Total Pageviews

1972 - The Mountie's Car by Max Braithwaite

Why read the Teacher

“Writhed in discontent” seems like a pretty good way to describe some working lives. 

The phrase jumps out of the opening passage to Max Braithwaite’s The Night We stole the Mounties Car, the 1972 Leacock Medal winner.  Braithwaite’s appointment as a school vice-principal in the prairie town of Wannego causes the writhing.[i]  He says the $750 per year position constituted “the pinnacle of (his) career as a school-teacher.”   But after getting the job, he immediately sets out to leave the teaching profession and to “get to hell out of Saskatchewan altogether.”  He wants to be a writer and with his book, he tells us what it takes to become one.  Persistence.

He writes short stories and sends them off in the mail; he reads Writer’s Digest and digests its counsel; he ponders over rejection letters.  But, most of all, he keeps trying even though ”scowls and grunts” tell him that writing fiction was beyond the town’s pale and “that there in Wannego they didn’t take kindly to people who carried on in such a crazy way.”

His failures piled up, and even his successes crushed him with their pennies and dimes meagerness. 

But Braithwaite not only had commitment, but techniques that allowed him to persevere.  One trick was to have an unflinchingly supportive spouse and another was to focus on any crumb of encouragement.  Even being referred to as “a writer” buoys him.

With this, he finds a way to pursue his dream and, at the same time, endure his day job. He joins community clubs, leads school events, and gives his job his working-hours best, modeling his principal, who didn’t like teaching either but believed that “anything worth doing was worth doing well.”

Readers who would be writers will recognize his novice experience. He tries out scenarios that seem fresh and new to him, but are tired and worn to most editors.  He submits essays that are interesting, but do not amount to stories.  As his attempts continue, his skills grow, and he eventually stretches himself with themes like fictional child abuse and manages empathy for vile characters like bankers. 

He recognizes that as much as writing appeals to him instinctively, he’s not skilled and can learn a lot from Roget’s Thesaurus and the rules of Fowler’s Modern English Usage.  He also attacks the Saskatoon Public Library stacks and some of what seemed like “one million four hundred and eighty-four books ... on  …the Art of the Short Story.” 

The teacher-author’s lack of a university degree haunts him, and he toys with returning to school part-time.  But decides to save his 5 AM free time for writing, believing that as worthy as books on writing are, “none of them will write a story for you.”

And so he persists, studies, and practices on his own, motivated by the feeling that even though he lacked technical skill, he was a writer at heart: “a person who pays attention, who ponders, who considers, who assesses...(and) ... wonders why. Why is that woman doing that? How did she get that way anyway? What would happen if she were to do this instead of that?” 

Ironically, Braithwaite gets his big break by blending what skill he has with the subject before his eyes, the one he knows best, and the one he had viewed as the barrier to his writing career.  He co-writes and successfully submits a job-risking report on the state of the education system in Saskatchewan to MacLean’s magazine. 

The “borrowed” Mountie car episode is consistent with the characters and 1930s small town Saskatchewan, but it does not immediately strike you as being pivotal in a way that would warrant its uses in the book title as the symbol to represent the whole story. In fact, Braithwaite cites another incident, the death of an unknown elderly woman in Victoria, as the episode that changed his life.[ii] 

Yet stealing the Mountie’s car, even for a ride of a few blocks, was a risky act that paralleled his dive into writing and was an act that resulted in a night in jail that jeopardized the respect essential to a career as a school teacher.  It was also funny and may have been exemplary of this taking-a-chance-and-going-for-it story after all. 

 “Good humorous writing requires detachment,” Braithwaite he says reflecting on these stories near the end of the book. “The writer must be far enough removed from the situation so that he can view it calmly in retrospect and not use words like bastard and sonofabitch in describing it.” 

Even though Max Braithwaite left teaching, he obviously remained a teacher.[iii]  In writing the stories of The Mountie’s Car [iv]  with that bemused detachment, he instructed thousands on the craft and commitment required of writers.  

[i]  The name Wannego is made up. Braithwaite was born in Nokomis, Saskatchewan on 7 December 1911;  One of 8 children, he was raised in Prince Albert and Saskatoon, and attended  the University of Saskatchewan.  
[ii] He taught in rural schools from 1933 to 1940 when he joined the navy and was sent to Toronto with the Royal Canadian Volunteer Services. Discharged in 1945, he remained in Ontario and worked as a freelance writer. He died in Brighton, Ontario on 19 March 1995.
[iii] Braithwaite even pioneered educational broadcasting with a radio series called "Voices of the Wild".

[iv]  He wrote plays for radio and TV, scripts for theatre and film, and produced over 25 books. He wrote the first radio adaptation of  Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town.  For a collection of his work see Max: The Best of Braithwaite (1983)    He is best known for Why Shoot the Teacher? (1965), later a successful, by Canadian standards, movie.  The book was part of a trilogy that included - Never Sleep Three in a Bed (1969), and The Night We Stole the Mountie's Car (1971).  Depression era themes were also the basis of another Braithwaite book,  In All the Way Home (1986).