Harold Rhenisch, Tom Thomson's Shack (2)

Does a book count toward the Second Canadian Book Challenge, I wonder, when it's my second time through in less than a year? (Here's the first review, from January 2008. I expect John'll make a ruling....)

I'll be teaching Harold Rhenisch's Tom Thomson's Shack this fall, so it was definitely time to get through it again. As it turns out, my first review said I'd have to read it at least a few times before I knew what I thought - which one would think'd be advice I'd follow before choosing this book as a required text for my BC literature course, but no. Working without a net this time around! Heck, I hadn't even seen Rita Wong's Livesay-winning forage before I selected that book, so it could be an adventure of a course....

(Plus I've only just now noticed that I haven't reviewed Wong's excellent forage here yet! Quel oversight [quelle?].)

Where was I?

Tom Thomson's Shack is a memoir, I suppose, but it might be travel writing instead, or cultural criticism. BC history? It participates in all these modes and genres, effectively in all of them; the prose is crisp, and the approach questioning. I'm comfortable with teaching it now, and I think it'll work well. I just have to decide whether to lead with Rhenisch or with Eden Robinson's Monkey Beach.

Since I only dimly recalled my own notes on the book, but didn't look at them before reading it again, my worries about the role of Buddhism dominated my thinking. I'm glad to say they didn't need to. Wayne Still, the voice of Buddhism in this book, is a complicated figure, and I don't think we're meant to regard him as the voice of knowledge (Voice of Knowledge? - "capital letters [are] always the best way of dealing with things you didn't have a good answer to" [bonus points for identifying the source, without using Google!]). The terrific thing about Rhenisch's accomplishment here is that he's done his best to invent his way through: without relying on the standard Eastern critique of Westernness (Buddhism) or on standard Western modes (economics, art history, that sort of thing), he's come a long way toward imagining how to think about the world and our place within it.

"There is a kind of glow within the physical objects of this world," he remarks, "which is the legacy of the colonial world" (p.154). The first half of the sentence sounds lovely, arty, poetical - and I didn't expect the second half. It perfectly expresses what Rhenisch means, once you already know what he means; our ways of seeing have been trained by the social and aesthetic structures that were only possible in a world shaped by colonialism, a shaping influence that still colours how one lives in rural BC, in all kinds of ways. It makes sense, and it makes an increasing amount of sense the longer you spend with this book (or with Brian Fawcett, which is perhaps a story for another time). Anyway, this sort of experience characterizes my second reading of Tom Thomson's Shack. I knew what was coming, and yet it still struck me with force. I look forward to my third reading!

(No, John, I won't be asking to have a third reading count for the Challenge!)


John Mutford said…
I'd make the worse judge ever. My feelings toward the book challenge choices is that participants police themselves. If you want a book to count, count it, but just be willing/ able to defend your actions should another participant question it. Perhaps I'll raise the question at my blog, next update. For what it's worth, I'd personally be okay including a reread, even if a short time had past since the first.

I can't reference that quote, but I do like it. Regarding Wayne Still as the Voice of Knowledge (or not), I sometimes have a difficult time disassociating such characters from the author, feeling that some just use their characters' voices as a soapbox. Without having read Tom Thomson's Shack, I couldn't say whether or not I think Still's philosophy is merely a thinly disguised rendering of Rhenisch's. Do you think this might be the case, and if so, is it problematic for you?
richard said…
I'm OK with whatever ruling, John - I was reading it anyway!

No, I don't feel like Wayne is a stand-in for Harold - Rhenisch never seems to have trouble speaking for himself! You're right that I do find it problematic when an author does that, though I usually call it "cheap" rather than "problematic"!
sexy said…
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