Sunday, December 16, 2012

Close Encounters with Science: Picks

Close Encounters by Caroline Woodward

We lived at the top end of an L-shaped piece of land in the north Peace River region. To get to the Co-op, Dad drove our team of horses along a narrow dirt road, across a steep-banked coulee over a gap-toothed wooden bridge and finally on a proper gravel road for six miles. The springy Democrat buggy was a better ride than the steel-rimmed wooden wheels of the grain wagon could offer in summer and in winter, the caboose was better than the wagon box open to the elements, even though the box was moved onto sleigh runners.

I can still see us all on the bench in the dark caboose, with hot bricks wrapped in grain sacks at our feet, the little wood heater glowing and the end of Dad’s hand-rolled cigarette glowing too. He stood and drove the team with a round hole in the wall of the caboose to see through and another for the harness lines to come through. There were no sounds except the squeak of the cold, dry snow beneath Babe and Brownie’s hooves and the long sleigh runners gliding along below us, the gentle rocking of the caboose, wood on wood, as we rounded corners and small clunks from within the wood heater.

When I was in Grade One, Dad bought a John Deere tractor and the horses were retired from hauling ploughs, harrows, seed drills and grain binders around our fields. In Grade Two, Dad drove home from Fort St. John in a 1953 Chevrolet car, white-knuckled down the steep and winding Beatton River hills. In Grade Six, we were told to use ballpoint pens instead of ink pens, with which I enjoyed the art of cursive writing. Thanks to a blizzard, my Dad couldn’t get to the Co-op so I was the only kid in the classroom happily writing with my ink pen, the nib slanted at a perfect angle, one day past the deadline.

That spring, there were meetings in the Hall about electricity but for the poles to cross our neighbour’s land to reach us would cost five thousand dollars. That summer, long trucks came to our farm and men loaded our house, barn and chicken house onto the flat-decks. We opened and closed five gates, running beside the trucks until we arrived at the toe end of the L.

Our house was set down over a new root cellar only forty feet from the main road where a tall hydro pole already stood. Within days, the wiring was complete. Mom turned on the switch and a bare bulb gleamed overhead. She plugged in a pink table lamp with a plastic orchid on it, our neighbour’s gift. She walked from room to room, turning on the lights, her face glowing just as brightly. The new deep freezer cleared its throat and hummed to life.

“Oh,” said my mother. “It’s just like a miracle. Maybe a washing machine next?”

Later, I looked up the word ‘miracle’. Close enough.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Review of "I'll See You In My Dreams"

I'll See You in My Dreams: An Arthur Beauchamp NovelI'll See You in My Dreams: An Arthur Beauchamp Novel by William Deverell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Every new Arthur Beauchamp mystery seems even funnier than the last, which is saying something. The self-deprecating humour, legal puzzles, human conundrums, urban and rural settings and the characters created by William Deverell never fail to satisfy. This book, in particular, deals with some very dark Canadian history and corrupt characters, circa 1962, mostly.

The structure of the book, intersperses a "biography" of the gangly, Roman-nosed lawyer from the beginning of his career, referencing other books in the series (very clever) and then unspools a plot which moves between the 60's and present day. Deverell is a terrific writer who happens to specialize in erudite, witty, page-flapping mysteries with a social conscience. It takes a pro to make those diverse elements sing in a pitch-perfect way and that's why his fans are legion.

The tidbits offered up to depict Vancouver of the early 60's era are another delight to encounter: the Cecil Hotel, the poet Newlove (John, like the fictional Beauchamp, a brilliant, tormented fellow fond of libations), the tasty and affordable Green and Orange Door restaurants,the Marco Polo, Isy's, the old West End and the view while walking over the Burrard Street Bridge. Likewise, the depiction of rural"Garibaldi Island" and its denizens, classic Gulf Island caricatures, lovingly created, down to the perennially late ferry boat, the transsexual Queen of Prince George, never fails to elicit guffaws. Warn your bedmate if you read at night. It's either a benign West Coast quake or a new Arthur Beauchamp novel underway.

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Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Review of The Taste of Ashes by Sheila Peters

The Taste of AshesThe Taste of Ashes by Sheila Peters
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a thoughtful and well-written novel which will challenge those in 'comfortable pews' as well as those readers who try to avoid reading about genocide (in this case, Guatemala) or those who have set ideas about Catholic priests. This is to name just three good reasons to read this challenging book. The central characters are not having easy lives: Isabel is a recovering alcoholic in her late forties, living in a small northern Canadian town. She is a lonely woman who has made many poor choices in male companionship while under the influence and who has difficult relationships with two of her three adult children. Her daughter Janna is bright, hardworking and just as stubborn as her mother but she has managed to escape the town where her mother's drunken, lustful escapades brought down more than her fair share of shame amongst her peers. There are two brothers with different fathers, one increasingly remote and disapproving and the other, wonderfully developed, the emotional and sensible pillar of the family, who provides stability for them all. His Gitxan family roots are exemplified by his behaviour and leadership.
One character observed that Isabel was "fierce for her children" for all her lapses and failings. She struggles to pay her mortgage, working as the assistant manager of a discount clothing store for $12.50/hour. She finds solace in gardening though, descriptions of which illuminate the darkness of the story in much the same way as bulbs planted in late fall restore the faith of northern gardeners when they emerge to announce another spring.

Isabel tucked the (peony)root into the ground. Before she covered it, she said a prayer for Janna, a prayer to overcome anger. Isabel had felt it in herself when she hugged Janna at her college graduation last spring. She'd felt it in her daughter, the way her pretty face pinched in resistance and her body became an awkward stick that Isabel wanted to shake. She covered the root and prayed that Janna would grow soft, would send out tender shoots, and that she would come home.

