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1957 The Grass is Never Greener by Robert Thomas Allen

When home is not a place

In 1976, my cousin Rod, then around thirty years old, was working in a sometimes odious cardboard box factory near Oshawa, Ontario.   One night, he came home to his humble, bare apartment to find a brown envelope holding an unanticipated income tax refund for just over $500.  It may have been the largest unclaimed, unencumbered lump of money he had ever seen, and it changed his life. 

Rod quit his job, stuffed his possessions into a trunk, and jumped on a train to Vancouver where he lived with me for a while on his way to California, the warm, sunny setting for the rest of his life.  He was just part of my very Canadian, rural Ontario family that made the southern U.S.  home.
Rod’s $500 life-changing story has always made me smile, and it makes it easier for me than perhaps many other early 21st century readers to accept the premise of the 11th Leacock Medal winning book The Grass is Never Greener, Robert Thomas Allen’s account of what he labeled his family’s search for “the Perfect Place to Live.” 
By the mid-1950s, Allen, born in 1911, had established himself as a fairly successful freelance “Magazine Writer,” certainly by Canadian freelance-writing standards, causing him to dream about breaking away from the routine of his downtown Toronto advertizing job.  His fantasy congealed around the prospect of selling his family’s home for a $2000 to $3,000 profit and using those proceeds to live in warmer spots in the U.S. for at least a year or so while he pursued writing assignments with newspapers and magazines.   He was equipped with a Chev with running boards and bucket seats that he had bought for $400 in his wedding year of 1934.
When I first read the liner notes and references to The Grass is Never Greener, I wondered whether it would really be a vigorous contribution to Canadian culture.  It was purportedly an account of life in the U.S., published in the U.S., promoted in the U.S. market, and labeled by the publisher as the work of a “fresh humorist” for “American readers.”
But it is very much the story of a Canadian family.   In fact, most of the book takes place in Canada: first during the set up to Bob’s plunge into itinerant, freelance employment;  then during a transition period in an Ontario cottage; then back in Toronto and a spell on a small farm outside the city.   In between, he takes his wife and two young daughters on a bumpy road trip, settling for a while in a beach house in northern Florida, then in a small Arizona town near the Mexican border, and finally to Pasadena before capitulating and heading back to Canada, temporarily.

One Canadian feature that persistently frames the travels and the tales in this book is the climate and the ongoing references to the warmth of the weather and sunshine relative to winters in Toronto.   It is the way Allen judges most places, and the tool he uses to structure many of his choices and the small adventures that ensue.
Much of the humor and gist of the stories, however, flows from concerns that are neither Canadian nor American, neither warm nor cold.  They are about children and schools, husbands and wives, making money and spending it.  The humble experiences and concerns that touched his readers and the readers of the magazines that first published excerpts from the book.
As expected, some of the humor and situations seem quaint and dated.  The comparison of pipe-smoking men and “hairdo” loving women regularly remind the reader that the setting is in a different time and place.
“There are no schools that teach men how to teach women how to drive,” Allen tells us.
Facile references to corporal punishment for children and domestic turmoil and archaic terms like “retarded” stand out as reminders that the book was the product of a different time, particularly when we know that they sit in a work by a writer who was universally remembered as “gentle and kind.”
But more often, The Grass is Never Greener is startling in the extent to which some themes and issues still resonate as eternal or have otherwise persisted in popular culture and society.   Allen’s musings on Self-Help books and the mass-marketed happiness advice of celebrities (Gene Autry was one fifties vintage personalities cited in this regard) are not much different that the satire and send ups of the current generation of simplified psychology for sale.
At times, the search for “the Perfect Place to Live” premise seems faint and far in the background to the specific stories and reflections and maybe a little contrived.  But it worked for me, in part because of my cousin Rod, but also because I knew from separate reading that Allen’s struggle over where to live was authentic and continued for most of the rest of his life. 
He and his wife really liked California from the first time they lived there, and the book ends with them back on the U.S. west coast, this time looking on the Pacific, where he recalls his family feeling that “it’s good to know we don’t have to move around anymore ... wonderful to know we can dig in, for good.”
One page later, the Editor added this note “When this manuscript went to press, the author and his family had started back to Toronto.”
But even that note did not end of the story, Allen would return to Florida repeatedly and finally settling for the last time around San Diego in 1983 where he lived out the remaining seven years of his life.
He likely found that the “Perfect Place to Live” for Robert Thomas Allen was many places and that, as he said, “the only way to get the best out of anything is to make the best of the good things you’ve got”  no matter where you are or how much ice and snow surrounds you.