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Notes on Literacy

1. When I was coming back on the plane from Nova Scotia several weeks ago, I read Paul Coelho’s “The Alchemist” which I’d picked up during a brief stop-over in Toronto. The bookstore salesperson, trying to help me find something to read in three minutes, kept pointing me towards books I really wasn’t interested in, all set in India. I don’t know why.

* Note: don’t push your taste on others

Perhaps I’d put him on the wrong track—or at least off my real track—by asking initially for Marian Zimmer Bradley’s new book, “Lady of Avalon”. I was curious to see how she would follow up the Mists of Avalon—which has become nearly a cult book—and now that I’ve been to Glastonbury—I was there this summer doing research—wondering what else she had to say about that landscape. He told me, scornfully, with a lift of one eyebrow, that it ‘wasn’t selling through. As I ran up and down in front of the shelves, aware that my flight was boarding, I spotted “The Alchemist”. I’d recently read another of Coelho’s books in galleys and loved it—so I bought it although the salesman told me he’d been told it was ‘flakey’ (more scorn). I was tempted to ask, but held back, what he’d been told about my new book Visible Worlds, visible on the shelves and unpointed out by him. In any case, he took my $18.50 plus tax for a 167 pg paperback with a visible sneer. The Alchemist, by the way, is an allegory about life as a pilgrimmage, and despite being beautifully written it has sold more than 17 million copies wide.

* Note: Literature is not supposed to be popular, not even sometimes

I did enjoy the book, and when I stood up on the plane to let the boy in the window seat next to me, out to use the bathroom, I was clutching The Alchemist in my hand. A young Frenchman behind said, “I see you are reading “The Alchemist”. “Yes,” I said. “What do you think of it” he asked. “I’m enjoying it,” I said. He then proceeded to engage me in a series of significant ‘looks’: those which pass between ‘those who know’. If we’d known the secret handshake we would have exchanged that too. He said he had read the book in French and asked who the English language publisher was so that he could buy it and read it in English. I saw him several times later as we both waited in the Calgary airport and we continued with our ‘looks’ although we did not, again, speak.

* Literacy may admit you to a secret society. (encounters with Frenchmen)

2. I have to admit that I have worried, from time to time, about my 10 year old daughter’s addiction to Archie comics. She has travelled the whole of the United Kingdom and half of Europe reading Archies; she has submitted to the glories of sunset at Rose Spit on the Queen Charlotte Islands reading Archies. She has formed an unbreakable bond with a much older cousin who has a trunk full of Archies.

* Note: What children read is part of a language adults no longer understand

When I have despaired, however, I have also to admit that between bouts of the above, Sweet Valley High and the Babysitters Club, there is also Helen Forresters memoirs of her Liverpool childhood, anything by Julie Lawson, the Diary of Anne Frank, any fiction to do with the London Blitz and a maddeningly illogical succession of odd and consequential material encountered in the school library. (On Saturday morning she came into bed with me, picked up the book I was reading and spent half an hour reading Jane Hirschfields poetry aloud.) She is lucky that she goes to a school that has a terrific library and a librarian. Once, only, the librarian asked her to ask ‘her mother’ if the book she wanted to borrow was ‘suitable.’ She answered “My mother let’s me read everything.”

My mother let me read everything too, although she may not have known what “everything” encompassed. I was lucky as well: by the time I was seven I was allowed to go downtown on the bus to the Carnegie Library in Victoria. By the time I was ten the librarian let me read in the adult section. I can still taste the surge of adrenaline I’d get on my tongue when I walked up those stone steps, knowing I might encounter anything once I got inside.

* Literacy is a series of accidents in a context where accidents are permitted. Accidents are exciting

I read the Bobbsey Twins and the Brontes, Chip Hilton, football player, Dale of the Mounted, Dave Dawson with the R.A.F., The Yearling, Fury, the Hardy Boys, A Soldier of Fortune which contained the word “breast”. “He backed her against the wall and cupped her breast” I recall spending hours puzzling that one—exactly—out;, I read Vicky Barr and Sir Walter Scott, Susannah of the Mounted, Little Women and Little Men and the biography of Marie Curie, Trixie Beldon and Sue Barton: Sue enters nursing school, meets classmates Kit and Connie and intern Dr. Bill Barry, engages in assorted hospital high jinks, and overcomes apprehensions about her personal courage.”

Now a brief word about my father: My father is a gentle man who made his living as a building contractor: he built houses. But he also undertook any ‘small job’ that an elderly lady, widow, single mother or relative asked him to. At one point, in the early 1960’s, trying to do justice to all the pies, cakes and pastries his ‘ladies’ pressed on him ballooned his weight: a brush with diabetes gave him the resolution and the justification he needed to refuse them. The ladies turned to other tactics. They sent gifts to me. I received a sequined cinch belt with a silver shell clasp; bottles of scarcely used red nail polish, a rabbit muff, pink silk high-heeled shoes, enough necklaces to drown a cat and—best of all—a cardboard box full of nurse and doctor books.

