Reviews 2009

Home Words: Discourses of Children’s Literature in Canada

Home Words: Discourses of Children’s Literature in Canada. Edited by Mavis Reimer. Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2008. 231 pages. $85 (hardback).

Home Words is the result of four years of collaboration between a team of literary scholars, most of whom do not consider themselves to be specialists in Canadian children’s literature, although many of them are familiar with other areas of scholarship in children’s literature or other kinds of Canadian literature. The collaboration is most immediately visible in the fact that three of the ten articles in this collection are co-authored. More interesting is that the various critics fill, expand and enrich one another’s definitions of what constitutes “home” in the context of Canadian children’s literature.

Mavis Reimer opens the collection with a discussion of the wide varieties of meanings attached to the term “home.” Her conclusion connects the idea of home to George W. Bush’s speeches at the time of 9/11 and to increased security along the Canadian-American border, which implies that for Canadians today, home is primarily defined in opposition to America. The following seven articles consider what home might mean for various groupings of Canadians, who are defined in terms of their native language, their historical period, their ethnicity or a combination of these features. The underlying assumption of these contributions is that what constitutes home depends on who one is. The remaining three articles approach the question of home from other vantage points.

All the papers in the collection seek not only to discern the nature of “home” in the literary works they discuss, but also to question whether this view of home is as it should be. As Reimer explains in her introduction:

Learning to read ‘home’ matters. The homely imperatives adults direct to children through the texts designed for them proceed from determinate constructions of class, race, gender, and nation, and entail complicated understandings of the relation of self and other, kin and stranger, here and there. Learning to read ‘home’ matters: it is, perhaps, the beginning of rewriting it. (Reimer xviii)

Given the focus on identifying categories of Canadians in the first seven articles, Reimer and her team’s primary, albeit unstated, goal for rewriting home in the Canadian context seems to be the creation of a home which is more sensitive to differentiation.

In their discussion of texts produced during the colonial era, Danielle Thaler and Alain Jean-Bart establish the starting points for Francophone Canadian children’s literature and Andrew O’Malley does the same for Anglophone literature. Read alongside Reimer’s comments on 9/11, one can discern a historical precedence for defining Canadian identity in terms of what it is not: not British, not French. Whilst both evidence ambiguous relationships to the “home” country, the Robinsonades examined by O’Malley suggest a tight bond to Britain through their continued reliance on traditional colonial discourses. By way of contrast, the prevalence of the archetypal coureur des bois in Francophone writing opens up a way of defining Canadian identity without reference to Europe. These fur traders are valorised for their intimate knowledge of the potentially hostile landscape. Their engagement with the land creates a sense of “home” which is specifically located in Canada, whereas the characters engaged in the Robinsonades find “home” by imposing a priori notions of home onto the landscape.

Both articles are tinged with a sense of shame which is not directly addressed beyond Reimer’s comment that home might need to be rewritten. Nevertheless, this unspoken sense of inherited culpability is evident in the primary texts selected for the volume. Texts by and about Aboriginal Canadians or works that draw attention to Canada’s ethnic and linguistic diversity are foregrounded. The two primary texts most cited are not, as one might have expected, classics by L. M. Montgomery or contemporary works by well known writers like Janet Lunn or Margaret Mackey (all of whom are discussed in the volume) but Flour Sack Flora by Deborah Delaronde and Gary Chartrand and Lights for Gita by Rachna Gilmore and Alice Priestly. In this way, the collection consistently undermines the centrality of white, Anglophone Canada in the construction of home. Whilst I suspect that this inversion of centre and periphery is motivated more by political desire than an accurate presentation of the current climate, the result is a refreshingly new insight into Canadian children’s literature. By focussing on texts which the general reader is less likely to have read, and providing rich glosses that enable the uninformed reader to follow the argument even when s/he has not read the primary text, the collection contributes to a rewriting of the Canadian “home.”

