"Goodbye, Tilling, and good luck," said the principal, Mr. J. K. Cornish, proffering his hand.
"Talking like that borders on the sentimental, and nobody should get eulogistic over a slum."
Preface to 1968 edition
"The trouble with you, Ken, is that you're a rebel, and for a negative reason. It may sound funny but real rebels never make good revolutionaries."
The dawn is in the crease of his trousers and in the new-appeared eyelets of his shoes. The dawn is in the new shapes around him and in the lighted fields. The dawn is a widened earth—a populated earth. The dawn is not only the beginning of the day, but the ending of the night.
Rough-hewn Canuck classic
Arguably the greatest Canadian novel at the time of its re-publication in 1968 in its restored form, Cabbagetown has since been read all over the world. And it is a marvellous book.
Yet, it's also clear the author Hugh Garner is not a naturally fluent writer. Competent, moving at times, a natural story-teller perhaps—but not facile.
Note the opening sentence. This is the style of a hard-working writer who puts it all up front. Here's the story. Now read it.
He's not above telling the reader what's happened. He's not above explaining what's going on in a character's mind. He stoops to clichéd expressions when they fit. His writing is full of rough edges that finer writers would have smoothed away.
But few of those finer writers could deliver the gritty characters Garner does. Or the realistic setting. Or the story of the impoverished lives intertwining in Depression-era Toronto. Garner is seldom sentimental—as his main character Ken Trilling notes, "nobody should get eulogistic over a slum"—but he makes us care about his realistic, hard-bitten, but still dreaming, characters. We get caught up in their schemes and agonize over their conflicts.
They try various ways to escape their lowly fates, often by means that skirt or break the laws of the land. Trilling, an obvious stand-in for the author, eventually makes his way to Spain to fight for the republican cause under the Communist-led Brigades. His journey has led Cabbagetown's Trilling to be compared with The Grapes of Wrath's Tom Joad.
The novel's not nearly that good. But it's pretty good. And some parts are brilliant. The last few paragraphs are especially well written and moving.
But the image that stays with you is that of the Cabbagetown from which Trilling escaped. It's a place of great sadness and resignation, but also of humanity that loves and laughs and cries, and hopes for a better future.
The Cabbagetown of which Garner wrote was later bulldozed and replaced in Toronto with Regent Park housing development, more like a planned slum, which is in turn, at this time of writing, being replaced again by another urban development. The Toronto area now known as "Old Cabbagetown" is just north of the Cabbagetown of the novel and has long been gentrified into a fashionable, middle-class community. I actually lived there for two years as a student when the spreading yuppies and the remaining working-class residents were sharing streets, before the former took over completely.
No one, I recall, eulogized the former neighbourhood to the south. Though it is easy to empathize with its former residents in a novel as bluntly truthful as Cabbagetown.