Sunday, December 29, 2013

Short story, "A Christmas Letter"

My short story, below, "A Christmas Letter", was published in Canadian Stories, (ISSN 1496-4511) Vol. 16, No. 94, 2013/2014

by Ruth Latta

Late one December afternoon, Daddy arrived home after dark looking like a snowman. His wool coat and cap were plastered white from driving the open tractor against the wind, on the three mile trip from his brothers' farm. Mummy shooed the children into the living room and shook his coat outside while he warmed his hands at the cookstove.

"There's mail in the pockets," he said.
"The family allowance cheque?"
"No. But Dorothy got hers so yours will probably come soon. The lads said, if it does, they'll take me into town to shop."
Pat, in the living room archway, noticed a small flat package.
"Ah, something from Caroline Walker!" Mum exclaimed.
"Tell me again who she is."
"My old friend from Normal School. Oh, and card from your mother. You got paid!"
In the card from Gran was a five dollar bill. Mum studied it.
"Where's the rest of your pay?"
"Mam said the rest went for our tractor payment."
"But you've worked all fall for them, clearing land. You've paid for the tractor three times over."
Dad shrugged. "Not according to Mam."
"So all you get is five dollars and a Merry Christmas."
Mum pocketed the money, seized the lifter, raised the stove lid, and dropped Gran's card onto the flames. She put Mrs. Walker's present on the kitchen shelf, then bent to take a pan of hot biscuits out of the oven.
"Supper!" she called.
Jay, who was five, spotted the thin parcel in brown paper. "A present!" he cried. "Open it."
Katie, groggy from her nap, came running to Daddy, who lifted her into her high chair.
"We'll wait till Christmas." Mummy spooned vegetable stew into bowls.
"When is Santa coming?" asked Jay.
"Christmas is December 25th, but this year Santa isn't coming till January." Mummy said. They ate in silence.

That evening, Pat dried the dishes while her father brought in wood. She would have washed them, but she couldn't lift the kettle of boiling water off the stove and pour it into the dishpan. Usually she and Mummy talked while doing the dishes but that evening her mother was busy sweeping and putting away clothes.
After the younger children were asleep, Pat lay in bed and watched her parents in the living room. The door was open to admit warm air from the Quebec heater. Daddy and Mummy weren't fighting, but they weren't talking either. They were reading the bundle of North Bay Nugget newspapers that Gran had saved and sent with Daddy.

Gran kept the local post office in the farmhouse she'd once shared with her husband and three sons. Uncle Bruce still lived under her roof, and, a few yards away, Uncle Bob, Aunt Dorothy, Bobby and Barbara lived in a bungalow. Years ago, when Mummy was a teaching boarding with a family, she caught a ride into town when Daddy was taking the mailbags to the train. That was how they met.

"Daddy said he wanted to be independent," Mummy had once told Pat, "so I took all my saving and bought us this farm. I wish we'd chosen a different location."

Things went well at first. Together, Pat's parents had gardened, cut both fire wood and pulp wood for the forest products company and raised a variety of farm animals. But Pat came along, then Jay, then Katie, and Mummy had no time to work outdoors any more.

Daddy helped his brothers on seasonal projects like haying and threshing, so that they would help him, in turn. Back in the spring, using money he'd earned cutting pulpwood, he made a down payment on a tractor. Pat had loved the summer evening trips by tractor and wagon to visit the relatives, especially riding home after dark, lying back on cushions on the wagon, looking up at the stars.

Then Daddy asked his brothers to finish paying for the tractor in return for his help clearing land. Every day he'd worked, cutting brush and bulldozing scrub trees into windrows, leaving Mummy to cultivate the garden at home. Now, his folks hadn't paid him anything beyond what was owed on the tractor.

"When you children get a little older I'll go back to teach and get us on our feet again," Mum often said. Pat could hardly wait. The kids who teased her about her bulky brown snow pants wouldn't dare mock her if her mother was there. And maybe there would be money for a new red parka with matching pants in Eaton's catalogue.

She closed her eyes and pictured everyone in her family in new clothes from the catalogue, and next thing she knew it was morning. She could smell porridge and hear Katie and Jay's high voices in the kitchen. Through the frosted window, she saw a blue pickup truck crawling down the lane.

"Mummy, someone's coming!"
Mummy rushed into her room  and came out wearing her slacks and a sweater over her pyjamas. The door opened, and a blast of cold air hit the children as Daddy opened the door for Uncle Bob.

"Hello, kids," he said "Alice, your family allowance cheque turned up. It had fallen behind the sorting table." He held an envelope out to her.
"I'm so glad your mother found it," Mummy said.
"If you sign it, Tom can come to town with me today and buy what you need. A government cheque is as good as cash."
"Fine. Have some tea while I make a list."

As Mummy got her pen and writing paper from on top of the wardrobe, and Daddy shaved at the sink, Uncle Bob sat down between Jay and Katie.
"What are you two nippers planning for the day?" he asked. His own "ankle biters" were helping Aunt Dorothy make cookies. "Oh, I just remembered!" He took a folded paper from his pocket and handed it to Mummy. "You wanted stamps."

"Thanks. Be sure Tom gives you money out of the family allowance to repay your mother."

Soon Daddy was ready, and, with Uncle Bob, stepped out into the cold dazzling morning.
That morning, Pat dried the dishes and entertained the children while Mummy did some hand washing. When she was out at the clothesline, Pat climbed onto a chair to get Mrs. Walker's card and letter. She could read cursive handwriting.

"Season's Greetings to you and your family," wrote Caroline Walker. Then she told about her work. She had volunteered to organize a Christmas clothing and toy drive in her office. Though social work was often "heart-rending" at times, she was encouraged by the generous donations of good quality items received. Her office meeting room was overflowing. Pat was still reading the card when Mummy came in, on a wave of cold air, to warm her chapped hands.

"Let's start a card clothesline over the door," Pat exclaimed..
"Fine. Get some string."
"Tell me about Caroline Walker," Pat urged, as she cut a length of cord and attached two thumbtacks.
"Save Caroline's envelope for the return address," Mum ordered. "Put it on top of the wardrobe with my fountain pen and writing paper."

While securing the string over the doorway between kitchen and living room and draping cards over it, her mother explained that she and Caroline had been friends at Normal School. Caroline went to teach north of Toronto where her aunt lived, and wanted Mum to come too. But Mummy chose the north where boards offered higher salaries.

"We went to summer school together for several years. Then I got married and she switched to social work. I'm surprised she keeps in touch, our lives are so different."
"What's a social worker?"
"Someone who helps people."
"Who gets the stuff she's collecting?"
"Poor people."
"Could we get some?"
"Absolutely not!" Mummy glared. "We're not poor. We own a farm, though we owe taxes on it. But we won't beg. We haven't sunk that low yet." Her voice broke.
"I'm sorry, Mummy."
"Just - go and read. And put away that catalogue."
Pat obeyed, jutting out her lower lip.
"But we are poor!" she said to herself. "We have nothing for Christmas."

When she saw Mummy busy peeling potatoes, she found a pencil and crept into her parents' room. Taking a sheet of writing paper, she began a letter:

Dear Mrs. Walker.
I am Pat, your friend Alice's girl, aged nine. Mum wants me to thank you for your gift. This year we aren't getting much for Christmas as there is not enuf money. Can we have some used clothes and toys? Katie is 2, Jay is 5.

Carefully she printed Mrs. Walker's name and address on an envelope, and applied one of the stamps. She hid the letter in her snow pants pocket, and on Monday, she asked Miss Martin, who commuted from town, to mail it for her.

"Certainly," said her teacher, and put the letter in her purse.

Christmas concert rehearsals were in full swing, and Pat forgot about her letter as she went with the others to the community hall at the top of the school to practise carols and recite her poem.
Time raced by and soon it was December 22, the last day of school, and Concert Day. At final rehearsals that morning, Pat sat with her classmates on a bench facing the stage, breathing the freshness of the big spruce that the older students had decorated. Under its branches, near the piano, were bushel baskets full of paper sacks of candy and nuts provided by the Women's Institute. Each child in the community got one, including Katie and Jay. The principal's wife was picking up Mummy and Jay at noon so that they could attend.
The concert passed in a glorious dream, a blur of music, dancing and drama. After the last chorus, Santa emerged from backstage to distribute the candy. Some little children were afraid of him, but Jay was not shy; he happily sat on Santa's knee, wished him Merry Christmas and thanked him for the candy.

Then the room hummed with conversation. Mummy was soon surrounded by neighbours.
"So nice to see you out," someone said.
"Come to the next Institute meeting," a lady urged. "I'll pick you up."
"Can you substitute for me when I have my wisdom teeth out in January?" asked the principal.
Aunt Dorothy and Uncle Bob came up, smiling, with the message that Mam wanted them to come for Christmas dinner.
"Thanks, but we'll celebrate at home," Mummy said. "Katie gets cross if she doesn't have her nap."

