Making His Muskoka Boyhood into a Universal Story

Aboriginal tales of spirits in the winds and waters, combined with the ghost of a villager who'd hanged himself from the apple tree behind the Bartleman house, made him fearfully attuned to mysterious moanings and their haunting, other-worldly meanings.

More tangible was the Indian life in the village that came alive to him each summer when the Chippewa people returned from the Reserve to occupy their traditional lands and camp along the riverbank in the community's centre.

Now the boy entered an enchanting summer paddling a canoe, fishing, and watching women make baskets and weave in sweetgrass or quills. He basked in harmonious calm while listening to familiar stories and soft-language songs, witnessing raw brawls after prohibited but easily obtained liquor had been consumed, and inhaling the intoxicating scent of wood smoke from campfires among the pine trees along the riverbank.

These magic summers of his aboriginal heritage were like a dream, however. In another season he experienced the nightmare world, when he saw the thin, shuffling, haggard bodies of his blind and stroke-debilitated grandfather and his malnourished uncles. The boy encountered them visiting the impoverished and trash littered "third world" Reserve to the south.

"As they passed the sign welcoming people to the reserve, the paved road turned into a dusty, potholed gravel track. Bloated bodies of dogs and cats, killed by speeding cars, lay uncollected in the ditches. People the boy had met at the Indian Camp and now recognized walking along the road seemed bereft of the self-confidence and dignity he had come to associate with them in their Muskoka setting.

Yellow-stained mattresses, rusting car bodies, old magazines, shattered bottles that once contained cheap wine, perfume, and patent medicines, chewing tobacco packages, cigarette butts and wrappings, and broken household equipment littered weed-filled yards, wrote Bartleman.

Most of the habitations the boy saw were "the dilapidated log cabins and tarpaper-roofed shacks of a rural slum." Few had electricity, though power lines ran through the Reserve "connecting the better-off white families on either side." Outhouses were "standard in all backyards" and the boy's grandfather's house was "no different from the others."

Back in Port Carling, racist banter in the schoolyard and streets about lazy, uneducated and inferior Indians, and being called a dirty half-breed, did its damage to the boy. Although he would develop "a passionate attachment to the village," for the rest of his days he "would always feel that to some extent he was an outsider."

The many worlds the boy encountered through his father's side of the family came in even more varieties — visiting relatives of Scottish heritage and theological calling, or the three classes of drinkers in the social and cultural strata of Port Carling with their additional layers of monarchist loyalty and Protestant virtue, or the human foibles represented by his father's fellow day-labourers and co-adventurers who bonded in re-telling their rail-rider stories of the Depression and breaking free from any remaining constraints by the power of raisin wine consumed throughout the nights of summer weekends that blurred into one another by the Indian River behind his house.

Both these worlds were present in the village in different ways for ‘the boy' who assumes Jim Bartleman's persona as he moves back and forth between them. In this story of refreshing candour and remarkable wisdom, vividly recounted episodes unfold one after another, taking hold like the drama of a black-and-white movie in the early postwar years, oscillating between the two sides of his family and the boy's private tug-of-war with himself.

The contrasting cultures yielded endless studies for his questing mind as this bright boy sorted out the daily contradictions made clear to him at the crossover points between these worlds where he dwelt.

In this same village where the boy experienced the delight of summertime migrations of Indians to Port Carling, he also confronted in the parallel summer influx of city folk to their resorts and cottages attitudes that assaulted his Muskoka status as ‘a local' and turned into taunting provocations about his aboriginal heritage.

What makes this a story of "a different Muskoka" is that takes us through the District's underclass reality seldom acknowledged in glossy coffee table books about classic boats, steamship cruises on the Muskoka Lakes, the legendary resorts and heritage three-storey boathouses, nor in the history books about Port Carling that begin only with the white settlers, oblivious to the earlier Indian village of Obajewanung with its log cabins and fields of potatoes and corn in the very same place where the boy's ancestors had lived for countless generations.

