When We Were Young

When We Were Young (an Anthology of Canadian Stories) Selected and Introduced by Stuart McLean

I’m not sure what I was thinking when I bought this book. I could have simply opened it and understood, but for some reason I saw the long list of famous authors and thought that it consisted of short stories by each of them. In a way this was try but it was actually just extracts from each story. The beginning of the book has Stuart McLean talking about his life growing up for a couple pages. Basically someone who sat down, wrote a couple paragraphs about his life and took chapters from other peoples books to make his own book. Now I know that seems a bit harsh, true, but whatever. I have also included some quotes from the book that I found interesting or entertaining.

Our first story is:

What’s Bred In The Bone by Robertson Davies

Francis Cornish is a young boy who is influenced by his parents, his aunt and his maid. Each with a different outlook on life and what is important. Francis begins school and goes through the usual torment we all went through. The boring classes, the horrible children and the strange routines.

p.15 “
Can a little child like me Thank the father fittingly? … Father, we thank Thee: (twice repeated) Father in Heaven, we thank Thee! Francis, who had a precious theological bent, wondered why he was thanking the Father, whoever He might be, for this misery and this tedium.”

A pain that we can all relate to.

Who Has Seen The Wind by W.O. Mitchell

Brian is a young boy who is accustom to being the centre of attention, but when the new baby comes, things change. He begins to venture out on his own. He is a very outspoken young boy and there are many funny parts throughout this extract. It shows how destructive we could be as children and how angry we could be when we didn’t really understand life. There were a series of funny conversations in this extract that made it entertaining to read.

p.24 “ “Step on a crack…break your mother’s back!”… Brian sang, “Step on a crack, break my gramma’s back!” He did not miss stepping upon a single crack in the three blocks that took them to the great, grey, sandstone church.”

p.27 “…he came upon a fox-red caterpillar making a procession of itself over a crack that snaked along the walk. He squashed it with his foot. Further on he paused at a spider that carried its bead of a body between hurrying thread-legs. Death came for the spider too.”

Jimmy by Jacques Poulin

Jimmy likes to imagine things. He lives in a world of his own which many of us did as children. Jimmy finds a father figure in the man known as Commodore, who is his neighbour, because his father is always in the attic busy reading and writing. Jimmy likes how Commodore will take the time to explain things to him. He wants to learn about grown up things and of the world. Jimmy also has taken up saying “Catshit,” when something goes wrong. I think when we are younger, if we hear a bad word that we should not repeat, that just makes it all the more enjoyable to say. It was not my favourite extract, but it was cute at times.

Kapusitchka by A.M. Klein

In Kapusitchka, the main character experiences death of a pet, as well as the beginning of life with the birth of a new baby. This was a sad little extract. He loves the cat, but one day the cat is curious about the new baby and scratches the baby. The father then blames the cat and kills it. These stories seem to have a common thread about our childhoods, with how we don’t understand things and want to know why things happen and seem out of place, even though they don’t make sense to anybody else.

p.59 “…everybody hugged the baby, carefully, and then asked me how I liked my new little brother. I didn’t answer, because I didn’t know what to say, and then everybody laughed, and said I was jealous. I am not jealous. I hate him.”

p.61 “ I hate my brother. I hate my father. I only want my Kapusitchka.”

The Smell of Sulphur by Marian Engel

This extract is about a family who goes to live by a lake for their fathers health. The two girls seem similar in age, but their personalities and the distance in age becomes more apparent as they grow over the summers. The story shows how there are places and memories that you have as a child, and how sometimes you can go back to those places, but they aren’t the same as in your memories.

War by Timothy Findley

Have you ever been mad at your parents because they didn’t tell you something and you found out from someone else? In this case a young boy finds out from his brother that their father is joining the army. He is so upset that he goes up into the hayloft in the barn and stays there all night. He does not move or come down when he hears people calling for him. He is afraid of the ducks that are down below. After waking up he decides to stay there until his parents arrive. When he is found by an officer, he tells the officer what was wrong and why he was hiding, and the officer laughs at him. The boy is then embarrassed and decides to lie to the others, even in front of the officer.

p.92 “ I looked down. A lot of hay stuck out so that I couldn’t see the floor. “Are there any ducks down there?” “No, dear, you can come down–it’s all right.” She was lying, though. There was a great big duck right next to her. I think it’s awfully silly to tell a lie like that. I mean, if the duck is standing right there it doesn’t even make sense, does it?”

How ironic.

The Jade Peony by Wayson Choy

Different races trying to grow up in a “white” community. Young boys wanting to become men and learning their destructive ways during a time of war. The main character does not know much english and starts school a bit late, with a strict, but understanding teacher who helps students of all backgrounds and shortcomings.

p.123 “ At recess, our dialects and accents conflicted, our clothes, heights and handicaps betrayed us, our skin colours and backgrounds, clashes, but inside Miss E. Doyle’s tightly disciplined kingdom we were all–lions or lambs–equals. We had glimpsed Paradise.

Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood

Do you remember what age you were when you learnt the stereotypical life that you were meant to have based on your sex? In this extract, a young girl who normally follows her brother and understands the world of young boys, makes new friends with girls from school. While spending time together, the main character learns just how simple a “ladies” life can be. Also how materialistic.
Another interesting thing about this story were the marbles. I had almost forgot about marbles and how big they were. I collected them myself. The funny thing from this story that I liked was this quote for how true it really is!
p.146 “One day someone appears in the schoolyard with a bag of marbles, and the next day everyone has them.”

Body and Soul by Barbara Gowdy

I think this story shows how we are more willing to help others then we are able to face some truths and help ourselves. An elderly lady decides to take care of differently abled children, taking in a blind girl and a girl with epilepsy. It was almost like the blind leading the blind. I can’t really relate to this story. I was never in foster care, but I suppose I could understand the elderly lady not wanting to be alone. The blind girl is able to undergo surgery and gain sight for the first time in her life. However, the girl with epilepsy and who is a little strange ends up using a drill on her skull, and lives. In the end the strange girl with epilepsy leaves, and is replaced by a nice young girl, with no arms. Life is strange sometimes.

The Hockey Sweater by Roch Carrier

Oh does this story ever remind me of my childhood. Such painful memories. Normally I am the type of person to read everything, but I was actually going to skip this one, but since it was only a couple pages and was brave and read on.
The repetition still haunts me to this day, however, I do enjoy the ending and can relate to that.

p.146 “Wearing my Maple Leafs sweater I went to the church, where I prayed to God; I asked him to send, as quickly as possible, moths that would eat up my Toronto Maple Leafs sweater.”

To Everything There Is A Season by Alistair MacLeod

This extract is about the time when your belief in Santa Clause comes into question, and your parents and older siblings try to welcome you to being a grown up and leave things like that behind. It is almost like realizing dreams don’t come true and your soul dies just a little.

p.198 “It is true that at my age I no longer really believe in him; yet I have hoped in all his possibilities as fiercely as I can, much in the same way, I think, that the drowning man waves desperately to the lights of the passing ship on the high sea’s darkness. For without him, as without the man’s ship, it seems our fragile lives would be so much more desperate.”

A Tempest In The School Teapot by L.M. Montgomery

This extract is from Anne of Green Gables. I have never read this story, but I have the book, which includes Anne of Green Gables and Anne of Avonlea. Reading this extract makes me look forward to reading these.

In A Glass House by Nino Ricci

A few memories flood back from this story. Strange long bus rides and strange encounters while sitting next to random people. I shudder at the remembrance of chalk boards, chalk, and brushes. Even the ritualistic passing of the germs that all of us went through.

p.234 “When other kids had to sit with him they’d call attention to themselves by making fun of him or by touching other peoples in the seats around them to pass on his germs…I’d cross my legs under the seat sometimes the way others crossed their fingers, furtively though, so that not even George would know I’d done it.”

Cornet At Night by Sinclair Ross

Parents always seem to have a different vision of what their son or daughter is going to grow up as. A young boy is expected to be like his father, but the mother teaches him to be as little like him as possible. The boy is sent to town on errands and to find help for the farm, but brings back the wrong type of person to help. He was intrigued by this stranger and liked the look of him, even though he did not look made for the farm.

p.260 “I went on and told him about my lessons and Miss Wiggins, and how later they were going to buy me a metronome so that when I played a piece I wouldn’t always be running away with it…I know I’d do better if I didn’t feel that way, and could keep slow and steady. But he said quickly “No, that’s the right way to feel–you’ve just got to learn to harness it. It’s like old Rock here and Clipper. The way you are, your Clipper…Clipper’s harder to handle– he may even cost you some tumbles. But finally get him broken in and you’ve got a horse that amounts to something. you wouldn’t trade him for a dozen like Rock.”

The Heights by Joyce Marshall

I was partially confused by this story. I was never aware of a time when women cut off all their hair as a norm and that long hair was a “nuisance.” It almost seems backwards unless it is just a small town in Canada in the past where it does not matter what your hair or clothes look like, as long as it is cheap and as little of annoyance in everyday life as possible. Also, over-plucking eyebrows so there is nothing left?
Despite the physical strangeness that seems to have occupied my mind, this extract is about having a close friend and slowly drifting apart.

p.281 “Alison’s week of penance ended and she came across the field to show me her new eyebrows, which she’d plucked a few hairs at a time so her mother wouldn’t notice; the righthand one, she announced proudly, now had only six hairs.”