Alvaro is the Catholic priest who has lost his faith, his calling and who is suffering terribly from post-traumatic stress. Alvaro endured torture in Guatemala and encountered its manifestations daily while working to reunite families, even if some of the members were bones in a mass grave. There are many more characters, all masterfully created 3-D people, great, reprehensible or merely meddling, with devastating results to show for it. They are characters that linger in my mind, each one fully developed. This is not a book to rush through but to think and feel and hope through and the author's skill is such that one is forced to confront one's own prejudices and easy judgments.

The author, Sheila Peters, has done a substantial amount of research with human rights workers in Guatemala, with Catholic priests and lay persons, and with trauma counselors in Canada. By tackling the sacred and the profane, the best and worst behaviours of humanity, she has offered us an ambitious first novel of great depth and complexity with memorable characters that will linger a long while after the ending, which is just exactly right for the story.The Taste of Ashes

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Monday, November 19, 2012

Review of The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman

Light Between Oceans by M L StedmanLight Between Oceans by M L Stedman by M. L. Stedman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book was recommended to me by a friend, an avid reader who thought that since I lived on a Canadian lightstation, a new Australian book set on a station there would be of interest. Also, that it was a very, very good read. Well, what a pair of understatements.
This is a stunning first novel set in post-World War I Western Australia, well south of Perth. The Janus Rock Lightstation is strategically located between the Great Southern Ocean and the Indian Ocean, a place where the warm and cold currents collide and ships traversing the shipping lanes recognize its five second flash as entering or leaving the realm of the Australian continent.Urgent messages to and from the lightstation and the ships are infrequent but Morse code is used by all parties. Part of the lightkeeper's duties are to note the names of the ships passing by, time and date, and to log all such information.

Stedman's descriptions of lighthouse duties, of the island, the tower itself and the house provided, the supply boat which stopped by every three months and the mental strain suffered by a widowed lightkeeper are apt and accurate. She writes beautifully.

To this well-named island, comes battle-scarred Tom Sherbourne, a relief keeper and war hero, looking for a place to be still and solid.

At the kitchen window, the flame of the oil lamp wavered occasionally. The wind continued its ancient vendetta against the windows, accompanied by the liquid thunder of waves. Tom tingled at the knowledge that he was the only one to hear any of it: the only living man for the better part of a hundred miles in any direction. He thought of the gulls nestled into their wiry homes on the cliffs, the fish hovering stilly in the safety of the reefs, protected by the icy water. Every creature needed its place of refuge.
And to this sad, good man's life while on shore leave comes Isabel, a cheerful, pretty young woman who amazes him with her wit and her audacity, especially so because she has set her sights on him, of all people. Tom is advised by the supply boat's captain never to underestimate the importance of the right wife on the Lights, advice as sound in the early 1900's as it is in this century.

Then to their idyllic and adventurous island life comes more grief, in the form of two miscarriages and a stillborn child, and just the two of them out there alone, coping with the physical and emotional reality.

But then, then a rowboat adrift lands on one of their island beaches, a boat with a dead man and a very much alive baby girl.
What to do? By then the reader is mesmerized,watching Tom and Isabel succumb to their choices, making decisions that will undo them both but the skill with which the author sets the pacing of the novel, the slow unspooling of the days and the shocking jolts of tension, is guaranteed to undo the reader-- unless the reader has a heart of stone.

I'd like to add that the cover is lovely and the endpapers are simply wonderful-- early lighthouse logbook pages with graceful, copperplate penmanship, noting the wind direction and force, the barometric pressure and temperature, and remarks as to passing ships and special task performed.

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Saturday, September 1, 2012

Estevan Point Lightstation Summer of 2012

Except for the slithering gang of garter snakes, the constant presence of three or four neighbourhood bears to be on the look-out for, the friendly hikers who may show up needing fresh water just when you need a shower more than anything else in the world....Estevan Point is a great lightstation. We are here for another long stretch of nearly six weeks as relief keepers while the permanent keepers take their annual vacation. Just as in 2010, when we worked here from August to early October, the true summer sun, a sun packing heat beyond 14 Celsius, is the prevailing and welcome element. Estevan and Nootka lightstations tend to be north of the “fog bowl” that is all too often our lot at Lennard Island and of the southern stations: Cape Beale, Pachena Point and Carmanah Point.

Previous keepers like Dave and Louise Edgington and the current couple, Brent and Sylvia Hacking, have established a greenhouse, garden beds and flowering borders. Seaweed, lawn clippings, and kitchen scraps are composted to bolster the acidic clay soil. Everything from lavender to roses to globe artichokes grows outdoors as well as prolific ever-bearing strawberries. Four kinds of peppers and at least as many varieties of tomatoes produce amazing results in the greenhouse. Against a south-facing wall of the assistant keeper’s house, an elderly espaliered pear tree grows. In the winter, I was told that the ferocious winds can lift the greenhouse up and away so the lightkeepers throw a sturdy fishing net over the entire structure and peg it down securely!

The boulder beaches trap countless plastic buoys and oyster tubs, which the resourceful lightkeepers carve into hanging plant pots and heat-loving squash family container gardens. The buoy pots of strawberries, fuchsias and other flowers dangle from a re-purposed satellite dish and an old clothesline pole. Also on display inside the principal keeper’s residence are the hand-blown green and blue glass floats in all shapes and sizes collected over the years from those same beaches. We keep looking for those increasingly rare beauties too but so afar, all we’ve found are tantalizing shards. One happy discovery is that sea asparagus aka samphire grows in abundance on the Point and along the beaches, a perennial vegetable packed with Vitamin C and long a staple of coastal First Nations’ diets. Steamed and served with butter and lemon or jazzed up with a drizzle of sesame oil and balsamic vinegar, samphire complements a platter of salmon or halibut perfectly.

