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Crackpot by Adele Wiseman
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Crackpot

by Adele Wiseman

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I read this book as my November Canadian classic read and I can’t believe I had never heard of it before, let alone never read it. It is definitely a classic and the writing is wonderful. The main character, to quote Margaret Laurence, “is one of the greatest characters in our literature”.

Hoda is the daughter of Jewish Russian immigrants living in Winnipeg’s North End. Her parents were married in Russia when the plague (cholera I believe) was rampaging through the country. There was a belief that if two people who were disabled (either mentally or physically) were married in the Jewish cemetery the plague would be halted. Hoda’s mother, Rahel, had a slight hump and her father, Danile, was blind so they were the chosen two and the village promised to support them in return. The plague in fact did stop although Danile’s own mother died of it. However, soon enough the village grew tired of supporting them and Danile’s uncle in Winnipeg agreed to sponsor them to come to Winnipeg. The uncle was not aware that Danile was blind and he was not pleased to have a family with no way of earning a living to support. Rahel started cleaning houses to earn their keep and Rahel, Danile and Hoda (just a baby when they left Russia) moved into a rundown shack. Rahel would take Hoda with her when she worked and to keep her quiet she fed her all the time. Hoda was a fat infant who grew into a fat young girl of whom other children made fun. When Hoda was still quite young Rahel died of cancer thus taking the family’s sole source of income away. Danile’s uncle decided that the best way of supporting them would be to donate large sums to the Jewish orphanage and Old Folks home and have Hoda move into the orphanage and Danile move into the seniors’ home. Hoda and Danile refused to be separated and the uncle washed his hands of them. Danile had started to learn how to do basket weaving before Rahel’s death and he felt he could continue to do that at home to support Hoda and himself. However, the basket weaving didn’t bring in much money. Hoda started to clean houses to earn some money too but there was never enough. The local butcher gave Hoda scraps of meat if she would touch his penis and cause him to ejaculate. It was not far from that to Hoda having sex with young men for payment. She was so innocent that she thought she could not get pregnant from that because she was not having intercourse with just one man. Of course, the inevitable happened and she did get pregnant but she didn’t realize she was pregnant. One night she woke from sleep with labour pains and she gave birth by herself without even waking her father. The baby boy was alive so Hoda decided to take him to the Jewish orphanage to which her uncle had donated so much money. She left a note that led people to think the child was the illegitimate offspring of the Prince of Wales who had visited Winnipeg at the appropriate time. The book continues with the lives of Hoda, Danile and Hoda’s son, David (also called Pipick because of his out-turned belly button that resulted from Hoda’s inexpert tying of the umbilical cord).

The story in Winnipeg starts before the First World War and continues past World War II. Hoda is a witness and participant in the Winnipeg General Strike and her involvement with the Communist Party continues. So the book is also a revelation of the Jewish experience in the North End of Winnipeg as well as an exploration of Hoda’s unusual lifestyle. Hoda talks quite frankly about her work (probably one of the reasons the book is not read in school) but she persists in keeping her father unaware of it. I’m still not sure after finishing the book if Danile really was that innocent or if he just chose to ignore it. Hoda also talks frankly about being fat, a point of view that is seldom dealt with in literature, particularly not with the acceptance that is so obvious.

Adele Wiseman wrote very few books. This book, written in 1974, and The Sacrifice, which won the Governor General’s award in 1956, are her only adult novels. ( )
  gypsysmom | Aug 25, 2017 |
I think I read this book many years ago, but returned to it after reading Robert Adams, "A Tribute to Adele Wiseman" in his book, A Love of Reading. Adams described the book as profoundly moving and how Hoda, the daughter of a blind man and a crippled mother who dies while Hoda is still a child, and who becomes the town whore, is:

...a life force, an elemental figure. This wonderful, blowsy, courageous woman contains a world within herself, all our need to give and receive love, all our need to belong.

I agree. While some might feel that the novel is a little longer than it might be, I found that I did not mind because the writing is so good and the insights into human nature and human longing so wonderful. The following, for instance, takes place when Hoda, who is a very overweight child and bears the brunt of jokes and cruel jibes and who longs to belong but is constantly rebuffed by the others, has tried to join other kids in playing "King of the Castle", but they will not let her:

And she had outwaited them standing alone finally, under the street lamp, snuffling and muttering to herself when they, having long tired of chasing her off and now tiring of their snow game, wandered home to where their mothers would scold them for lateness and soaking clothes while they endured the brief agony of thawing out before supper. Now she climbed alone, slipping occasionally, and sliding down as a fragile jut of snow gave way beneath a hand or foot. She had outlasted them into a fearsome, never-been-out-so-late-before evening of glinting air and blue shadows and a looming dark school filled with ghosts of shrieking teachers who'd gone crazy mourning lovers lost in ancient wars.
...
A final heave and Hoda scrambled to her feet, higher than anybody. She could see her mother, half a block down, at the other end of the schoolyard. Flinging up her arms, Hoda blared out in her loudest voice, "I'M THE QUEEN OF THE CASTLE!"

Hoda keeps from her father the fact that she has become a whore, as the only way of keeping their already very poor life together. She becomes pregnant, but being so fat it is not noticeable, and being ignorant of the facts of life she does not even contemplate the possibility, and the description of her suddenly giving birth by herself in the middle of the night is extremely moving. She gives the child, a boy, up immediately by placing him on the step of the Jewish orphanage, and then, 15 years later he comes to her, as do many in the town, for his sexual initiation. Hoda realizes who he is and faces the immediate and obvious conflict of what to do, how to handle the situation, how to give him something of the love and support that she could not do throughout his life.

Another insight from Wiseman:

..."Oh God, something else", when yet another revealed to her his private source of anguish and shame. Sometimes they were indeed horrible deformities of the human vessel, and only her overwhelming awareness of suffering and need had prevented her repulsion. But the strange thing was, so often they were such little things, such minor cracks and chips and variations in the human design on which her clients concentrated as much unhappiness as did the real possessors of the grossest deformities. In the minutest flaw men divined perfection withheld, and saw themselves cast down.
  John | Nov 29, 2005 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Adele Wisemanprimary authorall editionscalculated
Laurence, MargaretAfterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0771098510, Mass Market Paperback)

Hoda, the protagonist of Crackpot, is one of the most captivating characters in Canadian fiction. Graduating from a tumultuous childhood to a life of prostitution, she becomes a legend in her neighbourhood, a canny and ingenious woman, generous, intuitive, and exuding a wholesome lust for life.

Resonant with myth and superstition, this radiant novel is a joyous celebration of life and the mystery that is at the heart of all experience.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:17:52 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

Hoda, the protagonist of Crackpot, is one of the most captivating characters in Canadian fiction. Graduating from a tumultuous childhood to a life of prostitution, she becomes a legend in her neighbourhood, a canny and ingenious woman, generous, intuitive, and exuding a wholesome lust for life. Resonant with myth and superstition, this radiant novel is a joyous celebration of life and the mystery that is at the heart of all experience.… (more)

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