Frontier: Harping on about Canadian History

Starring Jason Momoa, Frontier explores the pluralistic conflicts defining Canada’s fur trade in the late 18th century. From a historical and ethical perspective, how does Frontier’s cultural authenticity stack up?

Warning: this article contains light spoilers about events depicted in Frontier

By Serena Ypelaar

It’s often said that there are two sides to a story.

But that’s not true: there are many sides to a story, and Frontier proves it’s possible (though difficult) to tell them.

I’ve been waiting to write about Frontier since before The Mindful Rambler was founded. Anyone who knows me knows I have an enduring love for early Canadian history … and in 2016, Discovery Channel and Netflix miraculously created a television show about it! This is Part I of your Frontier article series.

Set in the late 18th century in what is now Canada, Frontier centres on locations such as Hudson Bay, James Bay, Montréal, Fort James, and the wilderness. Indigenous peoples have lived on the land since time immemorial, long before European settlers arrived – a fact which is starkly portrayed in the series. The show stars Jason Momoa (also Executive Producer) as Declan Harp, a half-Cree, half-Irish trader who, for deeply personal reasons, seeks to destroy the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC)’s oppressive monopoly on the fur trade.

Jason Momoa plays Declan Harp, a half-Cree, half-Irish fur trader on a mission to topple the Hudson’s Bay Company’s monopoly. Photo: ScreenerTV

There’s a plethora of “New World” films/shows out there, many of which are inevitably framed from the perspective of newly arrived colonial settlers. But it’s not inevitable to tell the story that way. Frontier is an example of what happens when you incorporate multiple perspectives and, crucially, spend time on authenticity. Though its storytelling and pacing is less than perfect, Frontier‘s diversity and inclusion is noteworthy and fairly well-done.

Indigenous and pluralistic representation

Today, Canada is populated by diverse cultural and linguistic groups, which was also the case during the 1770s. Frontier showrunners Brad Peyton, Rob Blackie, and Peter Blackie take care not to fall into the trap of depicting Indigenous peoples as one and the same – throughout its three seasons, we’ve seen Cree, Haudenosaunee, Métis, Inuit, and more nations – acknowledging that they do not comprise just one singular culture or identity.

Whenever I talk about Frontier and Jason Momoa playing an Indigenous man, people often ask “but isn’t he Hawaiian?”

“Yes, Momoa is part Native Hawaiian, but he’s also part Native American on his mother’s side,” I say. You’d be surprised how skeptically people react to that answer. There’s a definite issue with saying someone is not “_________ enough” to identify with their heritage (I know from experience, as a mixed individual). To say that anyone who is part First Nations, part Inuit, etc. isn’t “Indigenous enough” is akin to telling a mixed English/Scottish Canadian that they aren’t allowed to identify as Scottish. People who are part Indigenous are Indigenous and have a right to their culture.

Momoa is heavily invested in sharing the experiences of Indigenous peoples in North America. Though working in London at the time, he was vocal during the #NoDAPL protest in North Dakota in 2016; he also starred in Road to Paloma (2014), which exposes the systematic dangers to Indigenous women in the United States. And now, on Frontier, he’s helping portray Canadian history from an Indigenous vantage point. Momoa’s Instagram posts demonstrate how he advocates for Canadian history as I’ve never seen in another American. Momoa’s work in Frontier contributes to the preservation of Canadian history from multiple perspectives.

Frontier also emphasizes linguistic diversity. Métis/Saulteaux-Cree actress Jessica Matten, who plays Harp’s sister-in-law Sokanon, learned two specific Indigenous languages for the show:

I’m mainly speaking Swampy Cree and also Ojibway to reflect Sokanon’s eclectic upbringing, born an Ojibway woman but raised amongst Métis, Cree, Scottish, French people on Turtle Island [North America]

Jessica Matten, Instagram post

Matten also provided creative direction in depicting the sale of Indigenous women to white settlers (as “country wives”).  The portrayal of these realities mirrors today’s issues with missing and murdered Indigenous women.

Brother- and sister-in-law Harp (Momoa) and Sokanon (Jessica Matten). Photo: Edmonton Journal

In early North America, intermarriage also occurred and is portrayed in Frontier, another nod to authentic representation. Irish settler O’Reilly’s wife is Haudenosaunee (married under frankly sinister circumstances), and Sokanon and Michael Smyth (Landon Liboiron)’s budding yet troubled romance reflects the effects of the influx of fur traders on traditional lands. Nevertheless, Indigenous women – and almost all the women on the show – are depicted not as helpless victims but as clever and resourceful fighters. Frontier doesn’t shy away from the HBC’s violent behaviour that caused lasting trauma and grief for Indigenous peoples either, as depicted in the opening of season three, when the HBC is shown raiding and assaulting a Métis village.

Even amidst the fur trading companies, pluralism is the name of the game. There’s Declan Harp’s Métis-fronted Black Wolf Company, working directly against the HBC. The Scottish Brown brothers (Allan Hawco, also Executive Producer, and Michael Patric) rival Carruthers & Co., managed formidably by Elizabeth Carruthers (Katie McGrath) after her husband’s death. Samuel Grant (Shawn Doyle) and Cobbs Pond (Greg Bryk) are Americans established in Montreal, and Michael Smyth, an impoverished Irish stowaway, joins Harp’s company. Englishman Lord Benton (Alun Armstrong), a fictitious governor of the HBC, is merciless and is given no leeway – on Frontier, the HBC is held accountable for its historical misdeeds.

