Back to the Cabin

by Ann Blades,
32 pages,
ISBN: 1551430495

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Children`s Books
by Allison Sutherland

The summer cottage experience is a defining one for many Canadians, a blend of solitude, outdoor privies, the sound of water under a boat's keel, the smell of the first raindrops on sunbaked rock, the feel of sandy bedding, and the taste of charred marshmallows. Consequently they look for children's novels or picture-books that will interpret this experience, just as, in a different way, Beatrix Potter or Arthur Ransome did for English lovers of the Lake District. They are almost always disappointed.

This is not necessarily the fault of a book. Summer cottages vary so enormously (compare Wasaga Beach to Go-Home Bay, a cabin in the West Kootenays to Saltspring Island, Porter's Lake to Toney River in Nova Scotia) that it is hard to believe a book about one environment will resonate with a lover of another. Yet there are constants among all cottages. Ann Blades's carelessness in this book is irritating not just because the cottage experience is so important, but because she is an important creator of Canadian picture-books. She is capable of doing much better.

The plot is simple; two boys and their mother and dog go for a summer holiday to a cabin in the woods, then come back to the city again. Visually the book is fine. Her labradoid blob of a dog is especially delightful, as it hops into the van and refuses to get out when packing for the cottage begins, and she gets many elements of cottage life just right-the shabby furniture, the thunderstorms, or the junk that accumulates under a cottage: "a bathtub, sinks, toilets, beds, chairs, tables, windows, doors, bottles, cans, coal, decorations, a broken flashlight, a vacuum cleaner, lots of lumber, firewood, moose antlers, and a squirrel's tail."

But her prose doesn't have the spare, balanced cleanness of her best work like, for example, A Salmon for Simon. And she misses wonderful opportunities, inexcusable in such an experienced writer. You get the feeling that she can't be bothered to follow through and do things properly. Her wickedly accurate opening scene has two boys glued to their video game during preparations to leave, giving their mother no help with loading the van. But then nothing happens-no entertaining family row at all. At the cottage the boys finish every carpentry task they undertake, whereas any cottage I've been to is littered with childhood efforts abandoned. The dock they construct is at a professional handyman's level of competence. Nor do scrap lumber rafts float the way she portrays them, unless you cheat and line them with styrofoam from abandoned coolers. And so on.

A great pity. Blades is one of our best. One senses that with a little more work this might have been the quintessential expression of the summer cottage experience. 


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