature of the black experience in America. The book’s other chief strength is the quality of the writing. Indeed Coates’ elegant prose almost acts as a counter point to the anger invested in the book. It’s the combination of the two – Coates’ searing indictment of a country where Blacks are still treated as inferior and the beautiful prose with which he makes his case – that largely accounts for the critical acclaim the book has received. Such acclaim is well deserved.

Black in America imageCoates’ personal journey is interwoven with his analysis. He grew up in Baltimore. From a very young age he was aware – first dimly and then acutely – of the role of street culture in the lives of black youths. He attended Howard University as a young man. There he discovered a joy of learning even when he was learning about the tortured past of his ancestors. Great Black writers – Frederick Douglass, C.L.R James, W.E.B Du Bois, Malcolm X, among many others – left deep impressions. Not only did they help to forge a sense of identity, they fuelled his desire to write. It’s the combination of his awareness of street culture and and his academic learning that leaves him so well positioned to speak about the Black experience in America.

Coates is deeply suspicious of false promises of so many various kinds. Racial harmony? Hardly! Even in the age of Obama, such a promise strikes him as absurd. There can be no harmony so long as Blacks can be killed with impunity. No harmony so long as prisons are really profit machines fuelled by the mass incarceration of Blacks. Cosmic justice for all the millions who lived and died as slaves? Impossible! To suggest so is to demean the suffering of Black ancestors who were born in chains and died in chains. Besides, as Coates repeatedly references, he doesn’t have any belief in a God or any organized faith that would facilitate any such hope.

Coates’ relentless skepticism will no doubt fuel the impression among some readers that the book is ‘hopeless.’ If not in the promise of racial harmony or religious salvation, then where does hope lie? His atheism calls to mind one source of the divide between believers and non-believers. Believers insist a godless universe would render their own lives meaningless. Atheists will tell you that, on the contrary, it’s precisely the finite nature of existence that renders our lives precious. Moreover, it means that the future is open even if that future doesn’t stretch on through infinity. These sorts of epiphanies can be exhilarating. This is the sort of hope invested in Between the World and Me.

It’s also the sort of hope Coates endeavours to pass on to Samori. The weight of History – slavery, Jim Crow laws, segregation, poverty and urban ghettoes – has hardly been lifted. Blacks in America are still too often treated as inferior, their lives devalued. The risk of arbitrary violence without any sort of real protection by the law remains distressingly real. Fear, anger and wariness are understandable. The struggle to resist remains a necessary fact of Black life. Yet, as Coates insists to Samori, there is beauty and value in the struggle. The ability to study and understand are their own reward. Discovering new places beyond America’s borders is a measure of freedom, no matter how tenuous that freedom can sometimes seem. To see beauty in the Black body is at once a vital act of resistance and affirmation. So too is to love oneself. Worthy lessons all for a young Black person living in America.

Review: A Neurosurgeon’s Challenge

December 16, 2015 10:11 am
Review: A Neurosurgeon’s Challenge

Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery

Henry Marsh
St Martin’s Press, New York, 2014.
Reviewed By Don MacLean

Consider, if you will, the delicate surgical task of removing a pineocytoma, which is defined as “an uncommon, slow growing tumour of the pineal gland.” The patient is a young man who initially believed his pounding headaches were stress induced. His doctor instead gave him the grim news that he was suffering from a tumour which, if left untreated, would eventually kill him. Among the first surgical priorities is cutting through the meninges – the lining beneath the skull that secures the brain and the spinal cord. Once accessed, the surgeon will employ a microscope to search the exceedingly small gap separating the upper and lower levels of the brain for the tumour in question.

The surgeon must be at once supremely cautious but confident. For he finds himself in the immediate vicinity of parts of the brain which cannot be damaged. There are veins whose role is to transport blood away from the brain. There is the brain stem itself as well as the “posterior arteries which supply the parts of the brain responsible for vision.” He must thus navigate through this narrow space making sure to remove the tumour without doing harm to any of the surrounding tissues. Having successfully removed a portion of the tumour, the surgeon and his team anxiously await the results of the necessary biopsy to determine if it’s benign or malignant. The news is good: the tumour is benign. So the surgeon resumes the task of removing the remainder of it. The patient can expect to make a full recovery.

Neurosurgeon2This is but one of many stories that makes up the heart of Henry Marsh’s wonderful medical memoir Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery. The story of the young man with the pineocytoma tumour illuminates both the profound mystery and the terrible challenges at the heart of neurosurgery. On the one hand, as Marsh describes, when performing a brain operation the neurosurgeon must regard the brain as any other vital organ; it’s the soft, jelly like substance located underneath the skull.  On the other, the surgeon is also acutely aware that when operating on the brain he or she is cutting through the source of that person’s thoughts, feelings and memories, her sense of self and ability to navigate through the world, both mentally and physically.  It’s precisely this awe inspiring notion, according to Marsh, that gives rise to a corresponding sense of burden. Accidentally cut the brain stem or cut too deeply a minutely sized blood vessel and the results can be catastrophic. Depending on the mistake, the patient might bleed to death, suffer paralysis or a stroke or both, might slip into a coma from which she will never emerge or suffer permanent brain damage. The stakes, it goes without saying, are enormously high.

Do No Harm unfolds as a series of stories, most but not all of which revolve around patients and the various types of tumours requiring surgery. The book’s layout affords many advantages for the reader, chief among which is the little bit of insight it gives into the exceedingly complex and challenging world of tumours and neurosurgery. We learn about many of the different tumours with which people can be afflicted. The ependymoma, for example, is  “a cerebral tumour derived from the non-nervous cells lining the cavities of the ventricles of the brain.” More crucially, we learn something about the intricate and delicate interconnections between tumours and other internal, life sustaining processes. Indeed, in many cases it’s not so much the tumour that causes the damage but rather the way the tumour compromises, obstructs and interferes. The pineocytoma, for instance, prevents the regular circulation of cerebro spinal fluid around the brain. The blockage creates enormous pressure on the head. Severe headaches might be the first sign that something is amiss.

Some of the stories take the reader in unanticipated directions. The chapters in which Marsh recalls his time in the Ukrainian capital Kiev are cases in point. The reader’s initial impression might be that he is straying too far from the world of medicine and tumours. In the end their effect is to give the book added depth. In one chapter Marsh skillfully and beautifully describes Ukraine’s bleak post Soviet landscape: the derelict buildings, the relentlessly grey cityscapes, the ubiquity of prostitutes. In this and in other ways the country was an unfortunate revelation for Marsh. He was invited to go with the assurance that Ukraine’s neurosurgery practices were every bit as advanced – if not more so – than was true in London and the west more generally. That assurance, he discovered, was part of a more pervasive illusion of progress peddled for so many decades by the former Soviet Union. The illusion disappeared like the morning mist shortly after he was introduced to the hospital where those suffering from tumours and other brain disorders were treated. There he discovered antiquated equipment and procedures. Doctors were ill informed. Patients suffered horribly and often needlessly. So began a life long commitment to working with Ukrainian neurosurgeons and their patients.

If Marsh has an overriding aim, however, it’s to trace the arc of his shifting approach to his craft. Now retired, the reader senses his need to take stock of his career. He recalls his initial motivation in choosing neurosurgery. There was mystery, beauty, challenge and the ability to help cure ailing patients. “What could be finer,” he recalls asking himself, “then to be a neurosurgeon?” Experience, however, severely tests his initially lofty thoughts and hopes. Over the years Marsh becomes somewhat jaded, and keenly and often painfully aware of his own limitations as a neurosurgeon. Those limitations are bound up with those of medicine itself. Not every brain can be healed, not every tumour successfully removed or otherwise treated. Part of a good neurosurgeon’s hard earned wisdom is knowing when surgery is appropriate – or not.

Henry Marsh3But Marsh’s sense of limitations is also a function of his mistakes – grave mistakes that sometimes destroyed the lives of his suffering patients. Marsh’s frank assessment of his errors is part of what gives the book a peculiar power. He recalls an incorrect diagnosis made over the phone after successfully operating on the patient in question. He was too quick to diagnose what struck him as a simple case of post operative inflammation. The patient, as it turned out, was suffering from a type of streptococcal infection. If treated quickly the infection could be tamed without causing permanent damage. That it wasn’t initially caught meant the patient would live but only after being rendered nearly completely paralyzed. Such are the risks associated with brain surgery: when mistakes happen in most other fields of medicine they can often be rectified. When they happen in neurosurgery the results are more likely devastating and irreversible. Although Marsh is reconciled to his errors, they retain their power to not only haunt but to teach. As the title of the book suggests, they facilitate a necessary humility and modesty. By the end of his career, Do no harmwas Marsh’s over riding priority.

This sort of arc to a career in medicine is perhaps not all that surprising. The path from brash and supremely confident to humble and modest is well traveled among doctors. Marsh’s voice and style is unique in so far as he seems to ceaselessly move between these and other competing poles. Thus, he is compassionate and generous but combative and irritable as well. He can be humble but still openly declare an arrogant disdain for hospital managers. A similar sort of tension makes its way into the operating theatres. Unanticipated problems raise his blood pressure at precisely the moment requiring calm, deliberate focus. Otherwise the problem will not be contained and further disaster will follow. Marsh’s ability to convey these alternating and competing sentiments – those rooted in the noble desire to help suffering patients and those rooted in the pressures and frustrations associated with his craft – is ultimately what makes Do No Harm such a revealing book.

Adventure, Canadian Style Part Two

November 2, 2015 2:32 pm
Adventure, Canadian Style Part Two

All photos courtesy of Don MacLean.

The Heart of Wild Labrador

Once in his life a man ought to concentrate his mind upon the remembered earth. He ought to give himself up to a particular landscape in his experience; to look at it from as many angles as he can , to wonder upon it, to dwell upon it. —Scott Momaday

Cruising north on the Labrador Sea marked a turning point in our adventure.  After days of mostly sun and warmth, the first day on the Labrador Sea was unrelentingly grey, wet and cold. A dense fog only lifted late in the afternoon. The sea’s complexion was also different. Like the sky, it was grey and ominous; swells were at their most extreme. We swayed constantly as the Ocean Endeavour at once powered through and rode the waves. Through the grey and the wetness we would pass the occasional glacier, alone and starkly beautiful. The sense was palpable that we were heading towards more remote and more forbidding territory.

The day felt different for another reason as well. Adults sometimes like to lament how dependent children and teenagers have become on technology. A day spent without their tablet or smartphone can seem like an eternity and a real hardship. But the dependence extends to adults as well. As wonderful as the first week had been, I found it reassuring to be able to contact home at the end of each day. I had come to depend on the videos  my spouse sent to me everyday of our four month old baby smiling and babbling. They provided a few moments of joy and acted like an anchor to home even as I was hundreds of miles away at sea. Truth be told, they also did much to assuage a lingering guilt I was experiencing over being away from our baby girl for so long. I was talking with my spouse on this grey and wet afternoon when the internet and phone connection was unexpectedly and irretrievably lost. Contact would not be renewed until the end of our trip. I would adjust, of course, but not before experiencing a peculiar sense of absence.  

