Across Canada by Story: A Coast-to-Coast Literary Adventure

Across Canada by Story: A Coast-to-Coast Literary Adventure

by Douglas Gibson


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781770412538
Publisher: ECW Press
Publication date: 09/15/2015
Pages: 280
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Douglas Gibson worked as an editor and publisher from 1968 until he retired from McClelland & Stewart in 2007. His Douglas Gibson Books was Canada’s first editorial imprint, and lives on. He published his first memoir, Stories About Storytellers, in 2011. He travels widely from his Toronto base, and this book will produce a new show.

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Across Canada By Story

A Coast-to-Coast Literary Adventure

By Douglas Gibson, Anthony Jenkins


Copyright © 2015 Douglas Gibson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-77090-779-9



The Fur Trade and the Book Trade ... Becoming a Real, Live Author ... Thunder Bay and the National Cottage ... Ralph Connor, Scribe of Glengarry ... Around Winnipeg with Gordon Sinclair ... The Unique Gabrielle Roy ... Margaret Laurence's Careful Ending ... Vienna and Winnipeg's George Swinton ... The Superhuman Don Starkell

It all began in Thunder Bay. That was where the strange idea of doing a stage show based on my book, Stories About Storytellers, first came to me. Now, after a tour involving all ten provinces and more than 90 separate shows, seen by thousands of polite people (no jeers, no tossed tomatoes!), it seems like an obvious idea. It wasn't obvious at the time.

Here's how it happened. The volunteers who ran the Sleeping Giant Literary Festival in Thunder Bay invited me to come there in the summer of 2010, more than a year before Stories About Storytellers was published. They asked me, as a former editor, to teach a couple of classes: one about writing, and one about working with an editor. At first, I was mildly interested, but as soon as I learned that the classes would be given in Old Fort William, a historic fur-trade site, I was desperately keen to go.

A confession about one of my wild enthusiasms: I'm fascinated by the history of Canada's fur trade, and by people like William McGillivray (1764–1825), the fierce Scot who gave his name to Fort William. His fort, I knew, was literally at the heart of the North West Company's fur trade empire, which flowed right across the country. This was the central point where the Grand Rendezvous took place each summer, where the Montreal voyageurs who had paddled west from cold dawn to dusk in canoes full of trade goods like blankets, kettles, and guns met their fur-trading comrades from the North and the West, who had raced to get their smaller canoes (the fifteen-foot canots du nord), jammed with bales of fur, east in time to make the great exchange. More than 2,000 of these tough characters would converge on the fort for a few short, hectic days to, in Charles Gordon's words, "trade and plot, and perhaps have a drink or two." Then they dunked their heads, loaded their canoes up to the tumblehome, and headed back. Whether they were paddling east or west, every man in every canoe was in a deadly race against the early freeze-up that could kill him.

I had heard that Old Fort William was a marvellous reconstruction of those days, specifically of around 1816, and that it was complete with surprising details like the six acres of potato fields that were needed to keep the year-round fort staff alive through the winter. In fact, I had heard it described as one of Canada's greatest tourist sites, underappreciated because so few people went to Thunder Bay. Now I was going to Thunder Bay!

So I was happily agreeing to give the two lectures when the festival organizer Dorothy Colby said from the Thunder Bay end of the line, "Oh, one other thing: besides your two classes, you'll be one of the authors reading from their books on Friday night."

I was taken aback. "But I'm not an author yet, and I don't have a book," I stammered.

"Ah," she said kindly, "but we hear that you're writing a book. So you can read from it as a work-in-progress — and we're sure you'll enjoy reading in a lineup with people like Miriam Toews and Richard Scrimger and David Carpenter and Terry Fallis."

This just made things worse. No, no, I really didn't belong with authors like that, this wasn't right. But she was adamant, and I, very reluctantly, agreed to be part of the "authors' reading."

The Friday evening reading was held at the grand old Prince Arthur Hotel in Thunder Bay. It's one of the traditional "railway hotels," very near the old station on the Lake Superior waterfront. (Jane Urquhart, a Northern Ontario girl from Little Longlac, mentions the hotel in her 1997 novel, The Underpainter. In a dramatic late chapter, the central character looks from the hotel window at the dazzling snow-covered lake and he dreams he'll see his lover walking to him against a backdrop of the Sleeping Giant: "the huge man made of rock slumbered now on a smooth white sheet, not on the textured dark bed of glimmering water I remembered from my summer arrivals.") In real life, the hotel played a major part in Canadian history. Before the days of airports, national groups liked meeting in central railway towns like Thunder Bay or Winnipeg. So it was here, in 1921, that a group drawn from across Canada formally adopted the wild idea that the red poppy — seriously, a red poppy! — should become the nation-wide symbol of Remembrance Day. For more than ninety years that idea has held up pretty well.

Our own Prince Arthur Hotel event was a revelation. It changed my life.

