A Deaf Boy Named Trout: Bruce Hunter is In the Bear’s House

Bruce Hunter

Until fairly recently, I believed that my father had been born and raised in Montreal. My German-American grandparents had left their farm in Minnesota and, for some reason, went against the grain of westward migration and moved to Quebec. This belief was based on statements by my maternal grandmother – who raised me – such as “Your father was from Montreal, you know,” and “Your father was a French Canadian.” Their migration to Seattle in the mid-1930s when my father was sixteen made much more historical sense.

My paternal grandmother was alive in Seattle until I was thirteen, and we visited her every few months. But I never inquired about her past. And, sadly unlike my maternal grandmother, she wasn’t a story-teller. She dressed elegantly, had refined manners, and her apartment was handsomely decorated in late Victorian style. All that spoke of a venerable east coast city such as Montreal. She also bought me a Buffet clarinet, made in Paris, considered “the best of the best” by many professionals. To a nine-year-old’s logic, that was more proof of my French background.

This later suited my emerging personal mythology quite nicely, since I’d first visited Montreal at age sixteen and was enthralled by the city, its ambience and culture, and then again when I was eighteen. Immigrating to Canada from San Francisco, I bought a one-way plane ticket to Montreal – a trip that was cancelled for amorous reasons and rebooked for Vancouver. When I “discovered” hockey in 1976, I became a devout fan of Les Habs. After moving to the Maritimes, whenever I rode the train into Montreal, crossing the bridge over the St. Lawrence, I’d look at the city and think with a warm glow of connection, “My father grew up here.” I even wrote my Ph.D. thesis on two Montreal poets, A.M. Klein and Irving Layton.

Imagine my surprise when, at work on a memoir and finally researching my family history with scholarly rigour, I discovered proof that my father was, indeed, born in Canada. As well, according to a U.S. “Border Crossings” document from 1922, he briefly returned to Minnesota at age two and his “Race/Nationality” is listed as “French.” However, there is no evidence that he was ever east of Manitoba, and sufficient proof that he was born somewhere in the Canadian Prairies and spent almost all his childhood until age sixteen in Alberta, south and southeast of Edmonton, where his parents were living as early as 1903. Some of his uncles and aunts and cousins joined them. I have evidence that my father and his parents lived in Wetaskuwin and near Holden. The fact that an American customs official labelled my father “French” might reinforce one’s bias about American ignorance of life beyond that nation’s borders.

Overnight, I ceased to be the child of a Montrealer and became the son of a man who grew up hunting wolves and coyotes for bounty and working on ranches with his father, and no doubt helping with his dad’s moonshine and auction businesses. My father wasn’t slicing open baguettes, he was skinning critters. His later stylish fondness for dapper clothes, sleek sedans, and dancing in jazz clubs didn’t derive from a Montreal upbringing, but, I now reckon, from spending the Roaring 20s and early Dirty Thirties riding fence and hawking farm equipment in rural Alberta. My heritage wasn’t the fictionalized world of Mordecai Richler, Yves Beauchemin, Hugh MacLennan, and Marie-Claire Blais, but that of Robert Kroetsch, Merna Summers, and Guy Vanderhaege. Perhaps it was this lurking reality that made me switch my allegiance to the Oilers during the reign of Gretzy, et al. And a gravitational psychic force that pulled me back to the Rockies summer after summer to teach in The Banff Centre’s writing program.

There I met Bruce Hunter, a Calgary native, a program participant who was writing and publishing fine poetry, while working blue collar jobs. We struck up a friendship, which continued after he moved to Toronto, completed a Master’s degree, and secured a permanent position teaching English and Literary Studies at Seneca College. Recently, he was Author in Residence at the Calgary Public Library. From 1981 onward, he published five volumes of poetry, a short story collection, and the novel In the Bear’s House.

