The Dionne Years: A Thirties Melodrama
Deep in the scrub of Northern Ontario, approached by an unpaved two-lane road—few in those parts had cars in the Thirties—lay the enclave of souvenir stands, homestead, and hospital/stadium known the world over as Quintland. Prefaced by an artist’s reconstruction of the slie, it’s an extraordinary story that Pierre Berton tells full-length and undoctored (one might say) for the first time. On one side were the Dionnes, rough-edged, religious French-Canadians: he mocked as a super-stud, she deemed unfit to care for her miraculously identical baby girls—by the very people who drove thousands of miles to watch them play. On the other side was the “quintessential country doctor” Allan Roy Dáfoe, a well-born misfit become a backwoods martinet. (Later, it would count against him that he’d never seen fit to learn French.)
Looking out for the “public interest” was the government of Ontario, which kept the quints under the doctor’s germ-free, arid control for nine years—until a wartime drop in public interest and the clamor for their reunion with their family largely destroyed their value as a tourist attraction. But the bitterest irony is that, once back under one roof with their parents and siblings, the quints were miserable. They had been raised as royal children and were not prepared to be disciplined or to do chores. As psychologist Alfred Adler had warned, the disparity between their lives and their family’s along with their craving for attention, mitigated against “normal human development.” So, though Papo Dionne won the battle for their custody (and saw the despised Dafoe dismissed in semi-disgrace), he lost the war for their allegiance and affection. The three remaining sisters live in obscure, more-or-less impowerished strangement today. This is a dismal but inescapably absorbing story, with the political, social, and psychological implications firmly examined.
Visions of Glory: A History and a Memory of Jehovah’s Witnesses
Barbara Harrison joined the Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1944, at the age of nine, and left in 1956, on the verge of a nervous breakdown. These twelve years were the most traumatic and bizarre phase of a longer search for religious belief that ultimately led her to Catholicism. She is a spontaneous, funny writer and tells her own story engagingly. But she also tries, unsuccessfully, to blend autobiography and muckraking journalism, as she takes us on an exhaustive tour of this alternately fascinating and repellent sect (estimated membership 2,248,000 worldwide).
Because they refuse to bear arms or salute any national flag. Witnesses have been subject to fierce persecution, and Harrison credits them with courage and patience under fire. (Witnesses, she notes, helped to extend civil rights generally by challenging in court all attempts to muzzle them, for example in the Supreme Court’s decisions on compulsory flag saluting.) But for the most part she finds them cold, narrow-minded, lost in absurd apocalyptic fantasies. With meticulous care and thoroughness she documents the contradictions of their scriptures, the cruelty and hypocrisy of their founder, Charles Taze Russell (1852-1916), the dehumanizing conditions at their giant Watchtower Society headquarters in Brooklyn, in her continual shifts between “history” and “memory,” Harrison jumbles chronological order, chasing now this issue, now that one, as the fancy seizes her. Still, her book contains useful reportage.
The Horse of Pride: Life in a Breton Village
According to the foreword by Laurence Wylle, who applied social antheopology to the study of Provence (Village in the Vaucluse, 1957). The Horse of Pride is at once “an epic of peasant life in Brittany during the first half of this century…an ethnographic description of a culture that has all but disappeared…a case study in the quarrel over ethnicity…an account of a childhood,” Professor Helias, a native of the bigouden region to which he confines himself here, has been “leading a double life” ever since his family subordinated its only weapon against hardship—cultural pride—to the better one promised by a scholarship to a French lycee, where “I made my first discovery of Purgatory’s homely face”: there were no sugar-salads and no box-beds (those individual “chapels” whose doors lent a semblance of privacy to sleeping in a one-room house and protected babies while mothers worked the fields): even the Breton language was taboo—and now, Helias laments, the whole populace has been robbed of it by government fiat.
The movement toward homogenization, he argues, diluted and invalidated regional identity: “the champions of the new social sciences” approach its remains armed with charts but blind to its cultural soul. The end of the book is bitter and plaintive by turns: “Let us take advantage of the fact that Brittany is now a fashionable brand-name; in that way we can make ourselves known…. Let us be as Celtie as possible.” Often drawing on the experience of his own family. Helias revives bigouden folklore in all of its material and spiritual manifestations. There is much that seems heroic in this patient and respectful account and, as Wylie notes, its colloquial language has been translated with extraordinary skill.
Robert van den Bosch is an extremely angry man. As an entomologist at the University of California. Berkeley he is long familiar with—and loathes—the dumping of tons of nonspecific insecticides over the land in the relentless and increasingly futile effort to eradicate bugs. His ire is off-putting at first: too much vilification of man as greedy; too much hackneyed pejorative (the agribusiness “mafia,” the “rape of the land”). But he builds a strong and ultimately convincing case. And since he is not afraid of citing specific offenders and instances of collusion, corruption, and coercion, the book is bound to be controversial. Van den Busch’s scientific points are well taken. The one-dimensional approach of using potent insecticides damages the good with the bad, it never totally demolishes the bad, so resistance builds. After a spraying, secondary outbreaks of other crop-destroying insects may occur became their natural predators are reduced in the first go-around. Waterways are polluted, birds and higher forms of life are sacrificed—not the least of which are the farm workers who handle the lethal chemicals.
Van den Bosch argues for what he calls an “integrated” approach. This requires close monitoring of crops, noting weather and temperature changes, introducing sterile forms of specific parasites, and other means of controlling pests. He does not say that potent pesticides should never be used: they have their place. He backs up his statements with statistics to show the effectiveness of the integrated approach and the perils of the prevailing system. What he has to say about the Department of Agriculture, the “ag” colleges, the corporate chemical empire, Congress, local, state, and federal agencies, trade associations, and magazines will inflame many and perhaps inspire others to speak out in the best muckraking tradition. Mr. Van den Bosch does not write as well as Rachel Carson, but his intentions are similar and his message is clear and courageously expressed.
(Notice in this section does not preclude review of these books in later issues.)
October 26, 1978