Isobel Gunn: A Novel
Toronto: Penguin Canada, 2000.
[First edition: Viking/Penguin Canada, 1999]
CDN$ 20.00, 230 pages, ISBN 0-14-028516-4.
The Path of Totality: New and Selected Stories
The two titles under scrutiny are the latest two published paperback books by Audrey Thomas, an American-born Canadian writer living on Galiano Island, outside Vancouver, BC. The two books are very different one from the other. One is of a very new kind in Audrey Thomas's writing career, her first attempt at historical fiction, Isobel Gunn; the other is more similar to her earlier writing, a collection of short stories (including two new stories) entitled The Path of Totality. Examining the two together enables us to encompass some major and interesting aspects of Thomas's writing.
Isobel Gunn is Thomas's first experiment in writing historical fiction, inspired by a true story that she encountered when she visited the Orkney Islands. It is the extraordinary story of a poor, young Orkney woman at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Isobel Gunn, 22, dressed as a man, tries to escape her condition and "start a new life" [p. 43]. "Her family was poor-tenant farmers of the poorest sort on land whose chief crop seemed to be stones" [p. 23] and women at the time were "Beasts of burden, and not much chance of any improvement in their lifetime" [p. 23]. Expecting "Good wages. Clothes. Food. Adventure." [p. 38], she signs in for the "Company of Adventurers" and works "willingly and well" as "John Fubbister" for the Company in Rupert's Land in the wilderness of Canada. Her disguise is only discovered when she gives birth to a son almost a year after her arrival, the result of having been raped by a certain "John Scarth," a fellow countryman who knew her before she left Orkney. She is then expelled from the company, first to live with Native women, and then sent back to Orkney where she lives more or less like an outcast. The story first appeared in a book called Amazons and Military Maids, about cross-dressing women in history. Before Thomas it inspired the Canadian writer Stephen Scobie, who turned it into a volume of poetry, The Ballad of Isabel Gunn, in the early 1970s.
The first question that arises on reading Thomas's account is how fact and fiction meet in the story. This issue is raised by the author herself right from the start in an "Author's note" in the form of a warning that what we are going to read is the result of some historical research indeed, yet remains "a work of fiction." She even apologizes for any historical "inaccuracies" or for what she calls "the deliberate fiddling with the facts in order to make [her] story work."
The narrative is indeed clearly presented right from the front cover as "a novel." However, its accuracy is grounded on comprehensive, serious research, with a number of institutions and people mentioned in the "Acknowledgments" that immediately follow the "author's note." Before embarking in the narrative proper (under the general heading of "1862 Stromness, Orkney"), the reader has to go through a "Glossary of terms that may be unfamiliar" (mainly Scottish and Orkney words), maps of the Orkney Islands, of Scotland and Canada, as well as an epigraph quoted "From the journal of Alexander Henry, the younger, chief factor at the North West Company's post at Pembinah" dated "1807, Pembinah, Dec. 19." The epigraph records "an extraordinary affair" where "[one of Mr. Heney's Orkney lads] stretched out his hands towards me, and in piteous tones begged me to be kind to a poor, helpless, abandoned wretch, who was not of the sex I had supposed, but an unfortunate Orkney girl, pregnant, and actually in childbirth."
All these preliminaries are aimed at providing the narrative with historical and geographical authority, thus going along with the genre of "historical fiction." The most important "fiddling with facts" is a major change in the plot: in true life, Isobel was sent back to Scotland with her son, where she ended her life miserably. In Thomas's novel, she is forced to give up her son for adoption to the head of the settlement, a Mr. Morton. Back in Scotland she lives a miserable life making stockings for the sailors, and expecting news from her son all her life. The news never comes and she dies in ignorance, hoping God will forgive her for her sins. Of course this "fiddling with facts" makes the story much more dramatic, emotionally vivid, and full of suspense, as the reader keeps expecting news from the son together with the mother. At the end we are left just as bereft by the death of Isobel, with a terrible sense of loss and waste, and yet hope survives in the dreams of the lost son's vague images of his mother.
