The Merlin Conspiracy (2003), by Diana Wynne Jones

Like her Tam Lin retelling, Fire and Hemlock (1985), this tale does not rise to the level of effectiveness that the Chrestomanci series or Howl’s Moving Castle (1996) does. The characters are all interesting, and the plot cleverly arranged and effectively sustained, but there are… it is hard to describe… just too many words. The narrative, like Fire and Hemlock, would have been more effective if reduced about 30% in length. While Diana Wynne Jones’s concept of multiple parallel universes is fascinating, this is not the best example of her use of that narrative paradigm. Sacrilege thought it may be in the world of children’s literature to suggest such a thing, I would love to have seen these of Jones’s concepts in the hands of a more adept author.

Advertisements

This Canada of Ours (1929), by Maud Morrison Stone

Stone, Maud Morrison, and J.S. Morrison. This Canada of Ours: A Pictorial History (Toronto Musson, 1929).

This post is a bit academic, as I have copied it over from our Canada’s Early Women Writers project blog. Sometimes the cross over is really interesting: Maud Morrison Stone, for example, was co-author of one of the first forays into the graphic narrative format…

A couple of weeks ago, I was contacted by Maud Morrison Stone’s great-niece, Christine Owen, a recently retired lawyer who had been sorting through her parents’ papers. She kept running across papers referring to and written by this author relative, and so began to search the internet for more information. And found us. All we had about Maud Morrison Stone at the time was a reference to one book: This Canada of Ours (1937). Now we know so much more.

About the text

The publication of This Canada of Ours has some interesting aspects to it. The first edition was actually 1929, and came in a paper slipcover with a drawing of a young boy reading on it (or some such design; Christine was not entirely sure). Christine also has another 1929 edition, from which I have scanned a few pages, which is likely a second printing, as it includes no slipcover. You can note on the cover, though, that the book is credited first to J.S. Morrison, Maud’s brother John Stuart, who illustrated the book. While this might seem odd, or even male chauvinist, it is in fact the remnant of the book’s first life as a graphic narrative, serialized from 2 May 1925 through 23 May 1929 in a number of Canadian periodicals (Border Cities Star (Windsor, ON), Brantford Expositor, Calgary Herald, Cowichan Leader (Duncan, BC), Edmonton Journal, Lethbridge Herald, Ottawa Citizen, Ottawa Journal, Canadian Observer (Sarnia, ON), Saskatoon Star, St. Catharines Standard, The Times Journal (St. Thomas, ON), Sydney Post, Vancouver Province, Victoria Colonist, Winnipeg Tribune). So in the first iteration, J.S. Morrison was far more than just the illustrator. (For a better discussion of early North American educational comics as a genre, see John Adcock’s post of 22 October 2012 on Yesterday’s Papers.)

While the serialized graphic narrative and the 1929 edition were intended as an educational tool for school children, in 1937 a revised and expanded edition was published, intended for a more adult audience. This edition included 63 chapters, and covered much more of Canadian history than the earlier edition’s 29 chapters, which ended with Count Frontenac. It is interesting to note, though, that the final page of the 1929 edition reads “The End of Volume One,” more than suggesting that the remainder of the story, included in the 1937 edition, was originally intended as a second volume in the more juvenile format. Reviews of the 1929 edition are almost exclusively positive, heralding it as a fine example of this innovative narrative form for educating young readers; it would be interesting to know why the second volume was never produced. (I see an academic paper topic in the comparison of the serialized version with the two published editions, for any graduate students out there looking for something to focus on…)

About the story

It was interesting how strongly the content of This Canada of Ours corresponds to what I was taught in the early 1970s about our country, in contrast to the far more culturally balanced history taught today. The story of the naming of Canada, for example, is exactly as I remember it; I have included it here because it brings back to me another story from my youth.

