________________ CM . . . . Volume XX Number 1. . . .September 6, 2013


The Songcatcher and Me.

Ruth Latta.
Ottawa ON: Baico Publishing, 2013.
209 pp., trade pbk., $20.00.
ISBN 978-1-927481-36-3.

Grades 7-9 / Ages 12-14.

Review by Darleen Golke.

***˝ /4



“Then you know that I play records from my own collection. Most are from the States, like Pete Seeger’s, for example. They’re great, but I know that we Canadians also have folk songs that could be brought to light. So I said to Fred, my husband, ’Fred, I’m going to be like Marius Barbeau and Helen Creighton and Edith Fowke, and start collecting songs here in Ontario before they’re lost forever.’”

“Good for you!” exclaims Grandma. I’ve never seen her so enthusiastic. “Old people like me won’t be around forever. Our songs will die with us unless someone preserves them.”

I wish Grandma wouldn’t talk of dying. That’s my worst nightmare.

“Song preservation is my main motive for collecting,” says Mrs. Common. “Last year when Fred and I were on holiday in Northern Ontario, I collected some songs. The producer of my show suggested that I explore the area a few hundred miles northeast of Toronto, which is around here. This region reminds him of Appalachia in the United States, where many traditional songs were discovered and recorded.”

Grandma nods thoughtfully. “I believe there are a lot of singers in these parts. What brought you to me?”

“Word of mouth. Our friends, the Percys, who have a cottage on Fern Lake where I’m staying, put me in touch with the Rev. Mr. Hughes of the Meadowbrook Historical Society. He got on the phone to a Mrs. Wright, a local choir director, and told her that a lady wanted to find a singer of old time songs. Mrs. Wright gave him your name.”

“Just the other day, Grandma and I were singing Barbara Allen,” I chip in. “Is that the sort of song you’re looking for?”

Mrs. Common turns to me, beaming. “Yes! That’s exactly what I’m looking for. Barbara Allen is an old song that settlers brought from England to the New World. There are many different versions of it, and each one is interesting to a song catcher. Would you sing it for me, Mrs. McNeil?”

“Well. I’ll try, but I don’t know how my voice is. Sheila, get me a glass of water, please.”


Set in Forrest Township northeast of Toronto during the summer of 1957, Latta’s young adult novel features Sheila, the 14-year-old narrator who, having lost her father during a World War II battle and her mother to illness four years earlier, now lives with her grandmother, Jerusha McNeil, and her uncle, Cam, in the “two storey wood-frame” house that has family living quarters in one wing and the “crossroads store”, McNeil’s General Store, in the other. Grandma suffers from a heart condition; Uncle Cam, a skilled mechanic, is “a big dark cloud over our heads,” frustrated at being tied to shopkeeping and fixing neighbours’ cars when his “main interest is restoring a 1928 Essex Super Six Roadster.” Grandma says that “he feels that life has passed him by”, but Sheila worries about how rudely he often treats his mother. Sheila helps out with the store, although not completely satisfactorily, according to Uncle Cam, and she escapes into the world of books as often as she can, always fully aware that Uncle Cam considers her a burden.

     The boredom of daily life lifts when a “beautifully dressed” woman appears one day asking to see Grandma. Alice Common, the hostess of a folk music radio program, introduces herself as a song catcher determined to record folk songs in rural Canada and eventually have someone write out the musical notation for the song lyrics and publish a book to preserve the songs. Grandma agrees, and Alice wastes no time setting up her tape recorder and having Grandma sing. Alice plans to travel throughout the area and find other sources of songs; Sheila boldly volunteers to accompany her “into the countryside to record other singers” and act as her assistant. Uncle Cam disapproves of the whole project, but Grandma is resolute, and Sheila’s summer becomes far more interesting and eventful and far less lonely as “Aunt Alice” shares her wealth of knowledge about folk music and the world with Sheila.

      The summer passes pleasantly as Sheila accompanies Alice around the countryside with her 16-year-old friend and neighbour, Matt, joining them whenever his farm work allows. When Alice proposes Grandma sing at the Timberlane Festival of folk music to be held in August at Ladybird north of Toronto and invites Sheila and Grandma to be her guests, Grandma is initially apprehensive, but, after some persuasion, she agrees and overrides Uncle Cam’s objections. “You’re like a cloud over everything we do. This festival is important to us, and we’re going,” Sheila declares. Grandma suggests to Cam that they consider selling the store, that he contact his friend, Duncan, and find a job as a mechanic, and that she and Sheila move to the town of Meadowbrook.

      Grandma’s debut at the Timberlane Festival is a gratifying success, and she enjoys the attention and weathers the ordeal well even though a journalist “acts astonished that an old woman like her can actually talk, let alone sing.” When the Commons invite Grandma and Sheila to their home in Toronto, Sheila overhears Grandma talking with Alice about her concerns for Sheila’s future; Alice promises to help and to research scholarships and bursaries that might help Sheila achieve her dream of training as a teacher. Returning to Forrest Township, Grandma and Sheila learn that Uncle Cam has been busy in their absence. He has finished restoring the Essex and plans to sell it to a car collector, has procured a mechanic’s job in Ottawa, and has accepted an offer to purchase the store from a Toronto writer who plans to write and rent out rooms to other writers who want a retreat “away from the hustle and bustle of the city.” Grateful for a solution to their situation, Grandma and Sheila rent a tidy little bungalow in Meadowbrook near the high school and settle into town life comfortably.

      Latta skilfully captures life in rural Ontario in the 1950s and provides insights into daily life and the importance of the corner store and its offerings to the community. The visit to nearby Juniper Township where Alice interviews elderly Mr. Vaughan and records his song contributions is well-detailed as is a community dance that Sheila, chaperoned by Alice, attends with Matt. Sheila, a nicely realized blend of optimism and trepidation about her future, emerges as a likeable teen trying to understand her role in the family and her world. Her close relationship with her grandmother contrasts with the ongoing conflict with Uncle Cam. The introduction of Alice Common, a “modern“ young woman for the 1950s who has a career, is happily married but childless by choice, and interacts intelligently with fellow academics opens new vistas for Sheila.

      Written for young adults, The Songcatcher and Me reminds adult readers of the emotional roller coaster teenagers ride and offers hopeful possibilities for Sheila’s future. In an “Author’s Note” at the end of the novel, Latta assures readers the “characters who play roles in this novel are fictional” although she provides real names of people important to the folk music world. Latta wrote her own lyrics for nine folk songs that appear throughout the novel while a fellow-writer contributed another. Unfortunately editing issues result in some of the lyrics being printed in italics, some in regular font, with the occasional stanza in bold type. The cover and title page use the term, “songcatcher,” as one word, however, “song catcher” and song-catcher” also appear at different times throughout the text.

      Teacher, writer, poet, researcher, and reviewer, Latta provides information about where some of the songs alluded to might be accessed for interested readers. A list of her publications appears on the final pages of the volume.

Highly Recommended.

Darleen Golke writes from her home in Abbotsford, BC.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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