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A Review of: Mary of Canada: The Virgin Mary in Canadian Culture, Spirituality, History, and Geography
by Patricia Robertson

Joan Skogan's idiosyncratic journey towards Mary begins, appropriately enough, at sea. Appropriate because that's where Skogan first encountered her, in the shape of colour magazine clippings of sixteenth-century Orthodox icons, on board the Russian and Polish fishing ships where Skogan worked as a Canadian fisheries observer. It's entirely typical of the author's erudite yet whimsical approach that she observes that "Mary and the Playmates pinned to the bulkhead were usually the only other women on board." Appropriate, too, because Mary after all arrived in Canada by sea, most likely with the newly Christianized Vikings over a thousand years ago, perhaps bearing the features of a Byzantine Madonna (the Vikings had led raids as far south as the Mediterranean). This is a book that manages to be both ironic and reverent, playful and profound, a book that is generous and wise enough to encompass both the sacred and the profane.
Mary is imagined, throughout this dense, allusive, spiraling text, in a deeply emotional way, not as myth or iconographic presence but as living being. Skogan summons her presence in rich, poetic prose that often sounds like an invocation, as when she cites the Gaelic blessings used by Scottish sailors on Viking ships: "Mary mother of joy, corn of the land, treasury of the sea, wished-for visitant of the homes of the world." Skogan herself is a non-Catholic who states of her own occasional visits to Catholic churches that ... "[I] had no right to be present because I hadn't risked Christianity as love or unfaltering belief." Still, the Mary she encountered on the open ocean was someone she needed to hang onto, once she left fisheries work for good. "Offshore, she was necessary and inescapable, like the sea," she writes. "On shore, she was harder to find. When I staggered inside the fear that I had lost my real home because I couldn't work on boats and ships anymore, I looked around for Mary on land. I missed her, or perhaps I only missed the sea." This book is the record of that journey towards a Mary who is linked here with the Egyptian goddess Mer, whose name means both "waters" and "mother-love."
Mary is found, or at least searched for, on a series of road trips that take Skogan from her West Coast home to Saskatchewan, Quebec, Newfoundland, northern British Columbia and the Yukon. From Mary's earliest recorded beginnings in Canada to contemporary re-imaginings of her, Skogan discovers her in a rich accretion of folktale, myth, and tradition within a much broader cultural and geographical landscape. Jacques Cartier ordered his men to pray to a small statue of the Virgin Mary when many of them were dying of scurvy, and attributed the infusions and poultices offered them by the Iroquois (probably made from the Vitamin-C-rich eastern white cedar) to "a real and evident miracle." In the mid-1700s Mary travelled with expelled Nova Scotian Acadians to Louisiana, where she protected Cajun children against the loup-garou. In the twenty-first century she appears in denim and glasses as a middle-aged woman in artist Chris Woods's paintings of the Stations of the Cross for St. David's Anglican Church in Vancouver, while Winnipeg artist Richard Williams sees her on the eve of a modern Annunciation, asleep in the nude with a Pepsi can by her bed as the angel Gabriel appears outside her window. In a secular age, it seems, she still occupies our imaginations, still turns up in the most unexpected places and guises. In a poem included here, entitled "Annunciation", priest Ren Fumoleau imagines a Mary who initially says no to the angel. Gabriel has to report to God that he didn't know how to talk to a woman.
This is a writer's pilgrimage, part travelogue, part cultural anthropology, in which Mary is viewed as a shape-shifter, a protean being who metamorphoses depending on the needs and predilections of the viewer. The reader learns a great deal on this journey-for example, of the street in Cairo where dough has not risen since the day Mary was refused a piece of bread on her family's flight into Egypt; or the features that link Mary with other female deities, including Isis, the Egyptian goddess from whom Mary received her blue robe and her star emblem. "Probably some form of Mary, whose name may be rooted in the Hebrew words for fragrant myrrh and light-bearer, has always blessed a hard-edged northern land in need of light and a measure of consolation," Skogan writes, in a reference as much to herself as to the country she's exploring. Yet she's equally sensitive to earlier spiritual presences, as when she visits Chimney Coulee near Eastend in Saskatchewan's Cypress Hills. She recognizes the place as "one of many beloved home sites when the idea of home still held its hunting-gathering dimension as the whole, divinely given, already perfect, promised land." The place was later named Chapel Coulee for a tiny field stone church built by the Metis. Over and over, in fact, Mary is associated with home-coming, nurture, safety, with the endlessly sought harbour to which all our journeys tend.
One of the great pleasures of this book is its imaginative design and its wealth of illustrations, from the reverent to kitsch, from familiar depictions in statuary and paint to Mary nightlights, calendars, silkscreened cushions, and commercial signs (the Virgin Mary vintage clothing shop on Vancouver's Commercial Drive, for example). Alan Brownoff, the designer, features the many names of Mary-House of Gold, Ark of the Covenant, Mother Inviolate, Mystical Rose-as a continuous running head that bleeds off the page. The page layout also sets off poems, ballads, quotations, and song lyrics in the margins, enriching and sometimes counterpointing both text and illustrations. This marriage of text and design honours the intent of the book itself.
"Adaptability and possibility are Mary's middle names in Canada," Skogan says. The Mary she discovers is a thoroughly Canadian one. She exists comfortably, and sometimes contradictorily, alongside other traditions, such as the ceremony to the ancestors performed by the Dogrib of the Northwest Territories for the papal visit in 1984, with the picture of the Virgin Mary on the main drum. This Mary dwells not in churches but "in Canadian earth, rock, and snow" as well as "capes, bays, islands, rivers, mountains, streets, and towns named for her coast to coast." Which is precisely where she's needed, according to Skogan. "[S]he escapes the theological box to flow in the larger, non-Catholic, sometimes nonchurched, congregation of human beings who need mercy and other blessings." For a young girl from a small village in Palestine, she's come a long way.

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