Tell Me Why Nights Are Lonesome
John Gallant recounts his early life vividly, with little embellishment. Muriel Gold’s parents, Bernard and Dora Ratner Haltrecht, speak through their letters, which evolve from clandestine exchanges between friends to the love letters of a couple patiently awaiting the start of their married life in a troubling time. While Bernard’s watchword seems to be “opportunity,” Gallant’s is “survival”; determination, though, is the quality shared by the very different characters in each work.
Bernard Haltrecht and the Ratner family left their comfortable turn-of-the-19th century Russian-Polish homes (ahead of the horrific Russian pogroms) bolstered by family, friends, some resources, and the close-knit Jewish communities in the cities of Europe and later, their adoptive Canada. Bernard’s letters express his clear-eyed, confident pursuit of their future. John Gallant’s isolated, brutally impoverished childhood in Depression-era Prince Edward Island might as well have taken place on the moon when set against the Montreal lives of Bernard and Dora. The young Gallant’s odyssey through seemingly unrelieved cold and deprivation was accomplished virtually alone, but his stories reveal, amazingly, a sense of self-worth and a resourcefulness that survived the physical and spiritual vicissitudes he endured as he grew up.
Bannock, Beans and Black Tea is a chronicle of pain and hardship tempered by the book’s small size, period look, and the deceptively simple illustrations by the author’s son, Seth. In the foreword’s captioned cartoons (reminiscent in style and purpose, if not tone, of Art Spiegelman’s Maus), Seth, a star in the world of modern cartooning, acknowledges the love and stability he derived as a child from his father’s skilfully narrated, often-repeated “tales of awful desperation” which brought to life people and incidents invoking both laughter and sympathy.
For young “Johnny,” the benign PEI landscape was a prison as punishing in its own way as the pogroms from which the Haltrecht and Ratner families fled. “I could never really figure out what my sins were – unless being cold and hungry was a sin,” Johnny remarked wryly in “Going to Church.” So many of his reminiscences have to do with food: lacking it, begging for it, working for it, cherishing the few solid meals. Yet he managed to emerge from his childhood into the “salvation” of Nova Scotia’s tough lumber camps and then, ironically, World War II. Incredibly, he has returned to PEI, the pull of his roots stronger than the remembered pain of his beginnings.
Dora Ratner’s emigration to Canada in 1908 was softened by a sheltering family, but Bernard “Sallie” Halbrecht’s in 1912 was affected by the premature deaths of his parents. Bernard brought to Canada a sturdy self-reliance that made him the energetic, ambitious 20-year-old first introduced to Dora Ratner in her parents’ warm and cultured Montreal home. Bernard’s letters to Dora reflect unbounded optimism, resolve, love of education, and a desire to help others. While their correspondence captures both Dora’s and Bernard’s personalities, Bernard’s eager hopefulness more strongly animates the first touchingly formal letters he sends to Dora, chronicling his life as a teacher in rural Saskatchewan and as a student at smugly WASP Queen’s University.
The love letters virtually ended with Dora and Bernard’s marriage in 1921, and Tell Me probably should have ended with them. Muriel Gold’s colourless narrative and somewhat perfunctory details of the family’s next two generations weaken the book. Gold should have let her parents’ letters speak more for themselves; fortunately, Seth allowed his father’s reminiscences to take centre stage. mRb