James Reaney and Colleen Thibaudeau’s short stories at Wordsfest 2021

Sunday November 15, 2020 – Thank you all for joining us at Wordsfest via Zoom for the 12th Annual James Reaney Memorial Lecture — Tales for a Reaney Day: Two Great Writers, Three Short Stories. You can view an archived version of the event here: https://www.facebook.com/wordsfest/videos/james-reaney-memorial-lecture-2021-tales-for-a-reaney-day/188114376812875/?__so__=permalink&__rv__=related_videos

Colleen Thibaudeau and James Reaney, 1949

Congratulations to Kydra Ryan and Adam Corrigan Holowitz of Alvego Root Theatre for your encore performances of James Reaney’s short stories “The Box Social” and “The Bully” and for the first performance of Colleen Thibaudeau’s short story “Wild Turkeys” — thank you so much for bringing these early works by Reaney and Thibaudeau to life.

Our grateful thanks to Carolyn Doyle, our wonderful host, and Joshua Lambier and Gregory De Souza at Wordsfest for helping us put this special presentation of stories by two great writers together.

For more about James Reaney’s and Colleen Thibaudeau’s short stories, see the October 20, 2021 post “Tales for a Reaney Day: Two great writers, three short stories at Wordsfest 2021”.

Earlier Wordsfest lectures on James Reaney:

2016: John Beckwith on James Reaney and Music 
2017: Tom Smart on James Reaney: The Iconography of His Imagination 
2018: James Stewart Reaney on James Reaney’s Plays for Children
2019: Stan Dragland on James Reaney on the grid
2020: Stephen Holowitz and Oliver Whitehead on James Reaney Words and Music

The James Reaney Memorial Lecture series celebrates the life and work of Southwestern Ontario poet and dramatist James Reaney, who was born on a farm near Stratford, Ontario and found a creative home in London, Ontario.

We are honoured to dedicate the 2021 Memorial Lecture to the late Catherine Sheldrick Ross (1947-2021), a former Western University student and colleague of James Reaney’s.

Our thanks to Wordsfest and the London Public Library for their support of the lecture series, and to Poetry Stratford and the Stratford Public Library for their support in hosting the earlier lectures (2010-2015).

James Reaney 1972
Near Stratford, Ontario, October 2015

Tales for a Reaney Day: Two Great Writers, Three Short Stories at Wordsfest 2021

Sunday November 6 at 2:00 pm EDT — Join us at Wordsfest for this year’s James Reaney Memorial Lecture and celebrate the short stories of Southwestern Ontario writers James Reaney and Colleen Thibaudeau.

Kydra Ryan and Adam Corrigan Holowitz of London’s AlvegoRoot Theatre will perform two of James Reaney’s short stories“The Box Social” and “The Bully”, as well as Colleen Thibaudeau’s story “Wild Turkeys”.

Host Carolyn Doyle will lead a discussion of these three stories written when James Reaney and Colleen Thibaudeau were in their early twenties. 

Registration is free for this Zoom presentation: https://westernuniversity.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_1o-GLvU0RO2Atk8HAbdDig

Colleen Thibaudeau and James Reaney, 1949

More about James Reaney and Colleen Thibaudeau’s short stories

James Reaney and Colleen Thibaudeau met in 1945 at the University of Toronto and they both had poems and short stories published in The Undergrad, the University College magazine. Both had common background in coming from outside Toronto to attend university and having grown up in smaller communities. James Reaney grew up on a farm near Stratford, Ontario, and Colleen Thibaudeau grew up in St. Thomas, Ontario and also in Markdale, Ontario, where her father’s family had a farm.

Colleen Thibaudeau’s story “Wild Turkeys” was published in The Undergrad (II, 1946-47, pages 22-27). James Reaney’s story “The Box Social” also appeared in this issue (pages 30-31).

New to big-city life themselves, it is not surprising that their early writing features characters who struggle to move beyond the limits of rural society. Like the people they write about, they found solace and inspiration in the world they knew best.

All three stories (“Wild Turkeys” (1947), The Box Social” (1947), and “The Bully” (1950)) deal with family life in rural communities and the challenges social isolation brings to advancing one’s social and economic position. 

In Thibaudeau’s “Wild Turkeys”, Aunt Belle has the love and support of her family to guide her through her youthful romance in 1880s Grey County. Many years later she sees her niece trying to stay immersed in her university studies, and she shares the story of her heartbreak to help her niece gain a new perspective and a new resolve to put her own budding romance second.

