CM . . .
. Volume XV Number 3. . . .September 26, 2008
Toronto, ON: Kids Can Press, 2008.
160 pp., pbk. & hc., $7.95 (pbk.), $17.95 (hc.).
ISBN 978-1-55453-238-4 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-55453-234-6 (hc.).
Grades 8 and up / Ages 13 and up.
Review by Ruth Latta.
They went back to watching their lines, until Cal asked quietly, "You're not very happy, are you?"
Ben shook his head. "How can you tell?"
"I've known you since first grade."
"Yeah, well, I guess." Ben straightened up. "I just... I just see everything that's gonna happen. I'm going to stay at the Landing, or move into town and that's it. And, I dunno, I figured there'd be more."
"Yeah, well, you always were different, playing the violin and everything."
"Yeah, well, right now, I wish I'd never started."
"You'd have just done something else. You're pretty strange, you know. I mean, you read, even when you don't have to."
It is the summer of 1934, and Ben, at 15, is constantly working. Either he is toiling for low pay on his Uncle Henry's subsistence farm at the Landing, in the picturesque Muskoka District of Ontario, or working as a handyman for the summer visitors in this playground of the rich.
The novel opens with an early childhood scene in which Ben's parents take him to the Opera House in their small town to hear an orchestra. "This music washed around him, surrounded him, swirled past him, his pulse racing to catch up." In the present of the novel, the Dirty Thirties, Ben practices on a second hand violin in the toolshed because his embittered Uncle Henry disapproves of his music. Ben learns from the local fiddler, an kindly older man, and plays with him at dances, but only occasionally. Ben and his mother, destitute after his father's death in a logging accident, took refuge on the farm where she had grown up, now run by crippled, embittered Uncle Henry.
John Ibbitson, the Globe and Mail's Washington columnist and correspondent, was born in Gravenhurst. He says in his author's note that he always wanted to write a book about Muskoka. The ruggedly beautiful shores and pristine, unpredictable lakes feature in Tom Thomson's paintings. The first settlers, who arrived in the 1860s and 1870s, included the Boyds, Ibbitson's mother's family. By the time the twentieth century arrived, however, many descendants of these pioneer families had given up on the rocky soil, and had sold their waterfronts to wealthy Americans and Canadians. Local people, like Ben's family, scraped by on their remaining acreage and worked part-time for the wealthy summer people. Steamboats "carried visitors from the railhead at Muskoka Wharf up to the luxury resorts on the upper lakes, and they carried the cottagers to their cottages. They carried the mail and hampers of fine food from Eaton's to Millionaire's Row, whose occupants were prepared to rough it, but not without paté...," writes Ibbitson.
The wealthy summer visitor who changes Ben's life is a New York widow whose late husband had purchased, sight unseen, a summer home near Uncle Henry's place. Rarely these days does one find in fiction a realistically portrayed woman of a certain age, but Ibbitson has given us one. Ruth Chapman is neither a cookie-baking grandma nor a witch; Ibbitson's depiction of her is subtle and nuanced. She meets Ben through his uncle, whom she has hired to repair her cottage. Unlike some summer people, who are rude to the locals, Mrs. Chapman is polite, businesslike and fair. When Ben continues with the repair work on his own, she treats him as an equal, and, eventually, as a comrade.
Ben is impressed, not only by her costly provisions and furnishings brought in by boat, but also because of her calm competence. Unlike the local women, old before their time from poverty and childbearing, fiftyish Mrs. Chapman seems young and free. "She must have been a looker when she was young," he thinks. She wears slacks, she smokes, she swears occasionally, and she spends her time in leisurely pursuits - listening to records on her Victrola, playing the piano and reading.
Her recommendation of The Great Gatsby to Ben implies much about theme and adds complexity and depth. This 1925 classic by F. Scott Fitzgerald is about a nouveau riche, self-made man who gives fabulous parties for the New York upper crust. Ultimately, he is destroyed by the selfishness and dishonesty of his wealthy friends, who, in the words of Fitzgerald's narrator, are "careless people."
Is Mrs. Chapman Ben's fairy godmother? A bond grows between them when he is entranced by her record of a Sibelius violin concerto. Will she whisk Ben away from the Landing to a musical education at, say, Juilliard? At a party for her sophisticated friends, Ben serves as bartender, kitchen help and entertainer. He wows everyone with his fiddle playing at an impromptu hoe-down. Pleased to be a success, Ben observes to himself that "they couldn't square dance to save their lives," and that "it was a strange thing to see a grown woman jig with a cigarette in her hand." With his tongue loosened by beer, he confides in Mrs. Chapman that beautiful Muskoka will probably be his prison for life. She wonders aloud if he could study in Toronto, calls him an artist and kisses his cheek.
The small negative details in this largely happy party scene prepare careful readers for Mrs. Chapman's withdrawal into pleasant formality. More discontent than ever, Ben yearns to discuss his life with her and wonders why she has turned away from him. He is shocked when she fails to invite him to another soiree, especially as she has imported a string quartet. In a key scene, in which the author accomplishes several things, Ben swims to Mrs. Chapman's dock and hides beneath it, gazing at the bright lights and faint music in the distance. His great longing is the focus of our attention, but it is his strength as a swimmer that will be important later in the story. Some readers will be reminded of Jay Gatsby gazing at the green light at the end of Daisy Buchanan's pier; thus, Ibbitson brings those associations and meanings. Finally, the author shows Mrs. Chapman coming onto the veranda and looking at the water, perhaps thinking of Ben or sensing his presence. Significantly, a man who looks to be her own age comes out, hands her a drink, and indicates that he wants her to come back inside. Although she takes a last long look at the dock, she follows him.
Is Ruth Chapman cruel to Ben? Only to be kind. She and Ben's mother meet and establish a rapport, based on their mutual widowhood. To steal another widow's child, her greatest and only treasure, would be the deed of a "careless" person. On leaving Muskoka forever, Mrs. Chapman says, "You know, I never had a son and I had no idea, before, how sorry I am about that," but, unlike Jay Gatsby, she knows that one can't change the past. Her presentation to Ben of some sheet music and an introductory letter to a professor at Toronto's Royal Conservatory of Music may seem to fall far short of the mark, but they are sensible gifts that encourage Ben to move forward under his own steam.
A harsher life-lesson awaits Ben, one which illustrates the maxim, "Be careful what you wish for; you may get it." One major obstacle is literally blown away by Fate, and quite plausibly, given the setting. For his ending, Ibbitson borrows a real event. In October 1934, the steamship, Waome, was struck by a sudden storm on Lake Muskoka, and sank in less than a minute, with three fatalities.
This novel, like Lake Muskoka, is deep. Character-driven, suspenseful, and historically accurate, it is both realistic and symbolic. In this respect, it is like The Great Gatsby, in which Gatsby, a vivid, complex personality, represents the American dream, and Jack London's The Call of the Wild, in which Buck, a realistic German Shepherd, represents the working class.
Thinking along these lines, one sees that Ben's situation with Mrs. Chapman is something like Canada's relationship with the United States. We sell them our natural resources, but we have mixed feelings about American wealth and power. By and large, Mrs. Chapman is a wise and decent superpower - a "good neighbour," to borrow the term used by Depression-era President Franklin D. Roosevelt. As an outstanding journalist, John Ibbitson has helped Canadians to understand our world, our neighbours, and ourselves. He does so in fiction, too.
Ruth Latta's most recent work of fiction, An Amethyst Remembrance, (Ottawa, Baico, 2008) is a novel intended for a general audience.
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