National Post Reviews Bannock, Beans & Black Tea

The National Post Review - Bannock, Beans & Black Tea

The National Post    |    The National Post    |    April 24, 2004

When Gregory Gallant was young, his father would tell him stories about growing up poor on Prince Edward Island in the 1920s and '30s.

"My father enjoyed telling me these stories and I always enjoyed hearing them," he writes in the foreword to this remarkable volume. Gregory subsequently changed his name to "Seth" and has become a prize-winning cartoonist and illustrator. Having encouraged his father to put his boyhood tales down on paper, Seth spent the past decade editing them and fashioning delicate sketches to accompany his father's terse, yet poignant prose.

As Seth admits, his father's short stories revolve around "shame and food." Their family was so destitute that John Gallant could go to school only "if I had the clothes, and if I wasn't working in the lobster factory, and if I wasn't picking potatoes."

The school, "the usual little red schoolhouse," was located in the village of New Acadia, now known as St. Charles. The boy wore a shirt made "from a flour sack" and sneakers, "with cardboard stuffed inside the soles to keep the dirt from coming in the holes." The kids at school sometimes ate crayons "because they were starving." Seth's father managed to complete Grade 2.

Getting to school required walking two miles each way; the lobster factory was a daunting 10-mile hike. Potato picking paid 50 cents a day, and sometimes the farmer would give John and his siblings free potatoes to take home. They picked strawberries and blueberries, trapped rabbits, fished trout and speared eels.

"Without those rabbits," he writes, "it would have been a long wait until that lobster factory opened up in the spring. A long wait and a hungry one."

Life on Prince Edward Island offered its amusements, of course. With "an old boot, a piece of wood and square wire," kids could make their own skates, with shovels serving as hockey sticks. When he was a little older, John played cards and listened to a "jigger" tap out a beat "with his foot while humming a little melody composed of nonsense words."

But Depression-era island life was filled with hardship. Going to church on Sunday meant a "three-mile walk without breakfast because you had to fast before receiving communion." Christmas became an opportunity to watch other kids open presents at the school pageant.

One wet day in March, John walked into town with his sister Edna to ask the lobster factory owner for some credit to buy food. On the way back, they were both "coughing and coughing." His 14-year old sister "told me a lot of personal things that day ...

"I still remember her telling me that she hoped to devote her life to God. She was going to be a nun. She never achieved that ambition though. She died a week or two later of the whooping cough."

Edna's tragic death comes two-thirds of the way into the book. It represents, if you will, the book's punchline. "This should have been my father's trip," John explains before we find out about Edna. "He was strong and had good rubber boots." But Seth's grandfather preferred to yell at his eight kids rather than farm -- or find a job. "I guess we all know who is to blame for her death -- but very little can be done about it now," he writes, exposing a deep seam of familial bitterness.

John Gallant's vivid portrait of interwar life on P.E.I. has been beautifully produced by the Montreal-based comics publisher Drawn and Quarterly. His son Seth has provided several stunning, full-page graphics, as well as smaller illustrations that open each chapter. He also designed and drew the front and back covers. Seth's six-page foreword is in the form of an autobiographical comic story, complete with panels and word balloons, and the memoir itself is written in Seth's lovely script. While it would be a mistake to term this book a "graphic novel," the phrase "illustrated novella" just about captures its distinctive mix of visual and textual elements.

Drawn and Quarterly published Seth's It's a Good Life, If You Don't Weaken in 1996. In this earlier, deftly illustrated work, the author argues in favour of "the superiority of the past," insisting "things are obviously getting worse every year." He spends much of the book looking for "Kalo," a fictional mid-century gag cartoonist. His search reflects his view that almost anything crafted before the Second World War -- from buildings and shop fronts, to magazines and cartooning styles -- is preferable to what followed. Bannock, Beans and Black Tea, on the other hand, reminds us that sometimes the past is not all it is cracked up to be.

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