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Bookends: Lawrence Hill Delves Deep into the Subject of Blood December 30, 2018

Posted by klondykewriter in autobiography, Bookends, current events, Matt Taibbi, News, personal, Science, Whitehorse Star.
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Bookends: Lawrence Hill Delves Deep into the Subject of Blood

By Dan Davidson

April 25, 2018

– 964 words –



Blood: The Stuff of Life 



384 pages

House of Anansi Press


eBook edition



Lawrence Hill’s fascination with blood stems from an incident when he was very young and cut himself on a broken beer bottle. He splashed blood of the sidewalk all the way home – 10 houses away –hoping that he would need enough stitches to have bragging rights. It didn’t work out for him. Four were not enough. But he was impressed by how long it took for the blood to be washed away.

A few years later, he managed to crash through the glass door of a cottage and cut his upper arm.

He recounts these personal stories in chapter one, “Go Careful with That Blood of Mine: Blood Counts” of the 2013 Massey Lectures. Getting the contract for this chore took him away from writing The Illegalfor about a year, he says, but he found it worth while as it caused him to organize and formalize a theme which he had already noticed was prominent in his other fiction and non-fiction writing.

The resulting research is indicated by the footnotes, acknowledgements, and bibliography at the end of this book.

That first chapter is a short history of the study of blood, as well as a personal account of his own experience, first as a runner, and after, in his mid-forties, as a man with the same diabetes that seems to afflict all the male members of his family, going back several generations.

“Blood,” he concludes at the end of that chapter, ”is truly the stuff of life: a bold and enduring determinant of identity, race, gender, culture, citizenship, belonging, privilege, deprivation, athletic superiority and nationhood. It is so vital to our sense of ourselves, our abilities and our possibilities for survival that we have invested money, time, and energy in learning how to manipulate its very composition.”

There was a time in his life when Hill badly wanted to be a champion runner, and it took him some time to realize that he had pushed himself to the peak of his ability in that sport. It turned out that he wasn’t getting enough oxygen into his bloodstream. He was fit and thin, and remains so today, but at age 16 he “had the lung capacity of a forty year old smoker.”

His track coach at the time was David Steen, a reporter and gold medal athlete, who recommended he take up the study of English literature, for which we can all be grateful.

“We Want it Safe and We Want it Clean: Blood, Truth and Honour” examines what we have traditionally done with blood, how it has been used for sacrifice, offered to the nation, and used in medicine. In particular he dissects the issues related to stem cell research, blood donation policies, and the tainted blood scandals of the 1980s, which have affected the lives of a couple of families I know.

There is a revealing section on the scandalous career of disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong.

“Comes by it Honestly: Blood and Belonging” begins by telling about his own quest as a man of mixed blood to define himself, and how this nearly led to his death while serving with Crossroads International in Niger in 1979. This chapter deals with matters of blood, personal identity and international affairs.

“From Humans to Cockroaches: Blood in the Veins of Power and Spectacle” deals with how blood in involved with violence, power and spectacle.

“Violence and power need blood,” he writes. “They feed on it as cars feed on gasoline. When we want to hurt people, entertain ourselves at their expense, or capitulate to our most base instincts, we lust for blood.”

This chapter cites works as diverse as the Bible,The Wizard of Oz, The Hunger Games, the Harry Potter novels, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

“Of Presidential Mistresses, Holocaust Survivors, and Long-Lost Ancestors: Secrets in Our Blood” ranges through literature and history. The presidential mistress was Sally Hemings and the president was Thomas Jefferson, who wrote strongly against miscegenation (the mixing of races) and yet had a son with this woman.

In science and home economics we know that blood stains are among the hardest to remove from anything, and it is a trope in television mysteries that it becomes visible with the use of certain chemicals and types of light even after it seems to have been removed.

Lady Macbeth knew the staying power of blood stains (“Out, damn’d spot! Out I say. What, will these hands ne’re be clean?”) ”as did the murderer Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, who cannot seem to get the blood from his hands, his axe, his boots, and certainly not from his imagination.

The Massey Lectures are broadcast annually by the CBC as part of its Ideas series. The original recordings, in the fall, take place live in five different cities. Last year’s series, with Payam Akhaven, had one of its sessions at the Yukon Arts Centre. The lectures are generally repeated sometime in the spring, often with some additional material.