Nain and Kangiqsualujjuaq

The sun and the calmer weather had returned by the next day, when we arrived by Zodiac in Nain, a small Inuit community located north on Labrador’s east coast and the home of Jason Edmunds, one of our expedition leaders and a great singer and guitar player to boot. (On a cruise rich with wonderful musical performances, I think Jason’s performance the night before our arrival in Nain was the only one to garner a standing ovation.) There was a gathering of the community and the ship’s crew and passengers in the local Moravian church. A choir sang songs and we were welcomed – again in a spirit of warmth, generosity and celebration. This was followed by a walk through the community, a tour of the local school and a lesson. In an actual classroom a teacher taught us to pronounce a few letters and words in their native tongue.unnamed (2)  

Our time in Nain reflected a subtle but important change in emphasis. The places we were about to visit that were so remote to most of the ship’s passengers were home to Inuit communities. Our days would still consist of hikes and long walks in the heart of beautiful landscapes, but other days would be remembered most for the joyous spirit with which we were welcomed. Just as was true in Nain, it seemed as though the entire community was waiting at the shore to greet us when days later we arrived in Kangiqsualujjuaq. We thoroughly enjoyed samples of their cuisine – a delicious sea food chowder comes to mind – and the opportunity to simply talk. At the end of the day the community hosted a wonderful show of music and dancing. Two young women sang a throat song and a much larger group performed a series of dances. The atmosphere was festive. The community’s aim was to show us a grand time. They succeeded brilliantly.

Derek and Maria

Our immersion in Inuit culture and experience would go deeper. There were also opportunities to learn about their remarkable knowledge of the land and how recent history has shaped their ability to live their traditional way of life.  Among the more conventional opportunities were good old fashioned talks given by different Adventure Canada staff members. Two Inuit staff gave separate talks, each reflecting different and challenging dimensions of life in Canada.

One only has to look at Derek to sense he possesses a combination of toughness and resourcefulness. He also embraces his culture. “The Inuit were born to live on the land,” he remarked early in his presentation. Hunting, he went on to say, is fundamental to the Inuit. Derek’s presentation included many images of him next to animals he had hunted and killed. Polar bears, seals, arctic hare, wolves, Canada Geese: he hunts them all. The hunt is motivated by the twin imperatives of need and respect. “You have to use what’s around you to survive,” he said at one point. But when hunting an animal you always kill it in a way “that it doesn’t suffer.” When using a rifle, he will kill the animal with a single shot aimed at the lungs or heart.

The thought occurred to me many time since stepping on the Ocean Endeavour that Adventure Canada’s idea is for passengers to engage with issues related to the land and its history. At no point was that idea more forcefully confirmed than when Maria – another staff person – spoke about her life as an Inuit woman. Maria is painfully shy and her life has been characterized by deep wounds and their consequent scars. She stepped in front of everyone, said how difficult talking was for her and, moments later, stepped off the stage. Maria wasn’t ready. Moments later she stepped back on and began to cry. The effect of the tears was to strengthen her resolve. What followed was more like a stream of consciousness than a carefully structured talk. That stream at many moments crystallized into a heartfelt and painful lament for a way of life that was stolen, if not ultimately lost. I say stolen because Maria’s family was among the community who were forcibly relocated from Hebron in 1959. In keeping with the strange but prevailing orthodoxy of the time, there was no consultation with the community whose lives were about to be turned upside down. Not only was there little consultation, there was very little actual communication between the government of the day and leaders of the community. Leaders of Hebron heard about the impending relocation as a rumour. When the rumour was verified, the community was promised the upheaval in their lives would be minimal. Promises of housing, jobs and the freedom to resume their traditional way of life were made, only to go unfulfilled. The combination of the relocation and the broken promises were enough to send her father into a tailspin from which he did not recover and which echoed down through his family. Maria suffered gravely from a litany of problems, all of which she traces back to the family’s relocation from Hebron. Sexual abuse, drug and alcohol abuse, alienation and despair. Only recently has she emerged from this long tunnel of darkness. The healing process has been long and painful and is not yet complete. But, as Maria made clear, she is in a much better place now.

The spirit in which they engage with Inuit communities is one of Adventure Canada’s many strengths.


As Maria’s personal story highlighted, among the many challenging chapters in the history of Newfoundland and Labrador is the gradual or sudden demise of once thriving coastal communities. Hebron was founded as a Moravian missionary community some time around 1861.  It is now deserted.

After a morning spent learning about Hebron’s brief history as a Moravian missionary community, passengers embarked on another thrilling afternoon of adventure. To the zodiacs we went. Upon arrival we walked among the beautiful but haunting relics of its past as a coastal community. There isn’t much that remains – a church as well as a few other dilapidated structures – but the effect is still to draw you back to a time when communities resided here. Later in the afternoon we embarked on a challenging but exhilarating hike. Under a blue sky, we trekked up mountains. We would reach a plateau only to look to see there was another hill to climb. At last we reached the final summit. Not for the first time on this adventure, I felt as though we were on top of the world.

At dinner that night it felt inevitable that Hebron would be a subject of discussion. The day, after all,  was as much about relishing the extraordinary beauty of the place as thinking about it’s recent tragic past. I was enjoying the company of Billy, a sketch artist, and Rob and Robin, two videographers documenting various parts of the trip.  How would the resettlement of the entire community be regarded, I asked, if the government had fulfilled its promises of housing and a resumption of the Inuit’s traditional way of life? Bill alluded to the practical challenges for any government of meeting a population’s education and medical needs. It was Robin’s remark, however, that has stayed with me most. In a way that we perhaps cannot understand, he suggested, the Inuit are truly of the land on which they live. To uproot them, especially in the undemocratic and disrespectful spirit in which it was done, was bound to produce the problems it did. Alienation, isolation, substance abuse.

Ramah Bay  

The sky was overcast when we arrived at Ramah Bay. Heavy clouds lay low, shrouding the tops of the Torngat Mountains. Some people were expressing a wish for clearer skies, if not sunshine. I preferred the grey clouds. We disembarked early this morning, not long after breakfast. The place was another former Moravian mission post, established in the hope of securing the conversion of Inuit living North of their more southerly posts. The whole Moravian quest to convert Inuit to Christianity raises interesting questions for me. I wonder why the project of converting Inuit to Christianity was successful to the apparent extent it was. The Inuit’s own spirituality, after all, was as central to their world view and way of life as Christianity was to the Moravians. While standing in the remnant’s of the abandoned mission’s graveyard, I asked Tom Gordon this very question. Tom is a music historian and can be counted as one of the many friendly and knowledgeable Adventure Canada staff members. He remarked that the Inuit were – and remain – a highly pragmatic people. Incorporating elements of Christianity into their spiritual practises did not mean they abandoned their own. Nor did they give up their traditional ways of living. The Inuit would have resided at Ramah Bay for only a few months of the year. Otherwise they were elsewhere, hunting and sustaining themselves. The Moravians also constituted an important source of goods. Tom’s answer was a thoughtful one.

In his book Arctic Dreams, Barry Lopez offers a brilliant meditation on the Arctic’s endless dimensions. (The book was a serendipitous discovery in the Ocean Endeavour’s wonderfully stocked library.) Although we were not in the Arctic, so many of his insights seem applicable to the remote landscapes we visited, but one less so than all the others.

“In the face of a rational, scientific approach to the land, which is more widely sanctioned, esoteric insights and speculations are frequently overshadowed, and what is lost is profound.”

There has indeed been tensions between the strictly scientific and the more spiritual, holistic and esoteric approaches taken to understanding such beautiful but challenging landscapes. Although those tensions have hardly been resolved, on this trip these competing approaches seem less mutually exclusive and more mutually reinforcing. They compliment each other. Those at Adventure Canada understand that to only engage in the science would be to miss out on the experience of being moved and indeed altered by such majestic landscapes. But to simply gaze at a mountain or the Bay in which it sits, without the context that good science provides, is also to risk missing something. It’s as though the more one learns how ancient mountains formed the deeper the spiritual experience of looking at them up close becomes.  A geologist will tell how the age of rocks are measured and how mountains we’re walking among formed billion of years ago. Similarly, the science of archeology facilitates a deeper understanding and respect for ancient communities and cultures. As I was repeatedly discovering, it can become the springboard for thoughtful questions and discussions. The discovery of a sod house or an aboriginal tool allows the sensitive observer to imaginatively travel back in time. An ornithologist will help you identify what bird you see or hear soaring above the sea. A naturalist will explain the many different species of whales that inhabit the seas upon which we were sailing. With such an array of expertise, it’s hard to imagine that at least some of what one learns on an Adventure Canada cruise will not inspire or fascinate.

Eclipse Bay, Eclipse River and the Torngat Mountains  

No one knew what to expect to find at Eclipse Bay, located on the northern tip of Labrador. It was the first visit for everyone on board, including Adventure Canada staff. The morning we arrived was just as we’d come to expect: the air was cool when we set foot in the Zodiac and the sky was overcast, but showing no threat of rain. Ideal conditions, in other words. We set off, walking on undulating mossy and rocky ground. The further we trekked the more it seemed as though we were all sharing in a beautiful discovery. We came upon a stream of rushing water, flowing away from a black mountain range wrapped in a low lying ribbon of cloud. Gradually the heavy clouds overhead dispersed, making way for a burst of sun and colour. The effect was to heighten the beauty of the rest of the landscape. The sun’s presence had the added effect of lifting everyone’s mood just that little bit more. There was a shared sense of how special and privileged an experience this was. Everyone, I thought, seemed suddenly closer. Any awkwardness in talking to people you didn’t know dissolved with the morning mist. The closeness will recede, of course, but the memory of the experience will not.

That shared exhilaration and closeness was also a function, no doubt, of time’s passing. The adventure was nearing its end. Following Eclipse Bay there was only one more full day at sea. The day after everyone would go their separate ways. Back to Winnipeg, Germany, New Zealand, Seattle, St. Johns, Colorado, Toronto, Ottawa – and all the other far flung places from whence people had come to make this journey. For this reason perhaps there was little rush to return to the ship. Yes there were strict timelines to follow, but the initial walk took less time than expected. There was still time to linger, to  explore more of this majestic place. Most of us opted to hike the mountain immediately in front of us. We walked up the slope, laughing and chatting and stopping every few minutes to look and behold. Someone looked off in the distance and thought he saw a bear scaling a hillside. Even looking through binoculars, however, proved inconclusive. It hardly mattered. The higher we climbed the more breathtaking the vista. Upon reaching the summit the view was different depending on what direction one looked. In one direction was the ship, now looking like a miniature of itself as it rested in the calm waters of the bay.  In another, was the black mountain and the low lying ribbon of cloud.

We returned to the shore with time still to spare. Zodiacs were waiting to take us to Eclipse Bay’s hidden gem – a waterfall at the end of an inlet that flows between towering cliffs comprised of ancient rock. When we arrived and saw the water rushing down it renewed our shared sense of discovery.

unnamed (1)Walking on Eclipse Bay’s mossy and rocky ground, trekking up a mountain as the sun burst through the clouds and then riding on a Zodiac to the Falls: the day had already brimmed over with discovery and adventure. No one would have protested if the rest of the afternoon and evening were clear of activities. But, this being Adventure Canada, there were talks to attend if one so wished in the afternoon. As though to prove they think of everything, Adventure Canada also had what was cleverly referred to as the “Floating Book Club,” led by three esteemed Canadian authors, Terry Fallis,  Doug Gibson and Kathleen Winter. Terry Fallis was humorous and often insightful about the state of Canadian politics when, earlier in the cruise, he discussed his breakout novel The Best Laid Plans. In addition to being an author, Doug Gibson is the great Canadian editor and publisher, storyteller and, it must be said, a real gentleman.  His thoroughly entertaining talk on his relationship with a long line of Great Canadian authors – Alistair McLeod, Hugh MacLennan, Robertson Davies, Mavis Gallant, Alice Munro, among many others – was still to come. But it was Kathleen Winter’s talk and novel Annabel that most directly spoke to the experience of visiting Labrador especially. Annabel is about a child born with features of both genders, but it is as much about Labrador itself. The land’s rugged beauty and peculiar energy and its power to shape the lives of those who live there. She was giving her second talk this afternoon.

