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Identity and space in Sailor Girl and Little Comrades

“Kate lit a cigarette, watching the massed shape of the Huron Queen looming above the holding wall. The deck lights came on, making little cones of yellow in the fog that was now rolling in from the lake. …

“Calvin would be up there, smoking at the top of the ladder. It was too dark to see him now, but he would be able to see her. She thought of what he would see: Kate lighting a cigarette, Kate on the phone, like a doll in a glass case by the supermarket exit, waiting for someone to come along and win her.

“He would see someone waiting for something better to come along. He wouldn’t see the homesickness in her, the darkness curling up like fog through the gaps at the bottom of the booth. She felt it climb into her belly like the opportunist it was. People could get homesick for anything. For a school where no one really knew you, for a bad boyfriend, for parents who found you wanting. For a bunk as wide as a yardstick in a cabin smelling of soup.” (Olson 268)

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There are many reasons why this is one of the most moving passages in Sheree-Lee Olson’s Sailor Girl. Her protagonist Kate McLeod spends a great deal of the novel feeling homesick, but for a place she can’t remember—or perhaps that never existed at all. Growing up in the 70s and 80s, Kate is alive in the middle of the age of second-wave feminism. She is empowered by the ideals of feminism, but she often finds herself being held back by the realities of her society. Though Kate might be ready for a new type of woman, the rest of the world isn’t and Kate’s choices often leave her set adrift. Seeking reprieve, her choice to sign onto the account of the Great Lake freighters is the result of her search for a space where she can finally be herself.

Though it is set several decades earlier, when I read Laurie Lewis’ Little Comrades I was struck by the similarities between Olson’s novel and Lewis’ memoir. Though I suppose the connection makes sense since both books feature young women growing up and seeking to define themselves as women—even as they are unsure of what the word means. Like Kate, the young Laurie finds herself stuck between the real roles women are allowed and the ideal roles she yearns to fill. With the help of her mother, Laurie leaves her old life behind and embarks on a journey to find herself through the streets and slums of New York City.

It is very interesting that both writers link women’s social displacement with actual physical displacement. But neither author is without hope, for what do you take with you when you are lost? A map, of course.

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When Kate decides to leave her home in Toronto in the summer of 1981, it’s not only because she needs the money. Certainly, Kate needs help paying her way through art school, but that isn’t why she chooses to sign onto the Great Lake freighters.

We first meet Kate on a Greyhound bus passing through Hamilton on her way to the Welland Canal. She is sitting with her legs up, wedged between two seats, with her Doc Martens on the back of the seat in front of her. She has caught another woman staring at her. It is an older woman with blond hair, meticulously styled into a big Farrah Fawcett hairdo: beautiful hair contrasting terribly with her squashed, unattractive face. Kate wonders why women try so hard to dress themselves up, as if in costume, only to achieve these horrific results. But she doesn’t wonder what the woman thinks of her; Kate already knows what the woman sees: “a delinquent” (9).

“Aviator shades, slash of plum lipstick, cloud of rust-coloured hair escaping her braids. The woman’s eyes flickered to her Docs. People were supposed to notice Doc Martens, it was why she had bought them, specifically why she had bought them in purple, when she absolutely couldn’t afford them. They were boots for standing your ground. For kicking. For running if you had to.” (9)

So from the very beginning we know that Kate isn’t like other women.

As we read on, we realize that she never has been. A contrast it set up very early on between Kate and her younger sister Jenna. Only sixteen months apart, the girls are quite different from one another. Jenna has the pale skin and delicate bone structure of their mother, whereas Kate’s blotchy skin is prone to blushes and her jaw is square and stubborn. “It was always whereas Kate,” she thinks, remembering their youth together (24). Kate was always running off to play with her friends in the abandoned farmers’ fields while Jenna stayed behind, yelling after her sister until she was hoarse. When they got older the dynamic didn’t change. Kate still abandoned her sister, but now it was to play with Bobby in his tree fort, for sweet kisses on a hot summer day. When the other kids found out what Kate had been doing, “KATE IS A SLUT” suddenly appeared scrawled across the walls of the fort. Years later Jenna despairs, “I can’t believe this. … My sister is a slut” (44). The differences between the girls are cinched: there are names for the sort of girl Kate has become.

