March 2015
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All the Broken Things by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer

There is Bo. Bo and Peter and Ernie.  Bo and Teacher. Rose and Bo. Bo and Orange. Gerry and Bo.  Lorelei and Bo.  Max and Gerry. Bo and Bear. Max and Rose. Max and Thao. Rose and Bo. Max and Orange. Gerry and Lorelie.  Soldier Man.  Bo and Bear and Soldier Man.  Emily. Bo. Orange.

All the Broken ThingsAll the Broken Things.

This book had a very powerful effect on me for a number of reasons. Initially, it was the character of Bo and his relationship with Bear. “Bo is fourteen years old and the bear not a year.” But even before this I was intrigued by the Author’s Note, part of which follows:

“The strangest of the truths in this novel are the facts of a bear wrestling circuit in Ontario, the production of Agent Orange in the small town of Elmira, Ontario, and freak shows at the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE).

Ontario outlawed bear wrestling when a bear mauled the trainer’s fiancée to death in 1976. Freak shows were a huge attraction at the CNE, with many freaks making their international debuts in Canada, and only ended in 1979. Agent Orange was produced by Uniroyal (now Chemtura) in Elmira under contract for the U.S. military for the purpose of defoliating the jungles of Vietnam during the war.” …

Chemical manufacturers knew that the dioxin in Agent Orange was both carcinogenic and mutagenic. Some 83 million litres of the poison was dropped onto South Vietnam from 1961 to 1971. The victims of Agent Orange have not been properly acknowledged and the legacy of Agent Orange continues, as the chemical works its way through a third generation of exposed Vietnamese citizens. Canada has never admitted any responsibility for this.”

In my pre-teen years I attended the CNE every year and I do remember the advertising boards for some of the freak shows. I may have been in to see one of the displays but that could be my imagination: I did not recall this until I read the Author’s Note reproduced above.

Just yesterday, I read part of an article in the New Internationalist (NI 481 April 2015) which is a report on Monsanto and other biotech giants. I was struck by the following: Monsanto’s main rival Dow, created a new herbicide (in response to the crisis in GM agriculture in which thousands of hectares of crops are being damaged by superweeds such as palmer amaranth, marestail and ryegrass) Enlist Duo – a combination of glyphosate and 2,4-D,…the two main chemical ingredients of Agent Orange.”

Inspite of all the negativity and discouragement a reader might absorb from the above information, this book remains an inspiration and a source of hope and I believe that is directly due to the author’s skilled creation and presentation of her characters including the bears and the “freaks” and their keepers/caregivers.

Bo and his  parents left Vietnam by boat but his father was already ill when they left and he died on the journey. Bo’s mother was pregnant. Mother and son eventually arrived in Canada where they were sponsored by a church organization. A small bungalow was provided and Bo’s mother paid rent. She had a small ancestral altar in a corner. The small family worked very hard at being good citizens. They spoke English at home. Rose worked as a cleaner in a hospital.

In the first chapter, as Rose leaves for work, she calls back to Bo: “Check on Sister when you get home.” Sister was Orange and Bo needed no reminder to take care of her.

“Bo’s sister’s name meant Orange Blossom in Vietnamese so he called her Orange. Rose called her Sister. Orange was their family tragedy. The one they mustn’t mention to others. Orange was unspeakable and unspeaking. She could not see very well and was all wrong, every part of her.”

When Bo came home from school, “he found Orange in her bedoom on her mattress, rocking. Her eyes were pushed so far out of their sockets she looked Martian. He might look weird to Orange through her convex eyes, he thought, flattened jout, unreal. He lay on the mattress and curved in toward her. He hoped this made her feel safe. She was four years old.”

This is only one of several beautiful and compassionate relationships in this book. Bo would make a wonderful role model for all of us although he would be the last person to see himself that way.

Just a week or so ago,  another book about Vietnamese immigrants was chosen on Canada Reads 2015 as the best of five presented as a possibility to break barriers about a particular issue. That book was Ru by Kim Thúy: the jacket describes it as “a lullaby for Vietnam and a love letter to a new homeland.” This book tells another version of the Vietnamese immigrant experience in Canada and would make an excellent companion read to Ru. Both have important messages. Have you read another title that would add to the story?

