Two memoirs by high-profile Canadian women show just how far ambition and single-mindedness can take a person. My Journey, by New Democratic Party MP Olivia Chow, and Unsinkable, by Olympic rower Silken Laumann, are motivational tales of triumph over hardship and of the importance of goals and perseverance in realizing one’s dreams. But although their messages are similar, the approaches they take are very different.
Chow was married to beloved NDP leader Jack Layton, and her book begins during a run en route to his gravesite. The athletic politician uses the opportunity to name every Toronto street and landmark she passes, and to enumerate their personal and public significance. Once at the grave, she lovingly tends the flowers and pulls the weeds, growing sombre when “Stand by Me” comes on her iPod. If Chow hoped to create a tender moment symbolizing Layton’s enduring presence in her life, she undermines it with all the distracting geographical detail. Questions about the book’s focus occur at regular intervals.
Initially, My Journey tells a truly interesting immigrant story about the difficult transition Chow’s family endured after leaving Hong Kong for Toronto in 1970 in the wake of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. Their finances plummeted, her father grew even more abusive toward her mother, and hyperactive Chow struggled in school.
It’s also a love story. Chow’s marriage to Layton was a seemingly effortless blend of work and play. They strategized endlessly, but also turned meetings into light-hearted social gatherings in their kitchen. They went whitewater rafting and rode a tandem bike. Layton was all passion, writing love letters and winning over Chow’s mother by learning Cantonese. Chow, by contrast, comes off as all ambition, though she is passionate about community.
A third of the way through, My Journey becomes a political memoir – an airless, repetitive one, devoid of humour and colour. Chapter by chapter, Chow outlines her causes: eliminating child poverty, building coalitions and a national childcare program, helping marginalized groups, reducing bullying and police corruption. Though she is careful to point out areas where she has failed, she balances this introspection with numerous quotes from high-powered friends singing her praises.
There are a few surprises. Who knew Chow was once a fundamentalist Christian? Or that she finds solace in sculpting? The fact that she’s lived with her mother for most of her life is fascinating. It’s difficult not to come away admiring Chow’s drive and optimism, but despite her uplifting diversity-makes-us-stronger ideals, the book fails to achieve emotional resonance.
By contrast, Laumann takes a strictly personal approach in Unsinkable. One could argue that a successful memoir involves a journey into the depths of the psyche, a place Laumann seems eager to go but doesn’t quite reach. She plunges us into her story in the same merciless way she approaches life, opening with the stomach-turning accident that stripped away her right calf muscles and shattered her ankle during the 1992 Rowing World Cup in Germany. Wheelchair-bound and in severe pain, she somehow competed in the Barcelona Olympics just 10 weeks later, winning bronze for Canada.
Like Chow, Laumann eventually circles back to a difficult childhood, in her case one spent with a mother who constantly stole the spotlight from her children and openly professed bitterness and disappointment at being a mother rather than the artist she’d always wanted to be. (Laumann’s parents and sister have co-signed a letter disputing the veracity of certain facts in the book.)
Unsinkable is the product of years of soul-searching that began after the failure of Laumann’s first marriage to Olympic rower John Wallace. Now a motivational speaker, she also touches on her struggles with body image, cutting, depression, anxiety, and her stepdaughter’s autism. She strives for optimism and wisdom, often spouting abstract platitudes, but intermittent flashes of bright rage give her away.
These moments of naked vulnerability lend the book its strength. Laumann’s anger at the World Cup circuit’s disorganization, for example, still seems fresh. As an athlete she was hard on her body, and as a human being she is hard on herself and others. She seems hell-bent on revealing her insecurities as much as her attributes. There’s a refreshing feminist aspect to some sections (including a discussion of the lack of funding for female athletes), and by the end, it’s apparent that beneath Laumann’s unswerving willpower there is a clear-headed woman.
Whereas Chow’s anecdotes often seem disconnected and unresolved, there’s a natural flow to Laumann’s uncluttered writing, making for an engaging and quick read.