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Down On The Farm
by Amy Friedman

I OFTEN WONDER why it is that so many Canadian writers seek and struggle to define this country. Canada is, without doubt, a real and distinct place; and the quest to explain who and what we are, while sometimes provoking a broader, wider, richer notion of our national character, often seems as self-deluded as the adolescent who broods and stews and grumbles, "Leave me alone. I`m trying to find myself." Sometimes I want to tap teenagers on the shoulder and whisper, "Hey, stop looking so darn hard. You are someone;" and the same impulse descends on me when writers try, in Wayne Grady`s words, "to accurately reflect the reality of Canada itself." Each of these three books attempts, in its distinct way, to discover what Canada is or was or will be, and all three have one more thing in common: each relies on the common presumption, a presumption nearly every nation makes, that to find the real essence of a nation, you must go to the sticks (the way the reporters looking for the "real American" view of the recent Gulf War always interviewed the farmer in Lawrence, Kansas, or the waitress in Meridian, Mississippi). Phil Jenkins`s Fields of Vision, for instance, opens with: `A farmer I know described Ottawa as `thirty square miles surrounded by reality."` And in There Was a Time .... Roy Bonisteel confesses that he didn`t return to rural life out of concern for his children`s education, but rather because "while I was reasonably sure a move to the country would be good for the kids, I knew it was essential for me:` And Wayne Grady frankly admits that during his tenure as editor of Harrowsmith magazine, his "internal compendium came more and more to be composed of writings, both fiction and non-fiction, by both Canadian and American writers, about rural Canada:" It is there, however, that the similarities among these books ends. If anyone can convince us that the quest for defining self-identity is not fruitless, Grady can: From the Country is a superb compilation. From Alistair MacLeod`s dazzling and sad miner`s tale, "The Closing Down of Summer;" to Marion Botsford Fraser`s "The Lie of the Land - The False 45th Parallel" - the first story I`ve ever read in which the Customs officials are those officious folk we all know - nearly every one of Grady`s selections is on the mark. Never mind that he has included both American and Canadian writers, that he has chosen both fiction and non-fiction. After all, prose genres have always blurred and, as he admits in his preface, every piece he chose was written by someone not from the place they were writing about. Sometimes, it seems, outsiders can tell us who we are. The only disappointment in this collection is that Grady may feel he has finished, has finally reflected our reality; one only hopes he`ll go on and compile further collections as good as this one. Fields of Vision, while focusing on rural life, does so in snapshots. Jenkins takes us along with him on the journey he and the photographer Ken Ginn made from the farm farthest east in Canada to that which is farthest west, and while this book will no doubt prove invaluable to farm history, it hasn`t the strength of prose or passion to carry the reader along with it. Yes, the farmers all sound impressive and nice, and yes, it is terribly sad that, as Jenkins says, "Once upon a time, all of Canada was land. And the day is coming when it will all be real estate;" but I almost wished he`d settled in one place, stopped for a longer time, let us deeper inside these farmers` worlds. Finally the book left me feeling as if I, like the travellers, was in a hurry, too eager to get on to the next place to take the time to settle in and better understand. Roy Bonisteel I do understand. The moral of his tale is simple: rural life is better than urban life and the old days were better than the new. I know that the former host of "Man Alive" is a national treasure. But unfortunately, reading his collected recollections feels a little bit like listening to your grandfather telling you how hard life was back in the old days, how much harder he worked than you do, and how much deeper the snow was. You yawn, smile gently, and kindly bid your grandfather good night. You don`t begrudge him his memories, but you may not want to pay money to hear more of the same.

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