Happy World Book Day!

Happy World Book Day! Take time to read a book, or share a book with someone important to you.
In honour of World Book Day, I’m re-posting a story that first appeared on my blog in June, 2014: The Dream of the Tree. You can also find it and other stories in Fractured and Other Fairy Tales on Amazon. Enjoy, and happy reading!

Once there was a man who had a dream that ruined his life. In the dream, he was walking across a vast country. He was not just walking—he was striding. He was striding with seven-league steps so that the ground beneath him and about him blurred and shimmered. He passed through forests, over great plains of grass, and through the gaps between mountains. He strode on until he saw a mountain rising up before him. It was a mountain as he had never seen a mountain before. It went up and up, climbing higher and higher until it was lost in the sky.
He paused at the foot of the mountain and looked up. There was only one thing to do. He began to climb.
He went up and up, stepping over streams, across wide meadows, and over stands of trees. He went on until he came to the end of the trees, where there was only rock. He kept climbing.
This mountain, he thought, was surely the highest mountain in the world. He climbed and climbed.
Finally, after what seemed a year and a day, the man arrived at the top of the mountain. Across a great plain, the man could see a tree. It was surely the tallest tree he had ever imagined. It went up and up until, impossibly far overhead, the tree spread its branches.
The man walked across the plain toward the foot of the immense tree. As he did, his seven-league strides kicked up swirls of leaves. There were countless numbers of them, and as he caught one of the leaves, he realized that each leaf held a story, or a fragment of a story.
He caught leaf after leaf. He read snatches of stories about people who lived and died and who fought tremendous battles. He read stories of boys and girls, stories of men and women who wandered far, searching for love, for revenge, and for treasure. He read snatches of stories about patience and greed and the longing that goes with lost love, friendship, and family.
The man looked up to the great tree. “This must be the tree where all stories come from,” he said aloud to himself.
He hurried forward to the trunk of the massive tree that rose up like a wall before him. Reaching out a hand, he touched the trunk of the great tree. For one, indefinable moment, he had a glimpse of the ongoing story of the world, from its beginning in the depths of space and time to its conclusion at the end of all things…
And then he woke. The cry that escaped his lips in that moment was a cry of grief and loss. The man had glimpsed for one instant the story of the world, and as he sobbed aloud in the gray morning, the dream began to fade.
Later that day, the man sold his house and everything he owned. He took the money from the sale of all of his belongings, and he wrapped it in a handkerchief with a loaf of bread. He left the home where he had lived all of his life and took to the road. He told himself that he was going to find that tree, even if he had to search to the ends of the earth, for he wanted just one more glimpse into that story.
And so he did. He wandered far and met many people, and to whomever would listen, he would tell what he could remember of that story and the fragments he read on the leaves. Many people thought him mad, and others just thought him a storyteller. Some were glad of his stories, but many were not, for in everyone he met, he planted a seed of that longing for the story he glimpsed when he touched the tree in his dream.

Spring Walking, Spring Reading

As the days get longer, and the university term winds down, I find myself walking more and more. These days, I’m stress walking. It’s the kind of walking I do in the spring to help me recover from the year at the university. My average is ten to twelve kilometres a day—or so my IPhone tells me. That’s enough to help me sleep at night.
Apart from the stress, spring is the best time of year to walk in Edmonton. The days become longer and longer, while the geese, robins, and crows fill the evening air with a sound like longing.
The end of term is a transitional period—a stepping out of one thing and into another. It’s also that time of year in which we, who choose to live in these northern climes, embrace our seasonal amnesia and forget the six months of winter we’ve just left behind. We see the detritus of winter littering the ground, the dull nakedness of trees, the brownness of fields, and we think it’s spring. And every year it snows in late March, April, or May, just as it did this passed Easter weekend. But do we care? No, because the sun will shine and the snow will melt and soon the world will explode in a profusion of green.
In the meantime, I walk; I walk, and I read. I have to manage myself in these transitional periods. If I don’t, I will fall on my face from exhaustion as soon as the marking is done and the grades are posted. Reading and rereading is one way I manage myself. As I’m walking this spring, here are some of the books I’m reading.

