redux: “I have always taken the compass as a thing to be held.”

5A

Note: This post is from March, 2014. I was thinking my way into a novella and I was reading, in some cases re-reading, the novels (and novellas) of Ethel Wilson and Sheila Watson. They are the muses of the novella I eventually wrote, The Marriage of Rivers, and I am so delighted to tell you that Palimpsest Press will publish it next spring (2020). The contract has been signed, sealed, and delivered! This press, like Mother Tongue Publishing, is devoted to “…poetry, fiction, and select nonfiction titles that deal with poetics, the writing life, aesthetics, cultural criticism, and literary biography.” And their books are objects of beauty in themselves.

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I’ve never been to Dog Creek though I’ve thought of it many times as we’ve driven Highway 97 from Cache Creek north. In 1934 (one account says 1935) the young Sheila Doherty went to teach school in Dog Creek, then (as now) a remote community on the west side of the Fraser River. She lived in Dog Creek for two years and wrote of this time in her first novel, Deep Hollow Creek, though it was published much later in her life, after she’d achieved a kind of fame after the publication of her second novel, The Double Hook, in 1959. By then she’d married Wilfred Watson and taken his surname.

I read The Double Hook as many of us did, as an undergraduate (in the last century), and it changed the way I thought about novels. Its language, both lean and mythic, led the reader into a hermetic world from which one emerged, dazed and somehow enlightened. Its structure was (is) perfectly balanced between darkness and illumination, between violence and redemption. As Sheila Watson wrote in The Double Hook, “…when you fish for the glory you catch the darkness too.”

But it was many years later before I found Deep Hollow Creek — and no surprise there because it wasn’t published until 1992. I read it later in the 1990s, a chance discovery on the shelves of the Sechelt Public Library. It’s a brief perfect book. 111 pages in the New Canadian Library edition I bought at Russell Books in early March. I’d call it a novella, that enigmatic form beloved by maybe too few of us these days (or so the publishing world would have us believe. We can’t market them, they say. We can’t sell them!). Every word counts in Deep Hollow Creek and there are just enough of them for the young school teacher Stella to enter the place  that is Dog Creek and tangle herself in the dense stories of the few who live there.  “If I hadn’t come here, I doubt whether I should ever have seen through the shroud of printers’ ink, through to the embalmed silence. The word is a flame burning in a dark glass.”

Deep Hollow Creek anticipates The Double Hook but to my mind it’s more satisfying. This is personal, of course. I think both books are works of sheer genius but somehow the symbolism of The Double Hook is used with a lighter hand in the earlier book. The place — Dog Creek — seems first of all to be a real place. Stella unravels the water-rights, the systems of hay crops, the genealogies of horses and dogs, the bitter disputes between families. And it all rings so true, even those grouse among the jack-pines: “…red-eyed, speckle-coated fool-hens…unconcerned, waiting for their necks to be wrung without the trouble of a shot.”

I am trying to find a way to write lean essential stories myself and it’s a gift to have this book to serve as a talisman, a compass. “I have always taken the compass as a thing to be held. Yet the hand falters measuring the fleeting body of flame.”

night writing

sweet peas

These days it’s too hot to do much but keep up with the watering, the general chores around the house, some reading in the afternoon when the sun is right overhead and everything outside is quietly frying. Radio news always ends with heat warnings, how important it is to stay hydrated, and updates about fires. Last year we lost many young cedars. It took 6 months for it to be clear they were dead—they lost fronds last summer and then seemed a bit more lively in the fall. But now we can see they’re dead and we’re waiting for B.C. Hydro crews to clear the ones close to the power lines (a guy came and identified 7 that he said were a potential hazard and those were ones Hydro crews would cut down because of their proximity to wires). Some of the others are more difficult. And right now we wouldn’t use a chain saw in the dry woods in any case.

What is lovely though: the small hours of coolness, after midnight but before dawn. I’ve been getting up most nights to make use of them. I come down the dark stairs, feeling my way with my toes. There’s moonlight in the living room, enough to help me find my way to my study without turning on any lights. By feel again, I turn the switch on my little desk lamp. Cool air comes in the big window that my desk faces.

I have two works-in-progress: my [unpublishable] novella about a young woman looking for traces of Sheila Watson and Ethel Wilson in the dry Interior of B.C., mapping their works in an attempt to create a feminine (or feminist) cartography; and a sequence of linked essays exploring (again) family history. I am trying to figure out stuff about my grandfather’s early years in Bukovina and in North America, reading social histories of Ukrainian immigrants as well as Anne Applebaum’s extraordinary Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine, to understand something of the place he left and what might have been the fate of those family members who remained.

