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The Curve of Time by M. Wylie Blanchet
My Mom suggested this book to me, having lived her childhood during the 40s and 50s much like Blanchet’s five kids twenty years earlier, cruising British Columbia’s coastal waters with her brother and their parents (my uncle and grandparents). Over the years, they cruised in two different boats, each a Monk built by my Grandpa.
A halcyon age, for my Mom looking back, those four or five decades of the 1900s. So, for me, Blanchet’s book resonates a little more, even as my own coastal boating experience (beyond BC Ferries) is far more limited.
Many reviews, easily found on-line, praise Blanchet’s book, and deservedly so. Blanchet’s approach to living is like her writing, blunt yet philosophical, somehow tensely serene and perseverant. She has left a fascinating, detailed firsthand account of time and place and people no longer existent, which might otherwise have quietly passed from memory – a magnificent coastal wilderness far less unspoilt though still as largely unseen today, relative to the number of people around – as well as ways of speaking, ways of thinking, ways of behaving, and ways of relating that have lost favour and seem, in today’s climate, disagreeable.
[Read my own take on what is called “presentism,” but briefly, here… what I believe is not that we ought to judge the past by our own standards – all we might respectfully do is observe and understand past cultures’ motives through the lens of those of our own.]
Reviewers often note Blanchet’s character and tone as impersonal, be that a substantive critique or a stylistic one. That it’s a somewhat common critique says as much, I suppose, about today as it does about her writing. Yet, as I read this book, it brims with relationships and personalities, like a play, in the dialogue as well as in the adventures and perils she and her kids (and the dog) encounter. The story’s greatest relationship is theirs shared with nature and time and memory and some kind of immanence, all set forth by Blanchet’s philosophical frame: you guessed it, the Curve of Time. To readers who wanted greater prosaic detail about her family and their relationships, or who sought a more beckoning tone, or who question her parenting or (for goodness’ sake!) her cultural woke, I’ll be kind and simply quote the narrator: you’re all being sillies.
Maybe another book permits readers to search for today and themselves in a place where those don’t exist. But this book, in spite of its title and philosophy, is an artistic memoir about the 1920s and 30s by an author from the 1920s and 30s. The curve of time for Blanchet, observing from her vantage, could only be hers when we’re observing from decades later; we have a curve of our own, or perhaps better to say same curve, different vantage. Even those who read her book while tracing her voyages in boats of their own can only imagine those times and places as she describes them. And how likely was it that Blanchet’s contemporaries might have gone searching for themselves in the past, too, or might have found fault with something that had since culturally changed for them? Though we may yearn to know the future, just as certainly none of us can change the past. We are and we live where and when we are. This book is about Blanchet and her family and the rugged coast. Readers need not only to consider but to humble themselves before our finite limitations, especially as they are put to the test by such an unsuspecting set of lowly protagonists.
We’re each biased, to be sure. But to engulf this book with bias, with what one might want it to be or what one might have written oneself, diminishes its value and, frankly, misses the point of reading it at all. We must leave room for this story to be what it is, as we’d leave room (I presume) for Blanchet to be herself, if we met her in person. Her book is a treasure of personalised historical detail, and she tells a story of a setting that would never ever be known or experienced again, not even by my family just twenty years later. Halcyon days are really a fickle product of memory, just as political correctness is a sententious product of yearning. Meanwhile, excellent books are honest and transcend the curve of time.
Check out these books…
How to Think by Alan Jacobs
Enlightenment 2.0 by Joseph Heath
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Read my own brief appraisal of Joseph Heller’s modernist masterpiece that critiques the absurdity of the military during wartime – truly ingenious genius.
The Gardens of Democracy by Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer
Don’t be misled by an endorsement from Justin Trudeau – this small book by two writers from the Pacific Northwest is superb, a profound, concise examination of democracy’s growth as culture and social perspectives continually evolve. Simple but not simplistic, the chapters describe, in fluid prose, the consequences of reaping what we sow as we tend to our garden of democracy. The authors survey from broad perspectives – citizenship, capitalism, government – but suggest roles and responsibilities with resonant individual detail. That it was published in 2011 only underscores this book’s prescience.
Of Mice And Men by John Steinbeck
Loneliness is a common emotion that everyone feels now and again – some more frequently or even more profoundly than others. Ranch hands such as those in Of Mice And Men, being drifters, had no families close by. As for those who stayed in place long enough to make friends, we might imagine by descriptions of the bunkhouse that theirs was still a disconsolate, if not a lonely, existence. Friendship, in that regard to loneliness, is but a thematic foil.
In his story, Steinbeck allows two drifters, George Milton and Lennie Small, to find friendship and travel together, in a way that sets them apart from those around them: “With us it ain’t like that,” says George, and whether that’s true perhaps only Lennie can really say for certain. With George and Lennie, Steinbeck suggests what friendship can be, but with their story he underscores the true significance of what it means to say, You are my friend. With George and Lennie, Steinbeck explores how friendship, while having great rewards, yet sometimes comes at a high cost.
As has more recently been reported, Steinbeck’s own life was distressed by a kind of lonely dysfunction and marred by injury, both sustained and inflicted, all of which complicates any understanding of him as a person while perhaps adding to our complex appreciation for his writing.