Pat bit her lip. Last year at Gran's there had been roast beef. There would be none at home. If one of the hens became Christmas dinner, only eleven would be left to lay eggs. There were lots of carrots, potatoes and turnips, but she was sick of vegetables.

Travelling home in the warm car, Pat dozed. At home, Katie ran to Mummy as if they'd been parted for months. Daddy had set up the tree, and Mummy promised to get the ornaments out after supper.

As Christmas grew near, Pat tingled with excitement, and nervousness. She helped her mother stir the carrot pudding, watched her singe the chicken and helped the younger children decorate the tree and learn some carols for Christmas Eve. They kept them out of Daddy's way. He was cutting firewood, not in a good mood.
The night before Christmas, Mummy opened the thin flat box from Mrs. Walker to reveal candied orange, lemon and grapefruit. As they were eating them beside the tree, Jay cried, "Car's coming." Sure enough, a dark whale of a vehicle ploughed through the white foaminess beached near the house. They rushed to the door. On a blast of cold air, a big cardboard box with mittens and arms around it came in, followed by Uncle Bob, who was carrying it. He set it on the kitchen floor.

"This came in today's mail, from Walker in Toronto."
Pat was stunned. She wished she could vanish. Inside that box would be a note that began: "When I got Pat's letter..."  Mummy might say that Pat had brought shame to the family. There might be a fight, a spanking. Christmas would be spoiled, and it was all her fault.

"What a surprise!" Mummy said. "Thank you for bringing it over. Have some tea."
Uncle Bob said he ought to get home, but would drop by later in the week. After he left, Jay wanted to open the box, but Mummy said no.

That evening, when the younger children were asleep, Pat peeked around the bedroom door, watching her father cut the twine and her mother unfold the flaps of the box.
"We've hit the jackpot!" Dad exclaimed.
"Listen to this." Mummy unfolded a sheet of paper.

"Dear Alice. After writing to you about the overwhelming donations of good used clothing and toys, I realized that your growing children might be able to use some items. Sincerely, Caroline."

Daddy was digging.
"Here's a truck, a doll, and a book. Canned cranberry sauce, ham and a cake tin."
Mother took out folded piles of clothing. "Look! Two complete outfits for each child. And this sweater is man-size. It's for you."
"And this one is for you." Daddy held out something pink. "Try it on."
Mummy threw her arms around Daddy and began to cry.
"It's a miracle," she sobbed. "Maybe we were meant to have these things. After all, they had an overwhelming quantity."

Pat crept back to bed. How kind Mrs. Walker was! Smart, too, to read between the lines. Someday Pat hoped to meet her. Meanwhile, she could hardly keep her eyes open.

A red parka and matching ski pants, both gently used, waited for her on the rocking chair.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The NFU Convention, Part 2

The keynote speech of the National Farmers' Union convention in Ottawa, November 2013, was open free of charge to the public. Jim Stanford was invited to speak on "Defeating Austerity, Reclaiming Canada." Whenever the CBC news has a panel on the economy, we pay attention if Stanford is among the panellists, and so do others. An Ottawa area organic farmer who sat near us said he'd seen Stanford on TV and thought he made sense.

Stanford is an economist for UNIFOR (the new union formed this year when the Canadian Auto Workers united with the Energy and Paperworkers' Union.) He was educated at the University of Alberta, in fact, was a classmate of Stephen Harper. He then studied at Cambridge and got his Ph.D from the New School for Social Research in New York City.

Stanford was an amusing, entertaining speaker. He began by saying that economics is too important to be left to the economists. Then he quoted Lord Robbins's classical definition of economics as "the relation of given ends to scarce means which have alternative uses." Orthodox economics, then, is based on the idea that scarcity is central, something that Stanford would question.

In our own time, the modern day ideological spin on scarcity is "austerity."  Austerity, said Stanford, is "the response of the rich and powerful to the effects of the financial meltdown which they caused in 2008. The wealthy gambled with other people's money. Then they take advantage of moments of crisis, which they caused, to reinforce their position. They try to promote an ideology of powerlessness.

Stanford said that there is nothing preordained about economics, and that the old phrase that "it's all a matter of supply and demand" isn't so.  Wealth comes from gifts of nature and physical and mental work. Our Gross Domestic Product comes from human effort. The economic crisis of 2008 wasn't caused by working people, but by private finance, speculation, and profit-driven credit creation. Instead of subsidizing the problem, government should solve it.

"What is scarce?" Stanford asked. Not capital; companies in  Canada are sitting on 600 billion dollars of capital. Not revenues; governments can raise money in various ways. Not people; two million Canadians are unemployed if you include those waiting for jobs to start, involuntary part-timers and those who have given up the search and therefore don't appear in the statistics. "The only thing scarce," concluded Stanford, "is our ability to work and the ability to ensure that the fruits of our labour are used to better the human condition." Stanford contended that if we put two million Canadian back to work, each would produce labour worth $100,000 per worker per year in productivity. This would produce a Gross Domestic Product of $200 billion. The government share would be $70 billion; therefore, concerns about government debt wouldn't hold us back.

The Conservatives are not good managers of the economy, Stanford said. In the five years since 2008, Canada's population has grown by 2 million. Employment has decreased if we consider the number of employable people. Job creation under the Conservatives has failed.

To the Conservatives' claim that Canada's economy survived the 2008 crisis better than other economies in the world, Stanford said, "I don't think so." The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) employment rate ranks us Number 20 out of 34, in the lower half of the countries with the largest economies. 'As for productivity, Canada has had the worst productivity performance in history under Harper.

Canada's free trade agreements are not working for us, Stanford contended: Exports as a share of our GDP have declined during the Harper years.

The worst claim made by conservatives, [both small c and big C] in Stanford's view, is that corporate tax cuts stimulate investment. Tax cuts to corporations equal 12 billion dollars a year, money "thrown down a deep dark hole leaving us nothing to show for it... We have spent $4 on tax cuts for every dollar the business community has put in," he said. This, in his view, ought to be a bigger scandal than the current Senate scandal.

The answer for Canada is that we do more work and do it more valuably. Under the Conservatives, work is being devalued and the environment is being destroyed.
How to fight back? Stanford suggested four ways:
. Debunk the ideology of austerity. (For example, Bay Street has been arguing to take away the public pension system, and already, for no good reason, the age of eligibility has been raised to 67.)
. Reject the human and social consequences of austerity.
. Increase the political cost on those who push austerity.
. Remember that work is the answer, not gambling on changes in prices of paper assets. Demand our right to work.

To build a winning movement, Canadians must educate, organize and mobilize, and we must do it better.  Education involves exposing the flaws of the current system. Organizing means helping Canadians fight for their rights, using new organizing models like internet campaigning. Mobilizing means picking winnable battles and fighting focused and disciplined battles. (Stanford suggested that a fight for expansion of the Canada Pension Plan would be winnable even without the defeat of the Con. government, because the RRSP model of a pension plan has failed.)

Stanford spoke of UNIFOR, the largest private sector union in Canada, formed on Labour Day 2013 with the merger of the Canadian Auto Workers and the Canadian Electrical and Paperworkers.  Unifor has 300,000 members in 20 sectors of the economy.  It is also the largest union in ares regulated by the federal government.

Unifor has a new structure, with regional and industry councils. Ten per cent of all revenues are going to organizing. Its president, Gerry Diaz, is an example of the new leadership being brought forward in the union. An advertising campaign has been launched to reboot the image of unions as a force fighting for all workers
The formation of "community chapters" in Unifor is a new development for trade unions and is intended to broaden the base. Any group of workers with a common economic interest and a desire to fight for change can join the union. They don't have to be members of a certified bargaining unit as used to be the case. Freelancers, people in non-traditional jobs, anyone doing precarious work can join with dues set at a lower rate than those members in certified bargaining units. The community chapters can be nation-wide; for example, there is one for freelancers in the media industry, and, possibly, there will be one for ministers in the United Church of Canada.

Stanford concluded that the system, not ourselves, should be on trial, and that we should go on the offensive and be audacious. [He gave similar advice to young people facing bleak employment prospects when he appeared as a panellist on "The National" of December 3, 2013. The other three panelists, from the right of the political spectrum, focused on personal solutions, advising young people to take the "right" subjects in school, network, take any job and reduce their expectations.]

During the Q and A period, Stanford got more deeply into the problems with free trade, and potentially with CETA. (At present, CETA is an agreement in principle that no one has ever seen.) The conventional wisdom that free trade is always good is problematic, because the agreements allow corporations to sue governments. It's really about more power to the corporations.

Stanford believes in trade; that is, local production of valuable goods that the world wants to buy. Instead of "pillaging the environment", which isn't currently growing the economy, he recommends "less extraction, more value-added, and clean-up of pollution sites."

I left the convention thinking that Stanford's speech, and the panel presentation in the afternoon, were well worth the price of admission - that is, the conference fee - which my husband kindly paid as an anniversary present for me. One sign of a good presentation is that the audience is left wanting more. Of course there are books and the Internet. But I wish the CBC would give more time (one might say "fair coverage" or "equal time") to the viewpoints I heard that day at the conference.

