Paddling the Path of Tom Thomson and Roy MacGregor

Allegra Young likes to dip her paddle in many parts of Canadian culture. She is the Recording and Licensing Manager for Centrediscs – the contemporary, Canadian classical music label of the Canadian Music Centre based in Toronto, and was once the Podcast Producer at The Banff Centre where she interviewed Canadian artists like Barbara Budd, John Vaillant and Matt Andersen. At her blog, Allegra is currently reading her way through the 40 books selected as the celebratory 10th Anniversary picks of Canada Reads.

Allegra has been known to generate some pretty good literary ideas herself: she is proudly 50% of the brains behind Bare it for Books (a naked fundraiser with proceeds going to Pen Canada). In her spare time she cooks, crochets and knits. A consummate multi-tasker, Allegra especially loves to combine two of her interests at once, as she does as part of her CanLit Knit book club (where, you guessed it, they discuss that month’s book over drinks and clicking needles). Today, Allegra shares the story of blending three particular passions–art, story and the landscape of Northern Ontario–on a literary pilgrimage inspired by painter Tom Thomson and by Roy MacGregor’s novel Canoe Lake.

Any voracious reader knows that hollow feeling in the pit of the stomach that comes after finishing a really good book. The voice of the protagonist echoes; the temporary narrator of your thoughts. What better cure for the broken, literary heart, than to follow these characters, your friends, to the places they lived?

In the past few years I have read books largely by Canadian authors. My passion for our home and native land has been let loose – I simply adore learning about the history of this country, whether through non-fiction, historical fiction, or simply fiction, set in earlier days.

One of my favourite Canadian books is Canoe Lake by Roy MacGregor. Canoe Lake tells the tale of the untimely death of Tom Thomson. The characters are a mix of fictional and historical and though many liberties are taken in the story, it’s a romantic, mysterious ride.

I have been fascinated by Tom Thomson since I was a child. On class field trips to the Art Gallery of Ontario, I would be drawn toward the Group of Seven gallery. In my mind there are few artists that can capture the vast beauty of Ontario quite like these painters.

It was Thomson’s “The Pool” that first introduced me to the beauty of Algonquin Park in the fall. The calm, mirror-like water broken by a canoe paddle; the fiery oranges, reds and yellows that spread through the leaves of the trees; the fresh, cool air – this is, to me, the definition of nature.

Author Roy MacGregor was fascinated too. He grew up in Huntsville and many of his elder family and friends were around when Thomson was painting in the Park. MacGregor has been connected to the story all his life, and after writing this fictional account, was still so fascinated by the story of the artist, that he wrote a biography of Thomson: Northern Light.

I was thrilled to have another connection to this part of our history, so I picked it as my read for the book club I’m in. I then managed to convince four of our book club members to have the discussion on a canoe trip in Algonquin Park. It was the perfect way to blend fact and fiction, theories and mystery of the tale of Tom Thomson told in Canoe Lake and Northern Light.

There’s a feeling in the park in the autumn of preservation. It’s as if after that tragic summer of 1917, the park was closed for good, and I’m the first one to open its gates again. I reveled in this romantic notion as I rented my canoe from the Portage Store to prepare for our book club trip, my own literary pilgrimage, in late September, 2011.

There are few tourists in autumn, but with an ominous stormy forecast, we had the lakes to ourselves as we paddled and portaged 10km to our campsite. What I couldn’t get over was the stillness of the park. It was cool, yes, but not windy, and the water was like glass. In the stern of my canoe I would get lost in thoughts of oil and canvas. As my eyes would lose focus looking out over the glassy water, I couldn’t help feeling on the verge of falling into some haunting abyss.

After steaks and baked potatoes cooked over a campfire, we went to sit on the large rocks, rough with moss. While sipping wine from various plastic vessels, we sat, looking at the stars, and discussing the mystery of the fabled Canadian painter.

And then the others went to sleep. I stayed up with the pages of Northern Light and then, Canoe Lake. The only sound was the rain, falling lightly on the tent and through the trees as I read:

Eleanor breathed deeply, surprised the clean forest should smell damp and musty like as a cellar. She stepped on a branch and it snapped, and she realized that Russell was moving up ahead in complete silence. The forest felt close, protective. She felt good. Perhaps it was the way they had felt back then – before, that is.