After being introduced by Doug Gibson, Kathleen gently bounded to the stage with her guitar in hand. In a voice initially tentative that then rose to fill the room, she started with a song, Harry Martin’s “A Place Called Labrador.” This beautiful rendition sung by an award winning author called to mind another, easily overlooked aspect of an Adventure Canada cruise – the multi-talented people they draw. Otherwise so much of what Kathleen said echoed my own experience and sentiments the adventure inspired. Energy, reverence, connectedness: the landscapes and people we are so privileged to visit give rise to these sorts of deeper impressions. The opening passages of Annabel describe Labrador as a place that speaks to those whose hearts and minds are open enough to hear. That idea, I slowly discovered, had taken root inside me. That’s when it struck me: these past few glorious weeks the land had been talking and I, at long last, was learning to listen.

Adventure, Canadian Style Part One

October 29, 2015 3:23 pm
Adventure, Canadian Style Part One

All photos courtesy of Don MacLean.

Echoes of Newfoundland’s Past

“Go out to the deck,” we were told over the ship’s PA system. “Whales have been spotted off the port side.” I hurried outside, eager to catch a glimpse. It was July but the morning sea air was cool, invigorating. The water was calm as the ship cruised slowly by rolling mountains silhouetted against the clear morning sky. We leaned against the ship deck’s railing, necks strained and cameras cocked, patiently waiting. In addition to patience, whale watching requires quick, alert eyes. They’re easy to miss and when they do emerge from the water it’s only for a few fleeting, tantalizing moments. On this morning, however, the wait wasn’t long. There were at least two whales traveling together – most likely minke, we were later told – whose rounded backs and dorsal fins broke the water somewhere between our ship and land. Although their underwater movements are unpredictable, I followed their line and saw them emerge again from the water some short distance later. There was to be no full breach but the thrill was no less intense.

The minke whales siting was exhilarating if not totally unexpected. I was aboard what was the Ocean Endeavour’s maiden voyage with Adventure Canada. The family run company specializes in adventure cruises to far flung places that would be hard to access on one’s own – most notably the Arctic region – and where whales, black bears, polar bears and other magnificent creatures are familiar and vital parts of staggeringly beautiful landscapes. On this especially fine day we were cruising on Bonne Bay, located off the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the west coast of Newfoundland.

The “Newfoundland and Wild Labrador” cruise – as it was billed – began on a sunny day in St. John’s Harbour and ended on another sunny day in the small community of Kangiqsualujjuaq in Northern Quebec. In between those two far flung points we visited communities, UNESCO designated world heritage sites, and other less known but similarly breathtaking places. Following a visit to Saint Pierre and Miquelon we moved North up Newfoundland’s west coast, stopping at Gros Morne National Park, Red Bay and Saddle Island, Rose Blanche and Lanse aux Meadows and St. Anthony. Visiting those places alone, dear reader, would have constituted a trip of a life time. On this cruise they were just the beginning. For after sailing through the Strait of Belle Isle – separating Newfoundland and Labrador – we headed North along Labrador’s rugged East Coast. There were many stops along the way: Nain, Hebron, Ramah Bay, Eclipse Bay until, at last, we reached the province’s northern tip and sailed south towards the aforementioned Kangiqsualujjuaq. Each destination was more remote and, though it didn’t seem possible, more beautiful than the one before.

DSCF0144Saint Pierre and Miquelon

Our first destination is not part of Newfoundland and Labrador or, indeed, Canada. We would need our passports to set foot on Saint Pierre and Miquelon. The island is situated on the southern coast of Newfoundland near the Burin Peninsula. It remains part of France and, as a fellow passenger suggested, it feels like an extension of France. Despite its proximity and obvious physical similarities to Newfoundland, it also strikes the visitor as very distinctive from the province. License plates are European styled. France’s flag is prominently displayed. Cafes serve sandwiches French baguettes. The entire community speaks French.

The one full day spent entirely on the ship since leaving St. John’s had left me feeling slightly restless. When I stepped onto the island’s shore on the morning or our arrival it was with an almost palpable sense of relief. And when I stepped off the bus on which we initially toured the island I was most struck by the smell of the ocean air and the sounds of the water and waves slashing against the wind worn rocks. It seemed like an extension of that initial sense of relief.

We arrived on a Sunday, which is notable. The island is dotted with brightly coloured homes, but there were few locals to be seen. Not only is everything closed on Sunday, it seemed as though most of the community had left the island. Streets were unusually quiet. Homes with backyards clearly visible seemed empty. In anticipation of our arrival only a few cafes and small stores remained open. The effect was curious: the nearly deserted streets, empty backyards and closed stores created the impression we had the island to ourselves.

Apart from the stunning vistas and the narrow streets lined with colourful homes, St. Pierre is fascinating because of its history. Since the Portugese laid claim to it in 1520 the island’s status has been contested. Jacques Cartier declared it a possession of France in 1536. For the next three centuries the island changed hands between Britain and France until, at last, it reverted back to a French colony as part of the Treaty of France in 1814. No longer a colony, Saint Pierre and Miquelon now bears the awkward sounding status of “overseas collectivity.”

Its connection to the mother country, however, has been fraught. France’s Vichy government was notoriously complicit with German occupying forces in 1941, much to the shame of many French citizens. The same sort of division of opinion existed in St. Pierre and Miquelon, at the time a colony of France. Most of the island’s citizens were dismayed with the island administrator’s support for Vichy. They were thus likely relieved when Charles de Gaulle covertly engineered a coup on Christmas Day, 1941.

DSCF0034Gros Morne National Park and Woody Point

The day spent at Gros Morne National Park started as they always do on the ship. Stefan Kindberg, our expedition leader, seemed to relish the responsibility of waking up all passengers. “Good morning, good morning, good morning,” he declares in a voice laden with experience but brimming with optimism. It’s 6.30 and after an eventful day and another late night, the call to get up arrives too early. I’d like another hour of sleep at least, but no matter. There’s another full day ahead. One doesn’t do this trip with Adventure Canada if the aim is to ease into every day. Adventure sometimes requires sacrifices, one of which can be sleep.

Shortly after breakfast we disembark onto the Zodiacs and boat the short distance to shore. We landed at Woody Point, a small shoreline community of approximately 1300 people. We’re not there for long before buses take us to an entry point to Gros Morne National Park, a UNESCO designated world heritage site. Our destination inside the park is the Tablelands. When we step off the buses my first impression is of being overwhelmed; I’m staggered by its rugged and distinctive beauty and scale. It’s like no other landscape I’ve encountered before. The mountains are a muted red and, from where we stand in the valley, appear to stretch endlessly into the distance. This initial impression fuelled another, one that was to be repeated throughout the journey: that in stepping foot on the Tablelands we were, in a sense, stepping into the past. Or, to put it another way, the past – both ancient and more recent – was everywhere manifest in ways not really possible in the constantly changing urban environments from whence so many of us came.

Not long after disembarking we begin a moderately vigorous trek with a Parks Canada guide upwards through the valley. It ends at what looks to be an endlessly meandering stream through opposing mountainsides. When talking with a knowledgeable Parks Canada Guide or a geologist working with Adventure Canada a walk among the Tablelands is more than an opportunity to witness first hand nature’s magnificence. It also amounts to a fascinating lesson in geology and evolution. The Tablelands formed as a consequence of a continental collision approximately 450 million years ago. The rock was part of the mantle beneath the Iapetus Ocean. Geologically unusual, the giant mass thus shifted from its place beneath the ocean to its present position. As our very funny Parks Canada guide explained, peridotite is the rock most fundamental to the Tablelands. The rock, when altered by the release of its calcium, forms what is called serpentinite. Peridotite is also iron filled; the iron reacts to the presence of oxygen, one effect of which is to give the Tablelands its ochre colour. Both are combination of red, brown and yellow and both have the stark look of a desert. More than one person remarked on its resemblance to the surface of Mars.

Looks, however, can be deceiving. Although the Tablelands does indeed look harsh and somewhat barren, water still flows among its hills and some vegetation has learned to thrive. One has to only look up at the mountain tops to see isolated pockets of hardened snow. These sorts of details assume great significance when walking among the Tablelands. Vegetation is scarce but what little there is tells a remarkable story. The soil is nutrient poor. That which plants needs – calcium, nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium – are in short supply. Those elements that plants can do without – severely alkaline groundwater, insecure slopes and running soil – are common and thus plant growth that much more challenging.

Not surprisingly, that which has managed to thrive are not only the hardiest of plants. Their adaptability is an example of the ingenuity at the heart of the natural world. To compensate for the nutrient poor soil, for example, Newfoundland’s official plant – The Pitcher plant – derives much of its nutrients from insects. As Michael Burzynski explains in his book Gros Morne National Park, unsuspecting critters are trapped in the “red-veined hollow leaves.” The insects eventually drown in the collected rainwater, following which they undergo a process of breakdown enabled by other insects, rotifers and bacteria. The plant thus doesn’t so much consume the insect as it absorbs its “molecular remains.” It’s among the myriad of examples of the evolutionary dynamic in play. In addition to the park’s grandeur, it is these sort of subtle relationships among soil, plants and other forms of life that inspire a sense of wonder.

It didn’t end there. “Look at the relatively barren, rock strewn mountain,” our guide begins to instruct us, “and the tree filled mountain on the other side of the highway. Which do you think is higher?” The answer is not immediately obvious. To the unwitting eye, the two look approximately the same height. “The mountain over there,” someone answered, pointing to the tree filled mountain. That, as it turned out, was incorrect. The guide explains that the trees provide a point of reference that the barren hillside lacks. As a result, the untrained eye is unable to judge its height. “This hill,” our guide says pointing to the barren mountain, “is approximately 150 metres higher than the tree filled mountain across the way.” 150 metres higher!

After lunch and another vigorous walk through a trail in Woody Point we returned to the ship. I was fatigued in the pleasurable sort of way that comes from a day of steady movement under a warm sun. It was a day well spent. Dinner was only a few hours away, where another kind of adventure would be resumed. In addition to fine food every day and for every meal, the dining room – as they so often do – became a place where lively discussions were had, stories and jokes exchanged and friendships formed. Indeed, talking to people you did not know before setting foot on the ship became a vital part of the adventure. You never really knew in advance where conversations would go or what you might discover. I recall a long conversation with a German anesthesiologist who loved to hike and who was living his dream of traveling the entire east coast of Canada. Over lunch we debated the merits and demerits of the European Union. On another day I spoke with a young Cuban filmmaker now living in Newfoundland. She loves her new home but dearly misses her family living in Cuba.

Red Bay Saddle Island


When we set out this morning for Red Bay the sky was overcast, but the view was clear and the rain had not yet started to fall. After returning to the ship for lunch we rested briefly before preparing to set out for Saddle Island. By the time we reached the Zodiac that would take 10 of us to the island, the skies had darkened and a steady rain was falling. This felt appropriate somehow. I was so relieved that the first few days were dry and occasionally sunny that I felt I needed to experience a rain filled expedition. Otherwise how adventurous could I really claim to be? By the time we reached our destination – the Zodiac ride from the ship to shore was only 5 -10 minutes – the rain’s intensity had increased. More appropriate still, a fog was slowly gathering over the water and shrouding the hillsides that shaped the Bay. The combination of rain and fog conspired to give the island and the surrounding area a ghostly feel.

If Gros Morne was about ancient geological history, Red Bay and Saddle Island are about more recent human history. Within minutes of having arrived at Saddle Island we set out on a tour led by yet another thoughtful and knowledgeable Parks Canada guide. There are no residences on Saddle Island. Although homes dot the landscape across the Bay, one is struck by the sense that the small community remains visibly and inextricably tied to the past. Both Red Bay and Saddle Island were critical in the complicated relationship among the Inuit, early European explorers and the natural world upon which they both relied. Spanish and French Basque arrived in the 16th century in search of mostly bowhead and right whales. The magnificent creatures of the sea were a vital source of the oil used to power both industries and homes back in Europe. The oil was, moreover, a vital source of profit. “This area was home to the first oil boom,” our guide said, a remark at once funny and illuminating. Whale populations were high and there was evidently little sense among the European whalers of natural limits. Countless whales were thus killed.

