I have recently read a remarkable book by a young woman who grew up in one of Canada’s slums, managed to claw her way out of it, become a social activist, and is now studying for a Ph.D.
The writer in question is Kathy Dobson, and her book, With a Closed Fist:.Growing up in Canada’s Toughest Neighbourhood (Vehicule Press, Montreal, 2011, pps 219) is one of those works that drives a coach and horses through the comfortable assumption of middle-class Canadians that they live in a nation that is tolerant of diversity, open-minded as to social problems, and one that is always striving to do the best for its citizens.
The neighbourhood in question is Pointe St. Charles, a community that lies below the autoroute as it enters Montreal, and is the English-speaking neighbour of the French-language community of St. Henri, which is probably best-known to outsiders as the site of one of the earliest, well-established, black communities in a major Canadian city, and the home of the great Canadian pianist Oscar Peterson. Dobson’s story begins in 1968 at a time when social workers from above the tracks, and young trainee doctors from McGill University, had, with the best will in the world, offered to help the residents overcome the disadvantages into which they had been born, and to improve the all-round quality of their lives. I remember something of those efforts and I described them in 1972 in my first published book, about Canadian urban problems. I very much admired the work being done by these outside social workers (I particularly remember my admiration for Joe Baker, a McGill University architecture professor, who devoted himself selflessly to this kind of uplifting work and who recently, very sadly, died after a struggle with cancer), but I find that in Kathy Dobson’s world these well-meaning outsiders were habitually described as a bunch of “perverts, lesbians and commies,” almost the only dissenter from that opinion being her own remarkable mother.
Ms. Dobson makes no effort to spare her readers’ sensibilities, and in the first pages we are immediately plunged into a description of the rats that were ubiquitous in all their homes, apparently in plague-like numbers. After one particular encounter in which a rat jumped at her mother and then jumped off her shoulder, squealing all the time while her three small daughters cowered under the blankets, she remembered her mother ranting
“about all the filth and disease a rat brings and how the asswipes at city hall needed to get their goddamn act together. ‘ Nobody gives a shit about us in the Point,’ she’d say, explaining that it was on account of our neighbourhoods being filled with welfare bums and slum landlords.”
Next morning Mum was on the phone:
“I know you bastards are dumping shit into the sewers. My kids are all going to get asthma for Christ’s sake. Even the rats don’t like it and are coughing their fucking heads off. They’re pouring out of the toilet and coming into our apartment again, and I swear to God, if one of my kids get bitten…What? Mange de la merde!....Fuck you!”
You get the idea: that is how the book starts, and that intensity is kept up through most of the two hundred pages. The family is constantly having to move from one small apartment to another, because of their failure to pay the rent, and Dad is usually off somewhere, not even living with the family most of the time, but when he is there, quarrelling with his wife, and every now and again beating her mercilessly with his belt, in front of the kids, especially when he had been drinking.
School, like every other institution, was there to be despised, except by an elder sister, who always got straight As. The Dobsons went to the English-language school, of course, and there was a regular exchange of raids between them and the Peppers, from the French-language school. When the Peppers arrived in the school yard, all the children, ignoring the teachers, rushed out to take part in the fight. Eventually the enemy would withdraw, leaving the understanding that the next invasion would be performed by the English.
