Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Three Book Reviews: Robin Langford, Elaine Scharfe/Karen Sim, and Marilyn Lachambre

“The Cowboy in Me”
by Robin Langford
Published by LM Publication Services Ltd.
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$28.00  ISBN 9-780995-819009

"These stories are one hundred percent factual, no yarns or embellishments." This is an enticing entry into septuagenarian cowboy Robin Langford's memoir, The Cowboy in Me. The Maple Creek-born author candidly shares his life's journey between 1947 and 2016, and readers are advised to hang on for a ride that delivers more ups and downs than a bucking bronco.  

"Cowboy up" is a term that defines what Langford and his hard-working second wife, Penny, often had to do while they tended both cattle and kids on ranches between Williams Lake, BC and the Prince Albert region of SK. The work was physically arduous and eminently dangerous, and the culmination of poor weather, aggressive bears, pack rats, raging bulls, moody cows, temperamental horses, frequent job changes, province-hopping, bad deals, disharmonious neighbours, disagreeable bank managers, and health issues would be enough to make anyone raise the white flag, but the Langfords stuck it out, even when it was often difficult to "put groceries on the table".

In one entertaining anecdote Langford explains that when he and Penny "finally" got married in 1984-Penny'd stepped in to help him raise his two boys, and she and Langford later had two more children together-the cowboy/trapper/ranch owner/author borrowed a suit and Penny borrowed a dress, and they married "in front of a Justice of the Peace on the front lawn of John Mador's house in Prince George" with their children in attendance.    

The stories begin with Langford's birth to a violent, alcoholic father and his hard-suffering but "feisty" mother. "They had a strange relationship that was somehow a cross between love and resentment," he writes. After a physical fight with his father at age thirteen, and with just a grade six education, Langford moved out and stayed with other family members. By fourteen he was hitchhiking to Medicine Hat, where a cousin soon hooked him up with a Taber beet farmer who needed help with chores that ranged from breaking ponies for merry-go-rounds to collecting eggs. Langford's first real cowboy job was in the Cypress Hills, and "It was here that [Langford] found a love for the cowboy way of life that's stayed with [him] to this day".

In this easy-to-read memoir the language is in the cowboy vernacular, and the author's lively character is apparent, ie: at eighteen he suggested a dalliance with the mid-forties cook, Mrs. Campbell, on the bear-plagued Circle S Ranch. "Within two days the whole goddamned valley had heard about the incident". The book's filled with respect for "real top cowboys," many of whom were inducted into the BC Cowboy Hall of Fame. The numerous photographs of people, camps, animals, and activities contribute much, and the full-colour photo of the Langford Ranch in Shellbrook, SK-with a rainbow behind it-seems a fitting metaphor for a life that, in its later years, has included the joy of grandparenting.

Langford asserts, "with hard work and true grit, you can overcome most everything"–bears, hernias, bar fights, and all. Terrific read for a wide audience.         

"Little Bear"
Written by Elaine Scharfe, Illustrated by Karen Sim
Published by YNWP
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$9.95  ISBN 9-781988-783086

Do you remember being a child and wishing you were a teenager? I sure do. I was particularly envious of a teenager named Cindy, who carried Wrigley's Spearmint Gum in her handbag, and whose long, blonde hair swished when she walked. I wanted to grow up and have a handbag, a purse, and hair that reached to my waist, too!

Saskatoon writer Elaine Scharfe's growing collection of illustrated children's books now includes a story about a cute bear cub who can't wait to grow up and really ROAR! Scharfe's figured out the formula for creating stories that the youngest children will want to read–or have read to them–time and again, and Karen Sim's illustrations–full bleeds on every other page–are a perfect complement to the text of Little Bear.

Using the Rule of Threes re: repetition, we journey along with Little Bear, the book's impatient star, as he wakes up each day and asks his mother "Am I Big Bear yet?" Little Bear encounters three friends–each a different species–and, as it's taking too long to become Big Bear, he asks "Can I be like you instead?" When he learns what it takes to be an owl, a rabbit, and a fish–and realizes he can't manage it–he feels defeated. "Just then Little Bear heard his mother calling."

"Little Bear, Little Bear. It's time for our winter sleep."

Older readers will understand what's happening as the bears crawl into their cozy cave and cuddle up. Upon waking, Little Bear learns he's changed over the passing months, and he returns to visit each of his friends, delightedly asking each of them, "Did you hear that?"

This is a story a child could easily memorize. It could also become a first (and treasured) reader. In the book's endnotes we learn that Scharfe's children's books are actually "refined versions of stories she told her children and grandchildren when they were young". The glossy softcover should hold up well in little hands, and the large black type centered on a white background is easy on older eyes.