Such open communication is not possible for the heroine of Reaney’s “The Box Social”, and she must go alone to the social event at the school to confront her former lover and make his betrayal public. The family in “The Bully” approves of the hero’s wish to be a teacher, but expects him to solve all the difficulties he faces as a shy newcomer in the unfamiliar environment of the high school.

“The Bully” and “The Box Social” have been called “the first examples of a modern tradition called Southern Ontario Gothic because of “their use of Gothic elements of the macabre.”[1] “What makes this locale so prone to Gothic tales is the failure of communication between family members or social groups. In the absence of communication, strange projections and psychological grotesqueries spring up and rapidly grow to unmanageable proportions.”[2]

For poet Jay Macpherson, Reaney’s “The Bully” “turns on the contrast between crushing reality and the liberating dream.”[3] It is the hero’s ability to dream his way out of his prison that saves him from being destroyed by having to withdraw from the school. The heroine of “The Box Social” also finds redemption by confronting her oppressor and realizing she can get past her hatred for him. 

In Thibaudeau’s story “Wild Turkeys”, the passage of time helps Aunt Belle overcome her sadness about her schoolteacher suitor moving on. “After all I had been raised barefoot in a log house, but there was no need to make things harder for us all. I learned the millinery and then your uncle Peter Martin came along. He had a new barn and three hundred acres…” (WT 26) She looks back on her life on the farm as idyllic despite all the chores and racing after the errant turkey hen: “In the old days it seemed as if all the mornings were like the first morning of the world, and I could have run forever through the tall grass. Run and not wearied….” (WT 25).

In a later story “The City Underground” (1949), Thibaudeau does have a theme of a child’s imaginary world helping him realize the need to fight against bullies in the real world, but it does not have the uncanniness and distortions that Reaney’s characters experience. [4]

Notes and references

[1] The Concise Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature, page 511. William Toye, Ed., Oxford University Press, 2011.
[2] Michael Hurley and Allan Hepburn in The Concise Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature, pages 593-594. William Toye, Ed., Oxford University Press, 2011. (For more about Southern Ontario Gothic and James Reaney’s neo-gothic stories, see the September 3, 2021 post on Tales for a Reaney Day.)
[3] Jay Macpherson, The Spirit of Solitude: Conventions and Continuities in Late Romance, Yale University Press, 1982,pages 262-263. (See also James Reaney’s article on Macpherson’s poetry: “The Third Eye: Jay Macpherson’s The Boatman in Canadian Literature, No. 3 (1960), pages 23-34.)
[4] Colleen Thibaudeau, “The City Underground”, Canadian Short Stories, Robert Weaver and Helen James, Eds., 1952, Oxford University Press, Toronto. (“The City Underground” was also broadcast in 1950 on the CBC radio programme Canadian Short Stories.)

“The Box Social” was originally published in 1947 in The Undergrad at the University of Toronto, and then in the popular magazine The New Liberty. Here’s what James Reaney had to say about why he wrote the story in his autobiography from 1992:

“Out of the deep past it somehow came to me, I think from my mother talking about the way men treated women in our neighbourhood. They never struck back; well, in my story one of them did.” (James Crerar Reaney, Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Volume 15, page 304.)

“The Bully” was broadcast in 1950 on CBC Radio and later published in Canadian Short Stories (1952) edited by Robert Weaver. While at university in the late 1950s, Margaret Atwood remembers discovering “The Bully” in Weaver’s anthology. “It made a big impression on me — it seemed a way of writing about Canadian reality that did not confine itself to the strict social realism that was mostly the fashion then. [Excerpted from Margaret Atwood, “Remembering James Reaney”, Brick Issue 82 (Winter 2009), page 160.]

“The Bully”is included in The New Oxford Book of Canadian Short Stories in English, Oxford University Press, Toronto, 1996. It is also collected in James Reaney’s The Box Social and Other Stories (1996), published by Porcupine’s Quill.

The James Reaney Memorial Lecture series celebrates the life and work of Southwestern Ontario poet and dramatist James Reaney, who was born on a farm near Stratford, Ontario and found a creative home in London, Ontario.

We are honoured to dedicate the 2021 Memorial Lecture to the late Catherine Sheldrick Ross (1947-2021), a former Western University student and colleague of James Reaney’s.

Alvego Root Theatre presents Tales for a Reaney Day September 10-12

On September 10, 11, and 12th, Alvego Root Theatre will present Tales for a Reaney Day – a double bill featuring two of James Reaney’s short stories, “The Bully” and “The Box Social”. Adam Corrigan Holowitz and Kydra Ryan are the co-directors and performers.

