Friday, December 29, 2006

Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream

by Barbara Ehrenreich (NY: Metropolitan Books, 2005)

[Guest review by Elayne Clift]

I’m old enough to remember “the man in the gray flannel suit” whose future was assured as long as he slogged off to an office cubicle every day, loyal to the corporation that rewarded his fealty with a proverbial gold watch. But I’m also young enough to be intimately aware of the new corporate culture depressingly described by Barbara Ehrenreich in Bait and Switch.

In her 2005 book, Ehrenreich lays out the reality of a world in which unemployment, underemployment and “anxious employment” prevail among America’s white-collar, shrinking middle-class. Ehrenreich went underground (as she did in Nickel and Dimed) to research the plight of professionals who have been downsized, outsourced, and otherwise displaced, often because they excel at their jobs, thereby commanding higher salaries and benefits. She describes a world in which competent, formerly successful people sink further into the morass of the modern work world, a world in which they have become disposable.

I could have been one of her research subjects. Not once but three times over the course of my midlife career I was pushed out of an organization or institution for which I’d performed well and to which I felt deeply committed. In my case it wasn’t because I made buckets of money; it was that I threatened someone above me, usually for truthtelling, which can morph into the perception of disloyalty, when in fact it is exactly the opposite. In each case, I spent more time than I care to remember job-searching, becoming despondent, and belittling myself in the name of being “realistic.” The first time it happened I was unemployed for three years. I grew morbidly depressed. Then I wrote an article about the experience in which I compared prolonged unemployment to three disease processes: First, the unemployed are treated as if they have a communicable disease. Stay away or you might catch it! Given enough time the long-term unemployed experience Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. PTSD-like nightmares flare up in which you go over ad nauseam what went wrong. Finally, one begins to experience the death and dying of his or her professional persona. First articulated by Elizabeth Kubler Ross for the terminally ill, the stages include denial, anger, bargaining (with God), depression and acceptance. I share this because I understand what people experience when subjected to the harsh consequences of today’s economic reality. But enough about me.

What Ehrenreich has put her finger on is the fact that the middle class in America is in trouble and may be disappearing. Economists have fancy terms for discussing the phenomenon. They talk about “income volatility”and something called the “knowledge economy.” Layoffs become“downsizing” or “outsourcing.” In an article for The Nation (11/6/06), Ehrenreich shares these compelling facts: Those who try to compete by earning graduate degrees often find themselves in debt in excess of $40,000 before they get started. And starting salaries are insufficient to cover healthcare, housing and energy costs. At the same time, benefits are shrinking rapidly. More than 20 percent of working college graduates [in the US] now have no health insurance, up from 17 percent five yearsago. “This is the new world of the middle-class,” Ehrenreich writes, “haunted by debt, stalked by layoffs, pinched by vanishing pensions and health benefits, and forced into ever more contingent forms of work as ‘real’ jobs give way to benefit-free contract work.” The middle class, she says, now “hover just inches above the working poor.”

That’s why Ehrenreich and other activists have formed United Professionals < >. Modeled on AARP [the American Association or Retired Persons] and with start-up funds in hand, the membership organization has three main goals: community building to combat the stigma attached to unemployment; advocacy on issues such as universal health care and social security regulations; and services like legal advice. Says Ehrenreich, “By focusing on the troubled middle class, we help make the point that poverty, far from being a matter of ‘bad choices’ or character flaws, can happen to any of us.”

Reading Ehrenreich’s important if upsetting book reminded me of a young woman I met recently. Young and vibrant, she was a voluntary “commercial sex worker.” In other words, a prostitute. A graduate of one of the best liberal arts colleges in the country and now working on a master’s degree in psychology, this is what she told me: “I did all the right things. I excelled at the best schools, networked till I was blue in the face, dressed for success for hundreds of interviews. But I couldn’t get a job. So I went straight to the big boys with the big bucks. Now a big part of my job is eating a lot of steak and shrimp.” What do you say to a smart, energetic, entrepreneurial twenty-three year old woman who’s already lost hope of attaining dignified work? I wish when I met her I’d known about United Professionals. It might at least have been a start.

