Thursday, June 30, 2011

Drowning Ruth

Drowning Ruth
By Christina Schwarz

Way back at book twenty-three (Clara Callan if you have forgotten) I wrote out a checklist of things that make for the definitive Canadian novel. There are eleven criteria that make the stereotypical Canadian novel and I have created a scientific scale to gauge exactly HOW Canadian a novel is. This scale is called the Tragically Hip Sacle of Canadiana and it is measured from 0 to 12 hips (a hip is a unit of measure on the THSoC. 1 hip is equal to 1 unit of Canadian-ness). The scale works thusly:

0 ~ 1 hips: Foreign language novel (not set in Quebec), translated into English
1 ~ 3 hips: Native language novel written by non-Commonwealth/American writer (e.g. Singaporean, South African)
3 ~ 4 hips: American writer (excluding border state writers)
4 ~ 5 hips: American writer (border state)
5 ~ 6 hips: Non Canadian, Commonwealth writer.
6 ~ 7 hips: French writers from Quebec writing in French.
7 ~ 8 hips: Writers from Alberta.
8 ~ 9 hips: English writers from Quebec writing in English.
9 ~ 10 hips: Canadian writers trying to be a little different (e.g. Douglas Coupland)
10 ~ 11 hips: Writer has a tattoo of the maple leaf under right nipple and/or right ankle
11 ~ 12 hips: Writer lives on an island, in a northern settlement (probably in an igloo), eats moose meat and Kraft Dinner with ketchup, listens to CBC radio and probably owns more than one Bombardier product, eh?

Realistically, if a novelist measures 9.0 hips on the Tragically Hip Scale of Canadiana then they should be awarded an honorary Giller Prize, Governor General's Award, a Juno, a Genie and a Gemini (if you don't understand 100% of those references, then you must measure lower than 4.3 hips, which means you are Non-Canadian Commonwealth or, worse, American).

Drowning Ruth, a period novel by Christina Scharz is up for scrutiny today. Let's see how it scores on the THSoC scale:

1. Novel set between 1900~1945.

The novel is begins in the early 1900s and ends in 1941, thus spanning almost the exact timeframe deemed to be perfectly Canadian. Score 1.5 hips.

2. Novel is set in/on a small town/island/northern settlement.

The novel is set in a small town in the north and an island figures extremely prominently in the narrative. Score 3 hips.

3. Novel involves a strong/complicated/deranged female protagonist on a journey of self-identification.

Main characters are almost all female. One strong, one deranged and one complicated. Score 1.5 hip.

4. Novel involves one or more conservative/despicable/sexually deviant men.

Of course. Score 1 hip.

5. Story involves one or more hard-boiled sidekicks.

The character of Imogene qualifies as a sidekick, although i would be pressed to admit that she is entirely hard-bolied. Score 0.7 hips.

6. Story involves an unwanted pregnancy/abortion/infant mortality.

Yes. Score 1 hip.

7. Story mentions the Dionne quintuplets/Edward's abdication/Vimy Ridge.

Not entirely, but World War One figures prominently so score 0.5 hips.

8. Story involves a major snowstorm.

More than one. Score 1 hip.

9. Story contains mild to overt anti-Americanism.

This is a complicated answer as you will see in my conclusions. While I can't say for certai that this book has anti-American undertones, it certainly isn'y pro-America. Score 0.4 hips.

10. Story explores multiculturalism.

OK. No. Score 0 hips.

11. Story contains mild to overt anti-Religion themes.

Yes. Score 1 hips.

Final score: 11.6 on a scale of 12. Drowning Ruth is definitively a Canadian novel. In fact, it could be held up as a textbook example of Canadian literature in any University anywhere north of the 49th. A perfect storm of Canadiana. This is entirely strange since Drowning Ruth was written by an American (Christina Schwarz) and is set in Wisconsin (which, last I checked, still lies within the national boundaries of the United States).

I know. I couldn't believe it either.

This is why I was unable to score the Anti-American criterion since it is virtually impossible for an American citizen to actively write an anti-American novel, no matter how much they question authority. There seem to be elements of anti-Americanism but it was not overt enough for me to score scientifically. Pity.

How does an American write the definitive Canadian novel? Perhaps growing up in Wisconsin (which is American in name only) helps. The Great Lakes are far more pourous than the land border. Ms. Schwarz therefore probably grew up with a healthy diet of Farley Mowat, Margaret Atwood and Robertson Davies. She has probably read enough Canadian novels to stop the Edmund Fitzgerald.

Oprah Winfrey, however, obviously does not read enough Canadian literature as Drowning Ruth was selected as part of the Oprah Book Club. If she was familiar whe THSoC she would have known that Drowning Ruth wasn't the mysteriously dark novel she thought it to be but rather a paint-by-numbers example of virtually every book published in Canada since 1945.

Chicago isn't far enough north, apparently.


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