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Personally Speaking
by Jim Christy

SINCE GEORGE GALT advises us that essays are personal, indeed "infused with the writer`s personality;" it behooves a reviewer to jettison any pretence of objectivity. I made some wonderful discoveries in The Thinking Heart, had my appreciation of other writers reaffirmed, was thoroughly bored by a couple of contributions, and astonished at the incompetency of the work of the two bestknown writers included. There is a certain irony in claiming that these essays provide a "snapshot of the national mood;" when the mood of this or any other nation is changeable. An essay should aspire to timelessness. Fortunately, a couple of the selections here will endure. The purely personal essays are by far the best, which is fortunate because those dealing with social or political issues are lame and predictable. Perhaps the fault lies not with the editor`s selection; after all, given the timid nature of most editorial boards in Canada, anything truly original or controversial doesn`t stand much chance of being published. Other reviewers or readers may point to the presence here of Rick Salutin as proof to the contrary. I bring up his name to prove my point. Salutin writes that the Globe and Mail, the CBC, and the Progressive Conservatives are all in the same bed. This is not exactly a tawdry secret played out behind closed doors; everyone knows about them making the beast with three backs. The kind of writing Salutin does used to be known as parlour socialism. Galt might have ventured further afield in his gathering. I was most impressed by Hugh Graham`s "Life and Death in Ontario County." From the starting point of 1959, when he was seven and his family purchased a farmhouse near Whitby, and moving back and forth in time, Graham explores the lives of the people who were the farm`s caretakers, "a ferretish old man with faded blue eyes and his wife and their sixty-year-old son." This family of tenant farmers had lived in a couple of dozen houses in the same county, yet when the old man died Graham discovered that there were few who remembered him. The old man had simply vanished into "the gone world;" leaving nary a trace. What Graham has done is nothing less than to redeem these lives from darkness; non-fiction can serve no higher purpose. Ernest Hillen went "Back to Java;" where he grew up and where he was interned by the Japanese during the Second World War. He finds his childhood home and other landmarks of his past, but they seem to be far removed from their existence in his memory. As he drives away, he sees not only the place in the rear-view mirror but the one he left behind four decades earlier. There is a woman Hillen writes about who describes anything "slightly fortuitous" as being "magic;" and what Hillen does is perform the genuine conjuror`s trick: by the magic act of writing he renders present reality as no more than a decrepit symbol of the powerful past. Nearly as accomplished are Denise Chong and Peter Behrens. Chong`s "The Concubine`s Children," about her family in China and Canada, reads like an outline for a vast novel that "spans continents." I hope she will write it. Behrens`s "Refugee Dreams" is a moving account of the life and death of the author`s father. Its art is in its economy and integrity. To realize just how good the piece is, compare it with Michael Ignatieff`s `August in My Father`s House." Though their themes are not dissimilar, Behrens remains true to his, whereas Ignatieff takes the occasion to trot out the pretentious similes and analogies that so often pass for stylish writing these days. Fortunately, Behrens`s piece comes between those of Margaret Atwood and Clark Blaise, like real food between white bread. Atwood`s "If You Can`t Say Anything Nice Don`t Say Anything at All" is a thoroughly pedestrian acknowledgement that the feminist movement has taken over from "society at large" in telling women what is expected of them. While not exactly hackneyed, this is no revelation. My problem is not with the opinions advanced, which are innocuous enough, but with the author`s unrelentingly inert prose. But Atwood`s essay calls to mind the lucidity of William Hazlitt and the fireworks of Camille Paglia when compared with Clark Blaise`s "The Border as Fiction." Basically Blaise, having moved back and forth between countries his entire life, is obsessed with borders. They "speak" to him "personally"; he talks back; the two of them take 5,000 words to say what could have been expressed in 500. "This dissociation, or at least conflict, between Protestantism and profit, secularism and the Church seems to me a useful point of departure for discussing Canadian visions of the United States." And that`s a typical sentence. The best description of a writer like this is supplied, inadvertently, by George Galt, who, in his introduction, recalls his student opinion of William Hazlitt as "the pompous windbag." Fortunately, there is much more good than bad in The Thinking Heart. Marni Jackson provides an unexpected consideration of Barbie dolls and their place in the scheme of things. Stephen Phelps writes a prose that can be read out loud, and no one`s style sparkles like Audrey Thomas`s; her "Peril by the Lake" is the best piece about walking in the Lake Country since Jonathan Williams was in those parts. M. T Kelly`s "The Land Before Time" traces a part of Samuel Hearne`s 18th-century route through land east of Great Slave Lake. In other hands such an essay might seem tendentious, but Kelly makes us feel his almost mystical identification with this powerful landscape. Only his sincere connectedness with the country around him allows Kelly to get away with his ending. The best of these essays are snapshots all right, but of places we inhabit and places we came from. Some of the pictures will remain indelible after the current national mood changes ...and changes yet again.

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