#980 Return to small town Ontario

Christmas in Mariposa: Sketches of Canada’s Legendary Little Town
by Jamie Lamb

Victoria: Heritage House, 2019
$19.95 / 9781772032871

Reviewed by Peter Babiak

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It wasn’t until I was in grad school that I realised that fiction and myth, far from being cultural fripperies divorced from the practical matters of life, can be just as real as trees, toques and income-tax forms, and just as consequential, too. I was assigned as a Teaching Assistant in a second-year Satire course directed by an affable emeritus prof, Hugh Kierans, an old-school scholar who believed that reading canonical texts could make a student’s life more remarkable and outfit them for membership in cultured civilisation. That humanist conviction struck his five assistants, all schooled in the swanky rhetoric of postmodernism, as hopelessly antiquated, but under his patrician eye we were charged with the task of teaching the grand old tradition of Satire — Dryden, Swift and Pope — along with some modern variants — Brecht, Vonnegut, Richler — to our weekly tutorials.

Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town (First edition, The Bodley Head, 1912)

It was during our unit on the Canadian classic, Stephen Leacock’s collection Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, that I had my epiphany. Originally commissioned as a series of stories about Canadian life by The Montreal Star in 1912, Leacock’s sketches are set in the fictional town of Mariposa, a gently veiled stand-in for Orillia, Ontario, the town where he lived for some time and which has long branded itself as the “Sunshine City.”

Seated at the back of the lecture hall with the other tutors, I wrote down everything Kierans professed to the 150 students about Leacock from his lectern, trying to keep on top of allusions that ran quickly from Aristotle’s Poetics and Juvenal’s Roman satires to the work of eminent Canadian thinkers H.A. Innis and George Grant, so I would at least sound like I knew what I was talking about in my tutorials. One of those allusions was to something literary theorist Northrop Frye said in his 1965 Massey Lectures, now collected in The Educated Imagination, an important volume that, sadly, I hadn’t read until grad school — he wasn’t as sexy as the continental thinkers on whom I had developed something of an academic crush — but which I now regularly teach first-year students.

Stephen Leacock

“Many people,” Frye wrote, “like to assume that the society of their childhood was a solid and coherent structure which is now falling apart.” He called this compulsion to romanticize history a “social mythology,” though most of us would just call it “nostalgia.” He goes some length to reclaim the value of the word “myth,” which along with “fiction” has been debased to the point that people take it to mean something false or untrue. Stories about the past, like all myths and fictions, must be understood — and here was my epiphany — “things made out of words by a power in the human mind that constructs and builds.” Yes, some of these “verbal structures” are implausible narratives concerning gods and goddesses or more plausible ones about star-crossed lovers, but the very same character types and plot conventions appear in pop songs, car commercials, and video games, and also in the speculative yarns we spin for ourselves when we aspire to achievements in the future or the inspired tales we tell about our own histories.

Mississaga Street, Orillia, circa 1909
Jamie Lamb. Photo by Joyce Dodds

It’s on this matter of origin stories that I will introduce Christmas in Mariposa, an unabashedly joyful collection of autobiographical vignettes that takes Leacock’s work as their literary impetus but everywhere marked by genuine story-telling craft. Their author, Jamie Lamb, a former columnist and Ottawa bureau chief for the Vancouver Sun and occasional teacher at Harvard and MIT, was born in Mariposa, in a house, no less, that was built from the timbers of the old lake schooner, the Geneva, the ship upon which Leacock modelled his fictional Mariposa Belle, the infamously unseaworthy boat in “The Marine Excursion of the Knights of Pythias.”

Like its forbearer, Christmas in Mariposa is classic local colour writing, with its thirteen recollections of growing up in a small-town populated by quirky characters with enchanting eccentricities. Lamb’s inspired memoir has none of that biting irony and abrasive parody aimed at taking down public figures and sacred cows, the sort of thing we read in Fight Club or see on The Beaverton or Baroness von Sketch. Like Leacock’s, these are graceful autobiographical satires of the Horatian type, marked by comic gentility, wit, and a wistful fondness for Mariposa’s people and places.

The “Preface” loosely frames the thirteen sketches as the record of a trip from his current home in Vancouver to his childhood home on Bay Street in Mariposa, “to see what memories it might spark.” Each begins with a geographical reference — the first to where Lamb parked his rental car after driving to Orillia from Pearson Airport, others to a trail or a secret garden, but mostly to the houses on the short street next to Lake Couchiching — and each reference becomes the stage for a narrative that takes Christmas as theme, more as a trope for goodness and hope than the holiday, and convenes around single characters who have left their mark on Lamb because they are, well, “remarkable” in the best sense of that word.

