In their introduction to The Imagined City: A Literary History of Winnipeg, David Arnason and Mhari Mackintosh note that they “began by thinking of Winnipeg as an unformed city” (x). During the fur trade and early settlement, Winnipeg (before it was “Winnipeg”) “was less a defined place than a destination or a stopping place or a crossroads” (x). When the city became the capital in 1874, there were only 3700 residents, but by 1882, there were 14,700 (x).
Thinking about this previously “unformed” and growing city, the Canadian Literary Fare team thought it would be fitting to sample stories from childhood. A number of Canadian writers spent their formative years in Winnipeg, and by recounting these experiences in their fiction and non-fiction, they shaped the capital.
In the “So This Is Winnipeg?” entry, we explored the capital’s history of colonialism, cultural diversity, and the resulting struggles. Not surprisingly, for some Winnipeg writers, childhood represents a difficult period of maturation, as young characters face their first experiences of prejudice and oppression.
Beatrice Culleton Mosionier’s novel In Search of April Raintree explores the lives of two Métis sisters, April and Cheryl, growing up in Winnipeg. When the girls are taken away from their parents and sent to an orphanage overseen by Catholic nuns, they experience the pain of separation. Upon arrival, April’s and Cheryl’s hair is cut, and April worries that the staff will eat her, as the process reminds her of when her mother plucked the feathers from a hen before preparing dinner (19). When April falls ill and is admitted to the hospital, she dreams of being reunited with her parents, but these dreams are soon replaced with nightmarish visions that signal the real threat to her identity and heritage:
“I would see this huge, white doughy thing, kind of like a dumpling, and it would come at me, nearer and nearer and nearer. It would always stop just in front of me, and I felt that if it ever touched me it would engulf me, and that would be the end of me….” (22)
In “A Brief Anatomy of an Honest Attempt at a Pithy Statement about The Impact of the Manitoba Environment on My Development as an Artist,” Adele Wiseman describes her younger self as a “delicate little artist in the bud,” yet because of the difficulties she faced growing up as Jewish child in Winnipeg, she matured to be “a roseless thorn” (101). School was a place of alienation and rejection, and the feeling was acute at a food-sharing event:
“We had a celebration . . . and all the kids were supposed to bring stuff to eat. We didn’t happen to have any weekday ordinary bread in the house, so Mom made my contribution, fancy little sandwiches, out of the Holy Sabbath egg bread. They were the only ones left on the plate . . . , and both teachers looked down at the plate and then at each other as though the plate had worms on it” (101).
Perhaps most evocative of a childhood perspective on the city is Wiseman’s Old Markets, New World, which describes her memories of Winnipeg’s Farmers’ Market on North Main. Wiseman recalls the market aisle as “a place of looming backsides, off which we children caromed as off the padded walls of a roller-skating-rink. People were always bending over, searching in barrels, reaching, fingering” (15). Being small in stature, a young child was privy to an array of sounds, textures, and smells from all levels of the marketplace:
“To us below, identity smelled loud as voices. The crushed and trodden leaves and over-ripe fruit exhaled vigorous assertions, like echoes of the cries of the stall-keeper above.
‘Tomatoes!’ cried the man above. ‘Fresh garden tomatoes! Man-i-toba bee-ooties!’
‘Crushed tomato!’ echoed the ground around his stall. ‘I’m a crushed tomato!’
‘Cucumbers!’ cried the farmer. ‘Firm sweet cucumbers!’
‘Leaky!’ sang the stench below. ‘I am a leaky hollow cucumber! Give me a kick and I’ll smash apart!’” (Old Markets 16).
Only through a child’s imagination could market cucumbers sing a fetid tune! For the littlest shoppers, jostled about and close to the ground, the scene was far from appealing, yet Wiseman appreciates the central role the market played in immigrant neighbourhoods: “When we were strangers in the land we made our own welcome….To us the market-place was the least strange of all; there had always been markets” (Old Markets 15).