--by Elayne Clift


Elayne Clift is the author of many books. Find descriptions of them and a bio of Elayne at:

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Women and Children First

by Michele Landsberg (Markham, Ontario, Canada: Penguin Books, 1983)

[Review by Frieda Werden]

As a fairly recent immigrant to Canada (2002), I have catching up to do about Canada's feminist history. This book helped a lot. Michele Landsberg was a columnist for a number of newspapers, notably the Toronto Star, and also articles editor of Chatelaine magazine for seven years. ( Chatelaine, according to Canadian feminist media activist Judy Rebick, was a mainstream magazine but also so feminist that when US founding feminist Betty Friedan was trying to place some excerpts from her then-forthcoming book The Feminine Mystique, Chatelaine rejected it as being too old hat. )

In the Introduction, Landsberg describes herself as "neither a radical nor a traditionalist... a committed feminist who is also a monogamous wife and devoted mother." In those roles alone, she appears to have had quite an impact: her husband is Stephen Lewis, who is currently [2006] advocating for a much more powerful and better-funded organization for women at the United Nations; one of her three children, Avi Lewis, is married to and works with Naomi Klein (whose own mother, Bonnie Klein, made the anti-pornography film Not a Love Story); Landsberg and Lewis's two daughters, Ilana and Jenny, are both described as feminist in an article on the Stephen Lewis Foundation website ( ) .

Women and Children First was my travel book on a recent trip to Jordan, and it made a big impact on me. For one thing, Landsberg advocates passionately on behalf of maternal leave, breastfeeding, and childcare. In light of the recent abolishment of the very new Canadian national childcare plan by the recently-installed Conservative government, this reading gave me a huge pang for more than 23 years of feminist effort and advocacy for the childcare cause in Canada -- finally come to fruition and then cruelly set back by Bush-wanna-be Stephen Harper and his Republican clones.

The essay on breastfeeding evokes a kind of sensuous motherhood rarely seen in print [see my previous blog entry on Sharon Olds, for another author with similar sensibility], but it isn't in the least sentimental. Landsberg explains that as infants are "dependent, with a ferocity of need that non-parents simply can't imagine, an immediate response from the mother is the barest minimum of courtesy." In another paragraph about negative responses to breastfeeding in public, she writes,
  • It's hard for new mothers to understand that mentality which associates loving nurture with obscene sexual display. But there it is. Two warring views of the world. Which shall prevail? The babies , of course, must have right of way.

I really like it about Landsberg that she keeps building bridges between the personal world and the political world. We did used to say that "the personal is political" -- and it still is.

Each chapter in this book consists of a group of Landsberg's columns from the Toronto Star, sewn together by later-written integuments. A particularly trenchant chapter is called "Our Bodies, Men's Rules." It includes columns on

  • an all-female mental women's mental health clinic
  • the reality of menstrual cramps (it's not "all in your head") and a new treatment using anti-prostaglandin drugs
  • toxic shock syndrome and the shocking revelation that "feminine hygiene products," including tampons, required no government testing or labeling (unlike condoms)

and goes on to deliver a smashing indictment of the encroachments of anti-abortion extremists, and a caring view of women's right and necessity to make their own decisions about their bodies.

Another chapter takes on a myth that is still being pushed in major newspapers of Canada (and the US) today -- the idea that somehow there is a conflict going on between feminists and mothers. Landsberg writes

  • many women I know manage to combine feminism and motherhood in a comfortably pragmatic blend. They are aware that the price of motherhood is very high, and feel that the cost should be shared more democratically than it is now. Feminists have been among those who fought for more humane childbirth, maternity pay, day care, neighbourhood support centres, and a heightened social empathy for the tasks of parenthood... less singling out of mothers when things go wrong.

