Saturday, January 8, 2011 |
Before the holidays, we had members of the Canada Reads team each pick a current contender to defend. They explored their chosen title's first impressions, essentialness and Canadianness. Now it is 2011 and the team is back in action. The first question they must answer? Which character in their beloved book is their favourite?
Much has been made of how funny this book is. Winner of the Stephen Leacock award, etc, etc. And while The Best Laid Plans is indeed laugh-out-loud funny in places, some of the most memorable scenes, to my mind, reside at the opposite end of the emotional spectrum.
These moments of gravitas come from an unlikely source — Angus McLintock. This crusty character loves chess, hates bad grammar, farts prodigiously and grudgingly runs for political office only to wind up changing the fate of the nation. He's basically a cartoon, a stereotype. At least, that's what you think he is, until Terry Fallis sits him down behind a bottle of single malt, and sets him scribbling in his leather-bound journal.
In these moments, which happen a dozen or so times throughout the book, Angus enters into a conversation with his late wife, Marin Lee. These are spine-tingling passages, hinting not only at Angus's profound sorrow, but also at the infuriating flame of human ambition that neither grief, nor cynicicm, nor age, nor unthinking partiasanship and vitriolic attack ads can extinguish.
What makes a literary character great? For me, it's the sense of untold depths; the belief that I'm only seeing the tip of the iceberg. (Jay Gatsby comes to mind, as does Hana from The English Patient, and of course, Charlotte from Charlotte's Web.)
While Angus McLintock may not quite belong in that rarefied group, Terry Fallis should be commended for anchoring him in deep water.
By far, one of the liveliest characters that leaped off the page for me was Miss Babineau. I grew up in the big city of Toronto and only moved to the East Coast as an adult. As such, I knew almost nothing of Acadian culture, only that I had an uncle (through marriage) who was French-Canadian but not from Quebec. To me, Miss B. represents not just tradition but a way of life that's disappearing even still today.
In The Birth House midwifery is being challenged in the same way that Acadian culture was in the 1700s through repression and ultimately expulsion. At one point she says, "Science don't know kindness." In context, there's so much truth to those few words. When Dr. Thomas comes into town he has no understanding of the lives of these women he's supposed to be treating, or even an inkling about what it's like to be a woman. He relies on science to explain what he believes are infallible truths, leaving kindness at the door. The juxtaposition of these two characters makes Miss B. stand out in my mind as one of the most interesting characters to come to life in any book and is certainly a big reason why The Birth House should win this year's Canada Reads.
The Bone Cage shifts back and forth between two main protagonists, swimmer Sadie and wrestler Tom (a.k.a. Digger). Both are sympathetic, totally believable characters, and I found myself really rooting for them on their respective Olympic journeys.
It's tough to choose between them — so I won't! Instead, I'll opt for a secondary character who really stood out for me. Fly is one of the wrestlers who trains with Digger. Fun-loving and full of quips, he got his nickname partly because of his "constant buzzing." (Digger tells him at one point, "The only thing on steroids is your mouth.")
Fly isn't necessarily the kind of guy I'd take to in real life: he seems like a bit of a slob and he's often stuffing his face (it's not a good idea to read this book when you're hungry, by the way).
But as a character, he's a dynamo. He's the team's (and the book's) comic relief, a foil for the ultra-focused intensity of his fellow athletes. And in fact, though Fly is mostly a joker, he's also a symbol of the rigours of wrestling: we first get to know him when he ends up hospitalized after trying to sweat off enough weight to qualify for competition in his weight category.
He's no Olympian, but his personality is a winner for entertainment value. Chalk that up to Angie Abdou's ability to make even minor characters memorable.
"You know, there are only two ways to be completely alone in this world...lost in a crowd...or in total isolation."
These are words my favourite character Lou Lebeuf says in Essex County. He's a farm boy turned professional hockey player and later a streetcar driver who eventually returns home to Essex County. Perhaps it's my fondness for the elderly that drew me to him, but it is Mr. Lebeuf we get closest to as we cover almost his entire life.
He's an old, senile man and we see his life through confused flashbacks. We learn of his happiest times as a professional hockey player, his unrequited love and his tumultuous relationship with his brother and teammate, Vince. Never married and estranged from his family, Lou is flawed more than any other character. He's selfish, stubborn and drinks too much and although his family has suffered through tragedy, it's Lou himself who is to blame for a life of loneliness and regret. He knows this though and that makes Lou likable for me. He has made mistakes, but his self awareness and lack of self-pity make him endearing.
I don't really have a favourite character, unless you mean which character I wanted to hear more from. In that case, it's Danielle Westerman, Reta's older mentor whose feminist philosophical tomes she translates from French to English. I guess it might be Danielle not only because she is an intellectual force, but also because she has the wonderful eccentricity of folding her cloth napkins restaurant-style when Reta comes for tea.
Unless you mean which character was the funniest, a prize which goes hands-down to Reta's editor. A desperately earnest New Yorker, he succeeds in getting more than a little drunk within what seems like minutes of walking through Reta's door and shows (with great aplomb) that he has completely missed the point of her new novel.
Or unless you mean which character had a moment that stuck with me the longest, in which case it's Reta's mother-in-law. Her reaction when someone finally asks her about her life made me realize how often I overlook the people around me, and focus on my own solipsistic universe.
But then again, isn't that what this book is about? Unless ....
Which character in each book stands out the most to you? Does one character stand above them all?