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October 2, 2011

Outside the Box by Maria Meindl

My friend Maria Meindl has written one of the best books I’ve read this year in Outside the Box: The Life and Legacy of Writer Mona Gould, The Grandmother I Thought I Knew, and it’s a book that proves fascinating on all different kinds of levels. First, Meindl’s book is a history of magazines and radio broadcasting in Canada during the mid-2oth century, demonstrated by the experiences of Mona Gould who made her entire career as a freelancer in poetry, copy-writing, feature-writing, radio broadcasting, and column-writing between the 1930s and the 1960s. She wrote for publications including Saturday Night and Chatelaine, worked as a publicist for the Red Cross during WWII, was affected by the split between commercial and literary writing that took place during the 1950s, published two books of poetry, and her most famous poem “That Was My Brother” in included in anthologies and textbooks to this day. In her radio broadcasts, she’d have to find subtle ways to work word of her program’s sponsor into her scripts. At times, Gould was published in the same periodicals as poets as notable as PK Page and Margaret Avison, but never achieved the same prominence herself, and from this failure to remarkably ascend, her story has a great deal more to tell about the wider world of publishing and broadcasting in her time than those of those whose experiences were so singular.

Which is not to say that Mona Gould was not remarkable or singular. At her best and worst, there was no one else quite like her, and Meindl has done a tremendous job of portraying such a complicated woman and the ambivalence involved in family relationships. Though she certainly had the resources at her disposal– Outside the Box is not just Mona’s story, but is also the story of Maria’s years-long efforts to catalogue Mona’s archives for the Thomas Fisher Library at the University of Toronto. Boxes upon boxes she’d inherited after her grandmother’s death, and she writes about how the  boxes were conspicuous in the archives– everything slung into boxes willy-nilly, the boxes themselves tatted and from anywhere, and the papers within covered with dust and cat-hair, and she’d discover open tubs of vaseline, and on the back of one pile of of papers was stuck a colostomy bag. The boxes were a mess, and cataloguing them often appeared an impossible task. More burden than gift, as her grandmother had so often seemed to be to Maria. And yet there was richness to be found, and a Mona Gould to be discovered who was distinct from the alcoholic, mean-spirited woman she remembered as having come between her parents in their marriage. Letters written to lifelong friends, papers that demonstrated that Mona had worked hard for her success and it had not simply appeared to her, as she sometimes spun it. That this woman who put herself above feminism and craved approval from men had battled discrimination throughout her career. Maria had been aware that her grandmother had been something of a liar, but the truth behind these stories is often more fascinating than she’d ever imagined.

The book also has much to say to a society so fixated on the cult of personality, celebrity, which Meindl shows is not an altogether modern phenomenon. It is likely that Mona Gould worked as hard on cultivating her “brand” as she did her writing (though, obviously, she would not have put it that way), craving attention and admiration, and in the end, she’d prove a victim of society’s fickleness, and to the changingness of fashion.

Ultimately, however, Outside the Box is a story of inheritance, of coming to terms with where we’ve come from and who we are. In exquisite prose and with a fascinating mastery of chronology, Meindl makes this her own story as much as Mona’s, the story of  how becoming settled in her own life and happiness required her to make peace with her family’s past, to unpack the metaphoric baggage that was as heavy as all those boxes and boxes her grandmother had left her.

2 thoughts on “Outside the Box by Maria Meindl”

  1. Susan Olding says:

    It’s an ambitious and fascinating book. A terrific story, thoughtfully told.

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