Sunday, January 31, 2016

Two Book Reviews: Gerald Hill, Miriam Korner and Alix Lwanga

“A Round for Fifty Years: A History of Regina’s Globe Theatre”
by Gerald Hill
Published by Coteau Books
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$34.95  ISBN 9-781550-506389
In his Foreword, commissioned writer Gerald Hill claims “no objectivity for [his version of the theatre’s history], no nose for the dirt (if any exists, other than bat or pigeon dung), no investigative-reporter zeal,” and affirms that what follows is his rendering of the story. To that I say: Hurray! Hill’s got a SK-sized mountain of excellent publications (mostly poetry) behind him, and the longtime professor at Regina’s Luther College also has personal ties to the Globe. I can’t name a more suitable writer to pen a close-up retrospective that celebrates the folks - on both sides of the Globe’s curtain - who’ve made Saskatchewan’s first professional theatre company such a long-standing success.

This book’s a classy package. The cover’s appropriately dramatic: a front-lit photo of the historic Globe theatre building contrasted against the night sky and skyscrapers. The generously-spaced text assures easy reading; the book’s saturated with photographs (mostly from performances); and it’s smartly organized into three Acts, with a comprehensive Appendices that includes selected show posters. Its presentation is coffee table-ish; you’d be proud to have this sitting out where friends could see it.  

Hill credits innovative English director\playwright Brian May for the Globe’s “in the round” performance style, which allows actors and audience to “[share] the same physical and psychological space”. (In short, the closer Joe and Susie theatre-goer get, the better their experience.) There are nods toward the SK Arts Board for early interest and investment, specifically through Drama Consultant Florence James, and theatre’s relevance is addressed: “ … the essential goodness of humans can be accessed and reinforced through theatre”.

If one were to make an analogy to fiction, the theatre company would be the protagonist in this story, and the setting would include the entire province of SK. Dynamos Ken and Sue Kramer founded the Globe in 1966 as a school touring company that performed interactive shows in gymnasiums around the province. It was extremely “grass roots,” with self-made costumes, props and sets that were “usually nothing more than six plywood rostrum blocks of various sizes.” The company’d set off in Kramers’ Vauxhall and a donated Ford van, plowing through prairie blizzards, and share their theatrical magic with thousands of SK youngsters. Actor Bill Hugli says that a good show was indicated by “wet spots on the floor – kids so caught up in the experience, they couldn’t hold it anymore”.

Financial crises, building moves and renos, major programming changes, fresh visions, fun anecdotes (ie: bats), and a large cast of players – from 15-year Playwright-in-Residence Rex Deverell to successive Artistic Directors Susan Ferley and Ruth Smillie – make this a stimulating read.

In Act 3, Hill delivers a nearly day-by-day account of the work required to mount a huge production (Mary Poppins), and for me, realizing what everyone from wardrobe people to musicians went through over one frantic preparatory three-week period was especially eye-opening. To the Globe’s many committed characters - and the collaborators in this wide-ranging and splendidly-written book - a standing ovation, of course.    




“L’il Shadd: A Story of Ujima”
by Miriam Körner and Alix Lwanga, illustrated by Miriam Körner
Published by Your Nickel’s Worth Publishing
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$29.95  ISBN 978-1-927756-48-5

Saskatchewan’s history is so multi-culturally rich that there are, admittedly, elements of it that I’ve scarcely even considered. Take, for example, the first African-Canadian pioneers, including the trail-blazing Dr. Alfred Schmitz Shadd (d.1915), for whom two Melfort streets and a northern Saskatchewan lake are named. Dr. Shadd shared an affinity with First Nations’ folks, “due to the similarity of their experiences with colonization and racism,” and the Saskatchewan African Canadian Heritage Museum – with the assistance of other funders and sponsors - has brought just one of Shadd’s success stories to light in the delightfully-illustrated children’s book, L’il Shadd: A Story of Ujima.

