Alad from Brantford & Other Essays|
by David A. Richards,
Raves, Rants & Revelations
by Silver D. Cameron, Ronald Caplan,
Post Your Opinion
|Under Eastern Eyes
by Pat Barclay
THE PERSONAL ESSAY HAS so much potential as a literary form that it's gratifying to see it being skilfully and engagingly employed in these two new books. Both David Adams Richards and Silver Donald Cameron have plenty on their minds, and they know how to hold our attention. "I began to smoke at the age of three, with my friend Kenny, under the veranda of his house, about the autumn of 1954," begins Richards, thus ensuring that hardly a single eye will stray for the duration of "Smoking," the essay that follows. Likewise, Cameron easily entices us into his essay "Rocky Mountain High" with this for openers:
Downhill skiing is a certifiably silly sport, I whimper to myself as the chair-lift bears me inexorably over the treetops and gullies, like a slab of beef going around the overhead conveyors in an abattoir. Such examples remind us that one reason we -- writers and readers alike -- are drawn to the personal essay is the opportunity it offers for personal revelation. Who is not tempted to write about him/herself, and who is not intrigued to learn something of the private lives of the writers we enjoy? On this score, both Richards and Cameron seem generous, honest, and free from excessive egotism.
Richards's concerns tend to centre around national, provincial, regional, and personal identity. In "My Old Newcastle," for example, he explains,
as children, we all saw movies ...
that never mentioned us as a country or a place. That never seemed to know what our fathers and mothers did -- that we went to wars or had a flag or even a great passion for life.
As far as the movies were concerned, we were in a lost dark country, it seemed. And perhaps this is one reason I write.
Again and again, in essays on hockey, music, movies, magazines, and Quebec, Richards returns to his identity theme. With such a lead-in, the penultimate essay, "Some Thoughts on Weather," gains added impact. This one we've all experienced: the un-cooperativeness of the damn weather, at least whenever someone -- especially an American someone -- comes for a visit. Here's how Richards ends his account of one particularly disappointing time ("I'm telling you, she spent eight days in the Maritimes and didn't see the sun"):
But there is something about our weather. It's like the man who finds the singing frog, who will sing only for him. Every-time he goes to show it off it simply goes "RIBIT." Everyone laughs and goes away. But how beautiful its voice when alone. How beautiful our land is to us.
As an essayist, Richards is funny, angry, charming, prickly, nostalgic, argumentative, creative, and quirky. One of his most effective techniques is to collect several stories and thoughts about a particular topic (children, bed and breakfasts, driving at night, travel) and look for the meaning that their juxtaposition generates. Maybe every novelist thinks this way, incessantly finding patterns in amorphous real life, but it's a practice that deserves to catch on with the rest of us, too. (One carping note: A Lad from Brantford suffers from inadequate proofreading and copy- editing.)
"Silver Donald writes every day of his life, has published consistently, and has saved just about everything," writes the publisher Ronald Caplan in his introduction to Sterling Silver. Caplan was given free access to some 75 boxes "stuffed" with Cameron's work: radio dramas, reportage, fiction, commentaries, profiles, travel and science writing, and the many essays from which he selected the 22 reprinted here. "I wanted to offer a combination of the personal, the person devoted to community, and Silver Donald's sense of community's critical place within Canada," Caplan explains. "I wanted some of his best writing."
For his part, Cameron announces (in an after-word that thoughtfully brings us up to date, as several of these essays are from the 1970s) that at first he didn't like Caplan's choices. (Too "egotistical," too "depressing," etc.) In the end, though, his own prose won him over:
If this is a fragmentary autobiography -- and in a way it is -- it reports that I've loved and been
loved; I've had a good life among good people, and I've cherished the experience. ... I'm glad ... [Caplan] ... put these pieces together. In the end, Sterling Silver isn't the book I thought it would be -- and that may be just as well.
It's a safe bet that most readers of this collection will be won over, too. One of Cameron's chief concerns is also that of identity, and he's so darned happy to have found his own at last -- on his beloved Cape Breton Island -- that one can't help but feel happy for him. If ever there were a book that demonstrates the difficult art of working out a life, Sterling Silver is that book.
Some of the subjects Cameron tackles here are the suicide of a close friend; the nature of fear; the immortality of his ancient Volvo; Stan Rogers, Farley Mowat, and various natives of Cape Breton; making moonshine; touring with the Atlantic Symphony; controversies involving labour unions, New Brunswick's Mental Health services, and "Confederation's failure"; and giving a speech to graduates of the University College of Cape Breton (where he is now dean of the School of Community Studies).
What links them all is Cameron's devotion to the art and craft of writing:
If the gods are kind, I will someday write prose which is ... clear and straight and true and mysterious. ... Prose like that will yield exultation to me and rapture to my readers, and I truly believe it will set up a little tinkle in the music of the spheres.
At the very least, it should set up a little applause from admirers of the art of the personal essay.