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The Little Book You Haven't Read, But Should

by Christian Fennell

A good book must be more than just a collection of symbols and meanings, it must hold us and take us with it, taking care in its knowing of us, our conditions, our dreams, and our fears. It must enlighten us, allowing for the progression of our greatest possibilities.

And that is exactly what The Double Hook does.

Media guru Marshal McLuhan and Yale professor and formalist critic Cleanth Brooks both considered it a “literary landmark”.

Jack McClelland said, “It made money for McClelland and Stewart. If it didn’t, we would still consider it one of the best books that it has been our privilege to publish.”

From 1934 to 1936 Sheila Watson taught nine grades in a one-room schoolhouse in Dog Creek, British Columbia, Canada, on the banks of the Fraser River, in the Cariboo district. A place and time that forms the setting of The Double Hook.

“I sank roots,” Watson said, “that I have never been able to disentangle.”

She wrote the book between 1952 and 1954 in Calgary, Alberta and revised it in Paris from 1956 to 1957.

Watson, “It’s about how people are driven, how if they have no art, how if they have no tradition, how if they have no ritual, they are driven in one of two ways, either towards violence or towards insensibility - if they have no mediating rituals which manifest themselves in what I suppose we call art forms." Violence, or insensibility. The reasons why, according to Watson, we need our art forms, and our traditions.

The setting is an unnamed community of only a dozen individuals, divided and isolated by their fears and loneliness, their uncertainties, lost and clinging to the parched banks of a winding river run dry in a hot July drought. A place forgone of its own past and outside connections. Barren of all traditions and rituals.


And so they search. For these rituals. These traditions. For meaningful connections, between themselves, and others. “I’ve seen Ma standing with the lamp by the fence, she said. Holding it up in broad daylight. I’ve seen her standing looking for something even the birds couldn’t see.  Something hid from every living thing. I’ve seen her defying. I’ve seen her take her hat off in the sun at noon, baring her head and asking for the sun to strike her. Holding the lamp and looking where there’s nothing to be found. Nothing but dust.”

This is reminiscent of Greek philosopher, Diogenes of Sinope, founder of Cynicism, with his lamp held high in daylight looking for one good man. It was also Diogenes, who upon looking over a pile of human bones, was said to say to Alexander the Great, “I am searching for the bones of your father but cannot distinguish them from those of a slave."  A statement also relevant to us, for as Watson says in the book, “One man’s one man and two men or ten men aren’t something else.” It’s not our numbers, Watson is saying, or our stations in life, where we find our true worth.

Margret Atwood, writing on The Double Hook in Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature, says, "While alive the old lady's sin had been her refusal to accept life whole, the ‘darkness' along with the ‘light', the cyclical processes of Nature as well as man's structures, houses and straight lines. The ‘something she'd never found' is her own completeness."

In Watson’s narrative, she looks beyond morality tales of Christian redemption and Greek philosophy, reaching back to Native American mythology. “I don’t know about God, William said. Your god sounds only a step from the Indian’s coyotes.” And then again here, the coyote calling, “In my mouth is forgetting. In my darkness is rest.”

In a February 1975 interview with the Capilano Review, Watson said, “When I began the work which became The Double Hook I knew I had to create a total fiction out of experience which was concrete—which defied the clichés imposed on it. I wanted to get rid of reportage, the condescension of omniscience. It wasn't an act of reconstruction—like going back and saying I remember this—no one I ever knew did or said the things which are done and said.”  She continued, “I wanted to fuse the dialogue with the context—the reaching towards speech—the speaking out of silence—out of space.”

Sheila Watson’s, The Double Hook, is a near flawless transcending of the historical boundaries of language and the societal conventions of narrative style. Watson marries form and structure with essence—i.e. the intention and inspiration of ‘self’; our intuitive thinking—using emotive imagery to drive the words.

And so why then, has this book not broken out of the confinements of academia and literary studies? Because Watson was a woman writing in the 1950s in British Columbia? Because she never again wrote or published another successful novel? Because it was labeled modernist, the book living outside of accepted commercial standards and forms of that time?


I do know that the book today is still considered a work of modernist writing. And so we must ask ourselves, why? After all these years? And what does that say about us? About writing today? And so, yes, I think we should be holding it up, saying—this is still possible. Find it. Find this and push harder. That point that takes us beyond where all the others have gone. And in doing so, ask, why we are not?

Certainly, it is not too late to come back to the work. Look at Melville and Moby Dick, a perfect example of time (sixty-six years) and our catching up to it, and once we had, what that did for writing.

Read The Double Hook. A book that, although written fifty-nine years ago, still reads today as if it were written tomorrow.

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