My favourite building here is the concrete tower, a two year project completed in 1909, and still the tallest lighthouse on the B.C. coast at over 150 feet. Cruisers and sailboats often slow down to admire the dramatic lines of the flying buttresses supporting the tower. I’ll never forget the crews of two tall ships out on their 19th century decks all staring at our tower while we stared back at those magnificent sailing ships.

We hike up and down the boulder beaches, carefully putting our feet on secure, dry rocks and using our beautifully varnished hiking sticks, complete with metal points, made by our son to sustain us when rocks inevitably roll beneath our feet. A twisted ankle would be very bad news indeed. Walking on this terrain is hard enough with two good legs but hopping back to first aid and safety at the lightstation for several hours would be a test of physical and mental strength. We always come to a complete stop when we want to look around, a necessity to keep track of any bears in the area or just to admire boats going by. Or to take in the dramatic shapes of the clouds above or the eagles chittering anxiously or a stately Great Blue Heron poised on a boulder far out in the bay.

We manage to find the path leading up from the beach to a lonely gravesite. Sarah Jamieson Hamilton died in 1921 at the age of 72. Who was Sarah and how did she die? A relative from England hiked out to see her grave some years ago so somebody remembers her. A holly tree grows beside her grave and a tall granite headstone gives the sparse details of her life. Birth, death, wife of. The site is just up from the shoreline to the north about a kilometre from the lightstation, near where the road used to bring in supplies from Homas.

Homas once was a summertime Nuu-chahl-nuth settlement, a place for fishing and drying seaweed, with its small but deep natural harbour, now popular with sailboats and cruisers. Several families still meet annually to spend time together in their traditional camp. I admire this enduring connection to the land and the sea, to food, and to the extended family.

Estevan once had a small settlement of people connected to running the lighthouse in three round the clock shifts and, like Pachena, a crew of radio technicians and their families. Historic ship to shore achievements were made at Estevan, as 1907 newspaper headlines proudly proclaimed the news that Estevan maintained radio contact with an Australia-bound ship for 6000 miles.

For a gripping description of the World War II “shelling” of Estevan by a mysterious Japanese submarine and an unexplained boat in the vicinity, with not one shell in twenty-six attempts successful in hitting the tallest lighthouse on the coast, read Don Graham’s excellent book, Keepers of the Light (Harbour Publishing). Along with his second book, Lights of the Inside Passage (Harbour Publishing) this is required reading for anyone interested in B.C.’s maritime history and especially, the history of its lighthouses and their keepers.

What I will remember most about our time at Estevan Point is listening to the skipper of a fishing boat whom we’d spoken with by radio near Lennard Island during an incident where a man had taken a 14 to16 foot runabout out into swells approaching twelve feet, strong wind gusts and fog. With this perfect trifecta for disaster and no life jacket visible, we’d called it in to Tofino Radio and immediately hailed the forty foot fish boat coming in out of the rough conditions. The skipper had impressed us then with his good sense then (unlike the dude in the runabout who seemed to be engaged in a bizarrely macho contest of some sort with the ocean but who eventually returned to safety with the alerted Lifeboat crew on hand to escort him home), saying that “nobody should be out in this water today.” But this summer at Estevan, he was advising us that he’d be anchoring at Homas, a place where his ancestors had camped during the summertime. In fact, his family had erected a totem pole in Homas several years ago, a fact we’d heard about from hikers who had stopped to photograph it. Then he shocked us by saying that in 2013, all his family would be gathering in Hesquiaht to honour the memory of his grandfather, who had been hanged with another unfortunate man before the men in the village in 1869, and for which he said the government has since apologized. The government's public "regret" for this incident took place in November of 2012.

See this 2008 article about the petition for the apology and the circumstances leading to the trumped-up charges, with flames fanned by histrionic Times-Colonist newspaper headlines back in the day, where people were hanged to “set an example” and where translators unfriendly to the accused were used in courtrooms. It’s really appalling to read about how often this happened to First Nations people, from the Coast to the Chilcotin incident and beyond.

A book written in 1999 by Peter Wilton Johnson for Heritage Books, Glyphs and Gallows: The Rock Art of Clo-Oose and the Wreck of the John Bright also sheds light on the court case and the multiple accounts of the wreck and what happened to the survivors and the possible fates of the two bodies found. What is clear is that the racism of the era was recognized by the attending doctor, acting as the coroner, who refused to lend his credibility to the kangaroo court-style proceedings and that the pivotal role of the translator, an enemy of the Hesquiaht, makes the public hanging of these two men all the more reprehensible. Despite the predictable ignorant online braying about government apologies for past crimes, the families of the two innocent men hanged in public on that dark day can now go forward with the stain on their family names removed.


Sunday, July 29, 2012

Review of 'Once You Break a Knuckle' by D.W. Wilson

A simply wonderful collection of short stories, set in the East Kootenay region of British Columbia and happily, recognized and published by a biggie, Hamish Hamilton and not consigned to the 'regional voice' ghetto in parochial Canadian literary terms. Most of these stories are written from the p.o.v. of young, yearning males: what to do about the hicks waiting to beat them up, weekend in, weekend out? Should they leave town and get an education? Should they follow in their fathers' footsteps and do the same job,and somehow earn the old man's respect? Should they let the local tough girls know they are crazy for them? It is the bare-bones, muscular style of the writing that sets this book head and shoulders above the cliched tropes of small town settings and Wilson is a brilliant stylist. His ear for the vernacular of working class tradesmen is wonderfully honed, pitch perfect, for those of us who've spent any time working alongside these jokers, some of the funniest people around. His nuts and bolts descriptions of the daily tasks of carpentry and electrical/plumbing work evoke such authenticity and made me realize: we just don't read about this stuff in fiction, do we? Thanks to Wilson, a world is revealed. His comprehension and articulation of the muddled mysteries of male desires is nothing less than a tour de force. Look for this young man to become a major writer, period.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

DIY Checklist for a Book Tour

1. Assume nothing. If you have an over-staffed publishing house with flocks of talented, smart people looking after your p.r. and your hair and jetting you around everywhere, read no further. You are living my dream life. Meanwhile, back in the trenches with me, I'm advising you/me to follow-up on absolutely everything, from the date of the book's release from the jaws of the printer to its eventual arrival at a distributor's warehouse. Why? Because your new book MUST be available in bookstores when you have moved heaven and earth to organize a tour. 

