Lost jobs call to mind a ‘sim­pler time’

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Dou­glas J. John­ston

CANADA’S work­place has changed, and con­tin­ues to change, rapidly. The topic read­ily lends it­self to pon­der­ous so­cio-eco­nomic anal­y­sis, but Halifax au­thor jour­nal­ist John DeMont prefers a more per­sonal take on mean­ing­ful work, so he has given us a por­trait of 10 fast-fad­ing jobs, each deftly ren­dered through the prism of an in­di­vid­ual life. In his en­gag­ing pro­logue, he de­scribes how many of the jobs he did as a kid and adolescent grow­ing up in Halifax in the early 1960s — pa­per boy, gas jockey, labourer for a ship’s chan­dlery op­er­a­tion — have dis­ap­peared or all but dis­ap­peared. DeMont takes pains to de­clare he’s not a slave to the sanc­tity of the good old days of early to mid-20th cen­tury. Rather, he char­ac­ter­izes his portraits as “wist­ful dis­patches from a dis­tant era and a sim­pler time.” “The world has changed shape since then, and Canada with it,” he writes. “But the men and women in this book, in the way they make their daily bread, have stood still.” Some­times he sounds like a fusty old bug­ger, though, in fair­ness, at other times his cri­tique of the con­tem­po­rary rings true. The oc­cu­pa­tions and in­di­vid­u­als he pro­files — milk­man, lo­co­mo­tive engi­neer, trav­el­ling sales­man, large-an­i­mal ve­teri­nar­ian, black­smith, cat­tle rancher, com­mu­nity-news­pa­per publisher, used-record store owner, drive-in movie op­er­a­tor — have but one com­mon de­nom­i­na­tor: they’re van­ish­ing or are al­ready throw­backs to an ear­lier time. He’s right when he de­clares “there’s no turn­ing back in the midst of a trans­for­ma­tion of the global econ­omy ev­ery bit as sig­nif­i­cant as the In­dus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion.” This is why there’s im­plicit ur­gency un­der­lin­ing his project, which must be done now, “while there’s still time.” DeMont has writ­ten three pre­vi­ous books, in­clud­ing 2009’s Coal Black Heart, a global his­tory of ev­ery­one’s favourite fos­sil fuel. Speak­ing of fos­sils, in A Good Day’s Work, one oc­cu­pa­tion es­capes his non­fic­tion net. To tackle the job of light­house keeper, he had to re­sort to a fic­tional com­pos­ite, be­cause the Cana­dian Coast Guard blocked all ac­cess to civil-ser­vant light­house keep­ers. “We think you’re prob­a­bly go­ing to write about the de-staffing of the light­houses,” a Coast Guard spokesman told him. (Which was, more or less, true.) His sub­ject oc­cu­pa­tions, though not dis­tinctly Cana­dian, are por­trayed through peo­ple who are Canuck through and through. They’re rooted Cana­di­ans. Most are af­fixed to ru­ral land­scapes (New Brunswick’s West­mor­land County, south­east­ern Al­berta, a Que­bec coun­try­side ham­let, the Ottawa Val­ley), but some are ur­ban dwellers (Halifax, Saskatoon, Pic­ton, Ont.). No Man­i­to­bans make the cut. DeMont’s en­coun­ters with th­ese cus­to­di­ans of trades from the past are nicely drawn, fre­quently mov­ing and some­times amus­ing. And with his fo­cus on van­ish­ing cul­tural icons, he’s tapped into an oddly post-mod­ern fas­ci­na­tion with 19th and early 20th cen­tury jobs that have en­dured unto the 21st. Para­dox­i­cally, while the jobs he pro­files aren’t cut­ting-edge, his book is. Dou­glas J. John­ston is a Winnipeg lawyer

and writer.

A Good Day’s Work In Search of a Dis­ap­pear­ing

Canada By John DeMont Dou­bleday Canada, 304 pages, $30

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