Most of them are available in book form and as audio productions from Anansi Press. The books are either expanded versions of the talks or the talks are condensed versions of the chapters. Hill told me it as a bit like doing different essays on the same subject.

When I covered the Akhaven lectures, In Search of a Better World, I had the book open beside me and read the parts he wasn’t saying, so I could see how that worked. Some of the earlier lectures are available for free listening on the CBC Radio Ap, but Hill’s lectures not there any longer.



Bookends: One Woman’s Personal Struggle to save the Arctic’s Snow and Ice December 29, 2018

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Bookends: One Woman’s Personal Struggle to save the Arctic’s Snow and Ice

By Dan Davidson

April 4, 2018

-1025 words –


The Right to Be Cold: One Woman’s Story of Protecting Her Culture, the Arctic and the Whole Planet

By Sheila Watt-CloutierThe Right to Be Cold

Penguin Canada

368 pages


eBook edition, KOBO or Kindle: $11.99


Sheila Watt-Cloutier was a keynote speaker at last fall’s Tourism Association of Yukon conference, held in Dawson City. Much of her presentation was drawn from this book, with its provocative and surprising title.  This book was one of the finalists in the 2016 Canada Reads contest, as well as being nominated for a number of non-fiction awards.

A few passages from its introduction will serve to give you the flavour of her argument.

“For the first ten years of my life, I travelled only by dog team. As the youngest child of four on our family hunting and ice fishing trips, I would be snuggled into warm blankets and fur in a box tied safely on top of the qamutiik, the dogsled.

“The Arctic may seem cold and dark to those who don’t know it well, but for us a day of hunting or fishing brought the most succulent, nutritious food. Then there would be the intense joy as we gathered together as family and friends, sharing and partaking of the same animal in a communal meal. To live in a boundless landscape and a close-knit culture in which everything matters and everything is connected is a kind of magic. Like generations of Inuit, I bonded with the ice and snow.”

That bond is being broken as the reliability and predictability of the climate changes. A culture dependent on its relationship to the land, the snow and the ice, is becoming collateral damage to the global warming which is having she writes, its most dramatic impact on the region which is the “cooling system for the planet.”

“The Arctic ice and snow, the frozen terrain that Inuit life has depended on for millennia, is now diminishing in front of our eyes.”

This book is a blend of personal memoir and a history of her struggle, n her various roles, to come to terms with those changes and get others to take responsibility to reduce the toxins that natural forces tend to filter into the North.

This has happened to such as extent that at one time mother’s milk was found to be contaminated with industrial toxins due them being ingested as a component in the country foods that are a natural part of the Inuit diet.

Traditional education on the land was about more than just teaching children how to survive, the hunt, to master the technical skills, she writes. These lessons were also exercises in character building.

“It’s a very wholistic approach. The technical skills and the character building are not separate at all. Technical skills are about how the world works; character skills are about how you work. This wholistic approach to learning is the hallmark of Inuit culture, and this wisdom, which is sourced from the ice and the cold and the snow, is equally now at stake.

“It is being lost, just as the ice itself is being lost.”

Paradoxically, Watt-Cloutier’s time in a couple of residential school settings during her teenage years is something she remembers as being quite positive for herself and her classmates, even though it did divorce them from their culture. She seems to feel that more damage was done when she was finishing her high school and living with a well-meaning, but non-native, family in Nova Scotia.

She would spend many years trying to reclaim her fluency in her native tongue. She would have liked to reclaim as much as possible of her native culture but she found that, during her absences for school, the life she remembered so fondly had decayed and diminished. Some of this was due to the changing climate limiting traditional choices; some was due to nomadic people being herded into settlements by government policies and social assistance financing; some of it was due to the curse of alcohol, a problem she herself experienced at one point.

Watt-Cloutier has travelled extensively during her working life, beginning with jobs in the health care and education fields before moving into the political arena. She has been a political representative for Inuit at the regional, national and international levels, most recently as International Chair for the Inuit Circumpolar Council, which represents the interests of Inuit people in Canada, Alaska, Russia and Greenland.