“Just up here,” Russell said.

Eleanor hurried on, breaking through to a flat clearing dominated by a huge birch tree that seemed too fat for its height. There was nothing to say anything had ever been here before. The birch, a few spruce, some bushes, rocks…

Russell saw none of that. When he came through the alders into the clearing he walked in on Jenny standing in her yellow dress staring at the stone and crying. He heard the buzz of Martin Bletcher, Sr.’s voice, and saw the men standing around with the light rain working down their foreheads in crooked lines. And he saw Tom’s casket, sinking into the ground. Gone forever.

“Over here,” he called.

Canoe Lake, by Roy MacGregor, page 263

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Literary Pilgrimages: Montreal, Lost and Found with Kevin Sylvester

This week, our Literary Pilgrimages series returns with an essay by Kevin Sylvester.

Kevin Sylvester is a renaissance guy: an illustrator, hockey player, community builder, broadcaster and author, most recently of the award-winning series for young readers the Neil Flambe capers about a child chef who solves mysteries.

I have often wondered what Kevin Sylvester would think about Project Bookmark Canada, our goals and our inspirations, and so this fall I cornered Kevin in the hospitality suite at the Kingston WritersFest (he was in Kingston to promote his latest book, Tokyo Treasure) and asked if he had been inspired to visit a place through a book.

So today, as our country turns its annual corner into crisp Canadian weather, here is Kevin Sylvester’s tribute to the Montreal of Morley Callaghan’s The Loved and the Lost.

Catching my first glimpse of the cross, snow and wind busting my face like Callaghan’s fists, was a truly amazing experience.

I have gone on many literary pilgrimages in my life. I grew up in western New York State and every time I stepped in the woods behind my house I was following in the footsteps of Hawkeye from The Last of the Mohicans.

I’ve visited Turin and drunk thick bicherin at the café where Puccini wrote La Boheme. I’ve had coffee and croissant at the Café de Flore in Paris where Sartre would sit, smoke and be all moody and stuff. Not bad.

In Canada, my search for a sense of place is difficult to pin down with just one place. So much of Canadian literature is about the vast expanse of space that surrounds us and how we struggle to find our way as individuals (and as a country) inside that enormity.

I’ve stood on train tracks in Saskatchewan and felt a connection to W. O. Mitchell, and saw his vanishing point as a real experience.

The novel As For Me and My House is set in the same place and was one of the first novels that completely captured my imagination. How could so few words contain so much pain, anguish, longing?

But if there’s one super-special place in Canada, it has to be Mount Royal. And not just any old time but on a snowy winter night, with a slight breeze and the cross on top blazing away. It’s not just special because of the direct link between a book and a location, but because it ties together my life as a Canadian so well.

The book is Morley Callaghan’s The Loved and the Lost.  If you haven’t read the book, it’s set in Montreal in the 1950s and is full of jazz, race relations, hockey, the CBC and winter.

I don’t even remember if the novel is always set in winter, but in my experience the constantly lost “hero” Jim McAlpine is always walking around searching for his love (Peggy Sanderson) with the cross blazing away and the snow blowing around his damp fedora.

I first read the book after coming north for university. I should point out that I am a life long dual citizen who spent many of my summers in Penticton, so Canada wasn’t exactly a mysterious new land for me, but I was still learning what it meant to be Canadian, and trying to fill in the gaps in my cultural quilt.

I decided to study a course in Canadian Literature at St. Michaels’s College at the University of Toronto. The college is important because it was also Callaghan’s alma mater. I immediately felt a connection to him and the themes of the book.

The more I learned about his life the more I realized we shared a faith, an academic history and a kind of cross border experience. The novel was first published in the US, not Canada. Callaghan found his own voice by journeying elsewhere with other authors. (He also socked Hemingway in a boxing match, so this was clearly an author to love.)

The book was tender, and thoughtful and snowy. It taught me about the cultural differences both between Canada and the rest of the world and within Canada itself. It also taught me that life is full of desires, but if the people around you don’t share your outlook, you’re doomed. The cross keeps blazing no matter what happens, but the action in the neon lights of jazz clubs is what matters.

