A Lockdown look at Indians on Vacation

 


“If I have to look at one more painting of Mary and her baby, I may scream.”

“Well, if I eat any more cheese, I might go blind anyway.”

When we travel, my wife and I usually reach a point where we need a break from the art, museums, churches, statues, and gluttony. As much as we like that stuff, we try to mix it with hiking, paddling, or even working while abroad. My wife meanders for hours, shopping for nothing.  I usually have an agenda: research on humour writing, business meetings, or making money.

Strangely, these are things we can do at home in Ottawa.

We’ve had a chance to reflect on this a lot over the past year as we sat staring at the walls and each other, pondering retirement in a pandemic, and bemoaning the cancellation of travel plans.

In this, it helped to spend time reading Indians on Vacation, the 2021 Leacock Medal winner.

The book is an apt literary touchstone for this peculiar year. Not only is it well executed, thoughtful, and consistently funny, but it also offers escape from and antidote to no-travel, lockdown life. The book is many things: a love story, a picaresque quest, and a light mystery, but I like it as an exploration of tourism-style travel, a pondering on its worth, and, perhaps, a kind of handbook for extracting more value from it.

Thomas King’s novel presents a later-life couple: Bird, the narrator, and his partner Mimi.  They talk, walk, and quibble within the frame of a fabricated, personal quest and the banal side of European tourism. As they do, the couple reveals themselves with a loving, gentle humour that induces smiles and introspection.

It should surprise few that King, a celebrated and witty storyteller who has written skillfully in genres ranging from children’s literature and radio plays to academic lectures and history, should be effective in the format of a humorous novel. But he clearly has a feel for incongruity and presenting it in a way that shakes out the laughs while maintaining the flow of the grander story and the stories within the story.

Bird and Mimi are well travelled but have set out to add to their experiences in a specific way by following the trail of Mimi’s Uncle Leroy.  A mischief-maker and source of pain for Indian Department authority, Leroy fled the Blackfoot reserve and the threat of arrest in Alberta many years ago by joining a travelling wild west show.  He took the family medicine bundle, a cherished package of souvenirs and memorabilia, with him and never returned. 


But Leroy sent postcards from the show’s stops throughout Europe and the dated card collection lays out breadcrumbs to retrace his steps.  As Bird and Mimi cross the continent in search of Leroy’s fate and the collection of family treasures, they pick up pieces to add to a new bundle of their own and to their own story.

They are in the Czech Republic at the last post-card-identified point on Leroy’s trail. But it could be anywhere.  Bird, fully Blackbird Mavrias, is, like King, a once-American now Canadian of Cherokee-Greek extraction. Tired, cynical, and sardonic, he begins the book with a sigh: “So, we’re in Prague,” repeating the phrase dozens of times in the ensuing pages. The repetition reminds us of lamentable routines of tourism. But the phrase also draws a line between Bird’s flashbacks thoughts and his immediate circumstance. 

This is where the humour arises. The conflict between what is happening and what is in Bird’s mind often resonates and always amuses. Bird’s mind has lots in it: memories of his life with Mimi, concerns over social issues, an obsession with myriad aches, thoughts of food, imaginings around his breakfast companion, and a set of personal demons that have been named by Mimi and have assumed vivid life-form personalities.  Bird’s thoughts and physical experience intersect, however, around those social concerns that are provoked by the sight of Syrian refugees at the train station, protests, and icons of colonialism.

The quirky clash of thoughts with the banality of daily conversation and the ambiance of well-worn tourist sites not only makes you smile, it makes you question why we travel. So much seems the same: the churches, the museums, hotel rooms, and the predictable inconveniences.  Everyone who goes to Prague visits the Castle, stands on the Charles Bridge, and walks by the Sex Machines Museum. When Bird gets sick and the couple is almost robbed, the mundane nature of tourism is emphasized with recognition that travel experience is defined by the stories we tell and that the best travel stories flow from mishap and misadventure.

But Indians on Vacation also demonstrates how everyone views the sites and cities through the lens of their own personality, interests, and agendas. It is this junction of self and place that makes each person’s travel different and rewarding or not.  Travel is, in a way, a function of who we are and what we have done with our lives. Wherever you go, you take yourself along, and this frames your experience.

While Bird, the narrator, finds travel tiring and spends much of the time in thoughts of elsewhere, Mimi sees it as an escape from the everyday, a spur to her imagination, and a way to extract more from her remaining days. Bird lies in the hotel room thinking, "I'm sweaty and sticky. My ears are still popping from the descent into Vaclav Havel. My sinuses ache. My stomach is upset. My mouth is a sewer. I roll over and bury my face in a pillow.” Then, Mimi snuggles down beside him “with no regard for (his) distress,” and whispers “My god … can it get any better?'"

