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1971 Leacock Medal - Children, Wives, and Other Wildlife

Some Stuff by Robert Thomas Allen

“Sorry, we don’t hire women here.”  I cringe remembering how many times that phrase slid across my lips. In the 1970s, I helped manage a forestry company that worked out of remote camps with crews sharing tents for weeks on end.  We didn’t think and used working conditions to justify our policy.

The same cringing sensation gripped by neck this year when I pulled the 1971 Leacock Medal book down from the shelf and looked at the cover. Children, Wives, and Other Wildlife by Robert Thomas Allen seemingly bundles adult women with things childlike and untamed.  Allen produced the book in an era when the law still permitted gender discrimination in the workplace.[i]  People like me merrily abided by it.

 Allen, however, sat on the other side of the fence, and his book may actually have been mocking sexism with its title.   While capable of playing with gender stereotypes, Allen had no patience with male chauvinism.

“The next time I see a guy sitting behind a wheel honking at a woman driver, then shaking his head slowly and looking over at me with a long-suffering smile as if we belong to some secret club,” he says. “I’m going to go over and start letting the air out of his tires, just so that he won’t get the idea that I agree with him.”

His essays on “wives” are satirical and sometimes silly, but also a celebration of women who support, care, and struggle without abundant appreciation. 

Like most essay collections, Children tries to categorize the pieces but is really a mixture.  His subjects include schools and learning, the lot of women, the humane treatment of wild animals, the natural environment, encroachments on cottage country, and a curmudgeon grab bag of “All Kinds of Complaints” illustrated by Toronto Star cartoonist Duncan MacPherson. 

Still, all of them are thoughtful and progressive for the times.

Allen was my age, 60, and liable to the toxins of bias and nostalgia when this second Leacock book was published. But he keeps an open mind, lives more outside of his era than within it, and finds funniness in the arduous task of clear thinking. 

He sounds a lot more thoughtful than he did in his first Leacock Medal book, the Grass is Never Greener.  Fourteen years had passed, and Allen spent that time as a freelance writer, outside the office world, and working hard as a professional observer of life.

Like a sociologist doing field work, he studies everyone, including his daughters, with a scientific and analytical eye.  He sits in a classroom for a methodical examination of humour.  Little children know intuitively that it’s funny when someone breaks wind, when adults fall down (“Dear Aunt Florence: Last night Daddy fell over a duck,” Allen’s daughter writes in her first work of written humour), or when friends act silly (one boy induces hysteria whenever he does “a little pivot” and announces “I’m a strawberry pie”).

But Allen learns that children have a rougher time with jokes that require the context of prior knowledge, society, and cultural associations, and they, unnervingly, base their judgments on a parent’s reactions. 

His daughter reads to her family at dinner from a book of riddles. 

“When is a door not a door?” she asks.   Allen invites her to share the answer, she says “When it’s upstairs.”  Other family members scratch their heads trying to understand why a door can’t be a door when it’s upstairs. Then the novice humorist says, “Oh. That was for another joke. It’s -When it’s ajar.” At this point, the adults get it, and the little girl smiles with contentment.  A few minutes pass, then she asks “What does ajar mean?”

Thinking about these exchanges cause Allen to recall his own school days, his own biases, and what he thinks is funny, concluding that “the humor in a joke doesn’t come from the joke itself, but from a lot of mental pictures, ideas, feelings, and associations that the joke suggests” and that people have their own peculiar associations aligned to gender, age, culture, and their times.  He thought as much as he wrote.

If I was propelled back to the 1970s, I would (after advising the twenty-something me to think harder and figure out how to accommodate women forestry technicians) tell Allen’s publishers to drop the Wives and Wildlife title and use an unbiased, more enduring one: something like “A Bunch of Thoughtful Stuff by Robert Thomas Allen.”

[i]  The book was published in the same year the Report of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada was released (December 1970).  The Report initiated changes in these laws.