Where: Somerville 630, 630 Dundas Street, London, Ontario

When: Friday September 10 at 7:30, Saturday September 11 at 7:30, and Sunday September 12 at 4:00

Tickets: https://www.eventbrite.ca/e/tales-for-a-reaney-day-the-box-social-and-the-bully-by-james-reaney-tickets-167507534545?aff=erelpanelorg

More about James Reaney’s “neo-Gothic” short stories

“While an undergraduate at the University of Toronto [BA 1948, MA 1949], James Reaney published two stories, “The Bully” and “The Box Social,” that are not only classic Canadian short stories but are the first examples of a modern tradition called Southern Ontario Gothic (having its origin in the novels of John Richardson and some of the stories Susanna Moodie tells) that make use of Gothic elements of the macabre. In the four-page “The Box Social,” for example, a young man bids for a prettily wrapped shoe box, from a girl he made pregnant, that contains “the crabbed corpse of a stillborn child wreathed in bloody newspaper.” Margaret Atwood has remarked that “without ‘The Bully,’ my fiction would have followed other paths.” (The Concise Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature, William Toye, Ed., Oxford University Press, 2011, page 511.)

“The Box Social” was originally published in 1947 in The Undergrad at the University of Toronto, and then in the popular magazine The New Liberty. Here’s what Reaney had to say about why he wrote the story in his autobiography from 1992:

“Out of the deep past it somehow came to me, I think from my mother talking about the way men treated women in our neighbourhood. They never struck back; well, in my story one of them did.” (James Crerar Reaney, Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Volume 15, page 304.)

“The Bully” was broadcast in 1950 on CBC Radio and later published in Canadian Short Stories (1952) edited by Robert Weaver. While at university in the late 1950s, Margaret Atwood remembers discovering “The Bully” in Weaver’s anthology. “It made a big impression on me — it seemed a way of writing about Canadian reality that did not confine itself to the strict social realism that was mostly the fashion then.” (Excerpted from Margaret Atwood, “Remembering James Reaney”, Brick Issue 82 (Winter 2009), page 160.)

May 30, 1996 in London, Ontario — James Reaney with Margaret Atwood, “An Evening with James Reaney & Friends” (Photo courtesy London Free Press)

James Reaney and Southern Ontario Gothic

“James Reaney’s plays — Colours in the Dark (1969), Baldoon (1976), and The Donnellys (1974-7) — as well as his short stories “The Bully” and “The Box Social” (reprinted in The Box Social and Other Stories in 1996), also assume Gothic elements of the macabre rooted in nightmarish families and uncanny action. […]

What makes this locale so prone to Gothic tales is the failure of communication between family members or social groups. In the absence of communication, strange projections and psychological grotesqueries spring up and rapidly grow to unmanageable proportions. Malevolent fantasies are the source and sustenance of the Gothic tradition.” (Michael Hurley and Allan Hepburn in The Concise Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature, William Toye, Ed., Oxford University Press, 2011, pages 593-594.)

What do you mean by Gothic?

“…It’s the spirit of solitude, the isolated person rattling around, usually in an old dark castle in the early Gothic novels, but then in Faulkner in an old plantation house. In Ontario we can’t afford plantation houses so we have a farmhouse or an apartment building that has a lot of empty rooms in it, as in The Edible Woman…. It’s filled with the nightmare of life, but it’s this isolation that is at the bottom of it, I think, because of science. The whole Gothic tradition is already in Hamlet.” (Interview with James Reaney from July 23, 1991 from In the Writers’ Words: Conversations with Eight Canadian Poets, Laurence Hutchman, Guernica Editions, 2011, pages 173-174.)

More on the tradition of Gothic fiction

Gothic fiction is a genre obsessively focused on the house. ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again’ is the famous first sentence of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938). In some other kinds of stories, the house is a place of safety, a sanctuary from the world. But not in gothic fiction, where interior spaces become prisons for imperiled heroines or represent a domestic happiness from which the scarred male protagonist is excluded. Naturally the house in question is not just any house but sometimes a monastery, convent, prison, or insane asylum. In the female-centered gothic, the male owner of the castle is an older man with a piercing glance – aristocratic, obsessed, moody, and secretive, with qualities that mark him as a literary descendant of Satan in Paradise Lost….”(Catherine Sheldrick Ross, The Pleasures of Reading: A Booklover’s Alphabet, Libraries Unlimited, 2014, page 65.)

“The Bully” is included in The New Oxford Book of Canadian Short Stories in EnglishOxford University Press, Toronto, 1996. It is also collected in James Reaney’s The Box Social and Other Stories (1996), published by Porcupine’s Quill.

