With the Christmas shopping season underway, why not consider some literary picks from half-a-century ago for those on your gift list? This selection of books even fills CanCon rules, thanks to the selections from two Canuck literary titans.
While researching a recent Historicist column, I stumbled upon reviews for both of these books while browsing microfilms of The Telegram. It appears that portions of The Desperate People were serialized earlier that year in the paper, so those with long memories may have remembered Farley Mowat's look at Inuit life by the time Laurie McKechnie reviewed it:
Surely Farley Mowat’s book will stir the conscience, rouse the indignation of Canadians in much the same way the UNCLE TOM’S CABIN aroused America a century ago...Mowat’s book is NOT fiction. It is tragic truth. It is a magnificent documentary—the story of a race of primitive people carefully constructed by focusing upon the facts of one fragment of their society. And through it all, Mowat’s anger runs powerfully from his pen.
McKechnie was impressed by Mowat's efforts to demolish the myth of the average Inuit as “childishly simple roly-poly figure," even if it was noted later in the review that the author might have played loose with some facts in his earlier books (an issue that proved controversial forty years later). The critic's conclusion?
It may be that experts will find flaws in Farley Mowat’s facts; they may find chinks in his arguments. It may be that in his anger, Mowat has not always made allowances for human frailty. But, after reading this book, nothing can convince me that Farley Mowat speaks anything but the essence of truth…truth that makes me ashamed as a Canadian.
James Scott started off his review of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz by comparing it to another rags-to-riches story about an ambitious young Jewish man, What Makes Sammy Run?, only Duddy is “a lot bigger stinker and a far more understandable human being than Sammy ever was.”
Have we a paradox here? Not at all. Human beings can be thoroughly horrible and yet attract our sympathy for them as human beings. A novelist can capitalize on this if he manages to do one of the most difficult things in fiction—that is make his horrible hero completely believable as a human being. This is what Mordecai Richler—in what is by far his best book to date—has accomplished.
And underneath this tale of a young man from the slums, driven to every extremity to prove himself and make money, lies both a deep understanding and a subtle satire of the Montreal ghetto and what has made the ghetto be there in the first place. Mordecai Richler has a sharp point to his pen which can bring the blood with a deft jab. He also is not inclined to be merciful. The result is a beautifully mature performance. I don’t think there is a false line, a blurred image or a contrived motivation in the whole book…This is a great book and when Mr. Richler has rubbed off the rough edges of his prose he is probably going to be the best writer in Canada.
Source: The Atlantic, December 1959. Additional material from the October 24, 1959 and October 31, 1959 editions of The Telegram.
PS: More vintage ads on Torontoist, featuring a "league of rations." - JB