Irish trader Michael Smyth (Landon Liboiron), Harp’s protegée, with Sokanon (Matten). Photo: Rotten Tomatoes

The show flounders in its portrayal of Black loyalists in Canada, however. Charleston (Demetrius Grosse) flees from enslavement in the United States and falls in with Harp, but he is (SPOILER ALERT) the first to die in an overseas voyage – a typical trope in Hollywood movies (Black Dude Dies First trope). The two Black characters only play supporting roles; Josephette (Karen LeBlanc) is a close associate of Elizabeth Carruthers (Katie McGrath) but eventually takes on the bulk of the company management when Elizabeth’s new husband Douglas Brown (Allan Hawco) drives it into the ground. If Josephette were given a larger role, her character could thrive in the limelight. 

A new Frontier for Canadian history

While Frontier is undeniably flawed, both in a storytelling/pacing sense and an accuracy sense, I think its merits outweigh its detractors. It illustrates (and popularizes) a long-distant era of Canadian history and emphasizes the facets of the fur trade economy. Most importantly, without glorifying colonialism, it depicts the conflicting interests of the different individuals and groups trying to live off the land – and in some cases, exploit it. It features Indigenous languages, celebrates women’s autonomy*, and inspires awe – there was a lot going on in the Hudson’s Bay region.

Warts and all, Frontier proves that Canadian history is by no means boring.

This article is part of a larger series discussing storytelling in the television show Frontier. As a mainstream adaptation of early Canadian history available worldwide, Frontier examines the pluralistic past and colonial legacies that still shape Canada today. Read the rest of the series here.

*Stay tuned for next week’s post!

O choose me for your Valentine!

Who sent the first Valentine in North America? The truth might surprise you, as the sender is associated very closely with early Canada.

By Serena Ypelaar

On February 14, 1779, British Lieutenant Colonel John Graves Simcoe, who would later become the founder of York (Toronto) and the first governor of Upper Canada, sent an impassioned valentine – to a Patriot’s daughter.

John Graves Simcoe’s signature. Photo: Wikimedia

Historically, Simcoe is an interestingly dual figure. You may have seen him in TURN: Washington’s Spies (the AMC series I can talk about for days if allowed) or at Fort York National Historic Site if you’re familiar with Toronto’s history.

Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe, painted c. 1881.

In TURN, he’s wholeheartedly vilified based on his true-to-life role in oppressing American colonists and carrying out attacks such as the Massacre at Hancock’s Bridge (1778). But in southern Ontario, he’s venerated as the founder of York, earliest administrator of Upper Canada, and a staunch abolitionist. Simcoe passed the first Act Against Slavery in 1793 (only a year or so after accepting the post of Lieutenant Governor) and ensured that there were no slaves in Upper Canada by 1810 – 24 years before the rest of the British Empire finally abolished slavery in 1834.

The moment I assume the Government of Upper Canada under no modification will I assent to a law that discriminates by dishonest policy between natives of Africa, America, or Europe.

John Graves Simcoe to the Legislative Assembly

Before governing Upper Canada, Simcoe was stationed in Oyster Bay, New York during the American Revolution. He and another officer stayed at the home of notable Patriot Samuel Townsend and his family.

Simcoe, then almost 27, took a liking to Samuel’s 18-year-old daughter Sarah “Sally” Townsend, and it’s said that on Valentine’s Day 1779, he gave her a valentine letter consisting of a 52-line poem.

Fairest Maid, where all is fair
Beauty’s pride and Nature’s care;
To you my heart I must resign
O choose me for your Valentine!

Love, Mighty God! Thou know’st full well
Where all thy Mother’s graces dwell,
Where they inhabit and combine
To fix thy power with spells divine;

Thou know’st what powerful magick lies
Within the round of Sarah’s eyes,
Or darted thence like lightning fires
And Heaven’s own joys around inspires;

Thou know’st my heart will always prove
The shrine of pure unchanging love!
Say; awful God! Since to thy throne
Two ways that lead are only known-

Excerpt from Simcoe’s valentine poem to Sarah Townsend

Thematically, the poem addresses the implications of loving an enemy – apparently such poetic romances truly aren’t just a thing of fiction.

Sarah is known to have had a brief flirtation with Simcoe during his time in Oyster Bay. Declaring his love for her, he asked her to choose him as her valentine, but their relationship was not to be. Simcoe ended up in Upper Canada after the Revolutionary War (1775-1783), and Sarah remained in Oyster Bay. She never married; the valentine was discovered among her possessions after her death in 1842.

It’s unknown whether Sarah returned Simcoe’s feelings.  The nature of their relationship is further complicated by the fact that Sarah is thought to have spied on Simcoe. Sarah’s older brother Robert was a key operative of the Culper Spy Ring, George Washington and Benjamin Tallmadge’s intelligence network (and the core focus in TURN). Under the codename Samuel Culper Jr., Robert Townsend fed secrets to the Ring to advance the Patriot cause.

Legend claims that Sarah overheard Simcoe speaking to Major John André about their plans to take West Point using leaked intelligence from notorious turncoat General Benedict Arnold. Robert’s subsequent tip to the Ring would result in André’s capture and hanging as a spy. Given that the Townsends were working against the British, the relationship between Sarah and Simcoe has a decidedly Romeo-and-Juliet air – the only question is whether Sarah loved him back.

