The Great Depression: 1929-1939

by Pierre Berton
560 pages,
ISBN: 0771012705

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Defining A Decade
by Heather Robertson

THERE IS SOMETHING almost monastic about Pierre Berton`s determination to chronicle Canada`s popular history before it disappears into the collective amnesia of a dying nation. There he sits, the Venerable Bede of Kleinburg, Ontario, furiously getting it all down in the hope that when the Dark Ages have passed once more, someone will come across his seminal writings and learn what life was like in this part of the world. Berton writes best about times and places he has personally experienced and about events that stir his emotions. The Great Depression is very good Berton. Berton was 10 when the Depression began, 19 when it ended, and while he does not write about himself, his narrative is bursting with energy and the confidence of a man who`s been there. It is a complex, chaotic story and Berton is merciless about putting everything in the devastating drought on the Prairies, the Regina Riot, Bible Bill Aberhart, the formation of the CCF, the rise of Duplessis in Quebec, Mackenzie Kings crystal hall, the Red Menace -- until we begin to share the exhaustion and confusion of the people who suffered through it. Berton relies (11 contemporary accounts, avoiding the sentimentality of reminiscences, and the voices are often poignant: "My clothing became very shabby," Jean McLean wrote to Prime Minister R. B. Bennett after losing her job in 1934, Many prospective employers just glanced at my attire and shook their heads. Today I went in to an office for an examination and the examiner just looked me over and said: "I am afraid Miss YOU are so awfully shabby I could never have you in my office." I was so worried and frightened that I replied some what angrily: "Do you think clothes can be picked Lip in the streets"` "Well," lie replied with aggravating insolence, "tots of girls find them there these days." Berton is particularly good on the suffering of women during the `30s; the boys riding the boxcars at least had the thrill of being on the Move, but for women stuck at home there was nothing but hungry children, broken marriages, and relief programs. He reveals in shocking detail how Eaton`s cruelly exploited its female employees until they tried to join a union, and then locked them Out. The clash between business and the unemployed is the narrative theme of The Great Depression, and there is no question that Berton`s sympathies lie solidly with the Left. The bad guys are Bennett and Mackenzie King, and Berton satirizes them as a pair of monstrous gargoyles whose indifference to human suffering was criminal in its consequences. It was a violent decade -skirmishes and riots took place constantly in factory yards and on the streets -- and Berton makes the point that the violence was almost always instigated by the police. The "Red Menace" was created to take the blame for the Depression, but the seed of socialism took root and grew. Canada wasn`t born at Vimy Ridge, as Berton used to think, but in Saskatchewan in 1933, when the Regina Manifesto made democratic socialism possible in North America. Berton retells the now legendary stories of the dramatic confrontations of the `30s with his usual gusto. But its too had he completely misses the revolution in the arts, the emergence of a fledgling Canadian theatre community, a ballet company, chamber Music orchestras, a sophisticated school of painters, writers like Morley Callaghan and Donald Creighton, scholars like Harold Innes and the young Marshall McLuhan: this glimmering firefly of a golden age shaped the nation as firmly as the Regina Manifesto. Otherwise, The Great Depression is everything the general reader Could want to know about 10 years that were by no means lost. It`s easy to quibble that Berton relies too heavily on newspapers and other people`s books without evaluating his sources; but his research, thanks to Barbara Sears, is authoritative, and while he can he slick he escapes parroting conventional wisdom through the strength of his own convictions. His writing is leaner, more economical than it has been for a long time. This is vintage Berton: She ran out behind hurt. There, on the horizon, loomed "the blackest, most terrifying Cloud I have ever seen." it was racing towards them at top speed -- it shapeless monster blotting out the sky. Panic rose within her. Here she was, a woman alone on the prairie the nearest neighbour a mile away with a small baby and two young boys. What could she do? Where could She go? At the rate the cloud was moving, and She Could see its edges literally rolling along, it would engulf them before they reached the neighhours... Berton does not ask, nor attempt to answer, the ultimate question: What does it all mean? Thats somebody elses book. Will anybody care enough to write it? Thats Berton`s job, to make sure someone does.

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