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The following is a great exchange I had recently with engaging author Dorothy Ellen Palmer about her debut novel, When Fenelon Falls, as well as some other general questions about  literature.

JO: Humour mixed with profound sadness and loneliness mark this book in so many ways. Can you speak to the intersections between humour and despair in your writing?

DEP: My favourite line on this subject comes from the world’s greatest despairing humourist, George Bernard Shaw, who said:  “When a thing is funny, search it carefully for a hidden truth.”  I’ve always seen Shaw as standing on the shoulders of Dickens, who used humour in a similar social-satirical fashion and I found myself thinking a great deal about both Shaw and Dickens when writing my novel. I’ve always admired the way they looked at the saddest and most troubling of aspects of their times and wrote with a humanity and humour that went beyond description. They abjured the currently-all-too-popular stance of writer as neutral witness. They took sides; they saw the writer in despairing times as involved social advocate, posed questions and demanded answers.

Secondly, as an Improv comedy coach, I’ve seen countless moments on stage where teenagers advocate for an understanding of their world by turning the sadness and loneliness of their lives into scenes that leave an adult audience breathless from laughter, where the tears in adult eyes are a mixture of hilarity, compassion, empathy, and remembered pain. A truly good Improv show leaves an audience smiling and thinking.

So I’m honoured if When Fenelon Falls is seen as both funny and serious, and what I call “seriously funny,” because I’d aimed for all three. At fourteen, Jordan May March is profoundly isolated by adoption, by disability, by being far too smart for her age or her own good, but she is also a total ham, a lover of practical jokes, puns, wit, and all manner of silly stuff. When she blends the two, when she uses one to shed light on the other, she is at her best. Loss is her motivation–for despair, for humour and for change. I don’t see humour and despair as two separate lines that occasionally intersect, but as two layers of meaning that get woven and quilted together in the novel, hopefully to produce something that ceases to be merely one or the other but is always both.

JO: What kind of research did you do on the historical Fenelon(s) during the writing process of When Fenelon Falls?

DEP: As someone with a B.A. in history I should never admit this: very little. I Googled both of the Fenelon brothers—one being the Fenelon Falls namesake, the French explorer who in 1769 canoed through the Kawarthas and his younger brother who was a religious revisionist centuries ahead of his time, arguing for the right to a personal god. Their split between lives of the mind or the body, or between brains and brawn, is duplicated many times in my novel in Bullwinkle and Rocky, Sherman and Peabody, Watson and Holmes and the un-named narrator brother and Jordan.

I expected to do more research for the 1969 plot line, but discovered to my amazement that whenever I looked at a CHUM chart from that summer and started singing the songs in my head, it was as if I’d jumped into the WAYBAC machine with Sherman and Dr. Peabody. I instantly returned to my own fourteenth summer, to all the news, sights, sounds, colours, fashions, celebrities, controversies, triumphs and tragedies of the day.

For the secondary plotline, the 100 Hazel Stories that Jordan writes to imagine and re-imagine her own creation stories in the havoc of Hurricane Hazel in October 1954, I did quite a bit of “lazy research.” I browsed. I thumbed through old magazines, especially women’s magazines, looked at 50’s photos of fashions, cars, and nostalgic old photos of the CNE. I went and sat on my rock in Marie Curtis Park in Alderwood, the spot where Hazel destroyed a trailer park and wondered what it had been like to live through such devastation. Two books I read carefully were Betty Kennedy’s 1979 journalistic Hurricane Hazel and Jim Gifford’s anecdotal Hurricane Hazel: Storm of the Century. The boat on the cover of his book inspired the boat in mine that gets rowed down Lake Shore Blvd. to rescue two of Jordan’s imagined parents, Hazel and Angus.

The Hazel stories are based on the only birth document I own, one released by the Children’s Aid aptly called Non-Identifying Information. To imagine my birth mother, an unstable 1950’s farm girl, I used memories of visiting farms around London. She comes to work in the big city of Toronto, so I went back to the CNE and wandered the Horse Palace. She is given electroshock, so I drove my car down Lake Shore where I used to drive my bike, to what was then called the Mimico Insane Asylum and is now Humber College. Like many first novels, my book reflects much of my life so far.