Lee Ellen often has to warn me against being a spoiler when it comes to fiction, so I will restrain myself with the characters and plot of Bruce’s wonderful novel. In the Bear’s House is partly a coming-of-age story, with young, hearing-impaired Will – known as Trout – as one of the two main characters. The narrative structure alternates between the third-person relating of Trout’s experiences and inner world, and first-person accounts by Clare, Trout’s mother. The story opens and remains for a long while in Calgary and the surrounding landscape, then moves to the country west of Edmonton and Rocky Mountain House – Kooteney Plains, the North Saskatchewan, the foothills and mountains of Jasper.

I want to quote and heartily second the cover blurb by poet Phil Hall: “I have always read Bruce Hunter because his wide integrity and his deep craft are equal. He uses words carefully because he has earned them. This is a coming-of-age story about Scots in working-class Calgary. Later, to the north-west, high crags, forest fire trails, hard lessons. Here is a life-affirming, place-affirming, wise mountain of a book.”

Clare’s sections make this equally, and remarkably, the story of a woman experiencing a different kind of coming-of-age – the adult kind of long-term rites de passage we all must or should undergo – in Clare’s case, as a working-class mother, wife, and home-maker in the 1960s-1970s; and as a woman of exceptional intelligence and talent, mostly side-lined, who must reclaim and enact that huge part of herself. As a male reader, my praise of a woman character crafted by a male writer may be called into question. However, based on my decades of living and of reading fiction, I was quite impressed and moved by Bruce’s ability to create an eminently complex, memorable, likable, admirable, inspiring, and convincing woman protagonist.

As for Trout, I’ll simply say that he is richly conceived and realized, utterly endearing, and unforgettable.

Also unforgettable, vibrantly drawn, and hugely admirable, are Trout’s Uncle Jack and Aunt Shelagh, along with a Stony elder, Silas Moses, and his grand-daughter, Carrie. But I will say no more about them.

There are suspenseful events and conflicts, ranging from the consequences of Trout’s disability to larger dramas in the northern mountains and valleys. But most of the novel’s suspense emanates from the characters’ inner lives and relationships, and this, along with Bruce’s deep appreciation of the landscape and understanding of these places, is where Hall’s “wise mountain of a book” is so applicable.

Finally, the language of the novel is everywhere vivid, evocative, captivating. He is a fiction-writing poet for whom the poetry serves the story and characters, without stealing the stage and showing off. The writing subtly dazzles. There’s nitty-gritty writing rooted in Bruce’s working class background: “He slung a climbing rope over his shoulders and took the Winchester rifle from the gun rack in the cab.” And there is language that crests from the page: Trout gets a new gold-receiver hearing aid and “Hearing brought new words with sharp flint edges that sparked when they struck.” He collects sea shells, and has a special conch: “In his blue-walled room he picked up his shells, caressed them one by one: comfort, order and calm. He held up the conch with its pearled knobs crowning it. He put it to his ear. Nothing. He held it against the gold receiver, which hung above his heart. Noise. Not the sea, which he’s never seen. But a sound like it: washing, circling, hinting.”

You do not have to discover that your ancestry is half-Albertan, or Scots, in order to love this novel. You just have to read Clare’s first words on the first page – “He was my first born, my blue baby, my water baby” – and Trout’s – “This was the place he’d hide, the deaf boy named Trout” and you will, I hope, be hooked. And, waving fare-thee-well to them later, know and care for these people and places as if they’re also your own.

Lulu the fiddler from Fraser Arm, B.C. (not Lulu the singer-songwriter from Scotland)

In the last year, four new novels landed on my desk in which the main characters’ parents – one or both – mysteriously disappear during the protagonists’ childhood. In Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight, in post-WWII England, both parents leave for the far east, and vanish. Wayne Johnston’s First Snow, Last Light opens with the young protagonist returning from school one afternoon in St. John’s during the season’s first snowfall and discovering his parents’ absence. In Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach, Anna Kerrigan’s father goes missing when she’s fourteen. (I strongly recommend both Ondaatje’s and Johnston’s novels. Egan’s I haven’t yet read.)

