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1952 - The Salt-Box by Jan Hilliard

Learning to love instability 

“I used to think that age and experience would bring more certainty to my life. But aside from some aspects of politics and the importance of comfortable pants, fewer things seem definite with the passing of time. The 1952 winner of the Leacock Medal, The Salt-Box by Jan Hilliard, reminded me that this is not such a bad thing.”

From: What’s So Funny?

Lessons from Canada’s Leacock Medal for Humour Writing         

I got a few laughs and a better appreciation for early 20th century life in rural Nova Scotia in reading the 1952 Leacock Medal winner, but the impression that lingers comes the author’s celebration of - uncertainty.

Artist Kay Grant used the pseudonym Jan Hilliard when she decided, in her early forties, to shift gears, pick up a pen, and write the story of her unsettled childhood in small-town Nova Scotia. The false name sheltered her family and friends and allowed her to sprinkle a little fiction on the largely factual.

Ramshackle Drawing of Ramschacke Salt-box

          A salt-box house with its two-storey main building and sloping extension looks like the wooden box used to store salt in colonial-era kitchens. Old salt-box buildings are common sights down East, and all of them have a ramshackle feel. But Grant’s family home enjoys a particular unstable quality--inside and out. 

Her mother dies when she is young, and afterwards, her father, an Englishman who never appreciated the charm of Nova Scotia’s wind and sea, hits the road for long periods searching for gold mines in British Columbia while leaving his five kids in the care of their Aunt Belle.  With each departure, Grant’s father pledges to strike it rich, get established, and relocate everyone to the West Coast. The family never makes the move but lives in a permanent state of uncertainty, always thinking it was about to leave for British Columbia.

View of a Salt-box from the side

 In The Salt-Box, Grant clearly wants to focus on the positive in her early days and the affection she feels for idiosyncratic personalities. The book not only accepts an imperfect childhood, it celebrates instability and the possibility of change, and, again, prods readers like me with a reminder that we should reconsider any yearning for death-and-taxes-style certainty in life.      

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