- Why Should We Read and Study Curtis?
- Literature & Analysis
- “The Game”
- Analysis of “The Game”
- “September Morning”
- Analysis of “September Morning”
- “There Are Two Rivers Here”
- Analysis of “There Are Two Rivers Here”
- Questions and Considerations for Reflection
- Strategies for Teachers
- Further Reading
Born in central New Brunswick in 1943, Wayne Curtis grew up on the Miramichi River near Blackville, where his ancestors had lived for many generations. Central to his identity and imagination was the river, a river that employed his family members as fishing guides, cooks, farmers, loggers, and outfitters, and a river that held the stories of his entire community. To be born on the river was to give oneself wholly to it, for nothing grander or more magnetic existed. So did it become the dominant force in Curtis’ life, and so does it occupy the centre of his fictional world. A couple of years after completing the grades in the one-room schoolhouse in his community, Curtis quit formal education to work on his father’s farm. But the farm life wasn’t for him, and he moved to Ontario to work in the auto industry. In Ontario, he pined for the river, eventually moving back to the Miramichi region where he started writing about it. After more than fifteen books of long and short fiction, essays, memoirs, river histories, and poems, Curtis has taken his place as one of the most important writers of the province.
For a much more detailed biography of Curtis, see his New Brunswick Literary Encyclopedia entry.
- We read Curtis, as we have read so many other writers in this curriculum, to take the pulse of our home place. For him, rural New Brunswick is under threat, as is the sacred bond of stewardship that rural peoples traditionally exercised over their lands, and so the dominant moods of nostalgia and loss prevail in his work. However, Curtis is never maudlin or pitying in his nostalgia for that loss. Rather, in disciplined and sophisticated prose, he shows us what a way of life entailed along his beloved river – the joys and sacrifices, the allowances and compromises, and the responsibilities and struggles of a life of intimate contact with the land and waters of central New Brunswick. Few writers in the province have been as sensitive to that aspect of our identity, and even fewer have raised the importance of our guardianship over our natural inheritance. Curtis, then, continues and advances the work of the Tantramar poets in raising some of the ethical questions related to our provincial trusteeship. To read him is not just to read about a way of life that is rapidly vanishing, but more importantly to come face to face with values and commitments that we as provincial citizens would be rash to dismiss so casually.
I hear the train whistle somewhere beyond the town, beyond the river. On this snowy night of early winter forty-odd years later, there is something still haunting in it. The Ocean Limited, which travels through Newcastle on its way from Halifax to Montreal, is a valuable piece of heritage that struggles now to keep its existence, like so many other remnants from my boyhood.
I wait beneath the big awning at the train station. The two or three of us who always gather here, just to watch the train come and go, stand some distance apart, as if in a strange and poignant spell. We observe the steel giant as it labours slowly toward us; its brakes hiss and grind and the endless beams of headlamps exaggerate the storm’s intensity. Little bells ring, speakers blat; a computerized voice announces destinations beyond. Then people huddle and greet friends. Many are students with bright-coloured duffel bags and university-crested jackets.
Then the train is gone in a lingering haze of burnt diesel oil, the red lamp at its rear eventually disappears into the storm. Cars spin onto the street and hurry away, and like spirits of the night, the rest of us wander off in different directions.
I walk further into the town. Old buildings crowd against the otherwise vacant street, empty now as a toy warehouse on Christmas Eve. Their silence is broken only by the outside telephone of a twisted taxi stand.
I pass a store window which displays reclining chairs and beds and think of a time when I was ten and my father operated a furniture store down on Castle Street. He and one of the mattress salesmen, Stewart, took my older brother Todd and I to Montreal on the train to see the Canadiens play the Leafs.
In preparation for the long voyage, they had liquor in shopping bags and sandwiches and soft drinks for Todd and me. I remember Father’s words that night as we stood on the plank platform waiting for the train, “Now boys,” he told us, “what happens in Montreal stays in Montreal.” He cuffed me around the ears. “Don’t you lads bring home no stories.”
The train ride, the big city, and indeed a live hockey game would be all new to Todd and me. We sat high behind the tinted glass and gazed upon our town as it slipped into the distance, its lights hazy in the snow that melted and streamed down the glass and made the spruces along the tracks look like giant bells. Further into the night the dying lights of old farmhouses reflected off the slopes along the tracks.
“By Christ! That Mahovlich can take ‘er up the ice when no one else can!” Father winked at me and dealt cards, a cigarette unattended in the side of his mouth. “Yessir! Tak ‘er up the ice!”
He said this for my benefit. We were Toronto fans then, and Frank Mahovlich, number twenty-seven of the Leafs, was my hero. “The Big M” we called him. (Years later, we became Detroit fans when Frank was traded to the Red Wings by Punch Imlach for three players, and later still Canadiens fans because of yet another deal.) Todd was always loyal to the Montreal Canadiens.
“Provost will keep him out of the play.” Stewart read his hand. “Twenty-five, all or nothing;” he sipped from a styrofoam cup, “on diamonds!”
“But he can’t catch the Big M, eh Joey?” Father slapped down the five of diamonds, rocking the cardboard photograph of Peggy’s Cove they had taken from the end of the coach to use for a card table. “Yer out Stewie!”
“So how many’s he got Dave?” Stewart asked as he gathered the cards, tapping them square to shuffle. “How many goals has ‘e got?”
“Thirty-five, thirty-six. Did he score Wednesday night in New York Joey?”
“No, just three assists,” I say, pleased that the adults have brought me into the discussion.
As the train moved on in the night, it rocked and swayed. Brakes ground to a halt, drinks spilled and doors slammed with their cold gusts of frosty air each time we stopped in a town. Toward morning, more and more people were speaking only French. “Boujour! ... Salut, mon ami!” Meanwhile our card game went on as did our arguing about hockey and prices of bedding, deliveries and warranties.
As Todd and I sat facing each other, trying to fall asleep, I imagined what the big city and the Montreal Forum would be like. I had seen the Forum only on our snowy twenty-one-inch Marconi TV in black and white. Would I hear the voice of Danny Gallivan, “Good evening hockey fans in Canada and the United States ... ?” I recalled the oval Esso signs, the mileage tips from the uniformed Murray Westgate, the interviews – Ward Cornell with coaches Toe Blake and Punch Imlach. It seemed almost impossible that we were going to this place we had seen so often on “Hockey Night In Canada!” We were already different people – more sophisticated than when we played on the river ice, two on a side, the heel of a rubber boot for a puck, a kinked alder for a hockey stick, wearing the skates Father had bought for us at Dalton’s second-hand store on the wharf in Newcastle. I could see Todd now, standing off to the side, holding a stick and calling the play by play, “It’s big Béliveau over to Richard, a two on one breakaway! Back to Béliveau! To Richard! He shoots! He scores!” Even on the river ice, we could hear Danny Gallivan – the voice of the Canadiens – the fans, the organ; we felt the intensity.
We dozed in our seats, the distorted train sounds off in the distance. Even the fiddling and singing by a group from Cape Breton that partied at the far end of the coach seemed distant as I woke from a light sleep long enough to read the town names at each stop: Joliette, Lévis, Trois-Rivières.
“Je cherche une femme aux yeux bleus avec des beaux grands cheveux blonds j’la prendrai dans mes bras et je lui dirais tout bas je cherche une.”
The card game continued without us. They pounded the table, whooped and hollered declarations, “thirty-for-sixty-all-or-nothing” throughout the night.