Reimer’s own article in the collection distinguishes between texts in which “home” is created and texts depicting homelessness. Reimer draws attention to the class values which underlie the distinction between what is home and what is not. “Simply put,” she explains, “the homes children reject are lower-class homes; the homes they choose are cultured, middle-class homes” (11). Anne Rusnak engages with the commonly expressed view that children’s literature is structured around the home-away-home plot. In her study of 102 Francophone novels and novellas from 1975 to 1995, she found that, unlike Anglophone writing, the majority of texts (54%) had plots in which away enters home. Rusnak notes the lack of a French term that encompasses the range of meanings proffered by the English word “home” and leaves the word untranslated. All these findings might suggest that different forces are at work in the discourse of home in the province of Quebec. Her conclusions, however, are remarkably similar to those writing about Anglophone children’s literature: home is a privileged space in Francophone Canadian children’s literature, not just because of what it means for the individual whose home is threatened, but because home represents the nation.

The nation of Canada is located in the homelands of Aboriginal Canadians. Two articles consider how children’s literature by and about Aboriginal Canadians responds to the notion of home. Doris Wolf and Paul DePasquale report on a larger project in which they are engaged: compiling a bibliography of Aboriginal children’s literature by Aboriginal authors. Perry Nodelman discusses novels depicting Aboriginal Canadian youths, written by non-Aboriginals. Whilst both articles are sensitively critical of the various attempts to address Aboriginal children’s sense of not being at home in their native land, neither overtly comments on what I consider to be the key problem: the primary texts’ presentation of Aboriginal identity as being inherently problematic – an “issue” the text must address and attempt to “resolve.”

Wolf and DePasquale’s overview is a helpful guide for situating a specific work within a wider context. They confirm the trends reported in earlier surveys, noting that the majority of texts are either retellings of traditional tales and legends or fictional stories about Aboriginal youngsters in both historical and contemporary settings. They observe a slight change in trends as the latter now outnumber the former. More notable, I think, is their finding that approximately 75% of their texts are picture books. This medium, they suggest, offers the flexibility to critique native-settler relations, but also allows for readings that celebrate the loss of ethnic identity. For instance, the key problem of the eponymous protagonist in Flour Sack Flora is that she cannot leave the reserve to accompany her parents on their shopping trips in town because she does not have a “suitable” (i.e. white girl’s) dress and shoes. Flora’s success in creating an outfit out of a flour sack is valorised, and a surface reading celebrates industry and community. However, the desired goal (leaving the reserve to go shopping) implies that an identity based on non-Aboriginal material goods is of higher value than the community which enabled her to create her new dress. Nodelman observes a similar problem in the resolution to Welwyn Katz’s False Face when the protagonist, Tom, thinks of his tears as “not red and not black, not White and not Indian. Just tears from someone who was a person, nothing else” (145), which celebrates universal humanity at the expense of the individuation inherent in embracing one’s ethnic heritage.

Whilst the layout of Louise Saldanha’s article on Multicultural Canada should make the publishers hang their heads in shame, the article itself is a thoughtful response to the ways in which Canadians who are of neither Aboriginal nor European descent are exoticized. Noting that Canada’s multicultural policies inadvertently reinforce the idea of Canada as not-home, Saldanha shows how, in practice, books which purport to celebrate diversity reinforce Canadian children of colour’s sense of being an outsider.

The diversity of the first seven articles creates a sense of the multiple discourses of home operating within the Canadian context. Each article establishes tropes of home for particular groupings of Canadians. The remaining three articles go off at a tangent. Deborah Schnitzer investigates the trope of the window in Canadian picture books and creates a classification of window types. Clare Bradford continues the theme of defining Canada in terms of what it is not by comparing Canadian and Australian presentations of home. Noting the ways in which these two former settler colonies are both similar and different, Bradford further delineates the relationship between home and nationhood. Finally, Margaret Mackey and her colleagues report on a group endeavour to build a website aimed at taking the discussion of the earlier articles to a wider audience. The article emphasises the practical problems (the need for face to face interaction, for example) but gives less space to the more interesting problem of how to translate “academic discourse into an address to a broader public” (215).

These articles are not without interest, but their approaches differ so markedly from the earlier part of the book text that the resulting reading experience is somewhat unsatisfying. Articles on changes in the portrayal of Canada as home in response to the two World Wars, the referendums on independence for Quebec and regional variation would all have seemed more logical topics. Yet perhaps the fact that I start to miss such texts implies that Reimer and her team have successfully raised my awareness of the centrality of home in Canadian children’s literature. In doing so, they open the doors for others to engage with additional aspects of home in Canadian literature, and also to begin the larger study of home in other national literatures.

Marek Oziewicz
University of Wroclaw, Poland