January 13, 2013

Elsewhere by Richard Russo

It must have taken a lot of courage for Pulitzer-prizewinning author Richard Russo to write this searing memoir. It even takes some courage to read it. It is more the story of his mother's life than his own, although the level to which the two were intertwined is the disturbing element of the book. Russo realized only after his mother's death that she had been mentally ill all her life with obsessive-compulsive disorder, and that rather than helping her, he may often instead have been enabling.

His father (separated from his mother since Richard was a young boy) and other relatives had tried to tell him in various ways over the years that his mother was "nuts," and "crazy," - the lingo for mental illness in the mid-20th century. But Richard loved his mother who had convinced him that he was her rock and that her happiness depended on him. He writes wrenchingly of the cost (both horrendous financial as well as emotional costs)of this dysfunctional relationship to his marriage and family and most of all to himself.

Other themes that wend themselves through the book are the death of the industrial towns of the northeastern US, the terrible toll manufacturing took on workers in the early part of the last century, and of the conflicted relationships we have with our hometown.

A highly worthwhile read.

Upcoast Summers

I can't highly recommend this funny little book but will write some thoughts just to remember it. Upcoast Summers is a combination of journals, commentary, pictures, maps and diagrams about the boating adventures of a couple named Francis and Amy Barrow in the 1930s along the Sunshine Coast.

A common category of newcomer to Canada in its early history was the "remittance man." These were usually the sons of wealthy English gentry who'd been sent to Canada to seek their fortunes, and who got regular remittances from home. In this case, Amy Barrow was a remittance woman, leaving the couple free to have a hobby farm in Saanich, try various ventures and generally lead a life of leisure. In the summers they took their "little ship" Toketie (a 35-foot cabin cruiser/fishing boat) up and down the the endless channels, islands and waterways between Vancouver Island and mainland BC.

Francis and Amy had a great interest in aboriginal history. Francis had a camera with "plates" so had to be fussy how often he snapped, but he took hundreds of pictures of native pictographs and artifacts. By the 1930s most of the beautiful totem poles had already been carted away by museums and tourists, but the Barrows visited old village sites that still had the odd decaying totem or fallen-down structure with carved beams. The sites also invariably included clamshell middens, some 15 feet high. Besides being a rich source of artifacts, this clamshell detritus apparently also made fantastic garden soil and the journals contain many descriptions of the wonderful fresh vegetables people gave them when they visited.

Of the original coastal dwellers Francis says almost nothing. The book justaposes the Barrows'  apparent keen interest in "Indian" artifacts with an almost complete lack of interaction with Indians themselves. Francis mentions them only in passing, spending many more pages describing his two dogs, all the white people they meet, and the workings and re-workings of the two ancient motors that powered his boats. It's an eerie omission and as I read I saw the aboriginals like a ghostly presence hovering somewhere up the beach, watching this elderly couple poking through their middens and peering up into the remnants of their coffin platforms in the trees.

The truly fascinating thing for me once again is the arc of a life, a theme that's become significant to me over these last years as I get older and especially as I've written various life stories and edited the journals of Susanna Reimer and others. It's this theme that kept me reading through this leisurely account of what seemed like two rather self-absorbed and unremarkable folk. It strikes me over and over that most lives just begin, proceed along pretty quietly, and then end. My own life seems long and important to me, as no doubt it should, but in fact greatness eludes most people. Francis Barrow was touchingly proud, shortly before he died, of an award he got from a local Elks' club acknowledging his community work and also a letter from an anthropologist thanking him for his artifact contributions. The humble arc of his life helps me to appreciate the beauty and joys that are granted to me each day and be satisfied with what is, rather than thinking everlastingly about what could or should be.