If you want to know the history of the sexual equality clause in the Canadian constitution, you can find it in here, too. As all equality-seeking activity has just been removed by the Conservatives from the mandate of Status of Women Canada, this, too, is very current and may help us in winning the next round.

Saturday, June 24, 2006


by Madelyn Arnold (NY: St. Martin's Press, 1988)

In 1964, when I was 17, I belonged to the Social Science Club at my high school. Our club had a field trip to the "State Hospital" in central North Carolina, and saw how humans were sequestered and / or warehoused because of emotional, mental, and also physical impairments. That's the same year, and the same country, the same kind of institution, as the setting of this book.

The reader of Bird-Eyes, however, is not looking through the eyes of a visitor. The portrait of the place, the people, and the mentality of both inmates and their keepers, is narrated from inside a very keen and mostly lucid 16-year-old female character, Latisha, who has been sentenced to confinement for incorrigibility. From her perspective, the humanity, ignorance and deficiencies of psychiatrist and staff are glaringly recorded with their effects, and the process of institutionalization of the residents is observed from the inside out. The level of insight is very very striking, and outshines even the characters and the plot.

The most interesting character aside from the narrator is a deaf woman admitted for depression after her husband's death. Unchecked institutional ignorance isolates her profoundly, and puts her under tremendous emotional pressure. Her friendship with Latisha and their guarded use of sign language is a major interest in the book.

Most of what happens in Bird-Eyes seems all too believable. People under institutional care are very varied, and their dynamics are hard to control, so a lot of drugs and crude behaviour modification get applied. The needs and personalities of the care-givers are also a wild card in the mix. Everyone is looking for and using loopholes in the system if they can. The wealthiest are the most likely to re-surface. The descriptions of the uses and results of shock treatment jibe all too well with what I have observed in the lives of friends who accepted this prescription, and with expert testimony like that of Dr. Bonnie Burstow [hear her talk on this at in the archives page]. While mental health institutions in the US and Canada have now divested themselves of most of their patients, and while there have been a few surprisingly good advances in drug treatment, notably for schizophrenia, for the most part, psychiatry and mental health care are still largely blundering and too available as careers for self-deceptive and abusive folks.

I am not certain if this book is autobiographical in its origins. It seems unlikely that one who had not been there could have written it, though, unless with the collaboration of someone who had been there at least. It comes across as a strong voice from the inside that should be heard.

I see that this book was a Lambda Award winner for best first novel. These prizes are for books about lesbians and gays, but the lesbian elements in this book are not dominant over the broader social insights.

Bird-Eyes is the first of two novels (and an essay collection) by Madelyn Arnold. She also seems to have a new novel in the works, Divided by One. And, she has a column called "Not Thinking Straight" in the Seattle Gay News, to which she has contributed since 1975. Some of her columns (complete with smiling photo) are online, including this one from last year, about suicide:

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Sex Wars: A novel of the turbulent post - Civil War period

by Marge Piercy (NY: HarperCollins, 2005)

This book is 411 pages long, but I wished it were longer.

Marge Piercy is perhaps best known for her 1976 novel Woman on the Edge of Time, which provided two alternate futures. She is an extremely prolific writer, with at least 15 published novels, plus poetry, essays, and a memoir called Sleeping with Cats. I see from a biography of her online that she was born in Detroit in 1936, and so on March 31 just past, she turned 70.

I've read several of her works and always admired her eye for the political and the feminist. She tended to long works, and some of them felt a bit hastily drawn, though satisfying nonetheless. But in this new book, she has really outdone herself, with the deft and practiced hand of a Julia Child of fiction, she has made the dialogue, the descriptions, the background information, the political and personal analysis all taste just right.

