The Spoon Asylum Reviews

The Haliburton Echo, May 8, 2018

It’s fitting that with the launch of The Spoon Asylum, author Caroline Misner is living her dream, because the idea for the story that became her most treasured book came to the Eagle Lake resident while she was sleeping.

“It started with a dream,” Misner told the paper. “I was dreaming about a young man who’s walking by a river in a field. He meets this portly black gentleman with a trumpet and they start talking and it starts to rain. They go to find shelter in a little cave, and they’re talking and playing the trumpet in the cave, and then I woke up. That’s how it started, it started as a dream. I woke up and thought, I can make a story around that, that’s really interesting. And then the story just started snowballing and growing and growing.”

The Spoon Asylum tells the story of Haven Cattrell, Wetherby Moss and Wetherby’s son Jude, who live in the small northern Ontario town of Davisville in the 1930s.

“It is the story of the racism that haunted black jazz musicians in the ’30s, and how that racism found its way to Davisville,” reads the newly printed back cover. “It is the story of how love can blind young men and save them from themselves, and it is the story of how important it is to dream when the chaos and hard times around you want to drag you down.”

Misner wrote the book 12 years ago, after her three young kids grew older and more independent. 
“The first 15 years after being married I didn’t do a lot of writing — I didn’t have time,” she said. “I was always pregnant or raising a child or both. It wasn’t until they got older that I picked up a pen again.
“When they were little I was always writing cute little poems or stories for them to entertain them. But it wasn’t really something I wanted to seriously pursue until my kids were older. Now that they’re all grown, I’m going full guns blazing.”

And she has. Misner is very much an active writer. She is halfway through the third book in a young adult fantasy trilogy and the characters from The Spoon Asylum were so meaningful to her, that she has written a sequel to continue their story.

“When I finished writing this, I couldn’t let the characters go. I wrote a sequel,” she said. “[I’m] hoping once the dust settles I can present the sequel to my publisher. The way it ends, it ends at the end of the story, but they’re still only 18. There’s still a life ahead of them. I wanted to write about it and see what happened to them.”

Her pride and passion for The Spoon Asylum is evident, and not just because she has said it’s her proudest achievement, or the one novel (she has written several) she believes in the most.

“I really love the characters and the story,” she said. “I think it was Toni Morrison who said, ‘I started writing because all the books didn’t appeal to me so I wrote the book I wanted to read.’ So that’s, kind of like me. I wrote a book I would want to read.”

The theme of the story looks at racism and prejudice in the ’30s, owing to what Misner said is her strong sense of social consciousness and an anger for injustice.  

“It’s about a part of history that a lot of people would want to close their eyes to,” she said. “What happened to my characters is tragic. It wasn’t just them, it happened to a lot of people. It’s a shame and an injustice and we should know about it, and that era of history.”

Because the novel features much jazz music, Misner had her father, a professional jazz musician, read it in the early part of the process.  

“I grew up listening to jazz,” she said. “It’s all about the music, too, how it influenced people. He didn’t like it. Don’t ask me to sing or play the piano or anything,  I’m so terrible with music, and of course he’s a professional, so he kept pointing out everything. ‘You don’t hold a trumpet like that’, you know, things like that.”

Her dad’s guidance, as well as help from her editor, who is also a jazz musician, ensured the story is accurate.

“Unless you’re writing a total fantasy that’s in it’s own little world, [then] you can do whatever you want,” said Misner. “But when you’re writing a story in the real world, you have to be accurate.”
Misner said her dad has been so supportive of her work in part because her grandfather was a writer, too. Josef Kurz was a Czech poet and writer whose work was banned by the Communist Regime at that time.

“My father tells me he was very gifted,” said Misner. “He could scribble down a poem in five minutes, and it would rhyme perfectly, perfect metre. I guess, yeah, it’s in my blood.”

She said she doesn’t write as quickly as her grandfather might have, but still, she wrote The Spoon Asylum in just six months. It took longer than that to get it published, but Misner did not give up.
“I wrote it about 10 or 12 years ago,” she said. “I’ve been trying like hell to get it published. I must have sent it to 50 different publishers. You hear things, like Catcher in the Rye was rejected by 200 publishers before it finally got out there. It’s all part of the business. I try not to let myself get discouraged when I get a rejection.”

It was at home in Eagle Lake, where Misner has been a cottager since 1997 and a full-time resident since last year, that she received an email from her publisher, Thistledown Press, that the book had been accepted.

