Do you remember The White Cat and the Monk? It’s possible you don’t, so I won’t mind at all if you take a moment to refresh your memory, paying particular attention to the wonderful illustrations by Sydney Smith.
Well, today I happened to have a few minutes to spare while I was waiting to meet a friend in Harvard Square, so I happened to saunter into the Harvard Book Store, and I happened to end up in the picture book section where I happened across this book: Town Is by the Sea, by Joanne Schwartz, illustrated by the said Sydney Smith. And then I happened to find myself at the cash register, buying it. That sort of thing happens to happen.
Dear readers, I have so much work to do, but I couldn’t resist telling you about this book, so bear with me if I rhapsodize a little and turn a bit Canadian on you. I’ll be brief.
Have you read any stories by Alistair MacLeod, the great Canadian novelist and short story author? If you haven’t, I’m really, terribly sorry. Start with any of his short stories– I remember enjoying his collection Island. If you have, believe me when I say that if Alistair MacLeod had written a picture book, it would have been something like this one, and that’s about as high a compliment as I can pay anyone. This book shares his literary qualities: it has the same beautiful blurring of light and dark, joy and sadness you find in his work: not something you normally expect to find in a children’s picture book, and requiring extra skill to navigate without completely bypassing a child’s comprehension. Joanne Schwartz, originally from Cape Breton and now living in Toronto, has that extra skill.
Let me tell you a little bit about Town Is by the Sea. First of all, it’s a Cape Breton story, dealing with the sea and with the coal mines. It’s told from the perspective of a little boy running through his summer day: all day he enjoys the sun sparkling on the sea while his father is deep in the darkness of the mines. There are moments of homelike peace (his lunch, the chicken stew for supper), and moments of childlike joy (swinging with his friend at the ramshackle playground).
And there’s poetry. Take the opening: “From my house I can see the sea. It goes like this– house, road, grassy cliff, sea.” Read that aloud and tell me that Joanne Schwartz wasn’t paying some attention to the cadence of her words. Apparently she’s a children’s librarian, and I swear it comes through; she has the ear of someone who’s read lots of children’s books aloud in her day. That poetry of sound binds together the book, both the light of the boy’s day and the darkness of the father’s, and then, at the end of the day, the peace of the family sitting together, overlooking the sea. Until the ending: “I think about the sea, and I think about my father. I think about the bright days of summer and the dark tunnels underground. One day, it will be my turn. I’m a miner’s son. In my town, that’s the way it goes.”
I swear I choked up when I was reading that to the Changeling. Times turned and things changed, but, as the author’s note at the end of the book says, “Even into the 1950s, around the time when this story takes place, boys of high-school age, carrying on the traditions of their fathers and grandfathers, continued to see their future working in the mines. This was the legacy of a mining town.” And we know how dark, grueling, and unhealthy that work was.
If the poetry of the language draws together the light and dark of the book, the illustrations both delicately highlight the distinctions and pull the book together into a harmonious whole. Sydney Smith was the ideal illustrator for this task: his rough, sketchy style deliberately resists romanticizing the scenes he’s depicting, and his palette for the home scenes is even a little muted, I could even say drab– until he gets to the sea and the flowers at the grave of the boy’s grandfather. Those stand out in warm colour. The mining scenes, by contrast, are completely, unapologetically dark. Black, relieved only by the light from the miner’s helmets. And yet, even the muted home scenes and the black mines have a beauty under his brush (“ink, watercolor, and a bit of gouache,” according to the book’s notes).
Altogether, then, this is a book of genius. This tender, but unrelentingly realistic, Canadian story is not just for Canadians, and I was thrilled to see it in a Boston store. It’s a story for anyone who’s grown up by the sea, or loves the sea. It’s a story for anyone who knows the grim story behind a coal mine. It’s a story for any child who misses a parent at work. It’s a story for anyone who loves to see the beauty emerge from a realistic story. It’s Hard Times or North and South, but aimed at children.
My recommendation? Grab some Alistair MacLeod for yourself and a copy of Town Is by the Sea for your children, then go for a vacation to Cape Breton, or, if you can’t make it to Cape Breton, a seashore of your choice. And then lie on the sand and read. Enjoy.
(Note: This book was way too old for the Changeling, who’s nearly four years old, although she enjoyed it. I just read it to her because I wanted to read it aloud and hear the words sing. I think six or seven might be a better age for this book, or, of course, just read it for yourself. I’m thirty, and it was perfect for me!)