Thursday, January 31, 2013

419 by Will Ferguson

Will Ferguson was born in Fort Vermillion, Alberta, in 1964. He studied film production and screenwriting at York University in Toronto, and following graduation he taught English in Japan for five years. He is best known for his humorous writings about Canadian history and culture, and for his travel themed works. He has won the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humor three times. He now lives in Calgary with his wife and two sons. His novel, 419, won the $50,000 Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2012.

The title, 419, refers to the section of Nigerian criminal code that deals with email scams, and at least at some level, these scams form the unifying thread to which the varied components of the four personal trajectories that make up this book cling for significance. The book reads like one part Heart of Darkness, peppered with a bit of Stockholm syndrome and a dash of Luigi Pirandello, all set in a dystopian travel guide to Nigeria, and especially to the internet sweatshops of Lagos. The story of Winston, the scammer, probably provides the most engaging and sustained narrative, while the stories of Nnambi and Amina, characters who are only introduced 150 pages into the text, seem superfluous and contrived. As for the Laura story, as she tries to avenge her father's suicide, committed in response to being victimized by Winston, I was not convinced by her motivations, her actions, her interactions, or the other members of her family.

I think it is fair to suggest that this book represents Ferguson's first genuine foray into the genre of literary fiction. On its own, I find it difficult to imagine that 419 would be judged as deserving of Canada's most lucrative literary award. So, was Ferguson being rewarded on the basis of his ability to switch genres and produce what many reviewers deemed to be a credible product, or was he being rewarded on the basis of his output to date? Who knows? At least from my perspective, he should stick to humor.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Surnames and Community Identity

Researchers commonly use surname counts as a means of studying settlement patterns, ethnic heritage, and cultural identity in defined geographic areas. Cape Breton Island, with its long history of occupation, for either economic or military purposes, coupled with its relative isolation, provides an excellent site for this sort of analysis, and by way of illustration I examined the surname frequencies in three small communities.

Cheticamp is a long-established fishing community with a population of just over 3000, located at the northwest end of the Cape Breton Highlands National Park. Ingonish, with a population of just over 1200, is located at the Park's southeastern end, and is home to the renowned Keltic Lodge and the top-ranked Highland Links golf course. The town of Mabou, on the west coast of the Island, with a population of just over 1200, was historically associated with coal mining, but is now more closely associated with its cultural strength, as particularly evident in its musicians, such as the internationally acclaimed Rankin Family.

There are 502 households in Mabou, representing 170 different surnames, of which 112 (65.8%) occur only once. The three most common surnames, in terms of households, are Beaton (66), MacDonald (60), and Rankin (28). Together these three represent 30.6% of all households. 

There are 527 households in Ingonish, representing 198 different surnames, of which 133 (67.1%) occur only once. The three most common surnames are Donovan (31), Whitty (24), and in a tie for third place, Barron (18), Doucette (18), and MacLeod (18). Together these five represent 20.6% of all households.

There are 1292 households in Cheticamp, representing 264 different surnames, of which 182 (68.9%) occur only once. The three most common surnames are Aucoin (152), Poirier (100), and Chiasson (85). Together these three represent 26% of all households.

In total, there are 545 different surnames represented across these three communities, but only 14 of these, or 2.5%, are represented in all three communities. They are: Aucoin, Brown, Campbell, Doyle, Fraser, Gillis, Harrison, Leblanc, MacDonald, MacDougall, MacKinnon, MacLean, Murphy, and Thompson.

While there are a number of observations that could be made about these findings, it is perhaps most intriguing to note that in all three cases, two-thirds of the households represent unique surname occurrences. Further, based on the relative density of heritage families we might speculate that Mabou is the most culturally cohesive community, followed by Cheticamp, and then Ingonish.