Review | Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, Stephen Leacock, illus. by Seth

9781626361720_p0_v1_s600Stephen Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town is probably one of my all-time favourite Canadian novels. I first read it in university, and, strange for someone who didn’t grow up in Canada, and whose hometown is a bustling metropolis, Sunshine Sketches was probably the first Can Lit book I’d read that made me feel I belonged. See, while studying other Can Lit titles, I’d be the student making copious notes, even of minor details that many of my classmates seemed to know — being new to Canada, many of these references were lost on me, and even when a professor tried to lighten the mood by mentioning Degrassi or some similar subject, I felt like the only one in the room who had no clue what he was talking about.

I remember arriving in Canada for the first time — I spent a summer in Kamloops, BC, before moving to Mississauga, ON (a city just west of Toronto). If you’ve never been to Kamloops, it’s a gorgeous place, a sprawling, mountainous town of 80,000 inhabitants. Certainly more residents than Leacock’s Mariposa, but a definite shock to myself, having lived all my life in Manila, Philippines. It probably took me most of the summer to adjust to the quiet, idyllic pace of Kamloops, only to have to adjust again to city life that fall. Perhaps because it’s so different from anywhere else I’ve lived, that summer in Kamloops will always be special for me, and while I don’t know if I’d ever want to move back necessarily, I always think of that place with fondness and nostalgia.

So when I read Sunshine Sketches for the first time, even though Leacock based his fictional town on Orillia and not on Kamloops, it was my life in Kamloops that kept popping to mind. For anyone who’s lived in a small town, I can imagine a similar feeling of recognition. Sunshine Sketches is a classic, and I can definitely see why. If I, who spent one summer in a small town — one that technically isn’t even considered a small town, actually — can be so deeply affected by the vignettes in this book, how much more will it affect people who actually grew up, or spent years, in small towns? How much more powerful must their nostalgia be?

Leacock pokes fun at small town conventions — Sunshine Sketches is a hilarious book. But it’s the type of humour that comes with affection. The book works because beneath the satire lies a genuine sense of connection to the town. It’s the type of fun I would poke at some of my experiences in Kamloops… right before I realize how much I missed it.

I have no idea how Kamloops is now. I haven’t been back in years, and all I spent there was a single summer. So my memories may certainly be inaccurate. But my experience of it is real, and reading Sunshine Sketches never fails to take me back to that. I admit – that final chapter, with the train leaving Mariposa behind, brought a tear to my eye when I first read it. Even now, every time I read that chapter, I feel a sense of loss. Years after I’d left Kamloops, years after I’d read Sunshine Sketches for the first time, it still always manages to affect me.

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And that’s why I absolutely adore this gift edition illustrated by Seth. In a review in the London Free Press, Dan Brown compares Seth to Leacock, creating a parallel between Leacock’s love letter to Canada with Mariposa and Seth’s similar love letter with Dominion in The G.N.B. Double C. According to Brown, Seth’s work shows nostalgia for an epoch that never happened, positing that nostalgia itself is a “yearning for something unreal, eternally out of reach.” Perhaps that’s what makes Seth such a perfect fit to illustrate Leacock’s text. The illustrations remind me of classic cartoons; not just does the story hearken to a different time, but the illustrations do as well.

This is a beautiful book. When it comes to Mariposa, the idea of the town is more powerful than the town itself would have been. It’s the nostalgia that gives Sunshine Sketches its power, and makes it so special for so many people. Seth’s work enhances that nostalgia, and shows us, visually, why the world Leacock has created is such a classic.

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Thank you to Random House of Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

4 thoughts on “Review | Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, Stephen Leacock, illus. by Seth

  1. Pingback: Chegou na Itiban | Blog da Itiban

  2. Dear Jaclyn,
    I enjoyed your review of Sunshine Sketches. Thank you for writing it. I believe, however, that your (and many other people’s) appreciation of the book as a work of art would be enriched if you let go of some misunderstandings. It is very much about Stephen Leacock and his view of people and society, but not very much about small town life in Ontario or anywhere else. He set it in a small town because that made his story manageable. He needed an uncluttered background for the imaginary people whose stories he wanted to tell and whose characters he wanted to ridicule. If you look carefully at the details of Mariposa, it’s not even a small town of around 5,000, as he claims. It’s really a village, much smaller, with a handful of businesses and prominent citizens, all of them male. The book could more accurately have been titled “Caustic Sketches of a Few Men in an Imaginary Village”, but that would not have been nearly as neat.
    Its reputation is as much a triumph of branding as a literary one, maybe more so.
    Leacock had almost no experience of small towns. He had been a small boy in an English village, transplanted to a farm south of Lake Simcoe, transplanted to Toronto, then Chicago, then Montreal. HIs mother lived in Orillia for a time, and he visited her regularly; a couple of years before he wrote Sunshine Sketches he bought a cottage property there; he taught school for a few months in Uxbridge. That’s the extent of his personal experience of small-town life. Mariposa therefore cannot be “based on” Orillia. He says himself that Mariposa is “seventy or eighty” real towns. That’s nonsense too. It’s no real town, and if there are such things as “small town conventions” he has not captured them. I don’t think there are, actually, although some small towns may evolve some of their own particular conventions, for better or worse.
    Unlike Leacock I grew up in a small town, Huntsville, a few miles north of Orillia, and I can assure you that Sunshine Sketches evokes no “powerful nostalgia”. My home town had its scopes and its limitations, like places of all sizes. I remember some people with great affection, others with less. I came away with no generalizations about the nature of small-town life and people. But I can assure you that in two important ways the town was completely unlike Leacock’s Mariposa: the people, whatever their occasional foibles, were not stupid, nor mean-spirited, and the women of the town were just as vitally important as the men.
    Sunshine Sketches is a wonderful book, and fully deserves its status as a Canadian classic. Your affection is well placed. But it’s a very different kind of classic than its popular reputation, or even its scholarly one, and grows in stature if properly read.
    Sincerely,
    Paul Conway
    Blog at mariposabyconway.wordpress.com

    • Hi Paul –

      Thanks for your response. I admittedly had a very small taste of small town life, or more accurately, what I perceived as a small town (I believe Kamloops is actually a city, and its population is certainly higher than 5000!). So my nostalgia likely stems from a very romanticized memory of my experience.

      It would be interesting to re-read this book with your comments in mind. Thank you for sharing!

      Jaclyn

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