Sim's artistic talent shines on every page. The Vancouver Island-based artist and designer works in various media, including digital media, oil pastel, and graphite and ink. She manages to evoke curiosity, fear, excitement and love through the endearing expressions of these animal characters. To view her fine and varied work, see

Scharfe previously impressed me with her book My Good Friend, Grandpa. She has also written There's a Dinosaur in My Room. The lesson in her latest book is that age-old one: All good things come to those who wait. Who can't relate? As the mother of two now-adults, I can remember when they too looked forward to the next birthday, and the next … each birthday cake a milestone affording them greater liberties and more independence.

As for this once impatient child, I did get the handbag, the hair, and the gum, though Juicy Fruit was my flavour of choice.

"Angel Blessings"
Written and Illustrated by Marilyn Lachambre
Published by YNWP
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$19.95  ISBN 9-781988-783093

Quite coincidentally, I read the illustrated children's book, Angel Blessings, the first title by Kamsack, SK writer and illustrator Marilyn Lachambre, on the one-year anniversary of my younger brother's passing; at the end of this review, you'll read why this is significant. 

In this attractive hardcover released in November 2017 by Regina's Your Nickel's Worth Publishing, Lachambre rhymes her way through All Things Angel: who and what they are, and the many ways they bring us comfort, protection, and inspiration. The rhyming text will be appealing to young ears, as will the soothing sentiments, ie: "Angels are with you day and night …. keeping you in their loving sight," and "They're always with you, through joy and sorrow—protecting and guiding, today and tomorrow".

I could see this uplifting book being used as a nighttime prayer for young children. Its Christian emphasis and calming words would be a wonderful way for children to fall asleep, ie: "Even at bedtime when it's time to sleep, they will stay with you while you slumber deep. As you lie quietly in bed tonight, know that Angel wings are holding you tight". In fact, any one, of any age, might well be comforted by these assertions.
Lachambre has refrained from using facial details on the angels and people in her almost full-page illustrations, and this may help children imagine their own features and/or the features of those they love on these characters. I enjoyed the splashes of colour on every page, and the diverse representations of the angels, ie: some have scalloped, yellow wings, while others have gold, feathery wings, rainbow-coloured wings, or insect-like wings. The angels are featured in the air, on clouds, and in trees, and many pages also show them interacting with characters in their daily lives on the ground, ie: overlooking a baby in a cradle, or playing a game with a child in a field.

There's a long dedication to this beautifully-produced book, and I'm guessing that the author's two children and four grandchildren are incredibly proud of their mother/grandmother for publishing such a fine first book. Lachambre even thanks "the Angels, for nudging me along and guiding me". 

I haven't given a lot of thought to angels of late, thus it was sweet to be reminded how some believe that our own angels (which I interpreted as dearly departed family members and friends) sometimes make themselves present to us with special signs, like "a cloud-shaped Angel," or coins, or feathers, or butterflies.

After reading this book I went to the gym, as I do most mornings, and started my treadmill run. The treadmills at the Frank Jameson Community Centre in Ladysmith face a bank of windows and overlook a small skateboard park, backed by a row of towering evergreens. I was thinking about my brother, one year gone, when suddenly a single white flower delicately danced down from the sky right before me. Coincidence? Ah, perhaps. But I choose to believe that it was no coincidence at all.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Two Book Reviews: Trevor Herriot/Branimir Gjetvaj's Islands of Grass and Susan Harris's An Alphabet of the First Christmas: A Christian Alphabet Book

“Islands of Grass”
Text by Trevor Herriot, Photos by Branimir Gjetvaj
Published by Coteau Books
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$39.95  ISBN 9-781550-509311

Saskatchewan naturalist, activist, and Governor-General's Award-nominee Trevor Herriot has penned another title that should be on every bookshelf, and particularly on the shelves of those who love our precarious prairie grasslands and the threatened creatures who inhabit them. In Islands of Grass, Herriot has teamed with environmental photographer Branimir Gjetvaj to create a coffee table-esque hardcover that's part call to action, part celebration, and part Ecology 101. The pair's mutual passion for our disappearing grasslands – the term "islands" deftly illustrates their fate – is evident on every page of this important and beautiful must-read.

Herriot's erudite essays are personal, political, and urgent. Filled with first-person anecdotes (ie: his father's memories of dust storms), plus stories from ranchers, ecologists, and agency professionals, they also explain the history of grass and reveal how pioneers were encouraged to plow in order to prosper. There's much plant, bird, and animal information, including statistical numbers re: their endangerment and recovery.