The reading setup was in accordance with the usual tradition: one author after another trudges onstage to stand behind a podium, modestly introduces the reading, then reads from his or her book for twenty minutes, takes a bow, and shuffles off to make way for the next reader.

You've probably seen readings like this, and you probably know that some authors read aloud better than others. But the static format — and the unchanging setting — is terrible, and might as well have been designed to bore the audience, giving them nothing much to look at, no spectacle, and no drama — just a series of readers barricaded behind a lectern.

I was so nervous about my undeserved role among these experienced and well-known authors — real authors — that I prepared my twenty-minute reading with great care. I chose to read from my chapter about W.O. Mitchell. I knew that the early material there was very funny, and the later stuff very sad.

It worked wonders with the Thunder Bay crowd. They laughed till they cried at the early W.O. stories, then they mopped away real tears, with some sobs audible, when I told of W.O.'s joking bravely on his deathbed. (In the audience, my wife Jane's cousin Paul Inksetter whispered that he felt sorry for whoever had to follow that particular powerful ending.)

It was very gratifying. But it was something more. It made me think, in a quieter moment: "Wow, they seem to really like these behind-the-scenes stories about working with famous authors!" That seemed to bode well for my book.

But I also thought, "My goodness, there I was, stuck behind a podium, remote from the audience, who were given nothing apart from me to look at during my static reading ... yet they seemed to like it. Now, if I could change things around, find a way to get out from behind the podium and roam around the whole stage, to break down the barrier between me and the audience, and turn it into a real stage show by giving them something interesting to look at — well, we might have something unique: a new kind of 'author event' that brings it all back to its origins, storytelling."

To cut (ahem) a long story short, I came home from Thunder Bay and, drawing on the skills I had developed writing sketches for the theatre back in my student days, wrote a one-man play based on my book.

I was encouraged from the start by "my lovely and talented assistant" (i.e., my wife, Jane) and by my friend Terry Fallis, who had been there in Thunder Bay cheering me on, and who was able to help me with the electronic side. Because I knew this was not going to be in any way "a reading." I was going to wander around the stage telling stories. And I would make it visually exciting by basing the stories on the authors who appeared onscreen behind me, in the form of the brilliant caricatures by Anthony Jenkins that punctuate the book. To add even more variety I would build in unexpected bursts of music, and an intriguing new kind of show began to take shape as I inserted scenes that were slightly more dramatic than a man sitting at a desk, editing. Boxing against Ernest Hemingway or imitating a polar bear gutting a sled dog was a little more exciting, everyone agreed.

While, offstage, the book was being printed, I worked with a skilful director, Molly Thom, to sand down some of the play's rougher edges, and I received good advice from theatre friends like Albert Schultz and R.H. Thomson. With Robert Thomson's help I got in touch with Mike Spence at the Arts and Letters Club in Toronto, and we staged a public run-through. It ran too long, but left me feeling able to start a Western tour that had been kindly set up for me by my publisher. We'd see how far this tour went. To our modest surprise it went everywhere. Starting in October 2011, the Grand Tour allowed me to see the country — not for the first time, but from a different viewpoint, as an author. And not only as a storyteller, but also as a collector of tales: stories from that ten-province, coast-to-coast tour form the spine of this book.

Before I left Thunder Bay in 2010, I was pleased to be able to wander around and renew my acquaintance with it ("There's the Hoito, the famous Finnish restaurant!"). As I recount in Stories About Storytellers, when I first came to Canada, sailing into Victoria in September of 1967, I crossed the country by Greyhound bus. Only someone who has left the Pacific Coast and crossed half a continent of mountains and prairie and rocks and trees and more trees can appreciate the true drama of finally reaching the Great Lakes. When I spotted Lake Superior, and looked down on the giant grain ships filling up at the Port Arthur and Fort William terminals, it was a hugely important moment, worthy of thunderbolts from the sky. These ships, I realized, flattening my face against the bus window, were able to sail all the way east through the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway to the Atlantic Ocean, and then to ports around the world. This, right here, was where the Canadian West really ended.

(In 1967, there were still two cities, Port Arthur and Fort William. In 1970, voters were offered a choice in naming the new single city: Thunder Bay, Lakehead or The Lakehead. In the words of Charles Gordon, "Thunder Bay came up the middle and won.")

Now, in this later visit, as a fur trade enthusiast I got my local friend, the folksinger Bill Houston, to show me the location of the real, historic Fort William, now hidden among train tracks. Then he joined me in renting a canoe at the new Old Fort, so we could paddle up the Kaministiquia River in the silent wake of ghostly voyageurs.

I've quoted Charles Gordon once or twice already. Get ready for more, because I believe he's one of the country's finest writers. And a not-too-bad jazz trumpeter, too. You may remember him as a witty columnist for Maclean's, or as a writer for the Ottawa Citizen. (When a Citizen reader on holiday met his hero by chance in Manitoba, to Charles's delight he exclaimed, "Glory Hallelujah!")