Writer Jack Ludwig echoes Wiseman’s sentiments about Winnpeg’s formative influence in his essay “You Always Go Home Again” in which he writes, “Nobody can measure, guess at, or even reproduce, that private spiritus mundi in which a writer’s images squirm, or repose, till necessity calls them up as epiphanies” (107). Some of the most compelling images come from “household things infused, by time and understanding, into mythic characters or summing-up symbols: a round oak table, say, scored by use and hot food spilling” (107). Ludwig’s imagination “feels most at home in Winnipeg,” and he “tries to do literary justice to the images stored deep down inside” (111). Indeed, his character Mrs. Goffman—the wealthy, Jewish woman who lives in Montreal in the novel A Woman of Her Age—is “borrowed . . . from the face of a great old lady” Ludwig remembers encountering as a very young boy living on Aberdeen Avenue in Winnipeg (110). So, it appears that an actual Winnipeg childhood can supply the necessary ingredients for a literary Montreal!
For Jack Ludwig, markets and vegetable peddlers are vivid memories of “Winnipeg’s ‘island’ slum north of the Canadian Pacific Railway yards” (“Requiem” 139). Set in 1939, his short story “Requiem for Bibul” features a hard-working teenager Bibul, along with his horse Malkeh, selling over-ripe produce to haggling housewives, while his fellow schoolmates spend their days dreaming of their futures.
Ludwig recreates the past through odours reminiscent of Wiseman’s marketplace: “[Bibul’s] smell alone argued a reality out of reach of our politely neutral, Lux, Lifebuoy, Vitalis middle-class sweetness: ‘effluvium Bibul’ we called that mixture of squashed berries, bad turnips, dank pine apple-crates, straw, chickens, sad old horsey Malkeh” (140). While the other boys imagine attending university in Toronto or Oxford, Bibul is always at work, his nose in “his peddler’s notebook red with reality’s ooze of tomato” (140). Bibul’s own dream is to enrol in Yeshiva in New York City and become a rabbi, and his diligence and business acumen make the dream a reality. Unfortunately, Bibul drowns in a swimming pool during his first summer in New York City having never learned to swim. The story ends with the narrator mourning the loss of Bibul and watching the city of Winnipeg transform as back alleys are paved over and housewives “snub” any remaining peddlers, preferring instead “the superior refrigeration of the supermarkets” (152).
Dorothy Livesay’s fictional account of her own life in A Winnipeg Childhood also captures the challenges faced by new immigrants, but from a more privileged point of view. The young protagonist Elizabeth (Livesay’s fictionalized persona) lives in relative comfort. The Manitoba Historical Society’s website tells us that “Dorothy Livesay spent some of her early years among the immigrant families of the pre-war North End and its slightly better heeled northern neighbour, St. John’s” (Kraft). Livesay’s first home was “on Inkster Boulevard, technically north of the North End in the more affluent, but still very mixed neighbourhood of St. Johns” (Kraft).
Livesay’s sketch “Anna” is a portrait of a young Polish woman hired by Elizabeth’s mother as a “‘mother’s helper’” (45). Anna accompanies the family on their summer holiday to the Lake of the Woods and is expected “to learn to cook the Canadian way, and keep the cottage clean and look after the children” (45). Elizabeth’s mother is always hiring immigrant women as domestic help, but Anna is unique in that she barely speaks English, is incredibly sad, and would “never [have] come to this country of her own free will. Her brothers had died fighting in the war; that was all the family knew about her” (45-46).
If Livesay’s story depicts the “Canadian way” of cooking and serving, then the family’s summertime meal is both impractical and unwelcoming. On a sweltering August afternoon, Anna is directed to prepare a hot dinner of roast beef, scalloped potatoes, and rhubarb crisp. Elizabeth’s mother’s constant demands drive Anna to frustration, “banging pots and pans, clattering dishes” (50). Later, the family and guests sit down, “hot and sticky” on the cottage verandah complaining of the heat, and father serves the “steaming dishes” (50). Elizabeth is sent to the kitchen to deliver Anna her solitary plate of food, but Anna is gone—the kitchen piled with dishes and the “dipper … lying on the floor” (50). Realizing Anna has left for good, Elizabeth cannot stomach the meal or dessert. The story ends hinting that Anna has gone to live with an aboriginal family who reside near the lake at Indian Point. It appears Anna has finally found her adopted home with this self-sufficient First Nations community, and not with Elizabeth’s hierarchal family and its “Canadian” ways.
While the literary fare of Winnipeg communicates sad memories and childhood traumas, there are also moments of nurturing and and delightful nourishment.