National Farmers' Union Conference, Part 1

I didn't tell many friends that we were going to the National Farmers' Union conference in Ottawa, November 2 to 30, 2013, because I didn't want to deal with their astonishment. They know we live in an Ottawa townhouse with a back yard the size of a living room, where our last tomato plant was devoured by slugs. We are hardly farmers.

So why attend the NFU conference? Because farm concerns are our concerns. Assuring the country of a safe reliable food supply should be a concern of all Canadians. Although I have not lived on a farm for years, I grew up on a mixed farm in Northern Ontario and a member of the extended family farms the property that my grandparents pioneered on. Attending the conference was a way of honouring the past and keeping current with important issues.

The conference was held in the Travelodge Ottawa. When we registered we received as part of our convention package a copy of the NFU 2012 policy statement, a booklet available from the national office of the NFU at 2717 Wentz Avenue, Saskatoon, SK, S7K 4B6, 306-653-9465,

"We must address ourselves to the solving of human problems created in a technical age," the statement beings. "Our capacity for food production is functioning at less than maximum while malnutrition and poverty continue to prevail in large sectors of the Canadian population and much of the world...It is in the best interests of our nation to maintain a sound rural community on the strength of an efficient and economic farming industry and broadly based ownership and control by farm families of the basic resources for food production."
"Growing Resistance" was the conference theme. Panel presentations followed by discussion were presented on the subjects of: "Resistance and Dissent in a Healthy Society"; "Rooted in Resistance: Food Sovereignty"; :Our Seeds, Ourselves"; "Seed Sovereignty"; "Feeding the World: Countering the Corporate Spin" and "Big Oil Versus Food Sovereignty: Threats to Food, Land and Water."

My favourite panel presentation was the one on "Resistance and Dissent in a Healthy Society". I was interested in seeing in person the panellist Dave Oswald Mitchell, former editor of Briarpatch, who used to publish my book reviews. More recently he co-authored Beautiful Trouble. I was also eager to hear from Sheelah McLean of Idle No More, and Anne McGrath, former chief of staff to Jack Layton, the late leader of the New Democratic Party.

I took notes during their presentations, and below is my distillation of what they had to say.

Mitchell, who spoke first, talked about Beautiful Trouble, a book and website he created with co-author Andrew Boyd. The information on the site is free to share, and is an ongoing project. Anyone with ideas about effective techniques for political organizing  may contribute. The book and website are about "what works and why it works." The site has four sections: Principles, Tactics, Theories and Case Studies. Among the  Principles are: "Choose your target wisely"; "Choose leadership from among those most impacted" and "Shift the spectrum of allies."

Mitchell spoke about "points of intervention"; that is, the wisdom of intervening where you have the greatest impact, like holding a strike at the point of production, an environmental demonstration at the site of destruction, or a boycott at the point of consumption.

Regarding tactics, Mitchell emphasized the value of "reframing the issue." He explained that if you give people information that doesn't fit their world frame, they will discard the information unless you present an alternative world view to them. Rather than just protest the status quo, it's good to "prefigure" your vision of a different, better future.

I wished that Mitchell had more time for his presentation and hope that people at the conference went home and looked up Beautiful Trouble on the Internet.

Sheelah McLean, of the Idle No More movement, spoke next. From some Internet research I learned that she describes herself as a "third generation white settler"; she is not an indigenous person. She is an educator and Ph.D. candidate focusing her studies on colonization, racism and the effect of these forces on communities. When she taught native studies in high school her aboriginal students kept talking about the racism they experienced in the school and community," and she developed an organization called "Students against Racism." She is one of four women colleagues who co-founded Idle No More by setting up  a website and tweeting about the idea. The other three co-founders, Nina Wildon, Sylvia McAdam and Jessica Gordon are aboriginal women.

Sheelah McLean began her talk by speaking of her paternal grandfather, Gus Olson, a farmer who ran as a CCF candidate in Saskatchewan, and who organized a system of community health care prior to Tommy Douglas's Medicare. Members of McLean's extended family still farm near Wadena, SK. Her family's success has been due not only to their hard work, but also because they had access to a number of government policies, programs and institutions that helped them, such as health care and public education. Success or failure in our society is not entirely dependent on people's work ethic.

McLean said that people in Canada have always had to fight for their rights and that the unions, now demonized by the right and in the media, have been crucial in this fight.Inequality and poverty are "legislated", she said. They happen because of policy. Canadians are socialized to believe that inequality and poverty are normal. She, and the Idle No More movement, see public education about inequality as central to change. In her view, teachers being trained today are not being given what they need to teach students how to push back.

Idle No More, said McLean, is a movement for everyone; both aboriginal and non-aboriginal people want to stop Canada from being turned into an "extractive state." She mentioned the warning signs of fascism - the dismantling of unions, the militarization of society, and the privatization of formerly public institutions. How many of these signs do we have in Canada? The trend toward an "extractive state" with cuts to the social safety net began prior to the Harper administration and will still be harmful if they continue when Harper is no longer prime minister.

The final panellist was Anne McGrath, who spoke of resistance and dissent from the electoral perspective. As former chief of staff to Jack Layton. McGrath is credited with  professionalizing caucus operations and contributing to the NDP's historic breakthrough to Official Opposition status in 2011. From 2006 to 2009 she was NDP party president. Previously she was an activist and a trade union employee.

McGrath outlined key things to keep in mind when planning any campaign, whether it be on an issue, in an election, or in Parliament.
The first is "message clarity." There is no room in a campaign for a complicated "layered and nuanced" message. The message must be clear, compelling, with strong visuals, and the campaign must stick to it.
"Focus" is next: "Don't get distracted, and don't listen when people say, "It's time to let that go."
"Be broad-based in enlisting support," she added. "Don't focus on what divides us progressives, but on what we have in common."
Finally, strong values are necessary. "We must not become what we want to defeat."

I wrinkled my brow at this last point because earlier, she recommended Brad Lavigne's Building the Orange Wave, a book about the strategy and tactics that brought the NDP to official opposition status. While reading Lavigne's book I winced a couple of times where it appeared that tactics came ahead of principles.

McGrath ended by quoting Jack Layton's deathbed letter to Canadians, which ended, "Don't let them tell you it can't be done."  In the question and answer period that followed the presentation, most of the questions were directed at McGrath.  Many of the questions were critical, even hostile, and I admired her for her calmness and even temper.

Two audience members suggested that the (official opposition) New Democrats and the (third party) Liberals should work together to defeat the Conservative government. (Presumably they imagine a 2015 election resulting in the NDP and Liberals together, but not separately, having enough members to form a government. Or perhaps they picture some sort of NDP Liberal cooperation during the election. Apparently they don't imagine the NDP will win a majority government.)

McGrath replied that, in 2008, when Jack Layton succeeded in getting all the Liberal and NDP members of Parliament to agree to the terms of a coalition, to form a government to replace the Harper Cons., Michael Ignatieff, then Liberal leader, walked away from it.  If all the coalition members had stayed strong and stuck with what had been agreed upon, the coalition wouldn't have collapsed, but that the Liberals thought "they could do it alone" - that is, defeat Harper.

One questioner said he didn't care about 2008 but only about 2015. Calmly and courteously, McGrath explained again that there is currently no interest on the part of the Liberals to work with the NDP, as shown by Justin Trudeau's remarks following the Toronto Centre by-election. Trudeau quoted from Layton's famous deathbed letter to Canadians and turned his words about love, hope and optimism against the NDP.

The woman at the microphone, who called for "cooperation between our two progressive parties", and the other three convention participants who questioned McGrath along these lines may have been Liberals. One questioner accused the NDP of overreacting to, (or was it "obsessing" over) Justin Trudeau's appropriation of Layton's message. McGrath said, calmly and politely, that the NDP wasn't, and pointed that Olivia Chow's reaction was very low key; she said she was "disappointed."

One elderly man at the mike lectured McGrath about debating techniques, telling her that she should concede a few points to her opponent, and then objected to "partisan politics" at a NFU convention. Someone should have reminded him that McGrath did not show up uninvited, that NFU conference organizers asked her to appear on the panel.

One audience member asked why the NDP was not taking a stronger stand against CETA, the "Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement" between Europe and Canada, which, he believed, will be harmful to farmers. McGrath said that the NDP wanted to see what was in the trade agreement before coming out against it. At that point, Dave Mitchell interjected a thought that provided a good conclusion to the discussion. He said: "Our strength within the system is only as strong as our strength outside it."

More about the NFU conference in my next blog.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Three book reviews

My review of Cherry  Smyth's excellent novel about Jo Hiffernan, a mid 19th century artist,  the muse and model of Whistler and Courbet, appears at a-review-of-hold-still-by-cherry-smyth/

My review of Stephen Endicott's  history of the Canadian Workers' Unity League, Raising the Workers' Flag, is in the current issue of The Monitor (the publication of the Canadian Council for Policy Alternatives.)

