Few early stars of Canadian literature have faded as completely as Hugh Garner, whose prominence stretched over three decades following World War II.
Garner is best known for his novel of the Toronto working class, Cabbagetown, which first appeared in 1950, and his staying power as a short story writer was acknowledged in 1963 when his collection Hugh Garner’s Best Stories won the Governor General’s Award. Garner reigned over Canadian literature in the pre-Atwood, pre-Ondaatje era, alongside Morley Callaghan, another Toronto hard-liver whose legend included a knock-out punch in the boxing ring with Ernest Hemingway.
Garner’s career began in 1949 with the publication of his first novel, Storm Below, which was based on the author’s experiences in the Canadian Navy between 1941 and ’43. In it, he follows the “Canadian Flower Class Corvette, H.M.C.S. Riverford” on a mission to protect a convoy of merchant ships crossing the Atlantic for Newfoundland. As the crew goes about its business, German U-boats torpedo nearby Allied ships.
Storm Below did about as well as a Canadian novel of the period could be expected to. Garner’s publisher offered him a $500 advance, a third of which he spent on an Underwood “Noiseless” typewriter, which he used for much of his career. The novel sold 1,400 copies in hardcover; more than 20,000 in paperback; and was bought for serialization by the Montreal Standard, the Newark Evening News and the Chicago Sun-Times.
This success paled, however, beside the popularity of Gwethalyn Graham’s wartime novel of anti-Semitism in Westmount, Earth and High Heaven, which sold a million and a half copies, including 350,000 produced for distribution among the U.S. armed forces. Graham’s book, rightfully, was reviewed and read in light of its effort to treat the plight of Jews in contemporary society, as well as to present a Canadian version of this dilemma.
Storm Below has its own surprising Jewish subplot, though its role in the novel was little commented on by reviewers, nor was it revisited by Garner in his memoiristic writing in late career. The surprise in Storm Below is the appearance of naval officer Winfield Harris, who, despite his unlikely name, is the son of a kosher delicatessen owner from Winnipeg. The crew of the Riverford is a mostly Anglo, central-Canadian bunch. One Quebecer, dubbed Frenchy, comes in for his share of harsh jeers, and westerners – sometimes called Cowboy – make up their own little-seen, joked about minority.
Lt.Harris attracts special consideration, in particular from an officer named Smith-Rawleigh, who proves to be the worst of the Riverford’s complement of men: “Studying the tide tables,” Smith-Rawleigh says to himself, “even in the navy their Jewishness made them scheme and study to get ahead. Not that Harris was the worst type of Jew, but still it was a bit thick having to acknowledge him as a superior.”
Garner depicts the captain of the Riverford – an otherwise solid figure of quiet heroism – musing in response to Harris’ easy way with ship-board lingo: “There was something a little distasteful about Harris using such Anglicisms, thought the captain. Hard lines! Still, the language was free. God knows there weren’t many things free to a Jew these days – in Europe, of course.”
Like a lot of wartime literature and film, Garner’s focus on the good guys leaves the wartime enemy largely offstage. Exactly what is happening to Jews in Europe is largely unmentioned, aside from an acknowledgment in the novel’s prologue, where Garner nails down the book’s beginning at “dawn of March 9th, 1943” and then lists the “many ways” one might die that day – “in the gas chambers at Osweicim, on the spittle-caking roads of North Africa, in a birth-bed in the Queen Mary Maternity Hospital in Sheffield.”
At key moments in Storm Below, the reader feels that Garner hasn’t figured out what it is he wants to tell his readers about Jews, whether aboard a Canadian Navy corvette or in Europe. In particular, the captain’s musings, which have a sympathetic tone, reveal an underlying class consideration. The shock expressed is over the likelihood that during wartime, people who would not otherwise work together or socialize, might find themselves in intimate quarters.
In a strange and awkwardly written climactic scene, Lt. Harris responds in quiet panic to being called a dirty Jew: “I wish that I were the same as you fellows are… I’m sorry that I’m a Jew… I’m ashamed of being a Jew. Do you know what I’d like to be for a while? I’ll tell you, I’d like to be a God-damn, white, gentile, Anglo-Saxon.”
One wonders what Garner thought he was up to with this. It’s likely that he wasn’t too sure himself and his editors had no competency to help him find out. He might have been taking Graham’s lead and aiming for an up-to-date examination of contemporary Canadian xenophobia. But much of what he offers is half-baked. In 1949, as a young man just out of the navy and making his way in a still unformed Canadian literary scene, Garner took a stab at difficult material and came up with something a bit embarrassing. But in Canadian writing it was a new theme, soon to become an important one, and Garner unwittingly helped prepare the way for major work in the 1950s and ’60s.
Norman Ravvin’s books include the novel, Lola by Night, and the story collection Sex, Skyscrapers and Standard Yiddish. He is chair of the Concordia University Institute for Canadian Jewish Studies.