A Good Day's Work, subtitled In Pursuit of a Disappearing Canada is a one-of-a-kind work and an important book.
The author is John DeMont, a senior member and columnist for the Halifax Chronicle-Herald, an award-winning author and a well-known journalist. It’s published by Doubleday Canada ($32.95), and it’s to be hoped it will soon appear in paperback since as many Canadians as possible need to read it. Probably some people in other countries need to read it as well. It’s a “nostalgia trip,” as well as a warning and a challenge.
Certainly all the types of work described in this book were much more common at one time than they are now — milkman, manager of a drive-in theatre, editor of a small-town newspaper, blacksmith and so on.
DeMont travels the country looking for businesses that are carrying on, still playing a useful part but may not last past this generation. “This book,” he says, “is the quest to distill some essence of our shared experience through people who make their living the time-honoured way.”
In addition to the occupations already mentioned, he does in-depth interviews with ranchers, locomotive engineers and travelling salesmen, as well as a vet, a man who sells vinyl records and a lighthouse keeper.
These interviews are not superficial 10- or 15-minute affairs. They often seem to last an entire day. For instance, in the case of the vet, Jessica Harvey-Chappell, who works exclusively with farm animals in southeast New Brunswick, the author starts with a picture of her at work in a cow barn. Then he sketches her office, her helpers, the provincial Department of Agriculture, her employer — in short, her complete background. Then DeMont and Jessica go on her rounds. First she checks a number of cows to see which are pregnant. Then she takes the stitches out of a wound on a skittish young mare (a two-vet job). Then she attends a foaling where the little animal has come out of his mother, but the afterbirth hasn’t.
“Jessica, who has already put in a day that's as physical as a stevedore’s, hasn’t had a full meal since breakfast.”
Asked what she likes about this work, she says, in part, “I like helping farmers...I like cows and horses and find working with them rewarding.”
The point the author’s making is all these people are doing worthwhile jobs on a small scale for a local community. If they die out, something essential will go.
What can we do to preserve them, let alone increase them? DeMont doesn’t tackle this question. But we should. That’s why A Good Day’s Work is an important book, well worth the price.
Elizabeth Cran is a freelance writer who writes a book review column for The Guardian. To comment or to send her books to review, write 111 Sydney St., Apt. 17, Saint John, N.B., E2L 2L8, or call her at 506-693-5498.