Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 6/2/2011 (3301 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Many people will remember that old Alka-Seltzer bromide, "I can't believe I ate the whole thing!"
That was my feeling after reading W. John Johnson's fourth book about life in Manitoba's Interlake: I couldn't believe I read the whole thing.
I couldn't believe I'd read all four books, all 1,349 pages of self-published memoirs Johnson culled from his personal diaries. Burp.
Each book spans a decade, starting with the 1960s (From Steeds to Stars) to the 1990s (Completing the Century), and each chapter spans a year in that decade.
I've now read 40 years (chapters) in the life of the Johnson family, and in the life of the mostly Icelandic community of the Lake Manitoba Narrows and neighbouring Lake Manitoba First Nation. It's from Johnson's books that I learned of and wrote about film star Adam Beach's tragic beginnings in Vogar.
Johnson portrays himself earnestly in all his selves: gentleman farmer, cattleman, school trustee, obsessive curler, storekeeper in Vogar, umpire on the baseball field and in the field of life, husband, father, father-in-law, friend, decent human being — and I kept reading.
He juxtaposes major local, national and world events and crises, with family, farm, neighbour and community concerns.
In the 1960s diaries, I read about the snowy reception of the black-and-white TVs in the area, a dad losing the keys to the station wagon at the local fair and spotting a lynx, next to Marilyn Monroe's suicide (1962), John F. Kennedy's assassination (1963) and the sinking of the Suzanne E., a large Lake Winnipeg ship in which seven passengers drowned (1965).
It's called life, and I can't recall anything I've read that reminded me so much of William Saroyan's novel The Human Comedy.
In the final Johnson book, you read about robberies at John and Vera's Vogar General Store, riding the Grey Goose bus to Winnipeg to catch the final Winnipeg Jet games, shedding tears over the death of a majestic elm tree, losing a fight with a bull and toasting the bride, his daughter.
Johnson was a school trustee for 27 years at Lakeshore School Division. I never knew being a school trustee could be such fertile ground for stories, until I read Johnson's books — just as I never knew being a kids' soccer referee was so interesting until I read our own education reporter Nick Martin's blog.
There's no artifice. Johnson writes the way he talks. He has only worked for someone else once in his life — clerking for his Uncle Barney for two months in 1955. But he's figured out how to connect his stories into very readable books. The books are nicely edited by Roger Newman, a former Winnipeg newsman who now resides in Gimli.
The books sell modestly, in the range of 500 copies, but Johnson always at least breaks even. I started reading one as part of my job to learn about rural Manitoba, but they also appealed to me because I spent many summers in the Interlake on my dad's apiary farm along the Steep Rock road.
Each chapter invariably comes around to memorializing local people who passed away that year. The eulogies run from those who died too soon to those who died in their sleep. There are tragic deaths, painful family deaths and deaths of good friends. At one funeral, the community carried out a man's last wish to have his coffin transported in his half-ton truck, instead of a hearse.
I've always loved the existential answer Johnson gave me years ago when I asked him why he kept diaries in the first place. "It always troubled me that it was all going to be lost," he said.
As a fellow mortal, it troubles me, too. He did something about it.
Thanks for enriching my life, John.
The books are $20 each. Completing the Century will be in McNally Robinson bookshelves Wednesday or Thursday. Books can also be obtained by emailing: firstname.lastname@example.org.