In the cold early morning, the train slowed and we could see Montreal in the distance, giant cubes and spires of grey concrete and glass rising out of the flats across the St. Lawrence, a cross on the mountain beyond. The snow fell lightly now, and I couldn’t take my eyes from the view. The train crawled across the bridge and under the city, beneath the Queen Elizabeth Hotel. Then we were standing and being pushed off the train by the crowd, half running along the miles of cement and marble amid exotic smells and intriguing sounds.
“Eh maudit qu’il fait fraite!”
“Oui! En bapteme! D’ou viens-tu?”
A man from Bathurst in conversation with one of the train men is suddenly someone from down home.
We followed Father and Stewart, slipping along the snowy sidewalks of Saint Catherine Street to explore the city. We returned to the Queen Elizabeth and the station, not wanting to stray too far from our point of departure. We hung out there, mostly in restaurants, drinking colas, eating hamburgers and french fries. Father and Stewart drank coffee upon coffee to kill the time. And we frequented the steel and porcelain public washrooms. Todd and I were fascinated with the coloured television sets in gift shops and on display in the hotel lobby.
In the early evening Father and Stewart went down the hall, into a bar. Todd and I sat Watching “Animal Kingdom” on the coloured TV that featured a documentary about wolves in Canada’s North.
I wanted to change into clean clothes before the game so I headed down the corridor to search for a men’s room. A door had “Toiletry” written on it, so I went in. Inside it was more like a store with cartons of soap, floor polishes and tissues. There was a urinal and a boxed-in toilet in the far corner.
“You’re not supposed to be in here kid!” A big man wearing green work clothes was staring down at me. I had seen him somewhere before that day. Tall, red-faced with a brush cut, he was very close to me and his breath smelled like lemon extract.
“Oh, I’m sorry sir, I didn’t ...”
“Lookin’ to steal somethin’ were ya? Caught ya in here lookin’ to steal. I’ll have to turn ya over to security!”
“No, please! I don’t want anything. Look, I’m leaving. I was just looking for a place to change my clothes.”
“To change? No, ya was stealin’!”
“No! To change ... my pants and shirt before the game .... Honest!” I was frightened now.
“It’s not that easy, kid. If I let you go, they could have my job if they found out you was in here and I didn’t say nothin’.”
“But I didn’t know! I won’t say anything if you ...”
“I don’t know who you are. How can I trust you?”
“I’m Joey McCall. You can trust me!”
“Look kid, here’s what we’ll do. You just go ahead and change. If someone comes, I’ll cover you. I’ll just say you was with me, kinda helpin’ me. Go ahead now and change, quick.”
“Thank you sir, but it’s okay. I just wanna go. I didn’t know. I don’t need to change anyway.”
“Don’t need to change? Then you lied! Now if the security people see you leavin’ here and they know I saw you, and you was stealin’ and lyin’ and I didn’t say nothin’ we both could be ....”
“What can I do?” My head was aching now, my face burning.
“Go ahead and change is the best thing. Like I said, I’ll cover you.”
“Okay, okay, I’ll change.” I hurried into the stall and bolted the door.
“I guess we could say we’re friends now, ain’t we kid. What did you say your name was?” He talked through the crack around the door.
“Joey, we’re friends ain’t we? You look like a nice kid.”
“I used to wear long underwear like that when I was a kid.” He tapped on the door. “I didn’t know you could still buy ‘em.”
“What’s the label?”
“I don’t know.”
I was hurrying to put on my clean pants.
“Where ya from, Joey ol’ friend?”
“All alone from way out there?”
“Where ya headin’?”
“To the game, the hockey game. I have to hurry.”
He was breathing through the crack, his breath smelled like lemon gin. I wanted someone else to come into the room. Where was Todd? Dad and Stewart?
“But the game doesn’t start until eight.”
“My big brother and Dad are just outside there and some more of us.” I motioned toward the bar from behind my locked stall door.
“Lots’a time, lots’a time, Joey ol’ friend. If you already got your ticket, you don’t need to hurry!”
“I got my ticket,” I said, fumbling for it in my pocket. But I instantly thought, I shouldn’t have told him that.
“Take your time now, Joey.”
“My big brother is right outside the door. Todd! Todd!” I yelled. “Your turn!” My voice sounded thin against the fan. And it was too far to the corridor, too far to the lobby for my frightened voice to penetrate the sounds of the wolves on “Animal Kingdom.”
“Don’t be scared. They’ll be along now. Besides we’re friends, remember?” As he checked the big steel door that led to the lobby, I silently slid the toilet door’s bolt and burst into the green-lit room beside him. I raced to go past him toward the door. The room appeared marble, speckled with flecks of green, and the boxes of tissues that helped block my way were green with little white swans on them.
He stood in front of me, smiling with his mouth only. I could feel his breathing, his leaking eyes staring at me in a way I understood was dangerous.
“He can’t hear you way out there. Relax. Don’t hurry away. We’re friends now,” he said softly and put his hand on my shoulder to push me back. I could smell the flavour of his breath – lemon. The liquid soap in a jar above the sink became lemon-scented, as did the lime-coloured dustbin along the wall.
“Please, I have to go.” I tried to squeeze past him. “Look, I’m …”
He was in front of me again.
“Lots’ a time now, Joey my boy.”
He was too close. I could feel his bulk, crowding me back into the stall ... feel his breath close, like he was going to kiss me.
“Todd! Dad! Come on in Todd! Oh God, would you come in now, please!”
He was behind me and I was being pushed.
“No one’s going to arrest you. We’ll keep each other out of trouble. Everything’s going to be okay Joey!”
“They can’t hear, so just shut up! Shut the fuck up before you get us both in trouble!” He was squeezing my arm, hurting me.
“Don’t touch me! Let me go! Let me go!” My vision was blurry, my head throbbed. “My hockey ticket ... you can have it!” He kept squeezing and my face burned as every brain cell screamed, “TODD! DAD! ... MOM!”
He was tugging at the elastic waist of my pants, holding me in the toilet stall. The room revolved and my insides began spilling out on the marble floor that spun in front of me.
Another man wearing the same green work clothes shuffled through the door, wheeling a floor bucket.
“This here young fella’s been eatin’ too many hamburgers,” the first man said. “He come in here to be sick.”
I ran past them into the lobby, my legs weak against the polished floor, the slanting walls exaggerated my dizziness. But I ran like I have never run until I was beside Todd in front of the big TV. He had not moved. What had seemed like an unbearably long time had been only minutes. I could still smell the lemon ... feel my stomach churning. My chest was still heaving. I tried not to be sick here. But then I was vomiting on the floor of the lobby. I looked over my shoulder for the man. There were tears I could not control.
“Quick! Let’s go find Dad! Let’s find him now!”
“You always have to get sick! Every time we go someplace you do it!” Todd passed me his handkerchief without taking his eyes off the screen.
I was sobbing now. My face was buried behind a big magazine – still being pushed ... lots’ a time Joey, my boy – I didn’t want Todd to see me crying. “I want to go home.”
“Damn it! Stop your crying! Daddy won’t bring us no more if you’re gonna get lonesome for Mom and sick and crying and everything.”
“I just want to go home!”
I do not remember being ushered to the red seat by a pretty French woman in uniform or being afraid of falling down the steep incline of seats onto the ice of the Montreal Forum. I only remember how I kept looking around, searching for him, and seeing him again every time I closed my eyes. Between periods, I was afraid to go to the concession stand without Father. Todd had to convince me later that everything at the Forum was red, white, and blue (bleu, blanc, et rouge – nothing was black and white) and that there was no one to call the game; if you didn’t watch closely you would miss an important play. There was no Murray Westgate, no interviews.
