canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Blind Man's Drum
by Tom Bentley
Thistledown Press, 2002

Reviewed by Robert LeBlanc

Blind Man's Drum is the best satirical look at what Canada once was that I have read since Mr. Kelly forced Stephen Leacock's Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town upon my grade twelve English class. At the time I would have much rather read Frederick Forsyth, Len Deighton or Daniel Easterman during my family's much maligned trip to Florida, instead my underdeveloped mind struggled to find the humour everyone was raving about. Still lost somewhere between here and adolescence, my mind now at least garners a snigger at the sardonic twists of life on the outer fringe of normalcy.

Too many years have passed since Mr. Kelly's grade twelve English class, and the fine tuning of Leacock's masterpiece has become a bit hazy. Still, Bentley's collection of short stories reads more like a novel and continually pulled me back into that other world. Set half a century (recollection puts Leacock's work at the turn of the century, while Bentley's characters live in the early 1950s) and nearly half a continent apart (it is commonly believed that Leacock used nearby Orillia, Ontario for his stories, while Bentley chose the real locale of Biggar, Saskatchewan), Blind Man's Drum warms the cockles of the reader with the assurance that there remains a place in the population of Canadian small towns for the backward and the quirky.

Locale is important to Bentley in Blind Man's Drum; without the Prairie and without the smallness of Biggar, the stories just wouldn't seem right. To his credit, however, Bentley refuses to clobber the rest of the nation with Prairie essence. Another high school English teacher taught us that Canadian writers were good at following up thirty pages of wind rippling through grain with twenty pages of snow. Not so in Blind Man's Drum. Bentley presents his characters as the landscape, the reader exploring their surroundings through the senses of their narrative guides.

Told through the eyes of Robert, a witty and perceptive six-year-old who we follow to the ripe old age of eight, Blind Man's Drum, is as much a saga of a place as it is of the people who populate it. Robert follows his blind grandfather, Will Coutts, around Biggar with the loving devotion only a puppy or a grandson could have. Attempting to live by his grandfather's mantra of "marching to the beat of his own drummer", Robert tries valiantly to fit it, both in his grandfather's world, and that of a normal six-year-old boy in Biggar, Saskatchewan. Fitting in isn't so easy with a frumpy grandmother who reads tea leaves, an aunt who's married to a tattooed goon, a mother who visits only once a year and a blind grandfather who makes you read the stock report and the Book of Revelations before going off to the neighbour's farm to strip naked and exercise. It's no wonder that Robert becomes as wittingly perceptive as he does by age eight.

Told with a soft, kindhearted voice, Bentley creates characters that not only leap off the page, but sit down next to you to read over your shoulder, chortling at their own exploits.

By June of grade twelve, I was happy that Mr. Kelly had hoisted Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town upon our unsuspecting reading list, and now that I have control over what is on my bedside table, I'm happy to have found Blind Man's Drum. As the time worn adage states: "Biggar is better."






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