Greenbank Country Mat17Ers In 19Th Century Ontario

by W.H. Graham
326 pages,
ISBN: 0921149328

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Time And Place.
by Christopher Moore

SMALL PLACES, minutely observed, frequently inspire the best in Canadian fiction. Nonfiction works of local history, on the other hand, most often offer boosterism, ancestorworship, and ill-digested factoids. Happily for readers who hope for better things from historical prose, the handful of books that look thoughtfully at quiet corners of the Canadian past has recently grown by one. Greenbank by W. H. Graham is a small wonder. For 150 years, Greenbank, an Ontario hamlet landlocked between Lakes Ontario and Simcoe, has been pretty much immune to fame. W. H. Graham, a retired businessman and writer who now lives there, makes no large claims for the place; he simply explores the lives of Craggs, Beares, Iansons, and other families who lived there between the 1830s and the 1930s. He notes every cow they sold, every acre they mortgaged, and every sacrifice they imposed upon themselves. No book has ever conveyed better the dramas that underlay Ontario's seemingly easy and endless progress. But this is no simple celebration of pioneer progress.

Graham sees economic cycles far beyond Greenbank's control conferring prosperity or hardship rather arbitrarily on its people. But he is far more interested in how his people lived than with how their community developed. Amid all the details he gleans from assessment roles and census forms, his real themes are elemental: family, money, sex, damnation. What intrigues him is how John Beare dominated his big strong sons far into their adult life, while John Ianson in his prime had to cede all his property to his wife and Isaac Cragg found himself supplanted by his nephew. Why did the local school books teach such odd lessons? How rigorously did people follow the stem morality preached to them, and why did they strive so hard to keep beauty from their lives?

Graham has the happy knack for remembering that even questions that cannot be answered are worth asking. These farmers and millers never willingly breathed a word about their finances, their passions, or how they treated their wives. But Graham keeps asking and even the tentative answers are fascinating. Almost the only questions that don't interest him are political ones, and the gap may make Greenbank seem more passive and isolated than it really was. Did Greenbank never vote or hold opinions on Confederation, the National Policy, or Sir John A.?

There is a sense of place as well as people here, for Graham knows how much our sense of landscape is created by what historians, poets, and painters teach us to see. Creating Greenbank for us in this book, Graham shows us vast stretches of unknown terrain beneath our noses; what we might think of as traditional rural Ontario barely predates the 20th century. Although Graham has talked to his neighbours about their memories of people in his book, his history often. undermines memory, and he makes 19th century Greenbank much more alien than most heritage villages would suggest. Reading him may permanently change the way we see a country spire, a concession road, even a pound of butter.Greenbank is long and sometimes demanding. To accommodate a sampling of the photographs that first inspired the author, the publisher has produced a book that in paperback is roughly the size and shape of a rural telephone book. Graham is particularly good at reading the portraits of the people he writes about, but I could have done without some of the enlargements in exchange for a book that was easier to hold and read. Oh, well. In 19th?century Ontario, perseverance was the price of everything worthwhile. Greenbank is worthwhile.


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