Category: Memory

A Story About Shapeshifters & Fantasy Art

New story called “The Journey and the Jewel” up over at Sockdolager (an excellent magazine published by Alison Wilgus and Paul Starr).  I am always surprised by how consistent (not to say “repetitive!”) my stories are thematically, and this one covers a lot of familiar concerns. Forests. Grief. Families. Beaches. That’s pretty much my territory.

“The Journey and the Jewel” is also about that peculiar genre of the early 80s: the “armchair treasure hunt” book, something that reminds me of an ARG, an idea that arrived a little early, and that would have benefited from contemporary communications tech. The paintings in these books always remind me of Celestial Seasonings tea and the fantasy-and-science fiction section of the secondhand bookstore I used to visit in Duncan, BC when I was a kid. Unsettling high realism, sometimes, and dreamlike landscapes more strange than comforting.

This picture still makes me uncomfortable.

This picture still makes me uncomfortable.

Kit Williams seems to have originated the genre with Masquerade in 1979. We had a copy when I was little. I don’t know where it came from, but there were a few pages I found terrifying (I was just that kind of kid– I had to leave E.T. early because it was too scary). There was this one painting of the sun, a character in the story, who had been turned into a puppet and dropped on a beach at sunset, his limbs all twisted. I really didn’t like that picture. Because I was a bit of a scaredy-cat, the book ended up living in the top of the linen cupboard for most of my childhood.

It’s an interesting genre, though, and I can see why some of the other, unsolved examples have found a place online, where people can collaborate on their interpretations & theories. Over at the The Secret wiki people are trying to find ten jewels whose locations have been hidden (since 1982!) in paintings that remind me a lot of Kit Williams. I can see why they’re looking– an unsolved riddle, a still-lost treasure is appealing because the story remains unfinished, the end deferred. It’s made to be solved, right? So what happens to the story if it isn’t? “The Journey and the Jewel” is a kind of answer to the question.

Report from a Re-Enactment II: Conversations with a Mohawk Warrior and a Damn Yankee

We Don’t Do First Person

One thing preoccupied me during the battle: what are they thinking?

What do they think while they’re marching up and down the field, and firing muskets at one another, or wandering in and out of the white canvas tents. Obviously, a lot of their attention would be taken up trying to figure out where you were supposed to be when, just because the choreography for a crowd that large has to be pretty demanding. But when they were in position, and taking aim at the opposing line, what did they think? Did they imagine themselves to be in 1812, representing a person who might actually have lived through the original version of that moment? In other words, if the battle was theatre, were they actors as well as re-enactors? Continue reading

Report from a Re-Enactment I: The Theatre of War in Four Acts

The Niagara River in its brightest season. October 2012.

Welcome to 1812

Reasoning that it qualified as dissertation-research (for me, that is), D and I drove down to the Niagara Peninsula last weekend to watch the re-enactment of the Battle of Queenston Heights. This event was part of a huge, national project to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, with events planned all around Ontario and Quebec for the next two years.  There will be fancy-dress armies, historically-accurate food, tall ships, sea-battles, red-coats, poke bonnets. Laura Secord. Tecumseh. General Isaac Brock. The events are spectacular, and expensive, equal parts educational opportunity and vacation plan.

This event drew nearly a thousand re-enactors, many of them men who double as combatants in the Seven Years War, or the American Civil War. It lasted all weekend, with Saturday devoted to the battle, and Sunday to “Brock”‘s funeral, and a slow march in costume through Niagara-on-the-Lake. Continue reading

Prologue to a Series on Queenston Heights: What I Know About the War of 1812 I Learned from Johnny Horton

I was trying to remember when I first heard about the War of 1812, and I came up with two icons I must have encountered when I was very small, though I could not say exactly when: Laura Secord and Johnny Horton.  Laura Secord has a pretty obvious 1812 connection, so obvious she even has her own historica minute.  Johnny Horton might require an explanation.

When I was about seven I had Johnny Horton’s Greatest Hits on a beige audio tape, without a case, one that a neighbour kid left at our house when he moved. It was an unfortunate oversight on his part, one that has, sadly, informed my sense of American history as much as L.M. Alcott or Herman Melville or Frederick Douglass.  It’s a good thing I’m not an historian, because I’m pretty sure they’d take away my degrees for that.

So, as a seven year old I absorbed a peppy, post-war version of American history, much preoccupied with battles and heroic men:  Johnny Reb fights all the way through the Civil War, Ol’ Hick’ry defeats the Red Coats with a weaponized alligator, Davey Crockett strangles a bear and dies at the Alamo, and even the Bismarck is imagined in Texan terms, with guns as big as steers and shells as big as trees.  It’s Disney-history, nuggets of sepia-toned high adventure rendered as three-minute narratives in 4/4, with Horton’s band singing “Mush! Mush!” behind him, as Big Sam McCord goes north to Alaska (where the rush is on). Continue reading

Report from a Battlefield: In Which I Unintentionally Offend a Stranger at Queenston Heights

Second Brock Memorial. First Centenary. 1912.

Last May D and I drove south to the Niagara frontier to see the Corpse Flower in bloom at the Niagara Floral Showcase and to visit Queenston Heights, because I’m working on a chapter about the battlefield.  The Corpse Flower gets its own post, though, as a kind of footnote.

Queenston Heights is a park that was once a battlefield.  You know it was a battlefield because there’s a very large monument to Sir Isaac Brock, the English General who led British and Canadian troops against the Americans in October 1812, and who died early in the battle.  The memorial tower rises aggressively on the Canadian side of the frontier, with Brock at the very top, pointing toward the American side of the river, as though the tower isn’t only to remind us of the general’s death, but to tell us where and how to look toward his American enemies.

Continue reading

Why I Love Vaudeville Theatres

The Orpheum Theatre. Vancouver. 1927.

The Orpheum Theatre. Vancouver. 1927.

I’m writing this post as a break from what I should be doing, which is either preparing my next lecture, or revising a chapter about commemoration on the Plains of Abraham. I’m feeling a bit worn out by both projects, so I hope it’ll cheer me up to write about something I like.

Not like, even. I love Vaudeville theatres.  I love them so much that I’ve written a novel about an imaginary theatre called the Temple, in an imaginary version of Vancouver. My inspiration for the Temple came from the Orpheum and Pantages in Vancouver and the Paramount in Seattle, the McPherson and the Royal in Victoria. There’s a touch of London’s Grand Theatre about it, too, and maybe a little of San Francisco’s Castro (though that one was always a movie palace).

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Camp X and Northrop Frye: Why This Blog is Called “Where is Here?”

Camp X from the air. 1943.

Last spring D and I made the trip out to Whitby, Ontario, for an early Doors Open Toronto event at Intrepid Park.  It was May, one of those days that aren’t cold really or warm, but blustery and dull, with a flat, pale sky, and quite a bit of mud.

There are no doors to open at Intrepid Park, because there’s nothing there but a concrete memorial, a few shell holes, and a grassy mound. It’s a nice park, with viewpoints from which you can look along the coast of Lake Ontario toward the downtown skyline, which looks delicate and almost translucent at that distance. Continue reading