Oct 4, 2009

Critical Monkey entry #3: Jake and the Kid - prairie nostalgia

It's been a little while for me to sufficiently recover for my third entry in Critical Monkey; On my initial outing, Stephanie Meyer blinded me by throwing sparkly dust in my eyes, and then on the second, Chuck Norris roundhouse-kicked my medulla into paste.

So, I've decided to walk away from books I was pretty sure I'd hate anyway, and move on to something a little more high-end; a Canadian classic, one of those books you;re supposed to read if you want to call yourself an authentic Canadian that I somehow avoided reading through elementary and high school. So, without further ado, I give you:

Jake and the Kid
by W.O. Mitchell

Why I might hate it: Not to put too fine a point on it, but it's a Canadian classic, which is sometimes a good way of saying historical and boring (I apologize, but for me that's often the case). It's quite ubiqutous on the cultural landscape, having been a stage play and a television series over the years. It's also written from a young boy's POV which, aside from a few noticiable exceptions (such as Roddy Doyle's magnificent Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha or Bruce Robinson's hilarious The Peculiar Memories of Thomas Penman), always sets my teeth on edge. Particularly when it's presented as the child being somehow smarter than the adults, so innocent that he's wise, that sort of thing. Crowd pleasing and manipulative. Further, it was based on a 1950s CBC radio series (also written by Mitchell), and considering how annoyed I get at Stuart Mclean and his incessant ramblings about Dave and Morley (also available in book form), I didn't really look forward to this.

Why I might love it: Well, it is a Canadian classic, so you gotta figure that there's something in it of worth to have it survive through the years. It also won the Stephen Leacock award in 1962, which is usually a good sign that I'll at least get a few decent chuckles out of it.

The book: Not my favourite ever, not by a country mile, but after the Justice/Twilight debacle, it's practically a masterpiece. That's damning with faint praise, as Jake is a finely written collection of stories that, while not earth-shattering, at least don't insult my intelligence.

The stories all follow the exploits of (wait for it) 'Jake' and the 'kid' as they farm the landscape of Saskatchewan in the 1940s. The kid is the narrator, a young boy who idolizes Jake, his family's farmhand. Jake is a bit of a storyteller himself, not that the kid realizes this: "[Jake] fought all kinds of wars; the one with the boors in it, the last war. It was Jake took care of Looie Riel; Jake he made Chief Poundmaker give in at Cut Knife crick." Jake is a natural liar, but not a mean one, just a man who enjoys the telling of tall tales of himself.

As befits its radio origins, Jake is highly dialogue driven, with each character's patois written out almost phonetically, as a young lad might write it:
"Yep, Mac's coulee. I can remember her like yesterday. Weasel Tail he comes to me an' he says, Jake, we gotta have buffaloes. We need her fer meat, an' we need her fer teepees, an' we need her fer moccasins...There's bin a sorta flint drout around her an' we're all outta arras."
Thankfully, it's all fairly clear, and Mitchell admirably captures the tonal qualities of hardscrabble Canadian prairie folk caught up in a somewhat idealized, Waltons-esque depression. It's all a little too 'nice', but then, that's the style. This isn't supposed to be a heartfelt examination of unspeakably difficult lives; these are stories that help us pass the time between our miseries.

As I said, Jake and the Kid won't go down as my favourite collection of all time, but it's solid and entertaining. These are stories, like those on the radio, to be read out loud, to be enacted for the listeners. They offer smiles, and chuckles, and nods of recognition. Mitchell's style is clean, his wit is warm, and his characters are stereotypes in the best definition of the word.


So much for the palate-cleanser. It's time to plunge back into the madness, bolding trekking where few of stout heart would dare travel. Who will be my next choice? Who have I often mocked yet never read? Tim LaHaye (argh!)? Fern Michaels (ugh!)? Janette Oke (urp!)? Nicole Richie (bletchup!)?

So many horrible, horrible writers. So little time. Thank god.

NOTE: I am also using this review as my next entry in John Mutford's Canadian Book Challenge. Two contests for one post? What a scoundrel am I.

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