Writings and Reflections: From the World of Roderick Haig-Brown
Ronald Conrad is a professor of English at Ryerson University in
This is the third volume of a trilogy entitled From the World of Roderick Haig-Brown; all three books were edited by the author’s eldest daughter, Valerie. While Woods and River Tales (1980) and The Master and His Fish (1981) are, as their titles imply, centred upon a common body of subject matter, this last volume, Writings and Reflections, is a most eclectic collection: in content the essays range from family history to Thomas Hardy, to Izaak Walton, to steam logging, to cougars, to writing and reading, to war, to law, to conservation — and to other subjects so miscellaneous that this volume appears to be a catch-all to end the series. The pieces also vary greatly in date (from 1939 to 1974) and in source (Canadian Literature, Field and Stream, Maclean’s, The New Yorker, Canadian Library Association Bulletin, Saturday Night, Tamarack Review, Weekend, UBC Law Review, etc.) — and a few are previously unpublished.
As we might expect from such a variety, the quality is up and down. The pieces on abstract topics tend to be vague, sententious and perfunctory — almost painful in contrast to the glories of which Haig-Brown was capable when he wrote from immediate experience. But those pieces rooted in work or sport or war come alive with vivid and compressed language — and with true philosophy freed from its creaky trappings. The best essay in the collection, and in its flawless language one of the best passages in all of Canadian prose, is “The Passing of Steam” first published in Weekend in 1953. But perhaps the most moving is “The Bells,” published 1950 in The New Yorker: this tale of an historical moment at war’s end has the heart of a yarn by Greg Clark but the polish that for over 40 years was the trademark of Roderick Haig-Brown. It alone is worth the price of the book.