Sunday, May 31, 2009

Bookish ex-farmer inspires unrepetant urbanite

This reminiscence of mine turned up a while back on the Facts & Arguments page in the Globe and Mail. Surely it deserves a second life in cyberspace?


The time: July, 1975. The place: Nelson, British Columbia.

A young Canadian urbanite, desperate for a summer job, finds work as a "green-chain man" at a sawmill (now long gone) operated by Kootenay Forest Products.

Five days a week, wearing a hardhat and steel-toed boots, he spends eight hours hauling planks off the green chain, essentially a giant conveyer belt. Like his brawnier co-workers, the urbanite stacks these boards behind him according to length – ten feet long, twelve feet, sixteen – on flatbed cars that a more senior worker will roll away on rails.

Each night, the urbanite suffers a recurring nightmare. Just as he finishes loading a flatbed car to shoulder height, the whole pile starts to topple – which means he will have to restack the boards while keeping pace with those whizzing past on the green chain. At this point, he wakes up, hollering.

Against this backdrop, the urbanite meets the bookish ex-farmer. Their respective wives, working temporarily as tellers in the same bank, had got talking. Soon, both women had confessed the same dark, dirty secret: "My husband is an aspiring writer."

The urbanite took himself seriously in those days, as writers in their twenties do, and he wasn't especially keen to meet another scribbler. After all, what were the chances that this ex-farmer was serious? That he had the grit, savvy and stamina to survive in the literary jungle? Already the man was in his late thirties.

But the women persisted, and one evening, after soaking in a hot bath, the young urbanite met the ex-farmer. To his surprise, he got yakking about life and writing and favorite authors and didn't stop talking for three hours. This old guy was the real thing – and no pretension about him.

In the weeks that followed, the couples got together often, and always the two men yammered into the night. So when you were in Mexico, writing fiction in Oaxaca, I was on the fire lookout in the Rockies, typing away in my tower! In some ways, they had little in common. A dozen years older, originally from Minnesota, the ex-farmer had spent four years in the American Navy, between the Korean and the Vietnam Wars. Having immigrated to Canada as part of the "back to the land" movement, he and his wife were about to move to a cabin twenty miles north of Nelson.

The urbanite would soon return to Toronto, to resume journalism studies at Ryerson. But here, besides "serious writing," was something else the men had in common. After his stint in the navy, the ex-farmer had earned a degree in journalism. Since then, he had worked at The Chicago Tribune and The Detroit Free Press. He had sailed to Europe to write the Great American Novel, but got distracted during the voyage by the woman who had since become his wife.

Meanwhile, the ex-farmer had kept writing fiction. He had published half a dozen short stories in men's magazines, those publications never purchased for their photographs. Still, the young urbanite had to admit it: this old guy could write. And yet, and yet: soon he would turn forty. Surely he had missed his time?

When summer ended, the men vowed to remain in touch. And, incredibly, for the next thirty-two years, they did precisely that – first through letters, later by email. Occasionally, when the urbanite lived in Vancouver or Calgary, the couples would get together and yammer into the night.

During those decades, while earning his daily bread as a journalist, the young urbanite began publishing books. The ex-farmer responded with kudos and applause. He called the urbanite an inspiration. And, while holding down energy-draining jobs, raising a family, and commuting back and forth to his cabin in the woods outside Nelson, he kept writing. He wrote and wrote and wrote, and he submitted – but nobody wanted what he sent out.

The ex-farmer kept writing and submitting. Then, in 1990, with a narrative essay harking back to his boyhood on a farm, he won the creative nonfiction prize in the CBC Literary Competition. During the next five years, make that ten and then fifteen, the ex-farmer elaborated that essay, writing and polishing. Again and again, he would receive encouraging feedback, near-acceptances – but then, for reasons having nothing to do with the quality of the work, he would receive a rejection.

So it went until last year, when sharp-eyed editors at Oolichan Books, a literary publisher on the West Coast, perceived that this ex-farmer's memoir was no journeyman effort, but haunting and elegant – a masterpiece of life-writing. They made a modest offer, the ex-farmer accepted, and this year, having reached the age of seventy-two, Ross Klatte published his first book, Leaving The Farm.

On reading the finished work, while sitting in the sunshine at the centre of the universe, the urbanite, no longer young, could only gaze west and raise a glass of dry red wine. He drank to the ex-farmer, Ross Klatte, who lives still in the woods outside Nelson, an inspiration not only to the urbanite, but to anyone who reads him.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Fatal Passage fuels Inuit refutation at British Museum

First came my book Fatal Passage, which revealed the dastardly machinations of Jane Franklin and Charles Dickens. PTV Productions based a docudrama on the book (Passage) which aired on BBC Scotland and won acclaim at film festivals in Canada. Tagak Curley and I met during the London filming of key segments of the movie. And John Rae keeps on keeping on . . . .