Raynham Hall, the Townsend family home. Photo: Wikimedia

We don’t have any physical written evidence to reveal Sarah’s feelings, but a colonial-era windowpane of the Townsends’ home survives today. This windowpane contains a message scratched into the glass by a British officer to “the adorable Sally Sarah Townsend”. Was it Simcoe who scratched the message? It’s possible, given that he was living there, but not proven.

Where’s the valentine now? It’s preserved in the place where it was first given – Raynham Hall Museum, Oyster Bay. The Townsends’ home is now a historic museum focusing on Robert Townsend’s role as a Patriot spy, as well as the family’s history from the time Raynham Hall was built in 1740.

Amidst the hearts and chocolate, we don’t often stop to consider historic valentines. Valentine-giving is an age-old tradition that tells us a lot about love and the conventions of the time (and the weight and respect that love poetry once commanded!).

As far as Simcoe and Sarah’s story goes, the evidence of this particular love is one-sided; but was the romance one-sided too? We’ll likely never know.

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile: Portraying a Killer

Zac Efron is playing Ted Bundy in a film. Some think the casting glamorizes the notorious serial killer, despite Bundy’s factual reputation as a deadly yet charismatic deceiver. In this unique case, is it unethical to be accurate?

Warning: contains mention of violent crime and may be disturbing for some readers.

By Serena Ypelaar

“Can we please not glamorize a killer?”

That was the online response from many after seeing the teaser trailer in which Zac Efron plays infamous serial killer Ted Bundy in the upcoming film Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile.

I agree – we don’t want to promote or celebrate murderers. But is accurately depicting a killer the same as “glamorizing” them?

Though the film follows the perspective of Bundy’s long-term girlfriend Elizabeth Kloepfer (Lily Collins), audiences are unsurprisingly fixated on Efron’s portrayal of Bundy.

Joe Berlinger, who also put together the four-part Netflix docuseries Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes (2019), directed the film. The true crime docuseries features audio of interviews with Bundy while he was on death row.

Zac Efron as notorious serial killer Ted Bundy in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile. Photo: Daily Express

Bundy was active throughout the United States between 1974 and 1978, murdering and raping upward of 30 women in seven states. He escaped from prison twice but was eventually convicted and sentenced to death. He was executed thirty years ago, on 24 January 1989 at Florida State Prison.

I understand where our concerns are coming from. Somehow, there’s a real threat of people becoming infatuated with murderers. On the surface, it doesn’t seem like a great idea to cast a charming, good-looking actor as a depraved killer. What does that impression promote?

The truth is, Bundy was handsome. He was charming. And he used his personality to make people trust him, from his victims – whom he persuaded to accompany him to his car under the guise of disability, usually using a sling or crutches – to people who knew him. Friends, partners (Kloepfer, and later Bundy’s wife Carole Ann Boone, whom he married at one of his trials), and his mother all thought there was no way he could’ve committed such grisly crimes. Kloepfer eventually contacted the police with some vague suspicions, but Bundy still got away with a lot under her nose. He was a skilled and charismatic manipulator. He wanted people to believe he was normal, and he maintained the lie of his innocence until just before his execution.   

Zac Efron as Ted Bundy, compared alongside Ted Bundy himself.

So couldn’t it be that Zac Efron is actually the perfect choice for the role? I was skeptical at first, but after watching Conversations with a Killer, I changed my mind. Efron and Bundy even look alike; Efron claims they even have some of the same mannerisms.

I believe that in order to show him exactly the way he was, it’s not really glorifying him. I think hopefully it will make women … be more aware of their surroundings and be cautious. He had different tactics that he used for people to help him get in cars or do things, and in your gut, if you just feel that something doesn’t feel right, just say no.

Kathy Kleiner Rubin, one of Bundy’s survivors, doesn’t have a problem with the film

It’s important for us to try to understand, or at least recognize, how serial killers like Ted Bundy operate. The uncanny ability to convince people around him (as well as those avidly following his case in the 1980s) that he was wrongfully accused is troubling. Bundy himself said in Conversations with a Killer that “people don’t realize that murderers do not come out in the dark with long teeth and saliva dripping off their chin.” They have a chameleon-like talent for blending in (“The Bundy Effect”). If the film depicts this trait in Bundy without sensationalizing details, it won’t be glamorous; it’ll be truthful.

Understanding how serial killers deceive, and people who do evil deceive, really is kind of the theme of the film.

Director Joe Berlinger

We are in control of our own opinions. As long as we, the viewers, are conscientious and aware of context, we can watch films without falling prey to misinformation. It all comes down to critical thinking, which is our responsibility. In a pre-internet era, I can see how a film that seemingly glamorizes Bundy (or shows him accurately as the charismatic liar he was) could run the risk of misleading people. But we live in an age where a quick Google search can set the facts straight, if the movie doesn’t do that to begin with. We just have to make sure we commit to learning ethically and questioning sources.

Photo: Google News

As always, I’ll reserve final judgement on the film until it gets released. I hope it doesn’t simplify Bundy’s disconcertingly complex personality. I kind of think our deep-seated concerns may end up being less about “glamorizing” the killer and more about how the killer was able to glamorize himself. Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile thus has a huge opportunity to be very telling about sinister individuals and their ability to elude detection.

A Wee Auld Dirge for Auld Robbie Burns

Thes Robbie Burns Day invites us tae ponder th’ continued timelessness ay his works. Burns’ use ay th’ Scottish vernacular (employed thus) illustrates exactly hoo his poems an’ ballads shood be performed alood.

