Thursday, June 28, 2007

Clayoquot: The Sound of My Heart

by Betty Shiver Krawczyk (Victoria, BC, Canada: Orca Books, 1996, 215 pp.)

Betty Krawczyk (locally pronounced KRAW-zik) is in jail right now. She got arrested for demonstrating on Eagle Ridge Bluffs against the tearing down those eponymous bluffs in order to widen the highway to the Whistler ski resort. Part of the issue is the coming Olympics. Part is the cheapness of the province and its PPP partners (Public-Private Partnerships, in which the public helps business turn our infrastructure into a profit centre) in not being willing to pay for a tunnel. Krawczyk was born in 1928, so she is no spring chicken, but as she says in this book,
...the closer one gets to the natural world, the less one fears death. ... However, if one loses one's fear of death one naturally becomes a rebel.

Clayoquot is the story of Krawczyk's radicalization. The book intercuts two different timelines: a "present" story about her life in a cabin at Clayoquot Sound and how that led to her becoming an activist for old-growth forests, and a biographical narrative. The latter starts with her Catholic Cajun girlhood in a close-knit Louisiana community; she got cold-shouldered out of there when she refused to oppose racial integration. After that she did things like get married a few times, have kids, work. She met feminists and other progressive people and thought about their ideas. You can see that she was not just a natural "aginner" but gradually found her way to a different way of thinking, relating, and acting on the basis of experience.

When I first started reading, I was a little put off by all the misspellings, but after a while I decided it wasn't the mark of a poor author, but a literally poor publisher who wouldn't spring for proofreading. The book is physically very nicely published, though; it's a trade paperback with good paper, decent-sized type, and an attractive stiff cover that has built-in flaps you can use to mark your place.

The shape of the book's writing is skillful: her characterizations are pithy and empathetic; dramatic events are recounted, but not milked for length; the intercutting of different time periods adds a lot of suspense, and simultaneously covers for the abandon with which she jumps from one pivotal event in her life to another. As we read, we find out that she taught herself to be a professional writer, and that her early work was for "true confessions" magazines (a genre I must confess I consumed avidly in my early teens).

I haven't finished the book yet, I'm reading it slowly and savouring it. One of the early scenes is of a mass campout against old-growth forest logging, and it reminds me of a similar scene in Jeannette Armstrong's Whispering in Shadows (see my review in the 2006 section of this blog). Armstrong is a First Nations woman, and Krawczyk writes about not talking with the indigenous people then, because she didn't know what to ask. Obviously, she recovered from this reticence later. At Eagle Ridge Bluffs, she was arrested along with respected Aboriginal Elder Harriet Nahanee. Harriet died February 24 2007 at age 71, of an illness that went untreated for the two weeks she was forced to serve in jail for blocking the road development. The picture to the right is from an article about the two of them and their cause that appeared in the online newspaper The Tyee in March of 2007.

(Right, Betty Krawczyk; centre, Harriet Nahanee. Photo by C. Grabowski)

Monday, June 04, 2007

Six Weeks to Toxic

by Louisa McCormack (Toronto: Key Porter Books, Ltd., 2006)

It alarms me that so many interesting novels by women can be picked up for a song at the Vancouver Public Library. It delights me, but it alarms me, because this means the books have been de-accessioned and are no longer circulating from the library shelves. However, I've checked the online catalogue, and this one, at least, can still be requested - there are three copies available.

I bought it mainly because the author has worked for CBC Radio One, and I love CBC Radio One, it's one of the best things about living in Canada. (Of course, if you don't live in Canada you can still listen online.) According to producers I've heard explaining this, each CBC program has a carefully outlined plot structure, with planned delights at fixed points on the show's clock. As a formula, it works. Their shows also tend to have mysterious titles (like DNTO, which was recently replaced by Q), and so Six Weeks to Toxic seemed promising.

Actually, when I started reading it I was a little shocked - there was a lot of language that even in Canada you might not want to be reading out on the radio. Canadians are more insulted by violence and intolerance in media than USAns and less by sex and excretion, but the CBC recently got reprimanded by the CRTC, for allowing the word fuck to air, in a violent if literary context, at a time when children were likely to be listening.

