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Fiction: The Story of Canada

Oursonette

Main art for Oursonette by Margaret Atwood

Oursonette

A country is not just its people and places, but its stories. On the occasion of Canada’s sesquicentennial, The Globe and Mail has invited a group of writers – from home and abroad – to celebrate the country’s history in fiction. The results will be published throughout the course of 2017.

A country is not just its people and places, but its stories. On the occasion of Canada’s sesquicentennial, The Globe and Mail has invited a group of writers – from home and abroad – to celebrate the country’s history in fiction. The results will be published throughout the course of 2017.

Paper was fluttering down from the sky. Typed pages, blanks, tickertape, hole puncher confetti, streamers – it was like a blizzard! Where did it come from? Who had been saving it all up over the past five years?

And to think of the trouble we had getting enough paper for Oursonette, Al thought bitterly. We had to grovel, we had to deal, we had to steal, we practically sold our souls. And for what?

Sourpuss, he told himself. It’s the end of the war. You should be happy. Everyone else is.

At least he’d got the day off: around eleven, Canadian Pacific had called it quits. As soon as he stepped out the door he’d found himself shouldering his way through a surging mass of grinning, singing humanity. Women and men were still pouring onto Yonge Street from office buildings and side streets: dozens, hundreds, multiplying by the second. The noise was deafening: drums, bugles, bagpipes, tin horns, rattling New Year’s Eve noisemakers, anything that could be whacked or blown. Hit tunes blared from Victory Loan loudspeakers. Somewhere in the distance – was that a hymn? Abide With Me: doleful enough for him. He wasn’t in the mood for Glenn Miller.

The sky was blue, the sun was shining. That did nothing to cheer him up. Overhead, a couple of RCAF Mosquitoes were showing off, wing-dipping and buzzing the Lancaster bomber that was dumping more paper into the air. Flags everywhere: the Canadian Red Ensign, the Union Jack, the Stars and Stripes, the Hammer and Sickle, the Chinese flag; the French one, the Polish one, others he was vague about. Faces on posters: the King and Queen, serene; Churchill scowling; FDR grinning widely, even though he was dead; Uncle Joe with his tiger smile. Some Chinese guy. A group of dancers, hand in hand; couples locked in embrace. A barbershop quartet in uniform, mangling The White Cliffs of Dover. He might have been among them if his feet weren’t so flat and his lungs had been better, though recently they’d been accepting men scrawnier than him.

Well, he’d done his bit anyway: Oursonette was good for morale, especially in the beginning when things had been going so badly. Oursonette brought a smile amid the gloom. She stiffened the resolve. Several letter-writers had told him that.

“Look out where you’re going,” said a voice. He was jostled roughly aside, but then he was grabbed and kissed. His face came away wet: tears, not his. Some girl weeping with joy. He rubbed his mouth: who knew who else she’d been kissing?

Now there was an uproarious old geezer with a bottle, no tie or hat, his fly undone, offering him a drink. He turned down, because it could be home brew, and “blind drunk” meant something.

A streetcar moved past him at the speed of a slug, a bunch of teenagers clinging to the front, waving at him, stretching out their hands. “Hop on!” they yelled. He’d never done such a thing at their age, and it was too late now. He was twenty-one, old enough to know better.

“Hey Four-eyes, how about a smooch?” A CWAC, in uniform, hair mussed, lipstick like raspberries mashed around her mouth. She ought to know better, too, though the women who joined the CWAC were definitely loose, or so it was said.

Spot illustration for Oursonette by Margaret Atwood

Not all of them though: Oursonette was CWAC, and she was a heroine. No man could get near her because she had to save her powers for fighting Nazi spies. She’d been so pure, so brave. What would become of her now? Would she be scrapped for parts, like a ruined tank? It was so unfair.

He picked his way along King Street West, going against the flow. His feet hurt, as they frequently did. Finally he reached the Pickering Hotel. It was the hangout for the inky boys; you could usually find some of them in there, stoking themselves up before hitting the drawing board again. If you were fulltime the pace could be blistering.

The place was half-empty – everyone was out celebrating, he supposed – but Gloria and Mike were at their regular table. They used the place as their impromptu office. Gloria was drinking a cup of the burnt toast crumbs and charred grain that the Pickering liked to term coffee. Mike was finishing off a beer and a hamburger, mustard smearing his chin. Al never touched those hamburgers, not since Mike told him that the meat was ground-up pig snouts. Then he said it was a joke, but Al wasn’t so sure about that. Mike didn’t care much what he put into his mouth.