By Serena Ypelaar

If you’re scratching your head at the text above, I’m sure you aren’t alone. For the sake of clarity, here’s what I wrote, in what you might call “plain English”:

This Robbie Burns day invites us to ponder the continued timelessness of his works. Burns’ use of the Scottish vernacular illustrates exactly how his poems and ballads should be performed aloud.

Today is indeed Robbie Burns Day, and what better time to pay homage to Scotland’s national poet than on his 260th birthday?

Born 25 January 1759 in Alloway, Scotland, Robert Burns was a tenant farmer like his father, and was (unlike many poets of his day) not particularly wealthy. His works have hence been lauded as relatable portrayals of Scottish farm life, illustrating class, regional experience, religion, and traditional culture.

“Portrait of Robert Burns, 1787”, painted by Alexander Nasmyth and held in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Photo: Wikimedia

A “dirge”, as referred to in my title, is a lament for someone who has died. In this case, though Burns is gone, we aren’t lamenting him so much as celebrating his legacy.

I’ve been looking forward to this post, as Burns’ works speak so decisively in and of themselves, but also because his writing style lends itself perfectly to The Mindful Rambler’s mission. Exercising his own interpretive power, Burns writes in the Scottish vernacular, meaning he has spelled his words exactly as pronounced. He is known for a number of songs – you might know “Auld Lang Syne” from your New Year’s traditions – that, when performed, reflect the Scottish dialect. In writing this way, Burns has cemented the dialect into his texts, and therefore preserves his Scottish identity while also sharing it with the world.

To illustrate what I’m talking about, here are a few lines from Burns’ poem A Winter Night:

Ilk happing bird, wee, helpless thing!

That, in the merry months o’ spring,

Delighted me to hear thee sing,

What comes o’ thee?

Whare wilt thou cow’r thy chittering wing

An’ close thy e’e?

Robbie Burns, “A Winter Night”, lines 19-24

As you can see, Burns has written the dialect straight into the poem, influencing how we read and interpret it.

I’ll be the first to admit – I tried to read Diana Gabaldon’s romance novel Outlander (an admission in itself) and put the book down for this very reason – the Scottish dialect. Apart from reaching page 178 and feeling that not much had yet happened, I also found it extraordinarily tiring to read the characters’ dialogue as written out in the vernacular, so I quit. (For those who haven’t read/attempted to read Outlander, think Hagrid’s dialogue in Harry Potter, except almost every character speaks that way.)

Nevertheless, in Burns’ short and much more digestible poems, I can appreciate the beauty of writing out the dialect so literally – Burns does half of the interpretive work for us. Instead of trying to envision a Scotsman and how he may sound uttering the words, we get his voice given straight to us. The Scottish vernacular is interwoven with the text itself, and we find ourselves transported into the shoes of the Scottish speaker.

“Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect” (1787) by Robert Burns. The volume was first printed and issued in 1786. Photo: Futuremuseum

Burns was a lyrical poet as well, setting some of his poems to music but also writing words for Scottish folk melodies. His methods involved considering how songs would be sung before developing the lyrics. As a lyricist too, he therefore gave the pronunciation of his words the same consideration he would have us give them, as prompted by his literary style.

During my undergrad, my favourite British literature prof went the full mile and read a couple of Burns’ poems to us out loud, in the Scottish vernacular. It’s a participatory action that I think needs to be done to appreciate the extent of Burns’ literary voice and the conviction with which he proclaimed his identity. While it’s not always clear exactly what Burns is saying, one thing is irrefutable: who better for Scotland to have as its national poet than auld Robbie Burns?

Long Story Short, You Can’t Control Everything

Though storytelling is highly personal, it thrives on human interaction and the sharing of experiences, making storytelling and interpretation inherently collaborative processes.

By Serena Ypelaar

“You can’t control what others think, but you can control what you put out there.”

This idea is something a lot of people carry around, and it has a special relevance when we think of how we’re surrounded by stories. As we enter a brand new year of The Mindful Rambler, I’d like to reframe the discussion on storytelling and interpretation – and the methods of both processes – which we’ve been examining here on the blog.

In telling a story, whether it’s for entertainment, healing, documentation, critical analysis, or otherwise, there’s always a lot of pressure around how it will be received. Will people like it? Will they get it? Will they take from it the information you’re hoping to impart?

Shakespeare definitely distilled some information down when he wrote his history plays, inciting a multitude of different interpretations.
Photo: Giphy

I experience that pressure whenever I write something. Anything I write can be interpreted, misinterpreted, and reinterpreted, and the truth is that my writing won’t exist entirely under my control once it’s out there. Every person who hears a story brings their own unique experience to it, creating something new. Two people who read the same book, for example, might see it in completely different ways, meaning that the result – the experience of storytelling – actually becomes a hybridization, a meeting place between the “teller” and the “listener”. Storytelling is the act of bringing one’s story, through words, images, sound, and other sensory outputs, into being outside of one’s self.

To avoid delving too far into the abstract, I’ll use an example. If someone is describing a place while telling a story, they’ll describe it as best they can noting features they feel are important to the story or of personal value to them. The person listening to the story will then construct their own interpretation of the event, incorporating their past experiences, feelings, biases, and assumptions. In short, the story is changed by the listener’s reception of it. Every single person hearing that story will have a different conceptualization of it, and a different understanding.

It’s the same with novel writing. Writers describe a character, for instance, and we, the readers, each construct a mental image of that person (and then get angry when the film casting doesn’t match that). I don’t know how many people I heard, back in middle school, ranting about how they definitely, totally did not picture Robert Pattinson when they dreamed up Twilight’s Edward Cullen in their heads. There are also race-based biases toward literary characters which often become clear when a person of colour is cast as a character many assumed would be white (like the vampire Laurent from the same franchise), racial prejudices becoming evident with readers’ indignation.