So, first time I got a chance to visit Montreal, I chugged two espressos to fight the cold, waited for evening and then went for a walk. Catching my first glimpse of the cross, snow and wind busting my face like Callaghan’s fists, was a truly amazing experience. My friends and I took in a hockey game and some music the same weekend and I felt Callaghan was there with us.

To add one more point, the book was also my first inkling of my future career as a CBC broadcaster. McAlpine works for the CBC, and Callaghan makes clear that this is a great thing. Two years later – after graduating with my degree in English and Philosophy – I walked through the doors of the CBC and asked for a job. 25 years later I’m still there, and still paying visits to Mount Royal whenever I get the chance… Preferably in winter.

“In the sky over the mountain a faint pink streak appeared. The rim of trees was a dark fringe against the pink light. On the mountain slopes the great homes and massive apartments were still in the gray shadow. As sunlight to the east glinted on the canal and touched church spires and towers, the city began to stir with a faint low hum. Monastery bells chimed clearly. The streetcars rattled along St. Catherine; a train pulled into the Windsor Station; all the new morning noises blended into a low rumble, getting louder until the night sound of the trickling water in the gutters was lost in the sounds of the morning.

As the sun touched the top of the mountain and suddenly brightened the snow, McAlpine stopped, watching it intently. He had a swift wild fancy: the streets on the slopes of the mountain were echoing to the pounding of horses’ hoofs. All the proud men on their white horses came storming down the slope of the mountain in a ruthless cavalry charge, the white horses whirling and snorting in the snow. And Peggy was on foot in the snow.”

The Loved and the Lost, by Morley Callaghan, page 256

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Wayson Choy in Vancouver — A Bookmark, a Tribute, a Team

This week, we take a break from our Literary Pilgrimages series to let you know about our newest Bookmark. On October 15th in Vancouver’s Chinatown, Project Bookmark Canada will be unveiling Bookmark 12: Wayson Choy’s The Jade Peony. In addition to being our first Bookmark west of Ontario, and the fact that we are Bookmarking a wonderful story in a fabled locale, we are particularly pleased that this Bookmark will feature two plaque panels: one with the passage in English, and one with the passage in Mandarin.

Thanks to the enthusiasm and resourcefulness of The Asian Canadian Writers’ Workshop, Gung Haggis Fat ChoyHistoric Joy Kogawa House Society and Vancouver Asian Heritage Month Society/explorASIAN, there will also be a special tribute dinner in honour of Wayson Choy on the evening before the unveiling. This is open to the public and proceeds will go to Project Bookmark Canada. If you are in Vancouver, we hope you will join us, to hear from Wayson and many of his literary influences. Thank you to Jim Wong-Chu, Todd Wong and Winnie Cheung for all their incredible work on this event.

Some very devoted people have assisted greatly with bringing this first Bookmark to Vancouver, and I would like to offer them our thanks–inadequate though it is–here. Anna Ling Kaye, writer, Literary Editor of Prism Magazine, President of the Asian Canadian Writers Workshop, founder of Hapapalooza, has taken the Choy Bookmark under her incredibly accomplished wing, doing everything from walking and photographing the site, to meeting with city officials, to arranging for translation assistance. There is no doubt in my mind that this installation would not have happened without Anna’s hard work and enthusiasm. Thank you, Anna.

Hal Wake, Artistic Director of the Vancouver Writers Fest has championed the possibility of Bookmarks in Vancouver since he first learned of our organization a few years ago. As the leader of a large arts organization, he has also greatly added to my understanding of how to shepherd a project from start to finish. As a result, we are bringing you the first Vancouver Bookmark in celebration of the festival’s 25th anniversary. Thank you, Hal.

Bryan Newson at the City of Vancouver has worked diligently to find the space and the resources to host The Jade Peony Bookmark at the corner of Pender and Gore. Thank you, Bryan.

The Metcalf Foundation sparked the funding for this Bookmark with an initial donation to help us take Project Bookmark Canada national. Thank you to Sandy and Kirsten and all.

Building a national network of sites and stories across our country is a huge undertaking and one that can only be realized with an incredible community effort. Thank you to the Vancouver team for Project Bookmark Canada, who are placing a vital stake in that network in this western city.

