Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Book Review #5: Village of the Small Houses by Ian Ferguson

(If you missed this one when it first came out, it's worth going back for. A wildly entertaining memoir of the far North.)

At times touching, at times humorous, this engaging memoir is set primarily in Fort Vermilion, a town of scattered native and white settlements in extreme northern Alberta. The author moved there with his family in 1959 after a rental scam his father was pulling in Edmonton was discovered. The North was a country of rough roads, endless winters (snow in July), ramshackle shacks and marvelously eccentric characters. These included the author’s likable scheming father (who became a teacher in the local school); his father’s best friend, Bud Peyen, a huge ferryman native; the author’s best friend, Lloyd Loonskin; and the unforgettable Sixtoes Mitchell, a trapper and the scariest-looking man in the world: “He looked as if his face had caught on fire and they’d put it out with an axe.”

Ferguson delivers a clear picture of what life was like for a young man growing up far from TV and flush toilets, surrounded by thousands of square miles of inhospitable bush country. Against this background, the people tend to stand out and the author’s recollections bring them fully to life. Highlights include the family’s escape from Edmonton in a 1953 green-and-white Mercury Zephyr; the time Lloyd Loonskin got himself lost in the woods and was found by Sixtoes; and a bear attack in which the author was saved by the family dog. This memoir comes with the smell of wood smoke, yet is able to avoid the sentimental and romantic notions of a life of poverty in the north.

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