Many years ago when my daughter Jessica was a toddler, I began to record the stories my father used to recount of his early life in Hungary at the beginning of the 20th century. My father was a natural and fluid storyteller and I wanted to save his stories for posterity--a posterity embodied in the little girl babbling away and fiddling with the controls of the tape recorder. His first words, however, were stilted rather than fluid, intended for future generations: “I really don’t know if my life is worthwhile that its story should be put on record. I didn’t become an Einstein or a Sigmund Freud or a Moshe Dayan. But perhaps one can learn something from the life of anyone, so perhaps you can learn something from my life.”

The value of what an ordinary life may teach is the currency of the memoir, a genre that has become hugely popular in the past 20 years. A sub-specialty of autobiography, memoir has a more idiosyncratic and flexible form. While autobiography is generally the preserve of public figures and takes a chronological “breakfast-to-bedtime” approach to an entire life, memoir usually highlights one period or one theme of a life.

But, as Camilla Gibb writes in her elegant introduction to The Penguin Book of Memoir, “an individual life is virtually never set apart: it unfolds in the context of family and community and is shaped by the social and political forces of a particular time and place.” Or as the renowned Czech-Canadian author Josef Skvorecky once put it, “Some writers may think their only subject is themselves, [but] if they are any good they are telling the history of their times and of their people. If all a writer manages is a picture of her- or himself against a blank curtain, then the writer is just a miserable scribbler who never grew out of puberty."

Beginning with a meditation by Thomas King on the nature of storytelling (“the truth about stories is that that’s all we are”) and ending with an epilogue by Karen Connelly, who defines Canada as an “evolving anti-nation” in which it takes only a small leap to view “the other” as ourselves, the book is a collection of 18 eclectic personal essays. Gibb, an award-winning novelist, chose them as much on the basis of literary merit—all the contributors are professional writers—as of subject matter.

For the most part she has chosen well. Many of the excerpts come from books that are now classics of their genre (think Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family and Michael Ignatieff’s The Russian Album); others are by mainstays of the CanLit canon, such as Dionne Brand, Sharon Butala, Wayson Choy and Wayne Johnston.

The best pieces illustrate Skvorecky’s dictum: while being highly specific, they transcend their particularity. They also play nicely off each other, a thought or theme in one essay resurfacing--with a spin—in another. Thus by means of a delicate sleight of hand, Lorna Goodison’s story of her parents’ devotion to each other and to their children manages to double as a tale of uprooting from the bucolic Jamaican countryside to a slum in Kingston. A similar theme echoes in Janice Kulyk Keefer’s description of her grandparents’ journey from a Ukrainian village to Toronto. Goodison’s country relatives sent her family care packages of country delicacies. Even 60 years after the fact, Kulyk Keefer’s aunt recalls the shock of seeing her father bring home a bag of eggs, milk and bread that he had to spend scarce money on. “At home the only things you needed to buy were what you couldn’t make yourself…. Soap you brewed from ashes and fat, oil you got from hemp seeds pressed at the mill.”

Themes of bitter struggle dominate several of the excerpts: explicitly, as in Ignatieff’s evocation of his grandparents’ battle for survival during the Russian Revolution and Ernest Hillen’s sensory-laden story of release from a Japanese pow camp, or more indirectly when the enemy is racism and prejudice as in the case of Warren Cariou’s discovery of his Native roots and Wayson Choy’s memories of Vancouver’s wartime Chinatown. But sometimes the adversary is as elemental as the raging ocean battled by Wayne Johnston’s fisherman father. And sometimes it is fate itself. The two last stories in the collection--Moira Farr’s memoir of losing her boyfriend to suicide and Ian Brown’s account of caring daily for a severely disabled child—are the most emotionally charged of all.

Even an excellent collection poses questions of omission or commission. When the purported aim of the anthology is to bring together a Canadian book of memoirs, the absence of francophone voices is glaring. Another peculiar oversight is the cold shoulder paid to the Holocaust—a subject of vast significance that has given rise to many fine Canadian memoirs.

These reservations aside, this is a graceful volume that ought to pique readers’ interest in the works of the writers represented in it. It certainly has sparked in me the desire to return to those of the memoirs from which these excerpts were taken that I already own, and to run to the nearest bookstore for the ones I don’t.

Chronicles of Ordinary Lives

Selected and Introduced by Camilla Gibb

Review published in

May 21, 2011

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