Harold Rhenisch, Winging Home

I really like Harold Rhenisch's writing, I do - but after Tom Thomson's Shack, Winging Home is the second of his books from which I've come away seriously baffled.

The project is a wonderful one. He sets about to pay careful attention to how his vision has to shift from how it developed during his upbringing and adult life in the southern Okanagan (Keremeos, Cawston, etc.), if he's ever going to learn how to make sense of his new surroundings in the Cariboo (108 Mile Ranch, 150 Mile House, etc.). Colours don't make sense to him anymore, with the different qualities of light and snow and humidity and so on. In his careful attention to how colours shift in the world he's looking at, he finds himself spending a huge amount of time watching birds, and so the book really is A Palette of Birds, as the subtitle has it, because it's through birds both that he comes to understand his vision of the world, and that you're meant to understand both this new vision.

The thing is, he relies enormously in this book on metaphor -- and to me, some of them overwhelm what he's trying to achieve. It's an audacious project, in the best sense of the word, but I don't know that his audacity pays off.

In one paragraph, for example, describing some crows waiting for leftovers after some eagles finish with the carcass of a winter-killed muskrat, he compares the crows to "the subalterns always milling around in the background of German military photographs from the Second World War--tall, thin, relaxed, chatting, maps in hand, their uniforms buttoned up tightly around their necks"; as well as to "waiters and Maitre d' circling a table at a five-star restaurant"; and also to "the Nez Perce with their Appaloosa ponies and their war paint coming down out of Union Gap after John Wayne" (p.89).

In another, he reports that the snow "looked like a lacy pattern of icing sugar on a chocolate torte in a fancy bakery shaded by plane trees in Baden Baden" (p.74).

I take the point, I think, which I believe is that our ways of seeing the world are inexorably bound by culture, but -- and certainly part of this is my fatigue presently -- I'm not sure whether it's a lesson I needed to be sustained across this many pages. I loved parts of this book, such as the intimacy of his closing address to his wife, and I smiled regularity at the, yes, audacity of it all, and there was never a time when I remotely considered NOT finishing the book, but on the whole, I dunno. Maybe with some more pondering I'll get a better sense of what I actually thought of it!


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