An Imperfect Offering

July 13, 2016 3:11 pm

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

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.

Book Review: A GOOD READ! Negotiating So Everyone Wins by David C. Dingwall

April 12, 2016 5:44 pm
David C. Dingwall

David Dingwall.

David Dingwall is a lawyer and former Member of Parliament who represented the riding of Cape Breton East Richmond for 17 years between 1979 and 1997. For a time, Dingwall was the most powerful and influential minister from Atlantic Canada in the Chrétien Liberal government of the 1990s. As Minister of Health, he brought in the most progressive anti-tobacco legislation in the western world, which was widely copied in other countries. As Minister of Public Works he helped navigate some of the largest structural changes that department had seen in a generation. After an unexpected election defeat in 1997, Dingwall had to reinvent himself and set up shop as a negotiator and lobbyist. Since then, he has participated in or facilitated numerous complex negotiations in the private, public and NGO sectors and has became one of Canada’s leading experts on negotiating. During this period, he also spent a couple of years as President of the Royal Canadian Mint, where he successfully implemented a labour efficiency and business growth program that lead  to an increase in earnings of over 100 million dollars in just 18 months.

Jean Chrétien used to famously say that the Liberal way is one “where everybody wins,” and it’s a theme Dingwall embraces as he  uses real examples of the strategies and tactics that he and more than 20 of the country’s best deal-makers have used to get a deal. The book provides insight into the things that went right, and more importantly, the mistakes he and others made and the takeaway lessons. This list of deal-makers and negotiators who share their experiences in the book includes Paul Zed, Chairman of Rogers, Janice Payne, Canada’s most revered labour lawyer, former Canadian Auto Workers President Buzz Hargrove, former Ontario Premiers David Peterson and Bob Rae, Don Fehr, President of the NHL Players Association, former Conservative Transport Minister Lisa Raitt, former TD Bank President Ed Clark, Gary Corbett, former President of the Professional Institute of the Public Service and former Deputy Minister Peter Harder (who most recently led the transition team for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau).

Dingwall’s  candor about his own mishaps is refreshing and at times funny, and will make anyone who has really screwed up at some point on the job feel better. Each chapter ends with a section called TAKEAWAYS which should be required reading for law students and MBA or MPA students.  At its core, Dingwall’s book looks at negotiations though the age-old premise that “a thing can be understood by breaking down its parts and understanding how each relates to the other.” He  provides  suggestions on how to hone negotiating skills and improve capacity to get an agreement.  His description of lessons he learned from the late great Canadian lawyer, scholar and businessman Gerry Godsoe,  legendary United Mine Workers of America Union Leader Bull Marsh and fisheries expert Herb Nash are worth the price of the book alone.

The book also comes with video links to an interview Dingwall did with some of these key negotiators. David C. Dingwall, is a Cape Bretoner who now practises law in Toronto and teaches negotiation at Ryerson University.

History of Medicine and Science

March 29, 2016 3:55 pm

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.

Man in the Shadows Sheds Light on History

March 24, 2016 10:30 am

Former journalist and filmmaker Gordon Henderson’s first novel Man in the Shadows is a tremendously engaging historic novel about the assassination of D’Arcy McGee on April 7th, 1868.


Photo of Gordon courtesy of Jason van Bruggen.

To Canadian history buffs, the backstory is legendary: in 1867, three British colonies became the four provinces of the new Dominion of Canada. Among the Fathers of Confederation was D’Arcy McGee: a former Irish nationalist and a friend of Sir John A. McDonald. As the new country was forming, the Fenian Brotherhood, an Irish republican organization, advocated a forcible takeover of Canada by the United States, and threatened its security.

In Man in the Shadows, Henderson imagines a cross-border plot to assassinate key Canadian political figures in order to destabilize the new country. The book follows the fictional Conor O’Dea, a young Irish-Catholic man with political aspirations, who is also McGee’s assistant. O’Dea becomes romantically involved with a young Protestant woman, which then provokes violence. When someone who is believed to be a Fenian sympathizer tragically assassinates McGee, the young O’Dea takes matters into his own hands. O’Dea seeks to discover just who the real assassin is, and how he can prevent the Prime Minister from becoming the next victim.

A historical whodunit, Man in the Shadows will have you turning pages as you learn about an incredibly interesting time in Canadian history.

