Globe & Mail Features Bannock, Beans & Black Tea

“An impoverished childhood drawn in rich detail” / The Globe and Mail / Charles Mandel / March 31, 2004

EBENEZER, PEI -- I-Pods, Gap jeans, McHappy meals -- John Gallant didn't have any of those as a boy growing up on Prince Edward Island. In fact, as he makes abundantly clear in his new memoir, Gallant didn't have much of anything. Bannock, Beans and Black Tea, the title of Gallant's first book published by Drawn & Quarterly, is the story of a dirt-poor childhood.

One thing that sets Gallant's memoir apart is the fact that his son provided illustrations for the book. While Gallant still calls his boy Gregory, the rest of the world knows him as Seth, the author of such graphic novels as It's a Good Life, If You Don't Weaken, and an illustrator for such magazines as The New Yorker. (Seth, 41, legally changed his name when he was in his late teens and was into the Toronto punk scene.) Another thing that distinguishes the book is its bitter litany of deprivation. One grim story after another accumulates to form an angry howl at life's injustice.

Gallant never made it past Grade 2 in school, and instead worked with his shiftless father when they could find occasional jobs for a few dollars in potato fields or lobster factories.

A typical anecdote involves Gallant working all day in the local priest's field picking potatoes. At the day's end, the priest's maid gave Gallant and his friend a bowl of cold mashed potatoes for a meal. As he left, Gallant looked into through the priest's window and "saw just what we expected. There he was seated at a nice table and at its centre was a golden chicken surrounded by roasted potatoes and vegetables."

Today, Gallant lives in better circumstances. After spending most of his life away, working for the military and the Royal Canadian Air Force, he returned to PEI five years ago.

Nonetheless, sitting at the kitchen table in his trailer home near Ebenezer in the island's central hills, Gallant allows that life has not been kind to him. "If I had to select my parents, I certainly wouldn't select the ones I had. When I look at life today, I can't see nothing but a raw deal."

Still, after a childhood of meagre meals, the author calls his current circumstances "a different life, a lovely life. You can go to the fridge, get yourself a steak or whatever you want. My wife says, 'Oh my heavens, I can't put anything in this fridge, it's so full.' I say, 'Well, you wouldn't have said that when I was a kid.' "

To be sure, Gallant -- who looks younger than his 86 years and who sports on his arm a faded tattoo portraying a woman's face framed in a heart -- recalls that the next-door neighbours farmed and had, by his estimation, "pretty fair living." On more than one occasion, as Gallant waited on their porch for his friends he contemplated "going in there and grabbing a steak off the table or something."

Instead, Gallant's meals consisted of bannock, beans and tea for breakfast -- hence the title of the book -- beans and bread at lunch ("if any," the author adds), and fish and potatoes for dinner.

Gallant blames the grinding poverty of his childhood on his father, whom he describes as less than ambitious. Despite the fact the Gallants owned and lived on 25 acres of land at the eastern end on the island, Gallant's father never showed any interest in farming or much of anything else, for that matter. Uneducated, the elder Gallant got by doing jobs for whoever called him. "You can't have filet mignon by working in factories and picking potatoes," Gallant observes.

Gallant says he's partially forgiven his father for the hard life he endured as a child. He concedes that his father never had much in the way of breaks. His father ultimately ended up in a senior's home in Souris, PEI. "He died there in Souris," Gallant says. "It was a hard deal."

His mother planted a garden to provide a little food and, not surprisingly, took solace in religion. "She had a terrible life," he says. "Whoof! She worked like a slave. She was very committed to religion. To me, it never did her any good. She probably prayed night and day, but I didn't see her getting any rewards. Let's hope she did now."

Nor is it surprising that Gallant is a lapsed Catholic, given the dim view of the clergy he takes in his book. He recounts stories of being sent to the local priest's to beg for assistance, only to be turned away. Gallant's father sent him back again. This time the priest gave him nickels worth $1 and told him not to bother him again. "They were very grasping and liked the good life," Gallant says. "What was happening to you, they couldn't care less."

The author says he tried to alleviate some of the book's relentless austerity by adding sections that pointed out the benefits to such hard living. The book includes a couple of lists of "some lucky breaks" such as no danger of being shot while on spring break in Florida. "During those days I didn't have to flush a toilet," Gallant says. "You never had to answer the telephone was another advantage."

Gallant used to recite the stories to Seth, who loved hearing them as a young boy. Seth, on the phone from his home in Guelph, Ont., says that when he listened to the stories they seemed amusing because his father's way of telling them was animated and fun. With the idea of turning them into a book, Seth asked his father to commit them to paper about 10 years ago.

Although Gallant had since upgraded his education, even attending college for a year, he still found the process of writing the stories difficult. Finally, Seth sent him some notebooks as well as some audiotapes and Gallant filled them up. Over the decade, Seth rewrote and edited the material and then hand-lettered the text and added illustrations. As he did so, Seth discovered the stories changed in tone as they shifted from the oral form to the written page. "Instead of them being stories I remembered as amusing, as an adult I started to see them for what they really were, which were stories of deprivation and a neglected childhood. They had a much grimmer tone than I recalled as a child."

Although Seth is known for his graphic novels, he decided only to do illustrations for his father's book. In comic stories, the most important element is how the panels fit together, according to Seth. He worried if he'd adapted his father's work into a graphic novel, it would have become less a Gallant book and more of a Seth project, something he didn't want.

As it is, Seth isn't even convinced he was the right illustrator for the memoir. "My work is very light, as in the drawing style," he says. "There's a certain light-hearted quality to how I draw figures that might be too light for it. I have to leave that for the reader to decide."

Gallant says he told Seth the stories in Bannock, Beans and Black Tea because by the time Seth was born they were living a more modern existence and Gallant wanted to tell his son what it was like for him as a child. When father and son went trout fishing, for instance, Gallant would recount the story of two fishermen from Charlottetown who, with all their fancy gear, couldn't catch a thing, while Gallant caught 12 trout with a string. He sold the pair a couple of the trout. "I made $2 that day."

As to his more recent years, Gallant refuses to talk much about his wartime experiences and his career in the air force. That's material, he says, for the next book. "I served in England, France -- I won't say what regiments or anything -- D-Day: That's one I don't want to talk about too much." After the war he travelled on courses in Europe and spent time with NATO. "I don't want to go into that," he reiterates. "A lot of writing to go into that."

Seth believes Bannock, Beans and Black Tea will make people think twice about what life is like when they're impoverished. "It's a very abstract kind of concept to most of us in our very comfortable existence. It's a good reminder of just how desperate situations can be for people."

For his part, Gallant believes kids today have it far too easy and that the book will come as a shock to them as to just how difficult life can become. "It's difficult to realize the opportunities they have: public school, high school, university, cars," he says. "I'm sure they don't appreciate it, but it's all there. Pretty well all the youth today, they just have to wait until they're 16 and then they've got the car no question. In fact, they probably even know what car they want. It's a lovely life."

Seth launches Bannock, Beans and Black Tea, as well as his other new book, The Clyde Fans, today at the Rivoli in Toronto. Chester Brown, author of Louis Riel: A Comic Strip Biography, will also be there.

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