James Reaney’s “The Bully”

The opening paragraph from James Reaney’s 1950 short story “The Bully”

As a child I lived on a farm not far from a small town called Partridge. In the countryside about Partridge, thin roads of gravel and dust slide in and out among the hollows and hills. As roads go, they certainly aren’t very brave, for quite often they go round a hill instead of up it and even in the flattest places they will jog and hesitate absurdly. But then this latter tendency often comes from some blunder a surveying engineer made a hundred years ago. And although his mind has long ago dissolved, its forgetfulness still pushes the country people crooked where they might have gone straight….

Come to Alvego Root Theatre’s Tales for a Reaney Day and hear two of James Reaney’s short stories — Adam Corrigan Holowitz performs “The Bully” and Kydra Ryan performs “The Box Social”.
Where & When: September 10-12 at Somerville 630, 630 Dundas Street, London, Ontario.

For more about James Reaney’s early short stories, see the October 20, 2021 post “Tales for a Reaney Day: Two great writers, three short stories at Wordsfest 2021”.

“Near Tobermoray, Ontario” by James Reaney

Near Tobermoray, Ontario

I look upon a blue cove
In August
With egg pebble beach,
Blue sky & cedar birch sides.

And I look upon the sisters four
Blue sky & blue water
Rock, pebble & earth
And the light I see it with.

Watty Blue has a drowned man
For her heart
And rain for food & wind
To crisp her thoughts with.

Pale Blue Airy has clouds
To mind & winds to sing,
Thunder to say, lightning to do
And birds to hold.

Urtha lumpily clogs
Her clotty feet,
Waves Aaron’s Rod & wears
Emeralds in rags.

But Light, you’re quite another thing.
Indeterminate,
You hold them all yet let them slip
Into themselves again.

James Reaney, 1963

“Near Tobermoray, Ontario” is from Poems by James Reaney, New Press, 1972. 

“Georgian Bay near Tobermoray” watercolour by James Reaney, 1961

Berry-picking from James Reaney’s Colours in the Dark

Summer 1937: James Reaney (age 10) picking gooseberries with his cousins in Erin Township in Wellington County, Ontario.

The “Berry-picking” scene from Act I of James Reaney’s 1967 play Colours in the Dark uses a pattern poem in the shape of a family tree pyramid to help the berry-pickers bring back the lost child.

8. BERRY-PICKING

MOTHER: The Story of the Berry-Picking Child and the Bear.

SCREEN: A child’s drawing of a berry-picking woods.

PA: This happened early near the Little Lakes.

KIDS: Darting about with berry pails

Look at the raspberries
Wild Gooseberries
Huckleberries
Over here!
Look at the raspberries
Wild currants.
Don’t eat them. They’re poison.
Bunch berries (ugh!)

One child is left busily picking. Her name is SADIE.

GRAMP:  as a bear. Enters and lifts up a child.
Child my cubs need nurse. I need your blood.
SADIE: Wouldn’t blood-red berries do instead?
GRAMP: No. Flesh must be my bread.

SADIE: Put me down Mr. Bear. I do thee dread.

Bear runs off with child, kids enter shrieking.

KIDS: A bear ran off with Sadie! A bear ran off with Sadie! And it takes a lot of people to produce one child.

They form a family tree pyramid with a reappearing Sadie.

KIDS:

It takes
Two parents
Four Grandparents
Eight Great grandparents
Sixteen Great great grandparents
Thirty-two Great great great grandparents
Sixty-four Great great great great grandparents
One hundred and twenty-eight Great great great great great grandparents
Two hundred and fifty-six Great great great great great great grandparents
Five hundred and twelve Great great great great great great great grandparents
One thousand and twenty-four Great great great great great great great great grandparents

It would take over a thousand people to do this scene: at Listeners’ Workshop we did it with thirty-two people: the children here are suggested by a triangle arrangement, the thousand ancestors behind each human being. Have one group of players in charge of chanting “Great great” & “grandparents”.

SADIE: Are you there 1,024 ancestors?

A feeble rustle

Are you there 512
Are you there 256

Are you there 128

Sound gets louder, less ghost-like and more human.

Are you there 64

Are you there 32

Are you there 16

More recent ancestors step forward and say firmly and clearly what we have only dimly heard: “We’re here.”

Are you there 8

Are you there 4

Are you there Mother and Father?

GRAMP, MA and PA step forward and establish the next scene as the kids fade away

Colours in the Dark is available from Talonbooks: https://talonbooks.com/books/colours-in-the-dark

For more about James Reaney’s use of shape poems or pattern poems as theatrical devices, see Thomas Gerry’s book The Emblems of James Reaney (2013) and Gerry’s article “Marvellous Playhouses The Emblems of James Reaney” in the Summer 2019 issue of Queen’s Quarterly.