Thomas's experimentation with historical fiction is rather successful, it arouses both historical interest and sympathy from the reader, as the author loads her narrative with just enough dramatic tension to keep it going. But her achievement is even more striking when it comes to her handling of gender issues within the narration. Gender and identity issues are at the heart of the plot of Thomas's novel, with its main character, a young woman, assuming a man's identity, behaving and dressing as a man until she is discovered and "reduced" to being a woman again. The narrator argues that Isobel's act probably originated in the conditions of her birth as she "was supposed to be the last child" and her father went into a rage when he saw that she was not a boy. He wonders: "Had he done it to her? Willed her, by his rough contempt in the first hour of her life, to wish she were a boy?" [p. 19]. From then on, she behaved like a boy for the benefit of her family, because the father was a good-for-nothing and the only boy in the family was very weak: "At first, Isobel became a boy because she had to" [p. 35]. What an extraordinary assertion!
Another reason for Isobel's behaviour, suggested by the narrator, is that she wanted to "atone for her mother's sin." Indeed, when she was but four years old, her mother killed her last new-born baby and was taken away to the madhouse, and the scene was witnessed by the narrator. Gender problematics and narration are closely intertwined as a woman writer (Audrey Thomas) uses a male narrator (Magnus Inkster, the young minister) to tell the very unusual story of another woman (the eponymous Isobel Gunn) who pretended to be a man for almost a year. Thomas justifies her choice by arguing that Isobel's lack of education made it very unlikely that she would have been able to tell, let alone write, her own story. The few sentences supposed to have been written by Isobel to her son ("DERE SONE I thot of you on your birth day" [p. 114]; "O MY DEARE O MY DARLING I wish we ware to ger wane deay; it makes my hart to bet and my eay to wepe when i think on you" [p. 128], certainly confirm this. Furthermore, in those days when schooling was not widespread, especially in the Orkney Islands, the minister often acted as schoolteacher (which Magnus Inkster did in Canada) and he was the only really educated figure. As owner of written memory, of a knowledge perceived as superior, the wisdom of the written word, he is a very likely narrator. In that case, he was also a direct witness of Isobel's miseries, first as a child, then after she was discovered, and finally when she returned to Orkney, which makes him particularly valuable and supposedly reliable as a narrator.
One of the consequences of this narrative stance is a certain confusion of voices, which is a little puzzling at the start. It takes some time for the reader to find his bearings and understand who is actually telling the story and when, as well as what period the narrator is referring to. Once you get over this confusion, you realize how cleverly crafted the narrative is. It combines first-person tales told by the self-conscious, intradiegetic narrator Magnus Inkster and third-person tales in italics, told by an omniscient narrator with Isobel as a focalizer. There are constant flashbacks and flashforwards together with shifts in time, voices and viewpoints, that match the way Isobel told her story to Magnus: "It did not come out as a continuous narrative, but in short bursts or 'scenes', which I had to fit together later" [p. 131].
How could Isobel hope to remain undiscovered, even if she had not been pregnant? Several reasons are given: clothes, the climate in Canada and what we could call common sense.
Then at the Bay, people wore "layers and layers" of clothing, "in winter to keep from freezing, in summer to keep from being driven mad by the mosquitoes." And then "If someone is presented to you as a man, is dressed as a man, works as hard as any man, does nothing whatsoever to make you doubt he is a man, why on earth would you suspect he is a woman in disguise? Especially here?" [p. 55]. And we must admit it works quite well, especially thanks to the narrator's numerous direct interventions and recordings of his memories and questionings.
The epilogue is more puzzling, staging as it does a young boy in Winnipeg in 1938, who, taking on a new identity, leaves his mother to join in the Royal Navy and gets killed when his ship is torpedoed in October 1939. You may wonder what the connection is with Isobel's story? I did too, and the connection is rather thin. From tiny hints, we understand that the boy is Isobel's son's great-great-grandson. Then the same pattern seems to be repeated three times in the novel. Three times in a row, generation after generation, three women lose their children, in different ways, but the loss is equally painful and full of consequences for the loving mother. First, Isobel's mother murders her own new-born baby, probably another daughter after Isobel who "was supposed to be the last child." Then Isobel is forced to give up her son for adoption. Finally, in the epilogue, a mother loses her son at war, the mother being a descendant of Isobel's son. The three women spend the rest of their lives waiting for a sign from their lost child. Should we understand the epilogue as the continuation of a story of pain and loss? Of fate and redemption? Mothers mourning the disappearance of their sons and mother/child relationships are among Thomas's favourite themes at any rate.
Such themes are also central to an altogether very different book by Audrey Thomas, The Path of Totality. It is a collection of 22 "new and selected stories" taken from five published volumes spanning 35 years: Ten Green Bottles (1967), Ladies and Escorts (1977), Real Mothers (1981), Goodbye Harold, Good Luck (1986) and The Wild Blue Yonder (1990). There are also a few stories that were published separately. The subtitle is slightly deceptive, as there are only two "new" stories: "Ice" and the eponymous story.