Stephen Leacock home, Old Brewery Bay, Orillia, postcard circa 1960
Aerial view of Orillia, overlooking Lake Couchiching, 1960s
Orillia Drive-In Theatre, ad circa 1955

The first, “Angus and the Skating Rink,” opens with Lamb noticing upon his return to Bay Street that the fields of milkweed next to the place that Angus’s one-room shack once stood are now gone. The grown man concludes that the thousands of monarch butterflies whose larvae would feed on the plants every summer must be gone, too, and with them the many people, young and old, who’d come “to set a spell under splendid summer skies in shared admiration of pattering swarms of monarch butterflies.” By way of a quintessentially Canadian narrative detour featuring a public skate and visit by Gordie Howe, we learn that Angus had for many years built and maintained an ice rink on the frozen lake in memory of Meg, his childhood sweetheart, a skater who died of pneumonia.

“See, Meg wasn’t there any more,” Angus tells the young Lamb, but he’s continued building the rink for Mariposa because Meg told him “we’d always be skating, me and her.” As for the wealthy and “very private” lead in the next story that bears her name, “Mrs. Torrance and the Fireworks,” Lamb was her paperboy for five years. During his tenure, he befriended Bill, the tenant who lived above Torrance’s garage who aspired to “small living and gardening, [and] keeping an eye on her.” Together, they dreamed up a Christmas Eve community fireworks display over the lake that the gravely ill Torrance could see from her bed. A solemn exchange between Bill and the paperboy after Torrance dies reveals that Bill is, in fact, Mr. Torrance but that, since their son was killed in the war, his wife has “wanted to be alone” and “not to have any more ties.” A sad story, to be sure, but Bill, just before moving away from Mariposa, assures the delivery boy that his wife’s last was “one of her happiest Christmases in years.”

And so the sketches of Mariposa continue, character after character emerging from Lamb’s memories, most leading us through narratives that touch on small sublimities of life, and a few to the adorably comic moments, too. Bert Jones, for example, Mariposa’s lush and Town Crier, punctuates a Christmas themed July 1st Dominion Day celebration — brainchild of the 11 year old daughter of Mariposa mayor who one June morning declared she was bored — with an alcohol and profanity laced tirade announced through the megaphone on his ’57 Nash Metropolitan. “Who knew a single procreative verb could have so many adjectives, adverbs, and prefixes? It was a real boost for youth vocabulary and education.”

Main Street Orillia, circa 1960. Courtesy Orillia Matters
Jamie Lamb

There’s a steady thrum of such humour and amiable wit in Christmas in Mariposa, which we’d expect in any volume indebted to Leacock, but there’s an evanescence here, too, an only slightly muted existential pulse that I either don’t remember reading in Sunshine Sketches when I taught it as a TA, or perhaps is only apparent to people who have reached an age when there are fewer years ahead of them than behind. Whatever that case, reading Lamb’s sketches often put me in mind of the simple message contained in a couplet from that other notable Canadian man of letters, Al Purdy: “But everything fades / and wavers into something else.”

There is the story of retired piano player William St. Williams, “obviously old, obviously black, and obviously out of place,” who turned up in Mariposa after walking from New York City, looking “to find a little town where he could live peacefully and read and watch the seasons change over a little lake.” With the help of Lamb’s father, old Will took up residence in Mrs. Whitby’s boat house, where he told the Lamb family, whom he had invited over one Christmas Eve for “some piano music,” that his wife and daughter were both killed in a car accident, also on a Christmas Eve. “I was driving,” he said, before singing, as a sort of coda to the tragedy, “Away in a Manger.”

And the story of the Harvard Professor, too, in “A Wondrous World”, who summered in Mariposa and held regular “lectures” on, among other topics, European intellectual history, at the Golden Shangri-La Chinese restaurant with a group of local men known as the “Ten Thirty Club.” “Simple and honest and straightforward they might be,” writes Lamb, “but they suffered no fools.” Having once been invited to sit in before his last year of high school, Lamb was mesmerized by the professor’s talks, “no pictures or gimmicks. Just words and ideas in an agreeable order.” And Lamb, having grown up in Mariposa, learned that Professor Donald Kelly began his academic career largely because of a relationship he had with a gifted young Chippewa woman in high school, Mary, who died just before Christmas when the car her father was driving fell through the thin lake ice on the way back to the Reserve. We learn later in the sketch that Kelly had regularly travelled to Mariposa at Christmas in tribute to Mary, and that when he passed away he had an official Harvard funeral but that his ashes were transported and scattered on the lake where fell through the ice, as was his wish.

Downtown Orillia, circa 1975. Courtesy Orillia Matters
Hans Trippel’s Amphicar 770, made in West Germany between 1961 and 1968

In “A Choir Will Sing,” Lamb recalls how he and his best friend saw an Amphicar drive down a boat launch adjacent to Bay Street and float into the lake, driving the boys “wild with the coolness of the thing.” From there, Lamb launches recollects the story of Louis Zagar, the Hungarian émigré who worked as the French teacher and lived in the rental property facing the boat launch. The “worst high school teacher who ever was,” Zagar taught university students in Budapest, but in small town Canada, this “genial soul … lacking the heart to mete out corporal punishment” found it impossible to teach, let alone impart to them the value of languages other than their own. Until, that is, Lamb was kicked out of Grade 11 French class for acting up and reprimanded by his father, a newspaper editor and staunch defender of Canadian bilingualism. Zagar’s story ends Christmas Eve when the Mariposa men, Lamb’s father included, formed a choir and sang outside before the French teacher’s window. They did it because they knew the under-appreciated teacher, a cosmopolitan man who knew there was “no greater religion” than song, was dying, as indeed he did later that evening. “As the magnificent last notes faded away through the bare branches and an echo dies somewhere down the street,” Lamb recalls, “the men stood motionless.”

