Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Conversations With a Dead Man

Conversations With A Dead Man

Mark Abley



All Canadians are aware of the misery exacted on little children in the Indian Residential Schools.  But many do not know the name of the man who oversaw these institutions: Deputy Superintendent-General Duncan Campbell Scott.  If they have heard the name, it is probably because he was one of Canada's most famous poets and received Honorary Doctorates from Queen's and McGill Universities.

This book resurrects Scott, accuses him and allows him to mount his own defense.  In an original and engaging literary conceit, he makes a dozen visits to the home of the author in a quest to understand his posthumous notoriety and clear his name.  In their conversations, we learn about his life, his passions and sorrows, and the job that he held for fifty years.

The themes are original and serious.  The major consideration is the sin of omission, of not taking leadership and turning a blind eye.  We are led to consider the weight of judgement passed by one generation on another.  The other major theme, of course, is racism, particularly the form inherent in a colonialist attitude.

The picture that Abley presents of racism in colonizing nations is not new to older readers, but the details he has assembled are impressive in their severity and scope.  A lot of research lies behind this book and the information is appalling to our modern sensibilities.  Further research is made easy by a very readable list of sources.

As I got into the book, I was engrossed by the dilemma:  Was Abley going to find Scott guilty as charged, or unfairly targeted in a society that mirrored his values?

There is a lot to be said in Scott's defense.  He was a man of his time, reflecting the mores of his generation.  Worse things were done to aboriginal people in Australia, the United States and Africa.  At least, Canada's Indian population did not die out.

The verdict is against Scott in the end.  He is guilty of sins of omission.  But his own defense is sympathetically presented.  Abley's own convictions have condemned Scott, but the door is left open for argument.

In the present political climate in Canada, it would have been difficult for Abley to have reached any other verdict without drawing fire upon himself. The residential school system is the current whipping post for all the problems which the aboriginal population is suffering  today.  The horrors described to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission make it hard to forgive any aspect of the programme.
We know that the problems facing Canada's Indians are complex and go beyond the abuses and assumptions of the residential schools.  Abley concentrates on the repressive programmes for which Scott was responsible during his time at Indian Affairs.  It is a complicated challenge that he has set for himself.
The writing is nicely balanced between dialogue in the present and factual accounts of the history of Canada's Indian policies.   Scott, the person behind the policies, is brought to life clearly, and we can picture his brooding figure treading the Ottawa streets that we know today.

I found the theme of judgement by one generation upon another a disquieting one.  We may smugly condemn the attitudes and actions of the past, but how will our descendants judge us?  In our time it is impossible not to know about suffering and injustice here in Canada and around the world.  What do we do about it?  We know that we are ruining earth's climate in our culture of consumption.  What will our grandchildren have to say about us, who are guilty of the same sins of omission and laissez-faire with which Scott is condemned?  In Abley's last meeting with Scott, there  is an expectation that the two will meet again in an afterlife, and the implication is made that we will all face a judgement by future generations.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

Jamie Ford


This book has a very good title.  Henry, the protagonist, has had a life with happiness and disappointments, and much of the setting involves an old hotel in Seattle.  The title sums up many aspects of the story.


The setting is Chinatown and Japantown in Seattle during WWII, and there is some history to be learned here.  The problem with the book is explained in an interview with the author at the end, in which Ford explains his writing process.  He says that as he writes, he focusses on the ending, and that is the impression I got as I read.  Ford is trying so hard to move along his plot, that he has not allowed his characters to develop.  They are just implements to move the plot along.  They have been assigned certain traits and speak the lines assigned to them, but they are not complex or interesting.  Their interactions serve to move the plot in the direction Ford has determined, and they all turn out to be pretty dull puppets.  Even the plot is not well handled because there is a lot of action concerning the protagonist's proposed trip to China and that goes nowhere.  Similarly, there is supposed to be some friction between the main character, Henry, and his son, Marty, but there is nothing substantive to indicate the source of this problem.


 I think that Ford does not have an interest in his characters beyond their contribution to his plot.  He decided to write a book about star-crossed lovers set during WW II when the government was relocating Japanese Americans to internment camps.  He did some historical research, but research and a plot don't make a novel.  The book reads like a classroom project, and Ford needs more lessons in character development.  Or he needs more wisdom and insight about the human condition to move beyond stereotypes.


In brief, Henry is a Chinese American enrolled in an all-white school.  He has to work in the school cafeteria and there he meets Keiko, a Japanese American also at the school on a "scholarship."  Their friendship blossoms into romance, despite the opposition of Henry's father, for whom the Japanese atrocities in China are vivid memories. There is conflict between Henry and his father. Keiko and her family are relocated to an internment camp, the two school children lose touch, Henry marries Ethel, a Chinese American, they have a child, Marty, Ethel dies, and Henry's thoughts go back to his first girlfriend.  The setting recreates the international nature of Seattle before the war, and the jazz music popular at the time.  There are two characters of some interest: Sheldon, a black trombone player, and Mrs. Beatty who runs the school cafeteria.


An irritant to me are the "Reading Group Questions" at the back.   The writer and publisher are assuming too much about the quality of their book and too little about the intelligence of their readership.  On what basis was it decided that this book would be good material for a reading group?