Wednesday, 18 November 2015

I Was A Teenage Katima-victim by Will Ferguson


I remember when this book was all over the place in the bookstore at which I used to work. (Possibly since it was shelved in the humour section, and that was the section that bred a certain kind of situational dread. Many humour books are big and floppy, and prone to falling on your head as you adjust other books on the shelf. I developed a strong flinching instinct in that section. It did not save my poor head. 

Now, however, it's a hard book to find, which is made more difficult when it's a book club pick. We're having to pass around one or two copies, as the library has none, and neither do any of the local used bookstores. That is kind of astounding to me, although perhaps a good sign - people are keeping their copies that used to be so ubiquitous?

At any rate, I was able to get my hands on a copy, a month early, thanks to the book club member who chose it. I had stubbed my toe hard on Ferguson's entry into the straightforward novel genre, 419, so I wasn't sure what I would make of something else by the same author.

Luckily, I discovered that his humour is much more palatable than the implausibilities of how Canadian authorities would react to someone being scammed. I ton't know if Katimavik was in operation when I was a teenager - if it was, it didn't really make an impact on my consciousness, but I saw a post on Facebook just yesterday, calling on new Prime Minister Trudeau to reinstitute it.

After reading this book, I'm not sure I would disagree, although given some of the stories of some of the conditions, I wonder how well it would fare when any amount of discomfort for people used to being comfortable is quickly seized upon.

On the other hand, I think a bit of discomfort for the regularly comfortable is instructive. Not verging into danger, but, you know, roughing it.

Will Ferguson relates his year in Katimavik, and while it sounds like maybe it wasn't the source of life-changing insights, there are certainly much poorer ways to spend a year, and while the value may be hard to pin down, that doesn't mean it's not there. At least, that's my feel. This is certainly not a picture of Katimavik as a source of deep spiritual or political significance. But still, not meaningless.

It's a story of seven young people, who frequently want to kill each other as they work cleaning up antiques for a museum in Kelowna, work with old people in St. Thomas, and build an "amusement park" in Quebec. They live together, fight, eat way more pasta than I could stomach, cook, argue, and do all the things you'd expect people in their late teens or early 20s to do.

I think the book was picked because a third of it takes place in St. Thomas, where the person who picked it lived. Will Ferguson apparently got there right before the Jumbo statue was unveiled, and gets a great deal of mileage out of the main tourist attraction being that it's the place an elephant got run over by a train.

But hey. When I was little, my grandmother took me to see the Jumbo statue. She bought me a coin with Jumbo on it. And nowadays, there's a microbrewery in St. Thomas that makes Dead Elephant beer. So it hasn't gone away as a claim to fame.

I enjoyed  I Was a Teenage Katima-victim far more than I did Ferguson's later, literary exploits. It's snarky, even though the youthful jackass does shine through. I'm glad I got to read it, now that it's in no danger of falling off a shelf and hitting my head. 

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