In 1982, I was in Jyväskylä, Finland, as a Rotary Exchange student. The instructor of the Grade 11 English class I attended told a version of the story popular in Europe at the time. When the Spanish came up the west coast of Canada (he told the class), they saw the vast stretches of forest and mountain and pronounced: “aquí nada,” which became Ca-nada. And hence the country was defined in its vast nothingness (yes, he did add that last part). He was some not impressed when I, in my youthful egoism, pointed out the error of his position. After all, Samuel de Champlain (1574-1635) founded the city of Quebec in 1608, while Captain James Cook (1728-1779) reached the west coast of Canada in 1778; both were much later than the name of Canada was in use. Wikipedia will tell you that in fact Jacques Cartier (1491-1557) was the first to use the name, which (as This is Our Canada also tells us) almost certainly comes from “kanata,” the Iroquois word for “village.” The Spanish-language story (which is a not-unknown alternate etymological explanation, Wikipedia again tells us) refers to Christopher Columbus sailing the ocean blue (1492) and discovering the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. But the Portuguese and Spanish stuck to depleting the cod population and didn’t go up the St. Lawrence at all, so I stand with Maud Morrison Stone on this one.

The rest of the story

The book is dedicated “To the memory of Adam Morrison and Mary McLeod Morrison, U.E.L., our father and mother, who taught us to love Canada.” A more patriotic beginning would be hard to find. The authors are obviously sincere in their appreciation of Canada and Canadian history: they begin with “The story of Canada is one of absorbing interest,” and we grow to believe them. The writing is far more engaging than the history books I read, certainly, but the sheer level of detail must have been daunting to any school-aged reader. The historical information is about 60% running text, scattered through with illustrations separate from the graphic narrative panels. Interspersed as well are snippets of poetry by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Sir Walter Scott, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Sir Walter Raleigh, and even our own Jean Blewett. More than just J.S. Morrison’s illustrations as a method of engaging readers’ interest, Maud Morrison Stone tells stories of the men (and a very few women) who helped settle North America. The authors are thorough in their understanding of the politics of settlement, including the histories of all the regions of the eastern seaboard as integral to the development of the Canadian nation.

The selection of stories seems inclusive to me, but then I was raised with this as the fundamental narrative of our nation. No matter what content was taught 40 years ago, though, it is impossible now to avoid a colonial blindness to or elision of the First Nations’ perspective. This is not the forum for intense consideration of this topic, but even more than an investigation of the textual production of This Canada of Ours, I would love to see an analysis of the colonial discourse included herein. The First Nations are included in seemingly positive or at worst neutral ways—better by far than the blatant racism of some early versions of Canadian exploration and settling—but there is an underlying feeling of important issues being mentioned then glossed over. I might not give this text to my children as a resource, but then again, I might: with the right guiding hand, the stories Maud Morrison Stone tells, however strongly embedded in the Eurocentric discourse of its time, could still today give rise to productive discussion of the real history of our nation.

(I leave you with the harrowing tale of Henry Hudson, set adrift with his young son to die on the icy Bay that afterward bore his name, Betrayed by a mutinous crew led by his first-mate, Joel, “a gutter-snipe ‘pressed’ from the streets of Bristol.” What can one expect from a starving, disheartened crew and a first-mate kidnapped and pressed into service against his will, one might ask, but the author’s sympathies are unquestionably with Hudson here.)

Deliver Us From Evie (1994), by M.E. Kerr

Many years ago, I supervised Dr. Rob Bittner as an undergraduate in his exploration of the intersection of Christianity with homosexuality in young adult novels. Back then, there were so few such novels published that it has been fascinating to watch Rob’s career develop along side a growing corpus of LGBTQ fiction for young readers. The following is his simple description of M.E. Kerr’s Deliver Us From Evie.

“This novel follows a short time in the life of Parr, whose sister, Evie, is a lesbian. At first, Parr [wants to support Evie], because he wants Evie to stay and take care of the farm so he won’t have to. As soon he finds out she has no plans to stay on the farm, in a situation complicated by other issues, he and another young man hang up a derogatory sign in the town square. These events lead to the escape of Evie from the town with Patsy Duff, her lover. This story is not ultimately about explorations of sexuality and literature so much as it is about the suffering caused by being different. There are some tender moments to keep the plot from becoming melodramatic, however, and so, in the end, there is some reconciliation within the family. … The treatment of sexuality as something negative that leads to the need for escape is [a strong] example of how homosexuality is treated for the most part prior to the late 20th and early 21st centuries.”

