Books

Backwoods dad

An author vividly evokes a rough-hewn patriarch

Roy MacGregor November 29 1999
Books

Backwoods dad

An author vividly evokes a rough-hewn patriarch

Roy MacGregor November 29 1999

Backwoods dad

Books

An author vividly evokes a rough-hewn patriarch

A Life in the Bush:

Lessons from My Father

Roy MacGregor

Penguin, 374pages, $32

In the nicest of ways, Roy MacGregor’s writing seems drawn from another era. An author and journalist for more than 25 years, MacGregor, senior columnist at The National Post, has worked for most major print institutions in Canada (including Macleans). In that time, he has written eloquently and intelligently about everything from professional hockey to political life on Parliament Hill. But MacGregor is happiest putting aside coverage of Big Names and News to reflect the lives, thoughts and feelings of ordinary Canadians. In columns and nine previous novels and nonfiction books, he has shown himself to be one of the few journalists who can write about small-town life without making it sound like a visit to a grade school, or filling everyone’s mouths with hoary, homespun clichés.

Now, MacGregor turns to his own family with A Life in the Bush: Lessons from My Father. At various times tren-

chant, touching, entrancing and exhilarating, it is his best of a very good lot of books. Occasionally, as the memoir traces the life of MacGregor’s father, “Dune,” it has the whimsy of Stephen Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, lightheartedly recounting events in the Ottawa Valley and Muskoka regions of Ontario from the turn of the century to recent years. At other moments, it is an unflinching portrait which shows “The Old Man” as someone whose simplicity of manner hid a far more complex soul.

Duncan MacGregor was a lumberman all his adult life—-until an accident almost killed him at 73, and consigned him to life at home with his wife, Helen, for his final 15 years. He spent 51 years in the bush, seeing Helen, three sons and one daughter irregularly. He took no holidays, worked six days a week, never saw a mountain or seashore until his 80s, and lived on liquor, cigarettes and “fried or burnt food, heavy with salt.” Dune MacGregor was also, Roy writes, “the best-read person any of us has ever known,” and a loving— though most unconventional—father.

In the wrong hands, all that could

have degenerated into the treacly-sweetness of a sitcom—Grizzly Adams meets Father Knows Best. But MacGregor is too self-aware to follow that path. His parents’ marriage hung together, but that may have been because—rather than in spite of—the time they spent apart. The Old Man could be stubborn and selfish: more than once, he spent money needed for food and debts buying rounds at the beer hall. Like many men of his generation, Dune, born in 1907, was uncomfortable showing emotion. His strongest reaction, when struck by something unusual, was a sort of sigh: “ Tch-tch-tch-tch-tch-tch-tch. ”

One danger with family memoirs is that they often sink under the weight of uninteresting people who lead unimaginative lives. But here, along with Dune’s exploits in the bush, is smalltown mayhem, melancholy, even murder. Two local taxi drivers are killed, and the murderers are local teenagers, one of whom is hanged. A friend of the MacGregor family is shot to death in a bank robbery. Closest to home, elder sister Ann—a longtime, much-loved Macleans researcher—is lost to cancer shortly before their father dies.

Despite all that, the book’s tone is upbeat and uplifting. Through the flaws and foibles, the MacGregors loved each other. MacGregor’s tale of coming to terms with his father and their relationship is never self-indulgent. Thousands of Canadian men will recognize themselves in anecdotes of like circumstances. And the writing is filled with evocative imagery. When Dune, in his 80s, falls asleep at a screening of a highlights film at the Hockey Hall of Fame, other viewers snicker at his snoring, but Roy understands, writing: “I could see, on the flickering screen in front of his lolling head, exactly what he was dreaming: Duncan Fisher MacGregor, forever young, skating faster and faster through his long, long life.” No ordinary man, Dune MacGregor will live on much longer by grace of this vivid, extraordinary book.

Anthony Wilson-Smith