Monday, October 28, 2013

The Story of a Book

This is a story about a book. Not the story in the book (though that’s fascinating too), but the story of this book’s road to prominence on my shelf. If you ask most readers what their favorite novels are, they will say “Oh, there are so many. I couldn’t choose one.” I can: Not Wanted on the Voyage, by Timothy Findley. And here’s how that happened.

My grade eleven english teacher seriously intimidated me. Mr. Whitman, was flamboyant and haughty. I thought he hated me. He seemed to ooze disapproval. Most days he completely ignored me. When one of my short stories was published in the School District’s “Fledgelings” magazine he dragged me into his office and asked (with his glassed perched precariously on his nose) “So, young lady, how do you know so much about fox-hunting?”

“I researched it,” I said proudly. And I had. In these years before internet, I had spent hours in the library learning all the fox-hunting jargon.
Kim McDougall & Griffin
He’d smiled his Cheshire Cat smile and said, “You’ll be a wonderful writer when you write about what you know.” There’s a double-edged compliment for you. I left without another word.
Then one day, for no reason, he dropped Not Wanted on the Voyage on my desk and said, "You're going to love this book." I read it and didn't understand a word. I returned it to him, embarrassed and mumbling something about it being good. Mr. Whitman never offered another book or insight to me.

About five years later, I reread Not Wanted on the Voyage and fell in love with it from the first page of the prologue. Since then I have read it several times and I wonder, how did my teacher, who barely spoke to me, have such insight? Could it be possible that teachers pay more attention than egocentric teens realize? Shocking!

But Not Wanted on the Voyage isn’t my favorite novel just because of its brilliant prose or the strange way it came into my life. Every time I read this novel I am a different person. It makes me aware of my growth as a reader, as plainly as a child’s growth chart etched on a doorframe.

At age eighteen, I wrote a short story, Nomad’s Daughter. It was the first good thing I ever wrote, the first work that one of my teachers noticed and praised. It made me feel good about myself at the time and urged me to continue writing. Every few years I pull it out and reread it. I am reminded of how I have grown as a writer. At twenty-three, I scoffed at my juvenile attempts at literary prose. At twenty-eight, I rewrote it completely. At thirty-three, I decided the original wasn’t so bad, just heavy-handed.
I don’t pretend to compare Nomad’s Daughter with Not Wanted on the Voyage, but it serves the same yardstick purpose to my writing.
Come to think of it, might be time to reread both of them.

Here’s an excerpt from the prologue of Not Wanted on the Voyage by Timothy Findley


And Noah went in, and his sons, and his sons’ wives with him into the arc, because of the waters of the flood …
Genesis 7:7

Everyone knows it wasn’t like that. 

To begin with, they make it sound as if there wasn’t any argument; as if there wasn’t any panic—no one being pushed aside—no one being trampled —none of the animals howling —none of the people screaming blue murder. They make it sound as if the only people who waned to get on board were Doctor Noyes and his family. Presumably, everyone else (the rest of the human race, so to speak) stood off waving gaily, behind a distant barricade: SPECTATORS WILL NOT CROSS THE YELLOW LINE and THANK YOU FOR YOUR COOPERATION. With all the baggage neatly labeled: WANTED or NOT WANTED ON THE VOYAGE.
Timothy Findley

By the way, my story of this book doesn’t end with Mr. Whitman. Some years ago, I was fortunate enough to meet Mr. Findley at a Books and Breakfast reading at Montreal’s Ritz Carleton. I told him that I kept giving away my copies of his book, because I thought everyone should read it. He took my address and a few months later, I received a signed hard copy in the mail. Findley suffered from depression all his life. He signed it with his usual mantra, "Against Despair." I wonder if he reread his own work and held it up to that yardstick.

The Castelane blog will feature guest authors, artists and publishers, writing about marketing, publishing and the joys and angsts of the writing life. If you’d like to contribute to either the Castelane blog or the Knowledge Base, please contact us at

I’d also love to hear your experiences about your favorite books or interesting teachers. Feel free to post them here.

✍ Kim McDougall


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