March 24, 2017
Town is by the Sea, by Joanne Schwartz and Sydney Smith
Never has a book so literally sparkled like Town is by the Sea, a new collaboration by Joanne Schwartz and Sydney Smith. In the story, Schwartz draws on her own Cape Breton background to tell the story of a day in the life of a coal mining town, about the life that goes on up above while the men are working down below.
And in a book about contrasts, illustrator Smith pulls off a similar feat. As his early books (reissues of Sheree Fitch’s classics are where we first saw his work!) were fun and cartoonish, that same sensibility charges many of the images in this book—illustrations of domestic life and children at play. (He also exhibits a fixation on teacups that won this book a firm place in my heart.) But the teacups aren’t all of it—just wait for a moment.
Because first we see the men going down into the mines to work. (My children are fascinated by this. “What is coal?” Iris asks us, which is weird because usually she manages to parse out meanings, is rarely moved to ask about something so explicitly.)
“When I wake up, it goes like this—” Schwartz’s story starts, and this pattern sets up the way that the boy in the book will tell his story. First he hears seagulls, and then a dog barks. “And along the road, lupines and Queen Anne’s lace rustle in the wind…”
“And deep down under that sea, my father is digging for coal.”
And now here it is, that sea. A sea so sparkling that it appears animated, an image that would not look out of place in a museum. Hasn’t it got a bit of the Monet about it? Otherworldly. Which is fitting.
Meanwhile, the boy plays with his friends, he walks through town. He goes home for lunch, then goes back out again. The sea is perpetually present, and its evocation brings us back to the men in the mines. “And deep down under that sea, my father is digging for coal,” and my children read along with the refrain. But the last time we see the men, something is different.
The text doesn’t allude to the image of the men escaping some kind of collapse underground, and the sing-song story goes along, but what happens next in the illustrations takes on a particular subtext, a wordless story like the one Smith tells in JonArno Lawson’s award-winning Sidewalk Flowers*. The boy goes to visit his grandfather’s gravestone, his grandfather who was a miner just like his father, and who made sure that he’d be buried facing the sea because he’d spent enough time underground. “I go to the graveyard to visit my grandfather, my father’s father. He was a miner too. The air smells like salt. I can taste it on my tongue.”
The trouble underground and the imagery of death will make for some uneasy for reading for those of us who know the dangers of coal mining, who’ve heard the stories of disasters. But alas, that is a story for another day. In this book, the boy’s father comes home. Danger and peril, and it’s still just an ordinary day.
“One day it will be my turn,” the boy tells us, about the men who go down below to mine for coal. “I’m a miner’s son. In my town, that’s the way it goes.”
*Full credit goes to my husband Stuart who is much better at reading picture books than I am. It took me ages to figure out that the bear had eaten the rabbit in I Want My Hat Back, or what was different at the end of Sam and Dave Dig a Hole. I might have read this book a hundred more times without realize the enormity of what’s really going on beneath the surface (see what I did there?) so I am glad that I keep someone very clever around.