National Post features Bannock, Beans & Black Tea

“On Culture High & Low” / National Post / Jeet Heer / March 25, 2004

Oral storytelling is one of the primordial art forms, inextricable from our nature as social animals. Wherever two or three are gathered, whether warming up around a campfire or taking a break at the water cooler, a yarn spinner can usually be found, offering wry little stories or the punchline to an oft-told joke.

A storyteller works with one of the smallest narrative units imaginable, the anecdote. Punchy, brisk and no-nonsense, the anecdote has a directness lacking in longer and weightier forms. Yet anecdotes seem so slight they rarely get respect -- or even attention.

"You won't find much about the anecdote in studies of literary genre: It seems too humble a form to attract the eye of the theorist," the late Irving Howe noted in his 1994 collection A Critic's Notebook. "An anecdote is a brief, unelaborated, often humorous account of a single incident, taken to be piquant in its own right, and as such it may be found almost anywhere ... One of its attractions is that in times of dislocation, the anecdote holds out the possibility that human beings may still connect, perhaps only briefly, through memory and story."

Howe's linkage of anecdotes with memory and emotional solidarity nicely describes the emotional appeal of John Gallant's forthcoming memoir, Bannock, Beans and Black Tea (soon to be released by Drawn & Quarterly). With plain-speaking honesty, Gallant recalls a harrowing childhood in Prince Edward Island during the 1920s and '30s, growing up in a large family always teetering on the line between survival and starvation. Yet, in part because Gallant's tales are rooted in the conventions of storytelling, the harshness of his memories is tempered by the warmth of his personal voice.

Born in a small PEI village in 1927, John Gallant was the second in a family of seven children. His father was a no-account, happy to sire children but unwilling to work to support them. Nothing was store-bought or new for the Gallant kids; everything was patchy, home-made or second-hand. Gallant remembers going to school wearing a shirt made from a Robin Hood flour sack. Food came from picking berries, snaring rabbits, spearing eels. After finishing Grade 2, John joined the labour force with a variety of small seasonal jobs at farms and a local lobster canning factory.

In unvarnished language, Gallant's book offers a string of little anecdotes focused on the indignities and privations of his youth. "The beds were made from rough boards and mattresses were made from burlap filled with straw or dry ferns," he notes. "As soon as the fire got going in the stove we would crowd around it to get warm. Breakfast would be plain at best: porridge or beans, bannock and tea. Lunch, if any, was likely beans with bread. Dinner: fish and potatoes. Your choices to drink were tea or water."

As in this passage, Gallant's concern is always with raw facts and details about how things were done. This is the way the world was, the prose seems to be saying, this is how we lived, although it seems hard to believe. A mordant note is frequently struck by comparing the past with the present, but this editorializing has a grumbling plaintive ring, since the wrongs railed against have no way of being redressed.

Gallant didn't start off as an author, and in fact his book came into print through a circuitous route. When he became a father late in life, in the 1960s and '70s, he would tell stories about his childhood to his kids. His son Gregory in particular enjoyed hearing these stories "over and over" again. When Gregory Gallant grew up, he became a cartoonist, took the nom de plume Seth and would frequently publish cartoons and stories in this newspaper, The New Yorker, Toro magazine and other publications.

Wanting to preserve his father's stories, Seth asked his dad to write down the tales that had hitherto existed only as frequently repeated anecdotes. Now retired and back home in Prince Edward Island, John Gallant began typing up stories, often only a page or two long, and mailing them to his Ontario-based son. As the letters from his dad began to accumulate, Seth started seeing a book emerge. For a decade during his off-hours, he started shaping the stories into a coherent package, putting them in chronological order and polishing the prose.

Bannocks, Beans and Black Tea is very much a collaborative effort between father and son. In addition to the textual touch-ups, Seth has amply illustrated the book, and all the lettering is from his hand. A gifted book designer, he has turned the entire book into a little art object, a cloth memory aid fusing his aesthetic sensibility with his father's stories.

Because it is a joint effort, there is a curious and creative tension between the form and content of Bannock, Beans and Black Tea. As a cartoonist and bookmaker, Seth's characteristic quality is elegance -- a loving attention to smooth and sleek surfaces. This approach is very different from the starkness of his father's stories.

Yet the very different sensibilities at work in the book play off against each other. A storyteller never exists in isolation: Anecdotes are only told when there is a listener present. Before we read them, Seth was the audience for John Gallant's stories. As a child, he was fascinated by them as "fun stories, filled with conflict, adventure and determination." He only came to appreciate their grimness later in life.

In editing his father's stories, Seth has preserved the rawness of his dad's voice, but the presentation of the material is mediated by his own memories of hearing the stories. Through its divergent form and content, Bannock, Beans and Black Tea captures the fusion that occurs when a story is shared.

Seth is sometimes accused of being a sentimentalist, a misty-eyed romantic pining for a glorious past that never existed. Yet his engagement with the past has always been more complex than his critics understand. His recurring subject is the paradoxical nature of memory, which is rooted in the past yet alive in the present. The past doesn't stand still but changes even as we think on it. The survival of the past in the present, always unstable and unpredictable, is Seth's obsession. This new book can therefore be seen as part of his larger oeuvre, including his history-haunted graphic novel It's a Good Life, If You Don't Weaken, as well as his more recent work.

Modest and at times meagre, John Gallant's stories accrue meaning as they are gathered together. More than that, the warmth of his storytelling is preserved by the handmade form his son has crafted.

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