19 January 2015

Max Braithwaite's True First

We Live in Ontario
Max Braithwaite and R.S. Lambert
[Agincourt, ON]: Book Society of Canada, 1957

Yes, we do! In fact, we arrived seven years ago this week.

Max Braithwaite lived in Ontario, too. He's usually thought of as a Saskatchewan writer, but this province was his home for more than five decades. "I felt like I was born in the wrong place," Braithwaite once said. "Finally I got the hell out of Saskatchewan." The man best remembered for Why Shoot the Teacher? put it this way: "I was a writer, not a teacher, and I figured life's too short to do something you don't like in a place you don't want to be."

Any agent would cringe.

We Live in Ontario was rescued from the books left behind at the end of our public library's most recent book sale. It was an unexpected find. The title doesn't appear in any Braithwaite bibliography. It predates Voices in the Wild, the book regarded as his first, by five years.

We Live in Ontario was not co-author R.S. Lambert's first. A seasoned pro with over forty books to his name, Lambert is one of those worthy writers who have been snubbed by The Canadian Encyclopedia, The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature and W.H. New's Encyclopedia of Literature in Canada. And so, I direct you to Wikipedia – yes, Wikipedia – which has a not so bad article on the man. A fascinating figure, you'll be intrigued. Guarenteed.

I've been meaning to read these Lambert books for years:
  • The Prince of Pickpockets: A Study of George Barrington, Who Left His Country for His Country’s Good (London: Faber & Faber, 1930)
  • When Justice Faltered: A Study of Nine Peculiar Murder Trials (London: Methuen, 1935)
  • The Haunting of Cashen's Gap: A Modern "Miracle" Investigated (London: Methuen, 1935)
  • Propaganda (London: Nelson, 1938)
  • For the Time is at Hand: An Account of the Prophesies of Henry Wentworth Monk of Ottawa, Friend of the Jews, and Pioneer of World Peace (London: Melrose, 1947)
Instead, I read We Live in Ontario.

Because it was there.

An elementary school textbook, We Live in Ontario explores the province through the eyes of Newfoundland's Baxter family as they settle into a new home "not far from Hamilton." Mr Baxter works for the Greenway Machine Company. Mrs Baxter sets the table. Jenny skips rope. Billy asks questions.

There's no real protagonist, but the Baxter boy does guide the plot. Bill's Ontario is a land of wonder. After breaking a lightbulb, he spends a full afternoon trying to wrap his head around the fact that its replacement will cost just twenty cents. How can that be?

Ask your father.

Mr Baxter is as good as his word. Bill not only visits an electric light bulb factory, but a farm, a bank, an airport and Niagara Falls. The family descend to the depths of a Sudbury nickel mine and help catch fish on a boat out of Port Dover. It's all quite educational.

I learned a lot. Did you know that lightbulbs were once made in Ontario? Electric irons, too. And clothing, refrigerators and farm machinery. Imagine!

The province I know is a very different place.

Object: A 226-page textbook with two-colour illustrations by Robert Kunz.

His works swings so wildly between the competent and incompetent that I can't help but wonder whether he didn't farm some of them out.

Access: Non-circulating copies are held by nine of our libraries (five of which are in Ontario).

Anyone looking to buy a copy – there is no reason why you should – will find three listed online. All in crummy shape, they range in price from US$10 to US$55.84. Had I not grabbed my free copy it would've been pulped.

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