Below is my review of  Ian McKay's 2005 book, Rebels, Reds, Radicals:

Queen's University history professor Ian McKay wrote Rebels, Reds, Radicals: Rethinking Canada's Left History (Toronto, Between the Lines, 2005, 978-1-896357-97-3) as an introduction to a multi-volume history of the Canadian left. Since its purpose is to provide an analytical framework and conceptual scheme, Rebels, Reds Radicals lacks the engaging storytelling of his subsequent books, including the recent Warrior Nation: Rebranding Canada in an Age of Anxiety (2012).

Convinced that earlier histories of the Canadian left (unnamed) have been "sentimental', "sectarian" and "scorekeeping", McKay aimed for a non-partisan history. Instead of tracing a leftist formation "vertically"; that is, from past to present, an approach which has led to judging past efforts by present-day standards, he subscribes to a "horizontal" approach, examining leftist formations undogmatically, in historical context, looking for common elements.

McKay defines a leftist as someone with a vision of a freer, fairer, more democratic society and a willingness to work toward it. He acknowledges that Canada's left has working class origins, but  also flows from other sources, such as certain ethnic diasporas, Canadian nationalism, the women's movement, gay and lesbian radicalism, Christianity, intellectual inquiry and global awareness. To McKay, a "middle class university student" whose involvement begins with a specific issue and leads to a critique of capitalism is "of the left", and his or her leftism is as "solid and real" as anyone else's. "Little personal acts of resistance...are the inaugural gestures of resistance," he says, and "they are not to be minimized."

McKay applies the thought and terminology of Antonio Gramsci, an Italian political theorist and Italian Communist Party founder who died in 1937 in a Fascist prison. Gramsci believed that capitalism maintained control of society, not just through coercion and violence, but also through developing a hegemony - a culture and atmosphere in which the norms and values of laissez-faire liberalism became accepted by all classes.  Canada, founded in the 1800s at the peak of British laissez-faire liberalism, is a "liberal hegemony." Daily, in the media, we are bombarded with messages about the wonderfulness of our economic and political system.

As well as introducing a new historical approach, McKay addresses big troubling social issues like poverty, the environment, and the transformation of "almost every human activity into a dollars and cents proposition." he urges resistance to liberal hegemony through a "war of position" (challenging policies and changing minds) on a hundred fronts simultaneously. Leftists should be alert for "matrix" events (crises) comparable to the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike or the stock market crash of 1929. Matrix evens call out for "great moments of refusal" on the part of the left, and create moments of truth (supersedure) in which the ugly side of capitalism is exposed.

Consumer choices, which one might think would be minor in the war of position, are highighted:

"We might vow to frequent only family-owned eateries or shop at small independent stores in the downtown core," McKay writes. "We might resolve only to buy from our local organic farmer and boycott all branded merchandise. These kinds of personal decisions capture an authentic, resistant vision of an 'otherwise." They create small spaces of personal critique and freedom...It might begin with small collective acts, such as no-shopping days, or local campaigns to stop the spread of Wal-Marts, but to be truly of the left, it must connect these acts to a larger strategy...It must see every struggle as a partial answer to a much bigger question... How can we live differently?"

Well, and good, to a point, but did Antonio Gramsci, or our own Tommy Douglas inspire others and advance the left through shopping? This passage seems aimed at the middle class student whom McKay addresses earlier. McKay does not understand that lower-income Canadians like Wal-Mart for its one-stop convenience and low prices. His middle class perspective reappears in his discussion of the working class as being just one of many roots of the Canadian left.  Certainly he is right that the industrial proletariat was and is  neither a majority of the population nor united in its support of the left. No one can quarrel with his acknowledgement that workers interests and leftist projects often coincide and overlap, or his assertion that if the left "arrogantly writes of the workers... it misses one of its best opportunities to speak to a wider constituency."  Yet I am not sure if McKay sees the potential in a newer proletariat, the (largely unorganized) minimum wage workers, part-timers, unemployed and under-employed, to whom the left should speak - and listen.  Back in 1937, George Orwell wrote of the "far larger class of office workers and ... employees of all kinds [who] would certainly not thank you if you called them proletarians...[but] have the same interests and the same enemies as the working class. All are being robbed and bullied by the same system." (George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier, Penguin, 1937.)

In applying Gramsci to Canada, McKay replaces the old left vocabulary with Gramsci's. Instead of "crises" in the capitalist system, McKay writes of "matrix moments." Instead of "epiphanies" or "moments of insight", we have "moments of supersedure" followed by "moments of systemization" (strategic withdrawal.)  Left-leaning readers unassociated with academia may find this terminology tedious. One cumbersome vocabulary has been replaced with another.

Orwell wrote in 1937:

"When the ordinary person hears phrases like bourgeois ideology and proletarian solidarity, and expropriation of the expropriators he is not inspired by them, he is merely disgusted...[Less talk] about the sacred sisters thesis, antithesis and synthesis, and more about justice, liberty and the plight of the unemployed.

Despite these criticisms, McKay has produced a thought-provoking work. At times he seems to be preaching to the choir - or to his middle class undergraduate students - he deserves praise for reminding Canadians that alternatives to the status quo have been and can be imagined..

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Called up on the Carpet

Last Sunday at noon I was called up on the carpet. Being put on the spot and required to account for oneself is an experience that usually happens when one is  a child or teenager. As I've grown older, the number of authority figures in my life has fallen off considerably, so being asked to explain myself was a mildly unpleasant surprise.

The situation was this:  Back in the fall of 2012, my husband, Roger, and I decided to give church a try, so we found a house of worship of the liberal Protestant denomination in which we were both raised, and attended about six times.  I also got involved in a marginal way with one church group and attended three or four meetings. In the spring of 2013 we decided not to attend any more, for a variety of good reasons. I unsubscribed from the emailed weekly bulletin. We had forged no strong ties, and I hoped that, once the summer had passed, our absence would not be noticed.

Then, one Sunday this October, our doorbell rang and I found a sweet, elderly church pillar standing in the rain, hand-delivering the church newsletter. I said I was sorry he'd come out in the rain, especially since we didn't plan to return, that church "wasn't working for us" - a nice non-committal phrase I'd learned from watching Oprah. He said that was O.K. I felt a twinge of sadness that our attempt at  participation in a community hadn't been more satisfactory, but life is short, and when you get older you have to set priorities.

Then, at noon last Sunday, the minister of the church phoned us and wondered WHY we wanted to be "taken off the church rolls." I hadn't realized we were actually on the church rolls; I thought we hadn't gotten to that stage yet. Anyhow, I said that church "wasn't working out for us" so we had decided to quit, and  I preferred not going into the reasons.  The minister persisted, pressing me for an explanation. So finally I told her that the services were not uplifting, nor did they reflect the new historical approach to the Bible (as in the work of John Dominic Crossan and others.) I added that we couldn't afford to support the church financially in the way it seemed to want to be supported.

She said she appreciated my candour and I hoped the uncomfortable discussion was at an end. Then she said she understood I'd written "one or two books" (more like "fourteen or fifteen") and  wanted to tell me about her writing career. I finally said I hadn't wanted  this conversation but had hoped to quietly fade away, and I got off the line.

The experience left me jarred. It reminded me once again of our failed attempt to find a group of people where we fit in. I also had a childish feeling that I may have disappointed some of my older relatives who were staunch Christians and church-goers, and who might be looking down at me from on high.

I talked to three women friends about being "called on the carpet."  One said she was thankful she was Jewish, because Jews don't proselytise.  Another said that she was not a believer, but that she knew there were many people around, unaffiliated with churches, who were religious "on their own terms." She added that she thought the minister was pretty bold to have phoned us at home.

The third friend, a faithful member of another mainstream Protestant church, said that she used to attend a church of the denomination that we'd tried, and that the members had been very much "on her case", always saying, "We missed you last Sunday," or "You have to make time for God," when she was absent. Her present church, she says, doesn't pester people.

Back in the fall of 2012 I mentioned to one of my nieces that we were giving church a try. "I'd like to find a place where everybody knows your name and everyone is glad you came," I told her. She said, "Ruth, that's a line from the theme song of the TV show, Cheers. Cheers was not a church, but a bar."

Friday, October 18, 2013

Red Wolf by Jennifer Dance

My review of Jennifer Dance's new teen novel, Red Wolf, has been published today (Oct. 18, 2013) in the online magazine Canadian Materials,

Red Wolf is a wonderful and troubling novel about the impact of the Indian Act of 1876 and the residential schools system upon First Nations people in Canada. The novel centres on Mishqua Ma'een'gun, or Red Wolf, and follows him from the age of five, when his family goes on a reserve, to his mid-teens when he is released from a residential school. The co-protagonist is an actual red wolf who is the boy's friend and companion,  whose pariah status and hard life parallels the boy's, and who underlines the connection between the boy and the natural world.