Sex Wars features a number of important historical characters. There is Susan B. Anthony, as seen through the eyes of her long-time feminist colleague Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Through them we learn a great deal about splits and alliances in the women's rights movement and the former abolitionist movement. Perhaps the most dominant character is Victoria Woodhull, best known for running for President when women still didn't have the vote, and for advocating free love. The story of her rise from a family of rascals through spiritualism and wise investment, to become a stockbroker, publisher, and politico -- and then her fall -- is one I knew little about and found really fascinating. Another character, probably invented but emblematic of her class, is Freydeh, a widowed Jewish immigrant from the Pale, who goes into the business of making condoms at home to support herself and children she takes in, and to bring her family to America. Both Woodhull's and Freydeh's stories take the reader in and out of a variety of brothels, assignation houses, and an abortionist's home, and reveal sexual facts of the period. (In terms of birth control, Woodhull prefers the vinegar-soaked sea sponge.) And finally, we have the villain of the piece, though he is rather humanly portrayed, Joseph Comstock. It was Comstock, supported in large part by the YMCA, who gained vast political and personal power over others in the name of anti-vice -- closing bookstores, arresting sellers and makers of contraceptive devices, getting laws passed against both birth control and abortion. I'll certainly never feel the YMCA is an innocuous place to go swimming again! The descriptions of the prisons where the arrested and convicted were housed is fascinating and chilling. Through Woodhull, we also learn a great deal about the great investors of the day: Cornelius Vanderbilt, James Fisk, and Jay Gould; and about a few journalists including the detestable Horace Greeley. There is also a glimpse of ward politics.

I thank Marge Piercy for making this period of history so accessible, absorbing, and modern-feeling. I laugued out loud when I read that Rutherford B. Hayes stole the Presidential election through vote chicanery in Fl0rida, with the connivance of a Republican-packed Supreme Court. The war on contraception is also making a comeback (see the article "The War on Sex" by Cristina Page and tom Paine in Alternet: ).

I think I'll go back soon and read more of Piercy's works that I've missed, and definitely keep my eye out for her next one.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Whispering in Shadows

by Jeannette Armstrong (Penticton, BC, Canada: Theytus Books, 2004)

Jeannette Armstrong is an artist, language teacher, and activist, from the Nsilx tribe of the Okanagan valley of British Columbia. I've had the pleasure of hearing her speak at the International Conference on the Gift Economy, in Las Vegas in 2004 (a speech that can be heard in full on the FIRE website: or in edited version on WINGS' web archive ). But before that, I ran across her first novel, Slash, at my Vancouver library branch. It wasn't the sort of book I usually read -- male hero -- but for some reason it went home with me and I liked it very much. It was about a young native man from Canada who is looking for himself and first gets involved in drugs, then in politics, and finally reaches some level of comfort.

This second novel of Armstrong's (she has a number of other books) features a woman character, Penny, who grows up on a reservation with some traditional experience and a love of colour and painting, then becomes a teenage mom and soon a single mom of three, then attends college and then university, then becomes a successful artist, then gets politicized as an environmentalist, then becomes an internationalist visiting other indigenous peoples and relating their situation to her own, becomes ill from taking on so much of the pain of the world, and finally returns to help preserve and renew the traditions and solidarity of her own tribe.

The work moves quickly from one stage of Penny's life to the next, but I didn't have a sense that anything was rushed through. Because of the theme of the artist's affinity for colour and light, images are memorable throughout. There are a number of spiritual experiences described -- communication with a tree, for example -- but these are grounded in reality, not metaphysically mystical. One salient feature of the main character is her essential independence in sexual relationships, sharing sex and sometimes her artistic and political experiences with men, but not giving away her power of decision-making. In the end, she realizes that the essential relationship for her is really the tribe, rather than the heterosexual dyad. I think this is a deep insight, that western culture generally slides over: the desire to be in community and in relationship to land and the rest of nature, and to contribute to the common experience and the common good. In the above-mentioned speech at the Gift Economy conference, Armstrong speaks about indigenousness as a balanced and mutually perceptive relationship with all of nature. In this book, she ends with a hopeful sense that it is not too late for peoples of the land to preserve and reinvigorate this tradition.

