The Alchemy of Literary Tourism

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Literary Tourists are a hard breed to define. Some like to visit places that appear in novels, others to walk along the footpaths that inspired great poems. Some go on pilgrimages to honour their favorite authors. Others seek out the book itself. They go to rare book libraries and antiquarian bookstores, thrilling to the touch of leather bindings, the feel of letterpress-printed paper, the beauty of woodcut illustrations. Still others love good theatre; they search out live stage performances; many like to hunt down famous living authors, listen to them read, and get books signed.

While there are lots of ways to be a literary tourist, all have one thing in common, and that’s alchemy. Each knows how to mix together just the right combination of literature and geography to come up with the perfect travel experience.

I recently asked writers from across the province of Ontario to help me work a little magic. Here’s what happened:

JANE URQUHART AND PORT HOPE

All authors – knowingly or not – are literary tourists. Jane Urquhart has known it for years. In her youth she longed to go to Paris. The dead would pay her ticket.
She went to the library and drew up a list of everyone of note buried in Pere Lachaise Cemetery- writers mostly. She then canvassed everyone she knew. For $25 she’d place a red rose on the graves of their favourite scribes. Her efforts were successful, and so it was that she financed her pilgrimage to honour Oscar Wilde, Marcel Proust, Gertrude Stein, Honoré de Balzac and others in the ‘City of Light.’

In a way she has continued to do this, transporting characters and readers across oceans, connecting them emotionally to their forbearers and to the land. In her Trillium Award-winning novel Away, it’s Port Hope in the 1840s that receives imaginative treatment, and the Canadian immigrant experience. The town was an important drop off point for thousands of impoverished, often cholera-infected Irish settlers. Here you can stand in the same places these hardy folk first stepped ashore, imagine the melee on the dock as they disembarked, sense the excitement and trepidation that Urquhart so expertly describes.

A short stroll east and you’ll hit the Canada House B &B at 168 King Street (it’s currently for sale) perched as it is next to Lake Ontario, right by the Waterfront Walking Trail. Raise your eyes up to the second floor, and you’ll see the very window that Eileen and Aidan, characters in the novel, looked out of for a view over the water.

MICHAEL REDHILL AND TORONTO

Just as Urquhart relied upon local libraries for the documents and detail necessary to capture small town Ontario with ‘shimmering clarity’ (another novel, The Underpainter, which won a GG, is partially set in Cobourg, minutes up the road from Port Hope – there’s a nice place for lunch here called the Starlight Restaurant), so Michael Redhill owes a debt to the City of Toronto Archives. His Toronto Book Award-winning novel Consolation presents two Torontos, one from the mid-19th century, the other from the late 1990s.

Go to the corner of York and King streets downtown and look around. The only common point of reference between the two time periods is Osgoode Hall some four blocks north, on Queen Street. Nothing else of consequence remains. With photographs serving as the go-between (many of which can be seen at the Archives), Redhill pushes the reader’s face up against an urban window pane, showing how the human scale of 1850s Toronto has been paved over and displaced by today’s towering, inhuman monuments to commercialism and ‘progress’.

The novel is an eloquent rumination on lost past, and an attack on those who eat their own history, who favour construction of characterless skyscrapers over the honouring of that which is worth preserving.

TERRY FALLIS AND PARLIAMENT HILL

Just as Osgoode Hall stands as a tribute to learning and wisdom, another building in Ottawa serves as a beacon for Canadian democracy.

The House of Parliament and specifically its Library – one that survived the great fire of 1916 – inspired Terry Fallis to write his hugely popular Leacock Award-winning satire The Best Laid Plans. The novel, based on Fallis’s experience as executive assistant to an MP and minister of the crown during the 1980s, was written in part to encourage Canadians to participate more vigorously in the political process, and to reject the partisan hi-jinks that currently mar its proper functioning.

As Fallis puts it, “everyone should visit the Hill at least once in their lifetime because it stands, and always will stand, as a reminder of the ideals upon which this country was founded.” In a similar way, Fallis hopes that his fiction, like a magic wand, will help bring forth the day when politicians can be relied upon to put the good of their country first, ahead of purely personal, regional , ‘back-yard’ interests.

ROBERT SAWYER AND WATERLOO’S PERIMETER INSTITUTE

Speaking of magic, and visions for the future, Robert Sawyer sets much of his recent WWW trilogy Wake, Watch, and Wonder, in Waterloo’s Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, the top pure-physics think-tank on the planet.

Sawyer, who has won all three major awards for science fiction writing in the world – The Nebula, The Hugo and The John W. Campbell Memorial, has the principal character in his trilogy, Caitlin Decter, a 15 year-old girl who has been blind since birth, move with her family, from Austin, Texas to Waterloo, Ontario after her brilliant, autistic, scientist father, Malcolm, lands a job at the Perimeter.

A press conference announcing that Caitlin has gained sight after a lifetime of blindness, takes place in the Institute’s Mike Lazaridis Theatre of Ideas, named for the co-founder of Research in Motion, who initially endowed the Perimeter Institute; just as in real life, Sawyer in his novels, has Stephen Hawking pay a visit to the place which has a mandate to create theories that successfully describe our physical universe by developing new mathematical tools and models tied directly to observable phenomena. Recognizing that cross-fertilization of ideas has often led to great scientific advances, the Institute deliberately fosters a diversity of approaches within a culture of excellence. Sort of like how literature and geography when put together can produce startling new insights and great vacations.

ALICE MUNRO AND WINGHAM

Finally, I’ve singled out short-story writer Alice Munro for attention, not because of her connection to any particular Ontario location, although there is the Alice Munro Literary Garden on Main street (Josephine Street ) in Wingham (Jubilee), and right beside it, on the north side, a local museum, which has a pamphlet that gives details of sites in the town referenced in her fiction, but rather because she has, with magical precision, arrived, in her stories, via rural Ontario, at universal truths about relationships and life in a way that few other writers will ever be able to duplicate. As her long-time editor Douglas Gibson told me, “a large part of the power of “Alice Munro country” is that the stories could be set anywhere, on any country road or any small-town street.”

Ontarians should be proud of Munro’s achievements. Wingham’s garden provides a lovely and appropriate sanctuary in which to honour her, and to contemplate the fundamental human condition that her work so brilliantly illuminates.

First appeared in Ontario Travel Magazine

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