Book Review: Missing Children by Gerald Lynch

March 23, 2016 3:12 pm
Bear Photo Small2

As tethered to the rest of the world as it is, Ottawa often feels like a small, even private, city. That’s why it can be so jarring to open a local book and find a character stepping into a park or market where you’ve spent countless hours or even just recognize the name of. In Vincent Lam’s Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures, there’s a scene where one character almost dies in a bike crash on Sussex and Rideau. When I read that scene, instead of being alarmed, all I could think was ‘hey, I bike down that street all the time. Awesome!’

Gerald Lynch’s third novel set in the fictional Ottawa neighbourhood of Troutstream, Missing Children, is filled with great local references. Early on, the aging protagonist Dr. Lorne Thorpe takes his daughter to the Museum of Science and Technology, references to the Ottawa Citizen and CBC abound, and beneath it all lurks the murderous ‘Market Slasher.’ You can probably guess what area of the city he’s named after.


Gerald Lynch, author of ‘Missing Children.’ Photo courtesy of Maura Lynch.

Dr. Thorpe’s adventure begins during a September heat wave with a morning visit to the Science and Tech museum. The visit is supposed to give him a chance to bond with his 10-year-old daughter Shawn.  But the plan backfires horrifically when the girl goes missing while Thorpe stares into the chicken incubator, lost in the miracle of life.

This tragedy shatters Thorpe’s sleepy life and the plot barrels forward from there. When sharp and ambitious detective Kevin Beldon determines that the case is a kidnapping – part of a sudden string of child disappearances – Thorpe is drawn into a mystery that can’t be solved by his reliable array of sarcastic comments and dad jokes.

In Missing Children, Lynch has taken a calculated risk by putting such an unlikeable character at the helm of his story. Dr. Thorpe is easy to hate. He’s mean, offensive and incapable of taking most things seriously. Fortunately, Lynch surrounds Thorpe with more likeable characters, including his saintly wife and a detective who seems more dedicated to Shawn’s case than Thorpe. Their frustration with the protagonist reflected mine, and made Dr. Thorpe feel like a realistic portrayal of a deeply flawed, but still good, man.

Keeping the main character interesting is one of Missing Children’s greatest strengths. Although the characters are all consumed by the disappearances, Thorpe’s march towards old-age is a persistent and engaging subplot. Before Shawn is literally taken from him, both of Thorpe’s children are metaphorically drifting away as they become their own people. He gets tired more easily, and his job weighs on him more heavily. The theme of aging is front and centre from Missing Children’s opening line:  “No matter a Saturday night, for a long time already we’d been going to bed earlier.”

Related: Book Review, The Gospel Truth

Thorpe’s brief reflections on growing older are some of the book’s most beautiful and human moments. However, if you have more of taste for mystery than literature, the kidnapping and sudden reappearances of Troutstream’s children should keep you hooked.

Missing Children was my first outing to Troutstream, which by this third book Lynch has built into a fascinating community. The town is populated by interesting characters who had me intrigued every time their stories crossed with Dr. Thorpe’s. I couldn’t help but wonder if these people are the central figures in the other books, dealing with their own problems as they walk past Dr. Thorpe washing his beloved Cadillac. These stolen glimpses of other stories breathe life into Lynch’s fictional setting, and Troutstream is a convincingly idyllic town set between a prison and sewage treatment plant. I think I’ll have to visit again soon.

You can find Missing Children in local stores or on Amazon.

Black in America

February 23, 2016 1:55 pm

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.

Thriving in a 24-7 World

January 29, 2016 9:53 am

We all know what it’s like to live in a 24-7 world. The portability of our cellphones and laptops allow us to communicate at any time, anywhere. What we aren’t taught is how to handle this constant pressure technology puts on us when we are demanded to stay constantly up to date. That’s where speaker, author, and sports psychologist Peter Jensen comes in.

Jensen’s resume, in a word, is impressive. He has attended eight Olympic games as a trainer for the Canadian Olympic team, is currently a instructor at the Queen’s Smith School of Business, the founder of Performance Coaching Inc., and has written three books, including his newest: Thriving in a 24-7 World.

Video: Peter Jensen talks about his roots

Jensen believes that somewhere in the late 1980s and early 1990s, folks really started getting busy, and a 24-7 world began.

Jensen begins his explanation about a 24-7 world by using the research of language specialist Dr. Ann Burnett. While thinking about how language determines our world, Burnett began to notice speech patterns in holiday letters she would receive around Christmas one year. She noticed than many of the letters discussed being strapped for time, or used terms like ‘time starved’ or ‘time famine.’ Burnett started asking coworkers and friends to send her their redacted holiday letters. As word spread of her collection, Burnett received letters by the thousands, some dating back to the 1960s.