As demonstrated by their reaction to Edi Gathegi being cast as Laurent, Twilight‘s preteen fanbase did not want a diverse cast for the 2009 film adaptation… and, according to director Catherine Hardwicke, neither did the author (Stephenie Meyer) herself.

Irrespective of a story and its content, creators must become comfortable with the notion that each person who hears their story is going to see something different. There’s no way a storyteller can construct their tale in a way that guarantees uniform interpretation. Attempting to do so can result in over-describing something and alienating readers by unconsciously (or consciously) trying to harness control over their perceptions. It’s possible to use photographs to aid a visual picture, for instance, but these will still foster further imaginings on the part of the listener. Gaps in information will be filled independently – so the point is not to describe every single thing that is within you, but rather what is important to the story. That’s how we get such engaging stories, whether in literature, history, entertainment, art, memoir, or otherwise. Allow the listener to meet you halfway, and together you can share the experience while expressing trust in another person.

Maybe that’s why storytelling is so important to us – on an instinctual level, it allows us to connect with each other and find common ground.

What the Dickens? Christmas the Scrooge Way

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is a classic favourite when it comes to the Christmas spirit, and he entwines a fictional biography with class commentary.

By Serena Ypelaar

“In life I was your partner, Jacob Marley.”

This phrase from Charles Dickens’ well-loved Christmas novella cleverly establishes the intersection of life and death, as the ghost of Ebenezer Scrooge’s business partner comes to warn him off his cold-hearted ways. A Christmas Carol (1843) illuminates the importance of generosity during the festive season, but it also serves as an excellent form of fictional biography.

In the book, Dickens exemplifies the writerly adage “show, don’t tell” and spins a compelling illustration of a man’s life without resorting to long-winded character monologues. Where a lesser author might have their protagonist prattle on at length about their upbringing in a style that bores most readers, Dickens instead shows us almost firsthand how miser Ebenezer Scrooge became the person he is.

sim-everett.jpeg
Ebenezer Scrooge (Alistair Sim) watches events of his past as shown by the Ghost of Christmas Past (Michael Dolan) in the 1951 adaptation of “A Christmas Carol”. Photo: The Guardian

It’s a fascinating combination of realism and supernaturality, with the Ghosts of Christmas Past appearing to guide Scrooge (and us) through a revival of his past. Not a retelling, but a re-experiencing. But what does Dickens want from us when taking us through fictional Scrooge’s lifetime? An understanding of the character is the obvious answer, but it also goes a little deeper than that. He wants us to foster empathy for not only Scrooge, but those he deprives.

Scrooge is visited by the Ghost of Christmas Present, illustrated by John Leech. Photo: Wikimedia

From an interpretive perspective, the flashback device serves to place us directly in Scrooge’s shoes, therefore holding us accountable. By using Scrooge as an overarching symbol of avarice (especially during the holidays), Dickens warns against the danger of greed. In his customary fashion, he prompts us – through experiencing Scrooge’s life alongside him – to ensure we don’t repeat the same mistakes. Do we donate to those in need at the holidays? Many of us do, but many of us don’t. We fret about shopping and wish lists but fail to consider those for whom (like the Cratchits) a big family dinner would mean the world.

It’s fascinating to consider that Dickens predated the commercial bastardization of Christmas by almost century, as we now sit at a point where Christmas for many people is defined by dollar signs (or pounds, for that matter).

Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim, who walks with a cane, as illustrated by Fred Barnard. The Cratchits cannot afford adequate medical care for Tim. Photo: Wikimedia

So when we read A Christmas Carol or watch an adaptation (my family and I favour the 1951 film starring Alistair Sim), we’re prompted to examine our own behaviour. In damning Scrooge for his constant refrain of “bah, Humbug”, are we ourselves really focused on the true meaning of Christmas? We can interpret Dickens’ work many ways, but the one immovable theme at the core is that Christmas calls us toward togetherness, kindness, and compassion. Dickens wishes us a Merry Christmas, certainly, but he doesn’t let us off easy when it comes to our own thoughtfulness. That much is clear when he stresses the final two words of Tiny Tim’s famous refrain: God bless us, every one.”

The world may be an unequal place, as Dickens knew well, but his works inspire us to do whatever we can to reset the balance and share what we have.

In parting, Merry Christmas, and thank you for reading The Mindful Rambler! Sending you all the best wishes – take care of each other.

Leaving you with a wonderful Dickens parody on the television series Quacks, starring Andrew Scott as the writer himself!

The pen is mightier than the sword, especially when it’s Jane Austen’s

243 years after Jane Austen’s birth, her words still loom large over the literary world –  and in the dialogue about women’s rights.

By Serena Ypelaar

Today is Jane Austen’s birthday.

This time every year, I’m left reflecting on the legacy of that talented and incredibly smart woman, one whose voice speaks so loudly in both her contemporary era and our own. Despite living in a male-dominated society, Austen’s wit and wisdom has pervaded the literary world and she remains one of Britain’s most prominent authors.

Jane Austen.
Photo: Goodreads

So on her birthday, I’d like to recall the significance of her work as a canon that redefined feminism even at such an early point in time.

The author of Pride & Prejudice, Sense & Sensibility, Persuasion, Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park, and Emma, among other titles, left an indelible mark on English literature as a writer who speaks from a distinctly feminine perspective in a patriarchal society.

“Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands.”

Anne Elliot discussing gender inequality in “Persuasion” (1817)

To paint a brief picture, in Austen’s society only landowning men could vote; genteel women of the middle and upper classes could only retain or augment social standing through a successful marriage. Even then, influence was confined to that of one’s husband, a notion at odds with today’s circumstances. Failure to marry well would usually result in spinsterhood, living with one’s parents for the remainder of one’s life (which was extremely embarrassing back then) and a complete lack of independence.

Despite all this, Austen rejected the marriage proposal she received from one Harris Bigg-Wither and instead committed to reconciling the two seemingly disparate lifestyles I’ve just mentioned: autonomy as a single woman.

How did she do it, you ask? She did it through her words, as a woman writer. She wrote about women’s experiences of Regency society, highlighting issues of income, class, personality, gender, and manners. She successfully sold her novels to earn money, making her quite entrepreneurial for a woman of her time. Her discerning assessments of the dynamic between men and women – despite being set 200 years before now – still resonate with us today, and her comments on the human condition have charmed readers of all genders and classes.

I have been open and sincere where I ought to have been reserved, spiritless, dull, and deceitful. Had I talked only of the weather and the roads, and had I spoken only once in ten minutes, this reproach would have been spared.

Marianne Dashwood describing the severe expectations of women in her society in “Sense and Sensibility” (1811)

Regardless of how I feel about today’s designation of “chick lit” as an excuse to dismiss female authorship, Austen owns her femininity unabashedly, delivering exacting jabs and insightful criticisms from the seat of an observer – each time a considerate and emotionally complex female character. What makes her so relevant today is that amidst the ongoing push for equal rights, people connect to her ability to find flaws in her society and propose solutions to them.

I hate to hear you talk about women as if they were fine ladies instead of rational creatures. None of us want to be in calm waters all our lives. 

Anne Elliot in “Persuasion” (1817)

Since her books achieved mass popularity, Austen has served as an inspiration to many, though she’s not without her critics (jealous haters). Mark Twain, Charlotte Brontë, and other writers claimed to find no brilliance in her work, but as The Mindful Rambler is by no means a neutral publication, I feel no hesitation in discrediting their criticisms. Austen is brilliant because she represents the everyday. What might seem to some the banalities of the well-to-do in the countryside in fact set Austen apart, through the minutiae of her social criticisms and her practiced understanding of others. We’ve all met a Mrs. Bennet, whether she is our own mother, a voracious aunt, or otherwise; we all want to meet a Mr. Darcy (or Mr. Tilney of Northanger Abbey in my case, but I’m sure we’ll get to that in a future post).

A woman, especially if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.

Jane Austen employing her signature biting irony in “Northanger Abbey” (1817)

I write this from the perspective of a woman who loves writing too, and whose work has been shaped by two prominent female writers, J.K. Rowling and Austen herself. But while the former shies away from gender politics in favour of the ideological, the latter champions her gender through representation and highlights disparities between men’s and women’s quality of life. Austen does this using a combination of cultural nuances and hyperbolic characters, stressing important themes while more subtly suggesting at other details. The result is a complex but convincing illustration of feminism in the early 19th century, one that we can use to inform our discussions of feminist literature today. And we have a well-educated, unmarried woman in Regency England who forged her own path – despite the restrictions of her society – to thank for that.

Learn more about Jane Austen and her portrayal of women here.

Home for the Holidays

What does tradition tell us about the holidays? As Hanukkah is underway and Advent begins, we examine how collective rituals can unite us, both within and across faiths.

By Serena Ypelaar

What is tradition, really?  

It’s defined as the transmission of customs/beliefs between generations, and the nature of the word itself suggests its deep reliance on community. There’s a reason culture can be steeped in tradition – and a reason that there’s a stigma attached to solitude at the holidays. And that’s because tradition depends on sharing to survive. You can most certainly enjoy traditions on your own (I sure do), but the fact is that they don’t sustain unless they’re shared with other people and carried forward. Since we as humans are mortal, they obviously wouldn’t live past just us. 

Not unless we share them.

As we kick off December I wanted to take a look at the nature of community and its integral significance in holiday rituals. So here we go: a brief but hopefully interesting look that will prompt us to reflect and help us cherish the people that make the traditions great. 

Christmas | Christian tradition

Christians celebrate the birth of their saviour Jesus Christ by attending a mass or church service to have communion, as well as partaking in a feast and gift-giving. However much mass consumerism may exploit the togetherness of Christmas to sell more products, the holiday itself dwells in generosity, regardless of money spent.

Seth Cohen from the OC discusses how Chrismukkah has twice the resistance of normal holidays because it's half Christmas, half Hanukkah.
As the son of a Jewish father and Christian mother, Seth Cohen from the O.C. was a staunch supporter of “Chrismukkah”, getting people on board to sustain the hybridized traditions.

Hanukkah | Jewish tradition

Hanukkah is celebrated for eight nights to symbolize the successful rebellion of the Maccabees against the Seleucid empire. At the dedication of the Second Temple, the menorah burned for eight days even though there was only enough oil for one. Jewish observances also include playing dreidel and gathering to eat oil-based foods such as latkes.

Winter Solstice | Cree Tradition

Among Cree nations in North America, the winter solstice allows an opportunity for rest and renewal. As the shortest, darkest day in the year, the solstice sees Cree people reflecting on the past year and their connections with plants and animals by looking at the stars. Specifically, the Seven Sisters constellation, or “the hole in the sky” prompts Cree people to come together and reflect on their ancestors.