Outside of BC, it will be hard to find this book, probably. The publisher, Theytus Books, is Aboriginal owned and operated. You can find their website at .
For some reason, Jeannette Armstrong's name doesn't show up in their online authors list, but enter Armstrong in the Author search and you'll see five books of hers, including two children's books, and a book on The Native Creative Process.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Women as Lovers

by Elfriede Jelinek, translated by Martin Chalmers (London: Serpent's Tail, 1994; original German language edition Hamburg: Rowohlt Verlag GmbH, 1975)

Not a new book, but newly promoted in paperback because Jelinek won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2004. Suzette checked it out of the library and read it before I did. She said it reminded her of Gertrude Stein, and I think that very apt -- especially reminds me of Stein's early fiction, written when she was a medical student practicing on the poor. The resemblance is partly in the short sentences, partly in the way the author maintains detachment and yet depicts the ideation of her subjects in terms of a series of simple calculations. It is perhaps unfair to make too much of Jelinek's style, because it's been my experience that translators put a lot of their own spin on a book's style. I'd like to read more of her after recovering a bit from this one, and sampling one by a different translator might be useful. One of Jelinek's books, The Piano Teacher, seems to be the most famous.

Throughout the reading of this book, I was also much reminded of an anthropological or sociological case study. There is just enough of poetry and humour here and there to keep it from being clinical. But this is essentially a comparative study of two women who make different choices in terms of sexual partnering and then live with the economic effects on their lives. At one point, Jelinek pointedly says that one of these women is a country woman and one is a town woman -- they have different sets of options to work with. One has a job in a brassiere factory. One is plain and very young and sets her sights on becoming a seamstress but soon abandons the training. This woman, who gets the worst of it, is also depicted as rather unfortunately drawn off her economic course early in life by exposure to magazines -- the romanticized ideas of such writing are shown as worse than useless to women. The community and their views figure heavily in the story of the young woman from the country village, and she ultimately suffers a lot from getting caught using that form of capital that women have between their legs. The depiction of the men/husbands in the story is very stark, commodifying them as economic objects whose lovers struggle to wrest them from their parents' possession. A third woman who is middle class and has middle class choices is shown as having more freedom because of her family wealth and her education, but ultimately making a similar choice to have a husband of an appropriate class and have children. Her story is not pursued in depth for long, but she is clearly there to further illuminate class differences. Jelinek characterizes those who have nothing as being primarily concerned to get something -- compared to those who have something being primarily concerned with not losing what they have. When I read that it seemed to explain a lot.

Suzette's summation was that if this book had been longer, the style would have been annoying. Jelinek overtly states that she is not going to waste any time on talking about the scenery, and there is a repetitive feel to the language. But it wasn't longer -- it was only 192 small pages with nice big type and wide margins. Overall, I think Jelinek managed to make something new and fairly gripping out of a story -- two stories, that are nothing new at all, but are very bedrock stories of women in the modern (i.e., industrialized) world.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Get a Life

by Nadine Gordimer (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005)

South African Nadine Gordimer received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991. It's surprising to me that I've never read anything of hers previously, except perhaps a short story or two. This book has certain qualities of mastery that a really mature and experienced writer can produce. It reminds me of the novels of Doris Lessing post-The Four Gated City. Towards the end of that novel, Lessing shifted her perspective unexpectedly from the personal to the global and began a new era for herself. An interview with Lessing I saw in the Vancouver Sun yesterday (12 March '06) had Lessing saying the books of hers she most wanted people to read were the Shikasta series. Of the Lessing works I've read, I'd say those are the most clearly didactic -- I hope that word is not too unpleasant, as the books are very good -- containing distilled analysis of human tendencies, patterns, and failings, couched in something ostensibly like science fiction tales.