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Literary Pilgrimages: Kristen den Hartog on LM Montgomery

Fair is fair. A few weeks ago, Kristen den Hartog gave me an opportunity to tell a story on her blog and now I have engaged her to share a story with the Project Bookmark Canada followers. Thanks Kristen!

Kristen den Hartog is a novelist, memoir writer and kids’ book blogger. Her latest novel is And Me Among Them, published in the U.S. as The Girl Giant. Her previous novels are Water Wings, The Perpetual Ending, and Origin of Haloes. The Occupied Garden: A Family Memoir of War-torn Holland, was written with her sister, Tracy Kasaboski, and explores the life of their father’s family during the WW2. They’re now at work on another collaboration about their mother’s side of the family in WW1 London, England. Kristen lives in Toronto with her husband, visual artist Jeff Winch, and their daughter.

Today, Kristen tells us about a literary pilgrimage from her childhood–one that didn’t just open her eyes to a place or to a book, but spoke directly to the writer she herself was growing into.

I had all the stories I put on paper or stored away in my mind for future untangling; words that were and are a kind of sustenance for me, just as they were for LM…

I went on my first literary pilgrimage when I was about nine years old, the age my daughter is now. I was with my mom, my older sister Heidi, and our raven-haired Irish aunt-by-marriage, Elizabeth. With my mom at the wheel, we trailed a trailer from our little town in Deep River, Ontario, all the way to the Maritimes. I’m surprised at how spotty my memory is of age nine, and it makes me wonder, will my daughter Nellie remember so little of the things we do together now?

What I do recall is watching the trees rush by the window, though of course it was us doing the rushing. My glamorous, childless aunt, who lived in Toronto and had not seen a lot of rural Canada, found the endless coniferous trees dark and dreary, just as she found us bratty and bold (we knew because my sister peeked in her diary). The trees went on and on, she said aloud; and we also went on and on, she scribbled privately. At night around the camp fire she and my mom would enjoy a bit of red wine, and I had my first sips on that trip, from a blue plastic cup. It made me swoony, giggly, a feeling I liked and disliked.

I was just the right age to fall in love with red sand and seashells, and with Anne Shirley of Green Gables fame. As souvenirs, my mom bought me a stack of Anne books, and also Emily of New Moon, and Jane of Lantern Hill. I remember loving the titles (Anne of Windy Poplars!) and smelling the pages and admiring the girls on the covers, who wore long, old-fashioned dresses but also exuded freedom and spontaneity.

But more than any of this, I remember a fascination with the author – running a finger over the name L.M. Montgomery and thinking how important it sounded with its initials and multiple syllables. K.C. den Hartog. One day that would be me (as if it wasn’t already).

At nine, I had known for almost half my life that I wanted to be a writer. And my mother indulged me on that trip. We visited “Anne’s house,” which I understood was not really her house because there had never really been an Anne. And yet there it was, in white and green splendour, full of all kinds of things that Anne might have used in her daily life had such a life ever occurred. There was even a Haunted Wood and a Lover’s Lane, and I picked a buttercup and a fern frond that are still stuck in my photo album, labeled with swirly cursive like the letters my daughter makes now.

But it’s not Green Gables that stands out in my memory as a literary pilgrimage. Rather it’s the birthplace of Lucy Maud Montgomery. What I recall is a small house, full of relics that were musty and old; letters and photographs and clothing that might crumble if you touched it. Rooms you could look into but not enter, because they were roped off like at the cinema when you were still too early for the movie. I remember leaning in, wanting to enter, wishing it would come to life as it once had been. Unlike at Anne’s house, here there was the feeling of someone who had actually existed, and now existed no longer.

Though I remember so few details of this place, I know it made me tingle all over with a strange mixture of emotions that I did not quite know what to do with. Whatever I read about LM’s life there – or perhaps my mother read to me, and added her own impressions – left me with the certainty that it had not been a happy life. Her mother died when she was a baby, and her grieving father sent her to be raised by her dour grandparents. She had a long, lonely childhood, made vibrant with imaginary friends, and secret notebooks. This I could relate to – though I was happier, luckier, and came from a brighter world, I still had Deanie, who could only be seen by me. And I had all the stories I put on paper or stored away in my mind for future untangling; words that were and are a kind of sustenance for me, just as they were for LM and her swoony, moony Emily:

“Tell me this,” asks Emily’s teacher. “If you knew you would be poor as a church mouse all your life – if you knew you’d never have a line published – would you still go on writing – would you?”

