Harold Rhenisch, Tom Thomson's Shack (2014)

Most often, this blog is a place for first thoughts: careful thoughts, but first thoughts rather than professionally considered opinions. I read a book for the first time, and then I write about how the reading experience went, or what I didn't quite get about the book, or what the book leads me to reflect on from some element of my life. (Cheap memoir, I guess, is what I write sometimes in lieu of book reviews….)

And then there's Tom Thomson's Shack, from the inimitable Harold Rhenisch, which today makes its third appearance in this space, after a 2008 initial reveal and a second read the same year, before teaching it for the first time. These days, it's competing seriously for the position of Book I've Most Often Read, with M. Wylie Blanchet's Curve of Time and Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, as I've been finding that scenes and lines from the book keep climbing out of my memory to bother me at odd moments: teaching, walking, gardening, trying to sleep, I've been seeing my normal internal soundtrack replaced by this book's insights and worries, and that's a good thing.

If nothing else, and there are lots of somethings else anyway, the book's incursion into my unconscious validates my decision to teach Tom Thomson's Shack this fall at UVic (described here and here), for the second time. I first tried to teach it in an elective second-year class that ended up having only eight or nine students, so there weren't enough voices that this book's strangeness could really exist out in the spaces between us in class, and in general I refuse to lecture when the whole audience could fit in an Econoline van.

This fall, Tom Thomson's Shack will be in an upper-level undergrad class that has always had at least 35 students, the three times I've taught it, so I'm genuinely optimistic that we'll be a large enough group that we can crowd-source some variant ways into this prickly, engaging book whose genre is utterly undecidable. In theory, it's about Rhenisch's trip to Toronto to promote his poetry volume Iodine, his first time in Toronto, as it happens, but the experience was epochal for Rhenisch, as he realizes that by visiting Ontario for the first time, after living his whole life in British Columbia, mostly in the Okanagan, for the first time he's physically entering the idea and image of Canada. This realization leads him to think about wine-making, dirt, transcendence, colonialism, an Apple II-E computer, pruning fruit trees, the Group of Seven, and frozen lakes. Mostly it all makes sense, but usually not until you're a few pages past the sparks that you appreciate but that puzzle you, and it's full of both assertive self-confidence and persistently reflexive self-doubt, and it's fabulous:
My country, the Interior, and its culture were founded, largely, in 1909, in an era of art, formality, dance, and classicism. It was a time of Beauty and Empire, of honour, loyalty, royalty, polo, snobbism, suppression of Indians, repression of women, and a belief in progress, pianos, and war. Whatever prejudices we bring to this matrix, and whatever knowledge we have gained, whatever we have suffered and endured because of it--however we have grown beyond it--it is still only through that point that we live, however it may have changed in its contact with the wild, inhuman land. We live here at the edge of the wilderness, the edge of the human. We live in landscape. This is the painting entered, and lived. (p155)
("Fabulous" as a word meaning both "amazing" and "fable-making," you understand….) This book is going to pair so very well with Hugh Brody's Maps and Dreams, and with Angie Abdou's Canterbury Trail. Course registration starts in the next week or so -- why is it not September yet?!?


theresa said…
One of the Best. Books. Ever.
richard said…
Isn't it incredible? I'm hearing that some readers don't fall into it right away, and then they may not stay for when it all comes together and explodes: they're SO missing out!

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