Between by Angie Abdou

The epigraph for part one of this novel is a Filipino proverb: When the blanket is short, learn how to bend.

And for part two: She who does not speak has something  boiling up inside.

Part three is a quotation from the Sprucedale Nanny Agency: A nanny shouldBetween respect family rules, keep matters in the home confidential, and communicate any concerns about the children. Open communication is the key to a strong relationship. Engage the nanny in daily discussions about the children’s schedule and behaviour. It’s also a good idea to schedule regular meetings with your nanny. If you have concerns about your nanny’s work, be direct, but don’t air conflicts in front of the children.  Above all, treat your nanny fairly. A family that treats a nanny with respect will benefit ten times over in her treatment of their children and themselves. She’ll bend over backwards for you.

Part four’s epigraph is taken from a travel brochure for the Hedonism II resort attended by the parents in this novel: Hedonism is a sandbox for your inner child, nourishment for the mind,body, spirit, and soul.  Pleasure comes in many forms. Choose one. Or two. Or more. And with absolutely everything included in one upfront price, you never have to think about money. Not even tips. Just what to do next. And when.

Part five is another Filipino proverb: Where there is home, there is hope.

It is quite possible to study the five epigraphs and formulate your own story. Try it. Each attempt will be slightly different. What would you write in each part? Well, perhaps you’ve never had a nanny but you knew someone who did. Chances may be even higher that you haven’t been to a resort like Hedonism II but…..there is your imagination. The other three are easier though eh?

What you might write will be part of your story and what Angie Abdou has done is give us the complicated story of two women, Vero and Ligaya as the former adjusts to having a third person in her home caring for her children and the latter adjusts to being away from her home and family and trying to understand and circumnavigate a somewhat foreign cultural milieu as well as earn money for her own family.

We meet Vero’s boys, Eliot and Jamal, her husband Shane the pharmacist, her friend Joss and we meet Ligaya who becomes LiLi in her new country and we meet her friend Cheska in whose face Ligaya sees “a mirror of herself” and who both agree that it would take them a lifetime to learn all the silly rules that govern North American conversation and relationships.

Here’s a wee taste of Ligaya and Cheska’s time when Vero and Shane go away to the resort:

“Even with Vero and Shane away, Ligaya feels that Cheska’s presence in the house is a transgression. Cheska is not Shane’s friend and this is Shane’s house. Still, Ligaya puts a matress on the floor of the sitting room, by Shane’s weights, and invites Cheska to stay overnight. “Cheska will be our secret,” she says to Eliot and Jamal. “Part of the Philippines game.” Cheska looks much like Ligaya, could be a younger sister, but Cheska smiles more than Ligaya does. Cheska eats more too and talks more. Cheska does everything more. “Eliot and Jamal will not tell,” Ligaya assures her. “They know this word, sumbungero.” Tattletale. “My boys are no  tattletales.” Eliot and Jamal like secrets and they like an extra nanny in the basement, as if their Ligaya has multiplied. Twice the tickles, twice the admiration, twice the treats, twice the applause at their mastery of tricky words like sumbungero.

The balance drawn Between the main characters is delicate and impartial in my opinion: the reader is able to see the situation from all sides including the children’s point of view. I found the most satisfying aspects of this presentation of a complicated situation to be the balance just mentioned along with the fact that everyone in the novel experiences personal growth and this makes it a very satisfying and uplifting read.


-from the telephone interview Vero has with Ligaya:

“Do you like hiking, Ligaya? I go every day on beautiful trails through the woods. You could come with me.” Vero wonders if the neighbours would approve of this word she uses to describe her sporadic and loud barefooted bolts into the woods.

“Hiking?” Ligaya’s voice wavers, uncertain. Vero has veered from the script (provided by the nanny agency). She imagines Ligaya looking at the administrator in the Hong Kong agency, a question in her eyes.”

