You can go home again

I made my first faux pas when I told Midland, Ont., librarian Bill Molesworth that I’d come to town to take the literary temperature in the hinterlands.

“Hinterlands?” His eyebrows shot up. “I’ll try not to hold that against you.”

Molesworth, CEO of the Midland Public Library, is part of IFOA Ontario (or Lit On Tour as it’s also called), which for five years now has been bringing Canadian and international authors to Ontario towns for readings, panels and workshops at the local high schools.

Molesworth was reminding me of what I already knew so well. No matter where you live, your town feels as big as the world. Margaret Laurence once said there was enough fascinating material in her Manitoba hamlet for several lifetimes of book writing. “It never bored me, not ever,” she told an interviewer.

How could I forget? During the 1950s, I grew up in Midland, where Toronto is sometimes disparagingly referred to as The Big Smoke. In those days, former NHL presidents could get away with addressing the crowds as “Ladies, gentlemen and Frenchmen.” Hockey was king and you were on one side or the other. Either you were for ideas and books or you were for hockey.

As a kid, I used to have two vocabularies — a secret vocabulary that I learned from reading books but never said out loud in case I was accused of being a brown-noser and a simpler, four letter vocabulary for the school yard. (So I grew up not knowing how to pronounce big words.)

The town was just 8,000 then. Now its population has doubled. And while Midland has ridden the boom and bust cycles like everywhere else, its unemployment is up and its median household income is below the provincial average.

Walking around town, I see big changes. Many of the town’s large 19th century maples have been cut down to widen the streets. And my late father’s doctor office is now a pizza parlour. The old YMCA has become a derelict building although the main street with its scattering of high end shops looks more prosperous, and the library that I used to visit three times a week is now located in the old post office which has just added a glamorous extension. Recently, I asked Richard Wright, another Canadian novelist born in Midland, how two writers had come out of such a sports-minded town and he said it was because of the Midland Library. Scratch a library and you find a writer, plus thousands of readers.

And here’s the thing. There’s a hunger in the hinterlands/territories/homelands for books and meeting authors, a hunger that organizers of urban literary events might envy. Not only do writers play to packed houses, the audience usually buys a copy of each book by the authors because they’re eager to discover new writers.

Lit On Tour, which imported over 50 authors to 17 Ontario towns this fall, is the brainchild of Geoffrey Taylor, director of Authors at Harbourfront Centre and the world famous Toronto International Festival of Authors. Taylor says organizers in all 17 towns asked him if they could be part of it.

For instance, Molesworth saw the success of Lit On Tour in Parry Sound, and he figured that if they could do it there, he could do it in Midland. Helen Argiro, the new executive director at the Markham arts council, says she begged Taylor to bring the tour to her community, and this fall, authors Shilpi Somaya Gowda, Bharati Mukherjee, Francisco Goldman, and Dany Laferrier read to a sold out crowd at Markham’s newly renovated Transportation Building. Next year, Argiro will move the event to a bigger venue.

She says their first IFOA Ontario experience was like never having tasted a chocolate fudge brownie before and then being presented with the best fudge brownie in the world. Maybe there wasn’t a strong desire for a big literary event before, she adds. But there is now.

And what about the event I was moderating in Midland with Canadian novelists Madeleine Thien and Helen Humphreys?

It started off with wine and cheese in the new library extension. My brother and sister-in-law arrived looking nervous. And my old fear of using big words lingered in the back of my mind. And then what every moderator hopes for happened. The wall between the audience and the writers crumbled. Madeleine and Helen opened up to the crowded room, which included young writers, retired people and some of my old school friends. Madeleine has written about refugees from the killing fields of Cambodia and Helen’s story describes the secret love affair between Adele, the wife of Victor Hugo and Hugo’s friend. We laughed a lot, especially about the possibility that writers, like Victor Hugo, are egotistical maniacs. Afterwards, my brother and sister-in-law along with many others bought books. An old school friend showed me pictures of us as children. Our Midland audience, I realized, isn’t so different from an urban one. The Internet has made everyone more connected.

Toronto writer Bert Archer, who moderates some of the Lit On Tour panels, wasn’t surprised. Last year, he came to Midland with four authors including Tom McCarthy, a Booker shortlister and unapologetic brainiac. Archer expected McCarthy to go down poorly in my hometown. He did not, Archer says. The large crowd was fascinated by all four writers and they asked perceptive questions, which Archer points out, weren’t long-winded comments synthesized from theses in progress.

So there goes the myth of hockey vs. books. As Taylor says, there might be city and country mice, but they’re all mice. And guess what? The capacity crowd, enthusiastic and intelligent, made me remember why I write books in the first place: to meet appreciative readers.

Susan Swan’s next novel The Western Light is set in Midland, Ont.

Reprinted Courtesy of the National Post

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