Two years ago I started work on a chapter of my dissertation that looked at Windsor, Ontario through the eyes of its writers. I didn’t know what would happen or how attached I would become to the place even though Stephen Colbert in 2012 called it the anus of Ontario. Paul Vasey’s memoir/book of creative non-fiction The River details his own attachment to Windsor and the many characters he encountered in the city during his many years there. I met Vasey at a writer’s festival in Windsor a few years ago, and he told me then about this book. And it was with pleasure that I picked it up from my university’s library to read.
I hesitate to call The River either a memoir or a book of creative non-fiction because Vasey himself blurs the line between the two. Throughout the book, he maintains a running dialogue between two unnamed characters that questions the veracity of what has come before, particularly when the anecdote or story is far-fetched in nature. At first, I was unsure what to make of this narrative technique as I felt myself wanting a strictly mimetic, realist account of Windsor. However, as the book progressed, I was far more comfortable with the technique as it continually reminded me that the places we inhabit are not just physical things but they are also imbued with memory, affect, and imagination. What I mean to suggest, and I think Vasey would agree, is that any history is inevitably made up of story, parts of which may not strictly be accurate to an event or place. This is not to say that all history is fabrication or that there is no worth in having a reliable history, but it is to loosen up the strictures of “objective” history (objectivity may be a fiction in its own right).
Getting back to Windsor, Vasey crafts a lively and intimate place throughout The River. There is plenty of nostalgia here for the post-World War II era when everything seemed possible and Windsor’s fortune was on the rise. However, there is also some keen documenting of now-lost or forgotten places that set Windsor apart as a place. Historically speaking, the city is one of the oldest settlements in Ontario as the French had a presence in the area before 1700. It has been home to a rich diversity of people and Vasey’s book certainly makes this clear. At times, the colloquial or anecdotal nature of The River might bother some readers looking for “history,” but I felt like it gave the city a human texture that often goes missing from other works of local history.
Overall, I would recommend this book to people from or interested in Windsor.