Station Eleven
By Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven was the MacEwan book of the year for 2016-17. I read the book for that reason, but I also love dystopian fiction—and this one is by a Canadian. And, I was able to hear St. John Mandel read at MacEwan this past March.

The Handmaid’s Tale
By Margaret Atwood

And speaking of dystopian fiction written by a Canadian, I’m finally reading The Handmaid’s Tale. I’m not a big Atwood fan, and I had trouble getting through Oryx and Crake, the first book in her MaddAddam trilogy. However, I’m determined to read this book. I have a softer spot for Atwood after seeing her very disarming and personal talk at last year’s Kreisel Lecture in Edmonton.

Great Schools of Dune Series
Sisterhood of Dune
Mentats of Dune
Navigators of Dune
By Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson

Herbert and Anderson continue their stories in the Dune saga, created by Frank Herbert. None of the books by Brian Herbert and Kevin Anderson match the books in the original series, but if you want to immerse yourself in a science fiction universe, this is one place to do it.

The Underland Chronicles
By Susanne Collins

Before she wrote The Hunger Games, Collins wrote The Underland Chronicles, five books about Gregor and his adventures in the underworld that lies deep below New York city. This is a lost civilization series, populated with giant bats, cockroaches, and rats, all in a battle for control of the Underland. Great coming of age stuff.

Warriors of the Storm
By Bernard Cornwell

Cornwell’s Saxon Chronicles are set in the Britain of Alfred the Great, and each one is a wild ride—battles, horses, long boats, Northmen, and a mostly corrupt Christian church, all narrated by Uhtred of Bebbenburg. This is the ninth book in the series, and I’ve loved them all. Again, if you want to lose yourself in another world, and another time, check out this series.

Happy spring, and happy reading!

On the Tracks

My brother, who is always a source for bits of news, told me the other night about a visually impaired man who fell onto the tracks of the SkyTrain in Vancouver. Fortunately, some quick-acting students were there to help the gentleman out of the tracks—just as the train was pulling in. You can read more of the story here.
For blind and visually impaired people, navigating public transit can be tricky—and sometimes just bloody dangerous. Buses are one thing: you wait, bus pulls into the stop, and you get on. Trains are different. For one, it’s a train. Trains don’t stop as quickly as buses, and you have to wait on a platform next to a four and a half foot drop into the tracks. If you can’t see, it’s hazardous.
In 2010, I was coming home by train on a snowy evening at the beginning of January. I got off the train at the South Campus station, which had opened the previous spring. I stepped off the train, turned left instead of right, and headed down the platform to get the bus.
My mistake was turning the wrong way after getting off the train. The platform was covered with almost an inch of snow. They hadn’t yet had a chance to clear it.
I was heading for what I thought was the steps to take me down and out of the station. Instead, I walked straight off the platform and fell onto the tracks.
My initial response, lying there on the tracks on my side, was having no idea what had just happened. It wasn’t until I reached out and grabbed one of the rails with a gloved hand that I understood. That’s when I started to hurt and knew I had to get off the tracks.
The track-bed isn’t especially deep—until you’re standing in it. Try scrambling up onto a platform, slippery with new-fallen snow and level with your chest, while you are in shock and can’t breathe because you’ve just had the wind knocked out of you.
Fortunately, someone spotted me. A man ran over, and soon two people were hauling me up onto the platform. Other people came, and I was helped to my feet and onboard the train while the driver called for an ambulance. A slightly scared and completely sincere eight-year-old boy tried to comfort me while we waited for the paramedics. He insisted his grandpa would help fix my cane, which had gotten bent in the fall. The paramedics arrived, announced me injured but more or less intact, and gave me the choice of going home or to the hospital. Given the choice, I went home. They drove me the seven minutes back to my house, and I was never so glad to reach my own front door.
I fractured two ribs in that fall, and it took me all of eight weeks to recover. It wasn’t until February that I started taking the train once again—more carefully, as you can imagine.
I’ve gotten myself into all sorts of situations over the years, but rarely have I felt so helpless and in need of assistance. Strangers helping strangers is a powerful thing, and I’ve always been grateful to those people who helped me out on that snowy evening in January, especially that little boy, who understood the importance of helping out, and did his best to give me the comfort and reassurance he could.

