Penumbra Press. ('Our View')

Article excerpt

Penumbra Press is one of scores of small publishers that are turning outsome of Canada's finest books. One of the press's most prolific authors is Munroe Scott. In 2001, Penumbra published Scott's novel, The Liberators, a raucous novel set in late 1830s, in post-rebellion Upper Canada where anti-government activity continued on islands in the St Lawrence, near Cornwall, even after William Lyon Mackenzie had fled the colony. Scott and his editor at Penumbra are currently polishing Scott's memoirs, which will give readers a glimpse of this man's range and durability, from film to biography and fiction.

In late 2002, Penumbra published Eleanor Milne's Captured in Stone, Carving Canada's Past, a companion piece to Munroe Scott's Carving of Canada (1999). Both books deal with the same subject--the history of Canada, from precontact to 1914, as represented in the flora, fauna and people carefully carved in the Indiana limestone of the foyer outside the House of Commons during the last half of the twentieth century.

The difference in the two books is method: while Scott has a mythical Old One describe the carvings and the history they represent, Captured in Stone uses analytical narrative, the more traditional historical method. In Captured, styles of architecture and art are explained, from Romanesque to Neo-Gothic, as well as stone-carving methods, from design to process and tools. Eleanor Milne, Dominion Sculptor from 1962 to 1993, and thus the woman who headed the massive project, is the author, assisted by Barbara Lambert and Eleanor Moore. Not surprisingly, there is a brief biography of the multi-talented Milne, who in Scott's book remains a more obscure mythological figure called 'Ti'Elen. Captured is beautifully illustrated, mostly in black and white, with two or three full-page color photographs of the entire foyer, which show that the interior of this NeoGothic building is arguably as beautiful as the interiors of European cathedrals whose style its architects and carvers have emulated.

Also recently published by Penumbra is James Bartleman's Out of Muskoka (2002), a short memoir, elegantly written. Few readers will come away unmoved by this rise from poverty and discrimination to the top of the diplomatic and vice-regal life in Canada. (Today Lie is Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario.) Born in 1939, Bartleman grew up in a canvas tent and a series of uninsulated frame shacks around Port Carling, about three hours drive north of Toronto. At school, epithets such as "dirty half breed" were hurled at the family. The future looked gloomy.

Then one day along came a fairy godfather, an American millionaire on holiday in Muskoka, who financed Bartleman's higher education, and the rest is history, diplomacy and memoir, with a little didacticism thrown in for good measure.

All is well until one night in Cape Town, an intruder, equipped with an electric prong of high voltage, meets him at the door of his posh hotel. The diplomat is gagged and robbed. He survives only to suffer from mental depression and nightmares, which return him in memory to childhood poverty in Muskoka.

The book is not without unintended ironies. While backpacking through Europe in the 1960s, the young Bartleman disparages poor and odoriferous Spanish peasants and their "snotty-nosed children". More to his liking are the well scrubbed ruling classes, such as Sheik Mujibur Rahman, first leader of an independent Bangladesh in the early 1970s, though the diplomat is slightly squeamish when he discovers, years later, that this cultured man was not averse to graft, corruption and brutality.

Another recent Penumbra publication is Tales of Courage (2002) by Bernard Chevrier. The book is a series of Whiggish biographical sketches of "outstanding citizens" who have lived in Eastern Ontario. …