In Six Weeks to Toxic, two close female friends expose a lot about their bodily functions and sex experiences, and even write a faux magazine for each other's enjoyment only, with the telling title of Gash.

In my day, we did all that stuff, and sometimes wrote about it, but we were always conscious that we were being transgressive. In this writing, acts committed with food are more blatantly transgressive than those committed with sex.

Another thing that shocked me was thinking "oh, so this is chick lit and I'm reading it!" There were a lot of descriptions of clothes and men and envy of others' physical attributes. What kept me going through this part was that the heroine is a foley artist - a person who makes the sound effects that accompany movies, and one of the most interesting careers to read about. Did you know that you can make the clinking sound of a knight's chain mail clothing by manipulating the links of a key chain?

The other thing that kept me reading was the teaser description in teeny letters on the book's cover: "Women break up with men all the time. But there are no rules for breaking up with your best friend..." Anyone who has ever had a friendship that became oppressive can't help but be intrigued by that story line.

The book is short, and I don't want to give too much away, but I will say that my opinion of the heroine steadily improved throughout the book, and the boyfriend and his dog both grew endearing as well. Plus, everyone in this culture McCormack depicts has a tongue-in-cheek way with words that is so not baby-Boomer-earnestness that it's refreshing. So, if you're in Vancouver and you have a VPL card, you might want to check this out.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Loose Theatre: Memoirs of a Guerrilla Theatre Activist

by Margaretta D'Arcy (Trafford Publishing: Victoria BC, Canada; Crewe, Cheshire, London, 2005)

Margaretta D'Arcy is a well known Irish playwright, one of the few women ever to receive the Cnuas, a lifetime Arts Council income grant. She talks about her plays and about the award (and the politics of the award) in this book, but it is much more devoted to the theatre of activism in which she has long engaged. Causes to which she has lent this talent include, among others: labour rights, Irish nationalism, peace, ending the US Cruise Missile presence on Greenham Common in England, the Measuring and Counting of Women's Unwaged Work, international community radio, Wages for Housework, and the annual Women's Strike.

Having known and admired Margaretta for quite a few years, I was very interested in Part One of the book, which tells about her peculiar upbringing. She had an Irish Catholic former freedom-fighter for a father and a Russian Jewish doctor for a mother. As she was born in 1934, the social milieu of the time made emphasizing the Catholic angle less conspicuous, and she and her sisters were sent to Catholic boarding school. There, she discovered the impressive power of the church's theatricality, which created in her a fervent if temporary religiosity.

As a young woman, Margaretta became an actress and began to hang with theatrical types. She met and eventually married and had offspring with playwright John Arden, and has collaborated with him on many plays and radio dramas of a political nature. In this book, she writes of witnessing the emergence of a new, comparatively wild and flexible, sort of theatre, of which she and John were among the well known practitioners.

One of the largest sections of this book covers Margaretta's years of involvement with the Greenham Common Women's Peace Camps. These camps (which were named for the different-coloured gates of the base) had the aim of reclaiming commons land in England that had been confiscated for a US cruise missile base. While very committed and spending a lot of time there, Margaretta also retained her inbred outsider stance throughout, and this allows her to honestly portray the factionalism, moods, and snitty behaviours of Peace Camp participants and their allies, while at the same time crediting their courage, stubbornness in the face of intimidation (and even death), and their almost unbelievable final success. The book is composed partly of new writing but also greatly, especially in this section, of edited selections from diaries and letters and fliers, raw hunks of the mood from the actual days of D'Arcy's life.

Margaretta D'Arcy has written other books, including Tell Them Everything, Awkward Corners (with John Arden), and Galway's Pirate Women: a global trawl. You can find D'Arcy's books and videos as well as streaming audio from her station, Radio Pirate Woman, on her website

-- Frieda Werden

Belva Lockwood: The Woman Who Would Be President

by Jill Norgren
(New York: New York University Press, 2007)

(Guest review by Jo Freeman)

Belva Lockwood was an ambitious women, and Belva Lockwood is an ambitious book.

