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."