Arcadia Borealis: Childhood and Youth in Northern Ontario


The collection of autobiographical essays which I compiled into Arcadia Borealis were written over many years, going back as early as 1988, some twenty years before the book was released by a small regional press from Sudbury, Ontario.  Like a musician with a collection of songs around a similar theme that add up to a single album, I one day realized I had enough pieces based on or inspired by growing up and then leaving the eponymous area of the Canadian province to put them into a single book, which is how the work came to be.  It’s the closest publication I have to a memoir, although there’s been a price to pay for publishing it.

As I write in Arcadia Borealis, the landscape and culture of Northern Ontario is not one that’s been often represented in Canadian literature, certainly not in its 1970s and 80s incarnation.  Geographically, it’s a distinct part of the country unlike the big cities of Toronto, Montreal, or Vancouver (think Margaret Atwood, Douglas Coupland, or Mordecai Richler), but also unlike the Prairies (think W.O. Mitchell), or the far North (Farley Mowat or Pierre Berton).  So the book recounts a variety of my juvenile experiences from the gold rush outpost of Red Lake and my home town of Sault Ste. Marie, and then offers adult reflections on my roots from Canada’s west coast.  Some of the essays are more about me than the region – “Satan & Me” looks back on first reading The Exorcist at the tender age of eight (anticipating my later book Here’s To My Sweet Satan), while “In Search Engines of Lost Time” (the title puns on Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, usually translated into In Search of Lost Time) is about losing and then reclaiming a favorite comic book issue remembered from summer vacations, and one of the best things I ever wrote.

Arcadia Borealis had a small print run and even smaller sales, mostly to libraries around Ontario and a few curious locals, one of whom posted a hilarious pan on  “Trying to be artistic, the author engages in complex and run-on sentences when his target audience would be better served by simpler prose. As it stands, if you’re an executive who was once a stoner, then this book will bring back many fond(?) memories. For the rest of the Earth’s 99.99999999999999999 percentile, this book becomes a tiresome journey into the subculture of losers in the northern steel town of Sault Ste. Marie.”  My recollections of wasted teenage years were intended to counter the disingenuous boosterism of civic leaders in “the Soo” and environs, which have long stood as Canada’s decaying rust belt rather than the scenic getaways depicted in tourist brochures (I must confess to composing copy for such brochures); indeed, the abused substances I recalled in Arcadia Borealis’s central chapters are now legal, but have been supplanted by opioids and worse in today’s Northern Ontario.

I regret that I included in the anthology some lightly fictionalized portraits of old friends, who were deeply hurt to see themselves characterized in less-than-flattering lights and whose struggles with addiction and mental health issues were committed to print without my prior notice, much less their approval.  At least two individuals of whom I wrote in Arcadia Borealis have since died.  The book’s publisher, a gracious and dedicated English professor at Sudbury’s Laurentian University, dissolved his business upon retirement and I purchased a box of unsold copies back from him; there are a few others floating around but most editions will never again see the light of day.  Memo to memoirists:  some memories, however vivid, and some impressions, however sincere, are not worth putting down on paper.

Next week:  Out Of Our Heads:  Rock ‘n’ Roll Before the Drugs Wore Off

One thought on “Arcadia Borealis: Childhood and Youth in Northern Ontario

  1. Fiction: It’s what lets you get those memories on paper without harming the people they’re about. As one of my writing mentors told me when I specifically asked, fictional characters are not recognized by the people they are based on when those characters are true to the story. I’m not talking fan fiction, of course.

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