Kate Sherren

Landscapes - People - Global change

Tag: Fiction (page 2 of 2)

The Wizard of Place

Our stunningly illustrated edition is by Charles Santore

Our stunningly illustrated edition is by Charles Santore

You notice lots of new things re-reading children’s books as an adult. A word about place attachment from Dorothy in tonight’s bedtime story:

The scarecrow could not understand why she wished to leave this beautiful country and go back to the gray place called Kansas.

“That is because you have no brains,” answered the girl. “No matter how dreary and gray our homes are, people would rather live there than anywhere else. There is no place like home.”

The Sentimentalists

Would you take this book to have a dam-building theme?

Would you take this book to have a dam-building theme?

I am always amazed at how books choose me, sometimes. Johanna Skibsrud’s Giller Prize-winning The Sentimentalists jumped out from a Halifax Central Library shelf after a stolen hour there refereeing a  journal manuscript (I rejected it). The cover wasn’t particularly promising, but I flipped it and the second paragraph of the blurb on the back read, “He retreats to a small Ontario town where Henry, the father of his fallen Vietnam comrade, has a home on the shore of a manmade lake. Under the water is the wreckage of what was once the town–and the home where Henry was raised.” I took it home.

I have read a few other books about dam-related inundation, starting with Flood (1963), by Robert Penn Warren. My torn 1964 copy was picked up at Berkelouw’s Book Barn a decade ago and pleasingly includes cancelled stamps inside the cover from the American Merchant Marine Library Association (Boston, MASS) and the Ship’s Company Library, HMAS Brisbane. I think that book started a renaissance in my reflection on the place where I grew up, on to today’s scholarly interest, but I have noted since then the use made of impending or past dam impoundment in pop culture, for dynamic tension (consider the movie Deliverance, for instance) or as shorthand for suppressed history, injustice and loss of place. There is a cultural studies thesis in this somewhere.

I’ll leave you with a sample of the narrator’s voice in The Sentimentalists, in a place where it startlingly echoes my own experience:

We must have known, and then ignored for lack of real evidence, that Henry, and a few others that we saw regularly around the lake, could still remember that original town. That they perhaps even felt that it was to the old rather than the new that they more fully belonged. But because they hardly spoke of it, they did not interrupt our dreaming, and perhaps were even instrumental in leading me, at that age, to the false presumption that a thing could, quite simply, be forgot. (p. 37)

The Woman Who Borrowed Memories

I have a thing about islands. It goes back to my training in cartography; islands are wonderfully discrete units to map. As social-ecological systems they provide a clear place to draw boundaries, and feel knowable as a tourist, even though for large ones like Australia this is an entirely illusory sentiment. So I really enjoyed it when Lauren Groff’s Introduction of a book of Tove Jansson’s short fiction, The Woman Who Borrowed Memories, began with, “Tove Jansson is a writer of islands”.  The phrase has many meanings here, as Jansson – best known as the author of the Moomintroll series for children – spent most of her life in the Pellinge archipelago of Finland. Such an island features heavily in her novella for adults The Summer Book (also excellent). In that book Jansson wrote, “An island can be dreadful for someone from outside. Everything is complete…” Groff pushes the analogy further, linking short fiction to the discreteness and completeness of islands. In Jansson’s words (quoted in Boel Westin, Tove Jansson: Life, Art, Words. (2014)):

I love the short story, concentrated and united around a single idea. There must be nothing unnecessary in it, one must be able to hold the tale enclosed in one’s hand.

I read predominantly short fiction to fulfill my craving for narrative. In a busy academic life, I know that a full-length novel will cause me to neglect my responsibilities, or stay up too late to meet obligations in other parts of my life. Those are the practical reasons why I read short fiction. The full reason includes my joy at the concision and self-contained nature of good short fiction, for instance Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America or George Saunders Tenth of December (if I’m feeling resilient). Groff’s insights on Jansson show me that my love of islands may also be connected.

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