Friday, October 19, 2007

Smuggling Donkeys

Smuggling Donkeys / David Helwig
Erin, ON : Porcupine's Quill Press, c2007.

I've begun my reading for the Canadian Book Challenge with a book set in my current home province, Ontario. This is a short novella (87 p.) but it's full of good reading. It is the story of Warren Thouless, a retired teacher whose wife has just left him to go to India as a spiritual seeker. He's sold off his house and most of his possessions, and has been convinced by a former drama student to purchase a deconsecrated church, to turn it into a theatre. The book is the tale of Warren's year alone in a drafty old church, trying to understand why his wife left, and trying to find his way back to a voice of his own. Despite the surface appearance -- a book about an old guy dumped by his wife, flirting with a young & attractive former student, selling off his stuff to live a young man's unencumbered life? Doesn't sound very appealing, does it -- despite this, it is a great read. With David Helwig I felt I was in good hands; he knows what he is doing. He controls the language of his character without faltering, turning out a masterful monologue. His insights are sharp, characterization exact, and he is also very funny.

The story is very Canadian; Warren gets up in the mornings and heads down to Tim's for a double-double and a doughnut. (For the uninitiated, that is Tim Horton's, the ubiquitous coffee place across Canada. Everyone goes there, no matter how hip you are, and a double-double is a coffee with double cream and double sugar -- the phrase has even entered the Canadian dictionary.) Warren buys his church and lives there, in an unidentified small Ontario town near Kingston, but the sense of place is so strong that I spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out where he was cribbing the town from. I can't quite decide; he has captured so many small towns here.

Warren's focus is back on drama. He was an actor when he was a lot younger, and is returning to it now. He refers to his "Stratford audition" that he missed in order to marry his wife and live life as a teacher instead. He talks about the theatrical life that exists all over Ontario, small theatres running summer stock shows (what he is attempting to do now, also) and about acting in bits of things here and there. He opens his tale just after his new theatre has produced The Cherry Orchard, with limited attendance, and concludes it with his role in Our Town the next summer. In between he survives a cold winter alone in a rickety old church, talking to himself in wonderful set pieces. For a few pages he suffers from a bad bout of the flu, and the description of this episode is so precise that I had to read it over again. He uses every word to great effect. Another bit I read slowly is Warren's catalogue of a trunk which contains all the things left to him from his previous life. When selling his house, he put everything he didn't want sold off "either into garbage bags to be hauled away or into this trunk, and I hardly remember now which sentimental souvenir went in which place." It's a wonderful four page list, evocative of his character.

I enjoyed this book, and as always from Porcupine's Quill Press, it is beautifully produced with quality paper, attractive font and a proper sewn binding (these things are appreciated). It's a good beginning to a challenge I'm enthused about!


  1. Double-doubles sound yummy! Wish we had those in America. :) Here, people seem to look down on those who drink their coffee w/ lots of cream and sugar.

  2. I hope I can find this one, it sounds so interesting. If nothing else, for the Tim Horton's references ...

  3. I love the cover of this book! It's what first caught my attention. :-) Thank you also for the great review! I will have to look for this one.

  4. It was the title that caught my attention! It sounds wonderful. I will definitely track down a copy.

    I started reading David Helwig's memoir last year, but ended up having to take it back to the library before I'd finished it. It seems to me there may have been a real life episode of living in a church that he was drawing from...

  5. That sounds a lovely book and, amazingly, it's available in Britain - I may get to read it!

  6. This one was fun, and now I want to read his memoirs! I can believe that living in the church basement was based in experience; it's very realistic, but amusingly told.

  7. I'll second those that said the title is certainly catchy.

    And now you're making me miss Tim's. I swear Iqaluit must be the largest centre in Canada without one! For shame.

  8. What a wonderful review! I'm adding this to my list!


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