Small Mercies:
A Boy after War

205 pages,
ISBN: 0670866180

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Found Innocence
by Keith Nickson

So here I am teaching a "non-credit" English course to special needs adults at George Brown College in Toronto. About twenty students usually show up, offering a wide range of abilities but with one feature in common: they are all in recovery from a mental illness.
So we chew through some vocabulary, some creative writing, some word games, and I want to slip some fiction or poetry on to the menu. I tried a Raymond Carver poem early in first term-penned as cancer was staging the final assault on Carver's life-and the students found it too dark. Let's stick to the happy stuff, they said.
So, in the hot crucible of desperate prep for term two, I decide to read aloud Ernest Hillen's second volume of childhood memoirs, Small Mercies (winner of the 1997 Viacom Canada Prize for non-fiction). Like John Glassco's notorious non-memoir, Memoirs of Montparnasse, I figure that there has to be some fiction stirred liberally into this fifty-year-old adventure. When one student says, "Oh, I haven't been read to since I was a child," I'm hopeful. In the opening pages, Hillen evokes his ride on the Devonshire, a ship carrying British soldiers home from Singapore just after World War II. Eleven-year old Ernest, along with his mother, Anna, and his brother, Jerry, are on their way to Canada after spending three and a half years in Japanese internment camps in Indonesia. Ernest's father has taken a job with the Dutch colonial government of Indonesia and hopes the family will return once the "extremists", fighting for independence, have been defeated.
Ernest loves to hide in the "cave", a small covered space at the ship's prow, where he perfects the trick of "floating":
"...I `floated' from my crunched position in the bow to just above the bridge, hovered there, then soared straight up until the ship below was just a few lights pulling a white belt through the dark. I'd moved like a spirit but didn't think of myself as one; I stayed me....The `floating' was a wonderful trick I had invented that first day on board-so I could dash over, in my mind, to a spot from which I had a completely different view."
As I read, I can't help worrying: is this a good choice? Should I be doing One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest? Something by Margaret Gibson or-God forbid-some harmless pablum by Carol Shields? When I finished, the students clapped. One woman came up smiling and said that all this floating business reminded her of Peter Pan. Well, yes, I said, why not?, thinking all the time: Peter Pan? Peter Pan? Later, I realizedthat yes, perhaps there is something of Peter Pan in Small Mercies-a book that is altogether lighter, more innocent, more old-fashioned than its acclaimed predecessor, The Way of a Boy: A Memoir of Java.
After five weeks on the Devonshire, the Hillens are stranded in London, England. They live in a Red Cross dormitory called the "Home for British Brides", while Anna relentlessly petitions the British government to permit repatriation to Canada. With money from her parents in Canada, Anna arranges the trip and the Hillens finally arrive in Toronto's Union Station. The last half of the book is the story of Ernest's life in school and his relationship with the chilly, stern Watson clan, who show little patience for rambunctious boys. Anna's predictions on the train are exact: "To tell the truth, she couldn't really remember one of them ever kissing.... Her family weren't cold people, we should understand, they just weren't dramatic people, they weren't kissers...."
With a father in Indonesia, a distant elder brother, and a cool set of grandparents, Ernest is in a constant state of emotional separation. He stays close to his mother, however, and nurtures a few friendships based on idol worship. Glen, a teenage cousin, takes Ernest out to the garden during family gatherings and introduces him to the pleasures of hand-rolled cigarettes. He also introduces Ernest to hip Canadian fashion: "Everybody wore them. You had to.... Draped gabardine [pants] with, see, dropped belt loops and outseams...running shoes for sports and moccasins for casual." Ernie is eager to fit in and live the "normal" Canadian life his mother desperately wants for her family. Ernest works at a summer resort, goes to the movies, and literally ambushes a schoolmate who's willing to share her breasts. In the final pages, the story is perhaps too neatly looped into a circle when the Hillens return to Indonesia on a cargo ship called the Rondo.
Small Mercies is one of those memoirs that covers the chaotic interregnum between war and the resumption of settled life. The "literature of displaced persons" tends to be about the holocaust in Europe. Primo Levi's The Awakening, for example, told of his liberation from Auschwitz and the years he spent in an endless succession of transit camps in the Soviet Union and Hungary. These books remind us of the prolonged turmoil that followed the Second World War, when record numbers of refugees and other "DPs" desperately sought refuge. While the narrators' experiences recounted in these two memoirs are radically different, it seems curious that Ernest's memories of brutality don't impinge on his rather idyllic life in Toronto. He carries with him a pair of boots that belonged to a close friend who died in the camps, yet seldom does he dwell on their first owner, Hubie. Japanese cruelty was vividly evoked in The Way of a Boy; yet nothing of those disturbing events resonates in Small Mercies. During CBC Stereo's The Arts Today, Eleanor Wachtel asked Hillen why the dark memories were forgotten so quickly in Toronto. "I tried to really forget it," he said. "I didn't think about it. I wanted to be a Canadian boy." Or perhaps a type of Peter Pan set loose in a distracting Toronto, eager to reclaim his lost boyhood. Unfortunately, this denial of recent memory mars the book's credibility. With no nightmares and few emotional scars, innocent Ernest grows tiresome at times.
Still, there are many fine scenes in Small Mercies, etched in a prose style that effortlessly communicates the rough texture of life experienced by a boy on the edge of manhood. I particularly enjoyed the portrayal of Anna Watson, always camouflaging the family's sometimes bleak prospects. The book ends strongly too, when Ernest encounters Sparks, a radio operator on the Rondo. Sparks is a cultured man whose radio room is hung with watercolour seascapes and shelves of books. Ernest is impressed with his ability to listen: "Watching Sparks listening, I felt sure he wasn't faking-and being listened to was such a pleasure. How to listen well Sparks told me once later was easy: don't be in a hurry and tune out your inner voice. He often made a difficult thing sound simple and sometimes, afterwards, I wrote it down." Sparks teaches Ernest the trick of using a diary to preserve precious memories:
"A diary helped memory, he said, and memory was everything. If we couldn't remember our lives what did we have? I should write only for myself, he pressed, but every day and never lie, that's all."
Hillen's artful embellishment of memories, along with his facility for floating imaginatively into impenetrable places, have paid off handsomely in Small Mercies-a memoir packed with distinctly old-fashioned and sometimes rather quaint pleasures.

Keith Nickson teaches at George Brown College and Ryerson Polytechnic University in Toronto.


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