Every town has its own strain of a Chekhov short story. In northern Ontario, historian Stacey Zembrzycki revisits her hometown to interview oldtimers on the Ukrainian-Canadian experience. One elderly man in a wheelchair recounts his father’s death in 1932.
“‘What happened?’ I asked. ‘It was an accident,’ Paul began. ‘At the mine?’ I wondered. ‘No…He went with his friends to drink, and drinking some moonshine from Montreal, he caught on fire.’ ‘Oh God,’ Baba whispered. Paul fell silent. ‘Nobody found out who because they put him out on the sidewalk…They hushed it up,’ Paul muttered.”
A long-ago homicide in a small city still burns. It’s an arresting moment in According To Baba, a compelling oral history of working people in Sudbury before the war. Zembrzycki and her grandmother Olga journey from home to home, interviewing witnesses to an era now vanished.
Oral histories chronicle extraordinary events in ordinary lives. These are stories erased from government accounts and most scholarly records. The tradition in the English language dates from Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor in 1851. Mayhew, a co-founder of Punch magazine, interviewed match sellers and chimney sweeps to chronicle Victorian life as it was never depicted in official histories.
According To Baba is a celebration of this tradition. Zembrzycki, like Mayhew, seeks out everyday people for memories of everyday life. The result is a compelling human story of pride and petty grievance; survival and sorrow; and local dramas never forgotten.
Elena recalls being beaten by a teacher for speaking Ukrainian in class: “I just didn’t know any better.” Peter remembers his mother bootlegging liquor out of their boarding house: “She signed her name with an X but you couldn’t fool her when it came to numbers.” One interviewee recounts to the penny the family mortgage payment, $42.25 a month: “I’ll never forget that as long as I live”; another tells of her mother’s visits to Anglican Church teas to see how Anglo-Protestants served guests: “She bought a tea set to ‘practice’ pouring tea properly.”
Writes Zembrzycki: “Interviewees often spoke about their mothers. Having come of age during the Depression, most of them stressed that it was like any other time in their childhoods – difficult – and that their mothers developed and heavily relied upon various coping strategies to get them through each day. As recent immigrants of humble and poor rural backgrounds, they were accustomed to subsistence living and penny capitalism.”
And – when you least expect it – another Chekhov story lurks around the corner.
Anne recalls attending Mass with her family one Sunday when a woman ran into church with a baby, screaming: “It’s his! It’s his!”: “She placed the baby on the altar and ran out again, shouting, ‘Don’t listen to him, he’s a liar!’”
The priest later quietly left the parish, and became a lawyer.
By Holly Doan
According To Baba: A Collaborative Oral History Of Sudbury’s Ukrainian Community, by Stacey Zembrzycki; University of British Columbia Press; 252 pages; ISBN 9780-7748-26969; $32.95