Eight Families

More years ago than I like to think, I was born right here in Canada.  Both my parents were born here, as well, in the mid-teens of the twentieth century.  Before them, in the waning years of the nineteenth century, their parents were also born here—making me a third-generation, native-born Canadian.

When I hearken back to the fourth generation of my predecessors, however, I encounter people I never knew—my great-grandparents, people who were not born in Canada.  Their surnames, patronyms from eight separate families, give some clues as to their country of origin.

On my maternal side four generations ago, a female McDonald married a male McKinnon, and a female Duck married a male Roche.  Some years later, a female McKinnon would marry a male Roche, thereby positioning themselves to eventually become my grandparents.

On my paternal side in that same generation, a female O’Dell married a male Smyth, and a female Thompson married a male Burt.  Much later, a female Smyth would marry a male Burt, thus also setting themselves up to become my grandparents. 

That last surname, of course, was passed down the patriarchal lineage to me, the first-born grandchild on both sides, when a female Roche, my mother, married a male Burt, my father.

All eight of my great-grandparents’ families, so far as I know, hailed originally from the United Kingdom or northern Europe.  But there were more differences among them in the beginning than similarities.  The eight who became my great-grandparents were born in Scotland, France, Ireland, England, or the still-young United States of America, to parents whose families were of anglo-, celtic, germanic, and franco- backgrounds.  They were schoolteachers and tradesmen, milliners and small business owners, clerks and farmers; they were Presbyterian, Lutheran, Roman Catholic, and Anglican.

Around the middle of the nineteenth century, these eight people emigrated to the new land that would later become Canada, all of them in the company of their own parents—sixteen people of whom I have no knowledge.  Although all arrived directly from their respective homelands, the two born in America were known thereafter as United Empire Loyalists, for having returned north to the British sphere of influence. 

After settling in this new land, and marrying as I have described above, each of the four new couples, none of whom knew each other, settled in what was then Upper Canada—which became the province of Ontario after Confederation in 1867—living in what is now Perth County, the Niagara Region, and Toronto.  Each couple began their own families, spawning eighteen children who survived to adulthood, among whom were my grandparents.

Despite the myriad differences among them—birthplace, ethnic heritage, occupation, religion—there was one striking similarity; every one of them was white.  None of them were slaveowners, of course, that practice having been constrained by the Act to Limit Slavery in Upper Canada, and abolished outright in 1833.  Nor were they members of the wealthy, landed gentry, the people who came to govern the land in a fashion modelled after the British parliament.

Rather, they were part of the faceless but industrious wave of immigrants who bent their efforts to making a modest place for themselves in their new home.  Although my great-grandfathers had the right to vote from the time they arrived, it was not until 1917 that my great-grandmothers were legally able to vote provincially, and 1918 before they could do so federally.  

In fact, though, some of them would have waited even longer because of their husbands’ unwillingness to allow them the opportunity (male primacy).  I imagine one or two might have passed away without ever having exercised that right. 

Although I recognize the kinship I have with my four great-grandfathers, I fear I would not like them (if I could travel back in time), because the values and attitudes they espoused—in keeping with prevailing mores of that period, to be sure—would be in stark contrast to my own, cultivated and nurtured by a more enlightened era.

Still and all, without those women and men, I would not be here to reflect on the lives they lived.  So I try to honour them for their fortitude and perseverance, and celebrate them for the genetic legacy they passed down through three generations to my mother and father.

Across all those years, bearing all those names, eight people became four couples, who produced four people who became two couples, who produced my parents, who produced me.

And now I, having long ago become a couple with my wife, have produced two children who became couples, who have produced our five grandchildren—extending us now to six generations. None of my grandchildren has yet become part of a couple, but if family history is any indicator, they will, I’m sure. 

The joining of eight families here in Canada, four generations ago, an intricate dance that began circa 1840, has lasted into 2020, 180 years in all.

And the beat goes steadily on.

The Movie Critic

During my long-ago university days, a friend and classmate in our journalism programme enticed me on several occasions to skip classes and spend our days in the local movie theatres.  Curtailed by our austere budgets, we patronized the seedier of those—the Biltmore, the Rio, the Roxy—often getting three features, two cartoons, a newsreel, and a couple of previews for the price of admission.

After being indoors from shortly after nine in the morning until well after four in the afternoon, lunching on salted cashews and soda, I frequently saw the journey home on public transit through squinting eyes, and with a flickering headache.