Charles has written books that include The Governor General's Bunny Hop (1985), a satire on life in his hometown, Ottawa, and also The Grim Pig (2001), a comic novel about the newspaper world he knows so well. He also produced Canada's answer to the wave of boastful and triumphant self-improvement books flooding in from the USA, promising "excellence," with his own brilliantly titled 1993 book, How to Be Not Too Bad: ASort-of Guide to Superior Behaviour.

All of them reveal Charles Gordon as a man with a finely understated style that is a joy to read and a dry sense of humour so Canadian that it deserves to occupy our seat at the United Nations.

In the summer of 1996 he and his wife, Nancy (known in the book, to her slight irritation, as "The Business Manager"), set out in the family car to drive across Canada and back. The result is a wonderful book, The Canada Trip, which shows what typical travellers are likely to find as they enjoy the journey. (Jane, my very own Business Manager, and I consulted the book whenever our own tour involved driving.) This is not an earnest "Whither Canada?" book as much as a "Whither the moose?" book, or even a "Whither the washroom?" book, and we're all grateful for it.

You may know Charles as the author of the classic book At the Cottage: A Fearless Look at Canada's Summer Obsession, which came out in 1989 and proceeded to sell like campfire marshmallows for the next twenty years or so. Better still, you may know the follow-up that showed his greedy publisher (guilty as charged) knew a profitable classic when he saw one, publishing Still at the Cottage in 2006. Many sober citizens have fallen out of hammocks laughing at his affectionate portrait of life at "The Cottage, or The Cabin, The Shack, The Lake, The Beach, or Camp" or wherever Canadians choose to spend their summers.

The books are studded with phrases that will bring memories of summer sweeping back. "Is there something wrong with the map, Daddy?" "Does anybody know what made these droppings on the path?" "That rock wasn't there last year." "Do you think we should go ahead with the picnic?" Or even, at The Cottage Wedding, the mosquito-tinged words "I Do (slap!)."

Charles is famous for his At the Cottage chapter on "Sex at the Cottage; The Beast with Two Backs and Three Spider Bites." He warns us that despite all of the healthy outdoor cottage activity that sets the blood flowing,

There is the question of the bed. It squeaks, and the short leg bumps. And the walls are thin and don't go all the way up to the ceiling. And there are people around, at close quarters, so sex at the cottage tends to be a rather muffled activity. Groans and cries are stifled, in the interests of decency and good taste. But there is no stopping the short leg from bumping. That is why sex at the cottage sounds like the approach of a short-of-breath person with a wooden leg.

Halfway between Nancy's home town of Thunder Bay and the traditional Gordon family roost at Winnipeg lies the Gordon family cottage. After all of Charley's affectionate descriptions of the place, so many Canadians know it as "their" cottage, too, that a movement has been started — by me, right now — to have it designated "The National Cottage."

The cottage was built on a Lake of the Woods island near Kenora by Charley's grandfather, another Charles Gordon. The elder Charles was known to millions of readers by his pen name, Ralph Connor. This Winnipeg Presbyterian Church minister was, in the words of The Canadian Encyclopedia, "the most successful Canadian novelist in the early 20th century." His early bestsellers were based on his adventures preaching in the early days near Canmore, Alberta. The Sky Pilot (1899) and The Prospector (1904) are described as "fast-paced sentimental melodramas, with stereotyped characters dramatizing the conflict between good and evil in frontier settings presided over by exemplary churchmen."

Readers around the world loved them, and they sold in the millions. So did his historical novels set in Ontario, The Man from Glengarry (1901) and Glengarry School Days (1902). The Gordon family roots run deep in Glengarry County. An earlier Gordon, the Reverend Daniel, was famous for his role in a dispute over a shared pioneer church there. He kicked in the church door locked against him, in order to preach The Word of a tough Presbyterian God from the pulpit.

Books by Ralph Connor were shipped on the railway "by the carload," as publishers liked to boast in those days, and he became very rich. With his royalties he built both the cottage on the island, "Birkencraig," and the huge three-story family home at 54 Westgate in Winnipeg, now marked by a government plaque (so we have a precedent for the National Cottage plan!). The Canada Trip summarizes what followed:

After the money went, in bad investments while he was overseas in the First World War, the house and the island were all he had, and after he died the house was sold for back taxes. The University Women's Club bought it in 1945 and maintains it beautifully, renting out two apartments upstairs, and using the rest of the house for luncheons and cultural events, renting it out for receptions and meetings. ... At the last reception, a year ago, I walked into the office and announced that I was a Gordon and we would like to have our house back now. This was treated as a joke.


Excerpted from Across Canada By Story by Douglas Gibson, Anthony Jenkins. Copyright © 2015 Douglas Gibson. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
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