I didn’t notice toward the end, when the Canadiens were leading by one goal that, in Todd’s words, “Coach Punch Imlach threw the heavy artillery over the boards – Frank Mahovlich, Dave Keon, and big George Armstrong,” and that Toe Blake countered with Jean Béliveau, Henry Richard and J.C. Tremblay. Nor did I hear the cheering crowds when the Big M circled deep in his own zone, picked up the puck and with his head back and his jersey fluttering, he wagged the stick in front of him so that the puck appeared to be fixed to it with an invisible elastic band – he never once looked down to see if it was there – making long strides through centre ice, the rest of the skaters stopping to watch while number twenty-seven did this for Father and me. A snap of his wrist on a backhand and the puck was over the shoulder of Jacques Plante; the net bulged behind him, the goal light flashed, the crowd roared over the announcer. I did not see much of it that night. These are Father’s and Todd’s accounts, as they called the play so often since.
Father had stood and applauded and then punched Stewart on the shoulder and said, “Uh huh! Did ya see that Stewie? I told ya so!” And these were comforting words, I do remember. “Say what ya like, the big M’s a beautiful hockey player to watch, though, ain’t he boys!”
We managed to get autographed hockey sticks before hurrying to catch the train. I remember well the long ride home when everyone else slept. As I stared into the night, Montreal grew smaller in the distance and the only light was from the train windows, reflecting on the snow that was dirty now, like ashes along the tracks. The smell of lemons lingered in my nostrils; fear cast a long shadow over my life. The secret travelled with me; I never defied Father’s words: “Boys, what happens in Montreal stays in Montreal.”
Analysis of “The Game”
“The Game” is one of those archetypal stories that, if not experienced, is understood. We recognize the story’s lesson from our parents’ teachings, as well as from the myriad of fairy tales that instructed and cautioned us as children. Curtis, then, is telling an old story. But that does not diminish its poignancy or impact. On the contrary, the location and circumstance of Curtis’ story refreshes the old tale in ways that New Brunswick readers can especially appreciate.
What child growing up in our province did not dream of the big city? And what boy did not cast that dream in the frame of a visit to the legendary Montreal Forum? For boys coming of age in many parts of rural Canada after the wars, the Forum was not just a building but a shrine. It was where the hockey gods played, where patrons dressed in suits and evening gowns to honour the shrine’s sanctity, and where distant fans cast their mind’s eye every Saturday night. In the decades before our game was co-opted by big American money, the dream of a visit to the Forum was what made a person Canadian. And it is in that dream that Curtis’ story begins.
Fittingly, it opens to the train, our symbol of connection and escape. In a country spread over such vast distances, trains have always been central to our imaginations – and to our dreams. Neither efficient nor reliable, they were romantic, their aura inviting the festive communalism that Curtis expertly depicts in the story. “A man from Bathurst in conversation with one of the train men” was, indeed, “someone from down home.” The trains, as Curtis remembers them, were portals through which people travelled to the destinations of their dreams.
To be a New Brunswicker on such trains heading west was to comingle with other Maritimers, partaking of the shared spirit of adventure and escape. The common denominator for all, despite the rowdiness, was innocence and hope: everyone was moving toward something better, purer. For Joey, Todd, their father, and his friend, it was toward the hockey shrine itself, the time the clunky old Ocean Limited took to get there embellishing the dream. In skilled fashion, Curtis captures the slow build-up of this hope. Hour by hour, town by town, language by language, what was only a “snowy” image on a “twenty-one-inch Marconi TV” is brought into focus. And what was only a dream soon comes into reach. Or does it?
What quashes the dream is that which feeds on innocence. It can be evil, violence, cynicism, anger, or any iteration of that vast darkness we endeavour to suppress. Our entry into adulthood initiates us to that darkness, just as the innocent and wide-eyed Joey is initiated in this story. It matters little that the darkness here takes the form of a sexual predator; what is more significant (and what Curtis aims to illustrate) is the terrible power of that force. For Joey, the story’s ten-year-old protagonist, the darkness becomes a lifelong passenger, the “long shadow” of which instils “fear … over [his] life.” The Montreal trip becomes his signature moment, one that forever shapes him but that he buries from everyone else.
The story has special poignancy when told in a New Brunswick context, for it becomes a story of the us and them: the rural and urban, the marginal and central. Joey’s experience reinforces his rootedness in place. Home, we presume from the arc of the story, becomes the safer place for him, while the city teems with the barbarism of unchecked appetites. For many people in rural Canada, and certainly New Brunswick, that subtext has informed the national narrative. To move outside of one’s place to the urban centre of the country becomes analogous to a trip to the underworld. Excitement, uncertainty, and fear are the dominant touchstones. That so much of the vastness of Canada exists beyond the centre, and that that centre concentrates so much wealth and opportunity, means that travelling to the centre is a virtual certainty for many Canadians – and so the myth of dangerous urbanity is a common one. Curtis’ story thus captures not only a universal theme, but it also taps into a very common Canadian mythology. And both beg similar questions: can dreams of innocence ever be realized, and can the dream of the home place ever be sustained in a socio-economic climate that pulls everything into the centre?
For those reasons, as well as for the skill with which Curtis crafts and refreshes this age-old story of innocence and experience, “The Game” is a powerful and important story in New Brunswick literature.
It has been a cool night. I should have closed the front door. My sleep is disturbed by the sharp staccato whistle of the osprey. I turn in my bed, experiencing the mingling and melting away of night dreams. Half-conscious, I can hear a pulp truck on the distant chip-seal road. That would be my friend Donny Brophy going to work. He is a trucker who lives just up the highway in what used to be my uncle’s farmhouse. There is a grey dawn at the window, a late summer chill.
You lie beside me with your face to the wall. I put an arm about your waist and pull you to me, knowing that tonight I will be alone in this bed; scenting your perfume on the pillow, reliving this summer of loving you. And trying to justify letting you go without a struggle. Tomorrow, I think, learning how to live alone begins again. But now there is a calm and I lay and wait for the osprey’s territorial signal but hear only the hollow gurgle of the brook nearby and the buzz of a housefly in the lighted bathroom.
I get up and stagger to the bath, have a drink of water, then I go to the screened door to look at the river. Subtle, ever so subtle waves move out across the water from the brook’s mouth where the salmon are lying in the colder water. The river itself is warm, low and clear. I can smell its bottom along the shores where the water has dropped: decaying algae, sun-baked stones, clam shells, life jackets, and sweaty sneakers. There are junks of foam adrift in the channel. They crowd together in the run like lemmings. Later they will make moving shadows against the amber bottom before burning off as the sun strengthens.
Higher along the opposite shore is the dewed meadow grass, tall and silent, now showing a few strands of yellow. The grassy hillside beyond is yellow with wildflowers. The trees, double green, are now tinted slightly. And beyond the trees, the lofty pink sky. Everything is tranquil, even holy, the way that Sunday’s drive home from church used to be from the back seat of my father’s car when I was a child. In my mind, I try two cadenzas in the scene. First Pachelbel’s Canon in D, then J.S. Bach’s Gavotte in D Major. These do not do justice to the morning, and I block them out. Then the little brook rises up to sing, chuckle, gurgle, gulp. This is the better score, I think.
I stand behind the screen door in my shorts and T-shirt. No breeze yet, not a whisper. The grass in the yard is silver with dew. The boardwalk to the woodshed is silver, as is my car windshield. And now a raven whoops, some kind of warning I suspect. Or maybe it is trying to out-sing the brook (as I did a few moments ago). A red squirrel runs from limb to limb in the trees that hug our cabin. It stops to scold at my presence in the doorway. And I realize, only now, that I do not have the senses keen enough to see and feel the whole picture in the way of the raven and the squirrel. But of course I love it just as much. This place is all I know, because, you see, I have never been away. Not even for the winter like the osprey or the crane. And because this is my whole life, I now take some comfort in the fact that this is not a rainy day. Rain, I think, would bring down a power failure right now.