Jennifer Dance excels in getting inside her characters, and also in conveying levels of meaning. There are many more good things I could say about her novel, but I have said many of them in the review, and urge you to read it, and to read the book.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Deliberately diminished

A while ago I wrote about a friend/ fellow author who felt that a reviewer had intentionally made her seem less than she is by omitting her most significant academic accomplishments in his review and highlighting an achievement which was minor by comparison.

 I thought of my friend the other day in connection with Mudwoman, a novel by Joyce Carol Oates, published last year.  Mudwoman is terrifying, gripping, and insightful re. the conflicts suffered by women who try to excel  and make the most of their talents and abilities.  Later I used a search engine to find out what's new with Ms. Oates, whose work I have admired for many years. (See my blog last year about A Widow's Story.)

My search took me to an interview with Oates published in The Guardian. (See  The interviewer asked her what was the worst thing anyone had ever said about her. Oates spoke of the occasion when a play she'd written was produced in New York City. A newspaper in Detroit, where she was then living, ran the headline, "Detroit housewife writes play".  Oates was a university professor at the time. Then, later, when she won a book award, a well-known magazine headlined its article about her:  "Shy faculty wife...." Oates' husband was indeed chair of an English department at the time, but she was a mature writer and had been a professor for ten years.

It doesn't seem to matter how well-known and accomplished you are as a writer; you'll sooner or later encounter a reviewer who will deliberately diminish your achievements and categorize you in some way that makes you less than what you really are.  Should my friend have confronted the reviewer who made her seem less than she is?  I'm not sure.

Meanwhile, I'm going to reread Mudwoman, and I urge you to do so too. It's excellent.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Canadian Materials reviewed The Songcatcher and Me

Darleen Golke reviewed The Songcatcher and Me in the September 6th 2013 edition of the online magazine, Canadian Materials and rated the book "Highly Recommended."  Golke said, in part:

"Latta skilfully captures life in rural Ontario in the 1950s and provides insights into daily life and the importance of the corner [sic] store and its offerings to the community. The visits to nearby Juniper Township where Alice interviews elderly Mr. Vaughan and records  his song contributions is well-detailed, as is a community dance... Sheila, a nicely realized blend of optimism and trepidation about her future, emerges as a likeable teen trying to understand her role in the family and her world.... The introduction of Alice Common, a "modern" young woman for the 1950s who has a career, is happily married but childless by choice, and interacts intelligently with fellow academics opens new vistas for Sheila. Written for young adults, The Songcatcher and Me reminds adult readers of the emotional roller coaster teenagers ride...

You can access the entire review at

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

sequel to "The Songcatcher and Me"

When a friend of mine was in hospital, I gave her a copy of my new novel, The Songcatcher and Me (Ottawa, Baico, 2013, $20 ISBN 978-1-927482-36-3) She shared it with her fellow patients, and told me that everyone  liked it, including the folk song lyrics.  This and other positive reaction inspired me to continue the story of Sheila, her grandmother, her boyfriend, and the songcatcher, Alice, so during the hot days this past summer I took refuge in the basement and started work on a sequel to The Songcatcher and Me. In this sequel, Sheila will be older, seventeen going on eighteen, and in her final year of high school, facing decisions and the fears of a fledgling about to take wing. I have a general idea of the plot but I've only just begun.

The sequel will not involve as much about folk song collecting as did The Songcatcher and Me, but the plot requires one lyric in the style of an old-time sentimental ballad, so I have written the following poem for use in the sequel:

A mother on her sickbed lay;
She knew her day was nearly done.
A ship was due to sail away
and carry off her only son.

"I wish for you a warmer clime,
a haven from the stormy blast,
and roses in the winter time
and may your first love be your last.

"I pray that you will live and thrive
and any sorrow soon will mend,
abundant honey from each hive,
a pot of gold at rainbow's end."

"Oh, Mother, dear, we both well know
there's no such thing as rainbow gold,
or roses in the winter snow
or hearts still whole when we are old.

"But you have taught me to rejoice
and do my best, enjoy each day,
and memories of your loving voice
will stay with me and guide my way."

(c) Ruth Latta, 2013

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Latest review in Compulsive Reader

My review of Sarah Weinman's book, Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives (Penguin, 2013), about women crime fiction writers of the '40s, '50s, '60s and '70s, is now in Compulsive Reader. The link is below:

Thursday, July 11, 2013

We wish them well

Like so many people all over the world, we have been following news reports on Nelson Mandela's health. For someone of mature years like me, who remembers too well the evil days when the apartheid regime in South Africa had him in prison, it is sad to see him decline. It seemed like a miracle when he was freed.

One spring day some years ago during the Mulroney administration, I heard on the news that Nelson and Winnie Mandela, who had been visiting Canada, could be seen in person, if not close up, if we stood at a fence at the \Ottawa airport, from which they were flying home.  My husband and I drove out to the area, parked by the side of the road, and stood with people from a variety of ethnic backgrounds who wanted a glimpse of the Mandelas. Eventually they appeared, with the Mulroneys, and greeted some of the people at the fence, but we didn't see them close up as we were too far away. The Mulroneys seemed to believe that all the.. people had come out to see them, and they kept waving and moving in front of the Mandelas,obstructing our view of them.

Eventually both couples went inside a building after a final wave. On our way back to the car we passed a young couple, and heard a girl exclaim, with joy, "These hands were touched by Winnie's!"

Time has passed and a lot has happened. In light of things that came out of the South African Truth and Reconciliation hearings, there's a certain irony about that girl being so thrilled to have touched Winnie's hands.

I have always been glad we went to see the .Mandelas, even if it was at a distance. We respect  and honour the love and grief being expressed by South Africans these days, and we wish them and their country well.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

New reviews

My review of Luanne Rice's new novel, The Lemon Orchard, has just been published online in Compulsive Reader,

My review of Charlie Angus's non-fiction book, Unlikely Radicals, is in the June issue of the CCPA Monitor.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Be Glad They Spelled Your Name Right

A writer friend of mine was sharing her concerns about marketing her recently published novel.  Getting reviews is always a challenge. I'm fortunate in receiving  three reviews, so far, of The Songcatcher and Me.

My friend had eagerly awaited a review of her book, but, when it appeared, it fell short of her hopes. She doesn't think the reviewer actually read the book, but instead, read the beginning chapter, then flipped to the end,  read that, and completely missed the part that was potentially controversial. "Or maybe the reviewer was trying to do me a favour by making my book look bland," she thought.

Included in the book was her bio note, mentioning her graduate degree, which was relevant to the subject matter. The reviewer truncated the bio note with the result that she appears less well-educated than she is.

The same sort of thing used to happen to me when I was published in the (now-defunct) annual of a writer's organization. My bio note was always edited so that my strongest accomplishments as a writer were omitted.  I suspected that the editor felt threatened by my accomplishments and wanted me to seem less of a writer than I was.  As a book reviewer for Compulsive Reader and Canadian Materials, I know that it's quite possible to present an author's best achievements truthfully yet briefly in a review, and I always try to do so.

The final straw was that the reviewer screwed up the information as to how to buy the book. Since the periodical appears infrequently, a correction isn't going to do much good.

"Be glad they spelled your name right," I said.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Compulsive Reader

Compulsive Reader is an online book review magazine edited by Magdalena Ball. My reviews of other writers' books frequently appear in it . In the current issue, Lorna Foreman's review of my new book,
 The Songcatcher and Me, has been published Also appearing is my review of Barbara Abercrombie's book,  Kicking in the Wall, on the craft of writing.

To read these reviews and others, the simplest thing to do is to Google Compulsive and click on "Book Reviews."

Thursday, May 9, 2013

A song from The Songcatcher and Me

Ottawa singer/songwriter Pat Moore,,  took one of the song lyrics from my new novel, The Songcatcher and Me (Ottawa, Baico, 2013, $20,  and set it to music. Visit her website to hear her singing, "Beneath White Sails He'll Fly."  Also check out the information about Pat's Ottawa Opry for Amnesty International to be held this June.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Lorna Forman likes The Songcatcher and Me

Lorna Forman, a columnist for Ottawa's Fifty-five Plus magazine, and the author of two books,
Wheat Watchers: a recipe book for gluten intolerant appetites, and When Life Becomes Real, has reviewed my new novel, The Songcatcher and Me. She writes:

The Songcatcher and Me, (Ottawa, Baico, $20, ISBN 978-1-927481-36-3, is a most delightful read. While written for teens and young adults, it captivated me and took me back to my youth - those years of so many conflicting emotions: boredom, feeling like one doesn't fit into society, and not sure what one wants.

As a result of a tragedy, Sheila goes to live with her grandmother and her son, Sheila's Uncle Cam. It is summer, school is out, and Sheila does not have friends. Thrust into an uneasy relationship between her grandmother and her uncle, she has to help by working in the family's country store.

Her uncle is a frustrated, unhappy man. It is obvious he put his dreams on the back burner to help his mother carry on the business. She has a weak heart and so Sheila is a godsend. Uncle Cam toils away at the mechanics side of the business and his only joy is restoring an old car.

