Monthly Archives: November 2010

The Death of Donna Whalen, by Michael Winter

The Death of Donna Whalen, by Michael Winter

A brief synopsis of The Death of Donna Whalen would seem simple on the surface, and would also seem to separate swiftly those who would read such a story from those who would not. Based on a true case, the story is about a spirited but troubled young woman who meets a premature and very violent end. Her troubles prior to her death included dealing in behaviours and with people who were truly or reputed to be dangerous. It would seem clear who was responsible for her death. End of a cautionary tale, grimly told …?

Not at all. Drawing on a daunting array of records from the real-life trial of the suspected murderer – court transcripts, police wiretaps, police and news reports, letters, diary excerpts and more – author Michael Winter has distilled them into a singular account of a murder case and its attendant tragedy that is not at all what it seems. Its transcendent approach to capturing this story should and will also draw in readers to the book who might normally eschew “true crime” fare.

Winter’s innovation is that he has created an unlikely Greek chorus out of the voices that emerge from the towering stack of material that apparently lived at the back of his closet for a number of the years during which he grappled with how to tell the story. Further, out of the cacophony of confused, fearful and duplicitous voices telling their versions of Donna Whalen’s story and fate, Winter forges a distinct voice of his own. The alchemy is that he takes first person accounts, compresses them, and sensitively and acutely converts them to the third person, while still retaining accents, inflections and resonances that create an unforgettable collective voice that haunted this reader in her dreams. The result is simultaneously intimate, distancing and authentic, making the story that much more compelling. The final effect also likely replicates the maddening conundrum that law enforcement, investigators and ultimately justice faced and struggled with in arriving at their flawed conclusions.

Many of the relationships between voices and figures in the story are not explained until the end of the book. While this creates some confusion, it also adds to the effect of there not seeming to be a single, reliable voice telling Donna’s story. The reader struggles with her own trust and skepticism – which can change in waves from character to character, and from moment to moment with given characters – that is almost visceral, and therefore that much more intensely engaging.

Winter himself, as well as reviewers, have cited Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood as a point of reference and comparison for The Death of Donna Whalen. While Donna is equally groundbreaking in form, the book is really closer in spirit, form and voice to Kenneth J. Harvey’s Inside. Donna‘s collective voice is as pervasive, haunting and mercurial as Inside‘s beleagured Myrden.

Winter as author and narrative voice is often charmingly, gregariously present in his previous books, such as This All Happened and The Architects Are Here. His presence in The Death of Donna Whalen is deceptively influential, but also respectfully circumspect. It will be interesting to see what Donna does or does not do with his voice in future works. Even if Donna stands alone in his oeuvre … well, it truly stands alone, in every good sense of the phrase.

See also

Michael Winter recently talked most revealingly about his new book “The Death of Donna Whalen” on CBC Radio’s The Next Chapter

Ghost Pine, by Jeff Miller

Ghost Pine, by Jeff Miller

Are there names we hold sacred in the CanLit canon, that must always stand alone? With all genuine and due respect, would it be profane to, say, utter anyone’s name in the same breath as the name of Alice Munro … especially if that writer has “punk” and “zine” in his literary curriculum vitae? If it is, what follows is a profane review …

Ghost Pine: All Stories True offers up “all stories true” from the life of author Jeff Miller, covering 13 years from the 1990s to almost the present. The stories are compiled from the best of his long-running zine of the same name. The stories capture Miller’s youth in suburban Ottawa in the late 1990s, to his largely economy class travels across Canada and North America, to his current home in Montreal.

Miller’s bleak or just bland urban and suburban settings are gritty and seemingly hard-edged at first, but as the stories progress (and sometimes that progress is charted over mere words, sentences, perhaps a paragraph), most are redeemed by consideration, keen observation, kindness and often inexplicable optimism. What in the world could that possibly have in common with Alice Munro’s oeuvre, where rural and small town settings often belie heartbreak, malice and even menace under a picture postcard, pastoral surface? Both are subversive, in their way, for so clearly undermining what the carefully crafted surfaces – semi-rural southwestern Ontario in Munro’s case, downtown or suburban Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Edmonton et al in Miller’s case – would seem to depict. Both imbue their settings and characters with quiet, almost mundane solidity, but, *because* they’re quiet, modest and mundane, are therefore profoundly authentic situations and people with which we can relate.

Miller’s bike couriers, security guards, struggling musicians and artists, mildly and sheepishly disaffected high school students, not to mention the person and persona of Miller himself (because all of his stories are true, remember) might seem depressed, unmotivated, ready to wreak havoc or to just give up. But they all keep going in one fashion or another and they all strive to learn and expand their horizons beyond their immediate circumstances and experiences, best illustrated by the centrepiece set of stories and fragments about “The Social Justice Club”, where a loosely assembled group of misfits strives to find a cause or purpose beyond their day-to-day high school routines. Just as it is charmingly surprising to see these teenagers struggling to understand the issues associated with East Timor or Burma, or the value of becoming a vegetarian, it is almost startling and simultaneously heartwarming to observe a young person ungrudgingly helping his wheelchair-bound grandfather to the bathroom, and then listening not only patiently but with fresh appreciation to an oft-told reminiscence.

“I laughed, not with the childish glee I did the first time I heard the story many years before. But today it was actually kind of funny.

My grandfather wiped a tear of joy from his eye.”

The all true Ghost Pine stories have the intimacy of a handwritten, manually cut and pasted, collated and assembled publication – as they should. That homemade aesthetic does not, however, suggest that there is any compromise in sophistication in the storytelling. That’s again where I think the Alice Munro comparison is sound. Miller’s Ghost Pine stories have the same finely honed care and craft as Munro’s plainspoken words of bottomless depth and possibility. Both speak simply and resonantly of familiar people, locales and experiences, even though they are widely divergent on the surface.

Thank you to Invisible Publishing for providing a review copy of Ghost Pine, by Jeff Miller.