“Hi, boy genius, how’s tricks?” Mike said. Al wished he would chew and swallow before talking.

“Join us, Al,” said Gloria.

“Why are you eating that?” Al slid into the booth. He’d have to order something – the Pickering frowned on free sitting. He’d opt for the orange Jell-O, even though Mike said it was made out of horse’s hooves.

“Because he’s hungry,” said Gloria in her husky voice. She blew out smoke from under her wavy blonde Veronica Lake sideflop, extruding her lips into a red O. “He’s always hungry. He’s a growing boy.” She smiled at Mike as if he was a two year old and had done a cute thing just by eating, which was how she always smiled at him.

That annoyed Al – what was so special about Mike except that he knew how to draw? Other than that he was quite stupid: Gloria was the brains behind Canoodle Features. She picked the artists, she okayed the ideas, she supervised the printing, the distribution, the ads. She kept the books. She’d inherited the business, which had printed signs, posters, and streetcar ads before the war, so she’d already known the basics.

“I’m getting back in shape,” said Mike. “As a carnivore. Now that the war’s over we’re going to see a lot of meat. An explosion of meat! It’ll be like someone dropped this enormous meat bomb!”

“I can hardly wait,” said Gloria. “No more meat tokens! Roast lamb, that’s my favourite.”

“We’re sunk,” Al said.

“What?” Mike said. “What d’you mean, sunk? We just won the dad-ratted war!” He’d been told by Gloria not to swear around her, not real swearing, so most of the time he didn’t.

“Who do you mean by ‘we’?” said Gloria to Al. She was no dumb bunny, except in the matter of Mike.

“Mike means the allies. I mean us,” said Al. “All of us. You and Mike. Canoodle Features. The rest of them, too: Bell and Wow, Johnny Canuck, Nelvana, the works. And Oursonette.”

“But Oursonette’s doing great!” said Mike. “The fan club – it doubled since the last issue! And the numbers are great too! Right, Gloria?”

“Twenty thousand copies,” said Gloria. “Maybe twenty-five, I’ll know in a week. Not as good as Bell’s numbers, but we’re climbing.” She paused, gave Al a level look. “Or we were climbing, until now.”

The last episode of Oursonette had indeed been a triumph: she’d parachuted behind enemy lines in her nifty fur-trimmed outfit with the short skirt that showed a lot of leg – “Show more leg,” Gloria had said – and her fur-topped boots. Then, after an interlude when she’d been captured, tied up, and almost brutally tortured, she’d called on her two bear allies, broken free of her bonds with their aid, changed into her white bear form, and subdued a whole nest full of enemy agents.

She wasn’t allowed to actually kill them – that would have been too unfeminine, said Gloria – but she’d tied them up in bundles, using telegraph wire, and she and her two bear allies had carted them through the lines, dodging machine-gun bullets and artillery fire – dubba dubba dubba, ack-ack-ack! After another narrow escape, she’d met up with the Brits and Canucks under the command of Field Marshall Montgomery, drawn by Al from a newspaper photo. She’d then switched back into her human form.

“Got a little present for you, boys,” she’d said. She was charmingly offhand about her own heroic exploits.

“Oursonette! How can we thank you?” they’d said, as they usually did.

“No need,” Oursonette had said. “We’re winning! That’s thanks enough. Au revoir!” Oursonette often said “Au revoir!” Her name was more or less French, which was good because Al was partial to the Van Doos, especially since Ortona. “Au revoir” was the only French thing Oursonette ever said, but you got the idea.

There was a closeup of her heart-shaped face, her roguish, long-lashed wink. Then she’d changed back into her bear form and headed into the woods with her two bear allies.

When he’d first pitched Oursonette to Gloria, she’d been unsure. “A bear?” she’d said. “I dunno, Al. Could it maybe be a tiger? Or a lynx?”

“What’s wrong with a bear?”

“It’s not … face it, Al, a bear’s not sexy. Bears are more cuddly, like teddy bears. Or else they’re ferocious.”

Al had been hurt. “You don’t get it,” he’d said. “The bear’s a tribute to Uncle Joe. Russia – the U.S.S.R – they’re helping us win the war, right?”

“So?”