With humour and affection, the story dovetails their attitudes and the two sides of travel to paint a middle ground and reminds us that travel is a blend of what we see, what we think, and who is by our side. Walking, shopping for nothing, thinking of home, and even working while on a trip makes sense if this is who you are.  If you are Thomas King, you conceive and write another book. 

This suggests that living in a lockdown does not need to be a bar to travel but rather a part of it.  Since our travel experience is the mix of our own thoughts and the physical ambiance, it is also a consequence of our prior home-based planning, relationships, and personalities as much as its execution. Things we can work on regardless of place.

So, we can rightly use quarantine time to reflect and prepare for travel with someone we love, and reading Indians on Vacation can help with that.

 DBD
June 2021

 

About

My name is Dick Bourgeois-Doyle.

My waning professional life focused on science administration and communication as per this summary and these posts
on Science.gc.ca  

But I created this Blog in 2012 to document my quest to live a more humorous life - and share stuff on Canadian humour writing.  The URL tries to evoke “a year of reading humour” in the style of "Annus Mirabilis" and "Annus Horribilis." My first attempt at a blog name, "Anus Humorous", drew unfortunate associations. "Canus Humorous" has a nicer ring and might make you think of Canadian humour.  

These are all great imaginary reasons for choosing this blog name, but really, when I learned that “canus” is Latin for “grey-haired and aging,” that sealed it.

With this stuff, I want to promote


Canadian Humour Writing
by collecting, reading and reviewing books that have won the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal  (see kudos and coverage on the quest and resulting book);

Humorous Thinking
by indulging in more funny thoughts, stuff, things and ideas with potential to become things (see "Stubbornstuff" Columns); and

And a Sense of Humour
while still reading government memos, briefing notes, and policies as my paying gig  (see summary bio above and  this thing) .



For a free review copy of the Book "What's so Funny?"


Mulling over Molly of the Mall (2020)



The story of a young woman working in an Edmonton shoe store does not easily resonate with my life as an older Ottawa male whose interest in footwear runs from modest to nil.  But within the first few, short chapters of Molly of the Mall (NeWest Press), I felt touched and was certain I would enjoy the book.

This year’s (2020) winner of the Leacock Medal for Humour splits its chapters between the days that Molly MacGregor spends in the Petit Chou shoe store and her terms as a university undergrad.  

Though never specifically identified, the mall that holds the Petit Chou is West-Edmontonian with a wave pool, giant sailing ship, submarines, screaming peacocks, bewildered emus, mock Bourbon-Street restaurants, competing shoes stores, a rink, and at least one bookshop.  It provides a suitably eccentric ambiance for the store where Molly stands and strains through long days with quirky management, less committed coworkers, and performance measures that encourage the sale of gratuitous polish and protectors.

Stocking shelves and staring at feet, she thinks of classic literature, the romance of Jane Austen, and her aspirations for a degree in English.

While I have never worked in a mall nor ever squeezed feet with a promise that a product would stretch, I have, like most people, had physically and psychologically trying times on the job and found comfort in the distraction of stories about the exotic and faraway.  I thought this might be the reason for my optimism and feeling that this would be a book to enjoy.

But as I read through the pages, I found my personal connection to the story was even stronger. I realized that this was precisely the kind of book I tried to write: one that I had submitted to the Leacock Medal competition a year earlier. My book, Governing Travails, sought to share the career experience of a federal bureaucrat through stories peppered with parodies, poems, and lists, all cloaked in a love of literature and attempts at humour.


Molly of the Mall does the same, but with greater effect, greater consistency, and clearly greater success. So, my reading morphed into a study of technique and style and envying admiration.  The author, Heidi Jacobs, has the background to teach someone like me a lot.  

Like her protagonist, Heidi worked in a mall and sold shoes in her youth, but she also went on to earn multiple relevant degrees: a BA,  an MA, and Phd in English and later a Master of Library and Information Science. Today an expert in information literacy, she serves as the English and History Librarian at the University of Windsor’s Leddy Library and has published peer-reviewed works on a range of topics.

These credentials find life in the personality and character of Molly MacGregor, whose name honours Dafoe’s Moll Flanders and reflects the literary and artistic interests of her university professor parents. Molly cites great authors easily and imagines herself in European landscapes surrounded by the characters created by Austen, the Brontë sisters, and the other writers that she knows well.

She also longs to study others like “Eliot, Dickens, Burney, Waugh, Joyce, and Radcliffe,”  and this ambition flows into the chapters that take Molly away from the mall and through her semesters as a student who tangles with writing assignments, hangs out with friends, and dreams of love.