2. Five months ahead of time, four at the very least, book key launch venues.Why? Because everyone else with a book coming out in the spring or fall season will need a launch venue as well so unless you want to launch on a Tuesday evening, try for a Friday or Saturday first.
3. Work with your publisher to establish your key readership areas, places you've lived and worked, places where your books have done well before or where you've recently had a great reception in schools or at a festival. Work hard to book reading events or bookstore signings there so that when you get to a town, city or village, the p.r., from online alerts to bookmarks to posters to press releases and radio public service announcements, is in place.
4. Assume nothing. Follow-up on local media AND provincial media to make sure every event you've organized is advertised in some form of media. Let your own professional, book-related, friend & family networks know you're coming to town with a new book as far in advance as you can. Timing conflicts will still happen but give yourself the time to sort them out as well. If your publisher has a smart, well-trained publicist, you are lucky, lucky, lucky. If not, do it yourself because nobody else cares as much about your book (the years it took to write, the years you could have earned really decent money working at a respectable career instead of holing up and writing in hopes of someday getting this thing published in order to earn a pittance). Yes, it's a huge time and energy suck to have to write your own press releases and to find out the deadlines of monthly, weekly and daily media, but you have to do it. Or else shit happens and stuff doesn't get done. If stuff does get done, and your sales are still low, well, write the next book. Meanwhile, great stuff does happen to books all the time. Hold onto the dream of actually making a half-decent living!

5. The great poet John Newlove said: If writing isn't fun at least some of the time, why do it? Well, the same is true for book tour events. Don't be just another author pontificating from the podium! Put some creative flair into your events and if you don't have the energy, hire somebody to help you. Although if you're a writer worth a hill of beans, you'd better have some creative zip in your veins! So, organize contests for kids, fun stuff for adults, give away books, make people laugh instead of dutifully listening to your heartfelt paragraphs and then lining up to buy your book (or slinking out the door, bored silly). The wonderful and creative Allan MacDougall, founder of Raincoast Books and former book sales rep, always said: Want to sell books? Give 'em away! 
6. Finally, assume nothing. Establish a check-in time prior to your book's release, say once every two weeks or weekly if there's lots of activity, with your publisher or publicist and have your tour/media plan in writing so that you are literally on the same page. Know your tour budget as well, by the way so that you don't expect full-page ads in the Globe & Mail. If you know next to nothing about book publicity, ask grizzled veterans whose publishers are about the same size as your publisher. Come to grips with your ego and your fantasy life in a big hurry. You are not J.K. Rowling so don't expect to be sent to New York City with your wee but wonderful Canadian book about a tree fort gang, is what I'm saying. Publishers with fantastic publicists do great things because they are a known quantity (see: great editors & designers, smart publishing program with consistently excellent books, savvy publicity moves online and everywhere else) and nationally respected in the publishing business, so their authors, magically, are invited to national Festivals, interviewed on prime time radio and television programs, with foreign rights and sweet, fat prizes waiting in the wings. The rest of us must DIY and learn, learn, learn. It's all good, really.
7. Finally, sign books at bookstores, meet and thank the people who actually read and sell your books, or at least have the time to sell them. Meet your regional sales rep if you have the opportunity to do so and thank them. They are the behind the scenes angels for authors and books and yet I still hear authors yapping on about how well they "sell books" as if their publisher and the sales reps hadn't logged in countless hours talking up your book to the front-line book buyers! Not to mention forking out a lot of money to produce the book, the catalogues, the website updates, the publicity 'hits', all the mysterious overhead at any publishing house and sales rep agency. 

8. Try to line up readings with libraries and schools and ALWAYS insist on being paid for your time and talent. Otherwise, you could actually be a librarian or teacher (many of us were) and not somebody with nothing better to show for decades of writing and training than making 95 cents in royalties per book. When in doubt, assume nothing, work hard, try to stay positive and enjoy the results of actually meeting readers who loved your book. There is nothing better than someone beaming or emailing or writing a card to let you know they really loved what you wrote and that it changed them, affirmed them, made them feel they weren't alone with their thoughts in this world. This is why I write, to connect with readers, to say, yeah, I noticed this too and it's wrong to do this to someone else or it's right to be grateful for the way this is handled or it's the way it is when I wake up and why doesn't anyone ever write about this...

