Friday, July 15, 2011


A minor Canadian classic, this book provides a sobering look at a time when Canada was not a prosperous country. It takes place during the Depression in a part of Toronto that was once a slum. Everyone is down on their luck, and for a group of teens entering adulthood, things generally go from bad to worse.

The main character is anti-hero Ken Tilling, who yearns for Myrla Patson until he discovers that she's pregnant. He leaves town in a boxcar and leads the life of a hobo. He's beaten up by railroad bulls, earns pennies a day harvesting crops, and develops left-wing leanings. His simmering anger is directed at government and big business.

An unsavoury affair continues Myrla's descent, which ends with her walking the streets. Bob McIsaacs moves from a life of petty crime to more serious offenses, a prison break, and a hail of bullets. Billy Addington works in a candy factory over vats of boiling chocolate despite being so malnourished that he has fainting spells. (You can guess what happens next.) Theodore East is a little better off than the others, but in seeking to escape Cabbagetown falls in with nasty anti-Semites and effete pseudo-intellectuals.

The book ends on a curiously hopeful note with Ken leaving Canada to fight in the Spanish Civil War.

Despite the grimness of the story, the spare prose speeds the reader along. It's not an unpleasant read by any means, and the Hemingwayesque style makes an interesting match with characters as ill-fated as those in any Hardy novel.

Jack Illingworth's view: "As literary art, Cabbagetown is decidedly second-tier... Nonetheless, its brutal honesty makes it a consistently rewarding novel, and far more than a mere historical curiosity."

Hugh Garner

Cabbagetown was expurgated when it came out in 1950. The version I read was the unabridged edition, which appeared in 1968 and was included in A Hugh Garner Omnibus as well as several short stories, excerpts from two other novels, and a single piece of journalism, "A Loyalist Soldier Returns to Spain." The latter makes an excellent companion piece to Cabbagetown, because Garner fought in the International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War. He writes, "...going there to fight was one of the few things I am proud of having done," and incorporated a number of undisguised details directly into the book.

He won the GG in 1963 for a volume of short stories.


Imagining Toronto
Hugh Garner: The "One Man Trade Union" of Publishing
One of the Greatest Authors of All Time
Historical Plaque