canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Getting Out of Town by Book & Bike
by Kent Thompson
Gaspereau Press, 2001

Reviewed by Ted Harms

Kent Thompson's Getting out of Town by Book and Bike is an excellent collection of bicycle-themed essays, personal recollections, and travelogues. In some entries, cycling takes centre stage, while in others it is, pardon the pun, a vehicle for observations or an interesting sidebar.

Kent has a good background for mixing literary and velocipede interests; apart from his large literary output, he's the author of 'Biking to Blissville', a cycling guide to the Maritimes. He makes no bones that he's not a master mechanic or could rip the legs off Lance Armstrong; I would call him, in the best sense of the word, a 'gentleman' cyclist - a serious hobbyist who knows that there's more to cycling than what he knows; further, given the philosophical bent to some of his entries, Thompson has obviously spent time just thinking about cycling.

In one of his historical reflections, Thompson pulls out the story of Lyman Hotchkiss Bagg, who cycled through Nova Scotia on a penny-farthing (the style of bicycle where the front wheel could be the same height as the rider) in the summer of 1883 and self-published his description of the trip in "Ten Thousand Miles on a Bicycle", which, for some reason, Bagg published under the penname of Karl Kron. Another cyclist that has his story told is Karl Creelman who left Truro, Nova Scotia in May of 1899 to cycle the world and returned with some tall tales in early September, 1901.

Through out this collection, Thompson cites several works of fiction from around the turn of the century that mention bicycles or use them as a way to judge a person's character. D.H. Lawrence's "A Modern Lover" is the story of a man who returns to his hometown and finds that a family (and one of their daughters) that he had been in favour with now has another suitor in the picture. Lawrence uses the bicycle riding of the new suitor as a means for the old suitor to draw inferences on the competitor's character.

Thompson supplies a good overview of what the popularity of the bicycle did to the social conventions of the time. As seen in Lawrence's story and other works that Thompson cites, a bicycle afforded a generation of people a physical liberation that seemed to go hand in hand with social freedom. The bicycle literally offered expanded vistas in everything from employment to leisure; for example, in the realm of courtship, suddenly one was no longer bound to people that lived in your vicinity - the next town was only a short bike ride away. And, though it'd be out of place to cite the bicycle as instigator of the women's equality movements around the turn of the previous century, it was quite a happy accident that that agenda fit nicely with the bicycle's empowering, yet sexually neutral, potential.

While serving as a background for his own bicycle trips, Thompson features two Nova Scotian authors. By his own admission, Thompson states that Elizabeth Bishop and Ernest Buckler are both well down on the list of CanLit must-read; none-the-less, he makes an argument that both of them should have a slightly higher profile than what they currently have. Thompson gives a blow-by-blow description of Bishop's and Buckler's old haunts and how local sights and features worked themselves into their work.

Thompson has several personal tales that ring true with anybody who has continued to ride a bike after they've received their driver's license - reflecting on losing your bike as a child, trying to fix it, buying a beater and turning into a reclamation project, etc. The most personal tale is Thompson's writing on the death of local cyclist, hit by a truck on his way to work; the weight of this death on Thompson is evident in that this collection is dedicated to the cyclist. Thompson is even in his assessment of the accident but he knows, as any cyclist does, that cars and bicycles do not mix well.

That is the unpleasant side of the cyclist's world. The other side is mentioned several times by Thompson but perhaps received the best treatment by Robert Pirsig's in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (which Thompson makes a few comments on). Pirsig says that riding in a car detaches you from your environment - car windows might as well be TV screens; while, on a bike (or motorcycle in Pirsig's case), you're part of what you're travelling through - you can touch your foot to the pavement, feel the rain or sun, hear the sounds of cows in the field or the kids in the playground.

As Thompson alludes to in the title of this excellent collection and soundly demonstrates in each entry, bicycles are not only a physical vehicle, but a mental one as well - two wheels can do what a good book can: it can free your soul and make the world around you disappear.

Ted Harms owns too many bikes but only three are currently functional; he rides his one-speed, coaster-brake Raleigh to work every day.







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