Village of the Small Houses a Memoir of Sorts
Reviewed: November 12, 2004
By: Ian Ferguson
Publisher: Douglas & McIntyre
200 pages, $19.95
I think we owe a lot to Farley Mowat who, in turn, probably owes something to Mark Twain and Stephen Leacock. Farley, however you chose to take him, made the humorous memoir, the self-centered yet self-deprecating autobiography, a part of the Canadian literary landscape. Of course, Leacock's totally imaginary Sunshine Sketches had something to do with all that.
It's very fitting then, that by this prologue I end up with Village of the Small Houses sitting beside me. Ian Ferguson came close to winning the Leacock Medal for humour when he collaborated with brother Will on the amusing How to Be a Canadian. Will went off on his own and won the thing with his first novel, Happiness (which was called Generica when it won the award, but had a titlectomy and replacement when it went to mass market).
Now Ian's on his own with a story of what it was sort of like to grow up in Fort Vermilion, a book in which “Nothing that follows is true, except for the parts that really happened.”
There are things that really happened - most of the first chapter for instance - about which Ian could only have learned much, much later. In the case of his arrival in Fort Vermilion, the last ferry of the season, and the events that stranded lots of folks on the wrong side of the half mile wide Peace River, Ian has taken a bit of license. He was busy being born at that time and that's no position from which to take notes or record interviews. It's quite an opening chapter all the same. Read that one and you really need to carry on.
What you learn is that Ian and Will, along with all the others in the clan, are the scions of a scoundrel named Hank, who absconded from Edmonton, along with Ian's mother and firstborn, after some kind of a con job went sour and before the creditors could show up. North seemed to be the only option. Mother had been a psychiatric nurse before she met Hank. He had spent a short period as a teacher (with what they used to call a Normal School certificate) before deciding to live by his wits, and luck found him a job in that profession again, so far off the beaten track that no one would be able to find him and his then small family.
For a number of years after that, as Ian's mother would explain it after he left, he decided to stay away from alcohol and play the role of family man to the hilt. It lasted for ten years. For most of that time they lived in Fort Vermilion, where perhaps the temptations were less. It was after they moved to Regina for a couple of years that the wheels came off the family wagon.
Most of this book isn't about that, though (Even if it does explain why Will later thought Katimavik was a good idea. See I was a Teenage Katima-victim for that story). The book is about growing up poor in the north, where wilderness danger is just a backyard away, where government experts with fancy ideas come in and totally mismanage everything they touch, where there are local characters that add up to a lot more than 5% of the population.
There's even a story in here about how the local ferry got replaced by a bridge, and darned if some of it doesn't sound more than a mite familiar as we move on down our particular road (or is it up a ramp?) to the river crossing of our dreams.
The friendship between young Ian and Lloyd Loonskin, who was born on the same day, is a lesson in cross cultural relationships, and how they can go both ways. When they are boys, it is a wonderful thing, and Lloyd saves young Ian from the terrible fate that can await a non-native youngster (especially a teacher's kid) in a largely native town. They become bosom buddies and remain so all their young lives, sharing many adventures and moments of magic as they grow.
Age, distance, and false sense of what was appropriate for each of them took them in different directions, and when they meet again they can't make the connection. Lloyd is, I gather an amalgam of characteristics from a number of Ian's friends, but what happens between them is the very real outcome of delusions people can have about who they are.
Village of the Small Houses ends on a sad and thoughtful note, but that doesn't spoil the story at all. Nor does the fact that we know for sure that a lot of this has been enhanced for dramatic effect and the sake of a good story. There's honest-to-God factual truth and then there's the other kind, where real life peeks out from behind the facade and makes more sense because you saw it that way. Village of the Small Houses is that kind of book.