THE CANOE's drydocked, the screens down, the shutters up. The last sand's swept from the porch, and now mosquitoes are only an itchy memory.
With localized variations, sequences such as this have just been enacted across the United States and Canada. What set them in motion - a summer stay at a cottage, farm, cabin, or camp - is the topic of Amy Willard Cross's The Summer House.
People do want to get away to ostensibly -sometimes ostentatiously - simpler, natural, and more informal surroundings. Come summer, what they desire with a terrible appetite is a mud-daub hut, a spruce-limb lean-to, a bat cave - anything, so long as it fronts field, forest, or water. Bought, rented, leased, borrowed, bartered for, broken into is immaterial. City-sufferers invite themselves to camp with strangers, pawn heirlooms for key money, plot weekends with blood enemies. Get out before it's too late!
Cram the canoes and crumpled sails on the roof-racks. Accompanied by screeching cats in wicker bassinets, tuck the sleeping-bagged, puling brat under your arm, scrunch Gramma into the beer cooler, lash Fido to the grille. It's weld-yourself-to-the-steering wheel, shark-eat-shark tailgating on the freeway, no quarter-ton given. Once arrived, you can forgive and forget, elevate feet, inhale pine, suck back a grateful gin-and-tonic. Bliss, peace.
That's the theory, anyway. Cross traces the mania's antecedents from the Roman villa to the advent of pre-fab housing after the Second World War. The religious, the rich, the ecologically-minded have variously sought solace, escape, and family renewal. Adoring her own semi-sylvan retreat, Cross tends to gloss over the spectacle of suburbia-by-the-sea, and gridlock-on-the-lake, though she's certainly aware of how people can mess up a nice place. As well, she fails to make the point that, for men, a summer home was an outdoorsy escape from urban routine but for women it was often just more housework.
At any rate, Cross's book lightly carries lots of information, and skitters in holiday mood across the continent: from the Bay of Fundy to Murray Bay to Georgian Bay; from the Adirondacks to the Thousand Islands to the Gulf Islands. But its short, crowded sections and monotonous, sometimes fluffy tone would have been better packaged with glossy colour photos and lots of space rather than as a pen-and-ink illustrated paperback.
Some of the land that Cross lyricizes takes on winter clothing in A Few Acres of Snow. In the two decades since Northrop Frye's garrison mentality theory exhausted itself in Margaret Atwood's Survival, much Canadian literary criticism has lived off the French table scraps of deconstruction. New approaches are badly needed, and this book's 21 contributors, most of them geographers, aim to provide them. Hopeful, too, is the fact that the cast evidently includes a Finn and a Swede, and that the editors - like Amy Cross - were not born in Canada.
Alas, the literary essays, in plodding academese, trudge along some very wellbeaten paths: Hugh MacLennan is a national cartographer; Elizabeth Bishop likes Nova Scotia, L. M. Montgomery likes Prince Edward Island, and Malcolm Lowry likes trees; Canadian winters are brutal, etc. Not enough on Native peoples, a passing glance at poetry. Probably because the writers here focus on primary sources and don't kowtow to literary critics, the visual arts fare somewhat better through the eyes of Norcliffe on industrial sites, Brian S. Osborne on C. W. Jefferys, Ellen Ramsay on Lucius O'Brien's Sunrise on the Saguenay, joy Caulfield on four painters of city houses, Paula Kestelman on depictions of Montreal monumental buildings, and Elizabeth Wilton on Marmaduke Matthews's western scenes.
Of the essays that do try to grubstake new ideational territory, O. F. G. Sitwell's "Deriving Geographical Information from the Novels of Frederick Philip Grove" is this year's winner of the Dogs in Canada Dullest Title Award. As it happens, though, Sitwell's essay is also an example of the useful results achievable when scientific rigour, as opposed to bottom-feeding bafflegab, is applied to the subject at hand.