In the night, so much seems possible. That knowing a few names and a place of origin might miraculously produce a long-lost family or that following a young woman in her beat-up truck along the road up the Deadman River or north-west of Clinton to Dog Creek will reveal contours and wildflowers equivalent to a woman’s body, her apprehension of a landscape both peopled and barren.

And what I also do in the night is remember wonderful meals and how the details of a dinner in Prague are also the details of family history. By writing the table, I hope to find everything.

What wine would you recommend, we asked the waiter, who was friendly, using American idioms in his greeting (“How you guys doing? Take a load off, my friend.”) which fooled us into thinking his English was better than it was. Wine, he answered (or echoed), and brought us a bottle of Modry Portugal, pouring it with a flourish as we ordered our meal. The delicious česnečka for me –garlic broth, soft potato, with cubes of fried bread and grated cheese. John ordered chicken livers with almonds and was surprised to be presented with a plate of prawns. The waiter’s obvious pride in the dish and our growing suspicion that his English was illusory (as indeed was our Czech, and we were in his city after all) stopped John from making any fuss, though we were so far from any ocean. And then a wonderful gulas, which reminded me of an aunt’s recipe passed along to my mother, one I always assumed was Hungarian, from my uncle’s side of the family, not realizing that it probably came from my grandmother. (Those porous borders, that history.)The guláš was served with houskový knedlik, bread dumplings that soaked up the copious gravy.

And the wine? Beautiful. Ruby coloured, light, and perfect with the food. Later, in Brno, we were told that “modry” means blue. And Portugal, I asked? Well, just Portugal. (There’s a story that an Austrian brought the grape from Oporto to his estate near Vienna in the late-18th century but ampelographers, who use genetic fingerprinting to pinpoint the identity and origins of vines, dispute this provenance.)

I think now of the difficulties in my search for my own origins – the pruned shoots of my mother’s family tree, the tangled roots of my father’s, with grafts and sports on every limb. And drinking a wine like Blue Portugal seems the perfect accompaniment to both the search and the failure.

—from “Blue Portugal”, an essay-in-progressN

“I have always taken the compass as a thing to be held.”

I’ve never been to Dog Creek though I’ve thought of it many times as we’ve driven Highway 97 from Cache Creek north. In 1934 (one account says 1935) the young Sheila Doherty went to teach school in Dog Creek, then (as now) a remote community on the west side of the Fraser River. She lived in Dog Creek for two years and wrote of this time in her first novel, Deep Hollow Creek, though it was published much later in her life, after she’d achieved a kind of fame after the publication of her second novel, The Double Hook, in 1959. By then she’d married Wilfred Watson and taken his surname.

I read The Double Hook as many of us did, as an undergraduate (in the last century), and it changed the way I thought about novels. Its language, both lean and mythic, led the reader into a hermetic world from which one emerged, dazed and somehow enlightened. Its structure was (is) perfectly balanced between darkness and illumination, between violence and redemption. As Sheila Watson wrote in The Double Hook, “…when you fish for the glory you catch the darkness too.”

But it was many years later before I found Deep Hollow Creek — and no surprise there because it wasn’t published until 1992. I read it later in the 1990s, a chance discovery on the shelves of the Sechelt Public Library. It’s a brief perfect book. 111 pages in the New Canadian Library edition I bought at Russell Books in early March. I’d call it a novella, that enigmatic form beloved by maybe too few of us these days (or so the publishing world would have us believe. We can’t market them, they say. We can’t sell them!). Every word counts in Deep Hollow Creek and there are just enough of them for the young school teacher Stella to enter the place  that is Dog Creek and tangle herself in the dense stories of the few who live there.  “If I hadn’t come here, I doubt whether I should ever have seen through the shroud of printers’ ink, through to the embalmed silence. The word is a flame burning in a dark glass.”

Deep Hollow Creek anticipates The Double Hook but to my mind it’s more satisfying. This is personal, of course. I think both books are works of sheer genius but somehow the symbolism of The Double Hook is used with a lighter hand in the earlier book. The place — Dog Creek — seems first of all to be a real place. Stella unravels the water-rights, the systems of hay crops, the genealogies of horses and dogs, the bitter disputes between families. And it all rings so true, even those grouse among the jack-pines: “…red-eyed, speckle-coated fool-hens…unconcerned, waiting for their necks to be wrung without the trouble of a shot.”

I am trying to find a way to write lean essential stories myself and it’s a gift to have this book to serve as a talisman, a compass. “I have always taken the compass as a thing to be held. Yet the hand falters measuring the fleeting body of flame.”