Dad hates the young McGill doctors, who try to dress rough so that they might be acceptable to the people, and when they take a larger apartment to share, Dad calls it “their terrorist cell.” Nanny, Kathy’s grandmother, who deeply disapproved of her daughter’s choice of husband, thinks the doctors have to be “simple in the head or something,” to go on the way they do, trying to suck up to all the residents. “Perverts. Ignorant perverts, That’s what they are, the whole lot of them,” she says. Dad usually goes off because he says he can’t live in the filth any more (Mum’s admitted failure is she is a poor housekeeper). He keeps urging his wife to move out of the Point to Ville La Salle, but she says things wouldn't get better that way, and the only way life will improve is to stick it out and keep protesting. Eventually hanging around with the pervs, lezzies and commies pays off, when her mother gets a job in their clinic. and eventually Kathy and her sisters are offered places in a Westmount school. As she drives to school in the bus on the first day, she thinks,
“Westmount people get to live in a fucking park fulltime. I swear to God I must have seen fifteen squirrels in two minutes, running around the trees. People are walking dogs on leashes, and there aren't any chip bags or cigarette butts anywhere….A bunch of other kids get off the bus at the same stop. I want to say hello and maybe smile at them, but no one is looking so I just move with them towards the school…I know it’s just around the corner….A few seconds later I see it. It looks like a fucking castle from one of the stories Mum read to us from Aesop’s Fables. A small park in front of the school has green grass everywhere and even park benches. I can’t see any chains attached to the picnic tables. Maybe they nailed the legs straight into the ground. Mum is right, none of the kids are wearing uniforms.”
Although Kathy is amazed at the relative concern of the teachers, she is tailor-made to be a target for the contempt of the children she has fallen among: because she can’t afford jeans, her trousers become a subject of ridicule, and because she can’t afford to bring a lunch, within a month she is spending lunchtimes sitting alone outside. When her class is given an assignment to invent their own country and describe it, she writes,
“Fuck me. All I can think about is getting home so I can tell Mom I need to transfer back to my old school as soon as possible. That, or find a bridge to jump off. Me make a presentation in front of this class? A class filled with kids so smart they each know more than anybody else I’ve ever met, combined? Shit, they’ll be inventing countries better than the ones that already exist….How the fuck am I supposed to even try when I already know my project will be pure shit. Even the word ‘project’ sounds too hard and fancy already.”
And so the tale rolls on, through descriptions of the cockroaches, 2,000 of which were reputed to have fallen on the head of an inspector who entered one building to check out the rumours about them; on through a schoolgirl crush with the sympathetic teacher; through adventures around two delinquent boys from the city detention centre, sent to the Westmount school to improve their prospects; through summer camp and her pre-written letters of description; with quotes from her diary, not the one left lying around for Mom to see, but the real one, kept under a zipper in a secret place, recording her innermost secrets. As an unrelieved tale of the terrors of life in poverty, naked and unadorned, except for the unquenchable spirit that shines through both in her mother’s resolute courage, and in her own muscular, eloquent prose, this book takes a lot of beating.
Typical is her ambivalent attitude towards school. She loved some teachers, while pretending to despise them, and really hated others. One day her Mom said to her, “I’m so sick of the goddammed school calling me every single fucking day.” Then let me quit, Kathy replied. “Maybe that isn't such a bad idea,” said her mother.”What’s the point of having you registered as a student when you never go to class, never do any homework, and scare half the teachers to death?” Kathy was astonished to hear that. She thought the teachers had never even noticed her. The next day her mother called the school who agreed she could leave before her sixteenth birthday. “You win,” said her mother. ”You don't have to go back.”
Immediately, Kathy began to have second thoughts.
“I’m not a student any more. I have a job. I’m going to make money. I’m finally going to have a pair of jeans. Real jeans. Brand new even. So why do I feel so sick? ‘But Mom….Do you really think that’s such a good idea?’ ...I know that once I leave that room, once I let Mom leave the kitchen, there will be no turning back. I don’t want to go to school. But I don’t want not to go either.
“ ‘What do you mean, do I think it’s a good idea?’ asks Mom. ‘Since when do you give a flying fuck what I think?’ Mom and I have been banging heads for a long time now. I’m always telling her that she’s a fake and a hypocrite. She’s always telling me that I am way too confrontational and just a lying troublemaker. I can’t wrap my head around the idea that I’m not a student anymore. Can a person still become a writer if they drop out of high school?”
The answer, definitively, is in this book she has written, one of the most intense, truthful and terrifying pictures of poverty and its impact on the human personality that you are ever likely to read.