She became a sort of human rights activist for the North. In 2007, Watt-Cloutier was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for her advocacy work in showing the impact global climate change has on human rights, especially in the Arctic, where it is felt more immediately and more dramatically than anywhere else in the world.She did not win the prize, but the nomination highlighted her work.

She does not see herself as an environmentalist, though they have some causes in common. Protests over seal hunting have done serious damage to the Inuit economy, led by people who don’t understand that seals are both food and raw materials for the Inuit.

“We Inuit simply cannot have personal freedom, we cannot have choice, if we don’t have the right to be cold, if our homeland and culture are destroyed by climate change.”

In addition to her Nobel nomination, Watt-Cloutier has been awarded the Aboriginal Achievement Award, the UN Champion of the Earth Award, and the prestigious Norwegian Sophie Prize. She is also an officer of the Order of Canada. From 1995 to 2002, she served as the elected Canadian president of the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC). In 2002, she was elected international chair of the council. Under her leadership, the world’s first international legal action on climate change was launched with a petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

This is an engaging book, most interesting in the pages where it is most personal. The drier aspects of bureaucratic struggle do drag on a bit, but it is a worthwhile read for all that, and those details do matter.



Bookends: Robbie Robertson and the story of The Band February 16, 2018

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Bookends: Robbie Robertson and the story of The Band

By Dan Davidson

August 9, 2017

– 860 words –


Testimony: A Memoir 


By Robbie Robertson

Vintage Canada

512 pages


Kindle: $16.99

“I was introduced to serious storytelling at a young age, on the Six Nations Reserve. The oral history, the legends, the fables, and the great holy mystery of life. My mother, who was Mohawk and Cayuga, was born and raised there.

“At the age of nine I told my mother that I wanted to be a storyteller when I grew up. She smiled and said, ‘I think you will.’”

Robbie Robertson is another one of those mixed race persons who have decided that their primary identity is to be found in the First Nation side of their genetic heritage.

One wonders what might have happened if Robertson’s biological father, a Jewish professional gambler named Alexander David Klegerman, had lived. But Robertson was still an infant when his father died in a hit and run accident, and he was adopted by his mother’s second husband, James Patrick Robertson. It was only many years later, when that marriage was in trouble, that Robbie learned the truth about his background.

We get clues as to how that night have gone later in the book, when he meets some of his shadier relatives, but this book really begins with 16 year old Robertson heading south from Toronto to Fayetteville, Arkansas, about to try out as a bass player for the Hawks, the backing group for the legendary Rockin’ Ronnie Hawkins. By then, Robertson had been playing in bands since the age of 14, and had worked in a travelling carny circuit for parts of two summers, as well as at the Canadian National Exhibition.

It was the years with the Hawks, though, that would be his major training ground, and the changing composition of that band woiuld move him from the bass to lead guitar, and surround him with most of the individuals that would later become the Band.

We meet them all, one by one, and though the late Levon Helm painted a nasty picture of Robertson in his book about The Band, Robertson can’t say enough positive things about his former band mate. In a touching CBC interview that was recently rebroadcast, Robertson regretted never having been able to patch things up with Helm.

The years with Hawkins were followed by the years with Bob Dylan, for when Dylan decided to go electric, he picked the Hawks as his backing band. Initially the first half of the shows on the tour were vintage Dylan acoustic, and then he would bring out the Hawks. Some people were delighted, but Robertson remembers it as a hard three year (1965-68) tour, and being on the receiving end of a lot of anger.

In 1967, the members of the band relocated to Woodstock, living in the house that would come to known as Big Pink, and that’s where they merged the rockabilly blues of their Hawks years with the folk-rock of the tour and developed the unique sound that would make them into The Band.

First, though, there were the Basement Tapes, which is an interesting section. Imagine Bob Dylan, recovering from his motorcycle accident, upstairs in the house, pounding out lyrics of a typewriter, handing the pages off the group and saying something like lets’ see what we can do with this. The Basement tapes CDs have a lot of minor stuff on them, but they also have “This Wheel’s on Fire”, “You Ain’t Going’ Nowhere”, and “Tears of Rage”, some classic stuff often covered by other people. There were eventually 138 songs.

The story moves on to the group’s first solo album, Music from Big Pink, and the rather offhand way they ended up with that name and the name The Band.

