Review by Frank Moher
My father, who was a sportswriter in Alberta for about three decades beginning in the late 1930s, had a simple brush-off for some of the young journalists who started popping up late in his life: “bush-league,” he’d call them.
I’m not sure exactly what it was about them that irritated him, but I expect it had something to do with a certain heartlessness in their writing, and the fact that they regarded journalism as a “profession,” like being a doctor or an accountant. Their jobs and their lives were not one.
James Gray wasn’t bush-league.
Gray was of an even earlier vintage than my Dad. As Calgary author (and sometime backofthebook.ca contributor) Brian Brennan tells us in this valuable, astute biography, Gray-the-man and Gray-the-newspaperman were both products of the depression. Born in 1906 to an alcoholic father and illiterate mother, he grew up from age five in the north end of Winnipeg. By 1931, he was living on unemployment relief with a young family of his own when he came across some back issues of the American Mercury and decided to submit a freelance article on horse doping. He had no writing experience, but, as he later wrote, “The libraries were full of books by the unqualified — Joseph Conrad, Mark Twain, Robert Service . . . .”
The horse doping article never ran, but an encouraging note from an editor set Gray on his life course. And if he never quite wrote himself into the Conrad/Twain/Service pantheon, he did proceed, after a long stint at the Winnipeg Free Press (which provides Brennan with some of his best, Front Page-esque material), to pioneer the position of popular historian in Canada. His first book, The Winter Years, about the Depression on the Prairies (and imagine trying to sell that topic to Toronto publishers), firmly marked his territory: western Canada and its people.
Unlike his fellow pioneer, Pierre Berton, whose books eventually became not-very-subtle exercises in national propaganda, Gray preferred the human to the monumental; no myth-maker he. In fact, in books like The Boy from Winnipeg and Troublemaker!, his focus narrowed to perhaps his best subject: himself. In either mode, historian or memoirist, he was a terrific stylist, ideas and good humour whipping through his sentences. “That I should ever have been among those who agonized over enlisting certainly contradicts the theory of the dominance of environmental influences,” he writes in Troublemaker!, a sort of autobiographical pout-pourri. “A boy of eight when the First World War started, I had my childhood enthusiasm for war and the trappings of military display neutralized, rather painfully at times, by the anti-war attitude of my father. A one-armed, forty-five-year-old father of three, he would have been conscription-proof if the German navy had sailed up the Red River to Winnipeg. Yet he was adamantly opposed to the war from the beginning . . . . The schools of the First World War were handy disposal sites for leftover propaganda, and I soon learned that the better part of valour was never to let my father catch me with it.”
Biographer Brennan doesn’t write with the same high-spirits as his subject, but his book is a neat stitching together of original research and Gray’s self-anatomy, always treated with appropriate scepticism. How the West was Written reminds us just what a seminal figure in western Canadian literature James H. Gray was; unassumingly, he wrote an entire culture into being, and in the process validated the experience of its people.