Tag Archives: historical fiction

The Orenda – Joseph Boyden

18 Dec

The OrendaJoseph Boyden’s newest novel, The Orenda, is epic. And I don’t use this word in the over-inflated urban dictionary, affected manner. No. The Orenda is truly an epic novel. It’s sweeping and has a nearly magical feel about it. The story is set during the very early 17th century,  a time when Canada’s native people had been living without interference from outsiders. But European explorations had been making inroads, bringing white populations to the country, and Jesuit missionaries were attempting to reach the indigenous people, to convert them to the Catholic faith. The Orenda deftly presents all of these issues; it is a tough and challenging story that will awe readers.

Boyden has three narrators, and so we gain three diverse perspectives: Christophe is a French Jesuit missionary; Snow Falls, a teenaged girl of Haudenosaunee nation (Iroquois) has been kidnapped by the Wendat (a Huron nation); and Bird – a leader of the Wendats who has been grieving the deaths of his wife and children.

The book opens boldly, with a violent act and a difficult journey. And this opening, is emblematic – the book is punctuated by acts of violence. Early on in the story, we are told that ‘the orenda’ represents a life force which is present in everything – and the orenda is not reserved only for humans. But we also learn about tortures visited upon some characters. While utterly brutal, and seemingly counter to the life force, these forms of torture seem revered and are highly honoured. As a counter to the sufferings, we are also shown the power of the orenda in healing ceremonies.

This balance between opposing ideas is integral. Boyden seems to have well-captured each side – and there are always more than two – with such respect and understanding. Horrible things happen in The Orenda – but because something from our past is difficult, readers should not shy away from this novel. It is so evident, through Boyden’s beautiful and nuanced writing, just how important this story is, and how much it needed to be told.

Recently, The Orenda was selected as one of five books competing in Canada Reads 2014. The theme chosen for the 2014 edition of the program is social change: what is the one book that could change Canada?

Joseph Boyden & Wab Kinew
Photo © CBC Books

The Orenda is a very strong contender, and it has excellent representation for the debates. Championing Boyden’s novel is Wab Kinew. Kinew is an amazing guy – he’s a musician, broadcaster and educator, and has hosted programming on the CBC. In 2012, the University of Winnipeg named Kinew its first director of indigenous inclusion. At the launch event for Canada Reads, Kinew spoke so eloquently and passionately about reconciliation and hope, not only for First Nations’ people – but for all Canadians.

Reconciliation is an important theme in The Orenda and this novel seems well-poised to spark important conversations (even while it is showing us and teaching us things that are nearly irreconcilable). With hope, true change, healing and acceptance can result from reading this one novel. We need to learn from our past and we need to do better – individually, as human beings and collectively, as a nation. Joseph Boyden and Wab Kinew can help get us there, if we open our hearts and minds, listen and learn.

Book’s Description:

A visceral portrait of life at a crossroads, The Orenda opens with a brutal massacre and the kidnapping of the young Iroquois Snow Falls, a spirited girl with a special gift. Her captor, Bird, is an elder and one of the Huron Nation’s great warriors and statesmen. It has been years since the murder of his family, and yet they are never far from his mind. In Snow Falls, Bird recognizes the ghost of his lost daughter and sees that the girl possesses powerful magic that will be useful to him on the troubled road ahead. Bird’s people have battled the Iroquois for as long as he can remember, but both tribes now face a new, more dangerous threat from afar.

Christophe, a charismatic Jesuit missionary, has found his calling among the Huron, and devotes himself to learning and understanding their customs and language in order to lead them to Christ. An emissary from distant lands, he brings much more than his faith to the new world.

As these three souls dance with each other through intricately woven acts of duplicity, small battles erupt into bigger wars and a nation emerges from worlds in flux.

Publisher’s Information:

Publisher: Hamish Hamilton Canada (an imprint of Penguin Canada)

Hardcover: 496 pages

Publication Date: 10 September 2013

Language: English

ISBN-13: 978-0670064182

Penguin Blogger

I am happy to be participating in Penguin Canada’s Daily December Delights holiday campaign. As a participant in this special month-long event, I had the chance to read the most amazing novel.  And I am very happy to recommend The Orenda to you today. It truly is a novel everyone should read.

Perdita by Hilary Scharper – Blog Tour

12 Apr

On April 16, 2013, Simon & Schuster Canada will be launching this wonderful debut novel from Hilary Scharper – Perdita. In support of the launch, I am happy to host Scharper on the first stop of her Blog Tour. Before we get into the interview, I would like to share a bit of background on the novel and some information about Scharper.

