By Trevor Busch
Whether you’re traveling to far-flung destinations or just sticking around the home quarter in stay-cation mode for your summer holidays, it’s always a matter of near life and death to ensure a good stock of reading material gets lugged along with you.
At least, that’s how I see it.
Having stayed in numerable campgrounds in some of the more obscure and primitive corners of the Western U.S. over the years, it doesn’t matter what your activity schedule is, it’s inevitable you’re going to find yourself with some time on your hands at some point.
Besides, that trip to the pit toilet in the morning might be just slightly more enjoyable — just slightly — with a dime novel in tow.
And for the most part, with some minor exceptions, I leave the electronics at home.
After all, there’s something inherently disturbing to me when I witness the Johnsons cruising along through pristine wilderness, all three rug rats in the back with downcast eyes glued incessantly to their cellphones. Catching the latest cat video upload on YouTube can’t possibly be more interesting than witnessing the wonders of the wilderness, can it?
I guess for some people the jury is still out on that one.
But not for me. If you’re an old school camper — and I’m not talking about you motorhome and fifth wheel people, that’s not camping where I come from — the tablets and cellphones are the useless baggage. Those water-stained old tomes kicking around in the bottom of your backpack are where it’s at. Batteries not required, you might say.
Here’s a selection of a few hot summer reads that have passed through my hands this summer and other summers long past.
Such Is My Beloved (1934): Set during the Great Depression in Canada, this outstanding novella from the late great Canadian bard Morley Callaghan follows the story of a young Catholic priest who tries to save two “fallen” women from damnation, but ends up experiencing his own crisis of the soul that eventually costs him his own sanity. Exploring themes of religious hypocrisy, love and lust, Such is My Beloved is essential summer reading.
200 Days: Joe Clark in Power: The Anatomy of the Rise and Fall of the 21st Government (1980): While I usually leave politics at home, this one found its way into my bag, and it turned out to be a great read. While dated, former Canadian journalist Warner Troyer’s post-mortem of the short-lived Clark government has biting satire and scathing criticism, but also insightful analysis of why the Conservatives failed. For today’s audience, there can be found many political mistakes of the past seemingly rearing their head in today’s present.
The Iron Heel (1908): Although invariably associated with his more famous novels of the north like White Fang (1906) or The Call of the Wild (1903), Jack London was also a passionate turn-of-the-century socialist, and his dystopian novel The Iron Heel is an overshadowed classic. Generally considered to be “the earliest of the modern dystopian” fiction, it chronicles the rise of an oligarchic tyranny in the United States.
She: A History of Adventure (1887): In the best tradition of the great imperialist fiction that emanated from many of the scribes of the British Empire, H. Rider Haggard is definitely a standout. And Haggard’s She is one of the standouts among his own work, along with King Solomon’s Mines (1885). While not exactly boy’s adventure fiction, Haggard’s work is rip-roaring imperialist adventure into the wilds of Africa that captured many a boy’s heart from past generations. The self-titled She — a mysterious white queen who rules over a primitive lost tribe, the She-who-must-be-obeyed — launches Haggard’s work into the realm of literature rather than 19th century pulp fiction.
Swastika Night (1937): Author Katherine Burdekin’s fictional future vision of Hitler’s 1,000 year Reich is a fascinating historical footnote, in that Burdekin penned her novel in 1937, a full two years before WWII even commenced. It makes the novel seem prophetically disturbing in its depiction of a feudalistic Nazi empire in a state of decay set centuries after final victory in WWII. The work was forgotten for decades until rediscovered and republished in the 1980s.
It Can’t Happen Here (1935): Sinclair Lewis’ semi-satirical political novel, written during the height of the rise of fascism in Europe, depicts a president turned dictator who seizes power and institutes a system in the United States that chillingly and accurately outlines many of the excesses that would later be witnessed among the Axis powers, but set right in small town America. One suspects this novel has been flying off the shelves recently as Americans grapple with their own authoritarian populist heart-throb, Donald Trump.
Tay John (1939): Born in Lethbridge, author Howard O’Hagan is best known for his ethereal novel of the Rocky Mountains, Tay John. The protagonist of Tay John is a blond giant, “Tête Jaune,” whose legend inspired the naming of Yellowhead Pass through the Rockies. It is a fictional account, set in 1880, about a primitive half-breed outcast who becomes a myth, both worshipped and despised, before disappearing into the earth from which he had sprung.