Kwanzaa | African-American tradition

Kwanzaa celebrates African-American heritage in the United States. Children are included in the observances, and respect is paid to elders and ancestors, concluding with feasting and gift-giving. Families also decorate their homes with African art and colourful African cloth such as kente.

Sinterklaas / St. Nicholas Day | Dutch tradition

Sinterklaas arrives in the Netherlands from Spain.
Photo: Wikimedia

Celebrated in the Netherlands, Belgium, parts of France, and former Dutch colonies, Sinterklaas Day celebrates the Feast of St. Nicholas, in which Sinterklaas returns from Spain. Children put out wooden clogs on the night of December 5 and awake to chocolate letters, ginger cookies such as speculaas and kruidnoten, and oranges in the clogs. The Sinterklaas parade is also a well-attended event among families in Holland.

Ōmisoka | Japanese tradition

Toshikoshi soba.
Photo: Flickr

Ōmisoka signifies the end of the year, and is celebrated on the final day – December 31. A few hours before the year ends, Japanese people join together for parties and eat toshikoshi soba or toshikoshi udon, long noodles which symbolize passing from one year into the next. From midnight, the first hours of the day are spent at a shrine or temple, and greeting one another. 

Tradition is an instrument of community. As we’ve seen, one person can practice rituals, but it takes many to sustain traditions for years to come. It’s interesting to imagine, with the rise of digital technology and its new prominence in our lives, the new traditions we may create and carry forward – and those which may falter. Nevertheless, one thing has endured throughout: our human craving for connection. 

Interpreting the Zapruder film

55 years after the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy, we still have much to learn about the famous Zapruder film, which captured the incident in Dallas.

Warning: contains mention/images of graphic violence and may be disturbing for some readers.

By Serena Ypelaar

November 22, 1963. John F. Kennedy greets the public in the presidential motorcade as he heads toward Dealey Plaza and the Texas School Book Depository. As the car turns off of Elm Street, onlookers gathered along the side of the road cheer, clap, and wave to the President and his wife, Jacqueline.

The next few seconds would drastically change the future – and believe it or not, they were caught on film.

The Zapruder film (graphic content) preserves those moments when JFK was fatally shot, and it’s hence been scrutinized closely for decades. Abraham Zapruder was an ordinary U.S. citizen who happened to be in the right place at the right time, unknowingly documenting a tragic event that would go down in history.

zapruder2
Screencap taken from the Zapruder film.

You might think there’s nothing of value to gain from watching the murder of a political leader, but in this context that couldn’t be further from the truth. Zapruder wasn’t to know that the U.S. government would seize his short film when the Warren Commission was launched to investigate the assassination – he was merely recording the event for himself, on a Bell & Howell home movie camera.

There are others who filmed the assassination, but I want to focus on Zapruder’s close-range footage for its interpretive value.

zaprudercam
Abraham Zapruder’s camera, which is now held in the U.S. National Archives. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

I mentioned that viewing the murder was crucial rather than gratuitous – and now I’ll explain why. JFK’s suspected killer, Lee Harvey Oswald, was shot dead by nightclub owner Jack Ruby before he could be extensively questioned or tried for the murder. This turn of events spawned boundless conspiracy theories, including ones in which Oswald was not the shooter, or that government(s) or other third parties were behind the assassination.

Oswald is alleged to have fired the shots from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository. His own whereabouts and location have been intensely analyzed in order to place him at the scene of the crime: the source of the gunshots. To find and prove the source, the Zapruder film is an invaluable piece of evidence.

jfkoswald
President John F. Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald. Source: Psychology Today

Analysts and scientists have hypothesized on the trajectory of the bullets entering and exiting President Kennedy’s body. While many have opposing views on their path and therefore their source location, the point is that without Zapruder’s film, the investigation would have relied instead on subjective witness testimony.

However, discrepancies were perceived between witness testimony and the film’s contents. In an editorial for the New York Times in 2007, Max Holland and Johann Rush assert that Zapruder’s film was initially misunderstood because it seemed to show only two of the three shots believed to have been fired:

The majority of witnesses in Dealey Plaza heard three shots fired. Lawmen found three cartridges in Lee Harvey Oswald’s nest … Yet Zapruder’s film captured only two shots clearly. As a result, the film has been scoured for evidence of another shot, presumably the first one fired at the president. Research has yielded contradictory findings.

But what if Zapruder simply hadn’t turned on his camera in time?

Holland and Rush state that Zapruder commenced filming but turned off his camera when waiting for the President’s limousine to come into view. They suggest that he didn’t turn it back on again until after Oswald had fired his first shot. Viewing the film as incomplete therefore answers a question that loomed large over the Warren Commission investigation: why did Oswald miss the closest shot but prove such an accurate sniper in the two shots following (at 190 and 265 ft. respectively)?

“About the time the car got near the black and white sign, I heard a shot,” a key witness, Amos L. Euins, had said. Holland and Rush argue that it was the sign itself that blocked Oswald’s view of Kennedy. Sure enough, in watching the Zapruder film we lack the first shot but see the next two – after the President passes near a large sign. Startlingly, of the three shots fired, Zapruder managed to document the two that found their target.

The film, we realize, does not depict an assassination about to commence. It shows one that had already started.