Peter_jensen“They were like an archive of the rise of busyness,” Jensen says. “She (found in the letters) an astonishing frequency of words like ‘hectic’ and ‘consumed.’ She (began) realizing that some writers were boasting about their busyness. (…) It’s like a badge of honor for some people. This ‘busier-than-thou’ attitude is pertinent now. Busyness became not just a way of life, but glamorous.”

Jensen believes that younger people are becoming more pressured to exist in a 24-7 world, due to the obvious: technology. Jensen saw this first hand while working with young athletes from Team Canada, and was surprised to hear that the athletes updated their software on their tablets and cell phones every month.

“When you look at the stats of how frequently people look at their devices, it’s shocking. The point I make to the athletes is that your devices have had so many upgrades, but what about the user? Have we ever thought about upgrading the user?”

Jensen is passionate about helping people learn how to manage their energy in a world with fast approaching deadlines and increasing workloads. “You can manage your time,” he explains. “But there’s still only 24 hours in a day. You’ve really got to take a look at what things you can do to better manage your energy.”

Jensen suggests picturing yourself and your energy as a thermostat rather than a thermometer. Rather than reacting to the environment like a thermometer, be a thermostat; you decide things like what you want to be, or where you need to be. In order to acquire energy, Jensen says that we can only use what we have. Sleep, good nutrition and great fitness levels are all factors that determine the pool of energy that is given to us to use. It is also important to look for times when you are being negative, critical, or hard on yourself. Those factors are clear energy drains.

Being in the ‘now’ is another important factor to thriving in a 24-7 world. However, having an impulse to immediately ‘share’ our experiences is a negative source of energy.

“When I’m working with the Olympic teams, I’m always saying to the kids ‘put your cell phones down and walk into the stadium. Just experience the moment,’ he tells me. “We’re not very good at that.”Thriving_book_cover[1]

Jensen explains that athletes are constantly shown different ways to deal with pressure. He feels that there is a lack of resources to help the stressed, on-the-go public.

“(Workers who are stressed) are going to have to become more resilient performers,” Jensen advises. “This person needs to turn stress and pressure into growth. The game is not going to change, and it’s faster pace. This is an in-your-face-world, and there’s so much more information to deal with. I don’t think we’ve adapted to it. Change is much more rapid than we could possibly, naturally, adapt to. We need to upgrade our software. We’ve upgraded our devices, now we need to upgrade ourselves.”

Jensen will be bringing his #thriving247 message across Canada in partnership with the Queen’s Smith School of Business. You can catch him here in Ottawa at the Westin Hotel on February 2nd.

Review: A Neurosurgeon’s Challenge

December 16, 2015 10:11 am

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.

Book Review: The Gospel Truth

November 5, 2015 12:05 pm
Gospel Truth

In the opening chapter of Caroline Pignat’s latest Governor General’s Award Winner, The Gospel Truth, 16 year-old Phoebe steals a half-dead yellow bird from the jaws of her plantation’s predatory cat, Rufus. Phoebe locks the bird up, and although she feels bad for containing a creature that was meant to fly, she looks down at the cat and thinks “sometimes the safest place to be is in a cage.”

A bird in a cage surrounded by prowling cats is about as good a metaphor for the institution of slavery as you’ll find, but as Phoebe quickly discovers, that cage contains monsters of its own.

Pignat Hi-res

Caroline Pignat.

In the book’s opening chapters, Phoebe, a house-slave who carries a deep connection with birds, holds a relatively safe position at the aptly named Whitehaven Plantation. Things become more complicated when a wealthy white birdwatcher visits the tobacco farm. The plantation master hopes to set his daughter up with this Dr. Bergman, but Phoebe quickly realizes that the doctor has his eyes on her.   

As you can imagine, The Gospel Truth builds and maintains an incredible amount of tension. The book presents slave life from multiple perspectives, but each enslaved character goes about their days like they’re walking on broken glass and one slip can lead to a grievous injury. This really captures the danger that followed slaves every moment of their lives and by the book’s halfway point the suspense is huge. You know there’s going to be a disaster, you just don’t know where it’s coming from.