I kept that box under my bed: no one else looked at those books; nobody was interested, and I was soon an addict. As well as Sue Barton, there were Kathy Martin Books: Kathy and her former classmate Kelly travel to Alaska for a year to work with TB patients at a federal hospital; Kathy staunchly defends an Eskimo man accused of destroying a totem pole; and Penny Scott—a brown-haired tomboy who tends to plunge headlong into danger; and there was Cherry Ames. Cherry solves mysteries, clashes with gruff older doctors and romances young ones: there is Dr. Jim Clayton, handsome young intern and Dr. Lex Upham with whom she ‘endures’ a tempestuous romance; she helps her friend Vivian through a ‘misguided’ romance, tends wounded soldiers, helps to arrange a wedding, has a romantic interlude with Wade Cooper, meets Dr. Kirk Monroe, realizes that “the doctor who kidnapped her outside the Hilton Clinic and forced her to assist at an operation is part of a dangerous counterfeiting ring; is reunited with Dr. Kirk Monroe, solves the marital problems of a young heiress and and in the last book of the series she is involved with a ski instructor: and guess what, Cherry Ames never gets married!

Nurse and doctor books, like secretary books—the office romance—are still enormously popular.

As literate sophisticates, we know that the underlying story of these works is either Beauty and the Beast or Cinderella; although these days, of course, the plucky heroine more often relies on her own resources than that of the hero. But what about the effect on a young, developing mind? What damage was done?

I was ill with hospital stories; I craved the moment when he would crash into her surgical cart and crush her in his arms; my cheeks flamed too, I suffered his snubs and was heroic through misunderstandings: but more than anything, more than I wanted a happy ending, I wanted it to happen all over again. And it did, again and again until finally I’d had enough: I could not stand the sight of those books. I don’t remember what happened to them. Did I burn them? Pass them on? I have a history of burning, not books especially, but letters, papers, manuscripts, is that when I started?

* Note: Growth in literacy may work by inoculation; the homeopathic effect of doses of genre fiction should not be underestimated. The reader will get well.

But: certain professions were now closed to me, forever: nursing, doctoring, secretarying, and becoming a school teacher: in those innocuous appearing halls also stocked the handsome young university graduate on his way up, ready to annihilate the grade one teacher with his darkly handsome looks.

I returned to the library and bumped, almost at once into the book that changed my life, or at least my perception as to the possibilities of life. This was Dostoevsky’s House of the Dead. This was a work so dark, so profound, so without reference to my experience that I had no one with whom I could talk to about it. The depth of my response to it was instrumental, I think, in impelling me to write. What else could I have done with these overwhelming feelings, this knowledge?

I do not own a copy of “The House of the Dead”, although after writing this talk, I’ve ordered one—and I’ll tell you why. First, though, you might like to know that it is one of Dostoyevsky’s lesser known works, familiar to most people, if at all, through the opera by Leos Janacek. House of the Dead tells the story of Dostoyevsky’s four years spent in a Siberian prison. He was arrested as a revolutionary, sentenced to be executed—put before a firing squad and reprieved at the last second—and sent to Siberia at hard labour. He was compelled to spend four additional years there as a soldier before he could leave and before he again took up writing. House of the Dead appeared in 1860 when he was thirty-nine. This is from one of the letters he wrote to his brother, “We lived in a heap together in one barrack, the flooring was rotten and an inch deep in filth so that we slipped and fell. When wood was put into the stove, no heat came out, only a terrible smell that lasted through the winter.” As an aristocrat, Dostoyevsky was despised… “They would have killed us had they been given the chance; they never stopped persecuting us, for it gave them pleasure… it was an occupation.” Dostoyevsky writes, almost always about freedom, the struggle for it and the tragedy of not having it. The plot of the book is kaleidoscopic: there are many plots revealed in stories told by the prisoners to Dostoyevsky’s narrator; and there is entertainment in which the prisoners put on costumes and perform for the sheer relief of temporarily escaping reality.

It was a shock to me to realize, as I dredged my memory for the outlines of this book, to see how aspects of it had surfaced in my new novel, “Visible Worlds”. There are two stories told: one follows three families through the depression, Second World War and the Korean War, but knitting the stories together is the tale of a woman who is escaping from Siberia by crossing the polar icecap. She has been raised in a Siberian labour camp and her story intersects with both a German POW, from one of the other three families and that of the book’s ‘hero’ who attempts to rescue them both.

* Note; Literacy is subversive, transformative and long-lasting: it leaves imprints on the psyche