Monday, 12 December 2011

Book Review:
A Troubled Personality Revealed

Nerys Parry, Man and Other Natural Disasters (Winnipeg, Manitoba: Enfield and Wizenty, an imprint of Great Plains Publications, 2011), 214 pp. ISBN 9878-1-926531-12-0. $29.95.

I became alarmed upon seeing this local news on November 10 about Doukhobors in a new book: 'Acclaimed Ottawa author doing select readings in the area'. Was another award-winning author slandering the Doukhobors?

'Man and Other Natural Disasters delves into turbulent acts in Canada's past. The Sons of Freedom, an offshoot of the Doukhobors protested against government interference with mass nudity, arson and explosives. That past terrorism is analogous to what's happening now in many parts of the world. Nerys spent many hours reading the actual diaries of the Sons of Freedom. She was surprised how closely the situation happening in Bountiful B.C. mirrors what happened decades ago.

'Man and Other Natural Disasters is a thoughtful and frightening novel on what happens when extremism takes over a religion or belief system.

'Nerys was a finalist for the 2011 Colophon Prize and tied for seventh out of more than 130 books in the Giller Prize Reader's Choir Award contest....'


Reviewer Koozma J. Tarasoff (right) exchanged books with author Nerys Parry (left)

I had to read the book and meet Nerys Parry, because the news announcement was misleading in two ways:
  1. Those Sons of Freedom who burnt, bombed and went naked distanced themselves from the main Doukhobor Movement, and therefore they excluded themselves from it. The word 'Doukhobor' does not belong here and therefore should not be used in association with the zealots. When used, it is a case of exploitation and slander against a peaceful group.
  2. The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS Church) — polygamist Mormons in Bountiful, BC — have no connection to the Sons zealots or to the Doukhobors. Why make reference to Bountiful here which is currently in the news — unless its purpose is to draw on some kind of sensationalism to sell books. Publicists should stop the crass capitalistic practise of maligning and exploiting another group with the intent of selling a product and gaining a financial interest.
Upon meeting the author and studying her book, my worries passed. She led me to further research in which I found that mental illness played a major role in sabotaging Doukhobor history.

The fictitious main character, Simon Peters, is presented as a creative bookbinder in the basement of the Calgary Public Library. The story involves the tragedy of his family from natural and man-made causes.Towards the end it turns out that Simon is really Seymon, an extreme zealot from the interior of British Columbia whose family was involved in a series of disasters in the form of terrorism. The Seymon character was largely inspired by diaries that the author found in the Public Archives of Canada. It was about a troubled personality by the name of Fred N. Davidoff born in 1924 in the Cowley area of Alberta.

Around the year 2000, the author Nerys Parry first developed the Simon character, but the manuscript lay dormant for some time. In 2005-2006, Nerys and a colleague worked on a story about the effects of chemical, biological and radiological experiments in the Canadian Forces Base at Suffield, Alberta on the veterans who were used as human testers during the World War II period. When blacked out materials from RCMP records hindered the full development of the Suffield story, Nerys discovered an adjacent Davidoff File in the Archives as being a wonderful fit for Simon. The Simon story was further developed and the publisher preferred the new version. Perhaps Canada going into Afghanistan had something to do with the decision, even though the last veterans of Suffield were quickly dying out? Read more in Nerys Parry's blog: Finding Simon, and see her TV interview.

In doing my homework, I went to the Public Archives of Canada and read the three boxes of Fred N. Davidoff's files (fonds). The historic character Fred was worst than I had previously known. I already knew that Simma Holt's Terror in the Name of God: the Story of the Sons of Freedom Doukhobors (1964) was based on information that Fred Davidoff had given to this Vancouver Sun reporter. The book featured Fred as an 'Autobiography of a Fanatic'. Within several years,  Fred flip-flopped his fabricated views in order to gain parole from nine years in jail.

The result of all of this was that the Doukhobors as a whole were blackballed by Simma Holt and by her main informant Fred Davidoff with the false claim of nudity, bombings and burnings. These acts were real, but they were perpetrated by individuals who closely sided with zealotry and a few with terrorism. These acts were contrary to mainstream Doukhobor beliefs.

From his diaries and letters as well as from accounts by others, I learned that Fred N. Davidoff's behaviour was that of a classic psychopath, an extreme fanatic, a con artist who fabricated much of what he said about the Doukhobor name and thereby misled Canadian reporters. He was mentally unstable, was an informant to the police, was one who could not be trusted, and people feared him. He was a person with a vivid imagination of himself. Most damning of all was that he had a habit of slandering many innocent Doukhobor people with terrorism.

In my response to seeking justice and truth, it has taken me and several of my friends some fifty years to correct the misinformed damage that has been done by the team Simma and Fred. In a real sense, both have hijacked the Doukhobor identity.

In the conclusion of her book Man and Other Natural Disasters, Nerys Parry states: 'I would like to clarify that Simon/Seymon and his family are fictional characters, and any similarity with living or dead persons is coincidental....'

Whenever possible, Nerys stuck to some of the known facts that occurred during the turmoil in the 1950s and 1960 — such as the Polatka (tents) affair in the Kootenays in 1953, the New Denver institution for zealot kids from 1953 to 1959 (surrounded by a high wire fence), the RCMP infamous Special D. (Doukhobor) Squad, and the death of Harry Kootnikoff in 1962 while making a pocket watch bomb. All this Nerys admits in her Notes and Acknowledgements.

Obviously Nerys enjoys straddling the divide between science and fiction. This is real talent — and she is very good at it. In fact, the large part of the book on Simon Peters was so congruent that I believed him to be a bookbinder in Calgary, Alberta and that his parents were ranchers. When Simon has a complete mental breakdown and becomes Seymon in the office of a British Columbia psychiatrist, this is sudden transformation. At the end, when this split personality goes back to Calgary, as the reader, I am not sure who this real character is. Is he from Alberta or from British Columbia? Is he a passionate bookbinder or an unpredictable person? Is he a gentle pacifist or a dangerous terrorist?

To her credit as a skilled writer, Nerys Parry has minimised stereotyping the Doukhobors by avoiding the use of the name. (I found only two times the word was used in 214 pages, and one of this was in the title of a book.) Instead, Nerys has carefully used terms such as Sons of Freedom, Svobodniki, and Freedomites. Not Doukhobors. Yet, with much negative association with the past, when zealots and authors (such as Simma Holt) have hijacked the Doukhobors identity, it becomes difficult to dissociate one from the other. It is similar to the stigma that Muslims today receive from terrorists (who are not real Muslims, but terrorists).

Separating fact from fiction is a very delicate process even for a sensitive and innovative young writer such as Nerys Parry. She has done very well in this book. She has raised the bar for future writers to be very sensitive when straddling science with fiction. The book is worth a read.

Read Nerys Parry's blog about our meeting: Straddling the divides: fact, fiction and Freedomites.

2 comments:

  1. I've read this book. If one can just enjoy the writing and not view the novel as a historical text it is a fabulous read!

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  2. An interesting perspective on Man & other Natural Disasters. I felt there was in the novel a strong link between the Freedomite movement of the past and to touch present-day extremist positions, be they Islamist extremists, or the less obvious Fundamentalist christian or Zionist jews. They have all taken religions practiced peacefully and tolerantly by millions and manipulated and changed them beyond recognition to justify their narrow and bigoted view of life.
    On a less serious side, it's a great read!

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