In Dorothy Livesay’s “The Guardian Angel” (also from A Winnipeg Childhood), Elizabeth enjoys visiting her Granny’s house. There, her Aunt Maudie always “‘did up’” the garden vegetables for the winter, and every September, “the bittersweet smell of her piccalilli pervaded the house” (29). “Unlike Elizabeth’s mother, Aunt Maudie loved to cook” (29), and in addition to teaching her niece how to bake and prepare sauces, there were always good meals to be had at noon:
“Savoury stew with dumplings; or steak and mashed potatoes; or ham with stewed tomatoes, sprinkled with soda crackers. After the pudding there would be a lump of maple sugar to suck. For Granny had followed her grown-up children west from the Eastern Townships—the golden country…. Yes, there just had to be maple syrup in Granny’s pantry” (30).
Shifting neighbourhoods from the North End to Saint Boniface, Gabrielle Roy’s short story “L’Italienne” from Street of Riches (originally published in French in 1955 as Rue Deschambault) provides a joyous scene of food-sharing between neighbours. Roy grew up in Saint Boniface, the heart of Winnipeg’s Franco-Manitoban community, and like Livesay, she fictionalizes her own childhood memories through a stylized self-portrait in the character Christine.
Throughout Street of Riches, Christine encounters an array of immigrants on her family’s block. She is particularly fascinated with her Italian neighbour, Giuseppe Sariano. Feeling blessed to be in what he sees as the paradise of Canada, Giuseppe works diligently to build a house for his wife, who will be joining him from Milan. Christine’s mother worries if Giuseppe has enough to eat, and Christine spies on him through the fence, spotting the contents of his tin box: bread, raw onions, and a bottle of red wine (112).
Later, Christine steals strawberries from her father’s garden and quietly feeds the luscious fruit to a sleeping Giuseppe while he takes a break from his house-building:
“So that day, that I, also, might give pleasure, I shattered discipline. I went and chose the two large strawberries which were at their best, and then for good measure—because two would not do without a third!—I plucked the fruit that was a trifle white on one side. . . . Three strawberries for a single person! Never had I purloined more than one for myself. But our Italian was so large a man!” (113).
The moment Giuseppe awakens, he tastes sweetness:
“He sat up in the grass, laughing and stretching his arms a little. And he said, as though it were my name, ‘Strawberry! Little Strawberry! Charming little Strawberry!
I instantly liked being called Strawberry, perhaps because I so little resembled one… Petite Misère suited me better. But how I liked this other name, as though I were good to eat!” (113-114).
Drawing from memories of Winnipeg, all these writers provide complex morsels for us to contemplate. The imagery is vivid, surprisingly odorous, and sometimes disturbing. Inevitably, a child’s engagement with the world—its physicality and social complexity— takes place through a discovery of food.
We will say farewell to Winnipeg for now, but we welcome your feedback. Please post below or tweet us @canlitfare
We continue our journey east. On the horizon is Canada’s largest capital city:
Winnipeg Sampling Menu
Arnason, David, and Mhari Mackintosh, eds. The Imagined City: A Literary History of Winnipeg. Winnipeg: Turnstone Press, 2005. Print.
Kraft, Scott. “Writing Immigrant Winnipeg: A Literary Map of the City through the First World War.” Manitoba History 52 (June 2006). Manitoba Historical Society. 2 June 2012. Web. 28 March 2015. <http://www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/mb_history/52/immigrantwinnipeg.shtml>
Livesay, Dorothy. A Winnipeg Childhood. Winnipeg: Peguis, 1973. Print.
Ludwig, Jack. “Requiem for Bibul.” 1960. Section Lines: A Manitoba Anthology. Ed. Mark Duncan. Winnipeg: Turnstone Press, 1988. 139-152.
– – -. “You Always Go Home.” Mosaic: Manitoba Centennial Issue 3.3 (Spring 1970): 107-111. Print.
Mosionier Culleton, Beatrice. In Search of April Raintree. 1983. Critical ed. Ec. Cheryl Suzack. Winnipeg: Portage and Main Press, 1999.
Roy, Gabrielle. Street of Riches. 1957. Trans. Henry Binsse. Toronto: McClelland, 1991.
Wiseman, Adele. “A Brief Anatomy of an Honest Attempt at a Pithy Statement about The Impact of the Manitoba Environment on My Development as an Artist.” Mosaic: Manitoba Centennial Issue 3.3 (Spring 1970): 98-106. Print.
– – – and Joe Rosenthal (illustrator). Old Markets, New World. Toronto: MacMillan, 1964. Print.
Written by: Shelley Boyd