I look into the bedroom where you are sleeping. Only your face is exposed above the covers. Your long lashes are pretty upon faded summer cheeks. Pretty lashes that hide dark passionate eyes, full of thought, full of love, revealing your feelings long before you say a thing. You think these parts of you are nothing, but I know them to be the nothingness of greatness. In your eyes, too, are the lingering images of a daddy’s little girl, freckled and skinny with twisted sandals, denim jeans, ball cap, and the sunglasses you found in the river. You have been your mother’s loyal daughter, too, postured with earrings, pantyhose, a touch of makeup, but always keeping that awkward smile that is real and the youthful spirit. Even with me you have been crazy and funny, mature and graceful, tomboyish, a fishing partner for years, and a true lover with eyes that drew me to them with a moisture so rich and deep that whoever you looked at fell in love with you. I think of our years together. You and I on the river, skating, sailing, fishing, and this old cabin. I wish I could do it all again, but only with you.
Now, all of the years are suddenly condensed into two small images. Our old boat is under sail and you are standing at the back with both hands on the rudder bar, your slim bathing-suited body braced against the rail, hair stringy, shrill voice singing (after just one beer) a sea shanty you hardly even know. You are trying to impress me. This is followed by a comfort in the way you embrace me when I am down. These images come together now, embracing and singing, embracing and singing. They dance like ghosts in a mourning fog.
You will be leaving today, to go to the University of Toronto. This is your chance to grow, get sophisticated. When you come back, you will be a different Carol. You will have set aside your local river dialect, your corny humour, your homely innocent warmth, that summer spirit. In a sense you will never return. Not really. Not the way you are. Changes, new ideas will have made you ashamed of who you are and where you come from. Ideas will govern your spirit and refine your posture so that you will stay always and irreversibly within their boundaries, not yours. And not mine.
Later this morning I will kiss you goodbye and try not to show emotion as you drive away. I realize now that I cannot help you through tomorrow. I have no more nourishment, no new philosophic direction in which to lead you. You might say that I have been your April man, a spectator who has watched you grow beyond me, watched you pine and suffer within yourself because you did so. Though you have always loved me for the man that I am. Now, the most important thing to me is that you keep growing to make this hurt worth something. I could ask you to stay for my own selfish reasons because I know you love me enough to do it. Maybe you
do. But I cannot stand still and watch you become me. Not for a minute. You would. I guarantee it.
So I sit at my computer to write this secret note to you while you are still sleeping and before the day gets hot. I will put this in your suitcase, there in the back pocket where your writing paper and family photos are. You will read it in your room in Toronto someday down the road and think of me with that goodness of yours. I hope. Somewhere on the river, in the same instant, I will think of you. And I will remember you just the way you are this morning.
Analysis of “September Morning”
This story – perhaps more properly thought of as a reflection, for it exists solely in the memory of the narrator – seems a companion piece to “The Game.” It might even be the reflection of the older Joey, releasing his love to the greater opportunities that exist in the places he rejected. Regardless of who’s who, the story is, again, familiar. At least its human geography is. Once again, we encounter the existence of two entities: us and them, the region and the centre. And, once again, the consequences of their division ascribe loss and limitation to the Miramichi home place. In this story, however, love is lost, not innocence, and what is required of the narrator is a painful expression of selflessness to set his lover free.
The careful reader will note that the narrator never once questions the wisdom of his selflessness (his sacrifice). Rather, he works on the assumption that letting Carol go is the best thing for her. “Now,” he says, “the most important thing to me is that you keep growing to make this hurt worth something. I could ask you to stay for my own selfish reasons because I know you love me enough to do it. Maybe you do. But I cannot stand still and watch you become me.”
Those lines at the end reveal not a self-loathing but a certainty that to stay in New Brunswick is to limit one’s potential, to morph into backwardness, or to ossify altogether. The best thing the narrator can do for his love is therefore to allow her to leave – at great pain to himself.
The delicacy with which Curtis treats this encounter is remarkable. Rather than editorialize or opine about the conditions that federalism and central wealth concentration place on individuals on the margins, he instead opens a portal to the intensity of his protagonist’s emotions. This is what limited opportunity feels like, he shows us. These are the kind of sacrifices that individuals in rural New Brunswick must make, and routinely make.
Every New Brunswicker with a fragmented family (and that means the vast majority of us) will understand the heartache in this story. Every New Brunswicker who deals with the presumption of backwardness will immediately understand the first instincts of the narrator. We send those closest to us away, at great personal cost, because, well, because we want the best for them, believing that the best cannot be here. We smile with broken hearts at train stations and airports.
Curtis’ great skill in evoking this characteristic emotion resonates with the rarely said: namely, that to live in New Brunswick, one must be willing to trade on love. If that sounds overwrought, then the costs of living so far from the manufactured centre of the country are not fully understood. Curtis’ short but powerful story enables us to take the pulse of those costs and to understand “Canada” and “region” in ways never captured in the headlines.
“There Are Two Rivers Here”
We are into October, towards Thanksgiving. The wind is picking up and the nights are cold, freezing cold already. It seems the weather has changed overnight. All summer here, in the early mornings, I’ve been sitting down to work on a novel. When you’re busy like that, time just slips away. Already I regret not having done enough canoeing, fishing, or hosting old friends and family for barbecues. But next year, before the weather turns. Next year.
The wind is darker now, and there are spits of rain, maybe a hailstone here and there to lodge and not melt on some decayed leaf, or on the pathway to the woodshed. There is sighing in the pine trees, rattling and moaning in the eavestroughs. Ghosts. Here on the river, there are always ghosts in the wind, voices in the trees. I think now of the ghosts of winter, of great-grandparents and grandparents long dead. I think, too, of the ghosts of summer and parents and potluck meals, ghosts of spring and my unsure young self, of old loves long gone, of my own family and friends. I don’t see much of them anymore. These ghosts skitter between yesterday and tomorrow. There are even ghosts of fading dreams, ghosts of other ghosts, you might say. Voices in the wind make them bright now and full of spirit, like youthful spring days, these images embroidered by the magic of time. You see, it’s a question of magic.
In a day or two I will close up camp and move to the city for another winter. In a day or two … I’ve been putting it off.
I have been here since April.
I have been here for five generations.
The Miramichi is where my great-great grandparents immigrated from England in 1818 and where many of my family (including myself in summer) still live. She flows from the centre of New Brunswick, northeast to the sea – one-hundred and fifty miles of washed gravel, twisting through backyards, fields and woods, audible from dooryards, always within reach, always within view. Our houses are little white boxes like sugar cubes on hillsides that overlook the river. We see the river differently, my father would say. There are really two rivers here, you know, ours and theirs.
Statistically, it is said to be one of the best salmon streams anywhere, truly a great place to fish. But we are not much into statistics. We are practical minded, long on sensitivity, impulsiveness, and experience. We are the sons and daughters of the river. To the sport fishers who write for outdoor magazines, this river is one of boots and borons, Polaroids and patterns, ponchos and parkas; of tippets, tailers, tilles, and tweeds; vests and visors, canes and cameras – and forty-five-pounders.
Ours is more a river of old relations, old bones, old dreams gone sour and new dreams nurtured and made real. Ours is a river made of blood streams. Yes, through the years we have killed our share of fish. But this is not something we take pride in. As part of growing up, we have learned to provoke the impulsive salmon to take a fly hook. We have become at one with the fish’s state of mind, the river’s condition the way one family member might sense what another is thinking after a while. This is not done for pleasure, exactly, nor spoken about much. Because we do it for different reasons, our catches are never literally weighed or measured.