Robertson takes us through the recording of subsequent albums, but it becomes clear in the narrative that some of the guys aren’t having as much fun as they used to without chemical assistance. Not that Robertson abstained; there are numerous tales of this type in the book, though not as many as in Mick Fleetwood’s memoir, which I reviewed here a few months back.

What the two books have in common is that both Robertson and Fleetwood came to feel that they were responsible for keeping their groups together, and that put a strain on the kind of communal energy that had created the Band in the first place.

There’s quite a bit of space devoted to the creation of The Last Waltz, the Martin Scorsese film and 3-LP (you do remember records, right?) that actually became their swan song. Getting the record together was a near thing. The day they were supposed to start working on it at their Shangri-la studio, Robertson got there early, expecting to get to work, By 3:30 that day no one else had shown up.

“Waiting there as the sun went down, it finally hit me – what I had been in denial about: this train we’d been riding so long was pulling into the station, not just for touring, not just for recording, but for everything.”









Bookends: Two Weeks in the High Arctic February 16, 2018

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Bookends: Two Weeks in the High Arctic

By Dan Davidson

August 16, 2017

– 815 words –


Boundless: Tracing Land and Dream in a New Northwest


By Kathleen Winter


280 pages


Kindle e-Book


In 2010 Kathleen Winter was able to take what turned out to be an epic voyage through the Northwest Passage. Her friend, Noah Richler, had had to bow out of a two week cruise on a Russian icebreaker, for which he was to have been the writer in residence. Would she like to take his place on the Clipper Adventurer?

As it happened, she had been thinking lately about taking chances when they were offered and, on the advice of a friend, had prepared a “go bag”. Not that this particular bag was in no way adequate to a fortnight’s journey to the Arctic Ocean, but it was an indication of her mindset. She said yes.

Just from that introduction, you have probably picked up the idea that this book will not entirely be about the ocean voyage. There’s a lot of self-reflection in the book, memories of her immigrant childhood in Newfoundland; thoughts about her first marriage and how the death of her first husband affected her.

A reviewer in the Guardian newspaper felt that such tidbits of information made this a less than successful travel book, as if there is only one way to do this sort of thing. This is an attitude with which authors like V.S. Naipaul and Paul Theroux would probably take issue. I certainly do.

When I met Winter back in the spring, one of the things she told me was that she felt the need to move around. She’d sat still so long writing her novel, Annabel, that she had actually lost some function in her legs for a while. That explains why, during some of the shore excursions that took place on this trip, she tended to chose the longer walks, and I think it also explains why she was prepared to leave her husband to look after their two daughters for a two week excursion that as it turned out, was not entirely a cakewalk.

It was an assorted group of people on this voyage. Historian Ken McGoogan was there, with his wife, Sheena; anthropologist Kenneth Lister; marine mammal biologist Pierre Richard, with his sister, Elizabeth; geologist Marc St, Onge; ornithologist Richard Knapton; and musician Nathan Rogers, son of Stan, whose best known song (aside from “The Mary Ellen Carter” and “Barrett’s Privateers”) is probably “The Northwest Passage”.

Winter would come to be close to Rogers, would actually overcome her indifference to rocks and pay attention to Knapton, and would learn something from many of the 100 members of the expedition. She seems to remains largely unaffected by the enthusiastic birders, but tries her best to respond to what she can learn from the indigenous people who are part of the voyage. What she learned would often send her back down her memory hole, to tie in to some part of her past.

The trip took them from Greenland, past Baffin Island, and across the passage into territory that was perhaps not quite as well mapped as people had thought. The Clipper Adventurer runs onto some rocks on what was to have been the last night of the trip. Everyone was in the lounge, looking at the map that showed the journey they had taken, the ship being bound for the place where they would disembark.

“The ship lurched.

“It crunched on something big, not like one of the small pieces of ice we’d scraped in Karrat Fjord. This sound kept going: a dreadful, deep displacement of our vessel out of the water, out of her gliding movement, nowhere close to any of the rocking, all smooth and rolling, we’d known before.”

They did the whole abandon ship drill before they decided they weren’t going to sink, but they could not get off that rock, even at high tide.