After more vigorous description oh her hiking activities which sounds somewhat like an infomercial and includes a reference to sweating buckets, Ligaya responds:

“Oh, ma’am, that sounds very funny. In my country, we sweat when we work. I have never sweat for the fun.” There’s an echoing pause on the line, and then she adds, “But if you like, I come with you ma’am.”

They Called Me Number One by Bev Sellars

The subtitle of this memoir published by Talon Books is “Secrets and Survival at an Indian Residential School”. The forward is by Hemas Kla-Lee-Lee-Kla (Chief Bill Wilson) and the very informative afterward is written by Wendy Wickwire.

Here’s the first paragraph of the Foreword by Bill Wilson:

“In this book, Chief Bev Sellars shines light on one of the darkest periods of They Called Me Number OneCanadian history. To me, the residential schools were horrific violations of humanity comparable to the Holocaust and based on the similarly ridiculous assumption that one race and its society are superior to all others. This wrong-headed thinking is the foundation upon which Department of Indian Affairs policy in Canada is based, and nowhere has this stupidity been expressed more blatantly than in the cesspool of mental, physical, and sexual abuse at the residential schools.”

In her Preface to the book, Bev Sellars writes: “I started writing this book in the early 1990s when our communities first began to explore and deal with the aftermath of the Indian residential schools, in our case, St. Joseph’s Mission in Williams Lake, British Columbia. I quickly changed my mind when a close relative angrily said to me, “I heard you are writing a book. Boy, you better not be writing about me!” This reaction caused me to reconsider making my – our – story public, but I continued putting my thoughts and memories on paper.”

Inspite of discouraging opposition and criticism, Sellars concluded that she had to write the book and share it with others. I am tempted to quote her entire preface here but you can read it for yourself if you have an interest. I would encourage you to read it and think honestly about how it should make us feel as Canadians.  This book can expand our knowledge of our country and teach us to understand why aboriginal Canadians are angry and hopefully contribute to a new respect for the challenges and abuse they experienced in the residential schools.

The author sums up her experience and that of many other Aboriginal people quite clearly: “I read somewhere that everyone is born with the potential for success and it is only through life’s experiences that we develop or destroy that potential. For many Aboriginal people, our most vulnerable and impressionable years, our childhood years, were spent at residential schools. Our mental, emotional, and spiritual growth was extremely stunted because of the way we were treated there.”

Shortly after they arrived at residential school, each child was given a number that would be their identity for the rest of their school years. The priests and nuns never used the childrens’ names. “Ninety or more years after she left the St. Joseph’s Mission school, my [Bev’s]grandmother still remembered her number – 27 – and – 28 – the number assigned to her sister Annie. My [Bev’s] mom remembers her number was 71. Thankfully, our numbers were not tattooed on our skin.”

This book is much more than a memoir of the residential school experience. It is a fascinating family history with six generations shown on a family tree, a valuable map of First Nations Attending St. Joseph’s Mission(Cariboo) Residential School and also a map showing the location of Coqualeetza Indian Tuberculosis Hospital where the author spent some time. In addition there is  a detailed and  inspiring account of the author’s career and educational experience after the years at the residential school including her account of running for and holding the office of chief at the age of 31. She served in this capacity for six years during which time the tribal council began to examine the issues surrounding the residential schools and also took part in a major justice inquiry investigating the relationship between the Caribou-Chilcotin people and the government of British Columbia. She gave the opening remarks at the first National Conference on Residential Schools in Vancouver in June 1991. She earned a law degree from the University of British Columbia and she worked for the B.C. Treaty Commission in Vancouver.

If you know only bits and pieces about the residential school issue this would be a good place to start if you’d like to be better informed. Bev Sellars is someone you will enjoy getting to know.



The Light Between Oceans by M.L.Stedman

The story opens in 1926 but Tom Sherbourne actually met Isabel near the end of 1920 on the “long, thin jetty at Point Partageuse” where she was “feeding bread to a flock of seagulls. She was lauging as she threw each crust in a different direction and watched the birds squabble and screech, eager for a prize. ”

“It seemed years since Tom had heard a laugh that wasn’t tinged with a roughness, a bitterness….Only gradually did he notice she was pretty. And more gradually that she was probably beautiful.”