Revisiting Beuty and the Beast

With all the fervor around Disney’s latest live action classic, Beauty and the Beast, starring Emma Watson, it seems fitting to revisit my experience of this story. And yes, before it was a Disney animated “classic” in 1991, it was a story by Madam Prince de Beaumont, first published in English in 1783.
Years ago, I went to Beauty and the Beast, The Musical, with my kid’s. We were sitting close to the front, and Belle entered from stage-right. As the actor started singing, I had a horrifying moment as I thought they had dubbed the voice of the Disney Belle in for the actor’s voice. Just as quickly, I realized it was actually the actor. That stopped me muttering to my daughter, for there was Belle, come to life on a stage in Edmonton. She was amazing. None of us has ever forgotten that performance of Beauty and the Beast.
I’ve watched the film many times over the years. I’ve taught the story in conjunction with the film in my folktale classes, and I’ve often thought it the best animated feature Disney has ever produced. I may be a fan, but I’m also a teacher. I remind my students what happens in this story and this film—details easy to forget if you approach either just as an enthusiast.
Remember, the prince in this story is under a curse. In de Beaumont’s story, it’s a wicked fairy who curses the prince, but in the Disney film, the prince mistreats an old woman who comes to the castle in a storm. In the language of folktales, which Disney understands, being nasty to strangers is always bad news.
The Prince, now the Beast, imprisons another stranger, this time the merchant, for plucking a rose. He makes a deal with the merchant—the merchant’s life for one of his daughters. The merchant isn’t stupid enough to agree to such a thing, but he wants to say farewell to his children before he is killed by the Beast. But Beauty, Belle in the Disney film, comes to the rescue. She willingly agrees to become a prisoner so the Beast will spare her father’s life.
Disney, even more than de Beaumont, turns this story into one of burgeoning love, but it’s hard to get around the fact that Beauty, or Belle, is the prisoner of a selfish, cruel, and monstrous beast. Is the story, not to mention the film, simply romanticizing the abuse and incarceration of women?
Because I have daughters, and because I can’t help, in part, reading the story through a modern lens, I wonder how the story would go if Beauty wasn’t so willing to sacrifice herself. How’s this?
***
Beauty, or Belle, now aware of her father’s predicament, decides to act. She goes into her father’s study, where she takes his hunting rifle from where it hangs on the wall. She dresses for travel, saddles her horse, and rides away to the Beast’s castle, the rifle under her arm. When the Beast appears at the castle gates to take possession of Beauty in exchange for her father’s life, Beauty shoots him. End of story.
***
This would never work—I realize that. For one, such a fractured retelling overlooks the gradual transformation of the Beast’s character, but even more it misunderstands the fundamental nature of the story. “Beauty and the Beast” is a fairy tale, and it has many antecedents. The story, “Cupid and Psyche” is probably the oldest form of this tale, while Asbjornsen and Moe tell a similar story in “East of the Sun and West of the Moon.”
These are stories of transformation, of monstrous male power that needs taming. It’s up to a young woman to take control and humanize the beast/lover. Humanizing the male monster through love, compassion, and suffering is the way for the fairy tale to resolve imbalances and return the world to a state of equilibrium. But even in the world of folktales, it’s not always possible to humanize the male monster. And everyone who goes to see Disney’s new live-action Beauty and the Beast should bear this in mind. Just ask the young woman who married that Blue Beard fella.