25th Trillium Award

In Forgiveness: Reading Nowlan's the Wanton Troopers, by Shane Neilson

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Shane Neilson

Shane Neilson is best known for his poetry and criticism, but for many years he has had a collection of short stories brewing. Will, published this fall with Enfield & Wizenty, covers expansive territory, drawing from trials in his own personal life, his professional experience as a medical doctor and, of course, wide-ranging reading. Cultural figures from Vladimir Nabokov to Michael Jackson to Alden Nowlan make appearances, as does the iconic World War I poet John McCrae.

Some authors can point to a single book that altered the course of their lives. Today, Shane tells us how Alden Nowlan's The Wanton Troopers has saved him again and again.

In Forgiveness: Reading the Wanton Troopers

By Shane Neilson

The hockey players at Oromocto High planned to fail Grade 12 English so that they could do what everyone called “the victory lap” — another year of high school, the fourth and final year of eligibility as a player for the Blues, our high school hockey team. I’m speaking of Southern New Brunswick the early 1990s. Part of the victory lap was making the failure as obvious as possible, an ignominious flame-out that would make the future victory lap that much more memorable to the student body. One guy chewed tobacco in class and spit into a garbage pail until the teacher threw him out; another guy showed up to class later every day with the same excuse: “I just had to get some shit done, oops.” He showed up later and later to class until he didn’t show up anymore. (He was always early for practise, though.) Nobody punched the teacher or set anything ablaze, the kids were alright — they just wanted to play hockey and get good girls for another blessed, precious year.

What was I doing? I played on the high school team too, left wing. But I was reading. I wanted to be a medical doctor and a writer. One day Mr. Hay, our Grade 12 English teacher, a small man with a perpetual five o’clock shadow, assigned half the class Ernest Bucker’s The Mountain and the Valley to read. The other half got Alden Nowlan’s The Wanton Troopers. I was put on Team Nowlan, my “what happened when he went to the store for a loaf of bread” moment, for those in the know. Team Nowlan is dominant.

In the midst of a backwater school in a poor province with a substandard education system that inadequately served the lowest common denominator, I was given a text written by a man who never passed Grade 5, who was poorer than me, who had fewer opportunities than I ever had. I read his book, a book with this dedication: To My Mother and My Father, In Forgiveness.

With The Wanton Troopers, I began to learn, in aesthetic terms, just what forgiveness means.

The Wanton Troopers is a novel about a young boy who is abandoned by his mother and left in the care of his brutal, alcoholic father and odd grandmother. Kevin goes to school and is tormented by other boys who are more powerful than he is. Kevin is smart and fantasizes revenge — imagination being his only release. The novel’s plot roughly corresponds with my own life, but the identification is larger than textual. Nowlan’s book is beautiful and powerful, a rural scream from a man who escaped his past and yet couldn’t escape where he came from, who was broken by this past — Nowlan became an alcoholic — and yet travelled as far in a life as can be imagined. Nowlan left his birthplace of Stanley, Nova Scotia to eventually become the night news editor at the Saint John Telegraph-Journal and then the perpetual Writer-In-Residence at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton. His work won the Governor General’s Award for Poetry in 1967, Canada’s centennial year. His example gave courage to Maritime writers like David Adams Richards, Ray Fraser and Al Pittman. Nowlan proved it was possible to be a writer for so many people, people like me.

After a desultory attempt at publishing the book, Nowlan placed The Wanton Troopers in a desk drawer. The estate eventually found it after his death and it was published by Goose Lane Editions in 1988, almost thirty years after Nowlan finished it. I have never read a posthumously published text as good from a Maritime author. Never mind that, though: I have never read a work as powerful either. I wonder if you ever will. Little Kevin is as vulnerable and pathetic and doomed as any child. Emotionally, everyone has felt a little like Kevin at some point in their lives.

In 2011-2013 I attended the MFA program in Creative Writing at the University of Guelph. I wrote a nonfiction thesis about the simultaneous serious illnesses of my two children. As I wrote this thesis, I also worked on Will, my book of short stories. I knew the nonfiction book about my children in particular would draw upon the example of Nowlan. As a physician, I couldn’t get proper care for my two children in the great MediCanadian north — a bitter but effective marketing hook, should I choose to try to place the book. But this nonfiction had too much pain in it, things that could damage my family. If I published the book, then I wouldn’t have forgiven properly. I had to let go of this piece of writing somehow.

To help do that, I brought my copy of The Wanton Troopers to my thesis defence. That sunny day at Smaro Kamboureli’s house in Toronto, I wrote a personal message to Karen Connelly, my strong and generous thesis advisor, underneath Nowlan’s dedication to his parents. I gave Nowlan’s first novel to Karen.

I drove home from the defense and polished “A Service To His Readers”, my Nowlan story in Will. There’s a hockey story in the book, too. When I look back on my grade school education in New Brunswick, I know that for all the empty years of boredom , fear and high school hockey, I have nothing to be resentful about. After all, I was introduced to something perfect, something that came from just down the road.

Shane Neilson will return with more on the writing of Will.

Shane Neilson is a writer from New Brunswick. Will is his first collection of short fiction. He is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Complete Physical (The Porcupine's Quill), which was nominated for the 2011 Trillium Book Award for Poetry.

For more information about Will please visit the Enfield & Wizenty website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore, online from the publisher or at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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