Not only does the boy simultaneously move back and forth between the two cultural worlds of his parents sharing in the adventures within each, not only does he experience the world of Muskoka's summer tourist economy from its underside drawing down the lessons from that. There is even more.

He also takes off into many other worlds, not like his father through drinking potent raisin wine but its boyhood equivalent, the fantastic power of a child's imagination. Here the additional worlds of his imaginary realm know no bounds because they spin out endlessly from his growing awareness of the wider world through radio, newspapers and movies, and his desire to transcend the substrata life which fate had apparently fixed upon him.

Suddenly he escapes the confines of this Muskoka village when transformed into an unbelievably courageous war hero single-handedly liberating Europe by machine-gunning down all the Nazis while Winston Churchill and the girls at school cheer him on. All life's tawdry little problems fall away when he is triumphantly reincarnated as a human bird soaring in flight high above Port Carling and out across Lake Muskoka.

Yet another trans-section of worlds came when the boy's mother slipped below the waterline of mental health, only struggling back up to the surface from the black depths of her despair by herself, sitting alone in the woods with her pipe and tobacco for hours, pushing herself to tend her children, supported by the time and space they gave her to heal. So the boy learned bleakly of yet another world, this one a human space in fragmented dimensions of reality and life's surrealism of imprisoning moods.

Escaping the prison of his time and place, the boy like his father became an avid reader. Interest in reading leads him into an ever-widening circle of still more worlds. First he traverses adventure-filled domains across the colourful pages of comic books retrieved from the dump or purchased at Whiting's Drugstore and Ice Cream Parlour with his meagre earnings.

Next he fully absorbs the immediacy of world dramas and human passions splayed over the news columns of The Toronto Daily Star, reading the entire newspaper even before delivering copies to his impatient customers. Then, following his iconoclastic father to the Port Carling Library one day, the boy discovers the most amazing world of all. He is welcomed by the librarian. He can borrow books for free.

Each book on the seemingly endless shelves gives him a passport to a new universe as big as his imagination and as accessible as his voracious reading habits can supply. "Exposed to the real thing, the boy never returned to comic books."

What stands out is how bright this boy was. Even though he got mixed up in a lot of dumb and hazardous experiences, like most youths growing up in Muskoka in the Fifties, his thoughtfulness and critical mind was brought to bear on life around him. The sudden death of his childhood friend killed by a car passes with next to no notice, which he contrasts to the way church bells pealed and the whole village turned out in black to mourn the death of an old clerk who'd collected taxes and rudely harassed the boy's impoverished mother threatening to cut services to their house.

The sharp contrasts between his aboriginal and non-aboriginal worlds likewise presented painful and puzzling experiences, whose contradictions also provoked a very young Jim Bartleman to grapple with questions about God's existence, social behaviours, economic injustice, and the many layers of discrimination, from crass to nuanced, in the "different Muskoka" of his boyhood.

As relived in the episodes and dramas of this engaging book, the boy in Port Carling displayed a maturity in his questioning mind that many people only reach later in life, if at all, when discomfort with contradictions forces them to look again with fresh eyes. From a very early age, by straddling the two cultures of his home and village, he painfully edged toward his own centre of gravity. This enabled him to be intelligently critical of the teachings of each world when they just did not add up, whether in the hypocrisy about drinking or the existence of God.

The purpose of philosophy is not abstract but intensely practical, a truth seldom more eloquently and simply exhibited than on these pages of Raisin Wine which reveal a very young philosopher required to reason through to something sensible in coping with his boyhood in a very different Muskoka. In time, he would find his identity more completely in the traditions and values of his aboriginal birthright.

The word "difference," emphasized in the book's title, is a key to understanding not only the power of this narrative and its larger meaning, but also how embodying and living the difference successfully equipped the boy for a later life in international relations and the arts of blending harmonious relations, as much as his work as a diplomat could, between the irreconcilable conflicts of cultural differences and economic disparities around the world.