From the book’s description:

Perdita by Hilary Scharper “After a love affair that ends in tragedy, Garth Hellyer throws himself into his work for the Longevity Project, interviewing the oldest living people on the planet. But nothing has prepared him for Marged Brice, who claims to be a stunningly youthful 134. Marged says she wants to die, but can’t, held back by the presence of someone she calls Perdita.

Garth, despite his skepticism, is intrigued by Marged’s story, and agrees to read “her” journals of life in the late 1890s. Soon he’s enthralled by Marged’s story of love, loss, and myth in the tempestuous wilderness of the Bruce Peninsula. He enlists the help of his childhood friend Clare to help him make sense of the mystery.

As Garth and Clare unravel the truth of Marged and Perdita, they discover together just what love can mean when it never dies.”

Early reviews have compared this novel to some literary heavyweights: Jane Eyre, Rebecca and Possession, in particular. I am a great fan of these works so was quite excited to read Perdita.

This novel very skilfully weaves together the themes of love and loss while bringing to life the strength, beauty and power of our natural world. Scharper has coined the term “eco-gothic”, an emerging literary form, to describe the style of her writing. In our Q & A session (see below) Scharper happily addressed my questions about this genre.

Hilary Cunningham ScharperHilary Scharper spent her summers as a young girl on the shores of Georgian Bay where she developed a deep love of its natural beauty. Later on, she studied anthropology at Yale University and eventually became interested in peoples’ stories about their relationships with the natural world. An anthropology professor at the University of Toronto, Scharper teaches wilderness and cultural approaches to nature.

Perdita will appeal to many readers and I feel it is a wonderful crossover book – a novel that will be a great treat for both mature YA readers and adult readers alike. The story moves back and forth in time and will hold appeal for those who enjoy historical fiction. As well, Scharper includes some very interesting mythology in her storytelling – I found this aspect of the novel fascinating. While I live in Ontario and have a good familiarity with the Bruce Penninsula, and really enjoyed being able to relate so well to the settings in Perdita, I feel readers who may not know as much about the area will gain a beautiful appreciation for this special place.

You can read the first chapter on Scribd.

So, without further ado, the Q & A session:

Literal Life: Your new novel, Perdita, may be an introduction for many readers to the concept of ‘eco-gothic’ as a literary form. Can you explain what this term means to you?

Hilary Scharper: Through the eco-gothic, I’ve tried to blend my love of the Gothic genre with my love of wild nature. As result, I do not treat nature as merely a backdrop or setting, but rather as an active and indeed central player in the narrative. I also like to think that the eco-gothic recognizes and engages with the fact that “we” are indeed at a moment of great ecological change and transition, and that some of our biggest challenges are in the area of human relationships with nature. Our imaginations are going to be key in this endeavor, and novels such as Perdita pick up on the challenge of getting us to explore those aspects of ourselves that seek out a deep interconnectedness with the natural world.

LL: For you, how do ‘eco-gothic’ and magical realism differ as genres?

HS: The novel has elements of both genres and these feed off one another throughout the story. In some respects, Garth Hellyer as the “modern” historian experiences magical realism, while Marged Brice (and the mystery surrounding her age as well as the figure of Perdita) conjures up the gothic. The wildness of Georgian Bay, however, and the moody unpredictable, natural landscapes of the novel are distinctly gothic—they do not represent an intrusion of magical elements into a convincing reality, but reflect something much more metaphysically complex and (for me) vibrant. The gothic doesn’t just “play” with our sense of reality—it lays claim to it in distinctive and often haunting kind of way. I wrote on this topic recently for The National Post.

LL: I know the Bruce Peninsula region of Ontario holds a special place in your heart and it made for a wonderful setting for Perdita. Are there other settings you can think of that would work well for future eco-gothic novels? (Will you continue writing in this genre?)

HS: I think there are an almost infinite number of settings for the eco-gothic—since it is about a unique connection to nature, not about specific places. The Bruce Peninsula and Georgian Bay are my own eco-gothic settings, but it’s my hope that readers will recognize their own distinctive connections. These may include the light at a particular time of year, the sound of migrating birds, a walk along the waterfront, an early morning fog, or the first smell of snow in the backyard. In my next novel, I take the eco-gothic into Toronto’s “Cabbagetown” and explore how the library of a famous literary father and a mysterious linden tree in the backyard come together in the life of a young woman named Katherine Harris. In this next novel, I explore an urban eco-gothic and the various kinds of wild nature found in cities.