Both Red Bay and Saddle Island are living monuments to this critical period in the history of contact between Europeans and the Inuit. This is no doubt why the island was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Its designation is meant as an act of preservation: not only of the island’s ecological integrity but its connection to the past. Archeological discoveries have paved the way to a more nuanced understanding of the time. In 1565 a whaler ship – San Juan – sunk in the Bay after powerful north east winds broke anchorage. The doomed ship was recently excavated and then carefully returned to the sea. In 1965 another ship broke down in the Bay and was eventually evacuated. Its slowly disintegrating hull rests in the bay, a haunting relic of a not too distant era. The walk yields more insights into life on the island 4 centuries ago. We are shown sites of ‘trywalks,’ the Basque rendering stations used to process the whales killed at sea.

DSCF0151Lanse aux Meadows and St. Anthony

Later that day we resumed our journey north towards Lanse aux Meadows, located on the northern tip of Newfoundland, not far rom where the Gulf of St. Lawrence meets the Labrador Sea. By this point in our adventure I’m beginning to appreciate just how privileged an experience this is. This is the third UNESCO designated world heritage site in an as many days. The designation, we will soon discover, is well deserved.

After an informative introduction to the site in a beautiful welcome centre, we walk across the grassy, relatively flat terrain towards where the land meets the sea. This is among the places of earliest contact between the Norse and North America Aboriginals, sometime in the 11th century. Remarkably it was only in 1961 that a married Norwegian couple, with the help of a local fisherman, discovered and excavated (in cooperation with Parks Canada) eight Norse sod houses. Among the day’s highlights was stepping into the houses and witnessing recreations of life at the time. In a similar way Lanse aux Meadows draws visitors into the past.

Before visiting the home of St. Anthony’s most famous physician, Dr. Wilfred Grenfell, there was a 2 or 3 hour window of free time. We could return to the ship or stay on shore. By chance really I found myself walking with two other passengers. I relished the opportunity to explore and I would venture to guess they felt the same way. As inspiring as well planned expeditions can be, the unplanned stretches of time can produce equally memorable moments. The manager of a store in St. Anthony in which we were perusing was kind enough to give the three of us a ride to the aptly named “The Lighthouse,” a small gem of a restaurant situated a top of a hill that doubled as a look out point over the water. The terrain is rugged and on this afternoon the wind was gathering strength and heavy clouds lay low in the sky. Rain seemed imminent. Before going in to eat we walked at the edge of the hill, marvelling at the views of the Bay.

The food at The Lighthouse was what one might expect for a restaurant located next to the sea. It was traditional seafare – fish and chips, hearty clam chowder soups, and pork beans – all expertly prepared. Over a deliciously hearty lunch and, more importantly, beer we laughed and talked. I was in accomplished company. Billy Gauthier is an Inuk stone sculptor whose star has rapidly risen in the world of stone art. Gary Clement is the cartoonist for The National Post and accomplished children’s books writer. We had all only met days earlier and yet we talked as old friends might, exchanging friendly jokes at each other’s expense and sharing stories about our first days aboard the Ocean Endeavour. Billy spoke of his life in Goose Bay: his love of the land and of seal hunting. Little did I know at the time that this theme – traditional Inuit ways of life – was to become central to our experience travelling through Labrador.

It was also one of those entirely unpredictable experiences that was among the most memorable in Rose Blanche, where we had visited days earlier. After disembarking from buses that took us from the shore to somewhere inside the community, we began a long walk that ended where the stone lighthouse for which Rose Blanche is renowned sits atop a rocky summit. It was another glorious day for looking out at the sea.

Yet as strikingly beautiful as the view from the lighthouse summit was, what I will remember most from this day took place in a local church basement. The walk back from the lighthouse was to end with a welcome celebration hosted by community locals. The experience was my first of Newfoundland and Labrador hospitality, for which the province is justifiably famous. Locals had made an impressive spread of homemade sweets and drinks. They welcomed us as though we were long lost family who had finally made our way home. A local band played on a stage at the back of the room. It was the sort of fiddling music one could dance to if one was so inclined. Alas the dance floor remained empty. I stood at the front of the room eating some sweets and talking to a new acquaintance. A fellow passenger then meandered over to ask my friend to dance. He explained why he was not up to it at the present time: the dance floor was empty and he was shy. So she turned to me with a look that indicated I had no choice but to join her. She was not about to be rebuffed twice and I wasn’t about to create a potentially awkward situation. So I followed her to the floor. If she had any qualms about we being the only two dancing, she didn’t show it. She moved freely, without inhibitions. Lamely no doubt, I tried to follow her lead and simply let go.

“Move your feet,” I pleaded with myself.

After a few moments the Canadian author Kathleen Winter bounded to the stage to join us. She gracefully leapt and moved her arms as though in a joyful trance. Not long after another passenger ran to the floor. Like my other two dance partners, she moved freely, beautifully. The crowd was clapping to the music, urging us on. So the four of us danced about, locking arms and letting go and then doing it all again and again.

Joyous moments, I was discovering, can happen when one least expects it. There were many more still to come.

Adventure, Canadian Style Part 2 can be read Here.

Family Ties

July 6, 2015 12:30 pm
Family Ties

A review of Sugar in the Blood: A Family’s Story of Slavery and Empire by Andrea Stuart

Family trees are all the rage. Part of their appeal is surely the element of surprise. The deeper one digs, the more likely a discovery that the tree’s roots twist and shoot in unanticipated directions. When tracing one’s lineage, in other words, expect the unexpected. For as long as people have migrated from place to place there have been both forced and forbidden unions and the equally taboo offspring such unions often produced. In the golden age of discovery, for example, Europeans didn’t simply colonize and subjugate much of the world. They sexualized their subjects, too. Thus female slaves may have been considered heathens but Europeans still often found them irresistibly attractive. Slaves had little defence in the face of a white master’s predatory advances. Children were often the predictable – if unwanted – outcome. The world, from this perspective, has been a melting pot for far longer than America’s embrace of that term.

The three themes of family history, migration and slavery are at the heart of Andrea Stuart’s marvellous family memoir, Sugar in the Blood: A Family’s Story of Slavery and Empire. Stuart’s ancestry is indeed conducive to a compelling story. Although Stuart is black, her earliest known ancestor is George Ashby, a white Englishman who migrated from England to Barbados as a teenage blacksmith in the 1630s. His arrival initiated a long line of Ashbys in the former British colony. Like so many white English settlers, the Ashbys were slave owners who slowly accumulated wealth and property. By the standards of white Islanders, they were reasonably well to do. The Ashby family’s trajectory then changed in 1794 when Robert Ashby married into a wealthy family and subsequently fathered a child with one of his female slaves.

Stuart’s challenge in telling her ancestors’ stories is not unlike the challenge of telling an individual slave’s story. Slaves were so violently subjugated, their freedom so ruthlessly quashed and their time so thoroughly stolen, that writing was effectively impossible. There is thus a paucity of slave narratives from which to draw. Similarly, George Ashby did not leave first-hand accounts of his experience on the ship that took him from England to Barbados, no account of his life on an island so thoroughly different than the island from which he came. Much of what Stuart says about him is thus speculative or conjecture: based on the prevailing conditions and sentiments, this is what he likely would have experienced, what he likely would have thought.

Fortunately Sugar in the Blood is as much a history of slavery in Barbados as it is a family memoir. It is on this level that the book works best. Stuart lays bare slavery’s economic underpinnings. Those leaving England for Barbados were not simply in search of a ‘better life.’ Most were rough and, as time would soon tell, ruthless in their determination to tame the land and in their pursuit of money. Their road to riches was eventually paved with sugar cane. But the cost of producing the sweet stuff was prohibitive, the work involved brutally tedious and harsh. Islanders had indentured servants but not nearly enough to satisfy the needs of the island’s burgeoning sugar cane industry. Slaves solved the industry’s two most pressing needs: a cheap and steady supply of people to do the work whites were not prepared to do. Thus as sugar cane’s importance grew exponentially, so too did the market for slaves. There was a symbiotic connection between the two.

Any book worth reading on slavery must focus on the combination of inhumanity and violence at the heart of this most horrible of institutions. For Stuart the challenge of doing so was heightened by her white ancestors’ complicity in sustaining it. Nevertheless, she does not abstain from describing the unimaginably harrowing migrations – the Middle Passage – slaves were forced to endure. They were enslaved in Africa and then sold at slave markets, usually located somewhere near shore lines. Once sold, they were forced onto ships destined for, among other places, Barbados, Jamaica and North America. Slaves would be relegated to the ship’s dungeon, where they were typically chain bound to one another. Those who did not survive the fearsome, tortuous journey across the Atlantic were left lying next to their living companions. Rapes were routine. Nor was it uncommon for the physically weak or the disobedient to be thrown overboard, regarded as nothing more than dispensable cargo. Others sometimes chose this fate themselves: better to die at sea than to live condemned as a slave. Whites often didn’t even have It in them to allow their black captives to make this one achingly difficult choice. Rather in many cases those who jumped overboard would be caught, forced back on to the ship and, in front of others, whipped or subject to other forms of torture, indignities.

After the perilous journey across the Atlantic, slaves could then expect to spend the rest of their days confined to a plantation. As Stuart skillfully makes clear, the vast majority of their waking hours were spent engaged in cane cutting, a task that is at once arduous, monotonous and often horribly debilitating. Obedience was sustained through tortuous violence: whippings and worse were common to life on the plantation.

What is perhaps most striking about Barbadian society in the 17th and 18th centuries was the tension between forces of change and the ongoing efforts of white islanders to impose a sense of permanency through slavery. Europe and North America by this time were tumults of revolt. England promised liberty for those slaves who fought on their side in the American Revolution. English abolitionists like Granville Sharpe changed people’s hearts and minds by exposing the inhumanity and barbarity of slavery. The French Revolution, with its promise of liberty, equality and fraternity, inspired slave rebellions in Saint Domingue. For those with any sort of vision, such developments would have exposed the grotesque absurdity of an ideology that condemned so much of humanity to a life of violence, captivity and back breaking toil. It’s time would surely pass. Yet for centuries white Barbadians refused to countenance an island without slavery.

It was in a sense the sordid privileges of white planters that served to slowly undermine the illusion of a permanently fixed social order and racial hierarchy. This is where Stuart’s family tree profoundly intersects with the region’s broader history. White males – particularly those at the heads of households – routinely had sexual relations with women slaves. Children were born. Their arrival into the world fuelled questions, the answers to which would slowly but inexorably erode the sort of thinking that rationalized slavery. What was a white man to make of his own black children? Did he regard them as inherently inferior? Were they to remain slaves? The answers, of course, varied. Many white men thought no differently about their black offspring. Such children would have suffered the same bleak fate as other black children. Other whites, such as Robert Cooper Ashby, could not ignore all sense of responsibility. His black son–John Stephens–was granted privileges, if not freedoms. The first decades of John’s life were thus lived in servitude, but he was allowed to develop skills as a tradesman and was not forced to engage in the same sort of ceaseless drudgery as his fellow slaves. Eventually he was allowed to charge for his services off the plantation – a small but vital step that allowed him to live in a still precarious space located somewhere between slavery and freedom. One likes to imagine that as John Stephen’s world opened, he knew the brutal world of slavery was drawing to a close.

The Rhythms of Life

June 10, 2015 1:00 pm
The Rhythms of Life

Family Furnishings:

Selected Short Stories 1995 – 2014 Alice Munro

Reviewed by Don MacLean

May 2015

The short story can sometimes seem in jeopardy of being forgotten if not dismissed. This danger is not at all due to a dearth of this particular form of storytelling. Countless are written and many gems are to be found, but most are to be discovered in magazines or literary anthologies and not on book store display tables. Next to a great novel, the short story can seem inadequate, like a promising seed that doesn’t quite fully bloom. Alice Munro, perhaps more than any other writer living today, has restored the short story to its rightful place as an art form every bit of worthy as a novel of our praise and devotion. She was awarded the Nobel Prize last year as a way of marking a lifetime of this sort of literary achievement. The prize
was given just as Munro appears to be quietly retiring from the writing life. The recent publication of Family Furnishings: Selected Stories 1995 – 2014 thus seems particularly fitting. Taken together, the stories constitute a wonderful sampling of Munro’s remarkable range as a storyteller.

Part of Munro’s genius is her ability to mine beautifully but without sentimentality the sudden, unexpected and sometimes violent up ending of life’s rhythms. Many (but not all) Munro stories take place in the past and her characters almost invariably lead ordinary lives, sometimes in urban centres but more often in small Canadian places like Ottawa Valley or Huntsville, Ontario. The effect is to evoke times and places that may seem increasingly remote. Yet her characters’ experiences will resonate with readers with a modern sensibility. A chance encounter precipitates unanticipated yearnings. A seemingly innocuous mishap initiates a lives shattering chain of events. A sudden loss yields deeper insight into the nature of the human experience. A marriage proposal is retracted at the last possible moment. The lives of characters are irrevocably changed or damaged by these sorts of unforeseen developments. But out of the carnage and emotional upheaval emerges another rhythm.

“The Love of a Good Woman” begins with the sort of dramatic discovery we don’t necessarily associate with a Munro story. Three young boys come across a dead body in the river, that of Mr. Willen. HAlice Munro 3e’s in his vehicle, submerged in the water. We don’t know how he arrived at this most unfortunate end, but we trust all will be revealed in good time. Even though Munro is the master of the short story, she still demands patience of the reader. The story’s main character is Enid, an unmarried woman heading toward middle age. She ends up caring for a woman – Mrs. Quinn – in her final days. Shortly before she dies, Mrs. Quinn makes a grave admission. In addition to being an optometrist, Mr. Willen was something of a pervert. When checking her eye sight during a house call he would make unwanted advances. On one such occasion her husband finds Mr. Willen with his hand up his wife’s skirt. This is a moment when life’s rhythm is violently overturned by a sudden wave of rage. The husband lets loose on Mr. Willen; after the wave has passed Mr. Willen is dead.

What is Enid to make of this unexpected revelation? She’s initially persuaded that the husband must be horribly conflicted. You cannot live in the world with such a burden. You will not be able to stand your life. She imagines confronting him with this knowledge. She hopes it will bring him relief, but understands too that it could spur him to another round of violence. The tension rises. But in a Munro short story, life has a way of imposing its rhythm and in so doing dissolving any such tension. Enid begins to imagine that Mrs. Quinn’s story was all “lies.” It’s possible, but convenient too. For it allows another idea to spring to life inside Enid’s mind.

The different possibility was coming closer to her and all she had to do was keep quiet and let it come. Through her silence….what benefits could bloom. For others and for herself. This is how to keep the world habitable.

There are larger social forces at work in a Munro story – war, immigration, disease – but they are almost always in the background. Munro is more interested in the subtle developments that shape a life or change its direction. One exception to this admittedly loose rule is the haunting “The View From Castle Rock.” In it Munro tells the story of an extended family’s crossing of the Atlantic to begin their new life in Canada in the early stages of the nineteenth century. There is the patriarch – Old James, as he’s called. He’s crossing with his sons Andrew and Walter and Andrew’s wife Agnes and their 2 year old son James – Young James, as he’s called. Mary is James’ childless daughter who looks after Young James while on the ship.

Munro is a master at capturing – often in a line or two – the competing spirits of the time in which a story takes place. Across the Atlantic, Old James declares to his sons after too much to drink, is America, a land so abundant that even the ‘beggars are rich.’ This distorted sense of abundance and possibility is tempered by the family’s immediate challenges and their powerlessness in the face of cruel realities. Conditions on the ship are cramped and uncomfortable. Lives are often short and demanding. Indeed many children arriving in Ontario or Quebec, the reader discovers, won’t reach adolescence, let alone adulthood. They will instead be:

Dead of some mishap in the busy streets of York, or of a fever, or dysentery — of any of the ailments, the accidents that were the common destroyers of little children in his time.

In different ways, the story anticipates other transitions. Agnes doesn’t so much lament as resign herself to the same sort of fate she would have lived had they stayed in Edinburgh. She’ll have babies and help her husband maintain a farm. Choices for women will be longer in coming. But old James’ sons will start to entertain other possibilities. Walter writes of the family’s passage while on board the ship. His efforts are meant to document the experience, but they also constitute an unanticipated discovery. Walter learns to love the written word. On board the ship he seeks out spaces away from his family and in so doing comes close to a young woman making a similar journey with her father.

Yet the story is not without those more subtle moments that shape a character’s life that are Munro’s stock in trade. At one point Young James goes missing on the ship while under the care of Mary. Fearing the worst, Mary has a haunting epiphany.

Everything in an instant is overturned. The nature of the world is altered…

This is what Mary plainly sees, in those moments of anguish – that the world which has turned into a horror for her is still the same ordinary world for all these other people and will remain so even if James has truly vanished.

Mary, in this moment of stark clarity, not only sees how a life can without warning be so arbitrarily and tragically upended. She understands why that experience is often so lonely and alienating. Just as quickly as Mary is drowning in this dread, however, the moment passes. Young James is found, safe and unharmed. Life’s rhythm reasserts itself.

Occasionally hardship leads to self revelation, as it did for the young protagonist in “Hired Girl” or the narrator’s father in “Working For a Living.”

One night somebody asked, when is the best time in a man’s life?…
My father spoke up and said, “Now. I think maybe now.”
They asked him why.
He said because you weren’t old yet, with one thing or another collapsing on you, but old enough that you could see that a lot of things you might have wanted out of life you would never get. It was hard to explain how you could be happy in such a situation, but sometimes he thought you were.

In a Munro story such moments of self awareness or happiness are hard earned but often felt in an ambiguous sort of way. They also tend to be fleeting. For once experienced they’re submerged in the larger rhythms of life.

Talking About a Murder

December 10, 2014 10:07 am
Talking About a Murder

Why is the podcast “Serial” so popular?

The place of podcasts in the wider culture is still uncertain. I have a few friends who embrace the medium. They might listen to Radiolab or The Partially Examined Life or to CBC podcasts. They think of podcasts as part of a freely accessible and ever expanding universe of knowledge, perspective and storytelling. They also love the medium’s inherent flexibility. Podcasts can be listened to anywhere and anytime, including while going for long runs. However, I’ve talked to far more people – all relatively tech savvy and all invested in various forms of social media – who do not listen to podcasts at all. For them, smart phones or iPods are for listening to music, communicating and browsing the web.

But for those who do listen to podcasts, most are talking about Serial. For those who don’t know, Serial is about a murder. On January 13, 1999, in Baltimore County, Maryland Hae Min Lee went missing. She was a high school senior enrolled in a Magnet program at Woodlawn High School. Her body was eventually found in a park with a notorious reputation–other bodies have been found there–located about three miles from Woodlawn. Hae Min had been strangled to death. On February 28 of the same year, Baltimore police arrested Adnan Syed for her murder. He was a classmate at Woodlawn and her ex-boyfriend. Adnan is an American of Pakistani descent and comes from a conservative Muslim family. These details would prove important. The prosecution’s narrative revolved around the idea that Adnan had compromised himself when he dated Hae Min Lee: she was not Muslim and, besides, Adnan was strictly forbidden from dating. Their relationship was concealed from his parents. When Hae Min ended it he felt so humiliated that he was driven to seek revenge in the form of murder. But the most vital part of the prosecution’s case involved the statements and testimony of Jay, a friend of Adnan. If the strict Muslim family narrative explained why Adnan killed Hae Min, Jay’s testimony explained how he killed her. The jury found this combination utterly compelling. After only a couple of hours deliberating, they declared Adnan Syed guilty of Hae’s murder. He was sentenced to life in prison. To this day he’s in a Maryland Maximum Security Facility and to this day he maintains his innocence.

At over five million downloads, Serial is easily the most listened to podcast ever on Itunes. It is also among the first – if not the first – podcasts to generate a huge listenership and a sustained buzz. People aren’t simply listening to Serial. The various blogs and the numerous written stories about the show attest to a different, heightened level of engagement. Fellow listeners talk about it like they would a must see television show or a great movie with amazing plot twists.

“Who do you think is lying? Adnan or Jay?” a friend asked in an email the other day.

“Don’t know,” I responded. “I’m suspending judgement. Of course, both could be lying. What do you think?”

“I go back and forth,” he answered.

All of this attention and intrigue is over a podcast apparently made on a shoestring budget and consisting of little more than people talking about a murder. There is a musical score that is used sparingly but effectively. Why then is Serial so popular? It’s an interesting question and I don’t know that I have a satisfactory answer. But here it goes.

Serials format in so many key respects runs counter to the way social media generally works. As a friend remarked, we’ve been conditioned to expect instant media gratification. Once a story has been written, we expect to be able to access it, consume it and then move on. We don’t expect our increasingly limited attention spans to be challenged. Part of Serials appeal is that it turns this expectation on its head. Episodes are released once a week–every Thursday. Each episode investigates an important dimension of the case. One week it’s Adnan’s alibi, the next it’s where and how Hae Min’s body was found. Another episode is committed to laying bare the case against Adnan, while another is committed to finding out more about Jay. Once it’s been released, an episode can be listened to as many times as anyone might want. But each episode constitutes only one chapter of a longer story. To know the story’s next chapter, let alone how the story ends, the listener must wait to hear all the episodes still to follow. In an era of immediate media consumption, Serial forces listeners to be patient. Most listeners feel their patience thus far has been rewarded. In this sense, it’s reminiscent of an old style radio drama.

There is also something counter intuitive in the show’s approach to discussing a brutal murder. There’s nothing sensationalized about the production. Listeners are spared lurid details. Instead the episodes consist of the wonderful narrator and producer Sarah Koenig carefully engaging with the issues raised by the murder and the conviction of Adnan. She speaks without pretension and approaches the case in a spirit of openness and objectivity. She declares her scepticism not so much about the guilty verdict, but about the case upon which the conviction was generated. This is hardly surprising: it’s her scepticism that fuelled her initial interest in the case and doing the show. She also makes plain that she likes Adnan. “You seem like such a nice guy,” she says to him in one episode. Nevertheless, Koenig makes clear she is no private detective and that she is quite prepared for the possibility that Adnan is duping her and that he’s guilty. She reminds everyone that no matter how compromised the prosecution’s case might have been, it was strong enough to gain a conviction. At the very least then, aspects of the murder point to Adnan’s possible involvement.

Koenig also understands what should be one of the cardinal rules of a good podcast: do not only use your own voice in the production. A lone voice stretched over 30-60 minutes is among the best strategies for inducing a sense of tedium and boredom among listeners. It just doesn’t work. Koenig expertly weaves other voices into the story. One episode we hear from a lawyer heading the University of Virginia’s Innocence Project. In another we hear from a retired detective whose job now is to investigate police investigations. Throughout we hear not only from Adnan, but from friends of both he and Hae Min at the time. The detectives who investigated the case did not agree to be interviewed for the program, but we hear their voices through out. We hear some of their conversation with the strange individual (listen to Episode Three) who found Hae Min’s body. We hear excerpts of their interrogation of Jay shortly after the body was found. We hear exchanges from the trial, including Adnan’s lawyer’s cross examination of Jay. In another episode a juror explains to Koenig why she believed Jay’s testimony. Adnan’s mother explains why she knows her son is innocent. The effect is to create a rich tapestry of voices highlighting the varied perspectives and competing interests invested in the case.