The fourth book is The Very Marrow of Our Bones, by Christine Higdon, who lives near Toronto, whose origins are in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia and Newfoundland, and with a strong attachment to Nova Scotia.

Lulu is the central protagonist of Christine Higdon’s debut novel, set in Fraser Arm, a (fictional) tiny rural community in the Fraser Valley east of Vancouver. When Lulu is a child, with four siblings, her mother disappears. The same day, another mother vanishes from the community without explanation. The novel shifts in time between Lulu’s childhood and fifty-year-old Lulu, returning to Fraser Arm as she recovers from a near-fatal motorcycle accident, her career as a country and folk music fiddler on hold. There are also scenes and details of her life, and of several other characters’ lives, from the intervening years. The narration alternates between Lulu’s first person and the third person narrative of Doris, the “egg lady,” Lulu’s Fraser Arm contemporary, who has never spoken and communicates by writing notes, and who survives with her subsistence farm – chickens and vegetables.

When I read the novel’s final pages – deeply moved, euphoric after infusions of the bittersweet, grounded in earthy reality and also soaring with the knowledge that we humans are capable of ethereal communion – I thought: This is a big novel. Big in heart. Big in spirit – spirit that’s always solidly rooted in the tangible realms of nature and human community. Big in its understanding of the human psyche in all its variegated mystery and wonder, folly and anguish, ignorance and wisdom, duplicity and honesty, love and fear of loving, loss and recovery, abandonment and devotion. Big in its portraits of, and insights into, human relationships in all their complexity and simplicity, enigmas and discoveries, damage, healing, and redemption.

As well, the novel is masterful in the way Higdon deftly embeds her characters’ psyches, relationships, actions, and inactions within the natural world of the Fraser Valley, and within the yards and homes of Fraser Arm. Higdon has a knack for reminding, for showing, us that our lives unfold, weave, unravel, and interweave within our material environments, the realm of the five senses. “She lifts an edge of the curtain. It is still snowing and the sky is an odd pink, like blood seeping into a damp white towel.” “Everything smells and looks different after a storm. The grasses are flattened and the wind or rain – Doris does not know which – has plucked all the salmonberries from their white cone-shaped receptacles and splattered them in the mud.”

The older Lulu is back in Fraser Arm, wondering when and if she will return to Nashville, the festivals and studio work: “The birds were on the roof again. They’d been there all week, getting ready to fly south. I could hear them, a team of small football players scrabbling in cleats from one end of the field to another. Starlings. Stupid starlings, I suppose, because all of a sudden I could hear one flapping around in the chimney. I imagined the flock flying in unison off the roof, dark angels making their undulating murmuration in the sky. One of them says, ‘Hey, where’s Jim?’ ‘I dunno, he was right behind you.’ ‘Right behind me? Shit. He’s gone down the chimney. Just like his dad. We gotta go back.’ ‘Forget it Jake. It’s Chinatown. He’s a goner.” Oh yes, Higdon is often funny, a gentle wit, most of the time…though sometimes dark and caustic, as needed.

Right after I finished the novel, and after thinking of the ways in which it was big, I thought: This is a book to live by. These are characters – most of them – to learn from and live by. Now, I suppose all or most fiction writers (and poets, playwrights, memoirists, etc.) hope – overtly or secretly – that their books might inspire this reaction in their readers. If not in the grand and global sense of readers living their whole life according to some text (“Anna Karenina is my bible, a friend once reverently told me” – fortunately, she did not throw herself in front of a train), then in specific ways and circumstances.