Kingfisher (2016), by Patricia A. McKillip

Patricia A. McKillip’s Riddle of Stars trilogy is perhaps my favourite fantasy series of all times. Not sure if it quite beats Lord of the Rings, but if not it is awfully close. In my early teens, I waited and waited and waited for the next volume to come out… Imagine my surprise then, when Patricia A. McKillip’s Kingfisher showed up in an advertisement for digital editions of fantasy novels. I thought it must be old, and I had just missed its existence until now, but when I got to the reference to cell phones, I had to check the publication date (as you can tell from other posts, I often don’t do that). 2016! So then I had to reassess my response to the text and I figured out what had been disturbing me about it.

In Kingfisher, McKillip shows us the threads of three main characters’ lives, and twists them ever closer together until the final moments, when readers—but not necessarily the players— are shown the answers they have been seeking.

Pierce Oliver is the younger son of a knight and a sorceress who fled the capitol—and her husband and elder son—while pregnant. Pierce has known no other life than cooking with his mother in their isolated home on Cape Mistbegotten. When he meets four knights who carry the shadows of the mythical creatures they were hunting, Pierce has inherited enough of her magic to see the shadows (but not enough to avoid being trapped later in a magical snare). We are immediately plunged into a fantasy world, but the information we are given is not expanded upon; we can merely store it away in isolation, waiting for the moment when it will become meaningful. (This is the first of two issues I had with the story: too many threads of narrative are presented separately to hold in mind before they are woven together into a coherent storyline. Or maybe that’s just me…)

Carrie, chef at the Kingfisher Inn a little to the south of Cape Mistbegotten, is troubled by secrets that no one will discuss. Her father spends his time chanting and roving, seemingly touched in the head by past trauma.

Something had happened. She was uncertain what; everything had changed before she was born. For all the vagueness in everyone’s eyes when she asked, the good fortune might have vanished a century before. Not even her father could come up with a coherent explanation, and he had been there, she knew. (Chapter 2)

Slowly—too slowly for this reader—Carrie begins to unravel the past that haunts the small community at Chimera Bay. That her father, Merle, is a shape-shifter, becoming a wolf and howling his sorrows into the night, only complicates her search for understanding.

Prince Daimon, “as the youngest of Arden’s five children, and illegitimate to boot, … enjoyed a certain amount of lax attention, an absence of scrutiny from his father as long as he did what the king asked” (Chapter 7). This gives Daimon the leisure to pursue his obsession with the captivating Vivien Ravensley—who seems to be both part of the life of the capitol city and yet not—and to resolve the issue of his heredity, partly grounded in his father’s pragmatic world (our world), partly in the mystical land of his mother.

The action of the novel revolves on the axis that is the Kingfisher Inn. Knights quest for a vessel that may or may not exist, that is sacred to the ruthless god Severn or to the life-giving river goddess Calluna in another interpretation of the myth, that can only be recognized by a worthy knight. Kingfisher is, of course, the legend of the Fisher King, but only loosely and far more tangled than the simple Arthurian legend (in any of its many versions). The journeys of “kitchen knight” Pierce (Perceval) and Carrie, daughter of a shape-shifter, and Daimon, heir of both Severn’s and Calluna’s realms, provide the pieces of the puzzle that ultimately fit together to form a whole. From a more prosaic perspective, the quest is a failure; for the reader who has seen the magic, a success. War between the two magical powers is averted, and Holy Grail is returned to its rightful place in the mystical procession. That none of the characters appear to understand how their several stories have led to the restoration of magical balance is a nice touch, I thought, and leaves the reader feeling far more satisfied than might otherwise be the case.

This resetting of legends in the modern world is not uncommon—Tam Lin, for example, is an often retold narrative—but McKillip cannot seem to temper her epic narrative voice, and that which makes reading her Riddle of Stars trilogy so powerfully immersive an experience jars against the inclusion of cell phones, of tuxedoes and chandeliers and mixed pepper aioli, of motorbikes and pickup trucks. Perhaps a deeper knowledge of the legend of the Fisher King would have helped my understanding as I travelled through the narrative, but I’m not sure that should be necessary.

What redeems Kingfisher from all negative consideration is McKillip’s unquestionable talent with characterization. The multitude of characters is balanced, each constructed perfectly to fulfill his or her narrative role. We feel always that we know exactly as much about each person as we should, and that anything else we need will be given us in due time. So in exactly the way the narrative structure is awkward, the characterization is superior. I might have been confused for the first half of the novel, but my interest in the people carried me through the confusion and strengthened my satisfaction in the end.