Sunday, June 28, 2009

Dahlia Cassidy

by Anne Cameron (Madeira Park, BC: Harbour Publishing, 2004)

This book is highly unusual, and the picture on the cover (left) has absolutely nothing to do with its content.
There's not one word about lipstick in the book. It's actually all about work. I imagine the heroine, Dahlia Cassidy, as looking a lot like the author, Anne Cameron (right) only really tall and strapping, as she would have to be to do so much, so much, so much work.

For one thing, Dahlia is a single mother of a vast brood of bastards (they use the term themselves) by various fathers, plus she's the primary support at least part of the time for some of her sisters' kids as well. As best I could count them, there were 9 children living in her house by the end of the story.

When we first meet Dahlia, she's just had a pretty horrendous sexual experience with a "Frenchman" and more or less decides to just give up on sex and concentrate on making a living for everybody. She plays music in a bar, but also does "fungus plucking" (wild mushroom harvesting) and tree-planting, each in their season. Luckily she has a childless, child-loving sister who stays home with the kids while Dahlia goes out for weeks and maybe months of tree-planting under the most grueling conditions of labour and weather. Later in the story, the family ends up on a farm, and ex-farm-girl Dahlia gets to show her chops doing a remarkable roster of grueling chores including cleaning out a cow barn and a chicken shed and harvesting hay (2 crops per year) on a miserably uncomfortable tractor, and in the off-season has a job clearing brush. I'm reminded of a saying the old folks used to use: "It's a great life if you don't weaken."

Reading all these descriptions of how hard and rather painfully but pretty much uncomplainingly Dahlia works to support her family was really interesting, but it left me feeling very uncomfortable about myself and my capacity for lying around reading books. The very gratification I felt reading about the work felt vaguely like reading pornography, my body living vicariously through the descriptions.
The work descriptions were longer and more realistic than the descriptions of the child-rearing. Maybe because the children grow up quite a few years' worth in just 264 pages, their personalities, while distinct from one another, are pretty much sketched in. Their behaviour problems are also almost nonexistent, and that was to me the part that was hardest to believe. Nevertheless, tales about large families are enjoyable. I did find the book hard to put down.

Anne Cameron has written lots of books - you can find a list of them on Wikipedia. Her most famous was apparently Daughters of Copper Woman (1981), which according to her current publisher has sold over 200,000 copies. Harbour Publishing's website also gives this generic author description:
Anne Cameron was born in Nanaimo, BC. She began writing at an early age, starting with theatre scripts and screenplays. In 1979, her film Dreamspeaker, directed by Claude Jutra, won seven Canadian Film Awards, including best script. After being published as a novel, Dreamspeaker went on to win the Gibson Award for Literature. She has published more than 30 books, including the underground classic Daughters of Copper Woman, its sequel, Dzelarhons, novels, stories, poems and legends - for adults and children. Her most recent novels are Family Resemblances, Hardscratch Row, and a new, revised edition of Daughters of Copper Woman. She lives in Tahsis, BC

I didn't mention yet that Anne Cameron is a lesbian. In Dahlia Cassidy, there is some lesbian interest, but it's really rather slight; as mentioned, it's the work - low-paying intensely physical labour - and the very successful fulfillment of family responsibilities - that occupies most of the space.

One final note about publishers. Harbour Publishing is "an award-winning independent book publisher owned and operated by Howard and Mary White. The company was established in 1974 and is based on British Columbia's Sunshine Coast." They are not the original publisher of all Anne Cameron's works, although they seem to be trying to get all her books under one roof now. Daughters of Copper Woman was originally published by the feminist-operated Press Gang in Vancouver - a press that survived in various conformations until 2003.


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    Duchess Harris, Ph.D.
    Associate Professor American Studies

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