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A Boyhood in a Different Muskoka

Written by James K. BartlemanAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by James K. Bartleman

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On Sale: February 24, 2009
Pages: | ISBN: 978-1-55199-206-8
Published by : Douglas Gibson Books McClelland & Stewart
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

A warm, at times hilarious, yet dark childhood memoir from a bestselling author.

This memoir recalls the boyhood years of Ontario’s future lieutenant-governor, living in a dilapidated old house complete with outdoor toilet and coal oil-lamp lighting. Behind the outrageous stories, larger-than life-characters, and descriptions of the mores of a small village in the heart of Ontario’s cottage country are flashes of insight from the perspective of a child that recall the great classic Who has Seen the Wind by W.O. Mitchell.

But why "a different Muskoka?" Because the boy was a half-breed kid. Visits to his mother’s reserve showed him that he was caught between two worlds. His mother’s fight with depression flowed from that dilemma. His father — the book’s main character — was a lovable, white, working class, happy-go-lucky guy who never had any money but who made the best home brew in the village — and his specialty was raisin wine.

Like that raisin wine, this unusual book goes down easily and has a kick to it.


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt

They lived in a three-room, two-storey house on a one-acre lot overgrown with trees in Port Carling, a small village in Ontario’s cottage country. The mother, who was Indian, had long been familiar with the dwelling. As a child in the 1920s and 1930s, she had spent time with her extended family in the tiny local enclave known as the Indian Camp where native people from her distant reserve gathered in the summers to fish and to sell handicrafts to tourists. In those early days, she used to cross the street whenever she approached it, for a villager had hanged himself on a backyard apple tree and it was rumoured that his tormented spirit had taken up residence in the long-deserted house.

Certainly the building gave every impression of being haunted. Their glass shattered by stones thrown by schoolchildren over the years, two large windows stared down at passersby on the street like the Windigo, sinister eater of human flesh and evil spirit in Chippewa mythology — at least in the imagination of the impressionable native child who had heard too many tales of monsters at home for comfort. Her fear was that the resident ghost would float out of one of the black and eyeless sockets to seize her and do her in.

She never dreamed that one day the house would become her home.

During the Great Depression, the Indian girl, now a young woman, married a white man, a hard-working unskilled labourer, scarcely older than herself. And other than a fondness for home-brew (raisin wine was his favourite), he was a good husband. After their initial shock, for white men did not marry Indians in those days, his parents accepted their Indian daughter-in-law.

The war came. The army rejected the husband because of a bad heart. The mixed couple, with their growing brood of half-breed children, drifted from town to town until they arrived in the village of her youth the year after the war ended. Their children were now four in number and the family lived in a tent on wasteland near the dump for the summer and in an uninsulated summer cottage for the winter. Desperate for a home of her own, the mother remembered the abandoned house.

The years had not been kind to it. Now known in the village as “the old shack on the hill,” it had neither indoor toilet nor electricity. Likewise, rainwater leaked through the much-patched tarpaper roof, the wooden pillars that served as foundations were rotting away, and the house leaned perilously to one side. But the unpainted, weather-beaten exterior walls that had turned barnwood-black with age were solid, the walls of the one room occupying the ground floor were clean, and the partitions of deep-brown hemlock studs covered by thin boards separating the two upstairs bedrooms were clean and dry. The mother shrugged off her fears of the Windigo, persuaded the owners to let her purchase the property by making small monthly payments, and moved her family into the new home in the spring of 1947.

The mother may have put the story of the hanged man and ghost behind her, but her son, to whom she had confided the story, had not. Not that he was really afraid. He was, after all, seven years old and had been told by his father that ghosts did not exist. Nonetheless, he was never at ease at night when he had to visit the outdoor privy some distance behind the old house in a grove of sumach trees. In fact, anyone, even someone with a less active imagination than the boy’s, would have found the experience spooky. Flashlights were a luxury the family could not afford, and the boy’s only source of light as he stumbled along the path was from coal-oil lamps inside the house that filtered out through the ancient single-pane windows casting eerie shadows on the ground outside. To make matters worse, the boy was convinced that he could hear ghostly moaning sounds whenever he passed the apple tree where the neighbour had hanged himself. His unease turned to fear on moonlit nights since at times he thought he saw the victim, a rope around his neck, swinging in the obscurity among the branches of the apple tree. And his fear turned to terror on pitch-dark windy ones since the moaning from the restless spirit then seemed to reach new levels of despair.

Once back inside the house, the boy felt brave — at least in the company of his family when it gathered together in the evenings before going to bed. There was safety in numbers in that crowded room serving as kitchen, dining room, and living room. A woodburning cookstove, a supply of drying wood, and a sink occupied one half of the space. A row of rubber boots was neatly lined up just inside the front door.

Behind the stove, screwed into the wall, were rows of clothes hooks holding the coats and hats of the family members. An oilcloth-covered kitchen table, six hardwood maple chairs ordered from Eaton’s catalogue, and an old couch filled the other half. Off in a corner was the icebox with its two standard compartments — one for milk, butter, meat and vegetables and the other for blocks of ice, cut out of Lake Muskoka in the dead of winter and delivered door-to-door throughout the year by a local farmer.

In addition to the boy, a crying baby, a quarrelsome younger sister, a bossy older brother, an overworked mother, and a preoccupied father filled every available space. This did not include a dog and cat who cohabited reluctantly with a baby raccoon the father had rescued and which he was raising with more open affection than he gave to his own children. The clamour was such, the boy reassured himself, that the ghost in the apple tree, if it really existed, would never dare enter
the house.