“Of course I would,” said Emily disdainfully. “Why, I have to write – I can’t help it at times – I’ve just got to.”

“I dare say there’ll be other things to worry me. They keep coming up new all the time—things to perplex you, you know. You settle one question and there’s another right after. There are so many things to be thought over and decided when you’re beginning to grow up. It keeps me busy all the time thinking them over and deciding what is right. It’s a serious thing to grow up, isn’t it, Marilla? But when I have such good friends as you and Matthew and Mrs. Allan and Miss Stacy I ought to grow up successfully, and I’m sure it will be my own fault if I don’t. I feel it’s a great responsibility because I have only the one chance. If I don’t grow up right I can’t go back and begin over again.”

from Anne of Green Gables, by Lucy Maud Montgomery

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Literary Pilgrimages: My Ottawa, by Julie Jacobson

I met Julie two years ago at the unveiling of the Bookmark for Elizabeth Hay’s Garbo Laughs. She told me loved the idea of Project Bookmark Canada and would love to transfer the concept to Chicago. Julie then attended the followup celebration for Liz and her friends. Later that night, I ran into her again, in the audience of the Ottawa International Writers’ Festival. Who was this person, I wondered, who loved books so much?

Well, Julie is a native of Iowa but has called Chicago home for almost 30 years.  She has worked as an attorney, an interior designer and at an independent bookstore. Julie is currently living in Ottawa where her husband David is serving as U.S. Ambassador to Canada.

Julie has been a committed volunteer for The Writers’ Trust of Canada’s Politics and the Pen gala, one of the capital’s most popular charity events. And all across the country I meet people who know her and love her enthusiasm for all things literary and her passion for discovering and appreciating Canada through the work of its writers. Today, I am very pleased to welcome Julie Jacobson to the Bookmark blog, and to have her tell us about her Literary Pilgrimage: Seeing Ottawa through the lens of Andre Alexis’s Asylum.

“It was such a joy to read a novel set in my temporary Northern home. Ottawa has been a surprise and delight from the first night that we arrived.”

My Ottawa

I say “my Ottawa” to distinguish my sentiments from the Ottawa inhabited exquisitely and entirely by novelist Andre Alexis. Over the past three years, I have developed an abiding affection and fascination for this northern capital. My sense is that Ottawans are feeling prouder and more enthusiastic about their city all the time, but still only willing to confess their pride in hushed whispers, accompanied by qualifiers and reservations.

I have travelled Canada, as they say, from coast to coast. In many of my journeys, I have had the opportunity to experience the literary landscapes described by writers from places such as Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, Kingston and Newfoundland.  But it was such a joy to read a novel set in my temporary Northern home. Ottawa has been a surprise and delight from the first night that we arrived. Our plane arrived after 10:00 pm and after a dizzying welcome from Embassy personnel and government protocol staff, we were whisked into a vehicle and driven home to Rockcliffe Park via the Rideau Canal. I was dazzled by the winding waterway interspersed with elegant lampposts and well-proportioned bridges. Of course I only came to love the canal more upon its annual winter metamorphosis into an ice rink and its springtime glory during the Tulip Festival.

After two years of living here, two years of exploration and enlightenment, I was assigned Alexis’s Asylum for my Canlit bookgroup. Written in 2008 but set in the Mulroney-led 1980’s, the book is populated by an entertaining cast of politicians, bureaucrats and cameo players. But I felt that one of the main characters was the city of Ottawa.

Much of the action took place in the neighborhoods between Parliament and the Glebe, with shout-outs to streets like Elgin, Somerset and Gladstone and to local landmarks like the National Arts Centre, the Chateau Laurier and the hills of the Gatineau. He even mentions my favorite magazine store, Mags & Fags on Elgin. Just like watching one of the many films shot in my home city of Chicago and recognizing the neighborhoods depicted, I wanted to shout out as I read, “I’ve been there! I know exactly what he means!”

