Tuesday, June 5, 2007

heartbreaking sketches of staggering genius

Well, it's official. Wacousta is on hold for a little while. Everytime I pick it up, I seem to have a narcoleptic reaction that is completely involuntary -- and completely stunting progress on my comprehensives. So I'm putting Wacousta to the side. The bad part of that is that I now get to be constantly aware of the reality that COLONIAL CANLIT IS NOT AND NEVER WILL BE BEHIND ME, but the good part is that I get to move into some slightly more contemporary stuff as I excitedly plunge headfirst into..


Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town
by Stephen Leacock

Now and then, too, you could have heard them singing the steamer -- the voices of the girls and the men blended into unison by the distance, rising and falling in long-drawn melody: "O, Can-a-da.... O, Can-a-da!"

You may talk as you will about the intoning choirs of your European cathedrals, but the sound of "O Canada," borne across the waters of a silent lake at evening is good enough for those of us who know Mariposa.

I think just as they were singing like this: "O, Can-a-da," that word went round that the boat was sinking.


Suicide is a thing that ought not to be committed without very careful thought. It often involves serious consequences, and in some cases brings pain to others than oneself.

I don't say that there is no justification for it. There often is. Anybody who has listened to certain kinds of poetry, or heard certain kinds of performances upon the concertina, will admit that these are some lives which ought not to be continued, and that even suicide has its brighter aspects. But to commit suicide on grounds of love is at best a very dubious experiment.

If you haven't read Sunshine Sketches since high school, it is imperative that you go out now and pick up a copy -- it'll run you about $3.00 at a used bookstore, or you can check out your favourite local library -- and reread it. Sunshine Sketches is going on my list of "CanLit Ruined by High School English Classes," along with The Stone Angel, The Stone Diaries, and Each Man's Son. The fact is that there are some books which, no matter how brilliant, fifteen year olds will never really relate to. I read Sunshine Sketches in high school and thought it was a cuteish collection of short stories, and then I put it aside and moved on. THIS RESPONSE WAS INCORRECT. If I hadn't had to study for comps, I may never have picked it up again -- ever. And that would have been a great shame, because it was only in rereading it today that I discovered just how complex and beautiful this book really is.

I think that in Canada, there are two distinct traditions of literature: the rural story, and the small town story. Urban stories have increased in prominence as society has urbanized, but that took a long time to come. Indeed, the rural and the small town narratives spent a lot of time eulogizing their own existence -- it was a long time after the urbanization of Canada that anyone really wanted to read urban narratives (Richler went a long way to creating interest in urban narratives, but stories of the city set outside Montreal took longer again to emerge). Sunshine Sketches, obviously, emerges from the small town tradition. Other writers have straddled the worlds -- Alice Munro, for example. But the pure small town narrative, like Anne of Green Gables, for example, is notable because it makes the town itself a character in the text, and the joy of reading the novel or short story collection comes not only from befriending the characters, but getting to know the town itself. One knows Avonlea long before one ever steps foot on Prince Edward Island. Likewise, one knows Mariposa long before one ever goes searching for it north of Toronto.

Sunshine Sketches is very profoundly a eulogy for small town Canada, and in many ways -- especially in the last story -- Leacock is scolding those of us who have left small towns behind and promised to return, but never have. Leacock, throughout this collection of stories, places the reader in the position of the cityslicker who was born in Mariposa (or a town like it), but has moved to the city and built a life there that neglects or forgets the small town roots. For Leacock, the urbanization of Canada is not merely a process of movement, but it's a process of forgetting. The city, to Leacock, is a memory-less place that is filled with people who are denying their own heritage. This plays into the Canadian myth of rurality (I invented the shit out of that word) -- the idea that we have assumed ourselves to be a culture of rural people. This is a natural assumption rooted in, as we can see from our colonial literature, our history as settler people. Canada was founded on the farm and the homestead... It has just taken us a very long time to move beyond that image of ourselves towards a more urbanized sense of ourselves. The images we pimp as "Canadian" are always landscape images -- we have a tendency to deny the extent to which we are a nation of cities strung together by rural communities, and there is an extent to which the "soul" of Canadian seems to be supposed to live in the small towns.

To Leacock, the city is a soul-crushing place. As his narrator says at the end of the collection:

What? It feels nervous and strange to be coming here again after all these years? It must indeed. No, don't bother to look at the reflection of your face in the window-pane shadowed by the night outside. Nobody could tell you now after all these years. Your face has changed in these long years of money-getting in the city. Perhaps if you had come back now and again, just at odd times, it wouldn't have been so.

A finger is being pointed here at the reader, and through the reader at anyone who has moved away from their rural roots. Leacock is accusing Canada for forgetting the "true" Canada in the push to become as urban as possible. The quest for money leads many young people out of small towns like Mariposa and, if they never make the effort to remember their roots, they change beyond recognition. By extension, the urbanization of Canada has changed us, as a nation, for the worse; the past self of Canada -- the rural, hard-working, protestant self -- would never recognize the new, urban Canada. Leacock writes a cautionary tale here, and by sketching his little tales hides withing amusing anecdotes the memory of small town Canada. We befriend Mariposa, and we remember how important it is not to deny our history, however mythical, as a people.

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