JO: Postwar Toronto experienced tremendous change to its built environment, & ethnic and ‘racial’ make-ups. How did you choose to address this in the novel?

DEP: Identity and racism are pressing topics for adoptees, who likewise face prejudice based on circumstances of birth and background. Up north, the March family lives in an isolated cottage compound bound by Balsam Lake and a swamp. They’ve made a nodding separate peace with local farmers, but resist even the smallest of physical changes to their compound. Five minutes down March road, however, lands them not just outside a bear in a cage, but in Yanker-Wanker land, infested with American tourists and Trenters, lower class trailer park residents, neither locals nor cottagers and despised by both. Neither resident nor tourist, Jordan and her family sit betwixt and between

If the cottage is barricaded against change, Toronto is not. Jordan lives in a tiny war house in Alderwood, originally settled by Scot-English families like hers, but which in the 1960’s began to be flooded by Italians moving a few blocks north from Mimico. In the endemic racism of the day, her family is superficially polite, but privately sees their new neighbours as stupid, and dirty and unapologetically calls them “Wops.”

Greatly respecting Paulo Freier’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, I tried to incorporate his concept whereby one oppressed group–Jordan and her lower-middle class family–will try to try bring themselves closer to the Anglo upper-middle class centre of power by turning on, and pushing themselves away from, all other oppressed groups. Jordan’s family does this and she and her brother mimic it, only feeling the shame of knowing better later in adult hindsight. As a bastard, fearing that her family thinks she has more in common with Wops and Trenters than with the rest of March, Jordan works very hard to disassociate herself from these lower status groups. But she is separated again by being too quick mentally and too slow physically, thanks to disabled feet in corrective shoes. She can never belong unless all of March changes its protectionist and prejudiced ways.

JO: Bastardy is a key theme in When Fenelon Falls. Can you discuss the concept of bastardy as oppression?

DEP: Well, how long do you have? And how much of the political cage do you want me to crack open? I freely admit that my novel was informed by years of working in my union and school board against other oppressions, against racism, bullying, sexual harassment and homophobia. My analysis was always as two things: as an adult adoptee and as a disabled woman with a disability so slight she Almost fit in the walking world.

When Jordan tries to get her brother to understand her experience, she makes many analogies between racism and what she calls “bastardism.” She sees it as systemic, gives many examples of how it is built right into everything–language, children’s stories, television and books. She also sees it as “a casual brutality.” She knows her brother doesn’t see the brutality of it because he belongs to the privileged group “to the bloodline born,” and thus never has to think about how painful it is to hear what you are, a bastard, being used as a daily swear word. But because she is fourteen in 1969, her analysis is uneven and combined. Thanks to her hero Dr. King, she would never use the word “nigger,” but at the same time still unthinkingly uses the words “retard,” and “wop.”

She does make some connections to history. Because the civil rights movement and WWII are very present to her, since her father and all her uncles were soldiers, she makes comparisons to slavery and the holocaust. She sees Canada’s abused Home Children and Bernardo Boys, orphans sent to Canada after the war, as an adoption holocaust, as thousands being torn from their families, for no other reason than the origins of their birth, and shipped against their will off to work and to suffer and to die in a foreign land.

I know that many readers will react to all of that much like Jordan’s doubting-Thomas brother–with alternating, disbelief, ridicule, scorn, outrage, and moments where it suddenly and surprisingly makes sense. That’s fine. All those who speak out about any oppression face a mixed public reaction. I’m not trying to set up a contest or scale of oppression. I’m simply saying that addressing adopted oppression may help us to better connect and explore the intersections and inter-weavings of oppressions. After years of work in the adoption rights movement, I’ve started to see something new being born, that there is becoming such as a collective culture of bastardy, not just individuals who face bastardism alone, but a bastard community with proudly “out” identities as bastard human beings. Check out www.bastardnation.com It makes Jordan sound tame.

JO: You discuss compliance and culpability in the book’s closing chapters. What do you hope that readers take away from your novel?

