Wow – Canada!

Canada through the eyes of world literature

Archive for the month “October, 2013”

The Menace of Ontario

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Stella Gibbons, Cold Comfort Farm (1932)

I might as well begin by confessing that I came to this book through the film, which I saw years ago and don’t remember much about, other than the line, “I saw something nasty in the woodshed.” The novel itself, according to the back cover blurb, is “a dazzling parody of the earthy, melodramatic novels” that were popular around the time Gibbons wrote it. It takes place in a village called Howling, has characters with names like Aunt Ada Doom (she’s the one who saw something in the woodshed) and Starkadder and … well, you probably get the idea, and if you don’t, you can always read the book (or watch the movie).

Canada doesn’t play a large role in the novel, alas, but we do get in for a quick one-liner:

‘Curious how Love destroys every vestige of that politeness which the human race, in its years of evolution, has so painfully acquired,’ reflected Flora, as she leaned out of the carriage window and observed the faces of Bikki and Swooth. ‘Shall I tell them that Mig is expected home from Ontario tomorrow? No, I think not. It would be downright sadistic.’  (31)

It’s hard to draw too much out of that reference, but the fact that telling them Mig is returning would be “sadistic” indicates that no one wants to spend any time in her company; the fact that she’s returning from Ontario would seem to suggest that Canada is a sort of catch-all for unwanted, awful relatives, who are sent there so decent people don’t have to put up with them, except on the rare and much-dreaded occasions when they return to visit.

In the context, Canada is probably meant to call to mind associations of wildness and a lack of civility – a colonial wasteland where the civilizing touches that make English life so refined are unheard-of. This is hardly unusual; in fact, it was probably a fairly common view of our country even as late as 1932 – and even as late as today, perhaps? – but it’s hard to feel that Gibbons put much thought into the reference; it’s more of a throwaway.

And doesn’t that, in a way, say more than anything else could about the position Canada occupied in the author’s mind? Ontario was a distant place brought in to add point to a joke; having served its purpose, it was promptly forgotten.

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Hooray for Alice!

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Here at Wow – Canada! we recognize that we’re coming a little late to the “Hooray for Alice Munro” party – although we hope we’re still early enough to be considered fashionably late.

As a Canadian writer, Munro clearly doesn’t fall into our purview, which is references to Canada in books by non-Canadians. We do occasionally make exceptions, however, and as the first Canadian to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, Munro certainly seems worthy of an exception. So congratulations to her. Perhaps she’ll mark the beginning of a run of Canadian winners.

I won’t try to analyze what the award “means,” or make any obvious remarks about how setting her stories (mainly) in small-town Ontario “put Canada on the literary map” or anything like that. But as Canadian book-lovers, we can all relax a little now that our country has produced a Nobel Prize winner.

As for the image above, Lives of Girls and Women is my favourite Munro book – I think because the structure of linked short stories makes it a little more like a novel than a typical story collection. (I have to admit, short stories are my least favourite literary form; interestingly, Russell Smith argues that Munro’s win is not just a victory for Canada, but also a victory for the short story.) I wanted to use a photo of my copy, but I couldn’t find it, so I borrowed this image from another blog because this is the cover on the edition I own. It looks like it was a calculated attempt to cross over into the romance novel market; I bought mine at some university book sale years ago when I needed it for my mandatory Can Lit class. (You couldn’t get an English degree without at least one full credit in Canadian Literature – though as I hope this blog suggests, we can still learn something about our country by reading non-Canadian writers.) Is it needless to point out that the book is better than this cover suggests?

No doubt there will soon be an elegant new edition graced with one of those “Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature” stamps. Perhaps there already is.

Peace, Health Care and Doughnuts

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Gregg Easterbrook, “Tuesday Morning Quarterback” (October 1, 2013)

Ah, Tim Horton’s: that glowing beacon of Canadian identity.

We’ve already discussed the (aborted) Canadian connection of the TV series “The Bridge”, of course, but in one of those curious instances that proves great minds think alike (or fools seldom differ?), Gregg Easterbrook, in this week’s “Tuesday Morning Quarterback” column, has hit on the same thing:

FX’s “The Bridge” is a remake of a Scandinavian television show about a crime at a bridge between Denmark and Sweden. Before centering the remake on a bridge between Texas and Mexico, producers first proposed using the bridge between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario. A hyper-violent crime drama about U.S.-Canadian relations — there’s no minimum to the potential ratings of that concept. A cross-border tunnel between a Texas ranch and a Mexican cartel’s hideout, used to smuggle heroin, figures in “The Bridge” plot. If the Detroit-Windsor setting had been chosen, it would have been a tunnel into a Tim Horton’s doughnut shop, used to smuggle government-financed Canadian prescription drugs.

Packed into that one small paragraph (which is illustrated with the Tim Horton’s photo above) are a number of typical clichés about Canada. The main idea – that Canada is a totally uninteresting place and that a crime drama about our country would serve no other purpose beyond that of a soporific – comes through clearly in the phrase about there being “no minimum to the ratings potential” of the idea. Clearly, Easterbrook sees Canada as a squeaky-clean, law-abiding place where nothing bad ever happens. It’s almost enough to make one ashamed of our peaceful nation. You feel like crying out, “Hey, we have crime too, you know!” But what’s the point?

But Easterbrook really distinguishes himself in the last sentence, where he manages to bring in a reference to our “government-financed” health care system, and also Tim Horton’s doughnuts. Health care, needless to say, has come up before, but the doughnuts idea is a new one. The corporate overlords at Tim Horton’s must be thrilled to see that their brand is indelibly associated with Canada in the minds of Americans – or are they?

A recent article suggests Tim Horton’s expansion into the U.S. is a failure; could the brand’s connection to Canada, and our uninteresting, crime-free image, be part of the problem? Perhaps doughnuts just taste better when the threat of death feels a little more imminent.

At least Easterbrook spells it “doughnut” rather than “donut”, coming down on the right side of that heated debate.

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