Canada, by way of stories
I am an unabashed admirer of books. A bookworm, if you will. I think stories – whether real-life accounts of ones that have been lived or stories which are the result of mere imagination – are arguably humanity’s greatest possession. I call them a possession and not invention because I do not think humans invented storytelling per se. I think stories – just like language and self-awareness, for reasons beyond us – are part of our fabric. They go back to the very earliest of our species, and have bound people together since the dawn of humankind. I think as soon as we learnt how to communicate, we learnt how to tell stories. Sometimes I like to imagine the first people who spoke, what did those first conversations looks like? I have no doubt that stories – even of the day just passed, the events just occurred – were a central part.
Stories are one of the most powerful ways to capture the essence of culture, and make that essence communicable to others. They are one of the most effective ways we can learn about the experiences of those who belong to other cultures, enable us to gain a deeper appreciation of their world. I am a lover of both stories and experiencing different cultures (can you tell? I’ve only relocated to live somewhere new four times now) so it is only natural that upon moving to Canada, I set about becoming properly acquainted with the country by reading some quality Canadian narratives.
These two particular narratives could not be much more different. Both are from admirable Canadian women, but that’s about where the similarities cease. The two books speak to entirely different experiences… they hark from opposite sides of the country; one is fact, the other, fiction; one is nearly a century old, the other much more recent, but a story for the ages. They both came to me by way of a personal recommendation from the same individual, and both moved me in equal amounts, for very different reasons.
THE BLUE CASTLE
by L.M. Montgomery (1926)
This book is Montgomery’s only novel for adults. The author is best known for her beloved Anne of Green Gables series, wildly successful the world over and – with an adapted TV series, Anne with an E, currently in the midst of its third season – still enjoying popularity over a century after being published. Montgomery put the breathtaking landscapes of Canada’s Maritimes on the map with her Anne series, and she shines a spotlight on another of the country’s most beautiful regions in The Blue Castle, set against the wilds of the Ontario Muskoka province.
Unlike the feisty red-headed protagonist for which Montgomery is most known, Valancy Stirling at the heart of this story is anything but feisty when we meet her on the dawn of her twenty ninth birthday. Until now she has led a painfully dull existence, oppressed by the expectations and restrictions placed on upper middle class women in western society during the twenties. Living with a mother who never misses an opportunity to bemoan her poor luck for having an “old maid” as her only daughter, Valancy has accepted her fate to live a decidedly mundane life devoid of joy or passion. On the day of her birthday however, a personal discovery shakes Valancy to her core. The event smashes down the confines of her world, drawing her out of her small life, and thrusting her down an unexpected path. Possessed of a fresh outlook and no patience for the rules which have walled her world before now, things seem to transform from black and white to colour overnight, and we follow Valancy through the beautiful year that follows.
Consider yourself warned: this book and its writing style are cheesy with a capital C to the modern reader, as is to be expected of a novel from 1926. It made me laugh a little initially, but it simply has to be embraced in order to fully enjoy the story.
I loved Valancy for her sheer love of life. She is feisty in a time and society where she was expected to be anything but. She takes her destiny and happiness into her own hands, and it’s simply lovely to read. Valancy’s newfound wonder in the things around her results in some of the most evocative descriptions of people, places and events (perhaps my favourite example of which I have shared in the below quote). Montgomery uses words to paint scenes of the Ontario countryside which are unparalleled by any I’ve read, and were particularly special to read while in beautiful cottage country myself.
The Blue Castle is essentially a love letter to the beauty of the region, and a delightful reminder to not take anything for granted and find joy in the world around us; a reminder I found hard to shake after turning the final page.
THEY CALLED ME NUMBER ONE
by Bev Sellars (2013)
From one side of the country to the other, from a beautiful story to a painful one, They Called Me Number One is a powerful memoir by First Nations (Xat’sull) Chief Bev Sellars. Set in and around Soda Creek in British Columbia, and recounting her experience at St Joseph’s Mission in William’s Lake.
St Joseph’s was one of 130 Christian schools established by the Canadian government to assimilate and convert indigenous youth between the late 1800s and 1900s, with the last not closing its doors until 1996. Much like in Australia, native children were torn from their families, communities and cultures and forced into this brutal school system, of which many non-Indigenous Canadians and international communities remain blissfully unaware today.
Students within the schools were assigned a number upon entering the system, to which they were referred for the duration of their student years. Bev was number one in her year. As she herself readily acknowledges, she fared far better than many young victims of the system, but she didn’t get through scar-free, as indeed it is hard to imagine anyone could have.
I can never truly understand the complicated trauma of being an individual indigenous to North America, but living here, I feel a responsibility to seek out and honour the voices which are actively sharing that lived reality. Bev Sellars is one such voice; a demonstration of how the lasting impact of colonisation has hurt the First Nations communities across Canada, how whole swathes of the country are grappling to process and heal from the residential school system.
As Bev recounts her story from her youngest childhood memories at her gram’s home in Soda Creek, surrounded by family, through her years within the system and beyond, her voice and spirit remain a strong constant to which I clung as I read. It’s not always an easy read, it doesn’t have the great peaks and troughs you can expect of great novel plots (such as that of The Blue Castle), but rather it is a powerful story, a true story, a story integral to the larger one that Canada tells - a chapter of the story too often ignored - and one that we all ought to listen to.