So why should Penguin publish yet another collection of Audrey Thomas stories when there are only two new ones? And what were the criteria for the selection? Apart from a rather vague note on her interest for language and her "love of words" (which is not entirely unexpected from a writer), Thomas gives us no clear indication. In the "Introduction," she says: "When I selected these stories from those I have published, or written and not yet published, I wasn't looking for a theme or thread that ran through them all." So, we may wonder, what was she looking for? The only connecting thread she identifies is the following: "Almost every story in this collection has something to do with language." In fact, we may understand the enterprise as a kind of summary of Thomas's writing career, where she looks back on it and selects significant "samples" along her "path" towards "totality."
We should probably look at the epigraph to get an idea of the general meaning of the collection. It is an Ashanti proverb that says: "Even if I am but one star among many, I still have need of the sky." The need for the sky is a need for some encompassing whole, some "totality," for a higher, superior being, each story being like one star on "the path of totality."
The selection contains her first published story, "If One Green Bottle..." (1965) as well as four recent stories. The stories are not arranged chronologically, and there is no obvious order in the arrangement, at least as far as themes or settings are concerned. Logically enough, though, the collection begins "with the beginning," with a story entitled "Roots" and ends with "The Path of Totality," the eponymous story, and another one, "Breaking the Ice," that ends, as Thomas says, on "a quiet note of contentment," as if the author had achieved a sense of fulfillment at the end of the "path of totality" while all the characters in her stories have gone through different phases of unfulfillment.
We may, however, find a few recurring themes and elements throughout the collection. Many stories are set in foreign countries, especially Greece and Africa, where Thomas lived for a while. In those stories, the characters, most of them on vacation in Greece, for example, experience a sense of estrangement, dislocation, displacement. Being in an unfamiliar environment compels them to face their own sense of unfulfillment, to find a meaning to their lives, to dare challenge their fear of life and death ("Miss Foote," "Local Customs," "Crossing the Rubicon," "Two in the Bush," etc). Death and cemeteries are also present in a number of stories like "Miss Foote," "The More Little Mummy in the World," "The Streets of Laredo," "Joseph and His Brother," etc.
The sea provides both a theme and a setting for some stories like "Local Customs," "The Man with Clam Eyes," and of course "The Wild Blue Yonder," where it brings about the prospect of death, as well as in "The Albatross," which metaphorically takes up the famous figure of the "Ancient Mariner."
Many stories deal with the complexities of family relationships, filial love between mother and son (as in Isobel Gunn), mother and daughter, father and daughter, etc., and pain is always involved in these relationships. The characters have to come to terms with their pain, which they do thanks to the process of narration. As we can read in the epigraph chosen for the story "Volunteers," but which could fit any of the stories in the collection: "Any affliction becomes bearable, if it can be recast as a story."
Some characters appear in several stories, although the stories come from different collections ("The Albatross" and "Ice," "Ascension" and "Local Customs," etc.), thus providing the collection with some kind of coherence, a sort of loosely connected network of themes, characters and images.
As a consequence, this is not the kind of book that you can read non-stop from the first to the last page. The stories are so powerful and eclectic, the settings so varied, that you need to make a pause in between two stories in order to "digest" the story you have just read before passing on to another one. Some of them are actually quite difficult to follow, like "If One Green Bottle" whose narrative flow is constantly interrupted (even disrupted) by suspension dots, giving it a choppy, panting, definitely experimental turn. Some are quite cryptic, because the actual focus is never what you expect it to be, there are parallel stories within the stories and the titles often give you a false clue as to what is most important ("Volunteers," "Roots," etc.). Others are extremely powerful, emotionally intense and highly rewarding for the purposefully misled, yet perseverant reader... I do recommend reading, for example, "The Wild Blue Yonder" for a daughter's obstinate hope in the survival of her presumably "Missing in Action" father; "Bear Country," for its hilarious, benevolent yet slightly critical outlook on feminism; "Volunteers," for a young mother's gradual understanding and acknowledgement of her involuntary love for her Dawn syndrome child. There are many others.
Reading those two works by Audrey Thomas concomitantly is altogether a very rewarding experience, providing us with an interesting sample of Audrey Thomas's experimentation with genre, gender, and language in fiction. Her writing is not always "easy," for different reasons. Some would say it is occasionally cryptic, but it is certainly well worth the effort.