Those varied perspectives is critical to another strength of the show. Part of Serial’s appeal is the layered complexity of the case itself. On the surface there is every reason to think Adnan did murder Hae Min. Jay’s testimony, for all its inconsistencies, creates a plausible story. He shows the detectives where Hae Min’s vehicle was. As the retired detective remarks, what Jay tells the police “completes a circle of evidence.” Yet those inconsistencies are significant enough as to cause some doubt about the veracity of his overall narrative. The doubt is compounded by the absence of other compelling evidence pointing to Adnan as the killer. There was nothing else tying him to the murder: no DNA evidence, no fingerprints. Moreover, the apparent timeline provided by the prosecution stretches the bounds of credibility. Adnan would have had a small window indeed within which to commit the murder. What’s more, he had an apparent alibi that his lawyer, bizarrely, did nothing to corroborate. The lawyer’s failure in this regard was arguably part of a larger pattern of questionable judgement and ultimately poor legal defence. There are then a series of details about the case that create conflicting impressions on the listener. We don’t know what to think. We’re left wondering if a fact revealed in the next episode will tip the scale in one direction or the other. One of the show’s great strengths, in other words, is to demonstrate how even the most straight forward of cases can be more complicated than we initially imagine. We thus need to be careful not to rush to judgement.

When listening to Serial it’s impossible not to consider the wider political and cultural moment in which America finds itself. The Michael Brown and now Eric Garner cases expose once again America’s systemic problems surrounding crime and race. The case examined in Serial, it must be stressed, does not fall into the category of police abuse typified by the deaths of either of these young Black men. There was no unarmed young Black man shot multiple times. There was no unarmed young Black man choked to death by police for selling knock off cigarettes. Likewise there were no grand juries who failed to indict white police officers responsible for such killings. Adnan is not Black, although he is part of a racialized and religious minority. The detectives who arrested Adnan and the prosecution who made the case for his conviction do not strike the listener as nefarious or incompetent. Nevertheless, as more than voice heard on Serial suggests, racial profiling was evident in the case against Adnan. His Muslim faith was too readily assumed to be a likely motivating factor in Hae Min’s murder. In this way and in others the detectives appear to have used tunnel vision to develop their case. Their preoccupation with Adnan, for example, was at the expense of a proper investigation of crucial pieces of forensic evidence found near the body. Koenig is excellent at exposing these sorts of patterns and weaknesses in the detectives’ investigation. At the very least, her investigation highlights their potential fallibility. In these subtle ways, Serial taps into the current of mistrust of police and judicial authority swirling through America.

Serial does have its critics. Perhaps the most legitimate criticism is that the show is exploitative. The murder being obsessed over, it’s worth recalling, isn’t fictional. A young woman’s life was ruthlessly snuffed out and someone was convicted of the crime. Yet that person–Adnan Syed–is being given this opportunity to declare his innocence. Is there not something unseemly about such an opportunity? There have been moments too in the show that may strike the listener as a violation. There are stretches in an early episode where Koenig reads at length from Hae Min’s diary in a bid to understand her relationship with Adnan. In a recent episode, Koenig highlights the extraordinary lengths she went to to contact the Lee family. They refused to speak with her. One can only assume that her persistence only exacerbated the family’s anguish. They likely take serious exception to the creation of a show listened to by millions about their murdered daughter.

Such criticisms are understandable. Indeed Koenig must constantly negotiate a delicate balance. As an investigative journalist she must dig deep into the case without further victimizing Hae Min’s family. It is no easy task. Nevertheless, for all the sensitivity that must be accorded to the family, there are legitimate reasons to examine the conviction of Adnan Syed. The case against him, for whatever its strengths, has crucial weaknesses. Nothing legally is at stake in Koenig’s investigation: for all the debate about how the show will end everyone knows it will not be with Adnan’s exoneration. Still Koenig deserves credit for creatively engaging a new medium to investigate the age old themes of crime, punishment and injustice in America. This is why so many of us will be listening.


Learning How to Die – Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End

December 4, 2014 9:59 am
Learning How to Die – Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End

In his latest thoughtful, moving book Being Mortal: Medicine And What Matters in the End the doctor and writer Atul Gawande tells the achingly sad story of Sara. In the prime of life and while pregnant with her first child, Sara was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. Doctors induced labour and, to everyone’s relief, the baby was born healthy. Sara could now focus all of her considerable energies on confronting her dire diagnosis and prognosis. She started chemotherapy. When one drug failed she would insist on trying another drug, no matter how slim the chances of success. She underwent painful procedures to drain her lung of built up fluids. The initial diagnosis was given in June. By December the cancer had spread like a fire racing through a parched forest. It was now through out both her lungs, as well as her liver and spine. All the chemo and the associated pain and suffering had done nothing to stem the disease’s relentless advance. But Sara and her family remained determine to fight on. Her doctors, meanwhile, understood that she would succumb to her illness and that any further interventions would likely fail to prolong her life by even a single day. Yet there was a reluctance to make so definitive a declaration. As Gawande suggests, who were they to insist Sara’s will to survive would do nothing to extend her life? It’s a quandary no doubt familiar to most doctors.

Sara’s story goes to the heart of Being Mortal. Just as the title suggests, the book is about coming to grips with our mortality. Gawande is not simply talking about individuals coming to terms with the inescapable; he’s talking about the institution of medicine as well. It’s the intersection where medicine and dying meet that most intrigues and concerns him. What is the role of medicine in the life of a terminally ill patient? What is the role of medicine for an elderly patient at the end of her life? The answers might appear self evident. Every doctor’s solemn oath is to “do no harm.” Medicine’s role is to help people who are sick due to illness or injury. At its heart, medicine is a life sustaining enterprise. It can seem as simple as that.

Alas it isn’t quite so simple. As Gawande explains, until recently death typically arrived quickly following an injury or the onset of illness. By contrast, life’s final stages are now often protracted affairs. Death is still inevitable, but it’s arrival is often preceded by long durations of horrible physical pain, mental deterioration, and the loss of bodily functions. Experiencing various forms of indignities is not uncommon among those who are nearing the end of life. Such scenarios raise what can be heart wrenching, difficult decisions, not only for patients but for their families as well. Is it worth extending life if that additional time will only mean a continuation of unbearable pain or the ongoing experience of various indignities? How should life’s final stage be experienced? There are no simple answers to such questions. Nevertheless medicine, according to Gawande, does a poor job of helping patients navigate end of life transitions in ways conducive to comfort and peace of mind.

In all of his books, Gawande documents his search for improvements in the field of medicine. For a doctor so familiar with human suffering, this is where hope lies. Being Mortal is a challenging book about one of the most challenging topics of all, death. The patients he writes about often suffered through painful, debilitating illness before finally passing. Yet the book is not without moments of hope: they act like small beacons of light in an otherwise dark night. Such moments have nothing to do with therapeutic breakthroughs in, for example, cancer treatments. Instead Gawande focuses on the value of improved communication and eliminating the need to make difficult choices for those nearing the end. Among the most important innovations in palliative care, for example, is better communication between doctors and nurses and their patients. Conversations with the terminally ill should not simply be about treatment options. That will do little to assuage a patient’s fear and anxiety. Care givers must also focus on a patient’s priorities for their remaining days. They must be prepared to invest time in these sorts of conversations. They must also be skilled listeners. Gawande also highlights the decision among American insurance companies to eliminate the choice terminally ill patients once had to make between therapeutic interventions and hospice care. Once patients were not forced to make that sort of choice hospice care admissions among the terminally ill increased. As Gawande suggests, this was not unusual. Other outcomes, however, were unanticipated. To begin with, there was a decrease in admissions to the ICU and Emergency departments. There were fewer people exercising the choice to use therapies that offered little hope of prolonging life but were sure to cause increased pain and suffering. Most remarkable of all, according to Gawande, these patients survived longer on average than their terminally ill counterparts who did not choose hospice care. Accepting death’s inevitability, in other words, had the unexpected benefit of prolonging life.

Gawande follows a formula when writing about medicine. In wonderfully accessibly prose, he tells patients’ stories. The stories, however, are always interrupted by analysis of the bigger medical or social questions they raise. The respective experiences of his now deceased Indian grandfather and his wife’s grandmother, for example, are used as vehicles to explore the theme of contrasting attitudes to the elderly. Occasionally the reader might feel as though he’s gone off on one too many tangents. More often than not, however, he effectively weaves together story telling and analysis. The result are chapters that are at once deeply poignant and highly thought provoking and informative. It’s Gawande’s skill at addressing both the head and the heart that makes him such a good writer and Being Mortal such an important book.

The book’s value also stems from Gawande’s take on the most sensitive medical issue related to the theme of our mortality: the right to physician assisted suicide. He expresses his own deeply felt ambivalence. He agrees that it’s necessary in some cases but fears its potential insidious effects on a society’s approach to the terminally ill. Yet so much of what Gawande writes highlights what is often lost in the debate. Doctors and patients, when navigating these sorts of treacherous waters, often make choices that expedite the process of dying. They do so because the alternatives are more fearsome. Terminally ill cancer patients often choose not to subject themselves to further rounds of chemotherapy when the likelihood that it will do any good is negligible. More importantly, they feel that doing so would compromise the quality of the short time they have left. Most patients don’t want to subject themselves to severe pain if they sense that it’s pointless. They may not want to undergo more medical interventions if it means they can’t spend their remaining days at home and in the constant presence of loved ones. That sort of setting, many patients conclude, is conducive to a more peaceful death.

Similarly, the very elderly facing an array of illnesses will often forego further medical interventions if it means a severely compromised quality of life. This is especially true of elderly patients who are navigating that achingly difficult transition from being sound of mind to being something much less. They may want to firmly establish what sort of interventions are permissible while they are still able to think clearly about such questions. Doing so involves summoning one’s courage and insisting on retaining one’s dignity. It may also require the assistance of a physician. Who is anyone to deny people the right to exercise a little bit of control over life’s final stage? In this, as in so many other sensitive issues involving medicine and patients, Gawande reveals his wisdom and deep humanity.

Nevertheless, there was at least one recurring question for me as I read the book. Is Gawande laying too much of a burden at the feet of medicine and medical professionals? To be sure, implementing enlightened protocols in palliative care units and insurance companies acting responsibly are important. But even highly trained medical professionals do not necessarily have the emotional intelligence required to engage with dying patients in the way Gawande advocates. He himself strikes the reader as not only wise and humane, but as someone who is himself perpetually striving to improve. It’s easy though to imagine doctors who lack that sort of sensitivity or the drive to be better. Doctors and nurses, moreover, must strike a delicate balance. On the one hand, they need to constantly assess a dying patient’s medical needs. On the other, they have to remain sufficiently detached. The results are not always optimal. Doctors can give a clinically accurate prognosis that does nothing to address a dying patient’s emotional needs. Alternatively, in a bid to address those needs, doctors may overestimate the length of time a dying patient has left. In so doing they risk giving dying patients false hope.