Pignat’s writing reads like poetry, and a dedicated reader could easily breeze through the entire book of dramatic free verse in a weekend. Each character has their own distinct voice, but each voice is immensely readable. To capture the slaves’ voices, Pignat researched their unique colloquialisms in the Library of Congress’s massive collection of recorded interviews with former slaves.

One of Pignat’s great successes in The Gospel Truth is using her many characters to show all the different ways a slave can view life in bondage. Phoebe is resigned to it, because as the cage metaphor suggests, she sees the world outside Whitehaven’s fences as more dangerous than the one inside. Her best friend, a boy named Shad, believes that if he does everything right the master’s rewards will make up for his lack of freedom. After all, how can you miss something you’ve never tasted? Finally there’s Shad’s brother Will, who is hell-bent on escaping Whitehaven even if that means his death.

The Gospel Truth is a perfect book for  young adults who want to approach the history of American slavery more critically. I won’t recommend it over actual slaves’ narratives, but if you have a reader who is too young to appreciate Frederick Douglass or too squeamish for Harriet Jacobs, you won’t find a better introduction to the subject than Caroline Pignat’s.  

Pignat lives and writes in Ottawa.
The Gospel Truth is her second Governor General’s Literary Award winner and is also a finalist for the Ottawa Book Award.

Family Ties

July 6, 2015 12:30 pm

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
Alice Munro 2 (1)

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.

Summer Reading Guide

May 21, 2015 2:20 pm

The summer sun is shining and that means it’s time to relax! Why not grab a book and a blanket and head to the nearest park to enjoy some outdoor reading? OLM has the best reads for you and the family! From food and romance to astronomy and zombies, there is something for everyone to enjoy on a sunny day!

9781612433554.01The Farm to Table French Phrasebook
By Victoria Mas, Illustrated by Meera Lee Patel, Ulysses Press
If you’ve ever sunk your teeth into a buttery croissant or a delicate macaron, you know France exports some of the best foodie indulgences. In The Farm to Table French Phrasebook, you will get an education in French cuisine you can’t find in any classroom or textbook. French culinary phrases, foodie terms, cultural tips and delicious recipes come together in this ultimate food-lovers guide. Whether you’re spending time abroad, dining at a local bistro or mastering French culinary art in your own kitchen, this must-read opens you up to the bountiful world of French cuisine.
Available here.

Cover-Canadian-Whisky-paperback-669x1024Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert
By Davin de Kergommeaux, McClelland & Stuart
Ever wish you could show up to a bar and have all the answers to questions you have about Canada’s finest drink: whisky? That reality isn’t far off with the handy bar bible Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert . Discover the history of some of your favourite Canadian whiskies, learn of the diversity able and read through tasting notes that will make your whisky drinking experience much more enjoyable.
Available here.


By Andrew Hunter, Goose Lane
You know the images of Canadian painter and printmaker Alex Colville well. Now experience them like never before with over 100 of Colville’s paintings and studies assembled in Colville, written and edited by the AGO’s Frederik S. Eaton Curator of Canadian Art. View the art that imbues a deep sense of danger and showcases elusive tension on the pages and then in person at the National Gallery of Canada this summer.
Available here.


Getting Over YonderGetting Over Yonder
By Obi Simic, Outskirts Press
Learn to pursue in the midst of tragedy as you follow the journey of Olivia, a young Black Canadian looking for herself. She gives up at nothing, including revealed secrets, prejudice and ignorance. You will learn to hold onto what is truly important and Olivia overcomes obstacles with her strong desire to live.
Available here.


Astronomy Bible_coverThe Astronomy Bible
By Heather Couper and Nigel Henbest, Octopus
There is no better time to sit back and look at the starry sky than summer. The Astronomy Bible has everything you need to understand just what lies beyond our planet. Learn about the history of astronomy, the sun and the moon, asteroids, comets and meteors, constellations and more as you flip through the pages of this illustrated guide.
Available here.



HomeBeforeDarkHome Before Dark: Ottawa Diaries, 1998-2002
By Rosemary Sexton, Self-Published
Many Canadians will recognize author Rosemary Sexton as the Globe and Mail’s society columnist from 1988 to 1993. As Canada’s most well known society columnist and gossip-writer, Sexton unraveled the scandals of high society. In Home Before Dark: Ottawa Diaries, 1998-2002, she has transcribed five years of personal diary entries. She writes about the pleasures and perils of living life in Canada’s capital city as a judge’s wife. In Home Before Dark, Sexton gives readers a peak behind closed doors with lively writing and candid reveals.
Available here.


