What’s in a Barrel of Books?
Once upon a time there was a young quarryman named Thomas Charles Currie who left his impoverished Welsh village to find better economic opportunity across the ocean in Newfoundland, at a slate quarry owned by two uncles. He brought with him on the steamship a suitcase of his meagre belongings and a wooden barrel of books. In the Newfoundland village of Britannia Cove he met and married a local girl and in short order found himself the father of a son, whom he named Cecil, a name apparently in vogue at the time. It was 1905.
Another son was soon added, but unfortunately job problems continued to plague the young father. The Newfoundland quarry went bankrupt, and the family had to pick up stakes several times and move across the ocean and across Newfoundland in search of work. At times it seemed the only constant, and the only source of pleasure and entertainment, was that barrel of books that travelled by steamship, train and horse-drawn cart wherever they went. I don’t know what was in the barrel, apart from the Bible, but I like to imagine there was Dickens, Dylan Thomas, Shakespeare, and perhaps Mark Twain. Thomas Charles spent much of his leisure time with his nose buried in a book.
Young Cecil grew up often hungry, lonely, and cold, but entranced by the power of the book to hold his father’s interest on those long winter nights by the kitchen stove. When he was old enough to open the pages, he began to pore over the books himself, eager to understand their magical allure.
When Cecil was six, his mother died giving birth to her third son, and the grief-stricken father married the woman he had hired to care for the children. Two more children were quickly added and the stepmother viewed Cecil as no more than cheap labour. When he objected, he was beaten, sent to bed without dinner or made to eat his food off the floor. Cecil grew into a puny, undernourished, defiant little boy. School was his only refuge, books his greatest escape.
Then came twin catastrophes that eclipsed all else. At eleven, he contracted polio, and because his stepmother believed he was malingering, he didn’t get treatment until his right arm and shoulder were permanently paralyzed. Two years later his father fell to his death at his job in Halifax, leaving Cecil at the mercy of his increasingly overwhelmed and desperate stepmother, who sent him and his little brother to work two paper routes before and after school and confiscated every penny they earned. Defiance only brought more severe punishment. He resorted to truancy, stealing and running away from home, until finally he was sent to reform school for wayward boys, where he spent his teenage years.
Through all of this, a cunning and inventive mind was born. Books had opened up a world far beyond the bounds of his own misery. It had shown him the glory of ideas and learning, and given him an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. Whether because of his early reading or natural intelligence, he absorbed everything like a sponge and excelled at academics far beyond his age and formal schooling. This intelligence and drive was noticed by the superintendent of the reform school, who saw his intellect as a path out of delinquency. The reform school did not have grades high enough to challenge him, but the superintendent found him high school texts and a room to study in, so that he could learn on his own.
At sixteen, Cecil wrote his first Halifax Academy exams, and at nineteen armed with a brand-new high school diploma, he began to teach school himself in Newfoundland outports. He had his sights set much higher, however. Study at the great institutions of the world, learning from the great thinkers. Four years later, having taught himself and his outport class Latin, which was a prerequisite for admission, he was accepted at McGill University to study philosophy. His academic journey took him from McGill to Heidelberg and Berlin, to Columbia and ultimately to Harvard University, where he earned his PhD in philosophy and began a long, successful career as a professor at McGill.
This is a story of the power of books. Power not only to provide escape and pleasure, but also hope. To be a lifeline to a desperate child – poor, neglected and hampered by his disability - not only to fuel his dreams of a larger, brighter world beyond his own but also to light a pathway towards those dreams.
The little boy was my father. I am aware that he had an extraordinary intellect and that the adversity of his life itself, along with his physical limitations, helped hone that passion. But it all started with a barrel of books, cherished through hard times and multiple moves from each temporary home to another.
A barrel of books, and someone to show the way. If only all children had that.
Barbara Fradkin is a child psychologist with a fascination for how we turn bad. In addition to her darkly haunting short stories in the Ladies Killing Circle anthologies, she writes the gritty, Ottawa-based Inspector Green novels which havewon back to back Arthur Ellis Awards for Best Novel from Crime Writers of Canada. The eighth in the series, Beautiful Lie the Dead, explores love in all its complications. And, her Rapid Read from Orca, The Fall Guy, was launched last year.