Indeed Gawande confesses that he was guilty of just this with Sara. He admits he would more readily talk to her about experimental therapies than the stark reality of her condition. He did not want to be the one to say Sara’s hope and determination would not help her overcome her cancer. But eventually he and the other doctors caring for her would have no alternative but to be be absolutely forthright. Sara was rushed to the hospital in February the following year with pneumonia. She was given morphine to dull her pain and improve her breathing. Tests indicated the cancer was now in the brain. Still she might have survived this latest episode of severe illness, but to what end? She would only continue to deteriorate and experience more pain and suffering. Her family doctor thought it imperative that this be communicated to Sara’s husband and parents. Only then did Sara’s family insist that nurses and doctors not intervene. The time had come. They wanted her to be able to pass as painlessly and peacefully as possible. With her husband next to her Sara died the next day.

Into the Blizzard: Walking the Fields of the Newfoundland Dead

November 10, 2014 2:59 pm
Into the Blizzard: Walking the Fields of the Newfoundland Dead

In October 1914, 537 young men from Newfoundland boarded the Florizel, the ship that would sail them across the Atlantic and towards the battle shores of Europe. The Great War had started in August of that year and Newfoundland’s governor had offered England this small contingent of soldiers. As a British Dominion – Newfoundland was still decades away from joining Confederation–this sort of contribution was expected. After ten days at sea the Newfoundland and Canadian regiments with whom they travelled would dock at Devenport, England. Other contingents of Newfoundland soldiers would eventually follow. Their first and for a time only experience of war was of the tediousness and often severe loneliness of training. That would change when they were called to fight in what would become some of the war’s great theatres of battle, Gallipoli, the Somme and Beaumont-Hamel, among others. By the war’s end in 1918, approximately 1300 young Newfoundlanders would lose their lives in the fighting. That number would be unexpectedly, devastatingly high.

Indeed, as Michael Winter discovers in his moving book, Into the Blizzard: Walking the Fields of the Newfoundland Dead, one of the most striking features of the Great War was the disconnect between everyone’s expectations and the war’s grim, horrific realities. Young men from Newfoundland enlisted seemingly in the spirit of fun and adventure and with every expectation that the whole enterprise would be short in duration. They would be home soon. No one had any inkling what lay in store for them. Parents of soldiers apparently thought no different. Families gathering at ports to see their sons off did so more in a mood of jubilation than foreboding. Only slowly did the horror of what was to come alter the community’s perception of war. Winter describes how one mother sent her son a parcel of socks, as though cold feet was the most dire hardship the young man would experience. When told that the son in question was dead, she asked that the socks be then given to her other son in the army. The mother’s response had both naivety and stoicism in equal measure.

Winter sets out to better understand the experience of Newfoundland’s young soldiers. He does so by flying to Europe and then traversing some of the same territory in which Newfoundland’s Royal Regiment found themselves. He bicycles to Beaumont-Hamel, Auchonvillers and Les Galets. He attends ceremonies honouring the soldiers of the Great War. He seeks out cemeteries containing the fallen. The result is a book that’s hard to classify. It’s at once a sort of memorial to all the Newfoundland men and women who fought in the Great War and a meditation on war itself. It’s also something of a personal traveling memoir.

There is a deep ambivalence running through Into the Blizzard. The ambivalence is expressed not so much in the questions Winter asks but in the thoughtful, searching answers he gives. How should those Newfoundlanders who enlisted and fought be remembered? How should they be memorialized? How should we understand the relationship between this chapter of Newfoundland’s past and the present?

Tracing the territory Newfoundland soldiers traversed and the places where the fiercest battles were waged and the greatest losses of human life occurred is, of course, meant as an act of memorial. The decision to walk through former theatres of war is also what gives rise to the book’s chief strengths. Winter is most effective when he finds himself in say, Salisbury, and casts his mind back to 1916. He employs seemingly the most innocuous type of activities as portals to go back in time. Kicking a soccer ball on the fields of Salisbury reminds him that Newfoundland soldiers in training likely engaged in the same sort of fun. Writing post cards to his wife and kids allows him to picture soldiers doing precisely the same thing.

More importantly, it allows him to imagine the nightmare in which those young men just beginning their lives were thrust. The lush fields of Gallipoli in which Winter himself stood were fields of slaughter and unbearable suffering during the war. The juxtaposition is meant to be jarring. For here in 1916 is where soldiers were introduced to trench warfare and the many hazards it wrought. Trench foot, dysentery, flooding: all were experienced by the soldiers living and dying in the trenches. Here in Gallipoli and the places of subsequent battles–at the Somme, for example – is where soldiers were forced to walk into a ‘blizzard’ of bullets and artillery. Nearly entire regiments could be mowed down in a matter of minutes, as was the case in Beaumont-Hamel. Winter honours their courage but laments the obscene waste of so much life.

The suffering soldiers endured, moreover, was not always inflicted by the Germans or the Turks. Winter tells the story of John Roberts, a 20-year-old soldier who in 1916 walked away from his regiment while stationed in France. When he was found a few months later he was charged with desertion. His punishment was to be blindfolded and then executed by a firing squad. Robert’s sorry end speaks to the tragic absurdity of the conditions into which all of these young men were unwittingly pushed and hopelessly unprepared. As Winter suggests, he was not simply afraid; Roberts was likely suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. But the army did not understand, let alone tolerate, any such afflictions. They were treated as signs of personal weakness that, left unchecked, would threaten the entire regiment and by extension the entire war effort. Winter uses Robert’s story as an important antidote to the sort of jingoism he takes pains to avoid. In honouring Newfoundland’s fallen, Winter is also insisting that war constitutes a type of madness that destroys and deforms the men sent to fight. Although hardly novel, this remains a vital insight in a world that remains so rife with conflict. Think Syria and Iraq.

The connections between the past and the present is never far from mind for Winter. One problem, however, is that those connections are not always evident, particularly when Winter refers to his own experiences. In one instance he talks about his family’s purchase of their new home in Toronto and the decision to renovate. The reader is left scratching his head. For there is no connection between the author’s home improvements and the book’s larger theme. On the contrary, that sort of discussion is too far removed from the idea of tracing the steps of Newfoundland soldiers fighting in the Great War–and is perilously close to self indulgent. There are other such moments in the book. Into the Blizzard , for this reason, works beautifully as a meditation on Newfoundland’s experience in the Great War but not very well as a memoir.

All of the young Newfoundlanders who fought in the Great War are now gone. Hundreds were buried under the ground that a century later Winter himself walked on in preparation to write this book. So much of what he writes is meant to evoke their memory and shed light on their respective legacies. To great effect, he recalls individual soldiers’ particular stories. We learn of Alexander Parsons, a soldier who was sent to Quebec in 1916 after contracting pleurisy and then returned to Europe’s battlefields in 1917. He survived and, in 1921, returned to Newfoundland and opened a family cabinetmaking business.

Other legacies are perhaps harder to discern, but no less profound. Winter shares Cyril Gardner’s story, a soldier responsible for capturing seventy Germans, but who was later killed at the Battle of Arras in the spring of 1917. When the German prisoners were handed over to the British he made sure all their lives were spared. If any Germans were killed, he declared, those responsible would be killed themselves. The Germans awarded him the Iron Cross. Gardner’s legacy is the memory of he retaining his humanity amidst so much carnage. Like thousands of his fellows soldiers, he did Newfoundland proud.

Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?

February 12, 2014 4:34 pm
Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?

The Lowland

Jhumpa Lahiri

Knopf Publishing, Toronto, 2013, 340pp.

Reviewed by Don MacLean

February 2014.



A scene in the early pages of Jhumpa Lahiri’s marvelous novel The Lowland is formative for the story’s two main characters. Suhhash and Udayan are young brothers, separated by only 15 months, growing up in India not long after the country achieved independence.  After learning of the location of a private golf club not far from their home, they decide to scale its walls and walk along its fairways and greens. They are struck by the severe contrast between the cramped space in which most Indians live and the golf course’s manicured lawns and lush, open expanses. As the two sneak out under the cover of darkness they are confronted by a police officer who knows they have trespassed. He takes the older brother aside. The beating is short but punishing enough to teach the intended lesson: the golf club is a place to which they do not belong and cannot enter. Although it is only Subhash who suffers physically, the episode is most significant for Udayan. He is appalled by the sight of his brother at the mercy of the officer, wilting under the blows. Privilege in India, Udayan now understands, is protected by violence.


Although The Lowland explores many themes, at its heart it’s a story about the relationship between two brothers. Udayan and Subhash strike the reader as archetypes, created by Lahiri as a way of exploring competing responses to India’s predicament. They are close and, when young boys, inseparable. Both are brilliant science students whose academic success will give them choices not available to most of their contemporaries. Yet every highlighted feature of their respective childhoods is meant to illuminate their differences.  From a very young age, Subhash is uninterested in challenging authority. He is content to respect his parent’s wishes, even as he senses it’s Udayan they prefer. He is older than Udayan and yet it is he who often follows his younger brother’s lead. Uduyan, by contrast, is rebellious, a risk taker. He loves his parents but grows scornful of their conservative tendencies. The brothers’ divergent dispositions fuel different personal choices, the effects of which ripple long into the future.


Through Udayan especially, Lahiri explores the complex connections between philosophy and the world that discipline attempts to understand. Despite his gift for the subject, Udayan cannot fathom committing himself to physics. Not when India is coming apart at the seams. The country is rife with sectarian violence. Economic injustice fuels landlessness, poverty and even starvation. When landless peasants in a remote Indian village attempt to organize the state’s response is ruthless in the extreme: people are shot to death, the protest squashed. When authority is challenged elsewhere the consequences are even more severe: women are raped, dead bodies left on the road for others to see. Udayan is revolted by the needless suffering, by the horrible injustice of it all. Philosophy – and not physics – allows him to understand the world, provides a framework with which to make sense of India’s colonial past and its authoritarian, unjust present. As Marx once famously wrote, however, the point of philosophy should not be to simply understand the world, but to change it. It is a maxim Udayan takes to heart. He is intoxicated by the example of those who, inspired by the promise of a better world, set out revolutionize it. Chairman Mao is an inspiration, so too is Castro and Che Guevera. Mao has been at the vanguard of revolution in China, he tells his skeptical brother. There’s no good reason, he insists, something similar can’t happen in India.


As for Subhash, he is sensitive to the suffering and injustice that so enrages his younger brother. Still, he remains detached from the world of clandestine meetings and revolutionary fervor. Like his parents, he is wary of blueprints for wholesale social, political and economic transformation. He takes exception to how Udayan’s revolutionary politics puts their parents at risk. And unlike his brother, he believes he should pursue a career in science. He excels at it, after all, and what he’s spent his youth preparing to do. He enrolls in graduate studies at a prestigious American university located on Rhode Island. The island is small, but to Subhash the world now seems vast. India’s political turmoil recedes from view. Only the occasional letter from his brother asking him to someday return acts as a reminder of what he’s left behind. He begins a relationship with a woman. He knows his parents would not approve, but does not care. So long as he lives on the other side of the planet, he is untroubled by such considerations.


Subhash’s choice to study in America is important for a number of reasons. It’s the basis for the sprawling quality the novel eventually assumes. At some point, the reader feels, the story becomes less about two brother’s contrary responses to Indian politics and more of a family drama played out in two countries and spanning generations. A child is born, a dysfunctional family started. A daughter-in-law grows estranged from her in-laws. Resentments build and tears are shed. Secrets are revealed. Lahiri’s luminous prose sustains our interest throughout. Nevertheless the transition is bound to disappoint some readers. Indeed, the story has a more urgent quality in its earlier stages. The palpable threat of political violence gives it an ominous, suspenseful quality that fades too soon. We want more.


Yet Lahiri is always careful to draw the reader back to a time when Subhash and Udayan are either young boys or young men and India is politically charged in a way hard to imagine today. Lahiri’s point seems clear. No matter how divergent their paths and temperaments, the two remain inextricably linked by their shared upbringing and brotherly love. Similarly both are touched by the tragedy of India’s zero sum politics. Udayan expects as much: for all of his idealism, he is acutely aware of the lurking threats to his well being. Subhash believes otherwise: the world of science and the promise of America was to be his deliverance from the sectarian, unequal and authoritarian world in which he grew up. But even half a world away, he cannot escape the pull of family and the dangers of radical political hope.



