Friday, March 28, 2014

Cabbagetown by Hugh Garner

When I picked up this unwieldy doorstop of a book about Toronto during the Great Depression, I almost didn't go through with that - there was nothing about that time that interested me, let alone compelled me to read several hundred pages about it. But I decided to at least give it a chance; I was mostly drawn in by the focus on a specific neighbourhood of Toronto, which isn't something I come across a lot in this project and which I had hoped would give the book a specific and definable flavour.

I am so glad I gave this book a chance. It is the story of three teenagers growing up in Cabbagetown during the Depression, and the three different directions they take in response to their poverty-stricken family lives and undesirable neighbourhood. One young man joins a group of fascists less because of a belief in the ideals and more to escape the stigma of his poor (financially that is) upbringing; one goes completely the opposite way and begins to fight for workers; and the young woman in the story gradually turns to survival sex work as her only marketable skill.

Where the story ends up is not half as compelling as how it gets there. This is a masterful work, a modern Canadian Les Miserables - buried within the story are big, insightful ideas about poverty, class war, social movements, capitalism, and love. This is an important work, and it is really enthralling. Honestly my first thought upon finishing the book was surprise that I had never heard of this author before.

I can't really describe specifically what the book is "about", but I really strongly recommend you read it. The parallels between Cabbagetown in that time and many neighbourhoods in this economic climate are striking, and at one point there is a paragraph about the difference between being "poor" and being "poverty-stricken" that was so breathtakingly accurate I almost highlighted it in the library book.

I don't know what else to say except that you need to read this book. One of the best I've read so far.

Five CN Towers out of five.

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