Seasons Before the War
Seasons Before the War
In our neighbourhood, there were two big grocery stores – each about the size of today’s two-car garage. Regular customers charged groceries, settling up at the end of each month. But children were often sent for small purchases, with money wrapped in a piece of paper on which the required item was written.
Children were always the last to be served, but we didn’t mind waiting in grocery stores the way we did at the meat market. There were such marvelous things to smell and look at; barrels of apples, potatoes, and biscuits, puncheons of molasses and salt meat, all arranged outside the counter. Braces of furry rabbits hung near the door and long strips of honey-colour fly paper dangled in strategic corners, covered with layers of still-buzzing flies.
There were many wicked looking knifes – one with a long handle cut neat slices of bolognas; another positioned above a rotating blade, chopped triangles from rounds of mesh-covered cheese. The shiny brass cash-register had tinkling bells and numbers that popped up, and there was a scale decorated with two curlicued half-bird, half-lion creatures. The scale had its own little scoop and many different-sized iron weights to measure out flour or sugar.
There was a cat, too. She caught mice at night, but spent her days balled up in what looked like an old bake pot. Families were very faithful to their chosen grocer; it was considered underhanded to deal at more than one store, rather like belonging to two religions.
Though Seasons Before the War begins with “Once upon a time, long, long ago”, these words are not introducing a make-believe story or a traditional tale. Instead, the book’s contents are the author’s childhood remembrances of a year in “the hilly streets and empty fields of St. John’s”, Newfoundland, just prior to the outbreak of World War II, an event which would come to significantly transform the community.
As the title suggests, the book employs the four seasons as its structure, appropriately beginning with spring, the time of new life. Today’s children, so many watched over by helicopter parents, will be amazed by how much freedom preschooler Morgan enjoyed back then. “Unless you had unnaturally protective parents, around the age of five or six you were judged old enough to leave the field [behind your house] and roam nearby streets, usually in tow with an older brother, sister, or neighbour child.”
Morgan does not attempt to recreate each season in detail, but instead she adopts an impressionist stance, highlighting what was significant to her, as a child, in each of these four time periods. And obviously, she did not find all seasons to be equal as both “Spring” and “Fall” are dealt with in a mere four pages while “Summer” takes up 12 pages and “Winter”, 16. As readers will come to learn in the closing “Winter” section, “Once the snow came Charlie [brother] and I didn’t venture far from the house....” , and “In our neighbourhood children were not invited into each other’s houses. Bert, Gwen and Fig [friends] disappeared during the winter months, reappearing in spring like hibernating animals we had to get to know all over again.” Consequently, Spring was a time that was free of winter’s bulky clothing, and the boys “played ball and rolled hoops; we girls played hopscotch and skipping and house....” This particular Fall was a significant one for Morgan as she entered school as a kindergarten student, an event that was accompanied by a range of emotions.
Summer offered the children additional freedom, and, in part, Morgan uses this season to introduce readers to the “commercial” side of her neighborhood. “There were more horses than trucks back then, [sic] horses hauled coal and lumber, delivered groceries, and brought milk every morning before dawn.” Unlike today’s “drive-to-the-mall” world, Morgan’s experience was that of small local shops and stores within walking distance (see Excerpt) that not only supplied material needs, but also offered places, like the blacksmith shop, which provided children with spectator entertainment. In this pre-recycle era, “everything burnable was burnt”, and the local dump became another source of amusement. “It was not as scavengers we went to the dump but as spectators, as people might go to a movie or concert.”
“Winter” meant that “the only heat in our house came from the big black stove in the kitchen.” Undressing for bed required “undress[ing] beside the stove, rushing upstairs to bed in our flannel pajamas, sweaters, and knitted bed-socks, clutching hot-water bottles.” Understandably, the family’s Christmas rituals play an important role in this section. With Christmas decorations now seemingly appearing in shopping malls immediately after Halloween, young readers will be surprised to learn in the book’s “Winter” portion that all of the stores would open their Toylands on the same day, December 15th, and “all the stores would be open at night.” Additionally, the toys were not available for browsing. Instead, they were “all artfully arranged on high shelves and behind counters (well out of the reach of customers).”
Readers will occasionally encounter delightfully “unusual” words, with some of them being perhaps geographically based while others have largely been bypassed by time, words such as: “brin-bag”, “quiff hat”, “pussy-boots”, “glass alleys”, “gaiters”, “breeks”, “floorwalkers”, “bellybuster”, and “sooking”.
Overall, Brita Granström’s oil on canvas paintings occupy more than half of the book’s pages. Like Morgan’s text, Granström’s artwork gives readers a feel for the historical period rather than attempting to reproduce it in authentic detail. Additionally, Granström inserts small decorative watercolour [?] illustrations on some of the text pages.
Though Seasons Before the War’s place and time setting are Newfoundland in the Thirties, its contents still speak to other parts of Canada. For example, the local corner grocery store remained a fixture in many cities in Western Canada even into the late Fifties. With some clarifying assistance from adults, today’s children will enjoy this glimpse into how their great grandparents lived and amused themselves (amazingly without screens). The book’s contents would also contribute to social studies curricula in the elementary grades. Seasons Before the War will also find a readership amongst adults.
Dave Jenkinson, CM’s editor, lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba.