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The Vintage Book of Canadian Memoirs

by George Fetherling, ed.

George Fetherling argues in his surprisingly cantankerous preface to The Vintage Book of Canadian Memoirs that Canadians are psychologically predisposed to dealing imaginatively with their pasts. Compared with the traditional American emphasis of “lighting out for the territories” and “recreating oneself” the Canadian impulse is “returning imaginatively to one’s home in order to choose what to keep and what to dispense with.” It’s hardly a complex argument, but it provides an interesting theoretical peg on which to hang a sublime assemblage of writing.

The anthology collects 24 autobiographical pieces from a range of Canada’s best known writers. While many of the pieces will be familiar to readers (Timothy Findley’s “From Stage to Page” and an excerpt from Wayson Choy’s Paper Shadows, to name two), they are somehow rejuvenated by their juxtaposition against lesser-known pieces.

These harder-to-find pieces are the highlights of the collection. Fetherling should be commended for bringing Mordecai Richler’s account of bohemian Paris,“A Sense of the Ridiculous,” back to light, and for its canny placement alongside the better known Memoirs of Montparnasse by John Glassco. Other similar rediscoveries include an early version of Al Purdy’s childhood memoir Morning and It’s Summer and Heather Robertson’s account of her journalistic life in Winnipeg, “The Last of the Terrible Men.”

A few pieces merit special attention. The selections from Dorothy Livesay’s A Winnipeg Childhood are absolutely heartbreaking, and stand as a reminder of the late Livesay’s tremendous gifts, while Myrna Kotash’s “Baba Was a Bohunk” is a thought-provoking multicultural account that calls into question the very notions of multiculturalism and ethnic heritage.

A few of the pieces could have been trimmed to enhance their power, and readers will quickly think of a dozen or so overlooked memoirs worthy of anthologizing (Fetherling does provide a list of suggested further reading). Frankly, though, the anthology is already an embarrassment of riches.