I remember reading Max Braithwaite’s autobiographical trilogy of novels years ago, chronicling his (or the fictional Max’s) youth and young adulthood in Saskatchewan from the 1910s to the 1930s, and finding the books amusing but also surprisingly sombre. Braithwaite is a humorous, colloquial writer but he is not afraid to address serious topics. In doing so, he gives us an intriguing glimpse into the complexities of life on the prairies between the wars.
Never Sleep Three in a Bed was published in 1969 and is the gentlest of the three books in terms of the subject matter it addresses. Covering the first eighteen years of his life, this book sees Max through infancy and childhood, his lust-filled teen years, and his emergence after graduation into a world reeling after the stock market crash of 1929.
Braithwaite is very open in talking about sex, though there’s not much to talk about given the years this book covers. We do hear a great deal about lust and curiosity though and it is pleasingly frank. There is nothing salacious here; just an honest record of what it feels like to be a hormone-riddled teenager in an era when adults refused to talk to children about sex. When his father discovers Max looking at the Young Husband’s Guide to Married Sex (pilfered from his parents’ dresser), he replaces it with The Solitary Vice, a book that gave the thirteen-year old nightmares:
The writer of The Solitary Vice had the most graphic style of any writer I’ve since encountered. He described the terrors of masturbation as they’ve never been described before. Compared to it, leprosy, rabies, bubonic plague, syphilis even were no more than slight aggravations. I can’t think of one catastrophe that wouldn’t befall the practitioner of this awful crime. He would go blind, insane, hairy-palmed, impotent, until he cried out in his misery, ‘Oh who will deliver me from the body of this living death?’
I sat there on the edge of that bed, and the sweat poured off me in buckets. I have never been so terrified of anything in my life. Of all the good things my father did for me – and he did plenty – he came close to wiping them all out by placing that awful book in my hands.
Braithwaite maintains a cheerful matter-of-fact tone throughout the book, addressing the difficulties he faced without turning misfortunes into sob-stories. His family was poor, constantly moving because they were behind on their rent. In a family with eight children, there was not always a lot to go around (including beds, hence the torture of being forced to share one with two of his brothers). With unusual anger he remembers how the teachers in Prince Albert sent his elder brother Hub back two grades after discovering that his spelling – just his spelling – was not at grade level. An otherwise intelligent and hard-working boy, this soured Hub against the school system for life and Braithwaite takes great pleasure in ending the story by saying how successful his brother became as soon as he left school and began working. None of this made the Braithwaite family unusual for their time and place. In a province full of immigrants, in a time of large families and scarce jobs, they were hardly the only ones who struggled though, to a great extent, it appears that the children did not realise how difficult things were until they were much older.
Braithwaite is very proud of having grown up in Saskatchewan but does not try to ignore the problems communities faced as they tried to incorporate citizens from so many different countries, all of whom brought their own prejudices. Catholic and Protestant, Ukrainian and French-Canadian, Chinese and Italian, there were religious and ethnic conflicts aplenty. These are not cosy village neighbours who might spread rumours but would still be the first to help in a crisis. No. This is a place where the “Chink” who runs the diner is habitually scapegoated or where your angry neighbour might shoot your dog and never say a word about it.
The Night We Stole the Mountie’s Car, published in 1971, picks up four years after Never Sleep Three in a Bed (years chronicled in Why Shoot the Teacher?, which I did not read this time around), after Max has survived his first years as a teacher and acquired his wife, Aileen. As the book opens, Max is trying to secure a teaching job in the town of Wannego. He gets it, beating out more than fifty other applicants through a combination of determination (rather than mailing his application, he drove to Wannego to accost the school board), connections (it turned out his father knew the head of the board), and canny politics (playing the board members off against each other, farmers versus their natural enemy: the bank manager). It is one of many reminders about the scarcity of jobs during the Depression and the lengths the unemployed were willing to go to in order to obtain a post.