The Zapruder film is central to the historical record of Kennedy’s assassination, as is careful analysis. The angles from which one can interpret the film prove that despite its overwhelming value to those trying to understand the event, it provides only a limited (though crucially significant) slice of what happened that day, contingent on a man’s choices of when to record … and his inability to know what was about to happen.

 

It’s Raining Men in the Harry Potter Franchise

With the release of the newest Harry Potter film, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, we take another look at representation in author J.K. Rowling’s works in this installment of the Critiquing Harry Potter series.

By Serena Ypelaar

“Strong women” is a phrase we hear a lot, especially regarding film and literature. The desire to see strong women in entertainment (and the misunderstanding of what a “strong” woman actually is) sets up unrealistic standards for female characters and their real-life counterparts. Irrespective of these confining notions, empathy and vulnerability are traits that make women strong, not weak. A profound emotional complexity encapsulates what it means to be human, to live, and to persevere through adversity.

J.K. Rowling has promoted female complexity to an extent through Harry Potter characters such as Hermione Granger, Ginny Weasley, Nymphadora Tonks, Luna Lovegood, Cho Chang, Fleur Delacour, Angelina Johnson, Minerva McGonagall, Lily Evans, Molly Weasley, Narcissa Malfoy, Bellatrix Lestrange, and even Lavender Brown, all of whom have diverse personal attributes that make them uniquely human. Some are leaders, some are learners, some warriors, and some nurturers, but all of them feel. So do men, of course – yet male emotion is sadly suppressed as weakness in our society.

nlt
Brothers Theseus (Callum Turner) and Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) interact while Leta Lestrange (Zoë Kravitz) looks on. In J.K. Rowling’s latest spinoff, men still dominate the story, women are supporting characters, and non-binary characters aren’t included at all. Photo: Entertainment Tonight

Critically examining all aspects of Fantastic Beasts would take days, so keep in mind that I’ve tried to confine the scope of my analysis to gender here. Given that J.K. Rowling is a woman writing in the 21st century (though her latest story is set in the 20th), I’d expected her to feature a female lead this time around. Despite the many complex female characters in the Harry Potter books, Rowling never struck me as going all the way to give women full representation. The majority of the major characters are men, after all, and the few women who are given significant roles are almost all white. In today’s political climate, the time is ripe to focus on feminism and gender equality. Some might argue that it’s Rowling’s responsibility as an influential woman to present more female role models, and I won’t even get started on non-binary characters because that evidently seems too much for Rowling to consider. Ezra Miller, who is a queer actor, does play Credence Barebone in Fantastic Beasts, but Credence is referred to as male in the films – we don’t have any evidence that Rowling understands or wants to include the lived experience of genderqueer individuals. Instead, Rowling safely elected to feature Newt Scamander, widely acclaimed Magizoologist – and a dude.

fb
An early promotional poster for Fantastic Beasts. The core three characters of this film – Dumbledore (Jude Law), Newt (Eddie Redmayne), and Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) are male. Photo: Flickr

If the secondary characters were all female it might be less of an affront that Rowling went with a story about another man, but I can’t really defend her there. Just like Harry, Ron, and Hermione, Newt is surrounded by other male leads. In The Crimes of Grindelwald specifically, we have No-Maj (Muggle) Jacob, Newt’s brother Theseus, Credence, and then the big ol’ showdown between future Hogwarts Headmaster Albus Dumbledore and European powerhouse tyrant Gellert Grindelwald, the darkest wizard on the world stage before Lord Voldemort’s time. As you can see, lots of testosterone floating around.

Of course, the Goldstein sisters Tina and Queenie figure into the storyline, this time alongside Leta Lestrange and *SPOILER ALERT* Nagini (to whom I’ll probably devote a whole other post in the future). It’s not that the women are there, however, that checks the proverbial box of so-called gender parity; as I argued in my article on ethnicity, it’s what they do that matters. In the first Fantastic Beasts film, Newt and Jacob were the top-billed characters in the plotline, with Tina and Queenie playing supporting roles. Likewise, we know that the Dumbledore-Grindelwald relationship takes centre stage now. J.K. Rowling could just as easily have chosen a witch to work with Dumbledore for this spinoff series, but she didn’t, and men are still at the centre of the action. It strikes me as a bit disingenuous for a self-declared progressive female author, but I suppose our society influences our implicit expectations. All I can say without spoiling the film is that our girls Tina, Queenie, and Leta’s storylines heavily feature men and aren’t explored as in-depth as I would like.

There’s one possible upside apart from Newt’s own emotional vulnerability: Dumbledore and Grindelwald’s confrontation and the unravelling of their past. Such an interplay could do much to highlight LGBTQ2+ representation and men’s emotional depth if it’s properly explored. It is a shame that the only gay relationship we may see is an abusive and manipulative one, but nevertheless, this franchise will be very telling as to whether J.K. Rowling truly believes in diverse representation or is just trying to ride the wave.

So far she’s demonstrated a shocking hesitancy to give female, non-binary, or trans individuals representation, and I doubt we can expect anything that doesn’t feature a male lead from her soon.* For now, even as far as women – complex, wonderful, and important as they are – are concerned, I’m not convinced Rowling’s in it for the long haul. If she is, I’d like to see more action and agency from her non-male characters front and centre.

After all, actions speak louder than words, and Rowling’s approach to gender isn’t quite loud enough for me.

This article is part of the Critiquing Harry Potter series. Read about ethnic representation in the series here.

____________________________________

FOOTNOTES
*Just take a look at her Cormoran Strike novels under the penname Robert Galbraith, which also feature a male character.