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Village of Many Hats: Final Excerpt

 Here is the final excerpt from the book, which includes a good number of the generous New Denverines who bid for roles in the book, auctioned off by my good friend and former Mayor of New Denver, Gary Wright. Strangely enough, a community-minded Mayor appears in the village of Silverado, a patient fellow by the name of Dewey Wright.... no relation, I'm sure! I am also happy to say that the launch of The Village of Many Hats will take place in the Bosun Hall in New Denver on Saturday, May 26th from 3:30-5 pm. All ages are welcome and there will be a special presentation to the brave souls who have offered their names to this book, which is dedicated to the good citizens of all ages in New Denver and Silverton. Admission is free and fun is guaranteed!
Likewise, Arrowvale Farm in Port Alberni will be sponsoring a reading beneath a giant maple tree (if fine weather; a barn or someplace dry if not!) on Saturday, June 2nd in the afternoon as well. Check out my website or Facebook for further details of these and other readings as they are confirmed. 
 Ms. Freeman and Madame D’Oiseaux taught people to make lanterns during the second week of December. We made them out of plastic milk jugs, tuna fish cans, willow branches and all kinds of paper and candles.   
          We met at the park just before dark on New Year’s Eve and lit our homemade lanterns. We formed a long line to make a parade of bobbing lights. One lantern was a big salmon with pale orange rice paper and three lights inside. Mine was a bright yellow sun face on one side and a full silver moon on the other side. Mom brought her dad’s old brass mining lamp all shined up and gleaming, to honor the days when Silverado had lots of silver mines in the mountains.
Our parade went past the Friendship Gardens on the lakeshore and then to the Silverado Seniors Lodge. All the nurses and patients were waving at us from their windows. We saw our very sick neighbor, Grant Golightly, waving from his wheelchair with his white hair shining like a halo. We all stopped and waved and waved at him and bobbed our lanterns at him some more.
The snow fell in fluffy clumps as big as loonies, so thick and fast it felt we were all inside a big snow globe. It was pitch dark by the time we got back to the park where two giant bonfires were blazing.   
          Teenagers sold hot chocolate and soup from the park’s log kitchen to raise money for their teen centre, with Ms. Harlock helping them out, as usual. A team of big white horses pulled a sleigh to give people sleigh rides around the park. Ms. Fox organized a snow obstacle course for dogs to jump through. The yellow dog smiled and floated over all the jumps with ease. Ms. Gardiner was in charge of snowball bocce. Dr. Barber supervised the snow sculptures and the nearby maple tree where a group of kids whacked at a polar bear piƱata. People danced in the snow near the bleachers with music blasting from the speakers. Mom and I walked around the whole park while the snow fell softly, changing from fluffy clumps as the night air cooled to big silver diamonds from the sky.
Lars Goodman, the Fire Chief, and Serge Bonhomme, the RCMP
officer, strolled around chatting with people. Mr. Hanks used the microphone to let people know when different events were starting and when the sleigh was ready to take on new passengers.
          Everywhere there were people, young, and old and in between, wearing parkas, felt pack boots, mukluks, tuques and hats.
Dozens and dozens of people were wearing Madame D’Oiseaux’ hats on their heads at the New Year’s Party: Paperboy hats with their brims tilted just so to suit each person wearing one. Deerstalker hats like Sherlock Holmes liked to wear but on this snowy night, everyone had their earflaps tied down for the sake of warm ears. And Shepherd Bonnets with wide brims to keep the snow away. They were a big favourite of those wearing glasses.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Village of Many Hats: Fifth Excerpt

In this, the fifth excerpt  from The Village of Many Hats (ISBN: 978-0-88982-284-9, March 2012:$9.95), Gina has begun her work as a milliner's apprentice and all-round helper at Madame D'Oiseaux' gift shop in Silverado. Although I love hats, most of my small collection are meant for a cold and snowy winter climate, not the downpours or gale force winds of my lighthouse life! What I didn't realize until this story was well underway, was that my Welsh grandmother, Caroline Thomas, was a milliner's apprentice herself until she married my coal-mining grandfather, Stanley Woodward, and began raising a family of eight children in the village of Ton Pentre in the Rhondda Valley in South Wales. In this photo, she is nineteen years of age. The curl in the middle of her forehead is quite fetching!
We had tea made from lavender, rose petals, lemon balm and hibiscus in real china tea-cups with matching saucers. We spent the last half hour of the day looking at Madame’s Paperboy Hat pattern and a big pile of second-hand clothes. We sorted them into smaller piles by colour and then by thicker and thinner fabrics. Then she said something that made my ears perk up.
          “These fabrics must all look good together and bring out the best in each other,” said Madame. “For instance, this grey tweed vest was worn by Professor Stan, beloved by his students after spending forty years teaching. He had a lovely baritone voice and sang in our village choir. Did you meet him, Gina?”
“Not really,” I said. “I knew who he was because he rode his bicycle everywhere but I didn’t know him well enough except to wave and say hello.”
Madame smiled. “He never stopped writing essays and books or thinking about the bigger world all around us. He had a wonderful sense of humour even though he held very strong opinions about what was right and wrong.”
           She held up a black wool dress. “This fine dress belonged to Beverly Sandon.  Bev was a very shy person but a good-hearted, brave woman who stepped in to help when another couple could not cope with their life. She looked after their three children after raising four of her own. She also quietly worked behind the scenes at our Lodge as an unpaid volunteer. She worked in the same way for the Community Club and for several other groups. Unlike Professor Stan, Bev was too shy to speak up in public about what mattered to her. But her kind actions showed us what she valued most in Silverado.”
She put the black wool beside Professor Stan’s grey tweed vest and looked at me.
“Finally, we need to give a touch of something youthful and joyous and creative to this hat. That’s why I’ve picked this gorgeous red dragon satin lining, from Koko Alamo’s kimono. It will brighten up anyone who is getting too dreary and serious, see?”
          She showed me all three materials placed beside each other. They did look perfect together. I don’t know what made me do it but I reached into the button box beside us. I picked out a gold button that looked like a seashell.
          “Perfect, oh, perfect!” Madame said and patted me on the cheek. “That’s from the vest once worn by Katrina Carpenter. She, like Koko, has energy to spare. She has the gift of getting all sorts of people to sort things out and work together on good ideas. I’ll put her button right on top! Merci bien, Gina!”
          I had that glowing feeling again, inside and out.
“Madame? Can you help me make a special hat for Sara, a kind of get-well hat maybe? With the right ingredients, you know?”
My mind was bouncing around trying to make sense. I wanted to make a hat, not muffins! But I liked the way Madame talked about each of the fabrics and the people who had worn them and why they were special people so I just had to blurt out the words that came to me first.
“Why, yes, of course we can do that. That will be our project first thing on Thursday. You’ve put in a good two hours of work today!”
 I ran home, racing the dark.
          I was already looking forward to Thursday.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Village of Many Hats: Fourth Excerpt

