“Reading almost 100 works of Canadian fiction, as one of the judges for this year’s Giller, is a life-enhancing experience, and gives a glimpse into the culture. The Canadian for ‘gutter’ is ‘eavestrough,’ which is picturesque. Everyone is wearing a ‘tuque,’ or ‘toque,’ which in English-English suggests the lofty headgear worn by Queen Mary but is actually a little woolly hat. And in the holiday cottages among Ontario’s northern lakes and forests – evidently, the prime setting for emotional turmoil – they sit, brooding, on Muskoka chairs. (Look those up on the net.)”
That is a quote from 2009 Giller Prize judge Victoria Glendinning in a Financial Times column (read the full column here) that is causing considerable angst in the Canadian literary community. Having honored Ms. Glendinning with a judgeship how dare she make fun of our fiction? (There are some even better comments on the unique character of “acknowledgements” in Canadian books if you go to the full column.) While Glendinning said she was referring to the “mid” ranking of those 100-plus books, not the best, (and was taking off from a comment that Booker Prize chair James Naughtie had made about “dreadful” books lower down on that list), this veteran Canadian reader has to admit that her observations were pretty much dead on.So it is very, very surprising that a first novel — The Factory Voice, by Jeanette Lynes — set in Northern Ontario during World War II, in which a “toque” plays a key role, should find its way to the Giller Prize longlist. Okay, there is no eavestrough (much cold and snow, however) or Muskoka chairs (we know they are out there), but this novel seems to fall squarely into the hinterland Canadian fiction tradition that Glendinning gently mocks.
And, good Canadian that I am, I loved it. Perhaps that statement is a bit strong — I read it avidly, finishing it in two sessions, and enjoyed every page. It isn’t a great book by any means (and may not even make my personal Giller shortlist), but it was certainly fun to read and I have not been able to say that about many books lately.
The Factory Voice of the title is the internal house organ at Fort William Aviation, a manufacturing facility at the western head of Lake Superior (now part of Thunder Bay) where Mosquito aircraft are being built for the war effort by a staff of about 2,000 — mainly women — recruited from just about everywhere in Canada. There are also three internment camps in the area, one of which has just had an escape; the area is home to Red Finns of questionable commitment to the war effort; and recent mishaps on test flights indicate possible subversive activity inside the plant, so security is an issue.
Into this mix comes Audrey Leona Foley, age 16, who is running away from a ranch in Spruce Grove, Alberta, because her parents want her to marry the ranch hand:
Like I said, away from the ranch hand with the face like clabbered milk and huge, thunking hands that would wed me between yanking slick red calves out into the world. (I can breathe better; on I go again). He talked to my father. My father talked to my mother. She talked to me. I talked to the moon.
I’ll bet that sounds queer to you, but if you’ve ever been an only child like me it might sound less queerlike. A girl has to tell someone, and the red staggering calves aren’t my idea of a good sounding board. My parents said “oh, dandy, you two can marry, carry on the ranch.” That was more useful than finishing high school, they firmly believed. I told you they were cave-era parents.
Audrey gets hired, as the snack cart girl, immediately upon showing up at the plant. But Ruby Kovak, the stenographer who hires her, says she is to do more than just trundle the cart around — Ruby is an aspiring investigative journalist (and sole editor and writer of The Factory Voice) and wants Audrey to serve as her eyes and ears on questionable happenings on the plant floor. Ruby is hoping for a scoop that will enable her to leave manufacturing life — and typing letters — forever. Audrey finds that assignment much more interesting than being a ranch child or matron.
Audrey actually arrived in Fort William on the same train as Muriel McGregor, the plant’s new chief engineer, the first of her gender to achieve that status. Muriel brings her own baggage with her — she has just seen her mother, a retired judge, after an estrangement of many years (dating back to WWI, actually) when her mother sent 13-year-old Muriel’s best friend, a lefty, to prison for two years. As it happens, that very man is the most dangerous of the escapees from the nearby internment camp (okay, you have to grant Lynes a lot of licence to get along well with this book).
There is another equally implausible twist to the Muriel part of the story, but it would be a spoiler to reveal it here. Let’s just say there is some hanky-panky going on inside the plant. And Muriel needs to sort out why test planes keep crashing, before she moves on to her main personal objective, perfecting a design for landing skis so that planes can takeoff and land on snow, which we have quite a bit of for many months of the year in Canada.
Lynes develops this story through a series of rapid-fire chapters from the viewpoint of the various characters, each helpfully identified with a graphic at the start of the chapter indicating who is the focus of that instalment. That is not a conventional — nor recommended — approach for a literary novel, but this book is a story and it worked just fine for me.As much fun as I had with this book, I couldn’t help but wondering when I finished it how Glendinning let it get to the longlist, given what she said in the FT column. It isn’t just the story itself. The acknowledgements do take up two full pages, thank just about everybody you can imagine (more than 40 names), including various government grant agencies — they are a perfect example of what Glendinning grumped about on that front. I’m only sorry there were no eavestroughs or Muskoka chairs. Either — or both — would have added significantly to the Canadian character of the book.