1107 Page’s plays and fairy tales

Metamorphosis: Selected Children’s Literature
by P.K. Page, edited by Margaret Steffler

Erin, Ontario: Porcupine’s Quill, 2020
$22.95 / 9780889844322

Reviewed by Phyllis Reeve

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To be clear: P.K. Page (1916-2010) did write a number of delightful books for children, but this volume is not one of them. Not that this book is not delightful; it is, but it is not for children. It is heavy to lift and the pictures don’t match the stories.

Page in Calgary, early 1920s

But fear not. The stories exist in other delightful editions, fearfully and wonderfully illustrated by various imaginative artists, and definitely for children. Metamorphosis is a semi-scholarly selection for adult admirers of P.K. Page. Such adults might enjoy reading the fairy tales aloud to a favoured child, but the child would be unlikely to pick up the book of their own accord.

The pictures, while not illustrating the stories in the book, are important as the work of the author at a very young age, and thus of interest to followers of the artist also known as P.K. Irwin. Come to think of it, two other books I have reviewed from PQ have also been illustrated by their authors: Jan in 35 Pieces by Ian Hampton [Ormsby #854] and Bite Me! [Ormsby #510] by Joe Rosenblatt. Rosenblatt dedicated this final book, subtitled “Musings on Monsters and Mayhem”, to P.K. Page, in memoriam.

P.K. Page, by Miller Brittain, Saint John, New Brunswick, 1940
Page’s early tiger, c. 1920

“A Note on the Collected Works of P.K. Page” explains that this is “the sixth in a series of volumes being published by the Porcupine’s Quill as a complement to the online hyper-media edition of The Collected Works of P.K. Page”. While the volume includes a substantial introduction by CanLit scholar Margaret Steffler, several essays by Page, and concluding bibliographic notes, this is only the tip of the intensive work accessible in the online edition, which “is intended as a resource for scholarly research, while the print volumes are intended as attractive and inexpensive reading texts, edited to the highest scholarly standards but without the extensive textual apparatus which can be more effectively presented in a digital edition.” All this is impressive and reassuring, but even more reassuring is the illustration immediately following the Note, a selectively striped tiger drawn by a four-year-old Patricia Kathleen Page.

P.K. Page, 1940s. Courtesy Writers’ Trust of Canada. Page lived in Victoria from 1964 until her death in 2010.
Jake the Baker Makes a Cake (Oolichan, 2008)

This drawing and the others in the book came from the beginning of Page’s life. The writings came at the end. Steffler writes: “Page wrote about children throughout her life, but particularly in her early work. She wrote most of her literature for children, however, at the end of her career… The adult’s recovery of the world of the child is rare, but it seemed to come more easily for Page the farther away she herself travelled from the actual years of childhood.” The first two of her works which I encountered, the short story “The Resignation” in high school and the poem “the Stenographers” in university, concerned young adults embarked on lives of quiet desperation. Much later whimsy began to appear in poems such as “Planet Earth”, which first entered my consciousness in 1993 when Page offered it as her contribution to an anthology in support of the trees at Clayoquot Sound, and in which the earth is cared for like a piece of heritage linen. In 2001 by special resolution of the United Nations, the poem was read simultaneously in New York, the Antarctic, and the South Pacific to celebrate the International Year of Dialogue Among Civilizations.

The Travelling Musicians (Kids Can Press, 1991)

The earliest-written pieces in this collection are three one-act plays, all written before 1940, with a school-room setting in mind. The cast for A Case for Health includes Three Teeth, Two Lungs, The Skin and The Stomach, testifying to abuse by The Prisoner. Part of his sentence involves “two big and soapy baths a week” for life. This play could be fun, but I am unsure how convincing it would be, or whether a child, let alone a teacher, might consider it a waste of school time. The other two plays The Magic Wool and Silver Pennies or the Land of Honesty are more subtle and could provoke some productive discussion during production. The moralising is strong; the author is not yet thinking like a child.

The Sky Tree (Oolichan, 2009)

The book opens with “A Children’s Hymn”, written in 1995 for the 50th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations and set to music by Canadian composer Harry Somers. In The Travelling Musicians from 1991, Page retells a familiar Grimm’s brothers tale. Then, with the turn of the century and in the final decade of her life, Page finds the voice of the child within. The poems “A Brazilian Alphabet for the Younger Reader” and “There Once was a Camel” are glorious nonsense (“There once was a camel/ All dressed in enamel…”), as are several prose tales. Jake, the Baker, Makes a Cake is basically prose, but bursts into song several times a page. These are the pieces I would read to or with a young child.

The Sky Tree is a “Trilogy of Fables”, much smaller than the series of Tolkien, Lewis, Le Guin, or Rowling, but like them speaking the language of wizards, wishes, shape-shifters and quest journeys. I wish it were longer — generations seemed to whizz by, and I was not ready for the conclusion, which of course is only the beginning of another cycle.

Editor Margaret Steffler

Page’s “Note” to The Sky Tree talks about how she came to write the Trilogy, and her view of fairy tales as “tales of hope” which persuade her “that another, invisible world can manifest itself within our three-dimensional, daily one.” A long essay, “Fairy Tales, Folk Tales: the Language of the Imagination”, ruminates on theories and origins, referencing such varied sources as Doris Lessing, Claude Levi-Strauss and the Sufi author and teacher Idries Shah, whom the editor cites as a major influence on Page.

More importantly, Page relates how she came to write the fairy tale trilogy, how it “unravelled” in her head, following the “immemorial conventions” and like all fairy tales becoming “a story of metamorphosis.” Steffler has written elsewhere about Page’s engagement with religion and alternative realities. A reader may follow into those depths, or simply skim and enjoy.

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Phyllis Parham Reeve

Phyllis Parham Reeve has written about local and personal history in her three solo books and in contributions to journals and multi-author publications, including the foreword to Charlotte Cameron’s play, October Ferries to Gabriola (Fictive Press, 2017). She is a contributing editor of the Dorchester Review and her writing appears occasionally in Amphora, the journal of the Alcuin Society. A retired librarian and bookseller and co-founder of the bookstore at Page’s Resort & Marina, she lives on Gabriola Island, where she continues to interfere in the cultural life of her community. More details than necessary may be found on her websiteEditor’s note: Phyllis Reeve has reviewed books by Peggy Lynn Kelly & Carole Gerson, Iain Lawrence, Michael KlucknerJack LohmanMona Fertig, Lara CampbellConnie GreshnerKen LumIan Hampton, and Robert Amos, among others.

A Flask of Sea Water (Oxford University Press, 1989)

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The Ormsby Review is a journal service for in-depth coverage of B.C. books and authors. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Patricia Roy, David Stouck, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Provincial Government Patron since September 2018: Creative BC

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Poets P.K. Page and Margaret Avison, Griffin Prize shortlist, 2003. Photo courtesy Gramho
Signed title page of The Goat that Flew (Beach Holme, 1993), courtesy eBay
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