“It’s a symbol. Like, a mascot. The Russian Bear. Except I made it white, so it’s more, I dunno. More pure.”

“You’re very sweet, Al,” Gloria had said. “You need a girl friend.” She’s paused, blown out more smoke, stared up at the ceiling, as she did when pondering. “Okay, give it a whirl. If it works I’ll take you off Bessie the Bullet Gal. But do it fast, we need to keep pushing if we want to gain on Bell.”

Spot illustration for Oursonette by Margaret Atwood

But that had been a long time ago: three years at least. Now, in the Pickering dining lounge, Gloria was frowning while she lit another cigarette. She offered him the pack even though she knew he was quitting on account of his lungs. “I’m thinking like you,” she said. “A year ago I thought I’d be offering you a full-time slot. Get you out of the mail room at C.P. But now…”

“What’re you both talking about?” said Mike. “Want some pie? I’m having some. Lemon chiffon!”

“It’s not real lemons,” said Al.

“War’s over, honey,” Gloria said. “That embargo on American comics is gonna come off. I give it six months, a year maximum. All-colour Americans – they’ll be back. Captain Marvel, Batman, Wonder Woman, the whole shooting match. Mickey Mouse, you name it. Then this place will be flooded. Black and whites like ours will be finished. Oh, Al, and that Russian bear – I don’t see that being so popular, coming up. How’re they going to divide things? The Yanks, the Russies. It’s not gonna be so lovey-dovey soon, trust me.”

Mike said, “Cripes. I need another beer.”

“It’s okay, sweetie, we’ve got a fallback,” Gloria said to him. “We’ll slide back into the posters and ads. The factories are gonna be making all kinds of new things. Vaccuum cleaners, toasters, cars – trust me, they’re gonna be big! You heard of televisions? In a few years, just watch! Then they’ll need to sell it, all of it, and that means ads. You’ll have lots to draw!”

Fine for Mike, but what about me? Al thought. He didn’t want to draw cars. They lacked purpose. He’d been just a kid when the war started, so it was all he could really remember. The waste paper collections, the balls of tinfoil they’d been urged to save, the ration books, the radio broadcasts from the front, the newsreels, the airplane cards; the smells, the sounds, the textures: would it all simply vanish, as if those efforts counted for nothing? He had a vision of people – millions of people, intent on a single goal, marching forward together, but suddenly faltering, coming to a standstill, then wandering away in different directions as if they had amnesia. What would everyone do? He couldn’t imagine.

And his Oursonette. She wasn’t a real woman, a real bear-woman, true, but he would miss her a lot. They’d been through so much together. The U-boat attack, the tank battle, the advance through Holland when she’d brought food to the starving, the time when she’d rescued those French resistance fighters; the Maquis, up in the mountains. The people she’d guided through the Alps, into the safety of Switzerland. That had been a suitable job for a bear. He’d learned so much geography from her, he’d been with her every step of the way. Together they’d renounced their so-called normal life to dedicate themselves to the cause.

Au revoir, he whispered to her silently; but she was already fading. Lost, lost. He felt like crying. Would he find someone else to draw? Maybe not. Maybe his life was already over.

“Buck up, Al,” Mike said to him. “You’re young and reckless! You’ve got a whole new future ahead of you! Have a beer!”

“Can you draw washing machines?” Gloria said. “Boxes of soap flakes? Cute housewives in aprons hanging out the sheets, pitching woo to their laundry? Sexy little kiss mouths?”

“Yeah, I guess so,” Al said listlessly.

“Good,” said Gloria. “’Cause trust me: it’s gonna be big!”

Author’s Note: I remember the VE Day celebrations, just barely, though we were in Sault Ste Marie, not Toronto. I read a lot of comics on the late 1940s, during their postwar surge. And my old friend Alan Walker wrote the introduction to The Great Canadian Comic Book, about the early ’40s black-and-whites.

Margaret Atwood is the author of more than forty books of fiction, poetry, and critical essays, including The Handmaid’s Tale, Alias Grace, The Blind Assassin, and the MaddAddam trilogy. Her honours include the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Man Booker Prize, and the Governor-General’s Literary Award. Her most recent books are Hag-Seed, a novel revisitation of Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, and Angel Catbird, a graphic novel with co-creator Johnnie Christmas.

CREDITS: Illustrations by KEN STEACY; Design and development by DANIELLE WEBB; Art direction by BRYAN GEE