The title character, L’il Shadd, represents Garrison Shadd, the real-life son of the good Dr. Shadd, who’s also recognized for his work as a politician, teacher, farmer, journalist and friend. Garrison was actually five years old when his pioneering father died, so the story itself is slightly fictionalized. The plot concerns the child accompanying his father (via horse-drawn wagon) to tend to the baby girl of a local First Nations’ family who lives in a tipi near Stoney Creek. This medical emergency coincides with L’il Shadd’s birthday, and the boy is remiss that it will interfere with his party. His father explains that he must treat the infant girl, as he is the only one who is able to, and the African philosophy of Ujima (a Swahili word that refers to “Shared work and responsibility,” and the idea that “our brothers and sisters concerns are out concerns”) is referred to.

There are crossovers with real life here. Garrison Shadd also had a baby sister, and when the sick child in the story is healed, her father, Nīkānisiw (Cree for “He is foremost, he leads”) plays a drum not unlike Dr. Shadd’s African drum, and thanks the doctor in Cree and English. Three of Nīkānisiw’s children were actually treated by Dr. Shadd in the 1890s – a fact derived from Melfort-area settler Reginald Beatty’s diary.

This uplifting and historically-relevant story celebrates family, community, and culture, and illustrates how even children are able to grasp the selfless concept of Ujima, which is one of seven important Kwanzaa (an African holiday) values.        
Personally, I can’t think of a better way to teach history and get a positive message across than by presenting it in a full-colour picture book. Körner’s culturally-sensitive illustrations spread right across the page, and this “full bleed” style helps keep one sealed under the story’s spell. I appreciated the suggestion of floral bead work on Nīkānisiw’s vest, and the baby’s homemade rattle. Even more so, I celebrate the mutual trust and respect the characters display for each other, and for each other’s cultures.

This Special Edition legacy project is beautifully rendered, and I hope it is widely read. Teachers may wish to consider sharing L’il Shadd: A Story of Ujima during their schools’ multicultural celebrations, and to make it extra inviting, a teachers’ guide is available at Congratulations to all involved in this fine publication. And tēniki\thanks YNWP!

Monday, January 25, 2016

Two Book Reviews: Marchildon & Robinson; van Eijk

“Canoeing the Churchill: A Practical Guide to the Historic Voyageur Highway”
by Greg Marchildon and Sid Robinson
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$34.95  ISBN 9-780889-771482

Call me unusual, but activities that require great strength and endurance, are potentially fatal, and involve the outdoors are my idea of a glorious time. Thus it’s not inconceivable that at some point in my life I may participate in an extensive canoe trip, ie: the Churchill River. Now that I’ve read Canoeing the Churchill: A Practical Guide to the Historic Voyageur Highway, I couldn’t imagine that undertaking without packing along this book, though at a hefty 476 pages, I might be cursing that decision during the many portages on the 1000 km route between Methy Portage and Cumberland House.  

In this tour de force the authors merge historical fact, journal entries, maps (with all-important entry and exit points), photographs, paintings, legends, a packing list, safety tips, camping suggestions, and so much more while also delivering a veritable stroke-by-stroke (or at least section-to-section) account of what one can expect on this epic journey, including what current services one might find in the various small communities along the route. (If you’re from northern SK, names like La Loche, Buffalo Narrows, Patuanak, Dillon, and Île-à-la-Crosse will already be part of your lexicon.)

The Churchill was an important route for fur traders and voyageurs dating back to the 1770s, and the authors introduce us to several of these characters, including Connecticut-born fur trader Peter Pond – murderer, map-maker, and the first white man to cross the approximately 19 km Methy Portage: ouch. The grand Peter Pond Lake (largest lake on the Churchill route) is named for him. Explorer David Thompson’s “special connection” to the route is also cited: in 1799 he met and married his 13-year-old Métis bride, Charlotte Small, in Île-à-la-Crosse.