Red Dress–1946 by Alice Munro

A mother is making a dress for her daughters high school dance. She does not want to go, but in the end she goes, and a popular boy asks her to dance. He then abandons her after he realizes they are from too different groups. She sits in the bathroom awhile and ends up talking with an older girl. They have a smoke together and she almost leaves with the older girl to go hang out somewhere else. On the way out a boy intercepts her to dance. She stays with him, and he walks her home later expecting a kiss. He unknowingly saved her from following in the footsteps of this older girl. 
Oh High School… how I hated you.

Jack of Hearts by Isabel Huggan

Elizabeth is a young girl who is chosen to be a boy in her ballet recital. She wishes anything to befall her to make it not happen and things of many humorous scenarios. Through her mothers friend she learns to play poker which is a form of release for her. This story is mainly about puberty and how awkward it is growing up, especially when you don’t quite fit in with your peers.

p.329 “I try to find the courage to throw myself down the cellar stairs, but each time I lunge forward my hand always goes involuntarily out to the railing. It’s no good, there is no way out.”

Hockey Night In Canada by Diane Schoemperlen

The young girl bonds with her father through hockey and her mother through her mothers best friend. She wishes she had a best friend of her own, and often wishes her mothers friend was hers alone. In the end the parents are arguing before bed, nothing is really said, but I am pretty sure the dad and the moms best friend have an affair.

p.350 “My mother, who was much rounder than Rita anyway, had taken up dieting too, like a new hobby which required supplies of lettuce, pink grapefruit and detailed diet books listing menus, recipes and calories. She’d begun to compliment me on my extreme thinness, when not so many years before she’d made me wear two crinolines to school so the teachers wouldn’t think she didn’t feed me. How was it that, without changing size or shape, I had graduated from grotesque to slender?”

Drummer by Guy Vanderhaeghe

A son has been going to a different church than his father thought, and he is not impressed. The son has to do a report on religious persecution which gets him thinking. He has a brother who is a jerk and gets a girl to go with him to a dance as a bet. The dance is canceled and the brother goes off with the girls easy cousin. The main character is happy because he likes this girl, but the girl likes his brother. It turns out he was only going to this other church to impress her and try to make her like him.
The things we would do for the acceptance of others, or to be loved.

p.363 “Actually, I found Religious Persecution quite interesting. It’s got principles too, number one being that whatever you’re doing to some poor son of a bitch–roasting his chestnuts over an open fire, or stretching his pant-leg from a 29-incher to a 36-incher on the rack–why, you’re doing it for his own good. So he’ll start thinking right.”

Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels

Your parents past being taught to you to make you more like them. To learn from their mistakes, even when there were no mistakes. Growing up and finally leaving your parents. How the relationship changes for good, and for bad. In this case it changed for the worse. They thought he was a different person. He was not the same child, fearful of life and its evil ways, accustom to the parents lifestyle.

Jericho’s Brick Battlements by Margaret Laurence

Going through the feelings of love, betrayal and loss. Also how leaving for school and life can sometimes not be as freeing as you would have hoped.

p.407 “The names of those who in their lives fought for life, Who wore at their hearts the fire’s centre. Born of the sun they travelled a short while towards the sun, And left the vivid air signed with their honour. …”It’s one of my favourite poems…and yet it shouldn’t be, maybe. There’s something about it that isn’t true…It sounds fine to say you think continually of those who were truly great. But you don’t. You forget them. Most of the time you don’t think of them at all. That’s the terrible thing.”

p.413 “Vanessa…I know you won’t believe me, honey, but after a while it won’t hurt so much. And yet in a way I guess it always will, to some extent. There doesn’t seem to be anything anybody can do about that… As it happened, she was right on all counts. I did not at the time believe her. But after a while it did not hurt so much. And yet twenty years later it was still with me to some extent, part of the accumulation of happenings which can never entirely be thrown away.”

Silver Bugles, Cymbals, Golden Silks by Hugh Hood

A young boy sees a band and dreams about them. As he grows up, his dream comes true and he joins the band. He was able to see it evolve throughout the times, from before, during and after. It shows how trying to be modern had changed the foundation. The once respected were gone or fired and the importance and the effects lost on new generations making it a memory of the past.

Although I didn’t care for the last story, the meaning behind it i could relate to. We all seem to do it often. Things weren’t the same as they used to be, things of our generation were much better than the current. We have begun to say the common phrases of “kids these days,” and “back in my day.”
It was interesting to experience all of these Canadian authors and their writing styles. Although I did not like some of them, it is always good to step back and experience diversity. However, I would not really recommend this book. Like I said, it is basically someone who wrote a paragraph and took extracts from famous authors. If you are really interested, I suppose you could check it out and see the styles and stories. Decide which ones you like and then get books from that author. otherwise, I would just dive in and go straight from the source.


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