Famous in her day for many "firsts," the US Postal service put her face on a stamp in 1986. Because her papers were largely destroyed by her grandson after her death in 1917, to write this biography Norgren had to track Lockwood's "footprints" through newspapers, legal archives, and letters sent to others that found their way into family files. This took a prodigious amount of work over many years. The result is worth the wait.

Although best known for running for President in 1884 and 1888, Lockwood was one of the pioneers who broke the barriers to women practicing law. She was the second woman admitted to the bar in the District of Columbia and the first admitted to practice before the U. S. Supreme Court. Active for suffrage, peace, temperance and other causes, she was constantly pushing the boundaries of the possible.

Born on October 24, 1830, in upper New York state, Belva Ann Bennett had an early appetite for education. At the age of 14 she taught in a rural school, chafing that she was paid half the salary of her male counterpart. She would eventually get a degree from a Methodist seminary for women and a law degree from National University Law School but each of these required surmounting obstacles created by her sex and her need to support herself.

Her seminary education and early career as a teacher -- a common but poorly paid position for a woman -- might not have been possible had she not been widowed at age 22. Teaching sharpened her ambition. Shortly after the end of the Civil War, Belva sent her 16-year-old daughter to be educated at her own alma mater and set off to Washington D.C. in search of opportunity. She found it as "Washington's Lady Lawyer" after a long and rocky trek to her law degree and admission to various bars. In the meantime she earned her living as a rental agent, newspaper correspondent and sales representative, and lecturer.

Drawn to politics, Belva traveled the South in 1872 as a paid campaigner for Horace Greeley. In May of that year the notorious Victoria Claflin Woodhull had herself nominated for President at a convention she called for that purpose, but did little more. How Lockwood came to run for President in 1884 on the same "Equal Rights Party" ticket are "colored by ego and memory." Suffice it to say that men ridiculed her and some prominent Suffrage leaders strongly disapproved. But Lockwood did what Woodhull did not do and ran a full campaign.

Lockwood was very pleased with her efforts. Her campaign generated enormous publicity, opportunities to travel, large audiences who paid to hear her speak, and almost five thousand votes. She even made a small profit. Success prompted her to try again in 1888 but this campaign produced more disapproval and less satisfaction.

Norgren repeatedly points out Lockwood's flair for self-promotion, of which her Presidential campaign was just one example. That talent not only made her a prominent figure in her lifetime but left the newspaper stories which made her biography possible. Lockwood's love of publicity was merged with genuine devotion to several causes, making it difficult to identify her motivations.

Despite her ardor for universal suffrage, she never found a niche for herself in the Suffrage Movement. Instead she became a fixture in the peace movement and a spokeswoman for the Universal Peace Union. She was a frequent delegate to conferences urging peace and arbitration as the solution to conflict. She spoke up for popular causes such as temperance and unpopular causes such as the Mormons.

Belva married twice, but spent most of her life as a widow – the best situation for an educated woman during an era when wives were subject to their husbands and spinsters seen as less than full women. Her first husband died four and a half years after their marriage, leaving behind the daughter who would remain Belva's companion until an early death at age 44. In 1868 she married Ezekiel Lockwood, an elderly dentist, becoming a widow for the second time nine years later. Their only child died at 18 months.

Family was very important to Belva. In 1877 she bought a large house on F St. where she housed her law practice, her daughter, and various members of her extended household. Spare rooms were rented out. The day-to-day law practice of mostly pension and land claims was handled by her daughter and other relatives. Belva was the "rainmaker" for the family firm, attracting clients through her travels and lectures. She wrote the briefs and conducted the trials for the occasional high profile case. After her daughter died, her law practice disintegrated.

By the time she died at age 86, Lockwood's star had long since faded. Her house was sold to pay her debts. Her only heir shipped her papers to a pulp mill. She had lived through a vast transformation of her society but her fondest goals were yet to be realized. She still could not vote. Her country had just voted to go to war and the prohibition amendment had not yet passed. Much more time would pass before her life and her dreams would be celebrated.

This book is a good read. It provides an enjoyable and enlightening narration of US history and women's history as well as the history of a life.

--Jo Freeman

Jo Freeman is a political scientist and the author of many books and articles about women. You can find out more about her on her website

Jo Freeman's guest review of Belva Lockwood: The Woman Who Would be President was originally posted to Senior Women Web