In 1986 Marchildon and Robinson canoed the entire journey over seventy days in an aluminum Grumman Eagle, and they’re to be thanked for many of the book’s photographs. They were excited about “camping on the same rocks and portaging the same trails as the early traders and their voyageurs.”

There’s so much to appreciate here, from the fine writing, ie: “Regrettably, much of the early history is lost in the mists of time” to the map of sites where Aboriginal rock paintings can be found; from a short history on beaver hats to current information (ie: “a few independent fur buyers [still] buy fur in the old way,” including Robertson Trading, in La Ronge); from clear directions to Cree legends, ie: the Swimming Stone near the northern tip of Wamninuta Island, where it’s believed a medicine man gave the flat-backed boulder the ability to swim. All this, and much humour, too, ie: they’ve written that Face #7 at a rock painting site “suffers from a natural exfoliation or flaking of the rock.”
Aside from an invaluable resource for canoeists, this book also makes for a well-written read for anyone who enjoys history, adventure, and armchair travel. The fact that this slightly-revised edition is actually the fourth printing of this title speaks well of its popularity. These men know of what they speak.  



“These Are Our Legends”
Narrated by Lillooet Elders, Transcribed and Translated by Jan van Eijk, Illustrated by Marie Abraham
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$24.95  ISBN 9-780889-773967

University of Regina Press is to be commended for its series, First Nations Language Readers, which allows a broad spectrum of readers to enjoy the wisdom, humour, word play, and moral lessons inherent in traditional oral stories and legends. Now the press has added These Are Our Legends to the series, and thus preserves seven short Lillooet legends, originally narrated by four Lillooet (Salish) elders from British Columbia’s interior and painstakingly transcribed and translated by Jan van Eijk, a Linguistics professor at Regina's First Nations University who’s dedicated forty years to studying the Lillooet language.
The volume offers an interesting juxtaposition. The academically-inclined will appreciate van Eijk’s depth of research, evident in his opening “On the Language of the Lillooet,” in which he discusses phonology, morphology, and syntax, and in the extensive Lillooet-English glossary that follows the bilingual stories. His methodology re: collecting the stories – or sptakwlh, which translates as “ancient story forever” – via tape recorder between 1972 – 1979 is also included.
These particular stories initially appeared together in a 1981 collection – Cuystwí Malh Ucwalmícwts (Lillooet Legends and Stories) – and van Eijk imparts the revisions made for the reprint. In explaining how one of the oral storytellers could not provide the precise meaning of two words in a story told to her by her grandmother, the author writes: “Sadly, one almost sees old words fading away before one’s eyes here, a fate that has befallen too many words in too many First Nations languages.” This is why a book like These Are Our Legends is critical.  

Linguistics aside, I am guessing that the majority of readers will be most interested in the seemingly simple animal-based legends themselves. “Coyote” is a major force here. This Trickster’s antics reveal both the high (ie: intelligence) and low (ie: carelessness) of his (and human) character. In the first story, “The Two Coyotes,” a pair of coyotes are “going along” and one claims that he is a coyote, while the other is just “‘another one’”. The former slyly proves his point via a humourous bit of word play. Another example of that original First Nations’ humour appears in “Grizzly Bear and the Black Bear’s Children,” in which a black bear-eating grizzly is encouraged to sit on an ant hill and “open [her] bum”. (Interestingly, the glossary includes the Lillooet verb npíg̓wqam̓ “to open one’s bum”.)  

What I most appreciate here is the “real” - and sometimes surprisingly contemporary - way these stories have been documented in text. A coyote colloquially says “No way,” for example, and in “Coyote Drowns,” the speaker ends thus: “He kept on doing that until he got carried away by the water, and he died, I guess.” Another story includes this: “Gee, when they got there, were they ever amazed …”. Two stories end with the storytellers concluding “That’s all”.      

I have the strong sense that I am hearing these stories legitimately, as if the tellers have been drinking tea with me in my kitchen. That, my friends, translates as success.