Saturday, May 16, 2009

Suggested Summer Reading by Anthony McCarthy

I wish I’d known about Susan Coyne’s beautiful little memoir of the summer she was five-years-old while my nieces were young enough to enjoy it. As it is, they’ll probably have to wait until they’re old enough for adolescent cynicism to dissipate enough for them to appreciate it. And that might take years.

Along with some fine description of the boreal forest of Canada, most of the book is about her friendship with old Mr. Moir who had a cottage next to the one where her family spent the summers. The form of their friendship was two-fold, in her frequent visits to help him in his garden or to do chores and in a series of letters he wrote to her as the fairy princess Nootsie Tah. He ingeniously covered his tracks and made the letters so convincing that even the mockery of her older siblings didn’t shake her belief in their authenticity. She was also lucky enough that her parents and nanny cooperated in the effort. Along the way, Mr. Moir sparked her interest in literature and the theater.

The conclusion of the story, including Nootsie Tah’s deciding to return to her home in Peru, having to end their correspondence, and a young girl growing out of that part of her life, might invoke the cliche “bitter sweet”. But in Coyne’s handling the sadness isn’t bitter at all. It is a lot like watching a child grow up and leaving behind their beloved stuffed toys. Coyne’s luck held in this case. Her parents had the foresight to keep the letters for her and Mr. Moir’s children were able to return what she’d left to the fairy princess.

My mother has been watching a family of five baby chipmunks who live with their mother under her raised garden bed, all week. They’ve been gradually making their way from the protection of the cement blocks that hold the bed, where they can take quick cover. Being what she is, my mother’s worried about them even as she says she knows their safety isn’t in her hands and as she knows some of them almost certainly won’t live to adulthood. And that’s what it’s like to care about children who are not your own. At the end of the book, Coyne’s mother is quoted, “ A ship is safe in harbour but that’s not what a ship is for”. And that’s what our lives are, a ship that should start out in safety but which is not meant to stay there. Like those chipmunks’, our lives are for something else. But the beginning is as much a part of the whole as any other part of it.

Susan Coyne might be most familiar as an actress, particularly in the role of Anna in the great Canadian TV series Slings and Arrows. People who bothered to read the credits would also know that she wrote large parts of the series and was one of the co-creators of the original idea for it. She’s also been engaged in translating Chekhov’s plays for the Soulpepper Theater in Toronto as well as in writing plays. The parts of the book written by her, Mr. Moir’s wonderful letters comprising a large portion of it, are beautifully written in a style that unusually matches great simplicity with emotional engagement. Something that is one of the hardest things to achieve. Having both watched the series and read this book, I am going to be looking for more of her work.

Kingfisher Days by Susan Coyne ISBN-10: 0887547303 ISBN-13: 978-0887547300

I believe the book was also published under the name In The Kingdom of the Fairies.