One of my favorite such moments occurred when two characters were leaving a showing of The Gold Rush at the Towne Theatre in Vanier, and lamented about the poignancy of the Tramp eating his leather shoe. I recently joined a group of friends to see The Gold Rush at the ByTowne (successor to the Towne) and we left the theatre talking about Chaplin eating his shoes. Am I the only one who gets such a kick out of seeing my life reflected so precisely in the pages of a novel?

Reading Asylum did in fact encourage me to follow the footsteps of its characters and discover new and interesting haunts in Ottawa. But more importantly, it helped me think more deeply about the maturing of Ottawa in the past two decades and the relationship of its citizens to the city. In the fictional 1980’s of the book, Ottawa is described as a capital unlike Rome, Paris or St. Petersburg. Instead, it was an industry town that “drank itself, politely but determinedly, insensate every Friday…”

So many of the watering holes, public spaces and of course government offices are the same today as they were two decades ago, but things have changed.

I learned volumes about the political history from this intriguing riff: “With Mackenzie King, Ottawa was paranoid and grey; with Bennett, poor and resentful.  With St. Laurent, the city was optimistic; with Pearson, it would be fresh scrubbed and outward-looking, and with Trudeau, it would become its most splendid self: proud, flamboyant, willful, and secretive.”

Americans, to their shame, are largely ignorant of Canada’s social and political history, and I have made it a personal mission to fill that huge gap in my own knowledge base. Alexis’s brief summary of Ottawa from the 1920’s to the 1980’s spoke volumes to me about the changes in the capital.

My personal experience in Ottawa centers around Sussex Avenue, where the U.S. Embassy is situated. Opened in 1999, it wouldn’t have been part of the streetscape when Alexis’s characters watched the world pass by from Café Wim (now closed) or when they observed the Saudi Celebration Day parade towards the end of the novel.  Writing over a decade later, the book’s narrator looks back on his years in Ottawa and reflects on its changes over time. Ottawans and non-Ottawans alike are always assuring me that the city is way more lively and appealing than it used to be. I didn’t know the city before we arrived, but I have certainly found it to be bustling with creative energy and political intrigue, not to mention a paradise for sports enthusiasts along the many beautiful paths and waterways. Alexis’s character Walter may have contemplated suicide off the Alexandra Bridge; for me, it is the gateway to my favorite bike ride in the city. There is nothing like riding along the boardwalk path and looking east from the Museum of Civilization campus over at the spectacular Parliament buildings.

I do realize that ours is not the typical Ottawa experience, but we have come to feel so integrated into the life of this city. I remember when we lived in Los Angeles for two years, a friend told me that was long enough to “have it in my pocket”. Ottawa will remain in our pocket and in our hearts. With a slight adjustment to the prose, the author captured my feelings about Ottawa perfectly:

“It is lovely to feel that one belongs, that one is necessary to the errant and erratic creations of this city, Ottawa, Ontario…to feel, however briefly, that one would not live anywhere else”.

“He permitted himself to walk in the city.  He went wherever he liked.  There was the walk along the canal:  always along the east side along Colonel By, on the city’s crooked spine, by the houses looking down from Echo Drive, to the Pretoria Bridge, with the university in the distance and Hull beyond.  Or through the experimental farm: along Prince of Wales, past the arboretum, to the pavilion at Dow’s Lake.  Really, it hardly mattered where he went.  The city had its own tone, rhythm, and reason that conflicted or accorded with his own.  It was beautiful or wretched from step to step, moment to moment, and he was part of its conversions.”


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Literary Pilgrimages: The Toronto of Ondaatje and Brand

Welcome to the second installment of our series Literary Pilgrimages, in which we invite readers to tell us how stories and poems drew them to a place or changed their images of it.

Last spring, I gave a talk at the Riverdale Branch of the Toronto Public Library, as part of the Keep Toronto Reading series. The topic was Bookmark 01: In the Skin of a Lion, by Michael Ondaatje. Following the formal discussion, I met one of the participants, Ixchel Cervantes.