“The Poet’s Typewriter” by James Reaney, 1997
James Reaney 1972

“Gifts” by James Reaney

Gifts

Existence gives to me
What does he give to thee?

He gives to me:  a pebble
He gives to me:  a dewdrop
He gives to me:  a piece of string
He gives to me:  a straw

Pebble  dewdrop  piece of string  straw

The pebble is a huge dark hill I must climb
The dewdrop’s a great storm lake you must cross
The string was a road he could not find
The straw will be a sign whose meaning they forget

Hill  lake  road   sign

What was it that changed the scene
So desert fades into meadows green?

The answer is that they met a Tiger
The answer is that he met a Balloon,
A Prostitute of Snow, A Gorgeous Salesman
As well as a company of others such as
Sly Tod, Reverend Jones, Kitty Cradle and so on

Who was the Tiger?  Christ
Who was the Balloon?  Buddha
Emily Bronte and the Emperor Solomon
Who sang of his foot in the doorway.
All these met him. They were hopeful and faithful.

Now the mountain becomes  a pebble in my hand
The lake calms down   to a dewdrop in a flower
The weary road  is a string around your wrist
The mysterious sign  is a straw that whistles “Home”

Pebble  dewdrop  piece of string  straw

James Reaney, 1965

From Poems by James Reaney, New Press, 1972. “Gifts” also appears in James Reaney’s  play Colours in the Dark, which premiered at the Stratford Festival in 1967.

James Reaney (far right) with his cousins, Elsie, Kathleen, and Mary, Summer 1930 near Stratford, Ontario.

James Reaney feeding the chickens (age 5) with his cousins Mary and Elsie (1931)

James Reaney’s childhood home near Stratford, Ontario

Dr. P A Abraham (1949-2021)

Our deepest sympathy to the family of the late Prof. (Dr.) P A Abraham, who passed away on May 14, 2021.

An Indian Canadianist, Prof. Abraham worked with James Reaney via  Western University and was instrumental in setting up the James Reaney Canadian Centre at Gujurat University in Ahmedabad, India.

Prof. Abraham also helped Reaney donate his collection of Canadian literature to the university, a valuable resource for students and scholars at the Centre.

Prof. Abraham’s book James Reaney: A Short Biography was published in 2005 (ISBN 81-85233-24-9)

James Reaney’s “The Crow”

The Crow

A fool once caught a crow
That flew too near even for his stone’s throw.
Alone beneath a tree
He examined the black flier
And found upon its sides
Two little black doors.
He opened both of them.
He expected to see into
Perhaps a little kitchen
With a stove, a chair,
A table and a dish
Upon that table.
But he only learned that crows
Know a better use for doors than to close
And open, and close and open
Into dreary, dull rooms.

 James Reaney, 1949

 

Crow near Jericho Beach, Vancouver, BC.

“The Crow” is from The Red Heart (1949), James Reaney‘s first book of poems.

o ) ) ) Listen to James Reaney read the poem here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w2nJNfBkskU

“Six Toronto Poets”, Folkways Records, 1958

“Elderberry Cottage” by James Reaney

Elderberry Cottage

’s windows, last night, rain wrote upon,
And Bobdog, while we slept, was miles away,
Beating the bounds, our frontier nose-spy
Reporting back at dawn.
We reward him for knowing about
Quarrels in lover’s lane,
Thieves on the prowl and other such
Nightwalkers.
Canny protector, I pray you:
Bark always when strangers come nigh.
Yes, we cannot smell trespass
Nor hear it, as you can.
Piss a ring of fire round our house,
Our curtilage, my land, my concessional lot.
Lead me safely at last
Under this township to my last cot,
And when Elderberry is a ruin,
Guard my grave from the academic wolf,
The curious professor
With his fine wire-brush
Who would dig me up again
From my happiness, your kingdom.

James Reaney, 2005

“Elderberry Cottage” is from Souwesto Home, a collection of James Reaney’s poems from 2005 and published by Brick Books.

Listen to Jeff Culbert perform “Elderberry Cottage” here.

Souwesto Home by James Reaney, 2005
Souwesto Home by James Reaney, 2005

Elizabeth Cooke (James Reaney's mother) with Bob dog at Elderberry Cottage, March 1976. Photo by Wilma McCaig.
Elizabeth Cooke (James Reaney’s mother) with Bob dog at Elderberry Cottage, March 1976. Photo by Wilma McCaig.