“I was like, am I really reading this?” said Misner. “Is this real? It was almost surreal. I couldn’t believe it.”
After years of dedication to The Spoon Asylum, Misner’s dream of having it published has come true. 
“I’m very stubborn,” she said. “I never give up. But Wayne Gretzky says you always miss 100 per cent of the shots you don’t take.”

— Sue Tiffin

To learn more about Caroline’s work, visit www.carolinemisner.com

SaskBooks, October 19, 2018

The Spoon Asylum, written by Caroline Misner and published by Thistledown Press is a fun and thoughtful piece of historical fiction that lets the reader laugh, while also reflecting on the ugly parts of Canada’s past that modern Canadians do not like to think about.

Set in the 1930s at the peak of the Great Depression in the small Ontario town of Davisville, The Spoon Asylum follows the story of young Haven Cattrell, a precocious seventeen-year-old boy who is struggling find his identity and is hungry to prove his worth as a man to his family and to the world. While working as a farmhand on his grandmother’s farm, Haven comes across a vagrant who is looking for work in exchange for some food and shelter. Although the man is met with downright hostility by his grandmother, Haven cannot help but be enthralled by the man, and even more so by his harmonica and the sweet music that he plays on it. This exchange with the mysterious vagrant inspires Haven, himself, to go into town in search of work. Perhaps this decision was the product of youthful pride, or perhaps to allow Haven to enter a piece of his father’s world, who like many Canadians at the time was also a desperate drifter in search of employment.

Haven’s noble journey is soon sidetracked by the brash, soaring melodies of a trumpet. It is here that Haven meets Wetherby Moss, an African American jazz musician working as a cook with his son Jude, who is also a musician, for a prestigious girl’s camp near Haven’s home. The camp is run by Miss Nokomis, a “real Ojibwa priestess” who oversees the camp with a stern grasp and is not all that she appears to be.

The novel continues to follow Haven’s summer working with the musicians and learning to play and love jazz music with the help of his two new, dear friends. It is not just of jazz that Haven learns at this camp, but also of the sad, unjust treatment that African Americans of his time suffered. Haven, being the naïve boy that he is, does not understand how his friends could be subject to such treatment. As Haven learns of the implications of racism, he also traverses the uncertainty and pain of love and heartbreak, as the reader watches him develop into a young man.

Misner crafts this story with dialogue that is chock-full of wit and intellect. Despite its heavy topics, it was a book that made me laugh out loud on several occasions. In addition to this, I found it to be quite a light read, with perfect pacing and a coherent storyline never bogged down by unnecessary details or pedantic writing. It is a book that both the twelve year old and the sixty year old in your family can both enjoy equally. In conclusion, The Spoon Asylum is Canadian historical fiction at its finest and a beautifully crafted story from start to finish.

— Ben Charles

Resource Links, Vol 24, No. 1, October 2018

The Great Depression is at the heart of this novel, in the societal and cultural fabric of rural Ontario. Haven’s father goes off to work in the government logging camps for the summer, and drops sixteen-year-old Haven with his grandmother, who he has not seen since he was a baby, and who lives alone on a small farm. Haven is determined to find a job, and walks toward town. He meets up with a black father and son, who have jobs in the kitchen of a summer camp, “Camp Nokomis: An Indian Adventure for Discriminating Young Ladies” (p. 32). They convince the owner, a middle-aged white woman who purports to be Miss Nokomis, an Ojibwa Indian priestess, to add Haven to the staff. In addition to teaching him kitchen skills and serving etiquette, they introduce him to jazz music; the father was a professional trumpet player with big names like Louis Armstrong until they were driven out of Detroit by racial hatred.

The novel touches on a number of interesting facts of life in the 1930s: the contrasting lifestyles of the rich and the poor, the hobos who rode the rails, the overt discrimination against blacks and Jews, and the stereotyped interpretation of First Nations culture. But the plot line wavers between predictable (the camp for wealthy and snobbish boys across the lake, the apparently harsh grandmother with a heart of gold) and the unbelievable (the camp owner is actually Haven’s aunt and his father’s first wife, the black son ends up in a prison for the criminally insane, and Haven and a girl from the camp run away together for Detroit to make a career as jazz musicians). This detracts from the worthy goal of a glimpse into Ontario’s past.


—Patricia Jermey