Beth Kaplan: On Coming-of-Age Memoirs

The Beatles

If there is one single problem with 49th Shelf's Canadian focus, it's that it really does restrict our opportunities to talk about the Beatles. Thankfully, Beth Kaplan's fun and absorbing memoir, All My Loving: Coming of Age With Paul McCartney in Paris, has come along to provide just such an occasion. In this special guest list for 49th Shelf, Kaplan tells us a little bit about her book, and recommends other great coming-of-age memoirs to sit alongside it. 

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As a memoir writer and long-time teacher of memoir writing, I tend to read, guess what, almost exclusively non-fiction: personal essays, biography, and, of course, memoir.

Recently, because of the publication of my own '60s memoir, All My Loving: Coming of Age with Paul McCartney in Paris, I’ve been particularly interested in coming-of-age stories, which focus on the adolescent years, that difficult stretch between childhood and adulthood. Of the many I’ve read, here are a few of my favourite Canadian coming-of-age sagas, including—if I may—my own.

Many of these were published some years ago. They are not what’s called “misery memoirs” about extreme situations or terrible abuse; even Ernest Hillen gets through his horrible ordeal intact. Though honest and clear-eyed, they’re written with good humour and kindness to all involved.

Book Cover My Turquoise Years

My Turquoise Years: A Memoir, by M.A.C. Farrant

A wry, funny chronicle of growing up in the '60s in Vancouver, Farrant’s beautifully written, vivid memoir was recently turned into a play. 

Memoirs of Montparnasse, by John Glassco

A classic, a banquet of prose about a young Canadian writer arriving in Paris in 1928. I think it’s a better book than Hemingway’s famous A Moveable Feast, set in the same time and place—better written and more moving and true. 

Wordstruck, by Robert MacNeil and My Grandfather’s House: Scenes of Childhood and Youth, by Charles Ritchie

Two beautiful memoirs by brilliant accomplished men who grew up in Halifax, Nova Scotia—as did I, so I have a special fondness for these charming books. One is about the importance of words to a sensitive boy in the '40s (who grew up to become a famous newsman in the States), the other a diarist’s engaging chronicle of the early years of the last century. Ritchie became one of Canada’s best-known diplomats.

The Way of a Boy: A Memoir of Java, by Ernest Hillen

A boy growing up in a Japanese prison camp in Indonesia during WW2 should not be a heartening story. But this tale is told with such honesty and skill that it’s uplifting even as the narrator struggles to endure and survive.

Running in the Family, by Michael Ondaatje

I have trouble reading Ondaatje’s novels—I get lost in thickets of poesy and can’t figure out what’s actually going on. But this memoir is heaven—the skilful writing, glorious detail and rich language we expect from this master writer and poet on a journey into nostalgia.

Paper Shadows, by Wayson Choy

Choy, with his usual haunting and liquid prose, uncovers a mystery from his childhood in Vancouver’s Chinatown and finds out all was not as it seemed.

Raisins and Almonds, by Fredelle Bruser Maynard

This perceptive, heartfelt memoir evokes the world of a clever Jewish girl growing up in Winnipeg in the '20s and '30s.

All My Loving: Coming of age with Paul McCartney in Paris, by Beth Kaplan

Book Cover All My Loving

My memoir touches on some of the same topics as the aforementioned books: the outsider child, the diarist who loves words and looks back with warmth and detail. But my book deals, of course, with its own particular setting and cast of characters: the years 1964-65; a voyage from Halifax to Paris and back; my powerful, charismatic, adorable, appalling parents, and my fraught and lonely self, desperate for love and inventing romantic fantasies about life with the best Beatle.

I hope my book, like all good memoirs—like the seven others mentioned here—is about something deeper and more universal than what’s on the surface. That’s why we write memoirs and why we read them: to explore and reveal universal human stories, to touch each other at the deepest level, and to bear witness to the truth. 

Beth Kaplan's book about her great-grandfather, Finding the Jewish Shakespeare: The Life and Legacy of Jacob Gordon, was hailed by famed playwright Tony Kushner as "witty, shrewd and elegant." For years a professional actress, she now teaches memoir and essay writing at the University of Toronto and Ryerson University; in 2012 she was given University of Toronto's Excellence in Teaching Award.

December 4, 2014
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