The thing about living in a village is that there aren't enough "experts" to do all the jobs that need to be done. So people of all ages volunteer to make sure summer recreation programs are launched or the seniors are feted with dinners in the Hall. Others sing in choirs and create live theatre to amuse hundreds of fellow residents and newcomers (agog, the latter come away, raving about what they've just seen in this tiny place in the middle of nowhere... oh, if we've heard that once we've heard it dozens of times!) 
Still, we take these sorts of kudos with a gracious curtsy and a block of salt. Why are rural residents so often portrayed in books and movies as gothic, limited creatures, other than the fact it comforts and/or titillates the more urbane populace? Give me strength!
It's precisely because we just do things, create things, make things happen that we're good at it. We don't plop ourselves down passively to consume whatever someone else says will make our brows perk higher up our foreheads. But we also turn out for touring artists and certainly our own entertainers in numbers that are gratifying to all concerned. Does it matter that the Alberta Ballet are performing on the gym floor of a Nakusp school? No, we'd turn out to see them dance on an ice floe if that's what we had for a level surface. 
Those with the energy and interest wear many hats or responsibilities and although every volunteer has to perfect the art of saying "No" or risk having their lifeblood drained by seven days of meetings and practical tasks and chauffeuring and phone tree duties, I think it is safe to generalize that the more one contributes to village life, the sweeter it is to live there. Children notice these things and sooner or later, they emulate the involved adults and lead adventurous lives of their own, knowing how to give back along the way.
Here's #4.

Even Sara’s room felt strange and empty. No croaky little voice calling out hellos to me while I was running up the stairs. Nobody wanting to know everything, absolutely everything that was happening in Silverado today. What, no leaves falling from the big playground tree? How about the maple tree on the corner by the bookstore? Is that big yellow dog behind the old garage still scaring kids walking to school?
I fed her neon tetras, mollies and guppies. I watched them all darting around the tank, through the sunken pirate ship and the floating reeds. Catzilla, the suckermouth catfish, chugged slowly along the bottom, slurping up algae and old fish food. That’s his job in the tank. He keeps getting bigger so the yucky diet must suit him just fine. He’s actually a Golden Oto suckermouth catfish which sounds a lot more handsome than he looks with his patchy skin, half-asleep eyes and those rubbery lips always glued to the aquarium glass.
          Dad comes home tired but happy from building new houses or fixing old houses. Now he’s working with Big Mike, adding the sunroom to Captain Hennessey’s little house in the Orchard. He likes being a Village Councillor too, especially working on the village campground and the park and summer recreation programs and being responsible for the Hall…but now is the worst possible time for more bad things to happen. That’s why Dad is so sad about it.
I straightened up. I’d soon be earning sixteen dollars a week. I didn’t need to buy myself a hat. I’d learn how to make hats out of recycled clothes, like Madame did. My wages could be a big help now. I could buy food for my family, or at least food for the fish and Mister Tibbs.
          We all have to think good thoughts for Sara’s operation. That’s what Ms. Harlock said to Dad and me just last night when she brought dinner over.
“Just keep thinking positive thoughts,” she’d said, serving up
two plates for us, loaded with roast turkey. She added sage stuffing, mashed potatoes, baked yams, cranberry sauce, Waldorf salad, regular steamed peas and carrots and my absolute favorite, Brussels sprouts. I realized that Thanksgiving had gotten lost in our lives because Mom and Sara weren’t here, for the first time ever.       
“It’s a well-known fact that those who look on the bright side tend to pull through the tough times,” said Ms. Harlock.
          “Words to live by, that’s for sure,” Dad agreed, giving me a sideways grin.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Village of Many Hats: Third Excerpt

Children and adults notice different things and organize what they know into different categories of logic or usefulness, I think. Children listen to stories about how someone was found, dead or alive, human or animal, after a heroic or futile struggle for survival. These stories or the actual sights (a dead heifer  with her first calf protruding because nobody competent found her in time to pull the calf out and save both lives, a pet dog accused of nipping a visiting child and shot, an outhouse where an old bachelor was found, keeled over with his overalls in an undignified heap around his ankles) lodged themselves into this child's imagination and there they were nourished, or there they festered in a malignant fashion until brought out into the light of a better day.
In a village like New Denver or a farming community like the one I grew up in, people notice things. We see that an elderly neighbour's chimney has a plume of woodsmoke rising on a -28 C. day and we drive on. We stop and make sure that neighbour has not been injured or has not woken up at all if there is no sign of smoke. Nowadays, we can wear a personal alarm system to notify a nearby person of serious trouble.
If someone has a child battling a critical illness in a small community, the family, friends, schoolchildren and teachers, or just people whose vehicles may be familiar but who have never met the family in crisis, band together and fund-raise to help with the costs of one or both parents taking time off work, getting to a hospital hundreds of kilometres away or purchasing specialized medical equipment like wheelchairs, or making ramps for the home, and so on. Similarly, rural hospice volunteers are, in my opinion, absolutely magnificent human beings as they help an entire family or an isolated individual ease their way to passing with dignity and their worldly affairs in order. 
"If there is anything I can do, just call..." Well, no, that rote remark, well-meant but kind of useless, really, is just not specific enough! 
Think food, shelter, clothing, medicine, and companionship. Offer to walk the pet dogs and look after the cats and the goldfish. Take the garbage to the dump and deal with the recycling. Shovel the snow off the roof. Change the winter tires. Shovel or snow-plow the driveway. Feed the cattle and horses and do other farm chores, organized amongst a group of responsible neighbours if need be. Take care of the kids for the weekend if possible. 
Give away all of your home-canned peaches because it's the only food the person can bear to swallow and it reminds him of the ones his mother made sixty years ago.
Look after each other. We all live in some form of village, after all.