In my early “serious” reading years – age seventeen to mid-twenties – there were books I wanted to live by. They varied greatly, as befitting the experimentations and shape-shifting of one’s early adulthood. In my late teens it was Conrad’s Lord Jim (I even planned to, and almost did, ship out on a merchant vessel – but turned down the offer of a seaman’s ticket, with Saigon as the destination.) And The Brothers Karamazov. Then Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet and Lessing’s The Golden Notebook. Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund and Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King. Nadezhda Mandelstahm’s memoir set in Stalinist Russia, Hope Against Hope. Then, for a long time, I ceased to feel that way about novels, though I have continued to do so about various poets and their work. Now, when I have much less time to live than I did when I was suffused with Conrad and Durrell, I am, blessedly, finding such books again – or, more precisely, feeling this way about certain books I read. Such as The Very Marrow of Our Bones.

Higdon drew me so intimately into her Fraser Arm people that I feel like one of their community – the extended family of characters related both by blood and by experience and belonging. Almost are her characters are eminently decent, likable, even lovable – and eminently human, for they all struggle with their mistakes, needs, yearnings and fears, reluctance and resistance, and the paradoxical burden of blessings. When I was a younger writer and participant in The Banff Centre’s writing program, fiction instructor Sylvia Fraser, after reading one of my stories, said, “Your voice and main character are very likable, admirable, and that’s a strength in your writing. But the story leaves me unsatisfied because you don’t show me the price he paid to become likable and admirable. Everyone pays a price. I need to know the price.” Higdon reveals, scene by scene, the price her lovable characters pay. And, yes, there are a few characters I did not like, not one bit. She does jerks and scumbags quite well.

Finally, though she beautifully slows down the plot – sometimes sets it aside – to provide valuable anecdotes and scenes that develop her characters and their relationships, their lives in Fraser Arm and elsewhere – there is no shortage of suspense. And the tension escalates, the pace quickens in the second half, without sacrificing the ongoing development of character, relationship, and place.

A novel, a story, and characters that now have a firm place in my memory, spirit, and heart

Chris Bailey – Two Generations Removed

What draws me back to posting, however, is not knee surgery and its etiology, but two wonderful new books I’ve recently read: a first poetry collection, What Your Hands Have Done, by Chris Bailey, who hails from Prince Edward Island; and a first novel, The Very Marrow of Our Bones, by Christine Higdon, who lives near Toronto, whose origins are in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia and Newfoundland, and with a strong attachment to Nova Scotia.

Chris Bailey comes from a fishing family in North Lake, a prominent fishing community on the far northeast tip of PEI. He has fished lobster, mackerel and other fish with his father, mother, and brothers since he was young, and returns to the boat in the summer. He earned an Honours B.A. in Psychology and took creative writing courses at UPEI, then completed the Master’s program in creative writing at Guelph University, working with Dionne Brand, Michael Winter, Craig Davidson, and others. While still an undergraduate, he was accepted to the Emerging Writers Workshop – poetry workshop – at The Banff Centre to work on his poetry with Lorna Crozier. During his Master’s program, he returned to Banff to work with Elizabeth Phillips on his poetry ms., and returned more recently to work on his fiction. (His M.A. thesis was a novel.) Nightwood editions published his first collection, What Your Hands Have Done.

Chris’ poetry is both highly crafted and nitty gritty, tender and gruff. The language is eloquently colloquial, with vivid, visceral imagery. Think Raymond Carver, one of his models, along with Elmore Leonard, Charles Bukowski, Warren Zevon, Michael Crummey, and Lorna Crozier. He’s a story-telling, narrative poet, with crystal clear stories and language. He is already mastering the use of speech and dialogue in poetry, and the speech of the people in his poems rings absolutely true. There’s humour too, rough and gentle humour – the ironic, terse, earthy wit of a father battling cancer, others battling alcoholism, fishing families coping with the vagaries of the fishery and weather, the middlemen and markets, young people dealing with twenty-first century culture in a rural community permeated by the digital and globalized world.

