The Vintage Book of Canadian Memoirs

edited by George Fetherling

Published by Vintage Canada

582 pages, 2001

Buy it online






Writers Looking Back

Reviewed by Andrea MacPherson


The memoir has, arguably, been explored more in Canada than anywhere else. A literary expression of life writing, the memoir has been received with affection in Canada, where writers such as Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje have embraced the creative form. These memoirs "recall experience the way sun-bleached photographs and edge-curled memories do". They recall "days that have since migrated to the past: the sounds of ceremony, the smells and tastes of celebration, the tears of triumph and grief." In The Vintage Book of Canadian Memoirs, edited by George Fetherling, some of the biggest names in the Canadian literary world are housed together to create a startlingly beautiful collection.

The collection is separated into four sections: At Home and Abroad; Getting Started; Uprootedness and Family; and Tragedies, Choices and Losses. Within these sections, familiar themes such as travel and familial relations are examined, as well as the less common themes of immigration and incest. We are taken from the shores of Canada's coasts, to Sri Lanka, the Ukraine and the United Kingdom in a seamless, languid journey with much-loved authors. Each memoir is unique in tone, style and content, yet they all share enviable qualities: they are authentic, emotive and create a tangible experience for the reader.

Michael Ondaatje's "Running in the Family," taken from the book of the same name, recounts the youth of his parents, as well as Ondaatje's own experiences returning to the same country after many years away. Ondaatje describes Sri Lanka so completely you feel as though you could actually be with him, walking through the tea fields and napping in the heavy, damp afternoons. His descriptive powers are matched by his observations of human nature; he can accurately recreate his parents' young married life, complete with dialogue and innuendo.

My father is walking towards him [Arthur], huge and naked. In one hand he holds five ropes, and dangling on the end of each of them is a black dog. None of the five are touching the ground. He is holding his arm outstretched, holding them with one arm as if he has supernatural strength. Terrible noises are coming from him and from the dogs as if there is a conversation between them that is subterranean, volcanic. All their tongues hanging out ... Arthur cut the ropes and the animals splashed to the ground, writhing free and escaping. He guided my father back to the road and the car that his sister Stephy waited in. They put him in the back seat, his arm still held away from him, now out of the open car window. All the way to Colombo the lengths of rope dangled from his fist in the hot passing air.

In "My Father's House" by Sylvia Fraser, the author recreates her horrific experience of uncovering sexual abuse in her past. Her story is told in an unusual manner, utilizing typeface to separate her present-day life with the dreams and memories she is slowly uncovering. Fraser never strays to the sentimental; rather, she faces the trauma of abuse with a clinical, dispassionate eye. She handles the childhood abuse suffered at her father's hand without flinching; details of the fondling and rapes are told in a straight-ahead manner which implicitly causes the reader to trust the narrator. There is no feeling within this memoir of pity of victimization; the author seems to simply relate a piece of her past that she has come to terms with in her own way.

Imagine this: imagine you discover that for many years another person intimately shared your life without your knowing it. Oh, you had your suspicions: the indented pillow beside you, the toothpaste with a thumbprint that wasn't yours. Now it all fits, you know it's true, but during all that time you never actually saw this person.

And so it was with me. She [the child portion of Fraser who knew of the abuse] was my shadow self, unknown to me. She knew passion where I knew only inhibition, then grief where I knew guilt, then terror where I knew anger. She monitored my every thought, manipulated my actions, aided my survival and sabotaged my dreams, for she was I and I was she.

Margaret Atwood's memoir, "Remembering Marian Engel," details her relationship with another Canadian writer, Engel. In this intimate account, she revisits the friendship in the years before Engel's death. In straightforward narrative, Atwood suggests the pride Engel sustained up until her untimely death.

Once, during a bad spell, I was visiting her in a hospital, and a medical crisis really did strike. Buzzers were sounded, nurses hurried in, and I had to leave. As I did as she was being lifted, stuck with needles in the midst of all that, she winked at me.

This wink demolished me. It was so typical of her, but also so gallant and doomed, bagpipers going in to battle, the Polish cavalry charging the tanks on horseback. It was meant, I knew, to cheer me up, but it said other things too: that no matter how gruesome things were, they had a funny side; that there was a conspiracy going on, between us, behind the doctors' backs. The doctors and her body were engaged in some solemn business or other that was of concern to her, but it wasn't the whole story.

Despite the alterations made in her by the illness and drugs, here was the same expression I'd first caught her at, on that book cover: mischief, fun. Relish was a word she liked; "I've been naughty," she would say, with some pleasure. So there was something to be had, savoured, seen, understood, even at such a moment.

She would not have found this wink of hers courageous. Unless somebody else had done it, of course.

The Vintage Book of Canadian Memoirs is an excellent example of some of the finest memoirs written by some of Canada's best-known writers. Whether you are a memoir connoisseur or you are exploring the form for the first time, this is a collection not to be missed. | October 2001


Andrea MacPherson is a Vancouver-based writer who recently completed an MFA at the University of British Columbia. Her work has most recently appeared in Orbis, Poetry Ireland Review, Descant, The Antigonish Review and Copious Magazine. She was the Poetry & Drama Editor of Prism International from 2000-2001.