March 15, 2017
Harriet and her Brownie group served dinner to a group of homeless and impoverished young people at a local church a few weeks ago, which taught us an essential truth about the face of poverty, which is that it has many faces, people with all kinds of different stories, and people with children and babies. None of the girls could quite get over that—that there had been a baby. Though of course it was the baby’s table everyone wanted to serve at, but even the people who weren’t babies were really nice and everyone was friendly and polite. And then we came home and picked up another chapter of That Scatterbrain Booky, by Bernice Thurman Hunter, a novel we’d been reading together over the past few weeks.
Hunter’s Booky series and her Margaret books had been huge for me growing up, as both a reader and a writer, although until I picked the novel up again and realized how much the stories were now built into my literary DNA, I hadn’t given them that much credit. The series is not exactly unsung—a Booky film was made starring Meaghan Follows about ten years ago, titles are still in print—but there were no copies for sale in the bookstore I was in the other day. And you don’t hear writers talking about Booky, the same way they talk about Anne or Emily, or Alice or even Harriet and Ramona—although a few years back Carrie Snyder included the Booky books on a list of titles that inspired her as a young writer.
One Saturday night though, so happy to be rereading the book and impressed to find that it was such a strong and powerful literary work (which is a thing you discover quickly when you’re reading out loud) I posted a photo of the cover on Instagram. And then my Instagram feed went bonkers. Everyone remembered Booky. Everyone loved Booky. Grown men professing their love for the Booky books and memories of Hunter visiting their school libraries in the 1980s. Everyone had Booky memories to share, the vivid scenes still resonant. There’s something about these books, and all its avid readers should look into revisiting them as an adult.
Because they’re really good. This incredibly strong but chatty first-person narrator who pulls in close and focuses on details (the warmth from the stove on the streetcar as passenger huddled around it, the stripes on the sweaters from the Toronto Star Christmas boxes which the kid who wore them got mocked for, the exact contents of a bag of penny candy) but then pulls out too with a broader perspective (“grandpa would only live three years after that…”) and shows the reader that these are stories told with the benefit of hindsight. The deftness with which Hunter maneuvered this was so impressive, but so too is the story’s gritty edges, which never detract from its buoyant tone. In fact as a young reader I never noticed, but they’re there. Booky’s family can barely support the children they have and (although nobody knows yet) another’s on the way, and she overhears her parents discussing the possibility of her parents giving this baby up for adoption. Strung across the entrance to High Park is a sign announcing that the park is “Gentiles Only.” When Booky’s dad finally finds work as a maintenance man at the chocolate factory, it’s only after the previous holder of that titled has been fatally injured in an industrial accident. Throughout the entire book, the family is this close to being evicted and at one point they actually are. And although the fact of it is breezed by, Booky is severely malnourished and therefore eligible for free milk at school. When her family sits down together at the table, often her parents eat nothing.
So this is far from the Old Toronto nostalgic days-gone-by kinds of stories I remembered Booky for, the kinds of stories Kamal Al Solaylee warned us about in his essay “What You Don’t See When You Look Back.” Although like those sepia-toned images, there aren’t people of colour in Booky’s stories, but they are just outside the frame. And the bygone days are not made sweet in their memory—these were hard times, and people suffered mercilessly. In the ways that so many still do.
By which I mean that when we read Booky the night after serving dinner at the church, the bygone days didn’t seem so bygone after all.