Chris is the first PEI poet to devote the majority of a book to the lives of fishing families, their communities, their relationships, and the interaction of tradition and modernity. The book is a welcome and compelling PEI counterpart to Michael Crummey’s Hard Light, in which he retells and reinvents stories his father told him, as his father was failing and dying, of the Newfoundland and Labrador outport fishery. It’s also tempting to say that Bailey’s book is a poetry inheritor or descendant of Alistair MacLeod’s “The Boat.” But Chris’ parents are the generation after Alistair, and Chris is two generations removed, writing about life in North Lake and on the water now.

There is no nostalgia for the past, rather, the trials, sufferings, redemptions, and blessings of his era. And the reader never feels claustrophobically trapped in a “fishing” theme, for this is a writer, again, steeped in Elmore Leonard (“the Dickens of Detroit”) and Warren Zevon (“Werewolves of London”). Chris is the son in “The Boat” who goes away to college in Toronto but comes back in the summers to fish – reluctantly, for he doesn’t love it, yet is devoted to family and its well-being – then returns to Hamilton, the city he much prefers to Toronto. (And MacLeod did spend most of his adult life in Windsor, across from Detroit.) And where Chris is working on several fiction projects and more poetry.

earthshine and hope

After gently urging me for years to create a Facebook site as a writer, my talented, lovely, and wonderfully-thoughtful wife, Lee Ellen, realized I would never undertake that task, and decided to create one for me. Having been raised by grandparents who reminded me at least once a week that they’d lived through the Depression and, therefore, I should never waste anything, especially gifts from other people, I have resolved to heed Lee Ellen’s words: “Now that you have a Facebook site, put it to good use, write and post something.”

I can’t think of a better focus for my first post than the new collection of haiku, earthshine, by my dear friend of almost fifty years, Chuck Brickley. I met Chuck when we were working at the legendary Duthie Books on Robson Street in Vancouver. I’d moved there from San Francisco in 1968, and Chuck and his wife, Kim, natives of a San Francisco suburb, had recently immigrated. Chuck was a musician (saxophone), devoted student of literature, and haiku poet. Kim, one of the most beautiful spirits I’ve been blessed to know, would become a gifted pre-school teacher and then college teacher in early childhood education. We formed a fast friendship.

That friendship grew when Kim and Chuck, wanting to live in the countryside, moved in 1971 one hundred miles east to Hope, where the Fraser River, after rushing south through breath-taking canyons, bends west to the Fraser Valley carved by the river as the glaciers melted. Surrounded by mountains on three sides, Hope was a destination in the 1970s for back-to-the-landers and draft dodgers. There was a Sasquatch cave tourist trap. The pool tables in the hotel pub were surrounded by loggers and highway construction workers. Sto:lo members of the Union Bar First Nation would appear on your doorstep at night with salmon, from their stretch of the river, which the government forbade them to sell. Over Chinese food in the Kan Yon, the newcomers spoke of close calls with semis – long-haul drivers dazed from sleeplessness and wired on Coke and bennies – in two-lane tunnels of the canyon. (“Never gonna drive that stoned again.”) On the town’s tennis courts and baseball fields, the afternoon winds tunneling up the valley from the ocean added to the challenge of hitting lobs and tracking down fly balls, while dare-devil hang-gliders leapt into those winds off Hope Mountain. In the marsh near Kim and Chuck’s log lodge, owned by UBC as an occasional field study location for Biology students, red-winged blackbirds trilled in the cattails.

I often visited Chuck and Kim on weekends, then moved to Hope in 1974, to a small cottage on Kawkawa Lake three miles from town, Hope Mountain looming overhead.

chuck brickley

Chuck, I tell people, was the first serious and high-quality writer I became close friends with. If we’d gathered the countless hours we talked – often while hiking and bird-watching – about writing, poetry and fiction, religion and philosophy, music, nature and ecology, and political and economic philosophy, and devoted that time to mastering and playing the stock market, we’d be multi-millionaires today, and otherwise profoundly impoverished. As with such friendships, there is so much mentoring going on – and as with the best friendships, the flow of mentorship was so constant and equal in both directions that it was impossible to know at any moment who was the teacher and who the student.