The term "songcatcher" is a beautiful word to describe the passion for archiving the old folk tunes that followed people as they came to settle in North America. The fascinating subtle differences of the different regions come to life. When Alice Common, the songcatcher, arrives at the country store, she captures the imagination of Sheila, who is so happy when Alice wants to hire her. Uncle Cam sets up resistance. He is not a mean man but feels it is silly to set up dreams that one cannot achieve.

Ruth Latta captures the excitement instilled in Sheila by Alice. Alice is an example of a completely different life style than Sheila knows. She is childless by choice and her husband is very much an equal partner, a rarity in the 1950s and '60s.

Without realizing the impact she is making, the song catcher has an influence on the outcome of the story. The grandmother is one of the singers that  Alice records and she even goes to a festival to sing, a dream she would never have thought possible. She encourages Sheila and also her son to follow their dreams. Uncle Cam finishes fixing up the old car, sells it, and gets a job that he loves in the big city. The grandmother sells the store, goes tolive in town, and Sheila is given inspiration to follow her dream.

I found myself examining my life at the present time as to what dreams I had when I, too, was fourteen years old. I was more than pleasantly surprised to realize that I did fulfill most of them even though it was, at times, a real fight to do so, and the path was never straight and it was certainly bumpy... but I did. "The Songcatcher and Me" is a gentle story of following one's dreams. For a young person, it is a fine tale to encourage dreams and also the need to work for them... they just don't arrive on your doorstep.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Louise Rachlis writes: "The Songcatcher and Me" catches a glimpse of rural 1950s life"

It's a happy day for me. My new novel, The Songcatcher and Me (Ottawa, Baico, 2013, ISBN 978-1-927481-36-3, $20) has just been published, and below is Louise Rachlis's review of it.  Louise used to work for the Ottawa Citizen and some years ago, when she edited the seniors' supplements, I wrote articles for her.

The Songcatcher and Me catches a glimpse of rural 1950s life

By Louise Rachlis

Cotton capri pants and a sleeveless white blouse, cotton print house dresses with a hand knit cardigan, wringer washers, old cars, clunky tape recorders and typewriters, rock ‘n roll taking over the airwaves…Ruth Latta’s new book The Songcatcher and Me is an interlude on a porch swing, and the clothes set the tone for this 1950s tale.

Like the journalist in his twenties interviewing “Grandma” in the story who “acts astonished that an old woman can actually talk, let alone sing”, this book links two generations.

It is impressive that Ruth has written her own lyrics in the style of traditional music, as she weaves a story of a “songcatcher’s” visit to a country store as the songcatcher travels around collecting folk songs.

The Songcatcher and Me is a young adult novel with a 14-year-old narrator, but it is also a strong older adult novel with a 1950s setting of interest to those who will enjoy reliving their own early years.

The rural background will be of interest to those totally unfamiliar with it, and also to readers who are indeed familiar with the challenges of running a rural store. My own grandfather ran a general store in a small Saskatchewan town and my mother told me similar stories of farmers who paid their bills with chickens or credit.

The grandchild/grandmother interaction is a positive example for young readers in a time when such contact is rarer.

Louise Rachlis is an Ottawa writer, and author of Feeling Good: Life lessons from my friends available on .

Sunday, March 17, 2013

EYO- The People, a new book by Donella Dunlop

A review of Eyo - the People

by Donella Dunlop

reviewed by Ruth Latta

With her latest novel, Eyo - the People, Donella Dunlop has moved from historical novels about the Ottawa Valley to a new genre, "PF", "prehistoric fiction". Eyo is about the first clan to come to North America after the last Ice Age, journeying from Siberia to Alaska on a land bridge across the Bering Strait. Geologists estimate that this land bridge formed during the Wisconsin Glaciation period, which began 75,000 years ago and ended about 14,000 years ago.

Palaeoanthropology is better developed today than ever before, but it is a field with gaps which can be filled only through speculation and stories. Prehistoric fiction is more like science fiction than like historical fiction in that both sci-fi and PF have a scientific basis, yet involve a great deal of speculation and imagination.

"I have condensed a lot of history into the lifetimes of my clan," Dunlop told me, "and I don't imagine that any one clan made such a long journey in one lifetime. However, with a novelist's licence, mine did just that." Dunlop carefully researched the North of 12,000 years ago, including details about inventions and archaeological finds. With each archaeological find or technical development (like Che's invention of the toboggan) the story changes.

In offering a scenario of what earlier human beings were like, Dunlop's novel compares favourably with famous works in the PF genre, such as William Golding (The Inheritors, 1955) and Jean Aeul, (Clan of the Cave Bear, 1980.) Dunlop shows a courageous, inventive and spiritual people. She offers a picture of the daily life, religion, social structure and family life of the early ancestors of native people.

At the beginning of the novel, the central character appears to be Noha, who is "spirit chosen"; that is, he has prophetic dreams like Joseph in the Bible. He dreams that "the Eyo - the people - must follow the Eastern game trails along the Endless Lake. In time, the Eyo shall cross a spirit bridge and come to a land of mountains where no man creature dwells....lakes wider than the eyes can see and grassy plains thick with bison. One day, the Eyo shall find a hidden valley and there they shall dwell forever."

As the Eyo trek across the Bering Strait, a motherless girl, Che, enters the story and eventually becomes co-protagonist. Che wishes that her womanly role involved more equality and more variety; for instance, she would like to go hunting. Mated with Noha, she realizes that she would prefer a man interested in her thoughts, rather than just her work and her sexual services. She is hurt when Noha refuses to discuss his plans with her, telling her that it is not her place to ask questions and that he and his brother scouts will make the decisions.

When Europeans arrived in North America they found that among some native cultures, particularly the clans of the Eastern Woodlands, women enjoyed extensive powers and rights, particularly with regard to the governing of the clan. Some writings about early social structures associate the subjugation of women with a group's change from hunting/gathering to agriculture, which brought with it the concept of private property. The Eyo are hunter-gatherers, a society gradually learning to respect the wisdom and experience of women.

In Noha and Che's culture, men, not women, are considered the spiritual, visionary ones, but Che is a spiritual person who tests the customs of her clan. When a polar bear kills a young child, Che volunteers to go as cook with the hunting party pursuing the bear. Noha is away exploring; his brother is one of the hunters tracking the bear. In capturing the bear, her "brother-in-law" is wounded, and when Che sews up his wounds and nurses him back to health, the attraction which each has felt for the other comes to a peak. Sheltered in a tent framed by a whale skeleton, he tells her, "This time shall be our own." Part of Che's reason for being attracted to him is that he's interested in her thoughts. On returning to the clan encampment, they treat each other as respectful inlaws. Soon after that, when the clan splits into three groups, her brother-in-law is chosen to head another band, and they part, never to see each other again.

Che gradually embraces her role as clan mother and tries to raise her son, Rin, not to "think himself the center of his own world." She has a duty to the help the younger women of the clan find mates, but is in dismay when the Stonefish band camps in the same valley as her clan, the Fox group.

Are the Stonefish people less evolved than the Eyo? (One thinks of The Inheritors, in which Neanderthals meet Homo Sapiens.) When Noha and another hunter first encounter a Stonefish man they think he is a creature, not a man. They describe him as "big, ugly, hairy-footed with rheumy eyes peering from narrowly slit lids" and "robed from head to foot in filthy brown bearskins" even though it is hot. They communicate via drawings and gestures and learn that his people, too, crossed the spirit bridge. Che finds the Stonefish people, a band of about twenty members, to be crude, violent and lascivious, but realizing that the young men and women of her clan need mates, she supports and encourages some pairings.

Another hint of the presence of other early people comes when the Eyo are at the "confluence of the Grandfather of Rivers" at Nahanni. Laf, one of their clansmen, is called out of his tent at night by Nahanni (a spirit) and in the morning his headless body is found with "strange humanoid footprints around him."

Dunlop's cliffhanger chapter endings keep readers looking ahead; for instance, after Che discovers a strange malleable metal (gold) and is allowed to fashion it into a pendant, we are told that it will comfort her on "the terrible journey to come." When introducing a new animal, Dunlop piques our interest by describing it in its own words, or as the Eyo would have seen it, before she tells us what it is. For instance:

"Another nomadic hunter rules the tundra. He is Nanook, Monarch of the Northland. As fearlessly confident as the Eyo, and easily as cunning, he is infinitely more majestic. The only creatures willing to approach him are mammoths, killer whales and walruses... When the Eyo first set foot on the North Shore, mighty Nanook and his brethren ranged over the area with impunity."

Eyo - the People, like Dunlop's earlier novels, is full of lyrical descriptions. Noha, for instance, beholds the "lovely luminous lights of frosty blue and emerald that dance and arch and crisscross the black sea vault." As she evokes the natural world that her characters are experiencing, we feel their awe on sighting a herd of woolly mammoths or bison. Near the end of the novel, Che, who is by then an "old" woman according to the life-span of the times, pauses in a forest and sings a touching lyric: "Remember Me".

