Time and place are not essential in Michael Ondaatje’s “To a Sad Daughter.” The message, or the advice, passed down from father to daughter is the central issue, and it could occur anywhere at any time. It is unlikely, however, that a man would offer such liberal advice to his little girl in years prior to the second half of the twentieth century, and so we may assume the time frame is “contemporary.” The only confirmation of that in the poem is the reference to items and events that were not prevalent or not available earlier, tracksuits and the National Hockey League, for instance. We also know that the poem takes place when color motion pictures have been common for many years since the 16-year-old feels “superior” to black and white movies. As for place, we may assume that the father and daughter live somewhere in the “north” since hockey is the sport of choice, although we now have professional ice hockey teams located in cities in the southern United States. Another clue is the mention of the cereal “Alpen,” a popular breakfast food in northern Europe and Canada, though not a household name in America. Our best sense of setting for this poem stems simply from knowing that Ondaatje writes mainly from real-life experiences and that his “family” poems are primarily creative nonfiction. Given that, “To a Sad Daughter” probably takes place in Ontario, Canada, sometime during the early 1980s.
The decade of the 1980s is sometimes looked back on as culturally benign. The disco craze and flashy fashions of the 1970s gave way to a more bland mixture of “new-wave” music and powerchord rock as well as the “grunge” look of loosefitting jeans, sweatshirts, and flannel shirts. But more was going on than some of the decade’s admittedly “me-first” generation recognized. Perhaps an anonymous author who has posted a Web page entitled “Children of the Eighties” captures best both the spirit and the lack of spirit that made up this often-thought mundane, self-indulgent period of time: “We are the children of the Eighties…. We collected Garbage...
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