Sunday, September 7, 2008

Bill Gaston's The Order of Good Cheer

Okay, classes are back in, which means I'm going to be using all spare time for preparing and then for marking. There won't be much time for writing elaborate responses to my reading, but I am going to at least try to keep track of what I do read -- suspect that's going to be fairly limited as well, mind you, besides what I have to read for teaching.

Just finished Bill Gaston's The Order of Good Cheer and very much enjoyed it. 8 or 10 years ago, a bright but somewhat recalcitrant 1st-year student at UVic told me that the only short stories she'd ever enjoyed were from Gaston's collection, Sex is Read. Since then, I've had his name on a mental list of writers to read but somehow never got 'round to it. I still need to get to the short stories and am even more motivated now.

Briefly, what did I like about this novel? The back-and-forth between the past of Samuel de Champlain and the present-day Prince Rupert with the link between them loosely forged by a contemporary character (very likeable, recognizable fellow) who's reading Champlain's journals. The imaginative fleshing-out of history works well especially in the relationship between the men in the New World settlement -- between the workers, between the classes, between clergy and congregation-- and between those men and the Mikmaq.
I liked the delicacy of the relationships in the Prince Rupert story -- the love and friendship between the high school couple who were separated when she left to pursue her dance and he stayed behind to work at the Grain Terminal -- then the delicate handling of his hopes when she returns. His relationship with his buddy (and the buddy's wife) and with his mother and her housemates also is very well-observed.

And I really enjoyed the attention to food, a longstanding interest of mine in fiction. Here Gaston's Prince Rupert character puts together a feast of Good Cheer to echo the ones Champlain organized to try to get his men through the hard winters of the New World.

Part of my enjoyment of this novel comes from the seven years we lived in Prince Rupert so that I was pleased to follow characters along familiar streets or to favourite landmarks. Rupert works well as a parallel to Champlain's territory, both being at the edges of the continent. This parallel is furthered in the references to environmental threats that place the contemporary characters, arguably, in new terrain: we're facing different frontiers and hardships than Champlain's scurvy-threatened crew, but we're exploring a new world as well.

Much more I could say about this -- I'd enjoy teaching it at some point, I think -- but really, I'd better go prep tomorrow's classes.

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