Saturday, November 19, 2011

Book review: advice for the coming depression, from a survivor

James Henry Gray (d. 12 November 1998) was a Canadian journalist, historian and author. Born in rural Manitoba in 1906, he moved to Winnipeg with his parents at age 5. At 16, he dropped out of school and went to work as a messenger boy at the Winnipeg Grain Exchange. Over the next eight years, he worked as an office clerk, bookkeeper, statistician and grain trader.

Then, in 1930, he became a victim of what we now call the Great Depression. He tried his luck at a number of jobs and business ventures, failed every time, and was finally forced to go on relief, on which he lived for the next four years. During that time, he upgraded his education by reading library books on politics, religion and economics, with a view to becoming a freelance writer.

And a fine writer he became. Between 1966 and 1991 he wrote a dozen books about his experiences and the world he saw around him on Canada's prairies. His works of social history became so popular as to see him made a Member of the Order of Canada.

This week Walt blew the dust off James Gray's first book, The Winter Years (Macmillan, 1966). In it, he describes how it felt to be one of the thousands of unemployed and destitute in Winnipeg during the early 30s. He stood in line for relief vouchers to support his young family. And, with other men, he experienced "workfare" -- picking dandelions in city parks.

When he finally got work as a cub reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press, he was dramatically caught up in the general unrest and bewilderment, as indignant men sought answers from governments. Of course the governments had no answers, just as they have no answers to the same questions eighty years later.

Getting no answers and precious little help, men rioted in Winnipeg and Regina, and headed for Ottawa in freight cars. We see echos of that time and that frustration in today's "Occupy movements".

The Winter Years tells how ordinary people, and thus the country, survived -- not by dint of government intervention but by the courage and resourcefulness of the human spirit. Gray sums up his philosophy neatly in the last paragraph of the introduction.

The depression brought out more of the best than it did the worst in people; that people, if left alone, tend to work out their own problems for themselves; that expert advice, particularly in economic matters, is most useful when it is completely ignored....

The emphasis is mine. The Winter Years is well worth reading not as history but as prediction. I'd like to send a copy to our political bosses and economic czars. Perhaps they could avoid having to learn the same lessons one more painful time.

Other good books by James H. Gray include: Men Against the Desert (1967); Red Lights on the Prairies (1971); Booze – When Whisky Ruled the West (1972); and The Roar of the Twenties (1975).

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