|Take It Or Leave It
by Joan Thomas
THIS NOVEL by the West Coast author Anne Cameron starts out as a contemporary Five Little Peppers, the story of five fatherless kids scraping the mould off their bread -- only here Marmee has delirium tremens and a series of child abusers as boyfriends, the oldest daughter is known as the town bicycle, and the police have set a 24-hour watch on the youngest son. The first chapters of this story arc inventive and vigorous; the resentment and competition and loyalty between kids who spend their childhood on the edge of survival is told with admirable force.
After a cataclysm destroys the family home, Cameron`s story focuses on three generations of women: the children`s grandmother, their Aunt Lucy, and Kitty, the middle daughter, who lives imaginatively through her namesake, the heroine of "Gunsmoke." These Women, though of different ages, are more or less variants of the same character: hardworking, tough-loving, meanmouthed women who give as good as they get. Within 20 pages, Gran gives a kick in the balls to the man who has been mistreating her grandchildren, Lucy holds a .303 to the nose of a teenager who let cows into her hayfield, and Kitty sticks scissors right through the hand of the brother who molested her little sister. I found this a little wearing, especially when it`s cast as humour. Cameron takes evident delight in showing the little guy giving the finger to the establishment -a picked-on kid, for example, saying to the school principal, "You can eat shit too, Daddy-oh."
Cameron`s hugely Successful Daughters of Copper Woman was much targeted in the appropriation-of-vo ice controversy three or four years ago. In Wedding Cakes, Rats and Rodeo Queens, Cameron addresses the issue of exclusive ownership of cultural and religious material through Jimmy, one of the five children, a gifted and tormented Sculptor who finds himself carving Siwash masks. Gradually his art teaches him its own meaning and discipline; he leaves a gift in the forest when he goes to cut wood, and the Squeyanx, the bone people, begin to appear both to him and to his sister Kitty. When Kitty turns to a Native woman for help in understanding what is happening, she is told, "Not all the ones who are called to you are your own."
Wedding Cakes, Rats and Rodeo Queens could have been written to spec to irritate the hell out of Michael Coren, who griped in his October BiC column that you have to write about homosexuality or child abuse to get a novel published these days. In Cameron`s world, child abuse is pretty well universal, and the lesbian life is celebrated against a Stygian world of heterosexual relationships. Camerons straight-up, take-it-or-Ieave-it vision is one of her strengths as a writer, but the novel eventually sags under the weight of the invective it carries against ... welfare workers, homophobes, fox hunters, despoilers of the environment, morticians, brides, male activists beating their drums in the forest, adolescent boys "wallowing in testosterone overdose," politicians, administrators, 11 snivel servants," teachers, the "boring" middle class -thus cutting a wide and contemptuous swath through Cameron`s potential readership.