THE FIRST BOOK I reviewed for this publication was Last in Line: On the Road and Out of Work, a Desperate Journey with Canada's Unemployed (Key Porter), by Alan Merrick. That was in 1986. Almost seven years later, it is obvious that our Depression takes no recesses. Increasingly, the only ship at work is hardship. Critical distance and aloofness from sentiment stand in my soup-line with me, again: two more books about poverty, an increasingly necessary sub-genre.
Sheila Baxter's new book will be of use wherever poor children are being pushed to the edges of the heart. Like her other recent books - No Way to Live: Poor Women Speak Out and Under the Viaduct: Homeless in Beautiful B.C. - A Child Is Not a Toy is a book of voices; it is also an activist manual full of street-level resource I lists, strategies backed up by figures, accounts of programs that are working. There are even a few models for dialogue with children about poverty: little stories the author wrote to read at libraries and schools. The simplicity of the children's drawings makes their messages especially poignant.
In a more hopeful time, such material would perhaps be locally published as a resource pamphlet by some active individual or neighbourhood group; in these times, I am Sure, its awkward eagerness and practical indignation will be welcomed by poverty activists nationally.
Especially because this book's practical suggestions are laid out alongside the words of poor children. Here's how immense the problem is; here are some ways of working to help; here is what the children themselves have to say; and here is what adults who grew up poor have to say. The book offers all this plainly - the implication being that each reader should pick up spoons and start serving.
The children's voices have so little pretension compared with the arrogance of the facts. As Gerard Kennedy, executive director of the Canadian Association of Food Banks, notes: "There are more food bank outlets in this country today than any single restaurant or grocery supermarket chain - even outnumbering McDonald's!"
Against all that would keep them toys (child abuse, child labour, etc.), these children offer perplexed pride, tenacity, street smarts, wistfulness, and humour.
On the Edge is Lindalee Tracey's journey through Canada's regions by car and bus, a chronicle of her active involvement in the lives of the poor folks she sought out, interviewed, and photographed.
The author's travel plans and agenda were loose enough to allow for chance and engagement. She tells of working with other women to operate an emergency daycare during the Westray mine explosion, Pictou County, Nova Scotia: "I've never seen so much pain in one place."
Later, at Clandeboye Bay, Manitoba, as she is waking up from a nightmare, she says: "These people are real and they're running away in great panic from something terrible. Slaughter." For a moment, author and reader are both unsure; does she mean there are people outside her tent, or does she refer more generally to the poor in this country she's crossing?
There are, as I mentioned before, more and more books like this one, but I haven't read another that so skilfully, personably, and heartbreakingly balances hope and devotion. Tracey's gut and brain together deliver a series of engaged vignettes in vivid prose. She is not afraid of the body's ribald crudity, nor is she patronizing or unwilling to judge, nor is she disheartened by the breadth of need she has touched:
Beneath poverty's defensiveness, apology and hard exterior of hurt ties a nation's capacity for goodness and rejuvenation. Surely if those on the margins ... can fatten their faith with their own tender mercies, so can the rest of us. For we are, most of us, from this common root. Remember?
Well, there are too many days when such optimism sounds just plain dumb, no matter how well it's expressed. So here are books to read on such days. You can't pay the rent? Voting seems ludicrous? Here are lives, voices, and tools, reminders of anger and hope.