Monday, August 31, 2009


Early in 2009, I got caught up in a '30s mood, what with the economic collapse and all, and suddenly got a yen to read That Scatterbrain Booky. Now it doesn't take much to put me in a '30s mood -- I don't know what I like about the decade 1929-1939, if it's the drama of a total worldwide economic collapse, the amazing fact that red-blooded Americans actually dared to try the New Deal and give us the massive public works projects we still enjoy today (Sunset Park pool!), the slimming fashions or the wonderful, wonderful movies (probably the latter) but there's something about this era that really appeals to me. Now, after finally getting around to re-reading the Booky Trilogy (I had to go home to Ontario to get it, since it's not readily available in the States), I realize it may have been ingesting these books as a child that made me such a fan of the Depression. You know, if one can be said to be a "fan" of a Depression.

But Bernice Thurman's snappy YA novels make growing up in 1930s Toronto sound downright fun. There's so much to love about these books: richly drawn characters, Booky's unique voice, coming-of-age poignancy, etc., but it's the finely-etched details of old Toronto that truly captivate me.

The Canadian specificity -- dropping phrases like "Bloor and Jane" without feeling the least need to explain that those are street names; adulation for L.M. Montgomery; rapturous descriptions of Ontario Place; references to Muskoka and Laura Secord chocolates -- is refreshing. It does a heart good to read a Canadian book, I tell you. Photographs and images from the Eaton's archives and catalogue are scattered throughout, interspersed with photos from the author's private collection (and what appear to be stills from a CBC adaptation, starring a girl who looks for all the world like Scott Thompson from Kids in the Hall).

"For all the world." Well that's a Booky phrase right there.

Characters in her book talk in a sweet, sort of down-home vernacular peppered with quaint phrases and the "latest slang" (by cracky!) and after 480 straight pages of it, it starts to rub off on you. People in her books are always hollering, getting their hopes dashed, and being thrilled. It's hard to read it through and not start dropping those phrases (I think I'll ask my husband if he'll give me a nickel for a shinplaster, then go down and see a friend for a good chinwag).

While it's hard to read the books without feeling serious twinges of nostalgia for bygone Toronto institutions (The Uptown Nuthouse, Eaton's), if you aren't equally caught up in the story of Booky's family, you have no heart (I defy anyone to read the passage where Willa can't go to medical school because she's a girl without feeling enraged). The first book, set in 1932-1933 is the most nerve-wracking, set as it is in the profoundest depths of the depression. As the story wears on, the family begins to fare better financially and the books turn to rather more frivolous subjects (like boys, kissing parties, and the universal girl experience, the bad perm) and other aspects of our heroine begin to emerge: her ambition to be a writer, for instance, is touched on in the second book and fully explored in the third. When her little brother steals and reads her diary, he saves himself from a thorough ass-whooping by apologizing and telling her, "It was just like reading a real book." She stops, hand poised in mid-air. "Do you really mean that?" "Yes, I'm sorry." "No. About it being just like a real book."

And and book with the following passage has got to steal my heart, it's just got to:
"Bea..." his voice became suddenly shy like Jimmy Stewart's.
"What?" Mine went all husky like Jean Arthur's.
"Will you be my girl?"

Thurman-Hunter's descriptions of her family and friends in Swansea (a neighborhood near High Park) are, quite literally, unforgettable: Willa and Arthur and Aunt Aggie and Aunt Susan and Cousin Winn and Aunt Milly and Grandpa and Roy-Roy and Raggedy Rachel.... Seriously -- you will start to hallucinate these people on the street. Even her littlest brothers, Jakey and Billy, develop defined voices and personalities by the third book (I have a soft spot for Billy, possibly because the harrowing story of his birth is addressed in such detail in the first book, or possibly because he's just such a darn sweetheart: "You're the best cooker in the world, mum!") She's got some wonderful spinster aunts, too. Her Aunt Susan started the Uptown Nuthouse during the depression -- a double-whammy of impossibility -- and her Aunt Aggie ran their Muskoka farm singlehandedly. In the third book, Bea wins an essay contest in the now-defunct Toronto Telegram by writing about her Aunt Aggie (the title of her essay? "The Bravest Man I Know Is A Woman"). I'm dying to get my hands on that -- surely it must exist on microfilm somewhere? I wonder why it wasn't reproduced in the book. The events in the series are mostly true-to-life (though "enlivened" a bit, I'm sure) but I wonder if that part really happened.

Well, even if it didn't really happen, it feels to me as though it did, as though I could go down to Hunter's corner store and pick up a copy of the Telly right now. Maybe it's a by-product of reading the entire trilogy straight through, but all these people and places seem so immediate.
Maybe this week at the Ex, the Swansea ghosts will rumble down to the the gates in Sandy Beasley's rattly old slat-sided truck and sneak in some free rides.


susanah j. wideman said...

beautiful post! i've re-read the booky trilogy about once or twice a year since i was about 7...and now i'm 25! those characters are a part of my life, and i refer to them often. i know what you mean about picking up on their family sayings and quotes in to your own vocabulary :)
i grew up about an hour north-east of toronto, but i've been living in virginia, just out of washington dc for a few years - and reading the "booky" books is the perfect taste of home that i need every once in awhile.
it's fun to see someone else who admires these stories and characters as much as i do!

Angie Barr said...

I too have reread it every year (right about now because chapter 19 "Kids Day at The Ex" is my favourite) since it was released by Scolastic Canada when I was 11. Imagine how happy I was every few years after when Ms. Thurman Hunter would release a new book in the series! I was born and raised in Hamilton, but at my young age all of these locations so close and yet so far sounded SO exotic. I am in my 40's and live farther 'round the lake in Niagara Falls, but I am grateful for the chance every so often to drive to Swansea or Kingston Rd in Scarborough and visit these areas that somehow now feel like home. I am very happy that there are others who have loved these books as hard and as long as I.