Monday, September 14, 2009

So a Goat, an Ojibway, and four Chinese families walk into a bar...

“Give a Goat”
By Jan West Schrock; Illustrated by Aileen Darragh
ISBN No. 978-0-88448-301-4

“One Native Life”
By Richard Wagamese
ISBN No. 978-1-55365-364-6

“Yi Fao: Speaking Through Memory: A History of New Westminster’s Chinese Community 1858-1980”
By Jim Wolf and Patricia Owen
ISBN No. 978-1-894974-40-0

What do books about a goat, a native Ojibway and four families of Chinese settlers in Canada have in common? Well, they’re all serious: serious for kids, socio-political serious and Michael Cunningham serious.
First up, the inspired, catchy title of “Give a Goat” is a huh?-worthy refresh on the tired activist cheer of “Give a damn!” about world hunger and poverty. The goat of the title is the gift that a classroom of privileged Maine kids fundraise to send to a family in Uganda after reading about an organization called Heifer International. Working like a petting-zoo version of online bill payment HI will will take your donation and buy things like goats, chickens and water buffalo for families in developing countries. This is the kinder, gentler version of that tiger park in China where tourists can buy chickens for the cats that’ll be promptly served freshly thrown out of the window of a car driven around the reserve by a guide. According to the book, the goat of the title is a goose laying golden eggs. The goat will be a vineyard: providing enough milk to feed the family and enough surplus to sell and send the family’s kids to school. It’s a cute, serious piece of work with nice pictures and a socio-political lesson that’s palatable for both children and adults. And even if you’re not a kid or a smart adult the book has an even bigger selling point: a typo! For those of you who collect these things the book is a must-have.
“One Native Life” is the super-serious title, a back-from-the-brink memoir by a 52-year-old Ojibway native who, living in a cabin in Kamloops , B.C., re-traces a life of abandonment, alcoholism and search for identity. It should all sound lecture-ish but given that Vancouver, B.C.’s downtown east side has practically become a mediagenic genre unto itself (lots of news reports and books and films about displaced, depressed natives) it’s actually nice to hear a single-person account about how it all goes wrong and what can be done to make it right.
Even better – especially if you syndicate for radio like me - the book has a chapter called “My Nine-Volt Heart”, a lovely love-letter to the first thing that the author remembers calling his own: an old General Electric transistor radio. “It was as if the world had come within my reach,” he writes. “That old radio taught me that there’s more to the world than what I can see, and I owe it to myself to seek it out.” Sigh…
The four family oral and photo album history, “Yi Fao”, is the Michael Cunningham-ish title; a book that looks at the big, grand, poignant full-arc of life in small, simple families. The book’s title means “second port” but it was also lingo for New Westminster, B.C.’s status as the second point of entry to British Columbia (Victoria was the first) for early Chinese settlers. The book follows the Law, Lee, Quan and Shiu families as they live, grow, marry, work, retire and die. That’s it. Essentially the book invites you to listen in as they live their whole lives. Yet there’s something awesomely humbling about bearing witness to their struggles and triumphs. The oral history format is particularly effective here. There’s a sense that things are being passed down from one generation to the next just as they must have done in pre-historic times. When George Quan recalls “My mother would make these deep-fried cookies that were very crunchy and very tasty” your heart breaks – until his next line. “I would bring them over to the gambling hall and sell them for five cents each,” he writes, and then you realize that you’re reading a better-than-fiction real story. Even better (or as an assistant of mine once said “lots more better”), the pictures are haunting. My only complaint is about the book’s format: a book this grand deserves the same hardcover treatment as Paul Yee’s wonderful “ Saltwater City : An Illustrated History of the Chinese in Vancouver ” (2006; On the other hand “Yi Fao”’s paperback format really adds to its story’s sense of impermanence.