Friday, August 12, 2011

Reader's Diary #746- John Gallant with illustrations by Seth: Bannock, Beans and Black Tea

In the foreword to Bannock, Beans and Black Tea, Seth talks about how it all came together. These memoirs of John Gallant were stories told time and time again to a young Gregory Gallant (Seth's real name), John's son. Seth delighted in the stories at the time, recalling the adventure and determination, and the way his father told them which such humour and enthusiasm. When John retired, much to Seth's surprise, he moved back to Prince Edward Island after living a lifetime (Seth's) in Ontario. It was then that Seth encouraged him to write down all those stories, some of which comprise this book. But unlike Seth's memories, the humour, while present is mostly fleeting. The enthusiasm has been replaced with resentment. This is not a "good old days" book by any stretch of the imagination.

When Seth sat down to compile and refine the stories, being careful not to edit away his father's voice, he comments that the humour had taken a "back-seat to bitter reality." He theorizes that something was lost in the transcribing of these tales to paper and that those that relied too heavily on dialect or physical humour couldn't be translated at all. Still, Seth acknowledges that it isn't surprising considering the rough childhood his father had.

I have another theory. See my dad, while he didn't grow up in the depression as John Gallant did, grew up under similar circumstances. However, I don't recall his stories of poverty and of being raised by a father that suffered depression (as I suspect was the case with Seth's grandfather), as being all that humorous or happy. The difference is my father never moved away. He built his house just down a hill from where he grew up. While my grandfather died when my father was in his young 20s, his childhood memories were likely more in tact considering every rock, tree, and salty breeze can take you back to specific moments in time. I suspect John Gallant's move to Ontario was like a temporary cure. He would be able to reframe his childhood, or at the very least, focus on more of the humourous side of his past. It was in a distant place and time. No doubt young Gregory's enthusiasm also helped. But then, he moved back. Everything would be fresh again, including the painful memories of a father that made next to no effort to support a growing family at all.

Such a depressing book could grow wearisome. But each memory is a mere 2-3 page vignette and it breaks up what had the potential to be a monotonous read. Plus Seth's illustrations and an occasional humourous list from John also helped keep things interesting (On the upside of poverty, he writes, "We didn't have to fast for lent, we were always fasting.") That it's set in Prince Edward Island is an added appeal to those of us used to the Anne Shirley view of the island. (Not that's Montgomery's portrayal couldn't be accurate, just as my mother's upbringing also in outport Newfoundland is very different from my father's.) For more PEI reads, check out Raidergirl's top 10 list of recommended books from the island.

I also praise this book for something I usually make fun of in other books: the font. I've complained before about publishers who waste an entire page telling us what kind of font they used. As long as it isn't comic sans or something completely stupid, how many people actually care that it's set in Walbaum, based on a cutting by Justus Enrich Walbaum in the late 1700s and revised by the Monotype Corporation in 1934? Yet there's a folksy charm to the font used in Bannock, Beans, and Black Tea, which is clearly made from Seth's own handwriting. It makes the book more personal. Likewise, I'd also praise Drawn and Quarterly for printing it as a cloth-bound hardcover, with no annoying dustcover that I'd simply throw away anyway, and even attaching a silk string to use as a book mark. Rarely are books so aesthetically pleasing. (Take that, eBooks!) Shame it's out of print.


raidergirl3 said...

Nice review.
I think it's because of the font that it was considered graphic, as it must be hand done. I agree about the actual edition, very nice. It felt like a book you'd find in the attic from sixty years ago.

John Mutford said...

Raidergirl: Actually, if you look at a specific letter and compare all the times that letter is printed, it is clear that he simply had a program that allowed him to hand print a font and then use his keyboard accordingly.

Wanda said...

Your theory makes a lot of sense, glad you were able to get your hands on a copy of this one.