Welcome Home:
Travels on Smalltown Canada

by Stuart McLean,
ISBN: 0140231854

The Run of the River:
Portraits of Eleven British Columbia Rivers

by Mark Hume,
224 pages,
ISBN: 0921586000

Compass American Guides:

by Garry Marchant, Kathleen Griffin, Martin Gamon, Ken Straiton,
308 pages,
ISBN: 1878867121

Post Your Opinion
Tourists on Our Own Land
by Wayne Grady

WHEN THE French novelist Louis Hemon left Liverpool for Quebec in 1911, he wrote in his journal that he was coming to Canada "in search of easy generalizations." He came to the right place, it seems: after a single winter in rural Quebec, he wrote a novel that was instantly adopted by Canadians as the quintessential expression of what it is to be Canadian. It's not that Maria Chapdelaine is a bad book, but to my mind, Hemon's singular (and single) success suggests that either Canadian readers are easily but mightily impressed when a foreigner comes here to tell us what we're like, or else Canada itself is so entirely superficial that its quintessence can be grasped by a not particularly perceptive observer in a few short months. Northrop Frye referred to Maria Chapdelaine as "tourist-writing," but what is it about tourist writing that makes it significant for those of us who live here? Are we tourists in our own land?

In a sense, of course, we are. A few years ago, when I was assembling an anthology of writing about rural Canada (eventually published as From the Country), I was surprised to discover that the best writing about any particular part of Canada almost always seemed to have been written by people who were visitors to it. Is it because Canada is such an immense and diverse country that anyone who travels any distance in it is by definition a tourist? Is calling Canada a country like calling Belgium, Holland, and Luxembourg "Benelux"? Or is it just that we move around a lot? In Canada, the question, "Where are you from?" is certainly heard more often than Northrop Frye's archetypal Canadian query: "Where is here?"

It is as tourist writing, at any rate, that the three books being -viewed here are to be read. Garry Marchant's Canada (Compass American Guides, 308 pages, $14.95 paper) is a tourist book in the literal sense: published in the United States as a guide to Canada for Americans, it is so full of easy generalizations that it becomes almost totally meaningless. It's true that Americans have almost no idea about what Canada is; you had only to listen to CBS television broadcasters during the World Series to realize what a miasma of ignorance is there. Some of them didn't know the name of our capital city; others referred to a possible World Series between Montreal and Toronto as a "subway series," as if Canada were no bigger than New York or Chicago.

Marchant's book won't help them much. Here he is describing Ontario: "Ontario, the economic, political and cultural giant which regards itself as the heart of the country, is businesslike, conservative, somewhat austere." Really? Does Moosonee think of itself as "the heart of the country"? Is Ottawa "businesslike"? Is northern Ontario, which voted a more resounding No in the referendum than Quebec did, "conservative"? Is Cornwall "austere"? Even allowing for Marchant's assumption that Toronto equals Ontario equals Canada (a mistake that strongly suggests he has lived in Toronto), such a generalization seems too easy.

In fact it is merely dated, as are many of the literary excerpts throughout the book, which are meant to skewer Canada to the wall like so many collected butterflies. Peter Kahn came to Canada in 177 1; his assessment of "Canadian ladies" will not aid the visiting businessman. And what can Wyndham Lewis possibly have to say to the modem American tourist about Canada's immigration policy? And yet here he is, another foreign novelist who, after spending a dismal year in Canada during the Second World War, wrote a novel about it (although Self-Condemned never quite caught on as well as Maria Chapdelaine did). And how does Lewis describe our immigration policy to the modern reader? In such horrendously sexist and shallow terms as to make even this businesslike, conservative, and austere reviewer cringe: "A nation," he wrote, "like a woman, has to make itself attractive if it is going to attract." Yeow! Self-condemned indeed.

As a guide, Marchant's book contains some surprising information ("Winnipeg is noted for its historical sites and architecture, ethnic society, and its cultural life"), but there is little hard data that a tourist might find useful, nothing of the three-trains-a-day-for-Ottawa-change-at-Kingston stuff that would make a reader jump up and pack a suitcase. One longs to be told that it's all right to drink the water in Drumheller. Clearly Marchant is doing something else here; does he think that by grasping at our cartload of easy generalizations he is saying something significant and lasting about Canada? If so, to whom? Do we appear to be so easily, so eagerly, grasped?

It may not be immediately apparent that Mark Hume's The Run of the River: Portraits of Eleven British Columbia Rivers (New Star, 215 pages, $14.95 paper) is a tourist book, but it is -- in the sense that Norman Levine meant when he remarked that we are all tourists on Earth. This has been a century of displacement. Hume's subtitle marks it as a guide of sorts, in the same way that, say, Hugh MacLennan's Seven Rivers of Canada is. That book contained some of MacLennan's best writing; such a compelling evocation of raw power that reading it makes us appreciate nature as if for the first time, as if we are not tourists but the rivers' first explorers, and there can be no thought of hydro dams and diversion projects and chemicals.

If MacLennan is a nature writer, Hume is an environmentalist. By his second paragraph we know we can't have illusions any more. His first view of the Columbia River in Trail is obscured by

the Cominco lead-zinc plant [that] towers above the town

and above the river; black slag covers the river bottom below

the mill for miles and right there, in the middle of town,

beneath the rumbling, smoking plant, discharge pipes pour

untreated waste into the river.

It goes on for a while about dioxins, and you just know this is going to be a book of outrage. It seems petty to point out that he has used the word "river" three times in one sentence. To Hume, we are tourists, and we have littered. Hume's dialectic is repeated for each river he writes about: a vivid brush-stroke of colour followed by a sharp palette-knife of anger. The Stikine, for example, "starts in the alpine, runs north through pine forests, hooks back to the southwest and then pours through the Grand Canyon of the Stikine, where the great rock walls have been marked by engineers surveying for hydropower sites."

It reminds me of Norman Levine's first view of Canada after the long ocean crossing in Canada Made Me: "I woke up on a cold March morning to the sight of trees, tall industrial chimneys, cylinders of Esso gasoline." The river itself is both a splash of beauty and a battlefield over salmon-fishing rights. This is valuable, because it tells us exactly how far down the forest path we have come from the pristine wilderness of which MacLennan could write just 30 years ago. MacLennan was spellbound, optimistic; for Hume, the clock of history has almost wound down, and we can no longer see the forest for the logging marks on the trees.

Stuart McLean's Welcome Home: Travels in Smalltown Canada (Viking Penguin, 442 pages, $27.99 cloth) is more travel than tourist writing. Over the course of two years, he parachuted himself into various Canadian small towns and, after a couple of weeks in each, wrote down his impressions and experiences. Two weeks isn't a long time -- although it's longer than Jan Morris spent in Edmonton -- and McLean knows it. He calls it "island hopping," but he does it very well. He settled on only seven -- Maple Creek, Saskatchewan; Sackville, New Brunswick; Ferryland, Newfoundland; Foxwarren, Manitoba; Nakusp, British Columbia; Dresden, Ontario; and St-Jean-de-Matha, Quebec -- but in them, he found Canada.

Perhaps McLean could capture these places in such a short time because he already knew all about them. They are all of Canada. What Canadian has not been in the lobby of the Commercial Hotel in Maple Creek, with its "black and white marble tiles. The heavy wood and leather chairs have been by the front door since 1883. A buffalo head hangs over the door to the dining-room, a moose head beside the entrance to the bar..."? And seen the collection of baseball caps that, in this case, "adorns a set of antlers behind the front desk"? I've also seen them above the mirror in bars, around the cash register in greasy spoons, and stapled to the wall in pool-rooms. In the Commercial Hotel, in Mel's Tea Room in Sackville (where the menu states: "Broken or missing dishes will be charged to the customer"), in a 10-table restaurant on rue Principal in St- Jean-de-Matha ("Poutine Italienne, $4.95: 1 don't ask"), McLean discovered people for whom the question "Where do you come from?" would he an impertinence, and about whom generalizations are often accurate, but never easy.

Yet even for McLean there is a sense of loss. At the end of The Run of the River, Hume writes: "There are 60 primary watersheds on Vancouver Island that are larger than 5,000 hectares. Of these, only seven are unlogged: the Megin, Moyeha, Sydney, Power, Nasparti, East and Klaskish. Remember those names, for they are the last." In Foxwarren, McLean wanders through the local graveyard reading tombstones -- "Ellen Ryan, Grandmother, 1876-1972; Laurence R. Ryan, Father, 1899-1978" -- and realizes that "if I had come just twenty years earlier, I could have talked to people ... who saw the Plains buffalo, who might have heard of Riel from their parents, who might have seen him when they were children. But I am too late. What was I so busy doing?"

In the end, of course, he isn't too late. Welcome Home brings Canada to life in a way that tourist guides and warnings of disaster cannot: tourists and environmentalists come after things have started to go wrong. Like Don Gayton in The Wheatgrass Mechanism, McLean goes down below the topsoil to show us what feeds the surface. By teaching us to value what we are, where we come from, he ensures our survival more, I think, than tourists and environmentalists can. Welcome Home is deep ecology.


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