The book's five chapters are written in the engaging conversational/informational style Herriot's faithful readers have come to expect, ie: the opening line: "It was along the northern edge of Old Wives Lake—a vast inland sea that year—where I am pretty sure I had the briefest glimpse of a swift fox."  Lines later he explains that these once seriously endangered "cat-sized canines" are now "the most successful recovery story on the northern Great Plains," a fact backed-up by promising numbers from a 2005-2006 census. (Those unfamiliar with the Regina author's writing may recognize his distinct "voice" from his regular contributions to CBC Radio's "Blue Sky" program.)

Gjetvaj's photographs present a dramatic gallery of landscapes that underscore the cinema of Saskatchewan's skies and how cultivation (evident in patchwork crops) has dominated the prairies. Images of lush grass, buffalo bean and moss phlox, wetlands, valleys, rolling hills, livestock, insects, feathered wonders, hard-working folks, and that inimitable prairie sunlight illustrate how each are part and parcel of this unique - and rancher vs. conservationist-conflicted - region, where Herriot measures the weight of a bobolink at "about a $1.25 in quarters".

I learned that there are 10,000 grass-types, and they act as a kind of ecological gate-keeper. I learned how the government's 2012 cutting of the PFRA community pastures program has put grasslands (and their ecologies) at much greater risk, and native grasses are "increasingly susceptible to the dollars and dreams of people who want to build a McMansion with twenty acres out back where they keep a horse no one rides". I was reminded about heroes like Peter and Sharon Butala, who donated their land to the Nature Conservancy of Canada; and Wallace Stegner, whose 1960 letter to the Outdoor Recreation Review Commission formed the basis of the The Wilderness Act in the U.S. – public land legislation Herriot envies.  

"All of life is grass," he writes, and while "Saskatchewan is among the worst on the planet for grassland protection," Herriot asserts that "nature specializes in miracles," and we all share in the responsibility of maintaining our critical grasslands.  


“An Alphabet of the First Christmas: A Christian Alphabet Book”
by Susan Harris
Published by White Lily Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$12.00  ISBN 978-0-9949869-2-4

Author Susan Harris has added another alphabet book to her growing list of titles: An Alphabet of the First Christmas: A Christian Alphabet Book, will be specifically welcome to those who wish to teach (or learn!) the alphabet from a Christmas-themed and a Christian perspective. Like her book, Christmas A to Z, this softcover leads young readers through a colourful array of images, and it uses some "big" words to represent certain letters. For example, "B" is for Bethlehem, "E" is for "Emmanuel," "F" is "Frankincense," and "Y" is for "Yeshua," "the Hebrew name for Jesus," meaning saviour. I applaud Harris for using both simple words and these more difficult ones: I can almost hear a little child carefully pronouncing "Frankincense" after he or she hears it, and enjoying both the challenge and the sound of the word. 

Several of the illustrations reminded me of traditional Christmas card images, while others featured cartoon-like characters. The book is perfect for Christmas gift-giving, as it even includes a handy "To" and "From" page at the beginning.

To learn more about Harris, I consulted her website at Born and raised in Trinidad and now a resident of Melville, Harris – a writer, speaker, and former teacher – credits her disparate homes for making her adaptive. "Susan can adapt to audiences and geographic conditions, and she attributes this to the exposure of city living, island living and rural living. Winter seasons have seen her interchange a briefcase and a shovel, as she tosses snow in high heeled boots and executive suit."

Christianity, leadership, and public speaking have been a huge part of Harris's life since childhood. "Since age 9, she has been standing in front of audiences, and has inspired thousands in schools, churches, conferences and youth groups to find fulfilment in life. Her beliefs and experiences have helped women in particular to discover practical ways of leading positive and intentional lives. Her messages have been presented with clarity, conviction and humour."

As with Harris's other Christmas alphabet book, this title includes a "Letter from the Author," which begins "Dear Little Friend of Jesus". Harris explains that "There are many books which teach about the alphabet, but [she] wanted to write a special one about Jesus and Christmas. Not everyone believes in the Christian faith, but they can still learn about what we believe because education is about learning different things."

In her letter to young readers, Harris suggests that they "name the pictures and sound out the words." For further learning, she writes that they "can also talk about where these words are found in the Bible." The book concludes with "A Prayer to Invite Jesus into Your Heart," and "A Prayer for My Little Friends' Success".

If you have a child, grandchild, or another little one on your gift-giving list and you'd like them to know more about the "Christ" in Christmas, you may want to include this educational and celebratory book - published by White Lily Press in Yorkton – under the tree.