I posted a while back about being nominated for the 2012 Trillium Book Award, and mentioned that the list of nominees was eclectic. Lately I’ve been wondering how my fellow nominees would muse about children’s literature. What books stayed with them from their childhoods, and why? I’ve invited them to post here over the next while, and am happy to share this first contribution from poet Phil Hall, whose book Killdeer has already won the Governor General’s Award for Poetry, and is a finalist for the Griffin Poetry Prize. Phil joins another Trillium nominee, Ken Babstock, on the Griffin shortlist.
Thanks, Phil, for this lovely contribution. Does anyone out there have teary teacher stories to share?
To extend the lunch hour, to finish her thermos of tea, Mrs Knox began to read to us at 1:00 each day.
After she rang the bell & we rushed in sweaty from lunch, we would put our heads down on our desks & listen, perhaps drift slightly to sleep…
She read The Yearling! I wished my dad was named Penny. I wished we lived in a swamp.
She read Beautiful Joe! Dickens in dog-town. My ears hurt when Joe’s were battered.
“More animal stories!” We liked not having to get right back to work. She read My Friend Flicka.
Then, in that dark spring, she began to read the sequel to Flicka – Thunderhead…
A novel about a horse who is a throwback, a white foal, perhaps albino, he doesn’t look like either the stud or the mare, he has a wild spirit, maybe one blind eye. (Here is my grade 6 self remembering.)
But this book, unlike the others read to us, is not really an animal story. We are past the animal story now. This is about hard ranch life, the disappointments of marriage, a wife’s despair.
We kept our heads down all that week, but we didn’t know what the hell was going on…
Friday, fifteen minutes into our quiet-time: the rancher, in a rage, has gone to the far village to carouse & get drunk, his wife is slumped in profile under a big monkey tree, its branches are thrashing, a storm was coming in, Thunderhead can be heard stomping the boards of his stall, snorting & whinnying as if on fire…
Mrs Knox stopped reading. Mid-sentence. She had stopped reading. We woke up. We waited. One of us looked up. We all looked up.
Mrs Knox was standing before us. Holding the book. Red-faced. Crying. She was crying.
We watched her crying. We listened to her crying.
She said – as if she were an illustration voicing her caption – ‘I can’t go on with this!’
It was a crucial, unmagical gift she was giving us, but we didn’t want it.
I loved my teacher. Not quite like a kid does. I thought, I will go to the barn & shoot the horse. If only she would stop crying & keep reading…
Childhood was over. I don’t remember what happens after that.
Phil Hall was raised on farms in the Kawarthas region of Ontario and attended the University of Windsor in the 70s, where he received an MA in English and Creative Writing. He has published numerous books of poems, four chapbooks, and a cassette of labour songs. Recent books include An Oak Hunch and The Little Seamstress. Killdeer won the Governor General’s Award for Poetry and is shortlisted for the 2012 Griffin Poetry Prize. He is a member of the Writers’ Union of Canada, and lives near Perth, Ontario.
Trillium Jury Comment: Phil Hall’s Killdeer migrates all our basic borderlands: part memoir, part essay, part poetry, all insight. From highway scars to birdwings, crumbling basements to coastlines, Hall’s essay-poems illuminate not only the big issues, but also the essential paradoxes of everyday life. A sure, wondrous, profound pilgrimage of a book.