I think this non-mall, less absurd element elevates Heidi’s book above efforts like mine. It makes Molly’s story more human, more relatable than a collection of quirky episodes and bits of humour however literate and classically inspired. The format also emphasizes the two sides of life, the real and the imagined, and the sweetness of the interface between the two.  It is this feature and sum of these parts that make the book something an older, shoe-store adverse bureaucrat might enjoy.


DBD
June 2020





Leacock@150




Today December 30th, 2019 is the 150th anniversary of Stephen Leacock’s birth, and as far as I can tell, no significant national events or commemorations are planned to mark the occasion.

This might baffle the many that regard Leacock as Canada’s greatest humorist and particularly those who know that he once enjoyed stature as our country’s best known writer, and, in some circles abroad, as the best known Canadian.

While many ardent Leacock admirers can be found within humour-loving and humour-writing communities, some others suggest that his sense of humour and sensibilities are somewhat irrelevant and speak to another time – one when Canada could be properly represented by the Anglican church, simple politics, small town concerns, and picnics. 

But reading more recent entries to the Leacock Medal competition, the institution that sustains Stephen Leacock’s memory, I find a fibre that runs through the mythical Mariposa of  Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town and the humour that resonates with a modern, multicultural Canada.  It also echoes Leacock’s oft quoted definition of humour “the kindly contemplation of the incongruities of life, and the artistic expression thereof.”

With this comment Leacock intended kindly in the sense of one’s kin or kind – or one’s community.  I think that supreme humour of the type found in many Leacock Medal books in recent years can reflect a specific community but in a way that is universal and can touch us all.  

And this is what I am going to reflect on this day.  

I invite you to click around and do the same.



2019 Leacock Medal - Boy Wonders



Though textbooks, teachers, and editors tell writers to hook readers from the start, few books grab me with their opening pages.

I might expect to struggle with one that begins by detailing the process of digging a hole in the ground.

But I knew almost immediately that I would enjoy the 2019 Leacock Medal winner Boy Wonders, a memoir by Globe and Mail sports columnist Cathal Kelly.  Its hole-digging introduction and the chapters that follow blend  thoughtfulness with humour in a way that makes it both fun and worthy of literary award recognition.

In recent years, the Leacock Medal has favoured narratives that tell one long, continuous story, and I had come to believe that this might be the award’s niche in the CanLit landscape. Boy Wonders seems to break with this inclination. It is a disparate collection of reminiscences set in 1970s and 80s Toronto and presented under topics running from Star Wars and Michael Jackson’s Jacket to Porno and Fights. Each story could stand alone.

But together they describe a life experience as well as any long chronicle. In fact, Kelly suggests that reliance on vignettes may be the best approach to autobiography because our memories are just a bunch of fuzzy screenshots, Freud's “screen memories,” augmented by what we think transpired around them. Afterall he says, “at our core, what are we but an agglomeration of the things we believe happened to us?”

In a big way, the book is not about the events of the author’s boyhood, but more of an effort to find meaning in his memories and to tie them to the man he is today.

He believes, for example, his enduring cynicism began in the lineup to see The Empire Strikes Back when a van soared by, announcing “Darth Vader is Luke’s father! Darth Vader is Luke’s father!”

The digging of the hole that opened the book marked him similarly and became memorable because the trench grew too deep to escape.  He stayed there for what may have been hours before his mother calmly rescued him.  As she does, you learn of her stoic Irishness and single-parent influence.  In these initial pages, you also glimpse the author’s skill in vocabulary, metaphors, and pacing; and you start to understand how minor events can assume significance both in shaping our adult selves and in illuminating the wonders of everyone’s early years.

We are reminded that childhood is the time when humans can “have purpose without an end,” play with “no objectives or goals,” and just “do in order to do.”

As I hoped, this bemused musing flowed throughout Boy Wonders. 

Yet in reading these stories, I recalled parallel personal experiences often thinking that my own were richer, more dramatic and interesting, at least to baby-boomer me.  Kelly’s recollection of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster resonates with my day around JFK’s assassination, the connection he feels for post-disco, glam-metal music surprised me with its similarity to my attachment to the sounds of the sixties, and his reactions to Orwell were much the same as what I witnessed in my kids at even earlier ages.  This all made me reflect.

But unlike my random screen memories, Cathal Kelly’s stories make for a good book because of the craft applied to their recounting. This, in turn, induces that introspection, which is the effect of a memoir that may lack technical information and historical detail, but brims with personality, candor, and wit.

Of course, when we examine our own experience, try to find meaning, and search for perspective, it helps to do so with a mollifying sense of humour: the practice that the Leacock Medal celebrates and that this year’s winner seems to do with ease.

Do yourself a favour 

Cost me $4.99 for the book on Kindle