Upstairs in bed, when the other family members were asleep, he was not so certain. Despite the comforting presence of his brother and sisters in their shared bedroom, the boy was worried. For when the house was silent, he thought he could hear the sounds of the moaning from the afflicted soul through the old building’s exterior walls. Having heard his parents say that death by suicide was unnatural, the boy thought the spectre must be guilt-ridden at having taken his own life.


From the Hardcover edition.
James K. Bartleman|Author Q&A

About James K. Bartleman

James K. Bartleman - Raisin Wine
James Bartleman rose from humble circumstances in Port Carling, Ontario, to become Foreign Policy Advisor to the Prime Minister in 1994. He is the author of the prize-winning memoir Out of Muskoka. In 2002 he became the Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario. Mr. Bartleman is donating his 2004 royalties to the Munk Centre for International Studies at the University of Toronto to support a lecture series entitled “Political Power and Mental Health”, designed to engage the public in discussion on issues central to “Shared Citizenship” in Canada.

Author Q&A

Why did you write this book?

My father died two years ago. His passing made me reflect on his role in my life, especially his influence in the formative coming of age years from seven to thirteen when I was first exposed as a child to the big existential issues everyone must face sooner or later -- such as death, life, spirituality, the passage of time, and sexual awareness. His life was hard, but he faced adversity with a smile, was unconventional and was a great storyteller. My book is one way I can perpetuate his memory while making readers laugh and reflect on the issues I raise. The book is also the sort my father would have written had he been a writer. It’s also an opportunity to explore the dream world of childhood, to pay homage to the transformative power of books and literature and to describe the life of someone with one foot in the white and another in the native world, and how he walked the line between them.


The subtitle says it’s about “A boyhood in a different Muskoka.” Why different?

Most people associate Muskoka as the habitat of stolid WASP locals and rich summer residents. I lived in another Muskoka - the Muskoka of the poor, mixed race underclass.


You’ve written three previous books — Out of Muskoka, then two memoirs of your life in Canada’s Foreign Service, On Six Continents, and Rollercoaster. Obviously Raisin Wine is most like Out of Muskoka, but how is it different?

I found I had many more stories to relate, had learned a lot about the art of writing and had much more to say. In Raisin Wine I’ve focused on my years from seven to thirteen while in Out of Muskoka I covered my entire life. Also Out of Muskoka was written following a traumatic beating when I was High Commissioner to South Africa, and has heavy mental health and search for identity themes.


Why did you choose Raisin Wine as the title?

My dad was the best home brew maker in the village, and raisin wine was his favourite. The title reflects his non-conformist devil may care attitude to life, and his love of the brew. He would have had a good laugh had he known I had chosen this title.


Your father is the book’s main character apart from the young narrator. Tell us about him.

My dad was a happy-go-lucky, highly literate person with only a grade four education. He felt more comfortable with native people than white, and was proud of his working class status. He also loved pricking the balloon of self-righteous hypocrisy and telling tall stories. He loved his children but never told them so,and was a humanitarian and a strong defender of the rights of animals.


Tell us about your comic books and ice cream addiction.

I learned to read on my own from comic books and developed a love of the illustrations and the fast paced stories. Ice cream was a luxury that our family could only rarely afford when I was a child but I loved it to the point of craving. When I became a paperboy, each Friday night I collected the payments from my customers and gave in to the temptation to blow all the money on ice cream. To this day, if I take one scoop of ice cream I find it hard to avoid emptying the whole carton.


The community you grew up in could be pretty much any Canadian small town. In this case it’s Port Carling. Do you think there was anything unique about it as a place to grow up in?

Port Carling differed from the other small villages of its size across Canada for the following reasons: its spectacular setting around lift locks on a beautiful river linking three of the most magnificent lakes in Canada; the fact that it was the site of the only permanent native settlement in the region on the arrival of the pioneers; and its stratified social structure with a wealthy summer community at the top and native people, the invisible brown underclass, at the bottom.


What’s your favourite story about the boyhood pranks you got up to?


The time a pal and I borrowed nitroglycerine dynamite fuse caps to blast-attack rats at the local dump.


Your mother, who’s still alive and well and living in Port Carling, found it tough living there married to a white man. Can you tell us about that?

My mother was a native Canadian living in a small WASP village. As such she was exposed to the undertones of racial discrimination then prevalent in Canadian society. She also suffered from severe depression before the development of anti-depression drugs.


It’s clear that reading — and doing well in school — is what took you out of poverty in Port Carling and led to a distinguished career, culminating in your role as Lieutenant Governor. In that role, you’ve emphasized aboriginal concerns, literacy and the fight against depression. Is it fair to say that these three issues all stem from your boyhood experiences?

I spent almost 36 years in the Canadian Foreign Service. I then returned to Canada as Lieutenant Governor determined to use my office to promote three non-partisan social justice issues: anti- racism, mental health and the welfare of native youth. The genesis of my interest comes from the experiences I describe in Raisin Wine.


Where are the royalties from Raisin Wine going?
All royalties from my three previous books were directed to the causes I ‘ve been supporting since I became Lieutenant Governor. Those from Raisin Wine I’m using to help pay for the shipping of books and reading materials to native youth in northern aboriginal communities.


From the Hardcover edition.

Praise

Praise

Praise for James K. Bartleman:

“Candid and engaging.”
Globe and Mail

“Bartleman’s style is straightforward, but he has a wry sense of humour and no qualms about recounting his own missteps.”
Quill & Quire


From the Hardcover edition.
Related Videos

On the Web


James Bartleman on The Hour with George Stroumboulopoulos.

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