CM . . .
. Volume XXIII Number 23. . . February 24, 2017
In Us & Them, a stand-alone sequel to Trapper Boy, Hugh R. MacDonald continues the story of John Wallace (J.W.) Donaldson, a teenager living in a tight-knit Cape Breton coal mining community. It is now 1929, J.W. is 16, and he appears to be more fortunate than his friends down the mine. When he was 13, J.W. served a brief stint as a trapper (operator of the trap doors), but, at the start of Us & Them, he is back in school with his girlfriend Beth. When not spending his free time with her, he helps out on his parents' small farm and goes fishing with his friend Mickey when Mickey isn't working in the mine.
While fishing, J.W. meets Alfred, an elderly homeless Mi'kmaq carpenter. He befriends Albert, who, in turn, becomes a help to the Donaldsons. This subplot provides a glimpse at another aspect of Cape Breton history. It also shows one of two older people in the novel who help J.W. fulfil his dreams – in this instance, to have a boat.
J.W.'s father falls ill with pneumonia, exacerbated by having inhaled too much coal dust over the years, and again J.W. must leave school, this time to dig coal underground. "This ain't the trap door, J.W.," Mickey tells him. "You won't be able to shovel coal all night and work half the day in the fields and woods."
Us & Them is both entertaining and educative. Readers see that such dangerous work makes it imperative for miners to look out for their buddies and work in cooperation with each other in order to survive. The main tension in the plot, however, involves some experienced miners ill-treating the younger workers. One of the youths being bullied is a scared 14-year-old whose mother had lied about his age because the family needs his wages. The "Them" in the title, as it turns out, refers not only to the mine owners and management but also to domineering fellow workers.
The plight of young workers becomes J.W.'s issue. He asks the town librarian for books on child labour, and receives The Bitter Cry of the Children, by John Spargo. Published in 1906, this book paints a grim picture of children as young as nine working as trappers and coal sorters in North American mines. John Spargo, a British-born granite cutter, emigrated to the United States, became a union organizer and joined the American Socialist Party. (http://historymatters.gmu, edu/d/557/1).
At the library J.W. gets to know another elderly man who wants to help him, the legendary trade unionist J.B. McLaughlan. Here again, the author educates readers, this time about a Canadian hero. James Bryson McLaughlan (1869-1937), a Scottish coal miner, immigrated to Cape Breton in 1902, and organized Nova Scotia coal miners through the United Mine Workers of America. From 1909 to 1923, he was a local officer of that union, and he ran in provincial and federal elections. Then in 1923, as readers are told in Us and Them, McLaughlan was sentenced to two years in prison for seditious libel; that is, "for speaking out against management practices at the mine and for encouraging civil disobedience." By 1929, he was editing a labour paper, and, from 1933 to 1936, he was president of the Workers' Unity League.
McLaughlan sees young J.W. as a potential trade union leader, but, although J.W. respects McLaughlan and appreciates his encouragement, he chooses teaching instead. Through J.W., readers are told, rather vaguely, that McLaughlan "espoused communal ownership as a preferred economic system". Although J.W. could see "the attractiveness of such a system, especially among the poor and destitute... he wasn't convinced it was best. Perhaps parts of the communal system could be used to improve the present one."
McLaughlan joined the Communist Party of Canada in 1922, the year after it was founded and left it in 1936. According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, McLaughlan believed it was the mission of the working class to "redeem the world from the chaos of capitalism." (www.canadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/childlabour) In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, harsh social conditions in Canada led to the founding of a number of leftist parties, the Communist Party of Canada amongst them. McLaughlan's political affiliation is understandable in the context of his times and could have been acknowledged and explained.
In this well-structured novel, the author alternates the mining scenes with those that show other aspects of J.W.'s life: his romance with Beth, his career thoughts, and the pleasures of the outdoors. It is important to inform readers about work environments of the past, especially coal mining, an economic pursuit that may be on its way out given the federal government's intention to phase out the use of coal in Canadian power plants by 2030. In both Trapper Boy and Us & Them, author Hugh R. MacDonald brings to life an dramatic and significant part of history.
Ruth Latta's latest book, Grace and the Secret Vault (Ottawa, Baico, 2017, email@example.com), is a young adult historical novel.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.