Thursday, April 01, 2010

Our Way of Doing Things

The other day, I was doing my usual volunteer shift at the used bookstore/coffee shop we run in our local library. I do the setup, and my partner comes in an hour later. I'd put out the chairs, wheeled out the book racks and set up the cash register, so as the coffee was brewing, I turned my attention to some boxes of books sitting on the floor.

Now, we get donations of books all day long. Some of the books we sell are library discards, but by far the greater number - probably 90% - are straight donations from the public. Our little shop has no storage room, so when people bring in books we mostly put the boxes on the floor near the coat closet (slightly blocking the hardcover French section, but not too many people are interested in those books anyway). Most every morning I come in to find a few boxes of books sitting there, accumulated from the previous afternoon. They wait there until the sorters come along - these are ladies who make the decisions which books to store at the back of the library (in their storage room), which to put out on the shelves, and which to put into the "Free" bin. Those are books that are marked up and a bit shabby, but still readable. They go in with the magazines, and people are welcome to take them for free.

This time, I found two boxes of books over by the Classic Literature section, and they each had a label on them: "Damaged, Moldy Smell, Spines Broken - Please throw away". I opened them up and found a varied lot of rather old books, some of them in very nice condition, others a bit ratty looking, but all of them what I'd call salvageable. I could detect a slightly musty smell, but not very bad, and I have an extremely sensitive nose - if I think an odor is faint, most people wouldn't notice it at all. None of the books was water damaged; any "moldiness" was probably due to having been stored in a basement or attic, or it could even have been just the box that smelled a bit damp. Anyway, I rebelled at the order to destroy these books. I looked through them to see if there were any I could rescue myself, and then I put the rest in the Free Bin. If someone had said throw them out, I didn't feel right about selling them, but I felt they deserved a chance of life if someone wanted them.

The ones I picked out were rather interesting: there were two books for kids about the history of the Mounties, and then there were two young readers adventure books featuring "Dale of the Mounted", written by Joe Holliday. I looked up these books on abebooks.com when I got home, and I discovered that there was a series of 12 of them, written between 1954 and 1964. They were all-Canadian adventure stories, and I'd never heard of them.

"Dale of the Mounted: Atomic Plot" is dedicated to the workers at the nuclear facility at Chalk River, Ontario - rather poignant, as Chalk River just closed down last year. The synopsis on the dust jacket promises a story about spies and nuclear secrets.
From the moment Pakistani scientist Dr. Sachi Rami gets out of the plane at Ottawa's Upland airport with his bodyguard the bearded, turbaned Chaudri, and his shy Hindu secretary, Kalomé, trouble dogs his footsteps.

When I read this to Dean, he marvelled at how broad-minded the protagonists were: a Muslim scientist, with a Sikh bodyguard and a Hindu secretary, only a few years after they'd all been killing each other over Partition!

"Dale of the Mounted: Dew Line Duty" particularly interested me, because my Dad worked on the Dew Line when I was a kid. If you don't know, the Dew Line was a series of radar stations built in the high Arctic to detect foreign (i.e. Russian) attacks on North America over the polar ice cap. One of my favourite MST3K episodes is "The Deadly Mantis", because about a third of it takes place up on the Dew Line. I always wish my Dad were still alive when I'm watching it - I'm sure he'd have found it hilarious, and I'd have been able to ask him how accurate the details in the movie were. Was there really a giant "Have You Checked Your Antifreeze?" sign right outside the CO's office?


Anyway, I've just started reading this book, and already I'm finding that it's describing a disappeared world. It's not Dale - he's fine. It's Canada that's no longer recognizable. The story starts off with Hungarian refugees arriving in Canada, after the Communists crushed their uprising in their home country. There's some nice, robust anti-Communism here:
Most of the refugees had come from Budapest. It was now a city of ruins, the aftermath of their terrible, but unsuccessful, revolution against their oppressive Communist masters who had systematically ground the people beneath brutal, ruthless military heels.
Yeah, good stuff! And that's just on the first page!

Then the plot thickens: some Communist spies have infiltrated the refugees, and one of them is spotted at one of the shelters. A crowd of angry Hungarians threatens to kill the spy, when Dale takes control of the situation:
Dale's jaw tightened. "You tell these people," he informed the interpreter, "that this is Canada. I know they've had a rough time in Hungary, but in this country they've got to obey our laws, our way of doing things. Tell them I'll take charge of this man. We will check on his background, to satisfy ourselves about his record. Lynching may be okay in Budapest, but it isn't in Montreal."

Today, making such a speech could very likely land a citizen in front of a Human Rights Commission. In 1959, everyone understood what it meant when someone said, "In this country they've got to obey our laws, our way of doing things". But today? What are "our laws"? What is "our way of doing things"? It's a permanent state of flux, awaiting the next band of aliens who can squat their butts down on Canadian soil, and immediately claim the right to remake "our laws" and "our way of doing things".

Canada is not a permanent place; it's just clay waiting the next set of hands who can grab it and mould it into something new. Hunting Jews with machetes wasn't "our way of doing things" in 1959, but bring in enough people who like to do that and sure enough, now it is. Murdering daughters for wanting to drive wasn't "our way of doing things", nor was importing child brides or having multiple wives at public expense, but guess what? If enough people who feel like doing those things can get a toe in the door, before you know it all those backward, worthless traditions have also become "our way of doing things".

Whatever "our way of doing things" is today, you can bank on the fact that by next year it will be different. It reminds me of a line from an MST3K movie: as the zombie steadily advances on the police, they shout "Stop where you are!" "I can't, I'm not there anymore," is the riposte. In the same way, Zombie Canada keeps mindlessly lurching forward into a void with no clear idea of where we came from or where we're going, just the certainty that we can't stop moving.

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