Trillium Book Award Author Readings June 16

writing & reading Glengarry County

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By rob mclennan

In Ottawa writer and journalist Charles Gordon?s coast-to-coast travel book, The Canada Trip (1997), he wrote of his grandfather, the Rev. Charles Gordon, who wrote under the pseudonym Ralph Connor, and the St. Elmo Church:

Although we are anxious to get home and rest for a couple of days, there are some places to see first. One is my great-grandfather?s church, the Gordon Free Church at St. Elmo, in the heart of Glengarry County, near Maxville.

Outside the church, which stands at the top of a rise on the Highland Road, is a plaque that was unveiled in 1959, honouring my grandfather, who was born here in 1860 when it was called the 19th Concession, Indian Lands.

Gordon, along with his sister Kate, are probably the only fourth-generation writers in Canada (so far), counting Connor?s aunt, the novelist Margaret Murray Robertson, and the non-fiction book that their own father, King Gordon, wrote. He continues:

My great-grandfather, Daniel Gordon, whose church it was, built it in 1864 after having been kicked out of the Church of Scotland building in Maxville in one of those disputes Presbyterian sects used to have. Dr. MacKinnon?s History of Gordon Church, St. Elmo gives an understated account of what happened there: ?In 1960 the Free Church was granted permission by the Presbytry of Glengarry to use the Church of Scotland Church building at Maxville on alternate Sundays. There were disputes with the Rev. Daniel Gordon over the use of the Church building and on one occasion Mr. Gordon found the church locked and a new lock on the church door. The arrangement had proved unsatisfactory for the Free Church and Mr. Gordon, and plans were made to build a new Free Church.?

The version in my grandfather?s autobiography, Postscript to Adventure, is more colourful. When Daniel Gordon found the new lock on the door, he asked the parish officer, Donald McEwen, for the old key, asking several times if it was the key to the church. Upon being told that it was, and upon finding that it didn?t open the door, Gordon said: ?Donald, and you Mr. McNaughton, and all of you will notice that there is something wrong with this lock. The key will not open it. Stand clear!?

Whereupon he kicked open the door and led his Free Church congregation in. For this, he was summoned to court. He escaped a jail sentence but lost access to the church and had to build a new one.

Apart from a few brief paragraphs, Gordon doesn?t really add to or illuminate the story of his family in Glengarry, or his family at all. As even he admits, members of the Glengarry Historical Society know far more than he does, and often write in to correct him on his information. I don?t know what I was expecting from him. What was I expecting? What secrets? Perhaps I wanted more than what I already knew. Perhaps I wanted more than what was simply the legend of Connor that remains frozen underneath the soil.

Over 20 years after I first began living with C. H. (Marty) Gervais? Up Country Lines (1979), I finally opened the collection, a sequence on parts of the Ontario North, writing Gravenhurst (okay, not that far north) and other places. I wish I knew how the book arrived at our house, at the little bookshelf in the second floor hallway, with not even a dozen other titles. Until I did open it, I always presumed it was about the county Glen; otherwise, how did we get it? How did it get into the house?

& there was
Happy Farmer
who downed
12 bottles
of Orange Crush
in one gulp
holding the bottles
in two hands
& shoving
them into

My parents certainly read books, but my mother preferred reading Agatha Christie novels by the boxful, or bad romance novels (are there any other kinds?). My father with his Motor Trend, Popular Mechanics, the occasional Guinness Book of Records, local histories and every National Geographic going back to 1963. I remember being surrounded by books, and not only knowing how to read before I entered school, but knowing more French than I have ever known since. How did they get this collection? Published over 20 years before Gervais would publish books of mine, through his Black Moss Press. What are the connections? Is there a connection? Can something be an influence if it?s never been read?

I have a book in my collection picked up from my parent?s house, Dorothy Dumbrille?s Up and Down the Glens: The Story of Glengarry (1954). It used to sit on the same shelf for so many years as I grew up with the Green Forest series of books by Burgess, each a small hardcover with fraying dust jackets. The copy I have reads with an inscription to my father, ?To Douglas, from Abbie and Katie, New Year?s 1955.? Katie Wilkes, who was not only our neighbour, well before I arrived, but taught my father in public school.

There is the idea of creating a place through writing about it, or reading about it. Does a reader create a text through reading? Does a writer create a place by writing? In her piece, ?On Identity,? written for a symposium in 1998 organized by The Poetry Project, New York poet Lisa Jarnot wrote:

What I learned to do early in life, as a survival mechanism of sorts, was to invent a self, or a composite of selves, as if my own life was formed out of a distant memory of who all the other versions of me had been throughout the history of my kind. I distinctly remember those early mornings in which my creative identity emerged — driving to the Angola Public Library on Saturday afternoons with my parents... It was a place I would return to over and over again during those years, and a place from which eventually I would accrue the knowledge of the lives of an incongruous assortment of baseball players, politicians, inventors and scientists, mostly white and mostly male, with the rare exception of a Frederick Douglass or a Betsy Ross. Having decided at some early age that no one in my family or among my friends would serve as an appropriate role model, I removed myself to the realm of books to find out not only who I was to be, but perhaps more importantly, where I fit in.

Is that all any of us are doing, creating the county in our own minds as we write, as many versions of the county as there are pieces? How different, obviously, from what Stephen Brockwell wrote to Ralph Connor, or Jan Zwicky to Margaret MacMillan. Can these things only be excused by time and circumstance?

Since my daughter was born in January 1991, we?ve made the semi-annual trek to the farm, spending a week or so around Christmas, and the August long weekend; our March break activities less so, as she entered her teens. Our daily traditions take us around the county in gran?ma?s car, whether to the Cornwall Square or Cooper?s Marsh or the Dunvegan Museum, but always ending up at the Dairy Queen in Alexandria, where we could easily spend hours. When she was younger, she would run through the kids play area and I would take notes. After the fire that took the building, rebuilt without the play area, Kate and I spent the next few years playing cards, reading, or (when she was younger) drawing horrible pictures of each other. The trips have produced more than a few pieces. Our time since, moved further into cards and simple conversation.


please listen, i say, &
she does

or does pretend

she doesnt need an audience
to draw

where the boats came, cairn
of certain war

& summer fish, for things
you dont want to catch

a fish or a disease

on the horizon, is it us
or some other country

little houses, lighthouse

small, &

the sky the same colour
as the road

There was the year we were there early, and got caught in traffic watching the parade in Alexandria for Canada Day, ending up at the Dairy Queen in just enough time to miss the onslaught of rain. In just enough time to wonder what had happened to the parade.

* * *

Born in Ottawa, Canada?s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of more than twenty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, his most recent titles are the poetry collections Glengarry (2011), wild horses (2010) and kate street (2010) and a second novel, missing persons (2009). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Jennifer Mulligan), The Garneau Review ( , seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics ( and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater ( . He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at

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