December 31, 2004

Kilt fiction

The Slow Air of Ewan MacPherson
By Thomas Fox Averill
Bluehen Books, 260 pages

Reviewed by Kylie MacHattie

As the daughter of a Scot who immigrated to North America, I sat down to read Thomas Fox Averill’s The Slow Air of Ewan MacPherson with great interest. The eponymous main character is the son of an expatriate, Rob MacPherson, who clings tenaciously to the values and traditions of his homeland. Ewan is taught to pipe, recite Burns and appreciate Scotch by his father, along with lessons of life and love. This is a story of relationships: between father and son, between friends who find their similarities through their differences, and between Ewan and Shirley Porter, from an adolescent crush to true love. The Slow Air of Ewan MacPherson is about finding one’s place, and tells of the people who guide the way, both consciously and unwittingly.

As with any story about life, the depth of this book relies on its characters. From as early as he can remember, Ewan has been told that he was born while crossing from Glasgow, Scotland, to Glasgow, Kansas. For most of his life he feels as though he belongs in neither place; he tells the minister, “I was born on the ocean, between the two places.” For the greater part of the novel, Ewan remains at sea, never quite planting his feet firmly on the ground until the closing passages.

His father, Rob, represents the Scottish-American who becomes “more Scottish than the Scottish” in an effort to retain his identity. He incessantly recites Burns, plays his pipes, and drowns himself in Scotch whisky. His attempts to pass the traditions of Scotland, as he remembers them, on to his son cause tension between Ewan and Rob, which is never fully resolved. Rob’s obsession with preserving his heritage is so strong that his character verges on caricature.

The two other main characters in the novel are Ewan’s lifelong friend, Dillon Cork, and his lifelong love, Shirley Porter. Cork is a descendant of plantation slaves, who, like Ewan, does not find a complete sense of belonging in Glasgow, Kansas. Through similarities in hobbies (they both play the pipes), self-image and care for Shirley, Cork and Ewan find themselves to be much the same despite their divergent backgrounds. Shirley, scarred by her mother’s choices, struggles to allow herself to love and be loved.

The Slow Air of Ewan MacPherson is a light and easy read, mostly dialogue and direct narrative, without much description except when it comes to single malt whiskey. I found the abundance of quotations from Robert Burns cumbersome, though the embedded references are cleverly devised. While Averill’s knowledge of Scotch and Burns is admirable, the piping-related passages seem somewhat self-indulgent. To a non-piper the detail would be superfluous, and to a piper, rudimentary. Apart from a couple of errors, such as having Neil Dickie’s Clumsy Lover composed anachronistically and a curious method of making cane drone reeds, his knowledge of piping is adequate, but perhaps overused for the context. I also found the repetition of the term “pipemaster” somewhat irritating.

This novel will appeal to those who revel in all things Scottish. Put on your tartan trews and balmoral, pour yourself a glass of Glenlivet, put on your favourite piping recording and sit back and make your way through The Slow Air of Ewan MacPherson.

Kylie MacHattie has an undergraduate degree in English literature from the University of Toronto. She is a prize-winning Grade 1 amateur piper and plays with the Grade 1 Toronto Police Pipe Band. She lives in Toronto.


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