November 28, 2018

Seasons Before the War

Written by Bernice Morgan
Illustrated by Brita Granström
Running the Goat, Books & Broadsides, Inc.
44 pp.
Ages 7+
October 2018

Though the war mentioned in the title refers to World War II, it seems only appropriate to review Seasons Before the War in the same month as the 100th anniversary of the Armistice, when peace was declared and life would no longer revolve around war. Newfoundlander Bernice Morgan's first children's book, Seasons Before the War, speaks of that different time, a time between wars, when children of St. John's, Newfoundland lived lives full of play, family and community. It was a distant time and disparate from today but also distinct because of its Newfoundland setting. This is Bernice Morgan's story from that time.
From Seasons Before the War by Bernice Morgan, illus. by Brita Granström
Seasons Before the War reads like a bundle of warm but forthright reminiscences. Starting with Spring, Bernice Morgan speaks of the freedom to play in the many open spaces shared with children from various neighbourhoods. There were games, pretend tea parties, skipping and the freedom to venture out, though family made sure that children overheard stories about those who'd gone farther than permitted and "were never seen again." (pg. 9) Mealtimes were times to reinforce those cautionary tales but also to teach manners and the need for frugality.
From Seasons Before the War by Bernice Morgan, illus. by Brita Granström
In Summer, little Bernice–clearly identifiable from her glasses–and her big brother Charlie and other playmates would venture out on the streets filled with water pumps, horses, and farmers selling their produce and local merchants like the grocer, drug store, meat market and bulls-eye shop (candy shop). There was a blacksmith and  dressmaker or two and workshops, including her own father's carpentry shop, where the children could watch men at work. But it was the dump, source of the occasional great find, that entertained them most.
It was not as scavengers we went to the dump but as spectators, as people might go to a movie or concert. The place was not fenced, but surrounded by a kind of berm where we could sit for hours watching horse and box carts being backed up to the edge, appraising how each ashman would slowly manoeuver his animal into place, drop the back gate, and tip his load into the inferno of glowing ash. (pg. 23)
And when there was a fire at the dump, a weekly occurrence, and the firemen came with their firetruck, the entertainment surged.

In Fall, it was time for school and, for Bernice beginning kindergarten, the excitement of new shoes and a school uniform, her first book bag, exercise book and pencils. But school becomes a disappointment for Bernice who is shocked to find "that I was not the smartest or the prettiest child in the world" (pg. 26) and that her glasses and inability to tell left from right set her apart from her classmates. Fortunately, a gift of an extraordinary pencil box from her Aunt Sophie helped ease some of that discomfort.

And then Winter came, and venturing outside of the home was no longer the norm.
Inside the house we children did a lot of watching: watching our father mend footwear, fix furniture, or melt molten lead to solder a pot; watching the women bake, make jam, paper walls, knit, or pin patterns onto beautiful cloth to make dresses, pajamas, and even coats. Unlike scrubbing floors or washing clothes, there were interesting jobs that a youngster could help with. Holding skeins of wool, stirring batter, licking spoons clean, passing tacks, holding down flimsy patterns, carefully cutting the edge off wallpaper, even picking up scraps of leather or cloth, made a child feel important. (pg. 31)
But Christmas brought new excitement and fears, as Toylands in the local stores were opened (toys were not regularly displayed) and children worried whether they'd been good enough through the year. But it was a glorious evening when the whole family traipsed down to view the displays in the windows and point and smile and enjoy a treat of chips.
From Seasons Before the War by Bernice Morgan, illus. by Brita Granström
Oh, it was a different time. It was a time when it was unusual for a woman like Aunt Sophie to have her own money. When those who moved from Cape Breton to Newfoundland were considered immigrants. When play could be arranging glass marbles in the holes of the sewing machine's foot pedal. When words like bulls eye (for candy) and sooking (being a crybaby) were part of the vernacular.

Bernice Morgan's story unfolds like the seasons: inevitable, expected and full of promise. It's refreshing and invigorating to see the rosy-cheeked children playing and living without reliance on electronic devices. Bernice Morgan's words breathe life into these memories, true or modified as memories may be, with affection and with a lyricism found only in great storytellers. With Swedish-born artist Brita Granström's paintings, detailed in people and landscape, award-winning novelist Bernice Morgan's nostalgic anecdotes are given second breath and transport readers, young and old alike, to a time and place that has disappeared and remains forgotten until shared as in Seasons Before the War.
For good and for ill much of that long ago world was about to vanish: the children's chants, the horses, the small workshops and unpaved streets, the seamen with their songs, the open fields, our guileless assumption of safety–all of that would soon disappear from our world. (pg. 40)

1 comment:

  1. This book sounds great - full of good reasons not to go to war. I can't wait to read it.