Monday, May 27, 2019

Three New Book Reviews: Wide Open (D.M. Ditson), When We Had Sled Dogs: A Story from the Trapline (Ida Tremblay and Miriam Korner), and The Happy Horse (Carolyn Williams and illustrator L.E. Stevens)

“Wide Open”
by D, M. Ditson
Published by Coteau Books
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$24.95 ISBN 9-781550-509663

Sure it's a cliché, but I had a hard time putting this book down. Welcome to the literary world, D.M. Ditson, with your intimate, hard-hitting, and honest portrayal of matters that are not easy to share. First book? Could have fooled me.

Sexual abuse, Fundamentalist Christianity, mental health issues, black-out drinking, and a dysfunctional family are the collaborative demons in Ditson's memoir, Wide Open, and though the subjects are difficult, Ditson's fresh style, pacing, and ­example - of how to live through the pain - are the reasons I'm recommending this book both publicly and privately.

The former Regina journalist and government communications consultant is "obsessed with telling the truth". She relays her story in the way you want someone to tell a story when it's really interesting: the book moves. Like a pinball game. And I applaud the structure, with shifts in time ("Now," "Youth," "Childhood," etc.) clearly indicated.

After a riveting prologue, the book swerves to Ditson's return from Belize where she'd gone to let the jungle heal her. Back in Regina she meets Ian, whom she's loathe to introduce to her parents: "It's going to go badly the second one of them mentions God, science, TV, politics or practically anything else," she writes. A few pages later she's in a "Childhood" section, and the voice is convincing: "The butterflies dance like fancy figure-skater ladies in their sparkly dresses but don't come close."      

Before meeting Ian, Ditson, at eighteen, was raped by a forty-year-old, and years later she makes it her mission to find this man and have him charged. But there are other perpetrators, too. I've read many books on sexual abuse and its lifelong repercussions, but Ditson's is the first that opened my eyes to the apparently not uncommon practice of abused women who - after an initial, forced sexual act - try to be in a relationship with their attacker. The need to be loved is so profound.  

The author provides numerous examples of her parents' distorted beliefs, and to quote another cliché, my jaw dropped. Her sister says "Holy smoke," while playing Barbies and has her mouth washed out with soap, because "Only God is holy". The writer's father is in Promise Keepers. The daughters wear chastity rings. On a mission trip to Timbuktu, Ditson befriends Raja. They share the same "twin fires burning for God," but can't hug for more than three seconds: "it's against the rules." Ditson's mother believes there are pimps at the mall and kidnappers at the fireworks' display. No books allowed unless they're from a Christian bookstore. ("Rapture Survival Guides" abound.) Dad says he's been "struggling with pornography" because he's "been addicted to the Sears catalogue".

And here's the crux: these Christian parents frequently have audible sex when their family's in the same tent or hotel room. Holy. Ditson begs her father to stop this.

Even into her thirties, Ditson's still being told to "honour [her] father". Thank god there's an epiphany in this fascinating story: wait for it.

 “When We Had Sled Dogs: A Story from the Trapline”

by Ida Tremblay and Miriam Körner
Published by Your Nickel’s Worth Publishing
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$19.95  ISBN 978-1-988783-39-0
Searching for a book that's educational, Woodland Cree/English bilingual, and specifically Saskatchewan? If you'd also appreciate that the story be packaged in a beautifully-illustrated hardcover, then When We Had Sled Dogs: A Story from the Trapline, should fill your desires.

This upbeat and colourful book was inspired by the life of La Ronge, SK Elder Ida Tremblay, who shared her memories of "growing up following the seasonal cycle of trapline life" with Miriam Körner. Körner - also from La Ronge - wrote and illustrated the book, which, sadly, Tremblay never got to see, as she died shortly before it was published.

During the summer, while Tremblay's father worked as a fishing guide, the rest of the family camped at McKenzie End, close to La Ronge. Before winter froze the lake, Ida's family would canoe for five or six days to their cabin on the Churchill River and tend the trapline until spring.

Körner's had the privilege of accompanying Tremblay "up north and back to the past," and thus veracity is maintained through first-hand observation - at least of place - as well as through Tremblay's reminiscences. The reliance on sled dogs, which "summer" on Dog Island and are retrieved in canoe as the family paddles across immense Lac La Ronge to the cabin, is a critical element. Imagine these canoes loaded with excited children, anxious dogs, and staples like "flour, sugar and tea".

When the Tremblay's arrived after the labour-intensive journey, the first order of business was to portage - and not just once. Then there was "wood to be cut, cranberries to be picked, rabbits to be snared," and cabin repairs. Körner's young characters don't complain; they also find time to play with the numerous Husky-looking puppies. We see Tremblay's father - in his fringed and beaded buckskin coat and fur-trimmed mittens and mukluks - load the dogs and sled with needlepoint Christmas gifts for family, and furs to trade for food back in town.