When I look through old albums, I see photos of family members, standing with two or three sport fishers (whose names are long since forgotten) with a dozen salmon spread on the grass before them. Perhaps these were from a day’s fishing at the home pool here on the Miramichi, or maybe they are catches from three-day runs down the Cains – a common event after my father started outfitting in the 1950s. Also in those old albums I see myself, my brothers, and sister, children fixing a sail to a canoe, paddling a board boat, or posing on the roof of some fishing camp still under construction. When my sister got her first salmon at age seven, an American sportsman photographed her standing in the boat holding it. She was wearing a little print dress and her freckled face was beaming – the only pose of its kind in the album.
Everyone in my family owns a river camp. My cabin is on the old family homestead, on a giant loop in the river the fishermen call the Golden Horseshoe because of its excellent spring salmon catches. We called the place Camp Oriole, not after the fly hook but the bird.
My father and I built the cabin thirty years ago from logs we cut on his woodlot. It has an open veranda facing the river but no fireplace yet, just an air-tight stove. In front of the camp, on calm spring days, the motorboat-wrinkled water sparkles in the sun as guides hunch in their anchored boats, telling their seated guests where to cast. Their S-shaped lines uncoil across the water and they stare tentatively at the swinging streamers for the doughnut-shaped boil of a striking salmon. As I work in the yard I can hear their voices, smell their perfume: cigar smoke blending with gasoline.
Yesterday I fed my pet moose birds more crumbs than usual, gave my squirrels an extra helping of peanuts. I hope they will be around next spring. I have put the canoe in already, tucked lawn chairs under the veranda, and dismantled the water pipes. I have walked around the grounds many times and down to the shore where the upriver wind brings a tear. Maybe tomorrow I will leave.
In the city I will take courses, go to the theatre, art shows, movies, hockey games, and the occasional night club when I feel the need for a bright woman to talk with. And wait for spring. By mid-March I will have already started packing to return (if I’ve bothered to unpack). I will be here to witness the heavy winds and the spring rains and the ice floes that come with the arrival of the new season. The rumble of ice, the hollering of crows, the smell of melting snow. I will sit and watch the reflections of my fire through the glass doors of the stove, listen to cars on the distant chip-seal highway, contemplate where in the woods each log in the wall has grown. I will scent the tar and oakum between the logs, the burnt ash of the stove and, as if I suddenly understand something, try to put my life into perspective. Again.
On April mornings, the strong northeast winds come scudding up the river to make my windows rattle and the stovepipes creak, toss pine boughs to make them whisper and turn silver in the sun. I will sit on the veranda steps and smoke, like old times. In April, before the run-off, the water is always low and ink-coloured with moving patches of black and little white crests riding the waves.
I will pick my way to the water between miniature icebergs melting to look like half-carved polar bears. There will be ice adrift and a dark blanket of clouds, but snow will be indifferent to the wind. Along the opposite shore, naked alders like pen strokes will emulate a woods black and silent beyond. I will smoke and huddle in the lee of rotting ice and tie a smelt streamer to the leader. And, as in a recurring dream, I will try to cast against the wind into the current, cast and strip so my streamer moves in spurts like a small fish in distress. I will cast as far as I can. The sour shore and budding leaf smells will be familiar, as will the voice of birds. This dream that resurfaces from past seasons is a journey inside, is this other river we call ours. And what is more truthful than a dream?
You see, the other river is the one the tourists use. These people drive the river roads in station wagons, elbows out the window, fishing rods slanting down the roofs. They are into a more transient river, more shallow, faster running, more strategic. We read their where-to-and-how-to in the outdoor magazines and raise an eyebrow. “Try the riffled hitch,” they write. “Cast a tight loop – up river – and mend.”
Sure, sure. Our own presentations are never just physical. Our river runs much deeper. Like most river people, my father has a mythical image of the home stream and he loves it, so that when he started outfitting in the 1950s, he said he felt like a prostitute. We are held in a bond by the river, tied by heartstrings in a marriage with an ecosystem. We are more in tune with the river and its creatures. But we share another stream in a sense, the river that is ever present inside us. While we never take the literal stream for granted and share in its protectiveness and indeed its defence, the river inside is more sacred. More than that, the moods of our river are so powerful in a sense they control our state of mind, a consciousness that comes of living with the river for generations.
We observe (almost without looking) the colours of the water brought on by the sky and how this translates into moods. I wish I could accurately describe the river dawns, the middays, and the sunsets, and what feelings they stir in us. We watch others, even tourists, whose feelings are more obvious and carry more truth at dawn, when that first tint of drab comes out of the night sky and makes the river orange, bringing with it the sounds of morning, reflecting a series of new horizons, new hope for us all. Birds sing, trees sigh and touch us with their sounds and scent, and we taste the coming day. We wonder if these things have anything to do with how we regard ourselves at this time, with an undistorted view, a self-analyzing look, and say Oh God, as if we were being reinstated once more to try it all again. The river has humbled us in this way. I wish I could tell you how the sun appears over the shadowy trees and climbs against a pale blue ceiling, turns the crystal water charcoal then black with the help of a subtle breeze. How this changes our feelings. And how this open sky and breeze carry us, sometimes aimlessly, to new hope, until our new-made plans of morning are trodden upon by complacency, overtaken by practicalities, only to resurface when the dawn breaks through again.
I wish I could explain how in the afternoons, when the colours of sky and water start to wane, and the sun makes ghosts of us all with its lengthening, kinked, twisted shadows, we sometimes sing our own praises in defence of who we are. We know we can’t really change who we are nor can we shake the ghosts of our past, which we know all too well, as everyone else on the river knows. This is the small price we pay for living here so long. But there are times when I feel a
real sense of comfort only here, with other river people.
So we defend each other and our reasons for being here; we are at home nowhere else. These feelings recur in our sons and daughters, the way they did in our grandparents and parents. It’s a generational, a genealogical pattern. The sun and water carry us along, until tired and weary at day’s end we commence an internal cleansing of despair and regrets. Like the river, we sometimes appear unsure of new direction. At evening we rationalize the fading away of morning dreams, our inability to make them real, and we replace them with a kind of ease; they have become frivolous.
When the sun has begun to set, and the lavenders and reds reflect the spectacular cloud formations upon the water once more, we are taken to our rest. We leave the country and river, let it close in behind us. The trees whisper evening sounds that forgive us our failed attempts to reach new goals. We are consoled by the trees, water and sky. The river is a sheet of moving steel, flowing between smoky green strips, its treetops a saw blade on the horizon. A jagged cloud points across the pink sky, turning the river pink, but silver where the water runs faster. Pink ducks fly in a wedge toward the sea, buttermilk and whipped cream form on the eddies, and a vapour trail forms behind a sunlit silver bullet beyond sound, on its way to Europe. Already there is a charcoal tint to the woods and gravel beach, and the old boat with its pole and gas can have become a silhouette. There is the hollow sound of a car on the distant highway. A chill comes over us. We savour the warmth stirred from old ashes. In a sense we are reliving past dawns, clinging to past sunsets like a child does a toy, just for the simple pleasures it brings.
A copper cloud rises, a Matterhorn-like fog to hold the reflection one minute longer. Windows blaze. We sit up and marvel at the beauty and think that if it happens again we will move with it but in a different way next time. If it all would just happen again, one more time. But we watch as the mountain turns into a blimp and drifts away. There are the desperate honks of a lost duck, smothered by the increasing sounds of water in the hollow air.
