Thursday, August 30, 2012

A great letter in the New Yorker

There is a great letter to the editor in the New Yorker of September 3, 2012, by by Bernice L. Youtz of Tacoma, Washington.  She writes of the days of "truly small government", specifically, 1929, when her father lost his job.  "We can do with a lot less government," she concludes, "but only if we are willing to go backward."  Read the whole letter. It's on Page 3

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Underling, by Ian McKercher

A review of The Underling, by Ian McKercher
Reviewed by Ruth Latta

Some novels bring to life a little known part of history. Others are memorable for their engaging central characters. Others offer humour, intrigue and suspense. Occasionally, a novel like Ian McKercher's
 The Underling, combines all of these features. (The Underling is published by General Store, Renfrew On, 2012, ISBN 978-926962-41-2).

McKercher, retired from Glebe Collegiate's English department, has written a novel that is conventional in form but full of surprises. One surprise is that his protagonist is a seventeen year old girl. As the novel opens in 1934, Frances McFadden, a secretarial student at Ottawa's High School of Commerce, has been asked by Prime Minister Bennett to establish a research bureau/archives of Canadian banking and business information in advance of the establishing of a central bank, so that the governor will have background resources on hand immediately upon his appointment.  Legislation to charter a Bank of Canada is before Parliament. In setting up this preliminary office, Mr. Grace needs an assistant with good skills but no previous work experience to "unlearn."

McKercher, who grew up in London, Ontario, based Frances, to some extent, upon his mother. Her stories about her days as a young employee made it clear that those who head organizations are not always the ones really running the show. An underling, working behind the scenes, often has a great deal of influence and contributes to the success of the enterprise in creative ways.

"The Market crash took [Frances's] family under," writes McKercher, who captures his heroine's circumstances and social status with well-chosen detail. Interiewed by Mr. Grace over lunch at the Chateau Laurier Hotel, Frances encounters an avocado. She has never seen one before but she recognizes it from a picture in a Ladies' Home Journal. Later, to refurbish her wardrobe in advance of starting work, Frances buys knee socks to match her skirts. Soon Mr. Grace gently suggests some new outfits "to make her look older."

While her boss is away on Bank business, Frances sets up their office, with amusing adventures. Later, she accompanies Mr. Grace to Toronto to meet luminaries of the business and finance worlds, to convince them of the need for the Bank of Canada. In response to their fear that a central bank will interfere with a free market economy, Mr. Grace replies, "Who is happy with the way the market is functioning now?"

The Bank of Canada came into being in March 1935. Thanks to the secretarial grapevine, Frances hears before her boss does that its first governor will be Graham Towers. Mr. Towers and other real people mingle with fictional ones in this novel. Fictional Frances has close encounters with two very real prime ministers.

Much of the novel is about getting things accomplished in a system with many fiefdoms and hierarchies. George Orwell, who once said that too few authors write about work, would applaud McKercher for recreating a work environment of the past. One significant difference between the 1930s and the present is shown when a young woman asks if she can keep her job after she gets married. She is permitted to do so - but only for the time it takes to train her replacement.

As 1939 brings the Dirty Thirties to an end, war clouds gather. Can Polish gold reserves be saved from the Nazis? Yes, and Frances plays a pivotal role. She sums up the novel when she says, "This trip has been frightening and exhausting and exhilarating and intriguing, all rolled into one. Pretty heady stuff for a girl from Rochester Street." 

A friend of mine, who died a few years ago in her nineties, started work as a secretary during the Great Depression and went on to a fascinating career with an international organization.  The Underling  implicitly pays tribute to the achievements of women like her.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

poem published

Last week I received a copy of an anthology with one of my poems in it. Getting published is always a good thing, if for no other reason than that you get to mention your latest novel in your bio note. My poem  is a sonnet. While I don't necessarily agree with the illustrious Robert Frost, who said that writing poetry without rhyme and meter was like playing tennis without a net, I do take a certain pleasure in the technical achievement.

The only thing is, I don't think I can brag about this publication. If I tell people my most recent item in print is a poem titled "No" in the anthology, As One One Cradles Pain, I will undoubtedly get some odd reactions.  Will anyone rush out and buy the anthology?  I'm not counting on it.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

An excellent article by Valerie Knowles

Ottawa biographer/historian Valerie Knowles has written an excellent article on the effects upon writers and researches of the recent government cutbacks to institutions like Library and Archives Canada.  "Doors Close on Nation's Memory" appeared in the Toronto Star on June 23, 2012, and may be read on Valerie's website,

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

I'll Miss Them

Last night on the news I learned of the death of Maeve Binchy.  In one of my scrapbooks I have a postcard I received from her in response to a fan letter I sent her. In my view, her two best books are Light a Penny Candle and Circle of Friends.  I read somewhere that when she was working as a journalist she used to get up very early in the morning to write fiction before going to the newspaper office. She kept her work in progress, her typewriter and any other materials she might need on a tea trolley tucked away under the stairs. When she wheeled it out before dawn she had everything she needed close at hand and didn't have to waste time getting organized. I also read that she wrote fiction for years without getting published, and got to the point where she could hardly bring herself to lick the stamp to put on the manuscript she was sending out, because it all seemed so futile. Then she got published, and her career blossomed.

She was Irish and universal. In all of her novels one got a sense of her warm humanitarian outlook.

On the news last night she was compared to Jane Austen, and indeed, although her style was quite different from Austen's, they both explored the hearts and minds of women. Both had a sense of what constitutes fairness and decency. Both wrote positive endings.

Then this morning on TV I saw that American novelist Gore Vidal died at 84.  Upstairs in my bookcase are Burr; 1876 and Washington D.C., his  well-known trilogy of American history novels, and also, Lincoln. I admired him for his wit and his use of social history  along with political "official" history.

These two novelists were very different in their themes and styles, but both were good at their craft. In my view, an aspiring writer shouldn't just like one genre, or one author, or "literary" fiction as opposed to "popular" fiction, but should read and see the merits in a lot of different things.  I urge budding writers to sample both Binchy and Vidal.  I will miss both of them. Although I never met either, they were friends, inspirations, and part of my life.  Never ask for whom the bell tolls.