#808 Refugee in the Slocan Valley
The Foundations of Kindness
by Richard Vission
Montreal: Guernica Editions, 2020
$25.00 / 9781771834735
Reviewed by Luanne Armstrong
When I finished Richard Vission’s new book, The Foundations of Kindness, I went for a long walk, letting the book and stories and the history of what he has depicted wash through me. (The title comes from a poem by Bertolt Brecht.) We have entirely different histories, but the stories of community struggle and protest in Chicago, and his decision to leave for Canada, echoed within me, and all the organising and marching I have done with so many others. The book is primarily set in Chicago, in the years 1968-69 but it was primarily written in the Slocan Valley, in 1974-75.
But not all of it. As Richard says, writing the book took him forty-five years and it ranges back and forth from Chicago in the sixties, to winter in the Slocan Valley, near Nelson.
The plot is a bit sneaky. Stay with it and read to the end to get the full emotional scale of this writing. Vission insists it’s a novel but it is also history. As a non-fiction writer, I know that there is no such thing as “true” history, and novelists often get caught up in the argument of whether a novel can tell a “truer” story than nonfiction, to which I would agree that indeed it can and often does, and this book is an illustration of just how well that can be done.
In the end, it comes down to the writing and the writer, the style of writing, and the writer’s intention. In Vission’s case, it’s clear that he wants to write a “novel” that is truer than true, and he succeeds brilliantly.
What did happen in 1968 and 1969? So many things; anyone who was alive then has their own story of that time: for one thing, the young American men who were being drafted into the war in Vietnam could begin to see it was a lost and pointless war, and began heading for Canada. No question that Canada was the true winner of the Vietnam War. All those brilliant young people streamed into Canada to start new lives. I went on my first antiwar march in 1968, and that march filled the Burrard Street Bridge and all the way down Burrard to Robson Street.
People all over North America began organizing or joined movements that were already in process. Feminism was born; environmentalism, and groups like the Black Panthers picked up the civil war banner and began to push hard, not just for black rights and civil rights but for a whole new way of government. America began to implode; new music, new books, new ideas, new ways of thinking and new ways of organizing, and of course drugs, but in the sixties and seventies, drugs were a very small part of what was going on.
In Vission’s case, he was involved with a group fighting developers to keep from evicting poor people so they could instead build mansions for wealthy people. He was young, idealistic, energetic, and wrapped up in his work, as part of The Concerned Citizens of Lincoln Park. In his case, this meant writing, editing, and mimeographing pamphlets, posters, fliers, and meeting notices along with publishing The Lincoln Park Press. As well, he went to meetings, sometimes two or three a day.
He was there during the 1968 Democratic National Convention, held August 26-29. And the next year came the Days of Rage demonstrations, which were a series of protests taken over a course of three days in October 1969 in Chicago, organized by the Weathermen, a faction of the Students For A Democratic Society (SDS). In both cases, the Chicago police met the demonstrators with incredible levels of violence and arrested most of the leaders.
History for me is a series of tiny actions that lead into bigger actions that reflect world events. Vission’s book is a wonderful blend of the small, the mundane, the everyday decisions of a group of people fighting for housing, which also became part of a huge movement in the US and many other countries for a better way of life. The sixties and seventies embodies one of the most powerful movements for freedom for marginalized people and people of colour ever organized, and it shook the US political system to its roots. The movements of the sixties and seventies have all too often been reduced to sniggering about sex and drugs, but in fact the organizing that began then: for equal rights, for economic equality, for environmental care, are still very much alive and still very much inform politics of both the left and right today. What gets far less attention is the corporate gaming of the economic system; the seventies were the beginning of offshoring industry from the US into third world countries as well as huge corporate injections of funding into right-wing “foundations,” to counter left-wing thinking.
Vission understands and plays brilliantly with the slippery notions of novelist as historian, of the variable truth of memory, of how many faceted points of view that a journey into the past must entail. This is a sneaky book; the narrative builds slowly but relentlessly to a powerful impact, as Vission’s life comes apart under the pressure of his work for the movement and the movement itself falls apart. His breakdown is intensified by the FBI assassination of Fred Hampton on December 4, 1969. Hampton was the chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party (BPP), and deputy chairman of the national BPP. He was by all accounts a charismatic powerful leader who built an alliance among major Chicago street gangs to work for social change.
Vission eventually leaves Chicago and flees to the Slocan Valley, which had become a haven for people who escaped the draft and the violence of the USA. He spends time in China, believes for a while that he may have found a society that takes revolution seriously, but that is destroyed by the government shooting of student-led demonstrations held in Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989. Finally, he lands back in the Slocan Valley and finds a hard won peace.
The Foundations of Kindness took a long time and a lot of thought to write. And it was worth the time. It’s a book that I think only a true elder could write, thoughtful, nostalgic, but with all the rage and despair at the state of the world still there, still clear, and wonderfully articulated. I found it a profoundly emotional and evocative read.
Luanne Armstrong has written twenty-one books. She writes young adult book, fiction, nonfiction and poetry. She has contributed to many anthologies and edited a Canadian non-fiction anthology called Slice Me Some Truth (Wolsak and Wynn, 2011). She has been nominated or won many awards, including the Moonbeam Award the Chocolate Lily Award, the Hubert Evans nonfiction Book award; the Red Cedar Award, Surrey Schools Book of the Year Award, the Sheila Egoff Book Prize, and the Silver Birch Prize. Luanne lives on her hundred year-old family farm on Kootenay Lake. She mentors many emerging writers all over the world on a long term basis, and in the last three years has edited eight books through to publication. Her last book was Sand, a young adult book for Ronsdale Press. A Bright and Steady Flame, The Story of an Enduring Friendship, was published by Caitlin Press in 2018 [and reviewed by Lee Reid in The Ormsby Review, no. 418, November 9, 2018 – Ed.]. She is now working on a book of essays, Going to Ground, as well as a new book of poetry, When We Are Broken.
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