Kate knows her parents want her to be more like Jenna. Even though they are loved equally, Jenna is the one who is adored. Growing up, Jenna was the one who was obedient, who “worked hard to please them” (25). Now they are grown, Jenna fully accepts the feminine roles she was encouraged to fill. She has the Lady Di haircut, wears Laura Ashley sundresses, and crosses her arms just like their mother. But Kate can’t accept the lifestyle her parents want for her. She moves out, buys a pair of purple Doc Martens, and applies to an art school in the city.

Running away to work on the boats for the summer seems the perfect escape for Kate. She’s never felt she fit in and never been able to compromise herself. Joining the boats is the perfect outward expression of the way she has always felt inside: placeless.

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And at first it works. Maybe. Kate feels an amazing sense of clarity and freedom when standing above deck on the boats. The water, the clear light from the sun breaking over the waves. … But when she is below deck it is a different story altogether.

It doesn’t take Kate very long to realize the boats are a whole new world with a whole new set of rules. In fact, it is almost as if she has gone back in time; the antiquated gender roles on board are much worse than anything she ever experienced back on land. But in this day and age a woman had the right to behave as she wished, so Kate sets that stubborn jaw and acts exactly as she pleases. An outward show of defiance, she wears whatever she likes, usually donning a sweat-soaked tank top and cut-off shorts or a tight jean miniskirt. The judgement she is subjected to shocks her. She catches the captain of the Black River looking her up and down, “his eyes scraping her bare legs below her shorts.”

“For God’s sake,” he tells her, “put something decent on. Some of these poor buggers haven’t seen their wives in months” (31).

The captain’s judgement smarts like a slap across the face, but Kate perseveres. When they drop anchor in a bay off Midland and all the deckhands go swimming, Kate throws on a bikini to join them. “Let them have an eyeful,” she thinks (61). She suspects her jealous boyfriend Boyd won’t like it, but she never expects that he will call her an idiot in front of everyone. Humiliated again. But she won’t be stopped: she jumps into the frigid water. It’s too cold, and she goes too deep. She needs to be saved by one of the deckhands. But when her body collided with that cold water her bikini top was forced up around her neck, and when she is hauled out of the water she cannot cover her bare breasts in time. Almost like a public shaming Kate confesses: “her humiliation was complete” (62).

On the boats Kate finds that she doesn’t need to accept the rules of a society to be shamed by them. Just like when she was a child: she didn’t even know what “slut” meant but when it appeared in bright Magic Marker across the walls of Bobby’s tree fort she knew it was true. The captain had succeeded in shaming her that day in the mess hall, “even if she didn’t agree with him, even if he was wrong” (32). Rather than feeling empowered, her sense of powerlessness grows.

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Kate can avoid the humiliation and shame if she only follows the rules, but the cost to herself is too great. She notices that once it has been established that she is “Boyd’s girl” life gets easier for her on the Black River. The crew seem to be able to understand her more easily, “she [is] identified, situated, explained” (61). Sometimes she even wonders if this is the only reason she is with Boyd. After all, there aren’t many other perks. For when Kate is out with Boyd she’s Boyd’s girl, and Boyd’s girl only. He expects her to stay at his side, attend only to him, wait when he wants to stay, and leave only when he’s ready to go. When Kate’s out with Boyd she is trapped: trapped at the bar because she depends on him to get her home, but also trapped by his demands of her. As Carol warns her, “if you’re used to thinking for yourself, it gets old fast” (57).

And so it is that we find Kate is that phone booth, just as stuck as she ever was. She is waiting, framed by its four walls, illuminated for all to see against the pitch black night. As Kate feels herself being pushed into roles she is powerless to control—sweet daughter, obedient girlfriend, wilful whore, disobedient slut—a great feeling of homesickness fills her. She knows she hasn’t found a place to belong yet, but she craves one all the same. A place where she can be herself, a place she can call home.

“`You’re some quiet,’ Boyd said, slowing at the lights. ‘You all right or what?’
“`No, I feel weird. Almost homesick.’
“`You’re home, aren’t you? What exit do I take?’
“`Toronto isn’t home. I’ve only been here a year.’ But she wasn’t homesick for Ottawa, for her parent’s gingerbread Victorian in the Glebe.” (65 – 66)

Exiting the highway with Boyd in the driver’s seat Kate thinks “maybe it was herself she missed” (66).