In Get a Life, Gordimer starts off very personally and intimately, and dealing with a subject that is suddenly of interest to me as my friends and I age and decline or get ill. A youngish man who is a father of a young son has thyroid cancer and as the treatment has made him temporarily radioactive, his parents take him into their home and he resumes his relationship, especially with his mother, in a pattern that has parallels with his childhood. Gradually we learn he is an environmentalist and his wife is in advertising and promotion. The tale, which is fairly brief, races through permutations and ironies and big-picture and small-picture observations, including a substantial amount about a majestically self-renewing African river system that is about to be wrecked by dam-building projects. The mother and father's marriage also comes to represent a substantial amount of the plot. Overall, the plot is very unusually shaped and composed. The sentences are also unusual for our time, as they are long and contain unusual combinations of clauses. Occasionally I had to read one over a few times to figure out what it was really saying, what was the relationship of these clauses, but I never felt that the writer had made an error and did not convey what she must have meant. The language gave me a sense of beauty that more often comes from reading good poetry.

The high point of the story seems to me almost a throwaway, in which the author successfully manages to care intensely about the fate of the river and the hero's role in the movement trying to save it, yet be able to simultaneously hold a faith in the ability of nature to make itself work in some way despite all obstacles, and also the view that all of reality is fleeting and perhaps meaningless. The river seems paralleled by several other elements including the marriage of the parents, which decomposes in a complex and more or less organic way.

Finally, this book reminds me of a story told by the very great critic and fairly mediocre poet Richard Howard, in a course he taught at The University of Texas in the 1970s. The painter James Whistler, Howard told us, sued the critic John Ruskin in 1878 for libel, over an insulting review about Whistler's painting of a rocket falling at night. As I recall Howard's telling of the tale, in court the defendant's attorney asked: "Mr. Whistler, how long did it take you to paint this?" "Ten minutes," and as the lawyer began to smirk, "and a lifetime of experience."

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Women's Review of Books

Just a note to let readers know that the Women's Review of Books is back in publication after more than a year on hiatus. Published since 1983, and based out of Wellesley College in Massachusetts, it's a great source of information about books and their contents. In the last issue before hiatus, there was a much-appreciated article about the 2004 Nobel Prize winner for literature, Elfriede Jelinek from Austria. The article can be found online at .
Subscription information for the renascent WRB is at

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Swiss Sonata

by Gwethalyn Graham (Toronto: Cormorant Books, 2005)

The Canada Council for the Arts and Ontario Arts Program provided support for the re-publication of this work. It was first published in 1938, and won the Governor General's Award in that year, for its 25-year-old author. The revival of the book is due in large measure to Elspeth Cameron, who wrote its Introduction. Cameron is a well-known biographer of some male Canadian writers, and chronicles her growing interest in female writers in a memoir called No Previous Experience.

While I'm very grateful to Cameron for bringing this book back to readers, and for giving us some biographical and historical background, I have some disagreements with her assessment of the book, which I find unjustly critical. Cameron describes some of the discussions between the international residents of the Swiss girls' school as "forced," and "vehicles for [Graham's] strongly held views." She also finds the portrayal of the main character, Vicky Morrison, to be the book's "greatest flaw" -- the character "too good to be true." Maybe I should thank Cameron, actually, for lowering my expectations of the book up front, because perhaps in reaction I found it unusually good.

Swiss Sonata takes place during three days of January 1935, on the eve of the plebiscite in the Saar coal-mining region that returned this valuable resource to Germany ( and would give Germany fuel to make steel for the war). The politics of the moment contribute to stressful dynamics among the students -- students ranging in age from fifteen to 25 and coming from 14 countries. (I was very grateful for a list of dramatis personae that appeared in the front of the book, listing the names of the students and the staff and their countries -- it's rare to find a book with so many characters all having a share of the action.)

The staff of the school are a bit out of their depth both in controlling and helping their young charges, as is pretty typical of educational institutions. They also (and one teacher in particular) develop some animosity towards the 21-year-old Canadian Vicky Morrison, whose way of interacting with the others carries an authority of its own that shows them up. It has come to their attention that she is exercising what I like to call "leadership from below," as opposed to deferring to authority for leadership.