That this small book takes on such a universal character is due not only to the honesty of its stories but also the author's inspired decision at some point to depart from the first-person singular voice by which he told other parts of this saga in his earlier work Out of Muskoka. The real "Jimmy" Bartleman stands up in Raisin Wine as "the boy."

So dressed and described, he takes on the character of and becomes a stand-in for any youngster in any village any place in the world. As a mature observer of his younger self, the author's astute use of the third person has enabled him to transcend and portray these timeless experiences in a fashion that will connect with a universal audience.

The child philosopher in this story not only sees the raw edge of economic and social and religious experience in ways that startle out deep insights at an early age. The physical world around him is also seen with a sharpness and clarity that is perhaps a gift from his mother's side of the family.

These in turn lead to vivid descriptions, whether of woodland flowers or the backrooms of the local butcher shop, that place the reader inside the story. The author's unflinching realism is happily married to a talent at capturing a scene in words. Looking through the window of the train carrying him as a child south to the big city, he puzzles to watch the sun racing him along the railway track as it flashes in tandem "behind telephone poles, farmhouse, and trees and yet never moves." Hunt'n out of season, and fish'n with illegal gill nets at night, the boy shares the camaraderie of the men of the village and takes the reader right into the poaching party with him on these clandestine rituals for harvesting needed food.

If Stephen Leacock made nearby Orillia famous (or, to chagrined locals at the time, infamous) as ‘Mariposa' by embedding his social critiques and commentary on human ways in a cocoon of humour, James Bartleman's ironic wit and prodding humour do the same for Port Carling – whether the boy is the vehicle for sending up the intolerant bigotry of the Orange Lodge or the ‘full tolerance' policing standards of the village bootlegger who doubled as the local game warden and looked the other way when his many customers laid waste to the fish and game of the vicinity.

Tourists delighted to eat the succulently tender meat served in the dining room of Port Carling House hotel, even as villagers in the know understood they were eating cuts the local butcher had removed from his counter because they had started to turn, but stayed silent so the wealthy could enjoy their splendid gourmet meal and Port Carling could retain its tourist trade. The village constable was more prone to follow the personal beat of his solitary life and fixed menu of cold beans and Bartlett pears eaten from cans than to sleuth out the wayward pranks of boys at Hallowe'en or patrol men's illegal gambling, drinking, hunting and fishing practices. This account of Port Carling life, for all that it strips bare, is also affectionately told by an author gifted with self-deprecating humour and wisdom about the ways nonsense is too often packaged as something important or significant. As learned from his worldly and widely-read father, he would "embrace nature and laugh, laugh, and laugh again at the joys and absurdities of life."

Even after he left the village for a career in diplomacy on six continents, followed by a hectic role in the 1990s as foreign policy advisor to Prime Minister Chretien, and now as vice-regal representative of Queen Elizabeth in the Province of Ontario, Jim Bartleman has never got Muskoka out of him. As a boy sitting outside his family's house on a Muskoka winter's night, mesmerized watching giant snowflakes caught in the glow of the streetlight fall softly around him, he thought to himself that no matter how long he would live, he could never find greater peace than this.

"And", says the author, looking back over 60 years, "the boy was right."

— Review by J. Patrick Boyer

Out of Muskoka
ISBN: 978-1-894131-98-8
Penumbra Press, 2006
160 pages, 5.5 x 8.5 in
$19.95 CDN/USA paperback

Out of Muskoka
ISBN: 978-1-894131-31-5
Penumbra Press, 2004
192 pages, 5.75 x 8.75 in
$29.95 CDN/USA hardcover

Raisin Wine: A Boyhood in a Different Muskoka
ISBN: 978-0-7710-1264-8
Douglas Gibson Books, 2008
272 pages, 5.79 x 8.82 in
$19.99 CDN/USA paperback



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