Freud, in “Mourning and Melancholia,” describes nostalgia as a refusal of loss, a yearning for something we’ve lost that can compromise a person’s relationship with reality itself. For people like Lamb, as for Leacock and Frye, this loss is also the realm of the imagination, where literature does its finest work. Throughout Christmas in Mariposa, this recurrent theme of loss — no matter if it is death, moving, retirement, gutted bungalows replaced by bourgeois craft homes, or another of life’s impermanences — is extraordinarily reframed as an ordinary fact of life that, despite its pangs, enables robust memories that become, with a gifted hand, exceptional stories.

Northrop Frye, circa 1930. Photo courtesy University of Toronto

One of these is “The Secret Garden,” where Lamb in adult mode devotes a couple of atypical paragraphs to a more universal loss. The loss of childhood — his, our own, and the childhood of any adult who has ever wondered, even lamented, why kids these days are different from kids in the past. The world has “gained something,” Lamb opines, “through increased supervision of the young,” here striking a familiar and a constative element of what Frye calls the “pastoral myth,” “but something’s been lost.” That something is the exuberant and unfettered liberty children enjoyed in the past, which for Lamb is connected to a “shaggy property” that used to occupy a now manicured lot on Bay Street, where Lamb spent summers reading and napping in the grass. On one occasion we was awoken by a local Indigenous woman who asked him to accompany her nephew, Ray, to the Mariposa library to check out books. Which he did. Then in a lovely mystical passage closer to the present day, after the two bump into each other as grown men just before Christmas, Ray repays his “soul debt” and takes Lamb to a thousand year old medicine wheel where, with Ray’s uncle, they participate in a sacred ceremony. “We stood like statues in the wind. Nobody spoke. Something was going to happen,” Lamb writes, and something quite wonderful did happen, and if you read the story you may be surprised to learn what.

What we have, ultimately, is a collection of pastoral myths, true stories whose truthfulness is rendered artful and entertaining written with a classical sense of wit, which the classical satirist Dryden called “a propriety of thoughts and word,” and an award-winning journalist’s sense of dialogue and narrative tempo. Lamb’s writing cradles us not only in the comfort of stories about home, or rather the “the idea of home” as he puts it, but in their poetic writtenness.

Sunshine Sketches (Penguin Random House centennial edition, 2012)

Let me close with a brief word about the artistry in the central story in the collection, the touchstone around which the other twelve sketches seem to orbit. “Home for Christmas,” besides the fact that the title is a familiar trope particularly at this time of year, reads like an homage to one of Leacock’s most celebrated claims on the creative force of the imagination: “the essence, the very spirit of Christmas is that we make believe a thing is so, and lo, it presently turns out to be so.”

The story is, as you’d expect, about Lamb’s family traditions — bringing the scotch pine home, the ornaments and carols, the gifts, of which the books were always Lamb’s favourite because “There was no such thing as a book that was a bad Christmas present. Ever.” That sketch features Lamb’s father’s habit of burying a stash of foreign currency in the ground at various scenic locations around the world he and his wife travelled, preferably close to a pub, and then providing a map to friends bound for those destinations, so they might enjoy a drink and sandwich in the same place. The practice started, Lamb remembers, when his father gave him a copy of Sunshine Sketches of Little Town, the inside cover of which featured a cryptic set of instructions to a stash of foreign currency buried on an island in the lake next to Bay Street.

That practice, Lamb seems to be saying, is an apt metaphor for how we — regular people not too different from the characters in Mariposa — render our worlds into works of art, through acts kindness, grace, and appreciation for what he lyrically calls “textures of the moment.” And I don’t think Lamb would mind at all if the last word went to Leacock, who said that “Life, we learn too late, is in the living, the tissue of every day and hour.”

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Peter Babiak

Born and raised in the GTA, Peter Babiak now lives and writes in East Vancouver. He teaches linguistics, composition, and English Lit at Langara College, and writes for subTerrain Magazine. His commentary and creative nonfiction has been nominated for both B.C. and national magazine awards and his collection of essays — Garage Criticism: Cultural Missives in an Age of Distraction, published by Anvil Press in 2016 — was a Montaigne Medal finalist and an Honourable Mention in the Culture Category of the Eric Hoffer Awards. His work was selected for The Best Canadian Essays (Tightrope Books) both in 2017 and 2018. He has a dog, a cat, a garden, and an alluring garage. Editor’s note: For The Ormsby Review, Peter Babiak has reviewed Provoked by Gilgamesh, by Gilmour Walker, and his own book Garage Criticism was reviewed here by Ginny Ratsoy.

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