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Book Reviews

Milton Acorn: In Love and Anger

by Richard Lemm

Grey Owl: The Many Faces of Archie Belaney

by Jane Billinghurst

Use My Name: Jack Kerouac’s Forgotten Families

by Jim Jones

Gabrielle Roy: A Life

by Francois Ricard, Patricia Claxton, trans.

The biographies of any age, it has been said, have more in common with their biographers than with their subjects. Four recent literary biographies allow us to test this premise, for the authors have many similarities, while the subjects have little in common besides having Canadian connections and all being writers.

Three of the biographers are academics. This is no surprise since biography requires funding and training in research and interpreting texts. Moreover, academics find appealing alter egos in subjects who live flamboyantly, achieve celebrity, and write books of more lasting value than their own scholarly products.

The subjects of these four biographies are Archie Belaney, the middle-class Englishman who transformed himself into the Ojibwa Grey Owl; Jan Kerouac, daughter of the beat novelist; Milton Acorn, “The People’s Poet”; and Gabrielle Roy, the Franco-Manitoban novelist.

Despite differences in form and scope, the themes of the biographies intersect. All the subjects bear deep childhood scars, two of them being abandoned by fathers. While all four distance themselves from their families and birthplaces, their emotional wounds lead to dysfunctional adult lives. Identity confusions impel the subjects to reinvent themselves in spectacular ways. They not only produce works of art but, as artists, they become iconic figures.

Tracing the discrepancy between the subject’s “true self” and the public persona becomes a dominant theme of each narrative, as does the exposure of serious character flaws. The flaws come as a shock, since the public image includes courage, moral rectitude, and the championship of the dispossessed. Yet there is the gratifying sense that the flawed artist is all too human and therefore just like us.

Grey Owl: The Many Faces of Archie Belaney by Jane Billinghurst, shows the motif in its purest form. Belaney, rejected by his father, was raised by two elderly aunts. He left England for Canada where he became reincarnated as Grey Owl, living close to nature, much sought after on the international lecture circuit, and received at Buckingham Palace. His record as an imposter, bigamist, and deadbeat dad closely resembles that of his own father, but is redeemed by the soundness of his environmental message. That message becomes more relevant as time goes on, and so the appeal of Grey Owl’s story has steadily increased since his death. Billinghurst, a Saskatoon editor who, like her subject, is an English immigrant, has put together an illustrated biography, interspersed with extracts from Grey Owl’s own writings. It is short and accessible to readers of all ages, but those seeking a full treatment of Grey Owl’s life are advised to look elsewhere.

Use My Name: Jack Kerouac’s Forgotten Families by Jim Jones is the most original (or idiosyncratic) of the four books, both in its choice of subject and in its form. A student of the counter-culture, Jones appropriately avoids the magisterial treatment afforded to canonical figures. Defying the conventions of traditional biography, he rejects a linear narrative – but the result is a loopy, meandering, and repetitive account. He tells a cruel story of paternal abandonment and filial yearning. A court case forced Jack Kerouac to acknowledge his paternity and pay a pittance of child support. Jan Kerouac met her father only once after that, but he was drunk and uncommunicative. Yet, either by design or genetic programming, she replicated his self-destructive pattern of drugs and alcohol, adding prostitution to the list of excesses. Like her father, she died in her 40s. Her attempt to emulate his literary career produced two autobiographies, which achieved publication because of the talismanic name rather than for their intrinsic merit. Jan Kerouac remains a footnote, albeit an interesting one, to the record of the beat generation.

In Milton Acorn: In Love and Anger, Richard Lemm expertly integrates the life and the work. A main focus is the exploration of the influence on Acorn of the P.E.I. background that author and subject share. Lemm also shares with his subject a certain pugnacity of character. While most biographers stake out their territory and deal with critics and previous biographers in the preface, Lemm has a disconcerting habit of throwing punches at them throughout the book. Sometimes this is warranted, when he corrects the myths surrounding Acorn. But often the disputations could have been relegated to footnotes and the space put to better use.

The basic concept of a “people’s poet,” for instance, bears examination since Acorn’s heritage places him in the middle rather than the working class. Moreover, it was the literati and middle-class champions of the underprivileged who bestowed the title on him. What the people choose as poetry is more likely to be found in obit columns, country music lyrics, and in such writers as Kipling and Rod McKuen.

A crucial factor in Acorn’s life is the war injury he sustained on a troop ship en route to Europe. This unidentified accident, thought to be an explosion, is the purported cause of his poor health and mental illness. It is tempting to speculate that the explosion was figurative rather than literal. Lemm quotes various opinions, including Acorn’s and his family’s, without solving the mystery. Surely diligent research could have turned up some military records.

Gabrielle Roy: A Life, the English translation of Ricard’s 1996 book, is an exhaustively researched full-scale biography. It fixes Roy firmly in her time and place, yet falls somewhat short as a literary biography because it traces the trajectories of her troubled life and her career without linking the motifs of one with the other.

As the first biography of a major figure it contains a wealth of fascinating information. The youngest in a large family, Roy chafed under the restrictions imposed on women and felt stifled by her insular society. Geographical flight, first to Europe and finally to Quebec, brought guilt as well as liberation. Her ambitions made her shed her family but she always suffered from feeling that she’d betrayed them. Her early abandonment of her mother and a handicapped sister seems particularly callous. She resumed contact with the family in later years only to face vicious quarrels.

Her adult relationships were shaped by the need for surrogate parents. She sought male protectors who were unsatisfactory sexual partners – a married lover and a gay husband. And she functioned best living in retreat, cared for by a nurturing mother figure.

The climactic episode of the book is the publication of her novel The Tin Flute,/I>, hailed in Canada by that periodic cry that our literature is of age. What had caused the hoopla was not so much the appearance of a work of genius but the desperate hunger for one.

Would biographers of another age have chosen these particular lives for examination and would they have shaped them in the same way – sympathizing with childhood deprivation, exposing personal weaknesses, accepting the excesses, the postures, and the betrayals so tolerantly?

Will the themes of biography be the same a hundred years from now? Will the genre itself still exist? Perhaps its current popularity is the result of our age’s preoccupation with identity politics and genocide – the act of physical genocide often imaging the fear that we, as individuals with clearly defined national, racial, religious, and gender traits, are on the verge of annihilation.