CM Archive
CM Archive Book Review line

George Woodcock

Toronto, ECW Press, 1990. 75pp, cloth, $18.95
ISBN 1-55022-020-9. (A Reader's Guide series). Distributed by Butterworths Canada. CIP


Lorraine M. York

Toronto, ECW Press, 1990. 90pp, cloth, $18.95
ISBN 1-550220116-7. (A Reader's Guide series). Distributed by Butterworths Canada. CIP

Grades 11 and up/Ages 16 and up
Reviewed by Joanne K.A. Peters.

Volume 19 Number 3
1991 May

Last year, I reviewed Introducing Margaret Laurence's The Stone Angel, the first work in ECW Press's "Canadian Fiction Studies" (see also the review of Introducing Hugh MacLennan's Two Solitudes by Linda Leith and Introducing Modecai Richler's The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz by George Woodcock on page 183 and the review of Introducing Sinclair Ross's As for Me and My House by George Woodcock and Introducing Farley Mowat's The Dog Who Wouldn't Be by Lorraine M. York, below).

I was curious to see how the CFS series, designed to provide guides to major Canadian novels frequently studied in high schools or universities, would develop, particularly as different authors were commissioned to produce the studies. While all of the books contain a descriptive chronology of the author's life, a discussion of the impor­tance of the work (in terms of both Canadian fiction and twentieth century literature), an overview of the work's critical reception, a selected reference list, and an index, it is in the "Reading of the Text" that differences in critical approach emerge.

Although the volumes are sub-titled "A Reader's Guide," Woodcock and York approach the role of reader's guide in quite different fashions. Woodcock guides the reader through his reading of Surfacing (McClelland and Stewart, 1972; General Paperbacks, 1983). His critical essays are carefully developed and masterfully written, as befits a well-respected critic of Canadian letters, but there is no doubt that Woodcock is guiding the reader towards an under­standing of the novel on his terms, and therein lies the problem with works of this type.

Unless given a great deal of instruc­tion in the strategies .of reading litera­ture and an awareness of the various critical stances a reader might adopt towards a work, high school students are likely to come away from a work such as this with the impression that they have been "given the definitive answer to the question of "what does the book mean?" And with a complex work such as Surfacing, such an impres­sion is decidedly false.

Lorraine York's approach to the question of how to introduce The Wars (Clarke, Irwin, 1977 (1989)) is quite different. For her, reading a novel is a process of creating meaning, rather than extracting or receiving it from a text, author or critic. Her approach is summed up quite succinctly in the following statement: "as Timothy Findley suggests, we help to create his novel every time we read it - as one of [her] students commented, 'You never really finish reading this novel; you just keep reassembling the pieces.' "

As she guides readers through the book, York raises a great many ques­tions about how the various pieces might fit together, but she is always careful not to leave one with the feeling that her construction of meaning is the only one possible, and she repeatedly stresses the reader's power to create and re-create meaning in subsequent re-readings of the work. One of the strengths of York's work is that she provides teachers with a reader-response approach to reading a novel, an approach which may be new but is nonetheless critically sound.

Although George Woodcock and Lorraine York offer very different approaches to two landmark works in Canadian fiction, both of these volumes have value for high school English teachers of senior academic classes who are looking for a way to begin a class­room study of these novels, or who are seeking an alternate approach to the one they have been using. However, they are no substitute for reading the book oneself and constructing one's own sense of what the novels mean. Both can be useful acquisitions for a teacher's resource library or a high school library, as long as both teachers and students are aware that ultimately they, as readers, must be their own best guide to a novel.

Joanne K.A. Peters, Sisler High School, Winnipeg, Man.
line indexes


1971-1979 | 1980-1985 | 1986-1990 | 1991-1995


The materials in this archive are copyright © The Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission Copyright information for reviewers

Young Canada Works