Such reckless behaviour did not seriously impede our academic progress, happily.  Despite our truant ways, both of us managed to graduate on schedule, thanks to the great gift of being able to write well and on deadline.  I soon enrolled in a teacher-training programme, which led me to the path I followed for the next thirty-years-plus. 

My friend, on the other hand, sought and gained immediate employment with a small city newspaper where, among other assigned duties, she quickly established herself as the resident movie critic.  I was never sure how stringent the requirements were for that role, though, because most of the films we enjoyed had featured such luminaries as Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, and Boris Karloff, starring in such films as The House of Usher, The Raven, and Pit and the Pendulum.

Not exactly boffo hits at the box office!

On the occasion of my friend’s retirement a few years ago, I sent her a sincere note of congratulations and remembrance, hearkening back to those golden school days of yore where she had received the best training for her work as a critic from the most unlikely of sources.

And just for fun, to show her the havoc that would have ensued had I followed that same career path, I sent along my imagined synopsis of several award-winning movies from the 1920s to the 2010s, picking one from each decade.  My list is reproduced below, including the names of their respective directors—

1920s   The Kid   (Charlie Chaplin)

A woebegone tramp, homeless and alone, finally finds happiness living in an abandoned boxcar with a baby goat.

1930’s   City Lights   (Charlie Chaplin)

An impoverished, old lamplighter in 1890s New York almost changes history when he tries to discourage Thomas Edison from inventing the lightbulb.

1940s   All the King’s Men   (Robert Rossen)

The king of a faraway land finds that neither he, nor any of his men, can repair his breakfast egg that was accidentally broken when it fell off a high wall.

1950s   Twelve O’Clock High   (Henry King)

Jack Kerouac writes a literary masterpiece after discovering the joy of smoking dope continuously as soon as he wakens every morning.

1960s   Some Like It Hot   (Billy Wilder)

A young chef in the czarist court discovers that, although the czarina does not like pease porridge hot—preferring it nine days old and cold—some do.

1970s   Carrie   (Brian De Palma)

In a remake of Birth of a Nation (1915), the birth and early activism of Carrie, a radical member of the temperance movement, is chronicled. 

1980s   Full Metal Jacket   (Stanley Kubrick)

In a film adaptation of the classic tale of Ivanhoe, a solitary knight in shining armor sets out on a quest to gain entry to King Arthur’s Round Table.

1990s   Men in Black   (Barry Sonnenfeld)

Two undertakers, known as the fishin’ morticians, enter a salmon-fishing contest, spawning a host of jokes when their prize catch is already embalmed.

2000s   There Will Be Blood   (Paul Thomas Anderson)

A food critic in Los Angeles learns what else he will find on his plate when he orders his prime-rib extra-rare.

2010s   Spring Breakers   (Harmony Korine)

Two grossly-overweight friends find work in a mattress and box-spring factory, testing new products before they go to market.

Some time after sending off my note, I received a lovely reply from my old friend, assuring me of her continuing regard, but with no commentary on my list.  It may be that, despite her job, she had never reviewed the films I cited, and so accepted my synopses at face value. 

Or, more probably, she assumed I have taken leave of my senses.

But that’s alright.  I always wanted to be her friend, but I never wanted to be a movie critic!

The Resurrectionists

The Giller Prize long list was announced last week, and wouldn’t you know it, my seventh novel, The Resurrectionists, is not yet off the press and ready for distribution!  Talk about bad timing! 

But the good news is that it’s due out later this fall.

A half-million dollars in stolen money is being laundered by two desperate lovers on the run from a criminal gang. 
To evade the pursuers hunting them, the woman resurrects a name from her past and disappears into a First Nations reserve near Port Huntington, a tourist town on Georgian Bay.  Her lover, after a chance encounter with a dying stranger on a lonely, northern highway, takes on the man’s identity. 
Despite these efforts to escape their pursuers, the newly-resurrected lovers find the gang still hot on their trail, even as new problems arise with their money-laundering scheme.  Unable to flee without being discovered, they turn to Maggie Keiller and Derek Sloan for help, and a series of grisly murders soon follows. 
Maggie and Derek, quickly drawn into the ensuing police investigation, help to unmask a large, international drug-smuggling ring.  At the same time, Maggie is working to rescue a teenage girl who is being sexually abused in her home by one of the smuggling ringleaders. 
As the threads of these events weave together, Maggie and Derek find themselves in mortal danger from the criminals they are attempting to bring to justice. 
And as the story reaches its climax, two wicked surprises unfold, shocking everyone involved.  

I’ll be sure to let everyone know when the book does appear, and will shortly publish a preview of chapters 1 and 2 right here on my blog.

Watch for that announcement.