Although Che longs to settle in one place, she has no choice but to follow Noha in his quest for his valley of dreams. His plan is to keep his people moving southward "until Keewatin [winter] never again keeps them captive in their huts and they dwell forever in a land of light and warmth." Eventually, when the band of fifty reaches the Bow River Valley, he says that it "may" be the place he has been looking for. Meanwhile, when their "stripling" son Rin goes on a vision quest, a voice tells him that his great-grandsons shall see a beautiful eastern valley where they will eventually live. Thus the story comes around to Dunlop's beloved Ottawa Valley.

Dunlop has written a page-turner, appealing to a wide variety of readers, including action/adventure fans, science buffs interested in "early man", and anyone who likes a strong female character with whom a present-day reader can identify.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Pat Moore likes "The Songcatcher and Me"

Ottawa singer/songwriter Pat Moore has read my new novel, The Songcatcher and Me, and has written the following about it:

This believable story draws you into wanting to know what will happen next from a few different perspectives. Written for youth, the story uses "song catching" as a backdrop for telling the reader about life in the '50s, a wholesome story about family dynamics, and, of course, about the importance of keeping our history alive - this time in the form of songs which could otherwise be lost forever. Though I can't claim to be a youth, as a singer/songwriter myself I was drawn into this fun story and its original song lyrics by Ruth Latta.

The Songcatcher and Me, by Ruth Latta, is being published by Baico Publishing Inc., 294 Albert St. Suitre 103, Ottawa, Ontario, K1P 6E6  Email:   The Songcatcher and Me has the ISBN 978-1-927481-36-3

When I dropped off a manuscript copy of The Songcatcher and Me at Pat's for her perusal, I bought one of her CDs: Take it to Heart, by Pat Moore and the Vinyl Frontier. I play it frequently when at my computer. It's available at

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Marriage Plot

The book club at my public library branch will be discussing Jeffrey Eugenides's The Marriage Plot at our next meeting. Prior to reading The Marriage Plot, I knew of Eugenides's work, from seeing the film, The Virgin Suicides, and reading his earlier novel, Middlesex. Gathering my thoughts and notes together for tomorrow, I find little positive to say about The Marriage Plot.

I understand what the marriage plot is, in literature. Indeed, I'm as interested in it as is Madeleine Hanna, one of the three principal characters in Eugenides's novel. Many classics of English literature are about marriage. Two examples are Middlemarch by George Eliot, and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. In "marriage plot" novels the central character, a woman, has experiences, learns about life, and men, and may end up happily married to her soul mate. Or, a classic novel may subvert the marriage plot. Two examples are Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles, and Kate Chopin's The Awakening. , These show the drawbacks, limitations and failures of love and marriage. But in all of these novels, whether they are a journey to a happy marriage or a critique of marriage, the focus is on the woman's journey.   In Hardy's Tess, for instance, Tess is the central character, while the two men she's involved with (Alex and Angel) are supporting characters. Not so in Eugenides's novel. Madeleine is one of three young central charaters, the other two being Leonard Bankhead and Mitchell Grammaticus, but she is not the heroine the way Tess is, or the way Jane Eyre is. The two young men get more space, and the one who gets the most is Mitchell Grammaticus.  The author is interested in the men's journey's (psychological and geographic, respectively) but not so much in Madeleine's.  Madeleine's journey, to the extent that she has one, is through an English department dominated by post-structuralists and deconstructionists. She spends part of the novel in a supporting role to Leonard.

The title also refers to Madeleine's decision to specialize in the Victorian novel, in which the marriage plot predominates. Also, throughout the novel, Mitchell appears to be plotting as to how he can marry Madeleine. But in spite of what Mitchell says to Madeleine at the end about marriage plots, Eugenides's novel is more of a coming of age story, like The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex.

The character I liked least, and the one the author seemed to like most, was Mitchell. The son of immigrant parents, Mitchell thinks he is in love with Madeleine, but it seems to me that he is fascinated by her upper class WASP background, envious of it, and has  love-hate feelings towards her and  what he calls the "big genteel boozy Hanna operation."

Mitchell seeks meaning in life through religion, but on his journey to Europe and India, instead of opening up to amazing sights and experiences, he keeps his nose in religious books and his mind on Madeleine.  His attitude toward Claire, his friend's girlfriend in Paris, is retrograde. When Claire discusses patriarchal attitudes in religion, Mitchell asks her if she's having her period.  We are told: "Under the pretence of becoming a critic of patriarchy, Claire uncritically accepted every fashionable theory that came her way."  Well, maybe, or it might just be that Claire is right! Also, if being immature and opinionated is a crime, then Mitchell is guilty too.

Leonard, Madeleine's friend and eventually, husband, is the most interesting character, because of his "manic depression" ; that is, bipolar disorder. (The novel is set in the 1980s when the former term was used.)  While I found Eugenides's descriptions of Leonard's feelings well-written and fascinating, I wondered what sources of information he used to research the condition.  (It is not verboten for a novelist to offer the reader a bibliography.)   Eugenides writes: "For a while, the disease, which was still nameless at the time, cooed to him. It said, Come closer. It flattered Leonard that he felt more than most people; he was more sensitive, deeper."  Really? I know someone with bipolar disorder who doesn't feel possessed of any special wisdom, but, at times,  feels dragged out and sick.  Is is the prognosis always as gloomy as Eugenides suggests?  Maybe so back in the 1980s.

Stylistically, I didn't like Eugenides's tendency to state what he was going to tell, then to backtrack and fill in the events and details.  This "stating the topic" is fine for a term paper or a speech, where you tell the audience what you're going to say, then say it, and then tell the audience what you said. In fiction, though, I prefer a writer who leads the reader  through the experiences, letting her be surprised, and letting her form her own impressions and conclusions.  As well, it was sometimes difficult to determine whether a passage expressed the character's thoughts  and feelings, or those of the omniscient author.

It seemed to me that Eugenides tried to do too much in one novel. The willfully obscure, inward-looking deconstructionists and post-structuralists that Madeleine encounters in her English literature studies are amusing, but that entire lengthy section detracts from the stories of the three young graduates, and is off-putting to readers who have studied in fields other than English literature.

On the whole, I was disappointed in The Marriage Plot. I'm wondering which member of the book group suggested that we read it. Maybe it was the omniscient librarian who supervises us.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Songcatcher and Me - my new book

It's almost there! I've just finished correcting the bound proof of my new novel, The Songcatcher and Me, and it will be published within the month. ( ISBN 978-1-927481-36-3).

The publisher is Baico Publishing Inc., 294 Albert Street, Suite 103, Ottawa, ON, K1P 6E6.  613-829-5141

The cover blurb reads: "It is 1957 and fourteen year old Sheila feels stalled, living with her tired grandmother and irritable uncle at their failing country store in the back of beyond. Then a songcatcher turns up and everything changes."

A songcatcher is a collector of folk songs, an ethnomusicologist. By now (2013), all the old folksongs of English/Irish/Scots origin in North America may well have been collected, written down and catalogued, but in the 1950s in Ontario this was not the case, and my novel takes readers back to those days.

The book includes nine "folksong" lyrics by myself. Obviously these are not authentic old songs; they are my attempt to write in the style and spirit of "genuine" folk songs. I would have liked to have quoted lyrics from known folk songs, but the trouble is, when these songs are arranged and recorded by a singer, that particular arrangement and set of lyrics is copyright of the singer.

I showed my nine "folksongs" to Pat Moore, an Ottawa singer/songwriter, who wrote a tune for one of them: "Beneath White Sails He'll Fly". The tune certainly elevates the poem and I hope she will use it someday on an album.

The Songcatcher and Me is aimed at teens/young adults, but older readers who want to travel back in time to the '50s are welcome too.

Contact Baico or myself for a copy.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

food for thought

Sometimes I read advice columns in case they give me ideas for stories. I read Dear Abby, Ellie and Wayne and Tamara, and copied this little gem from the latter as  food for thought.

"If you have to be big while everyone else is acting small, then you're Gulliver in the land of Lilliputians. If you are handmaiden to small people, how will you open yourself to good people?"

Another gem from one of the above columnists (I forget which:)

"It's no crime to protect oneself from someone else's meanspiritedness."

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

change of email address

My new email address is

We had a day of computer hell here yesterday when we discovered that our internet provider had not only changed our email addresses and passwords, but also intends to change them again in a few months' time. So we decided g mail would be a better, more permanent choice.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Sixth Age, by Kay Parley

As a creative person of mature years, I was fascinated by Kay Parley's new novel, The Sixth Age (Regina, SK, Your Nickel's Worth Publishing, ISBN 978-894431-85-9, $19.95) The Sixth Age presents life in an imaginary coop residence for older artists in a school formerly owned by Oblate Missionaries on Mission Lake, near Lebret, Saskatchewan. No such artists' colony/co-op has ever existed there, but the setting is real. In 1972, when Parley attended a Summer School of the Arts at Fort Qu'appelle, SK, she visited the abandoned mission property, which included a three-storey brick boarding school, a barn, a greenhouse and a non-functioning swimming pool.