There had been hints in various chapters that there might be a problem later on, but this was a surprise. They were rescued by the geological mapping vessel, the Amundsen, and taken to Kugluktuk, from whence they were flown south. Their ship was not rescued until three weeks later and had to be towed to a shipyard in Gdansk for repairs.

Winter says she was changed by her experience in the high North, but just how is something she’s doesn’t seem that anxious to share. There are a few things that remain mysterious in this book. For instance, that actual name of their ship is not to be found in the text. I ran a search in my KOBO copy to see, after I finally found it in the photo section at the back of the book.

Boundless was shortlisted for the 2014 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction.



Bookends: Uncommon Tales from an Uncommon Life February 14, 2018

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Bookends: Uncommon Tales from an Uncommon Life

By Dan Davidson

May 24, 2017

– 807 words –

Common Man, Uncommon Life

By Stan Walchuk Jr.

Vista PublishersCommon Man

678 pages


Stan Walchuk Jr. was born in Edmonton. By the age of 13 it was clear that he wanted to spend a much of his life as possible in the wilderness. You can read all about that adventure in chapter 8. By age 16 he had abandoned his first try at finishing his formal education and spent a year working for a Yukon outfitter, headquartered on a piece of land not far from where his younger brother, Len, now operates LeBarge Ranch Ltd. with his wife, Karla DesRosiers.

Stan did end up going back to school, finishing his grade 12, getting a couple of university degrees, and teaching for about ten years. Len, like me, is a retired teacher, having spent a couple of years in Haines Junction and also in Dawson City, leaving the same year I arrived here, and concluding his career as an administrator in a couple of Whitehorse schools.

These days Stan and his wife, Marlene, operate Blue Creek Outfitting, near McBride, B.C. For somewhat longer than 20 years they have been offering self-guided pack trips, trail riding and packing clinics and archery training. They also breed, raise, and train trail horses, having trained over eighty trail horses in the past twenty years.

While there are some sidelong references to Mr. Walchuk being in a classroom and dealing with students, most of this book is about his adventures in the wild, some of which seem to be more like misadventures. He was in and out of enough scrapes before his 16th birthday, that he had me wondering if he was going to live to grow up.

The structure of the book is eccentric in a number of ways. It all works, but you have to get used to it. Most of the 33 chapters begin with a reflection, sometimes no more than a paragraph, sometimes a page or more. These touch on some aspect of the story that will make up the chapter that follows. The chapters are all narrated in the first person voice, but in the present tense. Stan doesn’t seem to like quotation marks, so you do have to adjust to the way he handles dialog, of which there is a great deal.


When in the wilderness alone he talks to himself, to the land, to the animals he is hunting. His writing is very descriptive, whether he is looking at a particular view, or taking you along a trail, whether on foot or on horseback.

Chapters 11 and 12 are specifically about his early adventures in the NWT and the Yukon. The first ten chapters are about school days, how he fell in love with horses, and some early adventure/almost disasters that do suggest, to some extent, what some of the later chapters will be like.

It’s not quite clear in the books when he makes the transition to full time outfitting and guiding. Most of the stories seem to be more of a personal than professional nature. I’m also guessing that most of his actual forays into the mountains, whether hunting with rifle or bow, don’t have quite as much drama as the stories he has chosen to tell here.

Sure, drama and an element of danger make for a more exciting story, but there are enough of those moments in this book to make you wonder why the man is still alive. However, the book is subtitled “The Wild, Wacky and Adventurous Life of Stan Walchuk Jr.” so that should tell you a lot about the kinds of stories he would chose to set in print. It should also suggest to you the amount of humour that Walchuk brings to the page.

This is a long book, and it’s been years since the Star paid me anything for doing this column. The books I receive are worth the time. Stan wrote that I could probably just read some sample chapters and he’d be happy, but I don’t review anything I don’t finish, and some paid assignments that actually required me to read three other non-fiction books took me away from this one a number of times, so I’ve just completed it this week, having begun it on February 27. For several weeks Stan’s face looked at me accusingly from beside my reading chair while I was in the middle of those other books.

I tell you all this so you will understand that the book kept pulling me back in spite of all the interruptions. I’m not an outdoorsy sort of person, so there were times when I was overloaded on mountainous trails and treacherous rivers, but I stayed with it to the end and enjoyed it.