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Gowdy's heroine is the pixie-sized idiot savant Joan. Brain-damaged as a result of being dropped at birth, Joan, who doesn't speak but communicates through an array of echolalic sounds, is a piano prodigy, a voracious reader, a maker of experimental sound collages and Gowdy's compact little plot device. Stowed away in the closet where she prefers to spend her days, she's the repository of the family secrets. She knows that both her parents are gay (though closeted), and is aware of her older sister Marcy's prodigious love life. She even has a secret herself: She's actually the daughter of her eldest "sister," Sonja, but she's passed off as the child of Doris, her grandmother.
Gowdy's greatest asset is that she's not fazed by weirdness. Early on, Doris hatches a scheme to get the money for Sonja's pregnancy by appearing on the '50s sob-sister sweepstakes "Queen for a Day" and telling a story to beat them all. Of the other contestants waiting to go on the show, Gowdy writes, "Either they were world class impostors, every one of them, or [Doris] shouldn't be there. She joined the line anyway. A long wait on hot pavement during which she thought of the men on the Titanic who had dressed up in turbans and fake stoles and too-small pointy high heels ..."
Gowdy isn't a faker like Doris. She genuinely seems to see the world in deeply weird terms that she takes on faith. But that doesn't stop her brand of weirdness from veering perilously close to the John Irving variety, lying in wait to spring its conventional meaning on us. It's a crookedly stitched sampler proclaiming, to borrow a phrase from Inspector Clouseau, "It's all a part of life's rich pageant." --Charles Taylor
Barbara Gowdy's outrageous, hilarious, and compassionate novel is about the Canary family: their loves and quirks, their secret lives and histories. The youngest daughter, Joan, holds the darkest secret. Without ever taking a single lesson, Joan sits down at the piano and plays like Mozart. She's a prodigy! She is also mute.
Joan is a mystery, and in the novel's startling climax, her family realizes that each of them is as marvelous and as much of a mystery as Joan, as irreducible as the mystery of their existence. Mister Sandman attains the heightened quality of a modern-day parable with its compassionate investigation of moral truths and its bold embrace of the eccentricities of each character. Readers will put the book down and see their world in a rosier light -- a good reason to pick it up.
Joan Canary was the Reincarnation Baby. Big news at the time, at least in the Vancouver papers. This is going back, 1956. Joan was that newborn who supposedly screamed, "Oh, no, not again!" at a pitch so shrill that one of the old women attending the birth clawed out her hearing aid. The other old woman fainted. She was the one who grabbed the umbilical cord and pulled Joan head-first onto the floor.
Joan's mother, Doris Canary, attributed everything to the brain damage. Joan's inability to talk it goes without saying, but also her reclusiveness, her sensitivity to light, her size, her colouring ... you name it. Joan's real mother, Sonja Canary, attributed everything to Joan's past-life experiences. Sonja was there for Joan's famous first cry, and it's true she had thought it was one of the old women screaming, "Flo! Flo! She's insane!" but that didn't make any sense because the woman who could have screamed it had throat cancer. If Joan was either brain-damaged or reincarnated, Sonja preferred reincarnated. She would, being the real mother.
To be fair, though, there was something unearthly about Joan. She was born with those pale green eyes, and the hair on her head, when it finally grew in, was like milkweed tuft. That fine, that white. And look how tiny she was! Nobody in the family was tiny. Nobody in the family was anything like her, her real parents least of all. Sonja was fat, and had dark brown corkscrew hair and brown eyes. The real father was an orange-haired giant, eyes a flat creamy blue like seat-cover plastic. He had remarkably white skin, and Joan did, too, but without the freckles, pimples and hair. Flawless. Joan was flawless. Another way of saying not like any of them. Sonja, of course, went further, she said that Joan was not of this world, and it drove Doris Canary crazy. Baloney! Doris said. Brain-damaged, brain-damaged, brain-damaged! she said. Face it. Ask the neurologists.
Doris even told strangers that Joan was brain-damaged. Her husband, Gordon, never publicly contradicted her but he winced and sighed. "It's the truth," Doris would say then, as if normally she wasn't a brazen liar. As if Gordon had ever agreed with the brain-damaged diagnosis let alone that you could point to anything and call it the truth. "The truth is only a version" was one of his maxims.
Which Sonja heard as "The truth is only aversion" and, although she had no idea what it meant, automatically quoted whenever the subject of truth was raised.
Barbara Gowdy: Thank you.
Barbara Gowdy: It might help to read the jacket copy. It is about a lot of things, mostly it is about human nature, an investigation about what is normal in a family.
Barbara Gowdy: I suppose to me reincarnation is a fact of life in that throughout life we reinvent ourselves and we come to have a new understanding of others, which is a kind of reincarnation of observation.
Barbara Gowdy: I don't know. I fear for small publishers, because their books don't get much shelf space when the big blockbuster biographies and books by big-name celebrities come out. Small presses tend to publish literary fiction, which has a relatively small audience. What Steerforth did for me was give me a great deal of attention and care.
Barbara Gowdy: I tend to write five hours a day, four days a week once I start a book. The rest of the workday is taken up by the business of being a writer. Between books I am obliged to devote myself to publicity and reading tours around the world. I would like to get to the point where I didn't have to do any publicity but I am not there yet. MISTER SANDMAN, like my other books, was written slowly in one draft, but each day I rewrote what I had written up until then.
Barbara Gowdy: Alternative family lifestyles were alive but not at all well in the '50s. In fact it was against the law to be a practicing homosexual. Writing about a kind of sexuality that is not mainstream enables me to write about living on the edge.
Barbara Gowdy: Yes, it will be published by Metropolitan in the U.S., which is an imprint of Henry Holt. It should be coming out in the spring of '99 and called the WHITE BONE. it is a story of the search for safety told from the point of view of African elephants.
Barbara Gowdy: I am currently listening to classical -- Mozart, Schubert, and Bach, and jazz Miles Davis and Thelonius Monk, but I don't listen to music at all when I am writing because I find it distracting. I did study music for many years, which I suppose is why it creeps into my fiction.
Barbara Gowdy: Because when I was a little girl it was my favorite song, and I thought that the lyrics were "Mr. Sandman bring me a drink."
Barbara Gowdy: It is always very easy to write from the point of view of a child. I don't know what that means except that perhaps I live more in the past than in the present. I have no children of my own, and that may be why I find them so fascinating.
Barbara Gowdy: You're welcome. Thank you for asking. I am flattered by most comparisons. On the other hand, I rarely understand the comparisons. I think it is like when someone says you look like someone else. You see it and you don't.
Barbara Gowdy: Everything I have read has influenced me, including cereal boxes and billboards, but I know that is not what you mean. I think I was very much influenced by the Bible and fairy stories. As for writers I admire -- there are too many to mention really, but I will say I am in awe of Alice Munroe, Cormac MacCarthy especially his olders works, Jane Austen, George Eliot, and America's own Lorrie Moore.
Barbara Gowdy: I am glad you laughed out loud. I laugh when I am writing. The funny stuff, if it is funny, comes out of nowhere. I don't believe a writer is truly telling an honest story if she excludes the absurdities of life. Unfortunately, humor isn't considered "literary" in many circles, but I can live with that.
Barbara Gowdy: The movie rights have been optioned, and I hope it will become a movie -- although I think the character of Joan will be a hard one to put on the screen.
Barbara Gowdy: Thank you for reading the book with such obvious attention to theme and detail; you hearten me. Now back to the THE WHITE BONE which I am rewriting.