Manitoba History: Review: Harold Draper, Growing up in Manitoba

by Allison Campbell
University of Manitoba Press

Number 38, Autumn / Winter 1999-2000

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Harold Draper, Growing up in Manitoba, Regina: Canadian Plains Research Centre, 1998, ISBN 0-88977-116-2, paper $9.95.

How do you write a good autobiography? The author, as the central character, should find the story interesting. The challenge is to convince readers that it’s interesting, too. The author does not have to be a fascinating individual; in fact, there is a lot to learn from the story of an “ordinary life.” But its telling should reflect something personal, something unique, and something of the larger experience. A well-written autobiography can entertain, educate, and inform. After all, the author is an expert on his or her own life, and is sharing their knowledge of a particular time and place.

Growing Up in Manitoba, the memoirs of Harold Draper, are a mixed success. Draper was born in 1924 to British parents, and spent the first 15 years of his life on three different farms in Manitoba around the area of Kenton and Lenore. After the Depression, the family moved into Lenore, and later Draper went on to study at the University of Manitoba.

The main problem is the distance Draper maintains from his reader, avoiding personal emotions and introspection. We learn the name of his favorite horse, but we never know the names of Draper’s siblings. They remain “my brother” or “my sister” throughout the entire book. He further distances his audience by including observations from his adult readings in sociology and education as well as quotations by Mark Twain and George Bernard Shaw. These, in combination with his frequent use of the third person to describe his life, makes his account less personal and less immediate, two valuable qualities in an autobiography. In addition, his language is sometimes too formal and technical for its subject. When I read that “newborn piglets quickly established an hierarchy by engaging in the rough play characteristic of all multiparous species,” I felt like I was reading a veterinarian textbook, not the observations of a young boy charmed by the animals he sometimes petted and carried in his arms.

Growing Up in Manitoba covers the standard themes of rural, Depression autobiographies; harvest, farm animals, school days, illness, and the effect of the Depression, but they seem to be presented randomly. The rough transitions from one theme to the next—weekend visits, the summer of 35, gopher hunting—are made worse by using bold captions for each section, some of which are only two paragraphs long.

Draper has an odd sense of the importance of the topics, too. While accidents and illnesses of friends and neighbours take up two and half pages, the impact of World War H is unenlightening. He discusses it in one short paragraph and dismisses it with a vague generalization: “By the time the war ended six years later, it had changed the lives of everyone in the community.” He gives little sense of his emotional or psychological development, no sense of change, or even the passing of time.

In spite of its shortcomings, Growing Up in Manitoba has worthwhile insights, such as his explanation of unannounced social visits. Calling in advance (when possible), or waiting for an invitation, meant that you expected some additional effort on the host’s part, instead of dropping in and being willing to take “pot luck.” His accounts support similar books and contemporary sources, adding to the depth of our understanding of that time; the gopher tail tales, the closeness rural children felt to the natural world around them, their early independence, and their often blithe ignorance of the effects of the Depression. They had food to eat, animals to play with, fields to explore, clothes and entertainment on par with most of their friends—what could be missing?

Draper also acknowledges the grimmer aspects of his rural childhood. He wonders if many of the cases of summer ‘flu weren’t actually salmonella, due to unreliable food processing and storage techniques. He recalls incidents that he now recognizes as racist, comments on the class structure his parents left behind in England, and shows how much a part of life were death and illness. Although his memoirs offer little of “why” in terms of motivation and explanation, there is lots of “what”; games played, meals eaten, chores done.

In 1991, he returned as an adult to Lenore. Driving down Main Street, he saw no one, not even a stray dog. Visiting the first farmhouse he lived in, now abandoned, he peered into the bedroom where he had been born and found it full of oats. “The house had become a granary.” That brief, poignant sentence summarizes the change and loss common to a generation of rural prairie people. A patient and careful reader who sifts through Growing Up in Manitoba will find touching and insightful moments, reflecting not only Harold Draper’s experiences, but those of the generation he represents.

Page revised: 13 October 2012