LL: You will be celebrating the launch of Perdita on April 25th at Massey College in Toronto. In honour of your novel, you have said you will be wearing ‘eco-gothic attire’ and have invited others to join you by doing the same. Can you tell me what you will be wearing?

HS: The actual wording on the book launch invitation states that I will be “venturing” eco-gothic attire. I chose “venture” deliberately because I want to share the spirit of adventure underlying this novel. The gothic isn’t primarily about rational thought categories and controlled settings—it’s also about going “off-leash,” so to speak, and having a bit of fun. That being said, I will be wearing a long, hunter green velvet dress—romantic gothic couture designed by Rose Mortem. I asked Rose to combine the sleeves of her “Aislinn gown” with her “Calista Hooded faierie gown.” She did a gorgeous job and lined the hood with black lace. I’m still looking for my shoes…

LL: As well as being a novelist, you work as an Associate Professor of Cultural Anthropology at the University of Toronto. Does this work feed into your creative life and does it make historical fiction a natural fit for you as a writer?

HS: My work as a cultural anthropologist absolutely feeds into my writing—although I find writing fiction much more difficult than academic prose. I think the historical sensibility of the novel comes more from spending the last four decades of my life reading “classic literature.” To capture and convey a different historical time period is very much an act of imagination, but it also comes from steeping oneself in the language and cultural voices of a period. As an anthropologist, I’ve been very attuned to the different manners, customs and sensibilities conveyed in 19th century novels. As a result I’ve tried to situate my historical characters in a “natural” and convincing flow of settings and experiences.

I would like to thank Hilary Scharper for her time, and Loretta Eldridge, at Simon & Schuster Canada, for facilitating this interview.

Edited to add:

Continuing on the Blog Tour, in support of Perdita, Ms. Scharper visits the following blogs to talk a bit more about her debut novel:

April 15th: Historical Novel Review

April 16th: Browsing Bookshelves

Homer & Langley by E.L. Doctorow

3 Feb

Homer & LangleyHomer & Langley by E.L. Doctorow
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Well, this book is absolutely beautiful. I am still thinking about what I want to say about Homer & Langley, while simultaneously composing a letter to E.L. Doctorow in my head. I felt this novel deeply and I am marveling at Doctorow’s ability with words and language which activate the senses while creating images that linger.

More of a review to come.

Okay, so after pondering for a couple of days, here is what I have come up with:

This novel was released in 2009, but just this past fall, the trade paperback edition became available. I am aware that Homer & Langley received very mixed reviews, with readers feeling either middling about it or loving it. Like any good historical novelist pushing the limits of his craft, Doctorow takes chances. The author’s treatment of the history was a negative for some critics, while others felt the narrator was less than engaging and the imagined historical details were unconvincing, while others still, including the New York Times, opined that Doctorow “never succeeds in making the brothers’ transition from mild eccentricity to out-and-out madness understandable to the reader.” Yet even the detractors gave a nod to the author’s stylistic prose.

My reaction to this novel was very strong and I felt it deeply – with my senses and my emotions. Repeatedly I found myself imagining Homer’s ability to take in so much about the world after he lost his sight. The intuition he possessed coupled with other senses being heightened made for a very evolved character with insights that helped filled in the holes of his life. Langley made for an equally interesting, though not as fully fleshed character. Because we are receiving the story from Homer, and though their relationship was unusually strong, we are never fully privy to the action inside Langley’s brain. I do wonder, however, if Langley would be self-aware enough as to categorize his behaviours as well as he categorized his newspaper articles? To me, it is a beautifully imagined brotherhood Doctorow has created; a story inspired by how Homer and Langley lived, rather than sensationalizing how they died. Certainly, many liberties were taken by Doctorow in creating this story and it seems to be this aspect of the book that has the largest share of naysayers debating the label of historical fiction being applied to Doctorow’s book. The book spans nearly 70 years, from just before WWI to the years after the Vietnam War. In this regard, many eras are referenced through the brothers lives. But, it is not so much a recounting of the unusual story of the Collyer brothers as a journey inside that story. Call it a meditation, and a metaphor.