Körner's adept at the small, authentic details in her lively, watercolour illustrations. Each page warrants a long look, and children will enjoy the dogs featured throughout. Can they count all the dogs in the book? What other animals do they recognize? Adults might also ask a young audience how the artist demonstrates that the seasons are changing, discuss then and now differences, and point out culturally significant experiences, ie: for Christmas, Ida's sister receives a sewing kit. Sewing would've been seen as an integral skill within a culture where creating one's own warm clothing could be a matter of survival.

As we speed toward ever more advanced technologies and transportation systems, to urban centers, and into lives lived at breakneck speed, it's important that these records of traditional ways be preserved. Congratulations to writer-illustrator Miriam Körner for once again spotlighting a critical part of Saskatchewan's history and people. (Another of her titles is L’il Shadd: A Story of Ujima, also by YNWP.) And thank you Ida Tremblay, for the vivid memories and beautiful teachings.
“The Happy Horse"
Written by Carolyn Williams, Illustrated by L.E. Stevens
Published by Ghostmountain Publishing
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$20.00  ISBN 978-1-9994737-0-9

There's so much adoration and delight - both in and between the lines - of  Carolyn Williams' slim, illustrated softcover, The Happy Horse, I'm reminded of a movie opening where it's all blue skies and butterflies … which portends a forthcoming turn into darkness.

Williams, a "transplanted Englishwoman living life (and loving it) out in the wilds of the great Canadian prairies" has teamed with Ohio illustrator L.E. Stevens to produce a book about the sweet life of a never-officially-named-in-the-story horse (I glean it's "Snoop" from the dedication) that the writer actually owned - his photo appears above the book's dedication - and clearly admired, as the book's an homage to that extraordinarily ambitious animal. You could say that this is a book about a horse with a life well-lived. A happy horse with a life well-lived!

Williams employs repetition of the phrase "He was a Happy Horse" as the last line in the first thirteen pages of this thirty-two page text - each facing page features a line-drawn illustration of the horse and its activities - and alters that phrase slightly near the end. Using repetition helps beginning readers to learn; it's a device often used in children's literature.

The story begins with the horse's birth, "Late at night, [w]hen the stars were bright," and we're told that both the horse's mother and the horse's "human" loved him. We see the horse "playing" with friends, and learn that both he - and his human - loved it when his coat was brushed. The horse learns how to play with a ball, to ride quietly in a trailer ("So that he could go to different places [w]ith his human," and to play chase. Eventually he transitions into a racehorse, a cow horse, and a participant in a "Cow Horse Competition". That's quite a horse!

But what he loves best is being at home with his human.

This story demonstrates how even quiet stories can be effective, and in fact, an homage to a loved one - or a loved animal - is as worthy of being printed as a story that includes a grand plot.

Illustrator Stevens' cartoon-styled illustrations, surrounded by ample white space, are a good match for the minimal text, and the cover features the smiling horse on a background of denim blue. Stevens' bio states: "His dogs love him and his beautiful wife tolerates him".

I knew what was coming, of course. It had to. All I'll say is that the only colour within the story proper occurs in the symbolic rainbow at the end of the story. Gulp.

On the back cover the writer - who's also passionate about dogs - explains that her horse "taught [her] how to love life again," and other important lessons, including to "HAVE FUN" every day. The dog-human connection is often remarked upon and written about; perhaps less so the horse-human connection, but clearly the bond is remarkable. That comes across. Indeed, for Williams the connection's been life changing.       

Friday, May 3, 2019

Two New Book Reviews: Mary Ann Loewen's anthology "Finding Father: Stories from Mennonite Daughters" and Marny Duncan-Cary (and illustrator Val Moker's) "Rockstar"

"Finding Father: Stories From Mennonite Daughters"

Edited by Mary Ann Loewen

Published by University of Regina Press

Review by Shelley A. Leedahl

$21.95  ISBN 9-780889-775909

What do you get when you take fifteen literary daughters writing essays 

about their Mennonite fathers and combine them in one anthology? You 

get Finding Father: Stories from Mennonite Daughters-a comprehensive, 

compassionate, and well-written portrayal of men who were loved for all 

they were, and forgiven for what they couldn't be. You get frequent 

mentions of generosity; the immigrant experience (the journey and the 

politics that led to it, poverty, language challenges, large families, 

stoicism); great but often quiet faith; ample encouragement (particularly 

re: academic aspirations … Mennonites are "people of the book"); music; 

leadership; eventual illness which led to death; and, frequently, the wish 

for a more emotionally intimate and physically demonstrative 

relationship. You also get the personal memories-best delivered through

imagistic snapshots-that make each father-daughter relationship unique.

