1964 - Homebrew and Patches by Harry J. Boyle

 


The smell of manure never faded, chores filled their days, and, except for an orange “all the way from Florida” one Christmas, few luxuries visited their home.  Yet my aunts, uncles, and mother managed to pass through the Great Depression and into adulthood with their sense of humour intact. They even laughed about those years and felt privileged to have spent them on an Ontario farm.

 
At a similar place, over two hundred miles to the west near Goderich, Harry J. Boyle[i] was absorbing the stories and meeting the characters that he would, decades later, package in the 1964 Leacock Medal winner Homebrew and Patches.[ii]  Having grown up with similar places and people around me, I was ready to accept Boyle’s stories as true. 
This might have been a little naïve, but also not really relevant.
 
Harry Boyle would go on to write many other books, win many awards, and become one of Canada's top broadcasting personalities.  But when this book was published, he was still a relatively new writer and the dates and details of his own life were not widely known.  His one previous book, Mostly in Clover, described the life of a young boy in rural Ontario during the 1920’s. It demanded a sequel. Patches met that need by following the same boy, regularly presumed to be the young Boyle himself, into the 1930s, and adolescence.  
At the opening of the book, Boyle charges that while many regarded the Depression years as the bleak “Dirty Thirties,” this was only part of the experience.  He said that it was a mix of good and bad, sad and amusing.  Many of Boyle’s stories made readers smile because they celebrated neighbourliness and efforts to “make do” by putting “patches on patches.”
 ut more often this book finds humour within the tough times by focusing on features of life that unfold largely independent of the economic circumstance.  The rites of passage for a teenager with one foot on his path to the future as well as one on that family farm.  It tells of experimentation with shaving, tobacco, alcohol-laced medications, school dances, and the opposite sex.  Most farm boys learned “a little by observation, gleaned some more information from older boys who were probably as ignorant as ourselves and listened carefully to the talk of the threshing gang” adding that all of this was at least better than a dreaded “man-to-man” talk with your dad. 
When a local teen pregnancy and hurried marriage forced the issue, the narrating writer’s father sits down next to his son and says “Been meaning to have a talk with you ...urr ... Anything you want to—is there—well—I mean—do you have anything on your mind? ...(you will be) going to town next year and you’ll be- be —  Meeting girls ... there’s a few things ya got to remember ... (silence) ...That was too bad about Bert and Janey ... Those things happen and they don’t do anybody any good ... course they got married ... Now you got to watch out for that sort of thing.”
Then the older participant in the conversation stood up in relief and said, in words that could have fallen from any farm father’s mouth, “Well, I’m going back to see if the cattle have enough salt. I’m might’ glad we had this talk.”
 And the painful event was over for both son and father.
When Homebrew and Patches was published, reviewers praised Boyle’s ability to recall such conversations and detailed descriptions of people and events from many years before. Most readers assumed the stories to be true.  But there is a good reason to think Boyle made a lot of it up.  One is, ironically, the detail of the recollections.  I’m sure, even under deep hypnosis, I could not recall the specifics of conversations and events of two weeks ago like Boyle did with respect to events three decades earlier.
 
Another reason for doubt is the timeframe itself.  Although told in the first person with persistent references to “my mother,”my father,” and “me” throughout, the book does not match the exact chronology of the author’s own life.  Boyle was born in 1915 and would have been well into his late teens by the time the fingers of the economic collapse reached into rural Southwestern Ontario. The real life Boyle, who got his first job at a radio station at the age of sixteen, was off to college[iii] and the working world not on the farm.[iv]
He could make his stories detailed and authentic sounding not because he lived all of them, but because he focused on those things that never change, are as vivid as yesterday, and are humorous no matter when they take place.

Some reviews of Homebrew and Patches suggest it is best considered as a mix of reminiscences and fiction.  Even the publisher seemed to purposely confuse the issue in the jacket notes on my copy of the book.  But measured against what Boyle’s primary goals - disrupting our view of the Depression and making us smile - it matters little. 


[i] Harry J. Boyle was born at the village of St. Augustine, near Goderich  in 1915; he died in Toronto on 22 January 2005.


[ii] His second Leacock Medal came in 1975 for a novel, The Luck of the Irish.


[iii] Boyle finished high school in 1931 and went to college in Waterloo.   While still in his teens, he published his own magazine and worked as a newspaper stringer for papers that included the London Free Press and the Toronto Globe and Mail.


[iv] His first assignment with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, after joining it in 1942, was as a farm commentator.   Later he was promoted to Programme Director of the Trans-Canada Network and Executive Producer for Television.  In 1968, he joined the Canadian Radio Television Commission (CRTC) and was later appointed CRTC Chair.

 


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