She offered him bread and he replied that he was not hungry.

“Not for you silly! To feed the seagulls.” And they had a contest to see which of them could get more birds to come to them. When the bread was gone, Tom asked her who had won.

“Oh, I forgot to judge.” The girl shrugged. “Let’s call it a draw.”

Tom wished her a good afternoon and the story was set in motion.  Feel like a movie? Well, that is going to happen apparently in 2016 with Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander already cast as Tom and Isabel. I highly recommend you read the book first given that books so often either complete movies or, most certainly, clarify their plot lines.

The setting is Australia’s southwest tip in a lighthouse on Janus Rock and a Light Between Oceanssmall town called Point Partageuse, named by French explorers.  A map is provided at the beginning of the book and this is something I always appreciate.

Janus Rock lighthouse had been built in 1889 and held the graves of sailors who had foundered on the rocks off Point Partageuse. The lighthouse “sat solidly in the middle of the small island (about a square mile), the keeper’s cottage and outbuildings hunkered down beside the lighthouse, cowed from decades of lashing winds.”

Tom had served on the Western Front during the first world war and when he came home he applied to the Commonwealth Lighthouse Service. He had an honourable discharge and preference was given in the lighthouse service to ex-service men. He got a six months’ relief posting on the New South Wales coast and then a posting on Maatsuyker, a wild island off Tasmania.

Tom wasn’t physically wounded during the war but he had wounds nonetheless and he figured if he could get far enough away from people and from memory then time would heal.

Janus Rock was not a popular posting: it had a Grade One hardship rating which translated into a higher salary. The present keeper was being put on a six months’ medical leave and although a married man was preferred, Tom was sent out as temporary keeper.

On the way to the southeast shore and Partageuse Tom was part of an incident on board the S.S.Prometheus which speaks succinctly to his character. He sort of rescued a female passenger from the advances of a crew member who had been drinking and had entered her cabin. Tom removed the nuisance and tried to set the woman at ease.

“I’d say he’s not the full quid now.”  The woman’s eyes asked a question.

“Being over there changes a man. Right and wrong won’t look so different anymore to some.” He assures the woman she has every right to have the man up on charges although Tom figures the man probably had enough troubles already. Tom has no difficulty seeing several sides of problems and this will effect the course of his life as the story progresses. It will actually change the course of his life and his primary relationships.

This story is a romance and a mystery, a philosophical conundrum, a source of information about lighthouse keepers and the lives they live particularly in an isolated Grade One hardship posting and a social commentary on life immediately following the first world war in small town Australia. The landscape is a strong character in the book and holds out considerable promise for a movie as well.

A great story which will have you asking: what would I have done in Isabel and Tom’s shoes?

Some quotes from the book:

Isabel’s mother to Isabel’s dad re the “propriety of Isabel’s sudden “stepping out” with Tom: “Life’s a short thing. She’s a sensible girl and she knows her own mind. Besides, there’s little enough chance these days of her finding a man with all his limbs attached.”

On the ocean in general: “There are times when the ocean is not the ocean – not blue, not even water, but some violent explosion of energy and danger: ferocity on a scale only the gods can summon. It hurls itself at the island, sending spray right over the top of the lighthouse, biting pieces off the cliff. And the sound is a roaring beast whose anger knows no limits. Those are the nights the light is needed most.”

On the town of Partageuse: “The town draws a veil over certain events. This is a small community where everyone knows that sometimes the contract to forget is as important as any promise to remember. Children can grow up having no knowledge of the indiscretion of their father in his youth, or of the illegitimate sibling who lives fifty miles away and bears another man’s name. History is that which is agreed upon by mutual consent.”



The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King

Inconvenient IndianThomas King explains in the Prologue called Warm Toast and Porcupines that “the underlying narrative is a series of conversations and arguments that I have been having with myself and others for most of my adult life, and if there is any methodology in my approach to the subject, it draws more on storytelling techniques than historiography. A good historian would have tried to keep biases under control. A good historian would have tried to keep personal anecdotes in check. A good historian would have provided footnotes.

I have not.”