AngelsAreCryingCover300Angels Are Crying
By Mohammed Rehman, Smith Publicity
Come learn how Reham believes violence and terrorism have tainted the Islam religion. As you turn the pages, you will explore what Islam originally was, what it meant and how it has become what it means today. Angels Are Crying delivers a first-hand account of how Rehman sees the Muslim faith in 50 countries. Explore the history and politics of these Islamic countries while analyzing the true intent of the Quran.
Available here.


peasandhambonePeas and Hambone Versus Flesh-Eating Zombie Gorillas
By Todd Nichols, Secret, Secret Squirrel Books
We can’t forget the kids in our reading guide! In Peas and Hambone Versus Flesh-Eating Zombie Gorillas, a boy and his dog face off against a pack of zombie gorillas. Peter, or “Peas,” is an 10-year-old kid with a dog, Hambone, who has the ability to walk and talk. Hambone is determined to get even with a gorilla, so he and Peter break into the zoo. As they try to determine which gorilla is Hambone’s nemesis, they stumble upon an evil plot, leading them down a pathway of exciting twists and turns bound to entertain thrill-seeking kiddos!
Available here.

HatredHatred: Islam’s War on Christianity
By Michael Coren
Dive into one of the most interesting cultural conflicts in the modern world. In Hatred: Islam’s War on Christianity, Michael Coren explores the history, reasoning, theology and politics behind the great genocidal phenomenon of modern times: the Islamist war on Christianity.
Available here.


Olbrys.Cover.9-11-14.RGBThe Adventures of Blue Ocean Bob – A Challenging Job
By Brooks Olbrys
In Brooks Olbrys latest book, The Adventures of Blue Ocean Bob – A Challenging Job, young readers will swim right along with an inspirational cast of characters, including a courageous island boy who vows to help defend, protect, and teach about life on the shores, and a slew of wise and fun sea creatures including Doc the turtle, Earl the clam and Wallace the walrus. Vividly illustrated, kids will catch Blue Ocean Bob’s contagious spirit and passion for the planet.
Available here.


cuttingroomThe Cutting Room
By Stewart Dudley, Self-Published
Jeff Whittaker has been a trusted communications advisor at the highest levels of government for decades. Now, no one wants his advice. Unemployed at 55, Whittaker volunteers at a film festival where greater value is placed upon his clean driving record than his public relations expertise. He is assigned to chauffer one of the festival’s biggest draws, Margaret “Terror” Torrance, a Hollywood star. Despite differing backgrounds, Whittaker and Torrance share the scars inflicted by personal and professional wounds and form a relationship that will keep you turning the pages of Dudley’s debut novel.
Available here.

Must Read: The Thin Black Line by Simon Gervais

April 9, 2015 10:03 am
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Prepare for a whirlwind of a read.

Simon Gervais’ newly released debut novel The Thin Black Line, is a must-read thriller based right here in Canada’s capital city.

PicSim15A first time novelist, Gervais delivers a heart-pumping, nerve-racking story with a climactic ending you won’t see coming.

In The Thin Black Line, Mike Walton has experienced terrorism from every angle. As a covert field operations officer, he thought he’d seen it all. But that was before terrorism struck him at home. Suffering devastating injuries and unthinkable personal loss, Mike knew he had to fight back.

Mike and his wife Lisa, a fellow counter-terrorism expert, are recruited by the International Market Stabilization Institute, a privately funded organization operating outside official channels to protect North America’s financial interests.

The strikes that destroyed Mike and Lisa’s household, the work of Sheik Al-Assad, are bringing the Western economy to its knees. If the Sheik succeeds, life as they knew it will never be the same. Mike and Lisa must lead a hastily assembled team to Europe to stop the madness before time runs out.

Gervais, who was born in Montréal and currently resides in Ottawa, brings first-hand experience to his debut novel.

While the book is fiction, much of its contents were inspired by his own experiences.

Gervais’ career has taken him in a number of interesting directions. Originally joining the Canadian military as an infantry officer, Gervais has served as a member of some of the RCMP’s most secretive units, including its air marshal program and VIP counter-surveillance team. As you can imagine, he has some stories to tell.

The Thin Black Line takes a fascinating look into Canada’s covert operations, complemented by loveable and heroic characters you will find yourself rooting for.

For a thrilling spring read, check out The Thin Black Line!

Visit for more information.

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

December 4, 2014 9:59 am
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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

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.

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