The rest of the book looks at Max and Aileen’s experiences during their years in Wannego. There are some discussions about the school and Max’s teaching but mostly Braithwaite focuses on the townspeople. When he does mention teaching, it is usually to point out how chaotic matters were. He had the privilege of working under an excellent principal but, even so, there was little to like about a teacher’s life:
Today, when we have better education that we’ve ever had, everybody is a critic. Housewives, businessmen, garbage collectors, professors, sports writers – they can all tell you what’s wrong with education. It costs too much; it doesn’t cost enough. It’s too easy on the kids; they have too much homework. Not enough physical education; too much emphasis on sports. Not enough discipline; too much conformity. Education is a hot topic in the news media. On a slack news day every editor and television producer knows he can get somebody to make a pronouncement on education. It beats pollution by a mile, or even the population explosion.
In the 1930’s when everything was wrong with education nobody talked about it. Teachers were poorly trained, discontented, underpaid; school boards were made up for the most part of uneducated, sometimes even illiterate, farmers and businessmen. But nobody cared. When given a chance, speakers absentmindedly mouthed platitudes about how our education system was “second to none” and about how we were “building this rugged land on firm foundations.”
Only the teachers knew what was wrong and worried about it. But the teachers were so low in the social and economic pecking order that their voices were rarely heeded.
What time Max doesn’t spend teaching is spent writing. These years in Wannego are spent learning and refining his craft and receiving many, many rejection notices. Though they must have been painful lessons to learn, Braithwaite is unflinchingly honest in his criticisms of his flaws as a young writer. Having read so many plays this year and come to appreciate the skill it takes to write a successful one, I particularly appreciated his panning of his first attempt at writing one (which was staged by the town’s dramatic society):
We had our first practice in our living room, during which we just read through the play. And I discovered a most horrible truth. My lines were terrible. Speeches that sounded so lively and scintillating to me as I wrote them came out trite, dull and ridiculous. Not because the players were inept – that too – but because the lines were very bad.
Where this book really excels – and I think it is the best of Braithwaite’s three autobiographical books – is in its portraits of ordinary Saskatchewanites: their pastimes, their prejudices, and their pleasures. There are humourous anecdotes about softball tournaments, rivalries in the rustic tennis club, and a town play (written, directed, and acted in by Max) but there are even more bluntly-told stories of the other realities of Depression-era life on the prairies: couples terrified of having another baby they can ill-afford; a pretty teenage girl whose single mother wants her to go live with one of her own male “friends” in the city; an alcoholic who tries to keep his drinking secret from a town that knows everything; and so, so many bright young men, forced to leave school early and work (when and wherever they can) to help support their parents and siblings. For this last group at least, there would eventually come a time when they could prove themselves:
Make no mistake about it, many of my generation of Saskatchewanites were saved by the war. Boys I’d known at school who were brilliant and never had a chance to prove it joined the army or the air force or the navy and gained rank the way a healthy steer gains weight. Soon they were lieutenants, flying officers, colonels. They had a chance to prove their worth. The war set them on a ladder of success and they never stopped climbing.
My grandfather was in this group, albeit in Ontario not Saskatchewan. Pulled from school when he was fourteen and loaned out to neighbouring farms where he laboured in exchange for goods or to work off debts, it wasn’t until the war that he had a chance to prove his intelligence or initiative. Like so many young men, he gained confidence there and though he stayed on the farm for a few years after the war ended he eventually ended up working as a radio and eventually television host, as well as working at both the federal and provincial levels of government. He never stopped regretting that his schooling ended at Grade Nine but he, like many of his contemporaries, did not let that hold him back.
In both books, it is hard not to draw parallels between some of Braithwaite’s commentary on the Depression and the recession-riddled world of today. When the Depression begins, he discusses how pervasive stock speculation had become, to the extent that “even the school-teachers, traditionally the most timid members of society, were getting into the act, and if that doesn’t indicate that something was wrong I don’t know what would.” He also, like so many young people now, though his father and “his generation had let us down, got us into the horrible mess of the depression through neglect, stupidity, wrong values and unwillingness to change.” Plus ça change…