As the book begins, Vicky is a mystery figure to the reader, and the most visible characters are a sympathetic young sports teacher named Mary Ellerton, from London, and a friend of Vicky's named Theodora Cohen, a Jewish girl from St. Louis, Missouri, USA. Ted is outspoken and raffish, and gives a lot of life to the tale.

One of the advantages of this book having been written in 1938 instead of today is that none of the characters is required to come out as a lesbian. Nor are there any heterosexual sex scenes. Instead, this is that rare thing, a very homosocial book. There are sympathetic friendships and also obsessive fixations on others, but the simplistic and dyadic (and one might even say the "exchange-oriented"*) motivation of sexual attraction is eschewed in favour of other focuses. There is a lot of dynamic around being accepted or rejected, and being accepting or rejecting, and also around conflicting loyalties. Life decisions on the table for the characters include choices between being married and having an education and a career in some cases, and in others between introversion and caring.

The portrayal of caring, including gratuitous (i.e., gift*) caring, was much more common in earlier eras' fiction it seems to me than it is in today's. Modern hedonism has probably shaped us much more than we realise. Swiss Sonata reminds me of Louisa May Alcott's book Little Men, which I enjoyed in my childhood -- also about a school and the work of molding youth into strong, caring and and self-realized adults. I'm also put in mind of the Canadian girls' classic Anne of Green Gables, in which a young girl also teaches life lessons to her elders. But Graham's book is an adult work, and about characters in the age range of from mid-teens to mid-fifties; the compromises, the paradoxes, and the failings of caring are much more in evidence.

To return to the character of Vicky Morrison and the question of whether she is believable or not: On one level, she turns out to be a bit of a Miranda, having been given a classical education in an isolated setting. I found that bit of her history somewhat unbelievable (my opinion is that home-schooling is more likely to make one narrow). However, the observation that she and a few of the other characters are intellectuals who apply their knowledge to understanding people, while other characters do not, I found realistic. Perhaps the fact that her leadership-from-below is noticed by the authorities and excites their jealousy is far-fetched -- it seems to me that this kind of leadership is very rarely observed by the authorities (but then, I've never gone to a girls' school). Her "saintly" nature may be carried a bit too far, but I liked the way she herself characterizes it -- that her persona takes on a meaning for others that hasn't too much relationship to how she feels inside. I think she is fairly portrayed as trying to feel her way with others and not always understanding or being able to help them. She herself says of her failed attempts that it's as if you were asking a medical student just graduated to perform brain surgery. In the end some of the authorities come to admire her people sense.

The line I liked best was one character's description that Vicky "has the gift of self-dismissal." This is a very real gift that some of us only learn to practice later in life. (There is in fact a school of study called "non-defensive communication" [ see] that tries to help people acquire this way of interacting.) Apropos of the period in which Vicky was living, with national and political partisanship coming strongly to the fore, I'm also thinking of the ideas of Sisela Bok, contrasting the partisan and non-partisan ways of thinking. The partisan can think of only his own views and can't set them aside for the purpose of feeling, imagining or understanding the other's situation. Bok sees times of war bringing people more strongly into partisan relationship.

Today (Jan. 12, 2006), I was listening to CBC radio and heard an interview with a Canadian who has just written a book about values in the United States and Canada. He said he found more than half of those polled in the US were hedonists who didn't believe in empathizing with others. The proportion of people with those values in Canada is much lower.

Vicky Morrison is a character who has a very marked ability to set her own priorities aside and just listen to others, and then to think about the happiness and growth of the people she has heard. As Elspeth Cameron explains it, the characters in Swiss Sonata represent their own respective countries. I infer from this something about the persistence of Canadian values between 1938 and today, and I hope that they can survive the onslaught of American media and guns coming across the border and continue to set an example for the world.

*For more about gift-giving and exchange, see Genevieve Vaughan's book For-Giving: A Feminist Criticism of Exchange ( information and text online at )