Village of the Small Houses: A Memoir of Sorts

by Ian Ferguson
ISBN: 1553650697

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A Review of: Village of the Small Houses: A Memoir of Sorts
by Gordon Phinn

Almost every writer, upon realising that the much sought after palace of adulthood, with its glittering prizes of personal volition and velocity, is actually the first act in a highly theatrical slog to decrepitude and death, firmly turns their back on the flow of time and attempts to reconquer the lost kingdom of childhood, where they were young and easy under the apple boughs.
Most often, this leads to the inevitable spying on progeny from the prim heights of parenthood and plying the aged with oily interest and praise, followed by murmurs of assent and a slinking away to take notes. But the lucky ones can lay claim to the divine gift of memory and emboss their promise with such translucent prose that the reader is transported to the once-considered lost with such vibrant reanimation it would seem that, as the mystics say, all time is now.
Both Vladimir Nabokov's Speak, Memory and Michael Ondaatje's Running In The Family come to mind as examples. But sadly, most attempts to recapture the personal past fall short of their shining mark. Likewise, Village Of The Small Houses suffers from an abundance of the superficial and slick.
Mr. Ferguson, cruising on the kind of confidence only previous success can bring (How To Be A Canadian with brother Will, the print equivalent of an extended Rick Mercer monologue), contrives his memoir out of family gossip and late night mythologising, brazenly zeroing in on the details of his own birthing and infancy as if the foetal self were its own recording angel.
One might say, should one have the means and motive, that he does not try nearly hard enough. One might further assert that his book would make one of a pair of interesting bookends on the spectrum of CanLit endeavour. Village Of Small Houses could easily stand for all that is predictable and reliably dull in the CanLit tradition: you guessed it-it's snowing on page one, while page two brings on the far north and badly rutted gravel roads, and that reliable signifier of sentimentality, a "1953 four-door two-toned green-and-white Mercury Zephyr." A few lines later we are baited with a precarious pregnancy and a mother whose cussing amounts to, "Oh my Lord." Where's the proud Indian, you ask. There he is, on page six, six foot eight of real man, running the local ferry. Goes by the name of Bud. And, wait for it, he becomes the narrator's father's "loyal sidekick" and gets a really big scene where he whops some drunken white boys who dare to mock his take on the noble savage. The Indian with the goofy name? Well, he shows up a few pages later and Lloyd Loonskin is his tag. Nothing noble about him: just a weird Cree kid without a mother who befriends the narrator, now actually alive and kicking. And if, by this point, you're looking for Big Chief Hokum to pop out of the woodwork, I'm afraid he doesn't, mainly because he is the woodwork.
And so it goes-house building, baby making and cultural rapprochements aplenty. Those Cree sure are strange, but them Mennonites, they're even stranger. And the Mormons, they drink their kids' milk right off the table, which leaves the visiting Cree to put on whatever passes for a coat and permanently sever ties. Some folks sure is strange.
Such mixtures of sentiment and light satire have fueled the literature of colonialism in north America for for over two hundred years, and no one knows better than publishers and a long line of grateful Canadian humorists how easily it swells their sales reports. Stock characters and staged humour backlit with folksy banter are the formula for this tired genre, and it's a happy equation Mr. Ferguson has no intention of tampering with. Sophistication, of either sensibility or syntax, is the farthest thing from his mind. I understand he now lives in LA, cooking up a new sitcom for the networks. I wish him well, but only if he promises never again to use the line "my mom was getting really really mad now."

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