He continues: “And, while I’m making excuses, I suppose I should apologize if my views cause anyone undue distress. But I hope we can agree that any discussion of Indians in North America is likely to conjure up a certain amount of rage. And sorrow. Along with moments of irony and humour.”

I love it that he puts the “u” in humour!

Also in the Prologue there follows an interesting discussion about terminology and in particular about the word “Indian”. King says he doesn’t “see that one term is much better or worse than another” and that he is fond of “First Nations” (“the current term of choice in Canada”) and “Native Americans” (“the fashionable preference in the United States”). His conclusion? “For all its faults and problems – especially in Canada – “Indian,”as a general designation, remains for me, at least, the North American default.” This neat clarification of issues of terminology sets the stage nicely for a discussion in which every one knows where the author stands and, I think, very successfully and cleverly defuses the likelihood of arousing ire that clouds the much bigger issues/questions to be considered.

Then he goes on to clarify a much more important matter: “While we have dispensed with guns and bugles, and while North America’s sense of its own superiority is better hidden, its disdain muted, twenty-first century attitudes towards Native people are remarkably similar to those of the previous centuries.”

The final point clarified in the Prologue is an interesting one: why did King decide to “to take on both Canada and the United States at the same time.” This is what he has to say: “For most Aboriginal people, that line doesn’t exist. It’s a figment of someone else’s imagination. Historical figures such as Chief Joseph and Sitting Bull and Louis Riel moved back and forth between the two countries, and while they understood the importance of that border to Whites, there is nothing to indicate that they believed in its legitimacy.

I get stopped every time I try to cross that border, but stories go wherever they please.”

Chapter One(Forget Columbus) starts out with a quotation from a work by Jeanette Armstrong which is particulary well chosen for this work:

Out of the belly of Christopher’s shipKing #2
a mob bursts
Running in all directions
Pulling furs off animals
Shooting buffalo
Shooting each other

Pioneers and traders
bring gifts
Smallpox, Seagrams
and rice krispies
Civilization has reached
the promised land.

My apologies if that’s too many quotations so far: I really do believe the words of the author and the work of others he or she chooses to include speaks strongly about the character of the book itself so you need to sample those two things much more than you need to listen to me . Like his definition of history: “History may well be a series of stories we tell about the past, but the stories are not just any stories. They’re not chosen by chance. By and large, the stories are about famous men and celebrated events. We throw in a couple of exceptional women every now and then, not out of any need to recognize female eminence, but out of embarrassment.
And we’re not easily embarrassed.”

King suggests we forget about Columbus and start our historical account in Almo, Idaho. He’s never been there he says and neither has Christopher Columbus nor Jacques Cartier or Samuel de Champlain or David Thompson or Hernando Cortes. He thinks Sacajewea along with Lewis and Clark might have passed through the area but the town wasn’t yet built. All Almo is famous for, he writes, is an Indian massacre in which almost 300 westward bound immigrants were killed. A plaque commemorates the event. More statistics are presented about massacres and these are followed by some figures for massacres which were not about Indians doing the killing including one in 1598 in New Mexico in which 800 Acoma and the left foot of every man over the age of twenty-five was cut off. These are extremely sobering statistics.

Oh and yes, apparently the Almo massacre never happened. What do you mean you say? Well, you can check it out in The Inconvenient Indian, pages 4 to 6 in the hard cover version.

The book is packed full of interesting data such as history of the Wild West show, the story of the twentieth century’s most famous Indian image, James Earle Fraser’s 1915 sculpture The End of the Trail, the image of Indians in the movies, relocation programs of the Mi’kmaq and many others, extermination and assimilation policies, apologies for deplorable practices in residential school etc.

Then there is the matter of Prime Minister Harper’s statement at the G20 Summit in Philadelphia that blatantly stated that Canadians “have no history of colonialism.”  WHAT! Where on earth is the man’s head and what qualifies him to represent all Canadians?  How shameful!

I could go on and on but I won’t. You probably need to read this for yourself. And while you are at it do gather some of Thomas King’s fine fiction and prepare to kick off your shoes and laugh heartily.King #3King #4King#1

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