Nunavut politician to address British museum on Inuit role in Franklin expedition
Last Updated: Friday, May 22, 2009
CBC News

Nunavut cabinet minister Tagak Curley is set to speak at a museum in England this weekend, hoping to refute what he says are false claims of Inuit as murderers of Sir John Franklin's crew in the Northwest Passage in the mid-1800s.

Curley, an Inuit history buff as well as Nunavut's health minister, has been invited by the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich to speak at the opening Saturday of an exhibition on Franklin's doomed 1845 expedition through the fabled passage.

Inuit have long been cast in a negative light since Charles Dickens wrote The Lost Arctic Voyagers, which accused Inuit of being murderers and cannibals.

"We need to try and resolve this conflict," Curley told CBC News.

"Unless the roots are dealt with, we cannot establish the true reconciliation and healing for all that matter."

In 1845, Franklin and his crew aboard HMS Terror and HMS Erebus set sail from London to search for the Northwest Passage, but disappeared during the trip, sparking speculation about what happened.

Commissioned by Franklin's wife, Jane, Dickens's 1854 work refuted one published earlier by explorer John Rae, who wrote that Franklin's crew may have fallen ill to scurvy and resorted to cannibalism.

Curley said he's disturbed by how some people still believe the author's claims today.

"It put an image of Inuit as not worth trusting," he said.

"They were called treacherous and to that extent, more like not humans at all. So I got quite annoyed with that."

Curley said history needs to be set straight, adding that he wants a plaque erected with the truth written on it.

But until Franklin's ships are found, the long-disputed question of what really happened to Franklin and his crew may never go away, said Canadian author Ken McGoogan, who has written extensively on both Franklin and Rae.

"We're never going to put this to rest," McGoogan said with a laugh. "That's my simplest answer, because this is a mystery at the heart of our history."

Curley said he is defending Inuit who are no longer alive, who were falsely accused of murder.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Literary Review of Canada

The April issue of The Literary Review of Canada carried a terrific review of Race to the Polar Sea. Editor Bronwyn Drainie encourages authors to respond to reviews, and I happily did so. The May issue of LRC, which is turning up now in better bookstores, carries letters from John Ralston Saul and Stephen Clarkson, as well as the following from yours truly.


Re: “Frozen Moments,” by Mark Lovewell (April 2009).

In his generous, insightful review of my book Race to the Polar Sea, Mark Lovewell poses questions that reflect a serious engagement with the work. He asks whether Elisha Kent Kane, the focus of this biographical narrative, “fully deserves the resuscitated reputation McGoogan gives him.” He notes that, in Lady Franklin’s Revenge, I “finessed” the challenge of re-contextualizing John Rae, the subject of Fatal Passage; and he suggests that, in Polar Sea, it “would have been well worth the effort” to reprise that approach, and to situate Kane in relation to Rae.

These related challenges spring from one misconception. Polar Sea is not the latest instalment in a “string of exploration biographies,” as Lovewell believes, but the fourth and final volume in an Arctic Discovery Quartet.

Now it can be told: while “meticulous research” is indeed integral to my methodology, my approach is not scholarly and analytical but literary. The work’s architecture I “borrowed” from Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, which I regard as brilliantly conceived (though so grotesquely overwritten that today I find it impenetrable).

The four-part structure of both quartets is akin to that of the conventional pop song: verse, verse, bridge, verse. Durrell’s three “verses” are first-person accounts, the last of which signals a significant shift. In the pop song, the bridge differs from the verses in melody, measure and rhyme scheme. Durrell’s bridging novel, the third in the quartet, finds an omniscient, third-person narrator re-contextualizing events from a distance. Dramatic difference is part of the point.

In my Arctic Discovery Quartet, the three “verses” – Fatal Passage, Ancient Mariner and Polar Sea -- are stand-alone narratives that treat individual explorers who developed exemplary relations with aboriginal peoples. And my final verse, Race to the Polar Sea, marks a significant shift: starting with Elisha Kent Kane, explorers turned from seeking the Northwest Passage to making for the North Pole. My bridging volume, Lady Franklin’s Revenge, treats Arctic exploration from a distance, and re-contextualizes it.

In a way, Lovewell is right. A comparison of John Rae and Elisha Kent Kane would be well worth the effort. And including Samuel Hearne would only enrich the result. But such an analysis is the province of the academic dissertation. To introduce it into the narrative of Polar Sea would be to sing the melody of the “bridge” to the lyric of the “verse” – painfully wrong.