Sunday, January 27, 2013

Revivals #1: High Bright Buggy Wheels

As I said in my previous post about Nancy Pearl's Book Lust Rediscoveries program, I find the idea of personal recommendations as to the value of out-of-print books very compelling. I love the idea that one enthusiastic person is able to revitalize older titles that she loves and bring them back into common circulation.

So, to leap on to the bandwagon, so to speak, I am launching a series of blog posts influenced by this idea. I'm calling it "Revivals" -- the primary difference being, of course, that I am not bringing books back into print, simply back into awareness! I find that many book bloggers do read and discuss out of print books, not limiting ourselves to only what is current...with these particular titles I'm going to take a page out of Nancy Pearl's book and also write a mini essay about WHY I think these out-of-print books might merit a re-examination. So I think it's fitting that the book that starts off my Revivals series also begins with a revival.

High Bright Buggy Wheels / Luella Creighton
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, c1951.
352 p.

Small town Ontario, 1908 -- a summer camp-meeting revival is going on amidst the local Mennonite population. Tillie Shantz watches the preacher, Simon Goudie, call people to true faith, reflecting that such a godly man may be one she is interested in marrying. Yet after the crest of the religious fervour, she exits the tent into the night to find a young man from the nearby town of Kinsail (there for the entertainment) asking for directions back to where he left his buggy, having been turned around in the dark. He then offers her a ride and she hops into the light buggy and skims down to the end of the road and back. This is very much Not Done, and we are given a hint as to just how much Tillie differs from her peers, the theme that this story then elaborates on.

I first read this quite a few years ago now, and have just picked it up to reread before deciding to recommend it. It has some problems, of course: written in 1951, set in 1908, there are judgments and assumptions made that don't sit too well with modern sensibilities... but there is also drama and intrigue and friendship and love. Tillie and George, the young druggist who provides the joy ride at the beginning of the book, are very different kinds of people. But their youthful attraction changes the trajectory of both their lives.

Author Luella Creighton was a Scottish Canadian, married to a well-known historian. This book is a look at rural Ontario, specifically at a Mennonite settlement and how this group of people are and are not fitting in to Canadian society. This was an unusual book of its time, focusing on a story based in an ethnic minority (here German Mennonites) -- and there have been papers written about the elements of ethnic self-hatred propagated by both this book and another 50's novel that I've read and reviewed previously, Vera Lysenko's Yellow Boots (set within the Ukrainian community). The issue seems to be that the ethnic group is seen as backward, limiting, something to be transcended by becoming part of regular society. It's true that both of the young female characters in these two books have to leave their roots to find personal fulfillment. However, rather than seeing ethnic self-hatred, I identified with the struggle that these girls faced within a patriarchal setting to determine their own desires, and to find the strength to make a change. Nevertheless, they are delivered from their original difficulties by another man's intervention, so perhaps there is still room to grow in both of these stories.

However, I find this a fascinating read for its inclusion of the small details of Canadian life of that era, both Anglo-Canadian and Mennonite. It has its charms, with Tillie discovering a passion for horse racing, dancing, music and nature. She promises to marry Simon Goudie but then requests some time before the wedding to follow through on her desire to go to town and learn dressmaking, which her indulgent father permits. The joy she feels in learning this skill, which draws on her creative powers and allows an emerging independence, is the highlight of the book. Her pleasure in designing, in the tactile experience of fabrics, in the friendship she develops with her spinster employer and instructor, is bright and delightful. She discovers the fascination of the public library, reading a common penny novel with absolute absorption, allowing herself to forget chores, meals and expectations -- so much so that she is caught unawares by her strict aunt who, in horror for her soul, throws the book into the fire.

In reading this, I saw shades of L.M. Montgomery -- in Tillie's life with two strict aunts, with the focus on the bountiful domesticity of the Mennonite households, in Tillie's eventual delight in pretty clothes, the beauty of nature, and a cozy home. Tillie also shares Anne Shirley Blythe's sorrow as a young mother, and reacts in much the same fashion. I also sensed shades of Jane Eyre (and St. John Rivers), with Tillie giving up Simon when he announces to one and all that he has been called to be a missionary to Africa, expecting her to follow unquestioningly. She leaves her faith for "the world" after much internal struggle, and builds a life as part of mainstream Anglo-Canadian society.

While Creighton's depiction of Mennonite life has been questioned, as coming from the outside and without a deep understanding of the primacy of faith, I found her characterization of Tillie's struggle for understanding and self-actualization fascinating, and still relevant today, when considering the difficulties that many young adults have in moving away from their upbringing, whether religious or cultural, and finding a way of life that they have determined on for themselves.

George is also an interesting character; he is an up-and-coming businessman with lots of ideas for improving his store and making it more profitable, including adding an ice-cream parlour and a lakeside dance pavilion. He sees himself as one of the dashing class, with a horse and buggy and a prediliction for racing. He seems to be a disciple of Samuel Smiles, stating at one point:

The thing was to know what you wanted, and get after it. People didn't get what they thought they wanted, in this world, because they did not want it hard enough to believe they could. 

His focus on expansion and success doesn't include a wife at this point -- but Tillie's various charms overcome him and he decides it is worth it. After seeing the strength of Tillie's character and family ties, and the force of her internal struggle, George seems very much of a lightweight. I question whether he really deserves someone like Tillie... and whether her absolute change of life circumstances has been worth it if he is the reward. I dream of a life of independence and creativity for a fine woman of Tillie's qualities... but those books were yet to be written.

This is still a valuable look at an era in Canada's past, at the expectations and assumptions of a society bound in male and Anglo-Canadian norms. Even within this structure, I believe that Luella Creighton was able to present a variety of women all trying to find their place in the world. Sadly, the bubble of possibility that Tillie was floating in could only stay together so long, before she landed in the "happy ending" of the time, gaining a husband and a house to care for.


  1. I really like this idea for a series of posts. High Bright Buggy Wheels sounds like a book that I would enjoy. Thank you so much for bringing it to my attention!

  2. Cathy - thank you! I appreciate your comments! Hope you can find a copy of this floating around somewhere out there...

  3. I read this one some years ago, and it is actually on my pile of shoud-really-read-agains, so I was most interested to read your review.

    I think you identified something that bothered me about the book when I read it, or rather, about the main character in the book - the feeling that one's ethnic group was something to free oneself from and cast away.

    I finished it with that "Hmmm..." feeling, not quite sure what my objections were, and what they said about me as much as about the fictional character & Creighton's take on things.

    Perhaps it's finally time for that re-read. Good review - thank you!

  4. Leaves & Pages - I did wonder if perhaps you had read this -- the only person I could think of that might be likely to have done! I think it was very much the social ethos in the 50's, the great mosiac etc.


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