DEP: There are already so many books, folk tales, legends, fairy tales and myths about adoption, why do we need another one? We need one from a modern perspective, post WWII, post the pill, post Roe vs. Wade. One that does not sentimentalize and sugarcoat the experience.  Anne of Green Gables is for children. Quite frankly, there are too many damaged children who became damaged adults and too many dead children who never became adults, not to ask the narrator’s seminal question: “Who’s to blame?”  Just as tourists, locals and cottagers were all culpable in forcing Yogi into an Almost life in a cage of their making, it takes a village to shame a child. Yogi and Jordan are never going to get out of cages, but now at least they have the reader’s informed company.

I know my last two chapters are the most controversial in both structure and content. Brother is a teacher who takes teaching seriously. His final review asks the reader to do some metacognition, to see that they are the cage. He knows they’ll be tested by how they react to the next cage they encounter in real life. If that’s didactic and even a little preachy, Jordan and Yogi have earned the right to their own angry conclusions. And just as they are never going to get a single straight answer about their origins, the reader is going to have deal with the same Almost uncertainty as to what can be trusted to be true. With no one to ask and no one to tell, that unknowable ambivalence is at the heart of Almost. As Jordan would say, “Welcome to the clan.”

So what I want readers to take away from my novel is what I think Dickens and Shaw wanted. I want them to ponder their relationship to what they have read, to ask what they can do about it. I completely reject the notion that a book isn’t a political tool for change. Thoughtful books are incendiary. Just ask all the writers that would have been sitting in the empty chairs at the International Festival of Authors if they weren’t in jail. In Canada, our historic too-politeness and the currently fashionable disconnect between novelists and overtly-espoused politics, are ironically both positions of privilege won on the backs of those writers who spoke out in the first place. I’ll happily stand with them.

JO: What, if any time do you spend in and around the Kawartha Lakes now? What are your main childhood recollections of it?

DEP: I love that area and always will. I did all the things that Jordan and brother do in the book: swam, canoed, fished, caught frogs, hunted for pop bottles, and climbed my cousins’ tree house. Last summer, I took myself up to a trailer park just outside of Fenelon Falls to do my final revisions. Kawartha cottages fill me with nostalgia and the awareness that it is a threatened way of life. Today’s cottages are big-business display homes. The days of hand-constructed cabins and roughing it in outhouses are gone. Some of our resilience and identity as northerners has likewise been paved and tamed and lost.

JO: As a mature writer, how challenging was it for you to adopt the voice of a fourteen-year-old girl? Does the ‘inner-child’ ever leave us?

DEP: As a teacher of adolescents for all of my working life, I often think it is much harder for me to sound like a grown up! In the acknowledgements, I thanked my over 3000 students for helping me to remember Jordan as I got old enough to understand her. As a teacher, I truly believe that the inner child must be respected, sought and nourished.

JO: Dorothy, what is one book that you would love to read, but have not been able to so far? Would this be an extensive list if I asked for more? Are there some contemporary CanLit writers that you enjoy reading and why do you find their work meaningful?

DEP: I honestly fear this kind of question more than any other, isn’t that silly? As an ordinary person, I could always spout long lists of what I would recommend and what wanted to read next, but now as a first time author I feel like I’m being asked to give a professional endorsement and also being judged by what I read or haven’t read.

So I’ll say what I’ve said before. I’m deplorably fickle—I like whatever I’m reading at the moment. Like my taste in music, I enjoy individual books or songs rather than everything by an artist or author. I also read rather indiscriminately beyond literature. So off the top of my head in no particular order, are some authors I appreciate for various reasons: Anne-Marie MacDonald, Alyssa York, Elizabeth Kostova, Lionel Shriver, Selden Edwards, Michael Cox, John Irving, Iain Pears, Wally Lamb, Diana Gabaldon, Margaret Atwood, Laurie R. King, Alice Munro, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Audrey Niffenegger, Ian Brown, Thomas Wolfe and Diane Setterfield.

JO: Would you care to share some of your current projects with us? Can we expect another novel in the not too distant future?

DEP: To be honest, the prospect of Book Two scares the pants off me. I have several ideas I’ve started to work on, but none of them has yet to make me love them enough to commit several years of my life to build a new relationship with them. Eventually, I know I want to write a comic novel about an Improv team, an historical novel based on my recently discovered birth family’s family tree, and a novel about a school shooting. The problem is right now I’m writing all three at the same time. Hopefully soon, one will get loud enough to be demand to he heard first.

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