Chapter 5
          I kicked my running shoes off in the porch and flicked on the lights as I ran into the hallway. I looked into the living room on the left and the kitchen to the right.
The note on the fridge was a full sheet of paper with writing so big and red that I couldn’t fail to notice it.
Dear Gina,
Dad and Sara and I are driving to the airport. He’ll be back home by suppertime. Sara and I are hoping to get on the last flight to Vancouver. Dad will tell you all about it. Ms. Harlock is bringing dinner over for you. Please feed Mister Tibbs and the fish. I’ll call tonight. Love you, be good, Mom xoxoxoxo
          Someone knocked at the front door and a voice called out, “You-hoo! Gina? You-hoo!”
          But I read the note written in thick, red felt pen on the fridge for the second time and tried to understand how everything could have happened so fast. Just this morning, Mom was trying to phone our doctor in Silverado and now, boom, they’re all gone.
          “In the kitchen, Ms. Harlock, come in!”
I read the note a third time, trying to find a P.S. or some missing words. The sea rushed into my ears and my heart thumped like running shoes in the dryer.
          Ms. Harlock bustled into the kitchen, holding a tray covered with a blue and white cloth. She set it down on the table and pulled off her bright red oven mitts. Her mouth kept moving and she must have been saying something to me. I shook my head really hard to shake out the ocean surf plugging up my ears. Ms. Harlock’s mouth stopped moving. She was looking at me with her eyebrows raised up high. I took a big, deep breath.
“Sorry, Ms. Harlock, I’m just trying to figure out….”
          “Of course you are, dear! But don’t you worry no-never-mind about any of it. She’s in the very best hands and we are all saying prayers for your family. There now!” she said, puffing and blowing the way she does. “Gina, dear, here’s a little something for you and your father tonight.”
          She whisked away the tea-towel to reveal two plates covered with metal warmers. My mouth watered.
          “I hope you’ll like this lasagna, Gina,” she said. “Go wash up now. Do you prefer tea or milk?”
          “Milk please,” I said, though I was pleased to be asked about tea. Mom makes us both a pot of mint tea sometimes but I only drink mine when it’s warm, not hot, with lots of honey in it.
           Ms. Harlock runs the Welcome Wagon and Silverado Community Newsletter. She's the perfect person for it, being such a good cook and loving to bustle around and help out wherever she can. If she was a bird, she'd be a mother robin, plump and busy. Her bright green eyes are always on the look-out for tired and hungry people driving moving trucks into Silverado. But most of the trucks are moving out, not moving in, these days.

**Wendy Harlock won the bid in a lively auctioneering session to become The Hero in this novel. The only category which earned more funds for the New Denver Reading Centre when the five roles were being auctioned off was that of The Villain, brave Francie Oldham! All roles: Hero, Villain, Professional Dog Walker (Heather Fox), Antique & Junque Store Owner (Judi Gardiner), Bird Columnist (Dr. Jamie Barber) and their personalities, actions, physiques, fashion sense and bird-like similarities are entirely fictitious of course!
& as always, material in this blog and any other blog at this address is copyright. Please ask permission to excerpt any material for use in reviews. Post a link to this blog site if you like it, which is a lovely thing to do! Thank you. Caroline Woodward

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Village of Many Hats: Second Excerpt

Wonder of wonders, there is a new store in Silverado! This is always a hopeful sign in any town or village or city block which has fallen on hard times. It's especially exciting for children like Gina, who love to make costumes and whose fingers are drawn to fabrics the way others are drawn to wood or books or horses or ______________ (your choice here.)

