Manitoba History: Review: David Helwig (editor), Back Then: Voices of Memory, 1915-45

by J. M. Bumsted
St. John's College, University of Manitoba

Number 29, Spring 1995

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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David Helwig, ed., Back Then: Voices of Memory, 1915-45. Ottawa: Oberon Press, 1993, 103 pp. ISBN 0-88750-946-0.

Memory is a complicated business, as the current controversy over repressed memory reminds us. Canadian historians probably pay less attention to theoretical considerations about the nature and function of memory than they should. Much of the evidence of the past employed by historians relies heavily upon the memory function, especially that expressed in the form of autobiography and memoirs. Certainly as we get older, our memories of the past become more precious to us, and in some cases, more and more vivid. But memory is a quite variable property. Despite my historical bent and historical training, for example, I personally have enormous difficulty in conjuring up very much detail about what I did or said half century ago, and I have never kept track of the documents of my past. I can only marvel at autobiographers who recall lengthy soliloquies and dialogues for pages on end, or can describe their lives in neat, crisp, precise chronological detail. On the other hand, I can see as clearly as yesterday certain scenes and landscapes from my childhood, such as the house in which I grew up, and I have occasional flashes sharp as if on movie film of certain events at which I was present. I suspect many of us are the same. For most of us, the autobiography or memoir chronicling an entire life is quite impossible. Even if we attempted it, it would lack consistent detail and accuracy to make enjoyable reading.

As David Helwig—the editor of this wonderful little volume—argues in an all-too-brief introductory essay, most people do not have a book-length manuscript within their capacity. What they do have, however, are a few flashes of memory recalled with a sufficient intensity to be written down. Helwig first became aware of the potential of these autobiographical fragments when he served as writer-in-residence at the Pickering Public Library in 1990. He began soliciting written memoirs for this book in 1992. It is not clear how he went about collecting his material, and more explanation would have been useful. Many of the best fragments published herein come from seniors with prairie backgrounds and experiences. All the authors are highly literate and several — one suspects — were professional writers in earlier incarnations; Helwig so hints in his opening comments. All relate events and recollections from the period 1915-1945.

By and large, these fragments confirm my own impression of the way most reminiscence, whether oral or written, actually works. Some people can say something useful about the great events and movements of which they were a part, but generally their comments are fairly stereotyped and pedestrian. The number of basically unrevealing interviews I have read or conducted with eyewitnesses of the Manitoba Flood or the Winnipeg General Strike are too many to count. What most people tend to recall are the handful of stereotyped images transmitted to us by the media—the charge of the Royal Northwest Mounted Police in 1919 and manning the dikes in 1950. Where they really come alive is when they recall some personally transforming experience, contained in a span of time ranging from a few brief minutes to several years. Sometimes these experiences tie up directly with major historical events like the Strike or the flood or the Second World War, but of times they do not. Many of the most poignant accounts in this book are totally personal. What matters is less the major historical background than the personal foreground.

The autobiographical fragments published in this volume range from a few hundred to a few thousand words, from an intensely personal few minutes to a historically significant six wartime years. Most are written in the first person, although a few are cast in the third person. Several third-person authors use the device of surprising us at the end with a declaration that they were the individual whose tale was chronicled. Each fragment contains something of interest to any reader, and each reader will have his or her own personal favourites. I was particularly struck by two accounts. One was Aileen Norma Wilson’s narrative of her childhood peregrinations during the 1920s around an extended family on both sides of the border after the death of her father and the remarriage of her mother. The other was Beverley N. Smallman’s substantial autobiographical fragment which begins with doctoral study at the University of Edinburgh in 1939, continues with an academic appointment in Zoology at McGill in 1940, and concludes with an account of his war work on the prairies battling against grain mites in the wheat storage bins needed to feed the world.

The reader could well learn a good deal more about what Canada was once like to live in from this modest book than he or she will glean from most of the great tomes of the academic historians or the ponderous autobiographical memoirs of the politicians. Every piece opens a fresh window into the experiences of ordinary people in this country. Almost every essay contains at least one fascinating piece of historical detail, such as the cost of music lessons in the late 1930s in Toronto — “25 cents for an hour of group instruction and $1.50 for a half-hour of individual instruction.” (Richard Iorweth Thorman, p. 50)

To Mr. Helwig this reviewer can only echo Oliver Twist, who said (admittedly in a somewhat different context), “Please sir, I want some more.”

Page revised: 11 April 2010