Family Ties

January 15, 2014 9:08 am
Family Ties

 Sugar in the Blood: A Family’s Story of Slavery and Empire

Vintage Books, 2012, 353pp.

By Andrea Stuart

Reviewed by Don MacLean

Family trees are all the rage. Part of their appeal is surely the element of surprise. The deeper one digs, the more likely a discovery that the tree’s roots twist and shoot in unanticipated directions. When tracing one’s lineage, in other words, expect the unexpected. For as long as people have migrated from place to place there have been both forced and forbidden unions and the equally taboo offspring such unions often produced. In the golden age of discovery, for example, Europeans didn’t simply colonize and subjugate much of the world. They sexualized their subjects, too. Thus female slaves may have been considered heathens but Europeans still often found them irresistibly attractive. Slaves had little defense in the face of a white master’s predatory advances. Children were often the predictable – if unwanted – outcome. The world, from this perspective, has been a melting pot for far longer than America’s embrace of that term.

The three themes of family history, migration and slavery are at the heart of Andrea Stuart’s marvelous family memoir, Sugar in the Blood: A Family’s Story of Slavery and Empire. Stuart’s ancestry is indeed conducive to a compelling story. Although Stuart is black, her earliest known ancestor is George Ashby, a white Englishman who migrated from England to Barbados as a teenage blacksmith in the 1630s. His arrival initiated a long line of Ashbys in the former British colony. Like so many white English settlers, the Ashbys were slave owners who slowly accumulated wealth and property. By the standards of white Islanders, they were reasonably well to do. The Ashby family’s trajectory then changed in 1794 when Robert Ashby married into a wealthy family and subsequently fathered a child with one of his female slaves.

Stuart’s challenge in telling her ancestors’ stories is not unlike the challenge of telling an individual slave’s story.  Slaves were so violently subjugated, their freedom so ruthlessly quashed and their time so thoroughly stolen, that writing was effectively impossible. There is thus a paucity of slave narratives from which to draw. Similarly, George Ashby did not leave first-hand accounts of his experience on the ship that took him from England to Barbados, no account of his life on an island so thoroughly different than the island from which he came. Much of what Stuart says about him is thus speculative or conjecture: based on the prevailing conditions and sentiments, this is what he likely would have experienced, what he likely would have thought.

Fortunately Sugar in the Blood is as much a history of slavery in Barbados as it is a family memoir. It is on this level that the book works best. Stuart lays bare slavery’s economic underpinnings. Those leaving England for Barbados were not simply in search of a ‘better life.’ Most were rough and, as time would soon tell, ruthless in their determination to tame the land and in their pursuit of money. Their road to riches was eventually paved with sugar cane. But the cost of producing the sweet stuff was prohibitive, the work involved brutally tedious and harsh. Islanders had indentured servants but not nearly enough to satisfy the needs of the island’s burgeoning sugar cane industry. Slaves solved the industry’s two most pressing needs: a cheap and steady supply of people to do the work whites were not prepared to do. Thus as sugar cane’s importance grew exponentially, so too did the market for slaves. There was a symbiotic connection between the two.

Any book worth reading on slavery must focus on the combination of inhumanity and violence at the heart of this most horrible of institutions. For Stuart the challenge of doing so was heightened by her white ancestors’ complicity in sustaining it. Nevertheless, she does not abstain from describing the unimaginably harrowing migrations – the Middle Passage – slaves were forced to endure. They were enslaved in Africa and then sold at slave markets, usually located somewhere near shore lines. Once sold, they were forced onto ships destined for, among other places, Barbados, Jamaica and North America. Slaves would be relegated to the ship’s dungeon, where they were typically chain bound to one another. Those who did not survive the fearsome, tortuous journey across the Atlantic were left lying next to their living companions. Rapes were routine. Nor was it uncommon for the physically weak or the disobedient to be thrown overboard, regarded as nothing more than dispensable cargo. Others sometimes chose this fate themselves: better to die at sea than to live condemned as a slave. Whites often didn’t even have It in them to allow their black captives to make this one achingly difficult choice. Rather in many cases those who jumped overboard would be caught, forced back on to the ship and, in front of others, whipped or subject to other forms of torture, indignities.

After the perilous journey across the Atlantic, slaves could then expect to spend the rest of their days confined to a plantation. As Stuart skillfully makes clear, the vast majority of their waking hours were spent engaged in cane cutting, a task that is at once arduous, monotonous and often horribly debilitating. Obedience was sustained through tortuous violence: whippings and worse were common to life on the plantation.

What is perhaps most striking about Barbadian society in the 17th and 18th centuries was the tension between forces of change and the ongoing efforts of white islanders to impose a sense of permanency through slavery. Europe and North America by this time were tumults of revolt. England promised liberty for those slaves who fought on their side in the American Revolution. English abolitionists like Granville Sharpe changed people’s hearts and minds by exposing the inhumanity and barbarity of slavery. The French Revolution, with its promise of liberty, equality and fraternity, inspired slave rebellions in Saint Domingue.  For those with any sort of vision, such developments would have exposed the grotesque absurdity of an ideology that condemned so much of humanity to a life of violence, captivity and back breaking toil. It’s time would surely pass. Yet for centuries white Barbadians refused to countenance an island without slavery.

It was in a sense the sordid privileges of white planters that served to slowly undermine the illusion of a permanently fixed social order and racial hierarchy. This is where Stuart’s family tree profoundly intersects with the region’s broader history. White males – particularly those at the heads of households – routinely had sexual relations with women slaves. Children were born. Their arrival into the world fuelled questions, the answers to which would slowly but inexorably erode the sort of thinking that rationalized slavery. What was a white man to make of his own black children? Did he regard them as inherently inferior? Were they to remain slaves? The answers, of course, varied. Many white men thought no differently about their black offspring. Such children would have suffered the same bleak fate as other black children. Other whites, such as Robert Cooper Ashby, could not ignore all sense of responsibility. His black son – John Stephens – was granted privileges, if not freedoms. The first decades of John’s life were thus lived in servitude, but he was allowed to develop skills as a tradesman and was not forced to engage in the same sort of ceaseless drudgery as his fellow slaves. Eventually he was allowed to charge for his services off the plantation – a small but vital measure of freedom. One likes to imagine that as John Stephen’s world opened, he knew the brutal world of slavery was drawing to a close.



Distant Stars – John Banville – Ancient Light

December 2, 2013 2:40 pm
Distant Stars – John Banville – Ancient Light

John Banville – Ancient Light
Vintage Canada 2012
Reviewed by Don MacLean

Readers familiar with the great Irish writer John Banville will also be familiar with the characters Alexander (Alex) Cleave, his wife Lydia and their troubled daughter Catherine (Cass), all of whom feature prominently in some of his previous works. They do so again in Banville’s most recent novel, Ancient Light. The story is told by Alex and revolves around two events central to his life: his torrid affair started in his 15th year with his best friend’s mother, Mrs. Gray and the more recent suicide of Cass. The affair and the suicide are separated by over half of Alex’s life and are seemingly unrelated. We read with the expectation that at some point the connection between the story’s disparate parts will be revealed.

Alex has a complicated relationship with the past. He excavates it incessantly without necessarily trusting what he discovers. At one point he uses stars as an analogy to explain both his fascination and wariness. Like a star, that which happened long ago sends a light that takes years to reach its destination and illuminate. This, in a sense, is the role of memory in the human experience: to use that light from the past to make sense of one’s life then and now. The problem, of course, is that memory is an imperfect filter. Or to use a more exact metaphor, the prism through which the light from the past is distilled can distort as much as it illuminates. Memory, in other words, is fallible. People forget. What we do recall is often embellished or sometimes not true at all. “Images from the far past crowd in my head and half the time I cannot tell whether they are memories or inventions” Alex tells the reader at the novel’s outset. And so we are never quite sure if his recollections of making love to Mrs. Gray in secret places are accurate or mere tricks of the imagination.

Nevertheless, there remains a sense that in recalling their affair Alex is attempting to recover the sense of wonder and newness that is the privilege of youth and too often a casualty of age. Readers of a certain vintage will identify with his impassioned reveries. What middle aged man or woman can’t recall those first kisses or other acts of intimacy shared in the back seat of a car or the basement your parent’s house? For Alex that magical stretch of adolescence was wrapped in additional layers of mystery and complications. Why, he wonders, would a married woman more than twice his age and the mother of his best friend be drawn to him? Why would she want to introduce him to the life of the flesh? He doesn’t know and doesn’t much care so long as Mrs. Gray was intent on swimming naked with him or making love in the back of her station wagon. But for all of his adolescent joy, Alex can’t avoid the complications stemming from their unlikely liaison. He allows it to tear asunder his friendship with his best friend. He is occasionally aggressive towards his older love and, like most 15 year old boys, horribly jealous. He believes Mr. Gray is a boring oaf and secretly imagines doing violence towards him. If the affair is a test of Alex’s maturity, he often fails.

In the present Alex is more or less a retired actor when he’s asked to play the role of a famous individual whose biography is to be the basis for a movie about his life. He accepts and in so doing establishes a tenuous connection between the man he’s playing and Cass, his deceased daughter. The two were residing in the same city at the time of Cass’s death. Alex has reason to believe they knew each other. If so, could he have had something to do with her deep unhappiness? Not likely, but any possible connection is enough to concentrate Alex’s thoughts on his daughter’s suicide and the unresolved questions it left in its wake.

Although Banville’s prose is uniformly beautiful, the sections in which Alex describes his and Lydia’s relationship with Cass are the most poignant. This is in part because in talking about his wife and daughter Alex is at his least self absorbed. He reveals a vulnerability and generosity of spirit that isn’t always evident in his recollections of his affair with Mrs. Gray. Although he and Lydia are equally bereaved, Lydia strikes the reader as the more tormented. Alex talks of Lydia’s night time episodes of sleepwalking, during which she is convinced of Cass’s presence in their home. He must follow her as she wanders around their dark, empty house in a fruitless search to find their dead daughter. There is something not only deeply sad about these scenes, but beautifully mysterious as well. Neither Alex nor Lydia believes in the promises of religion: they don’t expect Cass is attempting to communicate with them from somewhere in the afterlife. But her death doesn’t mean Cass’s absence. She has a ghostly, haunting presence that serves to draw them back to a time when she was alive.

Banville is hardly mining new territory in Ancient Light. The themes of adolescent love, the relationship between the past and present and suicide and loss are as old as literature itself. And although there are some intriguing twists, the story isn’t what one could call plot-heavy. The language in which it is told, however, is unfailingly unique. Indeed, as is true of any Banville novel, the story is as much about the prose as it is the plot. Reading him is like listening to a virtuoso performance by one of the world’s great pianists or guitarists. From the opening page you immediately recognize you’re in the presence of a master who remains at the height of his considerable powers.

How terrible it was to witness Mrs. Gray caught up in such innocent enjoyment – the innocence more than the enjoyment was what was terrible, to me. She sat there, canted backwards a little, her face lifted in dreamy ecstasy to the screen and her lips parted in smile that kept trying to achieve itself but never quite succeeded, lost as she was in blissful forgetfulness, of self, of surroundings and, most piercingly, of me.

There are few writers who can string together words in ways that are as consistently unique, challenging and beautiful. Although he is often humorous, Banville’s prose is marked more by a combined sense of melancholy and loss. Given his fascination with the past, this is fitting. As Alex suggests, the past can be mined but never recovered.





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