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

Sunday November 6 at 2:00 pm EST — 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.

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

Stratford Literary Walking Tour 2018

Illustration by James Reaney, 1962 from Twelve Letters to a Small Town (page 6).

Come celebrate Stratford Ontario’s literary heritage and take the Stratford Literary Walking Tour — James Reaney’s old high school Stratford Central Secondary School is one of ten stops on the way.

James Reaney was born and raised on a farm three miles east of Stratford in South Easthope Township, and he bicycled to and from high school every day for five years (1939-1944).

Between the highschool & the farmhouse
In the country and the town
It was a world of love and of feeling
Continually floating down
— From James Reaney’s poem “The Bicycle” (1962)

"The Bicycle" illustration by James Reaney from Twelve Letters to A Small Town (1962)
“The Bicycle” illustration by James Reaney from Twelve Letters to A Small Town (1962)

 

For more of James Reaney’s Stratford and Perth County inspired writing, see the links below:

Plays:

 Colours in the Dark (1967)

Short stories:

The Box Social and Other Stories (1996)

Poems:

“The Royal Visit” (1949)

“The Windyard” (1956)

 From Twelve Letters To A Small Town, “The Bicycle” (1962) and “Shakespearean Gardens” (1962)

 “Going for the Mail” (1964)

 “Gifts” (1965)

 “Maps” (2005)

 “Brush Strokes Decorating a Fan” (2005)

 “The Fan” (2005)

 “Elderberry Cottage” (2005)

Perth County history:

 The Story of North Easthope (1982)

August 2010 -- James Reaney's birthplace and childhood home near Stratford, Ontario.
August 2010 — James Reaney’s birthplace and childhood home near Stratford, Ontario. The farmhouse was built in 1875 and demolished in 2015.

 

The Box Social and Other Stories

On May 30, 1996, “An Evening with James Reaney & Friends” was held  at the G.A. Wheable Adult Education Centre in London, Ontario to celebrate the publication of The Box Social and Other Stories, a collection of James Reaney’s short fiction.

Authors Margaret Atwood, Graeme Gibson, and Colleen Thibaudeau attended, and Margaret Atwood spoke about her discovery of James Reaney’s writing in her college days:

I was a student at the University of Toronto in the last years of the 1950s, and James Reaney — who had been cutting an odd swath there several years before — was still an oral tradition. He was known as an enfant terrible who’d published a scandalous story called “The Box Social,” which dealt with gynecological matters unmentionable at that time, and dealt with them in a shocking fashion. (Inside the box of the title — supposed to contain a lunch — there was a fetus.) Nobody seemed to know where this story could actually be read, so its reputation was in consequence tremendous. (I’m happy to say it has now finally been republished.) Reaney was also remembered as having staged  a production of Beowulf in which Beowulf himself turned out to be the monster who was murdering and eating his own faithful followers. The more you think about that, the more plausible it becomes.

I was in the Honours English course, and as a consequence we read almost no Canadian literature; but my older brother was in Honours Biology, which included a Canadian literature course. You may ponder the logic of that — why them and not us? Maybe the biologists took CanLit because it was thought to have a lot of animals in it. However, I was in the habit of reading my brother’s books, and it was in the first Robert Weaver short-story anthology that I came across Reaney’s story “The Bully.” 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. I went on to read all of Reaney’s poetry available at the time: here was a fresh, brilliant, and quirky literary landscape in the process of being formed and, I should say, against considerable odds…. [Excerpted from Margaret Atwood, “Remembering James Reaney”, Brick Issue 82 (Winter 2009), page 160.]

Note from Susan Reaney: The event was part of the For the Love of Literacy Writers Festival organized by London educator Win Schell to bring local writers to the school.  (James Reaney: Listening to the Wind, a film biography of James Reaney produced by Nancy Johnson of Lockwood Films, was to have had its premiere that night, but had to be delayed to the fall.)

After the introduction by Margaret Atwood, James Reaney had planned to read “The Box Social” for the audience, but decided not to and read “The Bully” instead. We were disappointed that he did not give voice to the long-lost story, but a friend from school days said that “The Bully” was an entirely appropriate story to read in a high school.

See also “Southern Ontario Gothic and James Reaney” from June 2015.

 More about 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, pages 593-594. William Toye, Ed., Oxford University Press, 2011.

The Box Social and Other Stories gathers together nine of James Reaney’s early and more recent short stories and is available from The Porcupine’s Quill.

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

May 30, 1996 in London, Ontario — Writers Colleen Thibaudeau, James Reaney, Margaret Atwood and Graeme Gibson, and producer Nancy Johnson of Lockwood Films.

“The Box Social” screenplay success

Congratulations to student Scott Summerhayes, whose screenplay based on James Reaney’s short story, “The Box Social,” is one of the Top 13 Finalists in the Canadian Short Screenplay Competition.

“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 an autobiographical piece 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.)

James Reaney’s short stories are collected in The Box Social and Other Stories, available from The Porcupine’s Quill.

For more about The Box Social, see “Southern Ontario Gothic and James Reaney” from June 2015 and also The Box Social and Other Stories from May 2017..