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Joan Sullivan: Whimsey as well as history in Bernice Morgan's ‘Seasons Before the War’

Book cover
Book cover - Contributed

Seasons Before the War
By Bernice Morgan, illustrated by Brita Granström
Running the Goat Books & Broadsides
$29.95  44 pages

This story begins in the best way, “Once upon a time …”

Bernice Morgan has written several novels, including “Random Passage,” and short story collections; she’s also published shorter non-fiction pieces, often on culture and place. “Seasons Before the War,” which was originally commissioned by Shallaway Youth Choir as narrative text threading through a Christmas concert, fits nicely in that last niche, “in a world where the First World War was history and the Second World War unimaginable … “

 “Seasons,” Morgan’s memoir of her early childhood, is divided into those parts of the year. In “Spring … every field belonged to a different crowd. Our crowd was made up of me and my brother Charlie … The boys played ball and rolled hoops; we girls played hop-scotch and skipping and house – outlining rooms with stones, ordering invisible children about, and serving seeds and flowers to our dolls on bits of broken china. But more often than not younger boys and girls played together; games of ‘Hoist your sails and run …”

It was a time of great physical freedom for kids. “Unless you had unnaturally protective parents, around the age of five or six you were judged old enough to leave the field and roam nearby streets, usually in tow with an older brother, sister, or neighbour child.”

Although they were still cautioned to stick close to home. “Our family included Nanny and my Aunt Sophie … Aunt Sophie went to movies, used lipstick, knew all the radio songs, and had unconditionally embraced town life. The other adults, including my Trinity Bay-born father, were more leery of St. John’s.

 “From infancy our little heads were filled to the brim with blood-chilling stories about the horrors that befell disobedient children … children who left the higher levels to play around coves and wharfs and were never seen again.”

“Unless you had unnaturally protective parents, around the age of five or six you were judged old enough to leave the field and roam nearby streets, usually in tow with an older brother, sister, or neighbour child.”
— Excerpt from "Seasons Before the War"

Far from being coddled, children were also privy to the news and knowledge of the adult sphere. “The supper table was where we learned everything about the known world … Our father was a carpenter. He worried constantly about money, and was given to doing sums on the tablecloth with the stub of a pencil … ‘Paid,’ our father would say, circling the word with his pencil. ‘Paid is the best word in the English language.’”

In “Summer … There were more horses than trucks back then, horses hauled coal and lumber, delivered groceries, and brought milk every morning before dawn. Shiny black horses pulled flower-covered caskets to graveyards and farmers’ horses came door-to-door every Saturday … The farmers, thin wiry men with brown crumpled faces, seemed happy but didn’t say much.”

Regular household chores included grocery shopping. “In our neighbourhood there were two big grocery stores — each about the size of today’s two-car garage … 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.” But there was little money for treats from the candy store: “we just looked through the candy shop window at glass jars filled with chocolate mice, lemon jaw-breakers, Mary Janes, and coconut snowballs.”

Everything domestic was crafted by some individual. “There was a man who made clothes pins from scraps of wood; one who fixed bikes; and another who sharpened knives and scissors, and mended pots — or perhaps it was the same man. These workshops were in front porches or sheds, where men worked all alone, usually with the door open, never seeming to notice a line of watching children.”

Then came the fall when Morgan began formal education. “That year, near the end of August, our mother began talking about new shoes and school uniforms — about my beginning Kindergarten. Until then I’d wanted to start school, was eager to show the world that I knew my letters and colours. Suddenly I changed my mind and informed my parents that I had decided not to go.”

In the Winter, “Mostly I would sit on the floor in the warmest corner of the kitchen, making button patterns on the flowered canvas, or kneel beside the sewing machine arranging glass alleys in the little holes of the foot pedals.” But she and her siblings would also help out: “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, these 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.”

A gorgeous layout and design accompanies Morgan’s compelling words. Brita Granström’s artwork suits the tale, realistic yet whimsical, lively and lovely on the thick, textured pages.

Joan Sullivan is editor of Newfoundland Quarterly magazine. She reviews both fiction and non-fiction for The Telegram.

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