One of Parley's characters explains that the founders of the co-op chose a former school building as the residence,  "to remind us of our student days and keep us young." Parley was thinking of Shakespeare's Seven Ages of Man whenshe chose her title. As Shakespeare put it

"The sixth age shifts
into the lean and slipper'd pantaloon,
with spectacles on nose, and pouch on side,
his youthful hose well sav'd, a world too wide
for his shrunk shank and his big manly voice
turning again to childish treble, pipes and whistles in his sound."

Aging artists rediscovering their "inner children" and pursuing their creativity in a co-op setting sounds wonderful, but, as Parley shows, it has its difficulties. As we walk hand in hand through the novel with Allie Dutton, a farmer's widow and poet, we see some of the issues. We first meet Allie getting rid of sugar and processed food from the co-op kitchen. Following her through her day, we meet charming and eccentric characters such as Mavis, who sits and types her novel in the abandoned swimming pool. The co-op of forty people includes a free-spirited dog and cat.

The residence is deteriorating with age, and has serious problems, like asbestos insulation and bats in the attic. Mysterious events occur, like the ringing doorbell in the middle of the night, and the smashed windows in Allie's beloved greenhouse. Are vandals loose? Later in in the novel, walking by the lake, Allie and an elderly co-op resident see a body floating near shore. Flustered, they drag it onto the bank, set out for help, turn back to see if there are any signs of life, and find the body no longer there!

Some of the tenants are deteriorating too. One is abusing alcohol again. Several individuals take off for days without informing anyone of their plans. The residents' governing committee rejects a sign-in/sign-out system because it goes against the spirit of the co-op to regulate the tenants as a nursing home or retirement residence would. Allie wonders: Will Mrs. Pratt, the manager they have hired, become their keeper someday? When Jane, an older resident goes for a walk and breaks her leg, her ambulance trip to hospital brings publicity to the co-op, and results in a visit from provincial social service and public health inspectors.

While enjoying the amusing incidents, the reader sees, with growing concern, that the older co-op members need more care than their peers can give them. Yet the creative opportunity the place provides is much better than any activities offered in even the best retirement residences. It is gratifying when some of the mysteries turn out not to be senile hallucinations, but to have logical explanations.

Early in the novel, the co-op committee hires Oliver, a retireee who does odd jobs. He and Allie bond over a dicussion of Jung and the subconscious. The back story, and growing relationship between these two main characters is presented subtly. As the novel moves along at a brisk pace from one incident to another, Parley quietly inserts a phrase here or a line there that reveals information about these two key personalities. Ther reader is glad that Allie and Olvier have found each other, and sees, too, that children and grandchildren, while beloved, are insufficient for fulfillment in old age. Although the initial experiment in co-op living must end, its spirit continues in a slightly different form, thanks to these two characters.

In this well-paced novel, Allie's short poems (actually, Kay Parley's) appear between the chapters of
The Sixth Age, further deepening Allie's character and revealing more of a creative person's inner life. The poems contribute to the total effect of the novel in the same way that Hemingway's "interchapters" in In Our Time add to the impact of his famous first book.

In pursuit of her own creative dreams, Parley studied art, drama and writing while earning her living as a secretary, psychiatric nurse and teacher of adult students in a college setting. She is the author of They Cast a Long Shadow: the story of Moffat, SK, published on line at and Lady with a  Lantern (2007) the story of the Saskatchewan Hospital at Weyburn.

After attending the Summer School of the Arts at Qu'appelle in 1972, Parley wrote The Sixth Age, then put the novel away in a trunk. She chose a particularly good time to publish it, with the baby boomers entering their retirement years and having time to pursue their innate creativity.

The Sixth Age is available for $19.95 from Kay Parley at 227-3105 Hillsdale Street, Regina, SK, S4S 7K8

Monday, January 14, 2013

Alice Munro's Dear Life

Back in early December, when my husband steered me away from Alice Munro's Dear Life on the express shelf at the library, I knew he'd bought it for me for Christmas. While waiting for it, I read reviews on the internet, and learned that Dear Life includes several stories I'd already read in Harpers and The New Yorker. In fact, I'd ripped out the magazine pages on which the stories appeared, to have the pleasure of rereading them once the magazines were discarded.  Now I can throw out those magazine pages, because I have the stories in book form.

The reviews were favourable, laudatory, adulatory, except for one that said, in effect, that Munro's stories in this collection were too pre-planned and not sufficiently free ranging. In fact, Munro's collections have always included both structured stories and meandering ones. In  Dear Life, the stories "Leaving Maberly" and "Train" take us on a wandering journey and end with just a hint of theme.

Most reviewers were ecstatic over the last four stories in Dear Life, which, Munro says, "form a separate unit, one that is autobiographical in feeling ,thougb not, sometimes, entirely in fact." She adds that these stories are the "first and last - and the closest - things" she has to say about her own life. These days, the memoir seems to be everyone's literary form of first choice - though not mine. People love things that are "true", whatever "true" means. I liked these autobiographical stories, but also liked many that are imaginative constructs, like "Haven" and "Gravel."  Having taught memoir writing for many years, I'm a bit bored with things that are supposed to be more true just because they're life based. I like some artifice and creativity.

The stories in Dear Life, no matter whether or not they're close to actual life, are well-written and insightful.  I loved the domineering man in "Haven" getting his comeuppance. I liked "Dolly", which features an older couple, so much in love that they are planning to leave this earth together. Their happiness is disturbed when the husband's wartime flame turns up accidentally on their doorstep selling cosmetics. To the wife's dismany, the magic between the two former lovers is still there. The outcome shows the wisdom that comes with age."Corrie", a story about love and blackmail, explores  fairness in a relationship. One person has felt unfairly treated for many years, and seeks to right the balance, dishonestly.

I was fascinated by the second story, "Amundsen." In my grade school social studies, Roald Amundsen, Norwegian polar explorer, was a key figure. Here,"Amundsen" is the name of a town in Muskoka. The story takes place in a TB sanitorium during a winter in the 1940s. Alister, the doctor seduces the young teacher at the hospital, gets engaged to her, then dumps her.   Mary, a friendly teenager, the daughter of the cook, becomes the teacher's friend, and tells her that she used to play hookey from her town school to spend time with a teenaged patient, and that the doctor was their pal, and took them tobogganing until the other girl became too  ill.  At one point in the story, the doctor hurts Mary's feelings, foreshadowing his subsequent treatment of the teacher.

The winter setting is as cold and bleak as the Arctic or Antarctic, and in a sense, the doctor is an explorer, performing surgeery on patients. He seems more comfortable with a young girl that he can boss around, rather than with the teacher, a woman of marriageable age. It's as if his psychological and emotional development has frozen.

Reading about Roald Amundsen, I learned that he never married, and that at one point in his life fostered two native girls. There was no suggestion of impropriety in the account of Amundsen and these children, and in Munro's story, no hint of anything wrong in the friendship of the doctor and the two girls.  I'm wondering, though,  if Munro happened to be reading about Roald Amundsen and decided to extrapolate some elements of his story in creating her work of fiction.

The  unconvincing element in "Amundsen" is that, although the teacher is hurt at being dumped, and sees that the doctor's treatment of her may be a pattern, she remains in love with him even as a married woman many years later.

Several stories in Dear Life show a child at the mercy of fate, waiting to see what will happen next. In fact, "Gravel" shows a child who gets tired of waiting and makes a fatal bid for attention, and a mother who puts her own needs above those of her children. In "To Reach Japan", a mother, who is also a poet,  is torn between her own needs and those of her little girl.  What I liked most about "To Reach Japan" was the depiction of a truly terrible literary party that the central character attends in the hope of finding a congenial and supportive group of writers.

The theme of a woman's needs versus her obligations (or, perhaps, the conflicts between tseveral good things she wants) recurs in many Munro stories.  So often we are shown a mother, engaged in a creative activity, or trying to be, who feel that she is neglecting her children, because her head and heart are elsewhere.  Other times Munro writes about "writer's guilt"; the feeling that one should be doing something more profitable and practical with one's time.  Both maternal guilt and writer's guilt are shown in her famous story, "The Office."  I have felt my share of writer's guilt in days gone by, so I understand it. Mother's guilt is harder for me to fathom. I know of mothers who leave their young children daily to go to work, and they don't seem to be  guilt-racked. Perhaps this angst is peculiar to women in creative, arty jobs. Admittedly, Munro's stories are often set in the '50s and '60s, when a mother was supposed to be devoted to her children body and soul, 24-7.

At the end of her autobiographical stories, Munro writes that she did not go home for her mother's last illness or her funeral. "We say of some things that they can't be forgiven," she writes, "or that we will never forgive ourselves. But we do - we do it all the time."  Presumably Munro is speaking in her own voice here, not through a character.  Having read her entire body of work, including the final four stories in Dear Life, I would like to tell her to put guilt behind her, that she has nothing to feel guilty about.