Ixchel is originally from Mexico City and is now a Masters student in Translation Studies at Glendon College. Ixchel told me that her love of Michael Ondaatje’s writing had not just sparked her interest in my talk, but drawn her to Toronto itself.

We know she’s not alone in her ramblings directed by words. So please, send us your stories. Project Bookmark Canada tee shirts await you…Take it away, Ixchel!

“I had to come to Canada; I had to see the Toronto of Ondaatje and Brand.”

During my second year of university in my hometown of Mexico City, I had a class with a Canadian teacher who taught us the literature of her country, including the novels In the Skin of a Lion, by Michael Ondaatje and What We All Long For, by Dionne Brand.
Every page of these books seemed like an open invitation. Reading the story of old and new Toronto in the words of these authors was, for me, the best first window to the city. I felt that I had to come to Canada; I had to see the Toronto of Ondaatje and Brand.

Literature has the power to attract our interest and provoke passions to learn more about the world outside. I think writers in Canada are aware of the strengths of their land, the small town or the big metropolis, expanding lines of dialogue between people from different parts of the world.

Living now in the East end of the city I look up every time the subway crosses the Don Valley. I get to see the skyline and imagine all those lives that Michael Ondaatje so beautifully describes, trying to survive the construction of the mythological structure that is the Bloor Viaduct. And at any day strolling through the downtown area, I can see the Toronto as described by Dionne Brand on the faces of young friends, in the sound of a streetcar passing by, in the smells of the restaurants, and the energy of its citizens.

“He came to this country like a torch on fire and he swallowed air as he walked forward and he gave out light. Energy poured through him. That was all he had time for in those years. Language, customs, family, salaries. Patrick’s gift, that arrow into the past, shows him the wealth in himself, how he has been sewn into history. Now he will begin to tell stories.”

In the Skin of a Lion, page 149


“What floats in the air on a subway train like this is chance. People stand or sit with the thin magnetic film of their life wrapped around them. They think they’re safe, but they know they’re not. Any minute you can crash into someone else’s life, and if you’re lucky, it’s good, it’s like walking on light.”

What We All Long For, page 5

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Literary Pilgrimages: The Edible Woman

As some of you may know, in addition to being a reader and a lover of Canada’s stories and spaces, I’m also a writer, and this fall I’ll be spending a lot of time on the road, reading from my new book, a collection of stories called Sleeping Funny.

So, I am very pleased to welcome some other voices to this space for a new series, Literary Pilgrimages. Here, readers will introduce us to a book that inspired them to visit a location, or to re-visit it, with fresh (story-opened) eyes. Maybe it will inspire some pilgrimages and reading of your own — or a piece for the series itself. Let me know. (There’s a tee shirt in it, for you!)

For our first installment, please welcome Lorna Bowker Pennie. Lorna is an avid reader living in the Hamilton area. She’s a fan of local writers, especially her husband Ross Pennie, an infectious disease specialist and author of the Dr. Zol Szabo medical mysteries.  Lorna also became a Bookmark devotee when she attended the unveiling of our second Bookmark, for Terry Griggs’s Rogues’ Wedding in Owen Sound.

Today, Lorna tells us about the book that inspired a mini quest: The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood.

“…I imagined sharing Singapore Slings with Marian, The Edible Woman‘s reluctant heroine.”

In the mid-70s, while living in Edmonton, I loved The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood and its scenes in the rooftop bar at the Park Plaza Hotel. When I moved to Toronto, top of my list of must-sees was that bar. There, I imagined sharing Singapore Slings with Marian, The Edible Woman’s reluctant heroine.

The place became a favourite haunt, and I returned to it often, rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous, real and imagined. I took my future husband there on one of our first dates. I know that Marian, despite her distrust in relationships, would have approved how everything turned out.

“The next morning, however, when she opened her soft-boiled egg and saw the yolk looking up at her with its one significant and accusing yellow eye, she found her mouth closing together like a frightened sea-anemone.  It’s living; it’s alive, the muscle in her throat said, and tightened.  She pushed the dish away. Her conscious mind was used to the procedure by now. She sighed with resignation and crossed one more item off the list.”

The Edible Woman, by Margaret Atwood
page 174

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