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The Permanent Nature of Everything: A Memoir by Judith Cowan

Finalist for The Mavis Gallant Prize for Non-Fiction in 2015


At five and six years old, lying in the long grass and wildflowers near her family’s house on the outskirts of 1940s Toronto, Judith Cowan was certain that what she experienced was the permanent nature of everything.

Little by little, she comes to recognize threats: a leering neighbour asking strange questions about her gender, a lady who has died of an illness not revealed, the smell of something dead in the ditch. Her disapproving, resourceful, and frustrated mother, born to Methodist missionaries in China, tells frightening tales: how a pig will kill and eat a little girl, or how she herself as a small child was shot at by pirates on the Yangtze. Sharing memories from the nineteenth century, her grandparents recount their youthful follies, and she realizes that all of us are swept along in time’s passing stream. But books seem permanent, and give access to a world of pleasure even if, because of her red hair, the boys torment her on the road to school, and she has to fight.

A meticulous memoir of growing up in a Canada scarcely aware of itself as a country, The Permanent Nature of Everything rescues recollections from a vanished time and traces the emerging awareness in the emotional world of a child.

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memoir, Canadian history



McGill-Queen's University Press