Yesterday, Lisa Moore’s February won Canada Reads, CBC’s annual competition involving notable panellists defending five books and voting to determine which book Canadians should read this year. One criticism of February, uttered by historian Charlotte Gray, jumped out at me in particular:
“I think that what will not resonate for many Canadians today is the fact that the male characters of February are very undefined. There’s a loose sort of subplot about the son, John, which in fact could play a much larger role… [about] the dangers you have to go, the distances you have to go to get work today, and he’s just a walk-on part with a little bubble over his head saying ‘fear of commitment’.”
It is true that the male characters of February play a reduced role. After all, the book is about a widow, Helen O’Mara, who loses her husband Cal in the 1982 Ocean Ranger disaster. She then spends thirty years coping with her loss and moving on with her life. However, I am inclined to disagree with Gray; the men of February are not undefined and they do resonate, particularly for a male reader.
John, Helen’s globe-trotting son who works for the oil industry, is not merely afraid of commitment. He’s haunted by the loss of a father and beholden to an industry that simultaneously caused that loss and provides him a living. John’s rootlessness and placid exterior in the face of this age of anxiety is easily recognizable by any young professional man working today because that’s how our lives look. What’s interesting is seeing that life from the perspective of Helen, someone older, rooted, and sharing the loss of the same person.
There is, however, another male character Gray declined to mention: Cal, Helen’s husband lost in the disaster. Though missing, he remains a presence. It is impossible to read through the permutations of Helen’s grief without getting a sense of the sharp definitions of Cal’s character and values, and the values of the rest of the men who went down with the Ocean Ranger:
“They certainly did not say thank you. Not goodbye or I love you… They were in the habit of turning those sentiments into actions. They chopped wood or they shovelled snow. A big pile of wood stacked under the blue tarp out by the shed. They brought over moose steaks. They put in an apartment for the mother-in-law. They got up on the roof with a bucket of tar. That was thank you.”
The men of February might be secondary, but that’s hardly a problem. Why shouldn’t men read about men from the perspective of a female character? Why shouldn’t a male character, written sparingly but deeply, be able to cast long shadows? Why shouldn’t a female character speak to the male reader anyway?
February (2009, House of Anansi Press), $25 amazon.ca