BACK IN JULY 1990, when asked if I'd take the job of book-page editor for the Chronicle-Herald and the Mail-Star in Halifax, I jumped at the chance. It would he great. No more daily news, deadlines, oddball hours, and that sometimes tedious routine that always demanded I be knowledgeable about, well, everything,
I was to have other responsibilities too, but I figured I could handle the job well enough. After all, I really did get a thrill out of cracking the binding of a new book. And hadn't I been collecting and devouring books on Nova Scotia history since 1972? Surely that counted for something.
Still, I felt somehow inadequate about not having taken time to read more fiction. But I was familiar with some works of Nova Scotia's better-known writers - Hugh MacLennan and Thomas Raddall - and even some of the escapades of Thomas Chandler Haliburton's Sam Slick. I'll learn as I go along, I thought. There can't be that much original material generated in Nova Scotia. It will be a challenge, a welcome change, and besides, I've got the wire services at my fingertips. I can do this.
Was I naive!
Here I sit a year and a half later, nearly hidden amid stacks of the most recent arrivals from several Nova Scotian and, to a lesser extent, Atlantic Canadian publishers. Uncracked bindings of glossy hardcovers, trade paperbacks, and pocket books entice me. A myriad of press releases further whets my appetite, speaking to me about poetry, stories for children and young readers, historical writings, adult fiction, biographies, folklore, four new volumes in the Peoples of the Maritimes series ... each tugs at me with an Atlantic Canadian angle, and most look as good or better, and read as well, as anything produced south of the border.
In another room, Silver Donald Cameron's latest awaits, as does a biography of Anna Leonowens, founder of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design; the latter is written by my former colleague Leslie Smith Dow. And another cohort of mine, Dean Jobb, has just dropped off a copy of Crime Wave, his second book of true crime stories gleaned from Nova Scotia's dusty court documents.
And there in a corner, propped against a wall, each with its own makeshift bookmark, is a collection of colour photographs shot in Cape Breton by Warren Gordon, three novels (two for young readers) by the prolific writer and publisher Lesley Choyce, and four recent and long-overdue books relating the history and culture of Nova Scotia's Micmac Indians.
Somewhat overcome, yet excited by the task ahead, I leaf through a copy of Fire on the Water, the first volume in a series of anthologies of Black Nova Scotian writing, and then Lorinda's Diary, the latest young readers' book by the award-winning author Budge Wilson.
While I'm checking these out, more arrive: two from Nimbus, the region's largest publisher, based in Halifax, another - Cape Breton Book of the Night - from Breton Books, one of the Maritimes' smallest presses, but still bigger than the fledgling Roseway Publishing, which has just released a first novel by Kim Atwood. Nimbus has sent along Wings over Water, a handsomely illustrated volume on sea birds, and J. J. Sharp's remarkably well researched Discovery in the North Atlantic.
Looking back on my 18-month tenure, I know I'm still learning, but I've really been jolted out of my naivete. Stumbling on one of my first weekly book pages, I feel sheepish, almost guilty: I used a wire-service piece on Kurt Vonnegut! Can't do that now. I'm committed to Canadian and regional books, especially those by, for, or about Nova Scotia and Nova Scotians.
Parochial? Maybe. But 1, like many others, take strong exception to the British Columbia MP Chuck Cook's comment to the effect that Canadian books aren't read because they're somehow not good enough.
It isn't the books or the authors that are the problem. Our gifted writers truly merit our pride. They deserve better promotion. After all, you can't expect Canadians to read Canadian authors if they don't know who or what's out there.