Stompin' Tom:
Before the Fame

by Tom Connors,
ISBN: 0140251111

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His Mother's Thumb was Missing
by Jim Christy

Stompin' Tom Connors has given us a road book: the story of his life to the age of thirty-one, before his name became known to people who hadn't yet met him. It is fitting, therefore, that the book is like the road: by turns harrowing and funny, sad, wonderful, and boring. Why, at times, the reader just can't wait to turn the page and see what the next ride's going to bring; at others, you feel as if the pages creep along like days spent by the side of the road with your thumb out near Wawa.

But whereas the road is neutral, the book is a monument of self-obsession. The ego of the man who wrote it can barely be contained within the borders of the country about which he has written so many fine songs. This is not always a bad thing. At times Connors's outrageous sense of his sheer wonderfulness seems fitting since he displays a huge appetite about most everything else. He has taken a big bite of life, chewed up a lot of scenery coast to coast, and, as becomes apparent in the early pages, has needed that ego to survive at all.

What neither he, we, nor the book needs is the foreword, by one John Farrington. It is two pages of-there is no other word that will do-bullshit, on the order of "This book will motivate all of us to better ourselves, our families, and our country."

The reader is enveloped in the harrowing account of Connors's childhood and adolescence. Experiences of this sort are usually called Dickensian. But with Dickens there is always the richness of detail to ease the horror. Here there is no coziness. It is stark with never an embellishment, and all the more effective for that. Connors's childhood was spent in cheap rooms and on the road with his mother. His father only has a couple of walk-on appearances. Young Tom had to search as hard for any trace of affection as he did for a scrap of food. He was the kid, aged eight, nine, ten, locked out and on his own all day with nothing to eat. This was in the forties when he would have been the only one out there; hiding in the cemetery, in the alley, in a shed down by the docks. He was the boy who sat on the steps of the factory with the night watchman while his mother was gone somewhere.

His mother, Isabel: Connors, at the age of fifteen, after being in orphanages and foster homes, found her on the street in St. John, New Brunswick. Had he ended this book at that point, he would be responsible for what would surely be the most powerful memoir of youth ever written in this country. His mother is unforgettable. He does not need to call our attention to the symbolism of her missing thumb as she hitchhikes through life without it.

But the road goes on. For more than three hundred pages. During those fifteen years, Connors travelled the country, back and forth on every line on the map. In a few years he had a guitar with him and often earned his rides. Soon he was playing at parties and on small town radio stations for free. But he would wake up one day in the Sally Ann or on somebody's couch, and knew it was time to move on.

Connors mentions newcomers to the road, how he'd be travelling with one or another, and as soon as the first meal was a couple of hours late, they'd want to give up. Now this reader is partial to all these pages of the road but I can't help but wonder if newcomers are going to complete the trip. The scene begins to look the same outside of Thurso as it does Rouyn; and one loses count of the times Connors blows into St. John.

The monotony is relieved only by outrageous testaments to ego, veritable litanies of self-importance. He is always the most adventurous, the most courageous, and never meets anyone near his equal. "Would it always be my destiny to walk alone; live alone and die alone," he wonders.

One thing is certain, irony never walked with him. One time Connors sat on a snow bank and had a conversation with God from which the New Tom emerged, having learned that "God's steering the ship." But when he tries to tell others about this revelation, they don't want to hear it. Thus he concludes, "If you know something about a higher truth, keep it to yourself."

It never occurs to the author that any other living human being has ever had any thoughts along these lines. Except for his mother, there aren't any characters in this book, only ciphers. It is precisely this outsized sense of self-importance that keeps Before the Fame from ranking with the memoirs of Woody Guthrie and Merle Haggard. Connors believes he is genuinely famous and a great figure, and that Canada is filled with people who think he is indeed the person proclaimed in the nitwit foreword. One night he shares a boxcar with a hobo. It is so dark neither gets a look at the other. Connors writes, "I bet if he's still around today to read this, he'll have one hell of a surprise when he finds out that the mystery man he rode the freight with that night was none other than Stompin' Tom."

Elsewhere he states the book's intention, to "Provide an insight into Stompin' Tom that was heretofore unknown."

Well he's done that as sure as there're Saturday nights in Sudbury.

Jim Christy's latest book is Uncommon Homes and Gardens (Harbour).


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