In winter, there seems more time for reading. Even in New York. With its many distractions, I make a trip each Thursday to my library. If I haven’t read whatever I bring home in one week, back it goes. However, a friend, who knows how I love Ontario, presses a book into my hand: “This was written for you. It’s called “The Cunning Man” by Robertson Davies.
Talk about “a smack upside the head?” I open it Saturday morning and a day later, between naps, food and a shower, I’ve inhaled the story and made it my own. In my nine years, so far, of affirmatively “learning North Ontario,” I’ve met many Canadians who have loved me into being, and I’ve learned words like reeve and riding and hearing hydro to describe electricity. I’ve always felt as I was dropped, full-grown into Canadian culture. I did not grow up here in formative years, and I have missed the beginning and the young-middle years. What must it have been like growing up in the rural communities in Canada in the forties and fifties?
This author, who I do not know, gives me my growing up in Canada story. He gives me a sensibility pledged and developed in the 19th century, to a sense of well-ordered values, an innocent time. He’s filled in the middle, giving me the customs and familial life that I wondered about. As a curious adult, why have I never heard of Davies? I phone Steve Maxwell on the Manitoulin, my literate buddy, who, himself, is a fine writer. He’ll know. “Of course,” smiles Steve, who has read vintage Davies. “One of our finest authors.”
I devour my way through the Deptford Trilogy: “Fifth Business” and “The Manticore” and “World of Wonders.” I see how Davies wrote into the lives of his characters secret destinies. Patterns of connections are shown in vivid Canadian light to me, and I understand the nuances, witty and wide-ranging. Writer Sven BIrkerts who described Davies as a relaxed and winning raconteur, and a beguiling raconteur at the podium and wherever else he could be.
Pleased with my latest Canadian discovery, I phone up Old Man Mudge in Kagawong on the Manitoulin. Unca Mudge, himself a vintage Canadian, in Kagawong, each summer, deigns to sit on the dock, exchanging stories and banter with me. Our conversations are marvelous and humorous. I’m continuously delighted to find such a distinct way that a Manitoulin fisherman-hunter-gatherer can look at the world. And how I, a spunky New Yorker, view the same world.
Mudge is cranky. He hates phones, pretends to be a hermit. Tries to hide behind that elegant mind, with a dry wit. I would never admit to Unca Mudge that I respect him highly. I tell him about discovering Robertson Davies.
Did I say Mudge hates phones? He yells at me: “You call me long distance to disturb my peace to talk about Davies? That runt followed me around achool. Those sly stories were about me. He got opinionated, I had to beat him up regularly.”
Unca Mudge has just revealed BIG NEWS. Here I’ve been sitting on the Kagawong dock with him for nine years, hooking a line, getting into arguments and occasionally catching a fish, and… “You knew him? I thought a story or two was familiar? Stop hiding behind that pastoral stance, Unca Mudge. You’re not just a simple woodsman. Tell me about him…..his soul?”
Mudge explodes. “Davies never shut up. Just like you, Bonnie, when you push to discuss and try to legislate over what is art, good manners and Canadian custom. Davies said Canada had a soul right enough, but it was cautious about letting it show. Like me. You know I’ve taught you reticence is our national characteristic. I ‘member him saying Canada was perfectly happy to borrow soul from Britain and the U.S., since the two countries have so much, and were so ready to let their souls hang out from their vast tubs of emotion. Like you, miss, when you seek these conversations with about customs and Canadian sensibility. You drive me to drink. This call’s too long. I’ve said too much. Taking the dogs for a walk.”
“Unca Mudge, you’re a great Northern coot, too. Though you don’t write anything, you always make me laugh, you devil.”
“Watch those fancy New York compliments. I suppose you’ll be wanting to see a photograph of me ‘n him when we were at school…”
“Please get it to Aussie at the Post Office,” I sigh. “I wish I could one day just write one story as good as Robertson Davies…”
“Don’t press yer luck,” snorts Unca Mudge.