The sun drops behind trees that have darkened to black. The water has gone from pink to blue to lavender and is now a mirror reflecting a galaxy of stars. We retreat once more and watch as it runs on into the darkness, only to repeat itself in us again at dawn. These are subtleties and nothing more, the reflections of sky upon water, the moods the river stirs in us.
It has to do with who we are, and why we are here. We have become passionate about our river, the way true lovers are passionate about one another. After a while, the seasons blend and become one long season. Trees bud then blossom into tiny rabbit paws of hope. They grow white along black stems into veined and wrinkled palms that whisper in currents of breeze. They sigh, twist, and murmur in the gales of summer and eventually fall, when our bonfires smoulder in the comforting haze of autumn. The seasons of our lives have overlapped. The same different things come to us every year, and we share them in a sense. They have nothing to do with fish or fishing and everything to do with you and me.
Much of this river has been sold to foreign investors. They have deeds in office drawers in American and Swiss banks, and they pay taxes on riparian rights, which they come to fish in summertime. So many have come and gone through the years, and there are still more to come, seeking what dollars or francs can never really buy. How do you buy a river? A piece of paper in a foreign bank does not account for much, really. Not here. Foreigners have the ownership, but we have the river. We believe that no river can ever be claimed or owned by any man or woman. It would be like trying to buy a piece of sky – a spectacular cloud formation or a forlorn sunset – or to purchase a state of mind, a family member, or a long-sought lover without winning their heart. The river stays and flows among its own, its family. We have endured and survived here together, and no one becomes part of it in a single generation, or even two. We have been taught this by the river itself.
Since 1818 the river has leaked into my family’s bloodstreams like a virus and grown with us, around us, and through us, controlling, even haunting us. It has taken time. Old time, slow time. Our slow-moving river has become an ancient parent whose history flows not from ice ages or avalanches aeons ago, but from some holy sanctuary of stained glass. A mystical and storied ancestor, at times babbling and shallow, at times deep and moody, then frothing, and unforgiving. Always it has the same message, I love you all, I love you all. Her dominating presence demands a big part of us, perhaps because she is always receptive, possessing different healing powers.
This ol’ river keeps us sane, Father used to say. Whenever we are unsure of who we are and where we are going and are weary of life’s considerations, we head for the river. He has always spoken of the river like an old relative, in tones positive and a bit defensive. Old relatives rise to embrace and console their children. We feel this.
This is the same old river where the log drivers in their hobnailed boots cuffed the logs and sang the shanty songs that were unfit for women’s ears. To the tune of fiddlers they ran from log to log, my great-grandfathers and grandfathers among them, their faces bronzed from the sun, their long poles striking the water for balance. My father for much of his life was a lumberman, a guide, and an outfitter on this river. The same river where I took my first job guiding, the fall I quit school in 1960, then a natural thing to do. For us children the river was our ball park, golf course, paper route, movie house, and hockey rink. The river was something to admire and respect, like an ageing grandparent whose images I can still see: gaspereau nets hung on pickets or over beams in sheds to dry, dugout boats, salmon spears, and bolt-hook poles; scows and skiffs and prancing horses all in a stained glass sanctuary. I can hear the motorboats, a welcome sound of spring, the whooping fishermen, the hymns the old river still sings for all her children gone.
This is the same old river, the same old wind on autumn nights sing for my Great-Great-Aunt Bia Porter, drifting downstream in her coffin, her long black hair plaited and her face as white as
porcelain exposed to the sun, the dead baby in her arms, past home where my Great-Great-Uncle John Nutbeam’s horses trotted to the water’s edge and stood at attention to watch her pass. She had been John’s sweetheart; he deserted her and their baby. This is where Great-Grandfather David worked as a channel-finder for the river boat Andover on its Newcastle/Doaktown run. Grandfather Thomas was a log driver and a stunt-man, who practised handsprings on drifting logs. I can still hear him telling us how, one September night, he and Joe Smith, a poet, speared a wagonload of fish at the Salmon Hole to supply a lumber camp for the winter. They burned pitch wood in a wire crew pot, lighting up the water, attracting fish to within reach of the spear. Father worked the log drives, too, at Morse Brook, Black Brook, Cains River, and the Sabies where Uncle Jack Underwood was killed in April 1953 by a log that fell from a landing. They worked the great corporation drives down the main river each year at the end of May. In his own time, Father had seen the river change from a transportation route and food supply to a no-less-important river of recreation.
As a boy, I sat near the schoolhouse door and listened to freedom: blue jays crying in hawthorn trees, the kite-winds of spring, the sparkling river just beyond the rattling flagstaff and the maple leaf flapping its red-and-white nylon threads, luring me from David Copperfield and the War of 1812 until the door, partly open, was closed by the teacher. So many thorns. It seemed summers were longer then; there was more time, more wind, more voices, more river. In the fall of 1958, my brother Win and I jigged school and fished. We landed and my father salted a full barrel of salmon. Now I watch my sons doing abbreviated versions of the same things.
I think now of a time last June when my girlfriend Sally came to visit for a few days. She had a long and stressful drive from the city, and she was exhausted. We built a fire on the ground near the water and roasted trout and sipped wine, listened for the chuckle of loons. The sunset was filled with magic. The following morning we went beneath the hill in front of the camp and planted her flower garden, first thing. Sweet Williams, Black-eyed Susans, and Salvias. Then we put on our cut-offs, took packsacks and a lunch, and in Father’s old boat we drifted until the sun dropped into the horizon. There were long waving strands of eelgrass, while chubs and trout darted away from the boat. Also on the bottom were the long open-mouthed lamprey of June, some dead and some dying as they twisted and rolled on the slime-covered rocks of the eddies, or faced into the currents of the gravel salmon beds. We heard the splash of big fish. Later when the wind came up, we tied a blanket to the canoe pole to fashion a sail and drifted back upstream.
That evening in the cabin as we ate, we heard a frog peep. Then two. Then three. Until the swale was an unbroken litany. In harmony, a toad sang on the river. Wind pushed through the screens to blow out our candles. Sometime in the night during a lightning storm, we exchanged I love yous. It was a great day for so late in the season.
The next morning there was something cool in the wind. Early, when the fog was still on the river, Sally sat with her jaw cupped in her hands, elbows on her bony knees as she scribbled in her diary. Then she had a cup of tea, we embraced, and she was gone, back to her home at The Narrows on the river Saint John. She did not believe in long-running relationships. She had told me many times. I can still feel her rough voice in my ear, the silkiness of her hair, taste the flavour of her breath. She is anything but pretentious, Sally is. And she is a river lover, steadfast, eccentric, and like me not about to change. Now she has taken her place among others, perhaps to return someday in an old song, the rattle of a window, or the fleeting voices that whisper along an eavestroughing. Symbols of freedom, yes, but loneliness too, making it difficult for me to separate mind from matter, love from the illusion of love. Even now, especially now, there is a mystery in all of this that is yet to be solved.
So I’m closing up the books on summer now. I have marked this season of loving you with Os and Xs on my calendar. After so long, you have become the voice of conscience, tradition, and truth. It seems that everyone here is a part of everyone else. River men and river women are poignant, laid-back, lumbering souls with miseries of all kinds. Yet we have a great spirit and a unique love for life.
In the mirror a grey-bearded Zorba the Greek has replaced me. “Old clothes upon a stick to scare a crow,” as the poem goes. My tan is fading. Sunshine is fading. Dreams, river, voices in the wind, fading. I am hard of hearing now, hard of sight, hard of logic. And I have no new mythologies. So I sit and watch now as scattered rain drops dimple the river. There is a beaver swimming about with a branch in its teeth. I watch it for a long time. When it submerges, I just sit and watch the river.
My sons, Jeff, Jason, and Steven, who are now part-time river guides, will be coming home for the Thanksgiving weekend. I know they will be here. It is tradition. And they will bring their city girlfriends, tall and willowy young women who have already become my surrogate daughters. I never had a daughter of my own. Perhaps we will have a potluck meal here at Camp Oriole. For sure, on Sunday afternoon the family will get together for a happy hour and a feast at Grandfather’s old cabin, just next door to ours. Afterwards, we may take Father and Mother on a drive to the Cains, maybe pick a few wild apples from Great-Grandmother’s old trees. (We now use these for baking.) My parents will browse, as they always do, through Great-Grandmother Maggie Porter’s old rock cellar. It is hard to find now, and we use an elm tree for a marker because the cellar is really quite grown over with purple-stemmed raspberries, alders, and wild hawthorn trees.
As we talk and look for Gram’s currant bushes, we may spook a partridge or a moose bird. Once again Father will marvel and carry to the car some old relic of Gram’s. It could be a galvanized teapot with the bottom missing or possibly some pie-shaped pieces of an old dinner plate. Again we will try to piece all this together. Father says he can remember when the house was standing fine, dormant windows and veranda facing the river, and the flat was a field of oats. He and Mother will stand and shake their heads in wonder at what time has done here. Mother will tell us once again how Aunt Bia and her new baby died here, and for a brief moment we will be solemnly caught up in that day. But then we will go to look for cranberries in the old meadows, down where the barns used to be. Maybe some of us will have brought fishing rods and wander off to the river.
Analysis of “There Are Two Rivers Here”
The story above is a very fine example of Curtis’ mature style: the combination of remembrance and reverence set on a stretch of his beloved Miramichi River just below Blackville in central New Brunswick. If writers excel at one form above all others, then Curtis excels at the lyrical evocation of place. Also called the memoryscape, it is the form often associated with creative non-fiction, though not all creative non-fiction is set in the autobiographical past. Curtis’ best work is, and it reaches a pinnacle in stories like “There Are Two Rivers Here.”
To set his achievement in a regional context is to observe (without exaggeration) that in stories like this one Curtis is as good as the Ernest Buckler of Ox Bells and Fireflies and the Alistair MacLeod of The Lost Salt Gift of Blood. He is even as good as the Wallace Stegner of Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs. (Stegner was one of America’s greatest nature writers of the twentieth century.) That is exclusive company but Curtis’ best work admits him to it.
Certainly in New Brunswick there is no finer nature writer. Especially important is what stories such as “There Are Two Rivers Here” say about our New Brunswick place – and how they say it.
Considering first the how, Curtis employs a pure form of writing that is divorced from theory and heavy-handed motive. Yes, he does set out to describe what he loves most about his central New Brunswick home, but that motive is achieved without scorn for (or address to) those who stand outside his perspective. The sports and tourists from away who share his river are not ridiculed in the story, nor do the locals flaunt their great inheritance. Both groups, in their own way, benefit from what the river offers. There are, indeed, “two rivers here,” and both give to their patrons what each desires: “Foreigners have the ownership, but we have the river.” Divine grace, say the Catholic mystics, is apportioned according to capacities, with each person receiving what amounts to contentment. So it is with the river at the heart of Curtis’ story.
The more profound consideration, though, is what stories like this one say to New Brunswickers and Canadians. And it is in thinking about this that we are able to observe Curtis’ development from the first two stories above. In “The Game,” the young narrator is isolated in place, taking more refuge than solace in his New Brunswick home. “September Morning” casts that refuge as limitation and personal sacrifice. There are no such compromises or restrictions in “There Are Two Rivers Here.” Rather, the home place is adorned with richness, its natural abundance a gift that the family at the centre of the story refashions into a generational identity. This is a story of inheritance, a story that tales of limitation and backwardness doesn’t tell. River is fraternity: “This ol’ river keeps us sane, Father used to say. Whenever we are unsure of who we are and where we are going and are weary of life’s considerations, we head for the river. He has always spoken of the river like an old relative, in tones positive and a bit defensive. Old relatives rise to embrace and console their children. We feel this.”
So splendid is that inheritance that Curtis wants to share it with outsiders, wishing that he could tell us “how the sun appears over the shadowy trees and climbs against a pale blue ceiling, turns the crystal water charcoal then black with the help of a subtle breeze.”
Holder of history, lineage, family secrets, ghosts and voices, the river becomes a sacred space where the ordinary is elevated to the spiritual: “Our slow-moving river has become an ancient parent whose history flows not from ice ages or avalanches aeons ago, but from some holy sanctuary of stained glass. A mystical and storied ancestor, at times babbling and shallow, at times deep and moody, then frothing, and unforgiving. Always it has the same message, I love you all, I love you all.”
What a magnificent inheritance it is, “sing[ing] for all her children gone.” And how true the experience will be for New Brunswick readers, who, despite hearing the endless stories of backwardness and deficits and liabilities, still go down to the rivers and into the woods of their province when they “are unsure of who [they] are and where [they] are going and are weary of life’s considerations.” As a people still living close to the land, we are indeed “consoled by the trees, water and sky.”
Curtis’ story, then, is importantly restorative. It speaks of place as inheritance, not burden, and of New Brunswickers entering into compacts of deep knowing with their own provincial places. “We have become passionate about our river,” he writes, “the way true lovers are passionate about one another.” Woe to those who try to commercialize that inheritance for financial gain. Like Curtis, our love and protection of place is fierce because what we hold dear is “never just physical”; rather, what we love “runs much deeper.” What we love is what has been entrusted to us. The rest, as poet Ezra Pound wrote, “is dross.”
For Curtis it is the river, the place where “the motorboat-wrinkled water sparkles in the sun” and where “[a] jagged cloud points across the pink sky, turning the river pink, but silver where the water runs faster. Pink ducks fly in a wedge toward the sea, buttermilk and whipped cream form on the eddies, and a vapour trail forms behind a sunlit silver bullet beyond sound, on its way to Europe.”
What is the lesson here? It is manifold. First, that close observation and rootedness lead to a deep and reverential knowing. Second, that our natural inheritance is the envy of the urban world, the world, ironically, that has always attempted to monetize and quantify what has been passed down to us as “sons and daughters of the river [and province].” And, finally, that underestimating our love of that inheritance, or our resolve to resist the stories that diminish it, is a fool’s game. In a pure and highly lyrical prose, Curtis has crafted a sophisticated political statement about the province and heritage he holds dear. We, too, are “the sons and daughters of the river” he describes, and we will protect that heritage against all comers.
► Curtis’ fiction is different in kind from much of the work we have encountered that is set on or near the Miramichi. For example, though his work is set close to Raymond Fraser’s Chatham and Douglas Lochhead’s Tantramar, it describes a very different place. In fact, readers who do not know that each was a New Brunswick writer will be surprised to learn that all are writing about the same province. Curtis’ work, then, reveals many of its true features and intentions when compared to the proximate work of others. First, it is instructive to compare what critics have called Curtis’ social “romance” with Fraser’s social “realism.” Which attitude or disposition more accurately captures the essence of the Miramichi? Or, if that question is too fatuous, what does each depiction of place reveal about the attitudes of its writer? Similarly, what does Curtis share, and how does he differ, from the Tantramar poets? His social romance is clearly more in line with the eco-poetics of the Tantramar group, but its address and audience differs. What accounts for that difference?
