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.

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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.)

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (1967), by E.L. Konigsburg

Feeling put-upon and ignored as the eldest sibling, Claudia takes her younger brother with her and runs away. Not liking hardship, they run to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, rather than to the woods, as Jamie first assumes. There, they encounter a statue attributed to Michelangelo, and Claudia becomes captivated, needing to discover the truth about the statue for herself.

While a little slow-paced, this novel is superb in not stretching the possibilities in two young children who have run away from home. What they do could have happened; thus, the reader is able to engage completely with the mystery and the stresses the children encounter. The ending is hidden from the reader until the end, then well resolved.

I was not so very entranced with the novel, which (despite my personal opinion) is heralded as one of the true classics of American children’s literature. It won the Newbery Award for Children’s Literature in 1968 and, as the Wikipedia entry notes, “in 2012 it was ranked number seven among all-time children’s novels in a survey published by School Library Journal.” But then, I didn’t like Norton Juster‘s The Phantom Tollbooth (1961), either, despite the language play that normally would appeal. But there you have it: It’s not you; it’s me.

Howl’s Moving Castle (1996), by Diana Wynne Jones

I suppose it isn’t surprising that when I searched for the cover art for this book, that most of what appeared were images from Hayao Miyazaki’s 2004 anime version. I first saw the film when I was attending the annual conference for the Children’s Literature Association in Normal, Illinois, in 2008. Opinions were mixed, but the general consensus was that, while it wasn’t really the same as the novel, it was a good movie. Diana Wynne Jones herself was pleased with it—“It was wonderful. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone before who thinks like I do. He saw my books from the inside out.”—so I feel justified in liking the movie in a completely different way from the book.

Simplification of novels in adaptation to film is often necessary; Miyazaki does much more than that. Other reviewers have gone through the differences more meticulously, so I’ll just note that, rereading the novel, I was sufficiently pleased to see the little consistencies in character and incidentals—such as the bakery employee moving the boxes aside and poking his head through to call to Lettie, or Sophie cooking the breakfast on Calcifer’s head—that I could forgive the more drastic changes in plot, such as the simplification of the political intrigue and the introduction of the entire war theme.

I recall a quotation from Wynne Jones (that of course I can no longer find) I which she said, admiringly, in response to an objection about the movie: “It’s Hayao Mizazaki: of course there are airships; he has to have airships.” She approves, too, of Miyazaki’s architectural aesthetics: “What I like is the way that Miyazaki has translated [the castle] into a thing of fantasy.” There is a quotation from Ursula K. LeGuin to Goro Miyazaki (Hayao’s son, but that is another story) about his version of The Tales of Earthsea that in my mind I attribute sometimes to Diana Wynne Jones, as it parallels her overall impression of Howls’ Moving Castle: “It is not my book; it is your movie. It is a good movie.

But on to the actual novel, which contains far more magic than does the movie. The opening lines immerse the reader in a fairy-tale world:

In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three. Everyone knows you are the one who will fail first, and worst, if the three of you set out to win your fortunes. (9)

Wynne Jones then goes on to delineate all the ways in which Sophie both does and does not conform to fairy-tale tropes. As the novel progresses, we watch as those tropes are subverted and avoided through the will of the characters. The metaphor is unavoidable: in both Ingary and our world (Howl, it turns out, is really from Wales), it is your choices and strength of character that really control your destiny, not the expectation of the world around you. Sophie’s sisters Lettie and Martha are the first examples: sent by their mother to apprentice to a bakery and a witch respectively, the girls learn enough magic to switch places undetected; for Lettie, the middle child, is the adventurous one and Martha, the youngest and therefore assumed to be destined for great things, only wants to find a husband and have babies. Taking their futures into their own hands, both end up happy.

Granted it is not so easy for Sophie, but as she is our protagonist, that is to be expected. Accosted by Wizard Howl for a moment on the streets, Sophie earns the wrath of the Witch of the Waste, how curses her with premature old-age. But Sophie is a “hale old woman” (55), and moves steadily on with her life, remarking on her new perspective as an old person. The Howl she met in the streets, intimidatingly older, “is only a child in his twenties” (58) to Old Sophie, his “new cleaning lady” (59). Her artificial maturity gives her a confidence to explore who she really is: “It was odd, as a girl Sophie would have shrivelled in embarrassment at the way she was behaving. As an old woman, she did not mind what she did or said. She found that a great relief” (66).

As Sophie settles in to her life in the castle, she becomes slowly more aware of her own magical powers—something the reader was made aware of earlier, and Howl recognizes immediately. The politics of magic and government are twisted together, and Sophie seems barely to keep up with the machinations of Howl’s professional life, not to mention the fall-out from his previous romantic entanglements. Her growing belief in herself helps her to stand up to the forces that threaten to overwhelm her—Howl included—and that strength is ultimately key in creating a stable life for both Howl and herself. Unlike in the movie, Sophie has no illusions about Howl’s true nature; there is no scene where they fly off in an airship together. Sophie’s pragmatic acceptance of their affection for each other, despite their faults, is far more satisfying and believable, as befits a fairy tale with an underlying agenda of overthrowing fairy tale tropes.