Doctorow’s novel is absolutely beautiful, to me, and I am amazed that he could accomplish so much in such a short (the edition I have is only 208 pages) book. “I’m Homer, the blind brother.” is the very first line of Homer & Langley. We know immediately, then, this story will offer a very unique perspective, while signalling, also, that the pages within contain not just a usual story. I feel the eras covered – WWI, the Great Depression, prohibition, the Korean War, The assassinations of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King Jr., the hippie movement and the Vietnam War – allowed the book to read, almost like a road trip novel with Homer and Langley benefiting from social interactions, without leaving their home. That Doctorow moved the setting of his novel from the actual home in Harlem, to an imagined Manhattan brownstone on Fifth Avenue, directly across from Central Park, likely allowed for more artistic license with the outside world coming into the brothers’ home so they could have first-hand experiences while being nearly complete shut-ins.

There is no doubt many found, and continue to find the real story of the Collyer brothers sad. If you look at photos taken from inside their home, you wonder how it is even possible they lived among all of the detritus. What Doctorow has done so well, then, is ask us to look at the tale through a different lens and dig within ourselves and extend compassion to two brothers who were likely never really understood and continue, in this world of media-provoked hoarders interest, to be viewed as bizarre and reprehensible. In Doctorow’s view, Homer & Langley are sensitive, highly-intelligent, lonely men, trying to find their purpose in the world. I think this is something we can all relate to and appreciate.

View all my reviews

Homer & Langley by E.L. Doctorow

27 Nov

From the cover description:

Homer and Langley Collyer are brothers–the one blind and deeply intuitive, the other damaged into madness, or perhaps greatness, by mustard gas in the Great War. They live as recluses in their once grand Fifth Avenue mansion, scavenging the city streets for things they think they can use, hoarding the daily newspapers as research for Langley’s proposed dateless newspaper whose reportage will be as prophecy. Yet the epic events of the century play out in the lives of the two brothers–wars, political movements, technological advances–and even though they want nothing more than to shut out the world, history seems to pass through their cluttered house in the persons of immigrants, prostitutes, society women, government agents, gangsters, jazz musicians . . . and their housebound lives are fraught with odyssean peril as they struggle to survive and create meaning for themselves.

Brilliantly conceived, gorgeously written, this mesmerizing narrative, a free imaginative rendering of the lives of New York’s fabled Collyer brothers, is a family story with the resonance of myth, an astonishing masterwork unlike any that have come before from this great writer.

This novel was released in 2009, but just this past fall, the trade paperback edition became available. I am aware that Homer & Langley received very mixed reviews, with readers feeling either middling about it or loving it. Like any good historical novelist pushing the limits of his craft, Doctorow takes chances. The author’s treatment of the history was a negative for some critics, while others felt the narrator was less than engaging and the imagined historical details were unconvincing, while others still, including the New York Times, opined that Doctorow “never succeeds in making the brothers’ transition from mild eccentricity to out-and-out madness understandable to the reader.” Yet even the detractors gave a nod to the author’s stylistic prose.

My reaction to this novel was very strong and I felt it deeply – with my senses and my emotions. Repeatedly I found myself imagining Homer’s ability to take in so much about the world after he lost his sight. The intuition he possessed coupled with other senses being heightened made for a very evolved character with insights that helped filled in the holes of his life. Langley made for an equally interesting, though not as fully fleshed character. Because we are receiving the story from Homer, and though their relationship was unusually strong, we are never fully privy to the action inside Langley’s brain. I do wonder, however, if Langley would be self-aware enough as to categorize his behaviours as well as he categorized his newspaper articles? To me, it is a beautifully imagined brotherhood Doctorow has created; a story inspired by how Homer and Langley lived, rather than sensationalizing how they died. Certainly, many liberties were taken by Doctorow in creating this story and it seems to be this aspect of the book that has the largest share of naysayers debating the label of historical fiction being applied to Doctorow’s book. The book spans nearly 70 years, from just before WWI to the years after the Vietnam War. In this regard, many eras are referenced through the brothers lives. But, it is not so much a recounting of the unusual story of the Collyer brothers as a journey inside that story. Call it a meditation, and a metaphor.

Doctorow’s novel is absolutely beautiful, to me, and I am amazed that he could accomplish so much in such a short (the edition I have is only 208 pages) book. “I’m Homer, the blind brother.” is the very first line of Homer & Langley. We know immediately, then, this story will offer a very unique perspective, while signalling, also, that the pages within contain not just a usual story. I feel the eras covered – WWI, the Great Depression, prohibition, the Korean War, The assassinations of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King Jr., the hippie movement and the Vietnam War – allowed the book to read, almost like a road trip novel with Homer and Langley benefiting from social interactions, without leaving their home. That Doctorow moved the setting of his novel from the actual home in Harlem, to an imagined Manhattan brownstone on Fifth Avenue, directly across from Central Park, likely allowed for more artistic license with the outside world coming into the brothers’ home so they could have first-hand experiences while being nearly complete shut-ins.