Nonetheless, I know that Chuck, and Kim, suffered generously and encouragingly through my early attempts at poetry and fiction. Chuck brought his erudition and antennae for poetic technique and form to his critiques, while Kim brought the lucidity, sensitivity, and wisdom of her glorious inner eye.

Chuck also gave me the life-long gift of playing recorders. Wanting to play an instrument that blended in more gracefully than a sax at the frequent music parties where folk and folk-rock dominated, Chuck bought and quickly became adept at recorders. I’d grown up playing clarinet and also honked rather poorly on a sax. In Vancouver, I bought a rosewood alto and a grenadilla soprano recorde, and was thrilled that I could now glide into the musical flow when people were playing Joni Mitchell and Van Morrison. I also learned a great deal from Chuck about jazz, as well as rock.

I owe an enormous debt to Chuck for introducing me both to the poetry and essays of Gary Snyder and the music of The Band – for opening my mind both to Basho and Bruce Cockburn.

When it came to haiku, other poetic forms originating in Japan, and the aesthetic and philosophical traditions underlying those forms, I definitely sat as pupil at Chuck’s feet. Though he would, in his great modesty, vigorously deny that. I remember Chuck saying that, while he loved the Beat poets, and the German poet Rilke, and some modernist poets, he found himself unable to write in those modes. He’d been drawn from a young age to haiku and other Japanese forms… to the “haiku experience.”

Over the years, his mastery of haiku steadily grew, and he caught the attention of Robert Spiess, the revered editor of Modern Haiku, the premier magazine of English-language haiku. Not only did Spiess publish Chuck’s poems, he invited Chuck to be associate editor, a post Chuck served in from 1980 to 1985.

I left Hope in 1977, after attending the Summer Writing Program at The Banff Centre, working with Canadian writers such as W.O. Mitchell, Sylvia Fraser, and Eli Mandel, and deciding that I wanted to go to grad school and study Canadian literature. Chuck and Kim remained in Hope until 2006, when they moved back to San Francisco, into Kim’s childhood home, and to care for her aging father.

earthshine is a selection of Chuck’s hakiu written from the early 1970s to the present, and sequenced over a single year. In the afterword, Chuck writes, “Gazing at a crescent moon on a clear night, one may sometimes notice that the section not directly lit by the sun is graced with its own subtle shading of light. This faint glow is actually sunlight reflected from our planet. It is called earthshine.”

Chuck has always been a proponent of considerable flexibility and inclusiveness when it comes to haiku’s subject matter. He introduced me, for instance, to Michael McClintock, now a distinguished poet and scholar, who shocked much of the haiku world in the 1970s with powerful poems about his experiences as an American soldier in Vietnam. But McClintock helped transform and enrich the haiku tradition, and so has Chuck Brickley.

The natural world, keeping with the haiku tradition, is ever-present in Chuck’s poetry. But his focus often moves among the human world – more precisely, in that unity of human experience and nature which is foundational in ecology. To what Snyder called our Earth House Hold. Thus, there are poems without human presence, apart from the invisible poet…

withered marsh
one by one the last geese
lift into dawn

waterfall spray
a hummingbird draws up
to a rainbow

As well, Chuck gives us:

summer evening
the grandchild waves once more
at the empty road

the abortion.
her long drive home
through spring rain

Indian summer night
I call up my stepfather
to hear his laugh

saw switched off
the Douglas fir lingers
in the breeze

dry creekbed
the gleam of a bullet shell
the only sound

and about his wife’s mother:

still out there weeding
in her sunhat

If you want to read more, you can buy earthshine from Snapshot Press (UK) or directly from Chuck’s website

This first post is also my Christmas present, after all these years, to Chuck and Kim.