In which I discuss the skinny books that slip into my bookbag while the heavier, cumbersome volumes (like Ian Urbina’s The Outlaw Ocean and Flannery O’Connor’s letters) stay home.
Thirty-eight chapters and under 200 pages: Didier Leclair’s This Country of Mine (2003; Trans. Elaine Kennedy, 2018) issues an invitation to read a chapter or two on the TTC between destinations.
Riding the #501, from Queen West to Queen East, crossing neighbourhoods like scanning a menu, suits this story, one that also shifts and alters across time and the city. What a fitting nominee for the Toronto Book Award.
Apollinaire was a doctor in his homeland in Africa but drives a borrowed cab at night in Toronto. He inhabits a “desert of time and oases full of false certainties”.
The action unfolds in ordinary places: in line at the bank, in a darkened room with an AIDS patient, in a café…spaces that hold transitions. And the actions are small: answering questions from police, listening to a friend’s insistence that he will succeed in business just as his ancestors succeeded in human trafficking, sending money home to family via a wire transfer service.
His wife, Adèle, has been working two jobs and minding their child, while Apollinaire works at the call centre and studies for the exams he must take in order to practice medicine in Canada. The better part of two decades old, one imagines that writing this story today, Didier Leclair might have afforded more than a mere glimpse of the events from Adèle’s perspective. It’s true that, for Apollinaire, she is something of a cipher, but her view of her husband would have added a degree of complexity to not only her character but Apollinaire’s as well.
The time her husband spends at night, offering his services to those who cannot access health care, strains their marriage, but what fractures their connection is something Apollinaire has hoped not to discuss, which is also the reason that he drinks with the Captain in the bar and the reason that some of his patients call him Schweitzer. The layers of his experience emerge organically so that the focus remains on the present-day, which leaves room for a satisfying though open-ended conclusion.
Two graphic novels by Richard van Camp were perfect for reading on the subway. Both A Blanket of Butterflies and Three Feathers were published in 2015 as part of the Debwe series, designed to showcase indigenous talent. Van Camp has been a favourite since I read Godless but Loyal to Heaven (and his more recent collection of stories, Moccasin Square Gardens) which features a wide cast of characters in and around the Dogrib (Tlicho) Nation in the NorthWestTerritories.
The stories are van Camp’s contribution. Although it was James Croizier who told him a story about a samurai suit of armor at the Northern Life Museum and Cultural Centre in their hometown, Fort Smith, NWT – so he credits him with the idea for A Blanket of Butterflies. Scott B. Henderson illustrates this (I’ve also read his Seven Generations graphic novels) and there are some stunning bits. A double-spread fight scene has detailed figures in the foreground, but the background, surrounding the larger figures, contains small images of select moments during the fight. Background and foreground are used in an interesting way later, too, to illustrate the past and present of an object’s historical significance.
Three Feathers is illustrated by K. Mateus and this is her first graphic novel. There are a lot of teaching moments in this story, in which young people commit a crime, serve a community sentence of nine months on the land, and return with newfound understanding. (There’s a hint of an instructive tone in the other comic too, with a chart of Dene Laws, but it’s a useful reminder that these are independent and sovereign peoples with their own cultures and traditions, of which many others know little.) For instance: “All people must live in a respectful relationship with the land. The land provides for all and is our best teacher.”
Much of the dialogue is earnest and edifying, but there are humourous bits too. Like: “Rupert is deaf and can lip read, but he taught us sign language on the land, and now he won’t shut up.” This particular image appeals to me because I imagine some artists would have chosen to focus on the speaker with the microphone in his hand, but in this image, readers see his back and part of his profile, so that the bulk of the page is devoted to the audience. The shape and size of panels vary and close-ups on facial expressions and the attention paid to certain details (e.g. foods, goods, flora and fauna) provide glimpses into culture and everyday life. The publication is also available in English/Cree, English/Slavey and English/Chipewyan editions.