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Running away is something Kate McLeod and the young Laurie Lewis have in common. When Laurie was growing up in the Canadian Prairies, her mother had a habit of packing up little Laurie and her brother Andy and walking out on their abusive father. She took them to Edmonton, Vancouver, Lethbridge—all over the West Coast. One summer she bolts, taking Laurie with her to stay with some friends in Lethbridge. The house they stay in is full of books, and Laurie revels in the sheer amount of reading material. Her mother sets up a little bed for her on the couch in the living room, and Laurie stays up nights reading Greek mythology. One myth in particular stays in her mind.

“I remember Sisyphus rolling a big stone up the hill and it would always roll back down, over and over again. I certainly knew what that felt like; like things couldn’t ever change, you just had to keep pushing that same old rock up that same old hill.” (Lewis 54)

As I read Little Comrades it occurred to me that Laurie’s memoir shared a lot with Sailor Girl. Both are stories of young women growing up—but they are both more like tales of young women growing sideways, struggling to shoot up, all the while being held firmly down.

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Growing up with an abusive father, Laurie’s childhood is one of appeasement, constantly trying to minimize Lawrence’s rages. Laurie claims “my father’s world was easy for me to know,” and the rules aren’t all that much different from the rules Kate had to follow when she was being “Boyd’s girl”: “all I had to do was laugh and have fun, try to look pretty in front of his friends, and never criticize him or anyone else” (84). As Kate found, the self-compromise is crippling, but in Lawrence’s world there is no other option. She must continue to follow his rules until she is finally able to escape for good. After one of her father’s beatings, she tells us: “I learned to obey. I was a very good girl. I would be good until I was old enough to leave home and be as bad as I pleased” (61).

Laurie describes her family as always running away: her mother, her brother, and herself. Running away takes on an important meaning in her developing mind: she associates it with freedom. When she gets her first job babysitting a little girl after school, she describes herself as saving up for her independence, like her mother. For Laurie’s mother Ellen, running away means emancipation. When Ellen is away from Lawrence, she is the one who makes decisions for the family. She can do “whatever she [wants], whenever she [wants], as long as she [can] pay for it somehow” (53). And as Laurie says, if it was something Ellen wanted she usually found a way. When Lawrence re-enters the picture, Ellen must ask him for everything and he seems to derive a sort of pleasure from denying her.

“I said no, Ellen! … Your job is to be my wife and help me. I’m back now, and I’m the one who makes those decisions. And I say I don’t want you attending.” (53)

Being Lawrence’s wife is a full-time job for Ellen. She tries to maintain her autonomy from him, but it is impossible. She can try to keep her own job, but with Lawrence around there is all the extra work to do, like washing his overalls and scrubbing his dirty work clothes in the bath tub (67). As Lawrence’s wife, Ellen has no time left to be herself.

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When Ellen tells Laurie she’s leaving for good, Laurie says she knew it was “the direction my life would have to take, into my mother’s world and out of his” (88). In this new world, the women can start afresh, create themselves anew. There is nothing to stop them from being who they really are (and from being as bad as they please …). It is fitting then that the first thing they do when they escape Lawrence for good is buy new clothes.

“It was June and hot in Toronto. Suddenly it seemed urgent to shed our Vancouver characters, to transform ourselves into the new women we would become. Ellen herded me into a clothing store. … We stuffed our well-travelled clothes into our suitcases, wore our new clothes out of the store, feeling self-conscious, newly created.” (94)

Their recreation becomes a bit of a habit with each consecutive move. In each new apartment they reposition the furniture, set Ellen’s bed against the wall, place the pillows along the back like a couch. When there’s paint, they paint the walls and furniture, carefully picking out bright colours and happy tones.

“`The kitchen will be so cheerful!’ Ellen said ‘Like a cottage in Italy, near the ocean. Should we paint the linoleum blue, do you think? Dappled like waves?'” (127)

Laurie concedes: “Our new life in Manhattan was going to be happy and sunny. We were free. We could make our own decisions” (127).