► The New Brunswick writer closest to Curtis in expressing moods of lamentation and loss is Elizabeth Brewster (see Confessional Humanism). Her memories and representations of place seem especially aligned with his. Returning to Elizabeth Brewster’s work at this point will enhance the understanding of her work (and his) and will highlight the important role that memory plays in identity and preservation. Brewster’s poems “Where I Come From,” “River Song,” and “Atlantic Development” are starting points for such a comparison, and reveal much when compared with Curtis’ “There Are Two Rivers Here.”
► Finally, it is worth thinking about “the political” in Curtis, Fraser, Brewster, and the Tantramar poets. In as much as all writing is political in the sense that writers want to bring attention and cause to their subject matter, how does the subject matter of these writers spur the political? How is the political nuanced in Fraser’s social realism as opposed to Curtis’ social romance? Is the political impact of Curtis’ work lessened or heightened because of its more pleasant nostalgias, and lessened or heightened because of Fraser’s blunt and grim truths?
Strategy 1: Temporal Framing (“The Game”)
Ask students to imagine that, rather than beginning in New Brunswick, “The Game” started with the line “I wanted to change into clean clothes before the game so I headed down the corridor to search for a men’s room.” What would be lost? What makes the journey to Montreal essential to this story? Now, ask students to imagine that the story is told by the child currently experiencing the events, or having recently experienced them. Would the story be more or less terrifying? And, again, what would be lost? Why does Curtis write from the perspective of a man looking a long way back? This discussion may be followed by a creative writing activity, either generating a new story, or reworking a story the students wrote earlier in terms of framing or perspective.
Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:
- Reading and Viewing: Make informed personal responses to increasingly challenging print and media texts and reflect on their responses
Strategy 2: Smells and Memory (“The Game”)
Smells are the sense most closely tied to memory, in particular strong emotional memories. It is probable that students have had the experience of a smell triggering a vivid flashback to a past experience and/or place. Ask students to read a popular science article on the links between smell and memory, or smell and PTSD (a variety can be easily found online). Then, ask them to return to this story, considering how scent heightens our immersion in the events of the narrative. (The links between the smell of arena hotdogs [or lemons] and the emotional vulnerability of the child should be easy to detect for most students.)
Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:
- Reading and Viewing: Use the electronic network and other sources of information in ways characterized by complexity of purpose, procedure or subject matter
Strategy 3: Compare with Fred Cogswell (“September Morning”)
Have students contrast the dynamics of the relationship portrayed in Curtis’ story with the partnership/symbiosis described in Cogswell’s poem “Like Two Slant Trees” (see Modernism and the Fredericton Ferment). Have students discuss what is the more loving act: 1) drawing one’s partner close and remaining in the same locale, even if it erodes that partner’s independence, or 2) encouraging one’s partner to pursue individual opportunities elsewhere, even if it destroys the relationship? How does “New Brunswick” as locale figure in this discussion? Are there places in New Brunswick where the drama played out in Curtis’ “September Morning” would not be an issue, or is individual opportunity for New Brunswickers synonymous with “going West”? Such a discussion will likely resonate with secondary school students who may be newly exploring what it means to be in a relationship, and may be facing upcoming decisions about post-high school jobs and education that will take them elsewhere.
Extension: Ask students to consider how this story would read differently if it were set in Toronto. Is leaving a rural setting for an urban one, then returning, a different act than leaving an urban setting for a rural one, then returning? Which, in the students’ estimation, changes a person more? Which most affects one’s place in a community, and one’s connection with loved ones? Can they think of examples of departure and return, either from their own experience or from films/TV/other media? This presents a good opportunity to revisit Charles G.D. Roberts’ poem “The Tantramar Revisited” (see Confederation Poets) and A.G. Bailey’s poem “Here in the East” (see Modernism and the Fredericton Ferment).
Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:
- Speaking and Listening: Articulate, advocate, and justify positions on an issue or text in a convincing manner, showing an understanding of a range of viewpoints
Strategy 4: Compare with Douglas Lochhead (“September Morning”)
The following excerpt from “September Morning” is particularly evocative of the work of the Tantramar poets: “And I realize, only now, that I do not have the senses keen enough to see and feel the whole picture in the way of the raven and the squirrel. But of course I love it just as much.” Ask students to read those lines alongside Lochhead’s poem “Not Mine” (see The Tantramar Revisited), considering how the excerpt and the poem relate to and clarify the other. Consider, as well, how each writer constructs an animal or natural consciousness that is outside human experience and cognition. What is the effect of that construction? Does it diminish the human, and, if so, what are the implications of that diminishment?
Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:
- Reading and Viewing: Articulate and justify points of view about texts and text elements
Strategy 5: Literature and Identity (“There Are Two Rivers Here”)
In this story, Curtis describes how invisible webs of connections, fused through a history of relationships and shared stories, are far more significant and durable than the flimsy paper of deeds and cash. Whether students have visited the Miramichi or not, they are drawn into the narrator’s web of connections by reading this story – and drawn into Curtis’ version of the river. Readers become part of his “we.” Close reading of this piece of creative non-fiction will inevitably lead to a broader discussion of the relationship between literature and identity. Ask, for example, how Curtis declares and constructs an identity, starting with the title of his piece. Likewise, how does our own identity grow or shift through reading this piece? Segue into a larger discussion of the significance of literature to a culture (think, Acadians), and why debates about the composition of curricula and anthologies – in other words, the “canon” – is so personal and politically charged. When people choose texts that are said to be “representative” of a place or a tradition, what are they really doing, and what should they be especially careful about?
Extension 1: Ask students to contrast Curtis’ deeply embedded insights about his home place with the visitor’s perspective (superficial and limited) of early New Brunswick poet Adam Allan in “Grand Falls” (see Pre-Confederation Writers and Poets). Though these two works are set in different parts of the province, comparing them illustrates the relationship between grounded knowledge and a mature literature of place.
Extension 2: Ask students to locate and then skim a tourist guide for out-of-province visitors to New Brunswick. What is the level of discourse and place-based knowledge they encounter, and which statements and suggestions do they find particularly troublesome, accurate, misleading?
Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:
- Reading and Viewing: Make informed personal responses to increasingly challenging print and media texts and reflect on their responses
Kitts, Colleen. “High School Drop Out Makes Good: Wayne Curtis Has Nine Books to His Credit – And Now a Doctor of Letters.” Telegraph-Journal [Saint John, NB] 4 June 2005.
Murray, George. “Miramichi River Stories Awash with Nostalgia.” The Globe & Mail 23 Sept. 2000: D18.
Nowlan, Michael. “Author Wayne Curtis Writes Another Fine Collection of Stories.” The Daily Gleaner [Fredericton, NB] 24 Sept. 2005: n.p.
Tremblay, Tony. “Tending the Family Tree.” Review of Last Stand, by Wayne Curtis. The New Brunswick Reader 6.42 (23 October 1999): 24.
For much more detailed primary and secondary source bibliographies of Curtis, see his New Brunswick Literary Encyclopedia entry.
We gratefully acknowledge the generosity of Wayne Curtis for allowing us to use the stories above for this curriculum. Further use or distribution of these stories, however, is a violation of Canadian copyright law and is strictly prohibited. Under no circumstance may literary material used in the curriculum be reproduced, distributed, or stored without the permission of the copyright holder.
“The Game” appears in Curtis’ Preferred Lies. Halifax: Nimbus, 1998. “September Morning” and “There Are Two Rivers Here” appear in Curtis’ River Stories. Halifax: Nimbus, 2000.
All contents except for poetry and fiction copyright © Tony Tremblay, James W. Johnson, and Alexandra Cogswell.