There is no doubt many found, and continue to find the real story of the Collyer brothers sad. If you look at photos taken from inside their home, you wonder how it is even possible they lived among all of the detritus. What Doctorow has done so well, then, is ask us to look at the tale through a different lens and dig within ourselves and extend compassion to two brothers who were likely never really understood and continue, in this world of media-provoked hoarders interest, to be viewed as bizarre and reprehensible. In Doctorow’s view, Homer & Langley are sensitive, highly-intelligent, lonely men, trying to find their purpose in the world. I think this is something we can all relate to and appreciate.

A Man in Uniform by Kate Taylor

3 Aug

Released today, A Man in Uniform is, according to the description offered by the publisher, Doubleday Canada,:

“A seductive new novel from the author of the award-winning bestseller Mme Proust and the Kosher Kitchen.

At the height of the Belle Epoque, the bourgeois lawyer François Dubon lives a well-ordered life. He spends his days at his office, his evenings with his aristocratic wife — and his afternoons with his generous mistress. But this complacent existence is shattered when a mysterious widow pays him a call. She insists only Dubon can rescue her innocent friend, an army captain by the name of Dreyfus who has been convicted of spying. Against his better judgment, Dubon is drawn into a case that will forever alter his life.”

I read this novel quickly, over one weekend. I feel Taylor has created a compelling story using an historical event that divided the nation of France. The Dreyfus Affair began in 1894. Captain Alfred Dreyfus, an innocent Jewish Officer in the French Army, was convicted on false evidence, manufactured with military approval, for a crime of high treason. He was stripped of his rank, publicly degraded and deported to the penal colony of Devil’s Island to serve a sentence of life imprisonment, in total isolation, and under inhumane conditions. The fight to prove his innocence lasted 12 years.

The Dreyfus Affair caused a deep rift between intellectuals not only in French society, but in all of Europe and the United States. It unleashed racial violence and led to the publication of history’s most famous call for justice, J’accuse, addressed to the President of France by Emile Zola (in January 1898); Zola became, in the words of Anatole France, “the conscience of mankind”.

This event in France’s history involved not only political and military scandals but also murder, deceit, corruption and treachery. Using the documented truths of the Dreyfus Affair as the launching point for her second novel, Taylor becomes a master weaver, braiding the intricacies of historical fact with her own imagination and linear storytelling. Taylor also punches up an already bountiful chain of events through the introduction of femme fatales, seduction and villainy. Characters, both real and invented, co-mingle in her mostly solid novel.

I have had a hard time creating a review for this work because, while so many elements work ~ the plot, the historical context, the characters ~ I was very let down by the use of coincidence and convenience. Taylor is a gifted writer and a talented, award winning Canadian journalist. (She writes an Arts column for the Globe and Mail, was previously their Theatre critic and has been on staff with the paper since 1989). Through research, I discovered the initial manuscript for her new novel “went through three significantly different drafts that involved major plot changes… Draft number two had serious tweaking…Draft number three involved a major rewrite then a major set of cuts” before the manuscript was considered ready for publication. Learning these details made me wonder what elements were sacrificed from a story that could have achieved literary perfection in order to make the novel more broadly appealing?

The novel is very well-paced and enjoyable; I debated calling it a fun read; it definitely makes for a perfect “summer read”. While looking at other reviews for A Man in Uniform, the terms “a romp” and “rollicking” were encountered again and again. The novel definitely engages the reader and seems to have all of the components of a very good historical, literary mystery. For me, the novel is hard to categorize by genre. I have read many reviews that refer to the book as a ‘hardboiled mystery’, but to my understanding, these types of stories are distinguished by an unsentimental portrayal of crime, violence, and sex. I think there is a lot of emotion in Taylor’s novel, and her writing, so I am a bit dismissive of that particular classification. In the end, though, I don’t think this matters. My only issue, really, has to do with how “neat” the story was; how conveniently it climaxed and resolved. The novel is good so I am hopeful it will be embraced and enjoyed by readers. Kate Taylor is a great writer and the story is strong.

I recommend A Man in Uniform and rate it 3.5 our of 5.

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