Vulnerability is at the heart of memoir, and the talented contributors

candidly share both what pleased and pained them in their relationships 

with their fathers, but as authors and subjects are both Mennonite, 

"cultural artifacts"-particularly religion, whether the family adhered to the 

Mennonite Brethren denomination or another-play a key position in the 

dynamics. Many of the writers mentioned praying on one's knees.

Though the men featured contain numerous similarities in their 

experience and personalities, the essays also underscore how 

misguided it would be to make generalizations. Ontario's Rebecca Plett, 

cultural anthropologist, writes about coming out to her parents, and her 

father's unexpected, wordless response: "My father, usually so reticent to 

touch, without hesitation rose from his chair across from me, moved 

around the table, and put his arms around me." She credits him for an 

ability to "access a language of meaning and feeling beyond words".

Governor General Award finalist Carrie Snyder's opening essay details a 

father who taught Peace and Conflict Studies, "yet his divorce from [her] 

mom, after thirty-four years of marriage, was marked by extreme 

atrimony," and Ruth Loewen, in "Requiem in Three Voices"-an essay 

with contributions from three sisters, including Winnipeg's Mary Ann 

Loewen, the book's editor-writes that after her father's stroke, "virtually 

[their] entire relationship was wiped out, literally overnight." Mary Ann 

comments upon how this stroke actually improved her father's "spiritual 

vision" and gave him the ability to "love and accept all kinds of people".

Though "love" between each of these father-daughter duos is never in 

question, it's telling how dearly many of these writers desired more 

physical affection from their dads. Vancouver's Elsie K. Neufeld recalls 

her father shaking her hand as he wished her "Gute Nacht," and admits 

that she would "feign sleep" in order to be carried by her father from car 

to bed.

This fine collection follows Loewen's Sons and Mothers: Stories from 

Mennonite Men. Both books are recommended for anyone who 

appreciates thoughtful nonfiction that increases understanding of one's 



by Marny Duncan-Cary, illustrated by Val Moker
Published by Your Nickel’s Worth Publishing
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$14.95  ISBN 9-781988-78383
Southern Saskatchewan musician and writer Marny Duncan-Cary has capitalized on her complementary talents: she's taken the lyrics from a song she wrote in 2002 and has used them as the text for an illustrated book in 2019. It's a formula she's successfully employed before (ie: her book/song Who's That Man? earned a silver medal in the Moonbeam Children's Book Awards in 2010). This time the four-time Saskatchewan Country Music Award winner has transformed her song "Rockstar," and along with vividly-colourful, full-bleed illustrations by artist Val Moker, Duncan-Cary has produced a lively song readers can hold in their hands.

When one is both a dedicated artist (in any genre) who works from home and a devoted mother, juggling the necessary "me" time and family time can be a serious challenge. (I've been there myself; my own answer was to carve a week or two out of every year to "retreat" and work on my writing while my children were young.) In her softcover book "Rockstar," Duncan-Cary exposes the everyday demands of children, like "Mom, can you get me some juice?" and "Mom, what are we going to do today?" and Moker brings these ordinary days to life with bold images. We see the mother/artist protagonist with pen and paper in hand, black musical notes floating through the pages while expressive children put on socks, play the piano, ask for Mom's help at the computer, and, in one of my favourite illustrations, eat snacks in a plant and flower-surrounded conservatory.

In short, this is real life. Even the family's black cat cameos in the illustrations, and as the story progresses-we see Mom in a pink boa and studded "Rockstar" jacket before a dressing room mirror, stepping from a limousine, and performing on stage-the musical notes have themselves become small whimsical characters, colouring on the walls and climbing the kitchen cupboards. It's domestic chaos, but where there's a will there's a way, and life inspires art.

There's a nod in the text to the music industry's penchant for the "Young and firm," to which the author writes "for now they'll hafta wait for me 'cause I ain't got the time!" Professional and personality responsibilities are managed in tandem, and one must read the story to get to the "bottom" of why the young characters shout "Mom, I'm done!"

Duncan-Cary, who lives on an acreage near Lumsden, and Regina's Moker are both artists (with education degrees) who love and write about where they live: Duncan-Cary's "Music and words convey the heart of her life in southern Saskatchewan," and Moker's specialty is western art. I "Googled" the artists and quickly found what I was after: a video of Duncan-Cary performing the song
that inspired the story. An endearing performance of a slightly bluesy tune.

Congratulations to the creators for this fun, relatable, and tangible song, and to Your Nickel's Worth Publishing and designer Heather Nickel for the bright new package. Thumps up, as well, to Creative Saskatchewan, who made the production of this text possible.