(Chapter 4
        Have a look around, Gina,” said Madame D’Oiseaux.
          “Oh,” I said. “You know me?”
          “I know your Mama quite well,” she said. “I used to work in our Silverado Seniors Lodge too, in the kitchen, but I am now retired. I opened my shop here yesterday. So don’t be shy, have a look around.”
          “Thank you, Madame D’Oiseaux,” I said, feeling very grown-up. “You came to our class last year and showed us how to make apple dolls. So I sort of know you, too.”
          Madame D’Oiseaux bobbed her head and smiled at me. She had one of those tanned, smiley faces, with bright brown eyes, a little nose and round, red cheeks. Her hair was the shiniest bright silver, with curls around her face and that thick, silver braid down her back all the way to her waist. She wore a yellow blouse, a patterned blue vest and a dark brown velvety skirt and button-up brown boots. Her feet looked the same size as mine! If she was a bird, she would be a quick, bright hummingbird, not a wren, although brown wrens are cute in their own way too.
          The shop smelled like lavender and roses. I went to a dark red sofa piled high with cushions. Up close, each one looked like a small Persian carpet from Aladdin. The back of each cushion was a different shade of colour: dark chocolate brown, coppery brown, dark green, mint green, pale sky blue, dark navy blue, rose pink and deep burgundy red, like the sofa. The fancy carpet fronts were made of firmer fabric and filled with embroidered flowers and birds.
          “You like them?”
          I drew my hand back quickly.
“Sorry,” I said.
          “Don’t be sorry, not in the slightest! Go ahead and touch them! That is what they are made for, to give comfort as well as pleasure, especially to touch.”
          “I really like those,” I said and pointed at four cushions with robins and bluebirds sitting in tree branches.
          “Thank you!” she said. “Those took a lot of work but I am quite happy with the results.”
          I patted each one very carefully. The burgundy material on the back of the cushions was so soft and thick that my hand almost sank into it. It felt like Grandpa’s shaggy horses in the middle of a cold Cranbrook winter.
          “This is all so nice. My mom would like every single thing in this store,” I said. “And Sara would look so cute in this hat.” I pointed to a dark chocolate and light brown velvet hat with a brass button on top.
          “Bien!” she said, smiling again. “Jackie Woods, someone very brave belonged to that brass button and Beverly Sandon, my dear friend, Bev, a quiet but very courageous lady once wore the dark brown velvet robe with the pockets in light brown. That would be a very good hat for your Sara, yes, indeed. Does your Mama like hats?” 
           “I’ve never seen her wear one except for baseball caps in the summer and a wool tuque when it gets really cold in the winter. But she doesn’t have any hat like these hats,” I said.
I hadn’t seen one that was exactly right for me yet but there was one I looked at more closely with dark pink and green stripes, and bright pink velour earflaps. Thick green ribbon hung from the bottom of each earflap, to tie them up. A shiny pink button sat at the very top of the hat. I could see my mom cross-country skiing in it, in her pink winter coat and green snow pants. Perfect! I tried to find the price tag without making it too obvious.
          “That pink and green hat is from the fall jacket of Ms. Flurry,” said Madame D’Oiseaux. “She is always in a hurry, our bright Ms. Flurry. The velour is from a housecoat Heather Fox donated to the St. Stephen’s Rummage Sale, a kind and cheerful lady. I make a point of going to St. Stephen’s to find good fabrics.”
          “My mom goes there, too,” I said. “That’s where she found this coat for me last year. What do you call good fabrics?”
“I mean 100% wool, linen, cotton, or silk… quite difficult to find these days. Oh, that pink button on top is from Mrs. Kamegaya’s button collection. Such a creative, inspiring person, she was.”
          I wondered if I could ever learn how to make hats like these. Every single one was different! My fingers itched to feel each one, to turn it over and look at the inside as well as the outside. I knew that I wanted to learn how to make hats, with a feeling that was very strong and certain. I drew pictures of clothes and hats all the time, mostly thinking of outfits J. Lee and I might wear for our song and dance routines. I’ve sewed little bags by hand and filled them with dried lavender for putting in clothes drawers. I made them as Christmas and birthday presents for Mom and my grandmas last year. But we don’t have a sewing machine at home and Mom said she was too busy to sew any more, anyway.
          “How much are your hats, Madame? Hats like this one?”
          “Winter hats are sixty-five dollars and summer hats are around fifty dollars, usually. The baby bonnets are ten only, because, well, they are for babies. A little price for a little one.”
          My hopes wafted down to earth like maple leaves from a tree. A real hat would cost me more than a full year’s allowance at one dollar a week. I had the lowest allowance of any kid I knew. Callie got five dollars a week but she had to do real farm chores so that’s understandable. But still…all I ever did was save up enough to buy presents for everybody else in the family with my allowance! Maybe if I had a real job…
          “If you need any help, with your store or your yard, I would be happy to work, Madame D’Oiseaux! I’m nine years old. And a half. I’ll be ten in March. I don’t have a job that pays money, just an allowance, I mean. I do my homework and keep my room clean.” My mouth was up and running before I could stop myself. “I do the supper dishes and I empty the compost, stuff like that. I read to my little sister every day as well, after supper for half an hour at least. She’s really sick,” I blurted out in a big rush.
          “Yes, I know. I remember your Mama having to leave work a lot. It’s very difficult for your family, I’m sure,” said Madame quietly, looking down at her hands.
She was quiet, thinking I guess, while a wooden clock made an old bell kind of sound that echoed around the store. It calmed me down somehow and I looked up at the framed cloth on the wall. It looked really old, not bright white anymore but more like the ivory of piano keys.  The words were embroidered in different colours. They looked like wide blossoms on a tall tree with wide-spreading roots and with more flowers below it and around it.

Patience                Kindness                    Fairness                Cheerfulness
Courage                Gratitude                    Diligence             Tolerance
I wasn’t sure about diligence but everything else was a positive thing to think about so it likely was a good idea as well. Whoever spent hours and hours embroidering those words would have plenty of time to think about each one. Maybe that was the point, sort of an old-fashioned way of making you think about stuff as you carefully made it. Sometimes I wanted to live in Silverado’s olden times when kids worked in the stables and rode horses everywhere. They had lots of time to learn how to carve wood and build real things and make clothes way more interesting than T-shirts and jeans.
“Gina, could you work a couple of afternoons a week, Tuesdays and Thursdays? And do little chores like shoveling the sidewalk in the winter on snowy days? Perhaps you could take parcels to the post office for me? I would teach you any kind of sewing you’d like to learn when we weren’t busy with customers. I could pay you eight dollars for two hours. Does that suit you?”
          “Yes!” I nearly yelled. “I would love that, oh, I would!”
“Well, then, I will talk with your Mama about it.”  
          “Au revoir, Madame,” I sang out. “Merci beaucoup!”
          I ran as fast as I could to get home. The streetlights were buzzing and flickering to life because it was nearly dark. But I decided my good news would be worth any scolding for being late.
When I got home, the porch light was on but our truck was gone. I opened the front door.
          “Hello? Anybody home?” I yelled into our dark house.
          Nobody answered me.