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But like Kate, Laurie is filled with a great sense of uncertainty. She knows when they set out for Toronto she will finally have the chance to be herself—but she isn’t sure who that is yet. She is fortunate to have Ellen as an example, but Laurie constantly feels she is not as strong or as brave as her mother. She confesses “I didn’t have my mother’s knack for inventing stories about the future; I didn’t trust this scary future, so I looked everywhere for signs, for reassurance” (93). Somewhere between a child and an adult, Laurie feels she is just drifting through her life.

“I was coasting along with whatever was going to happen, just muddling through. I hadn’t learned to make decisions, or even that every action I took was a decision of some sort. Everything just seemed to happen without any volition on my part.” (104)

But Laurie begins to make decisions—conscious ones—as she gets older. Having lived all over the West Coast, Toronto, and now New York, she starts to crave roots. She desires an outward semblance of certainty, even if inside she is just as unsure as she ever was. So when Ellen says “I’m going to England. Do you want to come?” Laurie chooses to stay behind (193). Suddenly now she is the one who needs to find a new apartment, needs to learn how to take care of herself. But Ellen has confidence in her daughter: “she knew I was capable of whatever was necessary. She knew she had taught me well” (195). In many ways, Laurie’s memoir reads like a collection of lessons passed down to her from her mother. And Ellen has taught Laurie the most important thing she will ever need to know: Ellen has taught Laurie how to read a map.

Ellen knows that knowledge of space is power, and as Kate McLeod and the young Laurie Lewis muddle through their respective adolescences, they begin to suspect it too. For years before Ellen made her getaway she would study maps of far-off locations, “dreaming of her escape” (118). When they first arrive in New York she already knows her way around a bit and her knowledge saves them. Their rental accommodation falls through they are left homeless, penniless, perched on the side of a New York City street. But Ellen suddenly remembers a hotel from her map gazing, The Aberdeen, not too far away, where they can take refuge for the night.

That first night in the hotel in New York, Ellen spreads her map out on a table by the window for her daughter to see.

“`Here’s where we are right now,’ she showed me. ‘And there is the apartment on Monroe Street. Here is the Worker office, and this is the restaurant.’” (121)

Laurie says, “On the pink map everything seemed logical, a simple grid. The streets went across from side to side, the avenues went up an down, and Broadway ran diagonally through it …” (121). No matter what happens to them, Ellen is always in control because she always knows where they are and where they are going. Years later Laurie will tell her mother “You always seem to think happiness will be in the next place you move to.” “No,” Ellen disagrees, “I just know it’s not here” (199).

Kate leaves Toronto for similar reasons: she knows happiness isn’t there. But unlike Ellen, Kate doesn’t have a clear idea where she is going. Her stubborn determination to end up no where makes her desperate. With no mother to show her the way Kate is fortunate that a deckhand recognizes her desperation and seeks to give her a hand.

“`What’s this?’ she said, shaking it out.
“It was a map, tattered at the edges, its creases mended with ambered tape.
“`It’s a nautical chart,’ he said, ‘of the seaway system. The mate was throwing it out.’ He took it from her and spread it on the table. ‘See, there’s all the lakes, the Welland Canal, the Montreal locks, the St. Lawrence, all the way to Pointe Noire in the Gulf.’ He folded it up and handed it back with an ironic smile. ‘I thought you might want to know where you’re going’” (Olson 40).

Kate begins to pull the map out routinely that summer on the Lakes. She starts circling the ports they stop at, as if collecting them on a “souvenir charm bracelet” (106). Still lost, angry, confused, Kate may not know where she’s going, but she starts to exhibit a strong desire to know where she’s been.

Kate’s collection is oddly similar to that of Laurie Lewis. Laurie’s memoir, penned in beautifully candid prose, is divided into parts and chapter headings: “Herald Square,” “Little Italy/Greenwich Village,” “East Eighteenth Street”: a collection of all the places in New York she went with her mother.

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Lewis, Laurie. Little Comrades. Erin, Ontario: The Porcupine’s Quill, 2011.

Olson, Sheree-Lee. Sailor Girl. Erin, Ontario: The Porcupine’s Quill, 2008.

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The Porcupine's Quill would like to acknowledge the support of the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council for the Arts for our publishing program. The financial support of the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund (CBF) is also gratefully acknowledged.