November 4, 2013
Review By Andrew Parnaby
The protagonist of Irene Baird’s Depression-era novel Waste Heritage is Matt Striker, a twenty-three-year-old transient from Saskatchewan. A veteran of the Regina Riot in 1935, which ended the On-to-Ottawa trek, Matt arrives in Vancouver by train in 1938 to join the twelve hundred sit-down strikers who are occupying the civic art gallery, central post office, and Hotel Georgia as part of their struggle for “work and living wages.” By the time he opens his boxcar door, however, and heads out through the city’s waterfront district – a “burnished maze of storage tracks,” “smokestacks and masts” against a “hard blue sky” – the sit-down strike is already over, its violent conclusion coming as club-wielding police drive the last of the strikers from the post office (3). Disoriented and somewhat tremulous, Matt meets a “sitdowner” named Eddy, who was tear-gassed and beaten badly in the strike’s aftermath, and together they agree to join the rest of the protesters on a hunger march to Victoria to demand greater support for the unemployed. From Vancouver to Nanaimo to Ladysmith and, ultimately, to the provincial capital, the strikers’ journey provides the book with its basic structure. Yet it is Matt’s interior, psychological journey – as he seeks personal salvation through love, friendship, and politics after years of “raw living among a bunch of boys” – that brings depth and complexity to Baird’s story (219).
Matt’s crisis, the author suggests, is symptomatic of modern life: an abstract, impersonal force – the economic collapse, “something you couldn’t see,” “an injustice too vague and terrible to defeat” – has cut him off from the organic, intimately known bonds of home, family, and community, and cast him adrift, to wander in the anonymous, less understood world of “narrow store fronts crowded in close together, second-hand stores … and the shoddy office blocks filled with advertising dentists and palmists and beauty parlors” (73, 232, 8). His wit and guile sustain him, as his fatherly relationship with Eddy reveals; so, too, does a fragile faith in a future with Hazel, his girlfriend from Vancouver, whose ongoing employment during the Depression reminds him of the emasculating effects of the economic crisis. Among the protesters it is Hep, a seasoned “Red,” who matters most to Matt. A confidant and mentor, he eases the protagonist deeper into the unemployed movement, insisting along the way that personal restoration will only come through discipline and solidarity. By the end of the novel, however, Matt is no longer optimistic about a life with Hazel; nor does he trust Hep, with his “cold wolf grin,” or believe in the movement, “the whole freak circus” (247-48). He is “numb” – his deep desire to be his own man reduced to nothing by the subordination required by collective action, the dehumanizing effects of transiency, and the near constant threat of state violence. In the book’s final, dramatic sequence, Matt brutally assaults a police constable who is beating Eddy with a club. A mob forms, a riot ensues, Matt disappears, and Eddy – desperate to leave the scene, the town, the life of a bum – tries to ride the rods once again, only to be crushed by the oncoming train.
Originally published by Macmillan (Canada) and Random House (US) in 1939, this edition appears as part of the University of Ottawa Press’ Canadian Literature Collection. With a critical and detailed introduction by Colin Hill (which deftly situates the book in its historical, literary, and biographical context), and an informative set of explanatory notes, Waste Heritage reintroduces a splendid example of Canada’s radical literary heritage and the era – the Great Depression – that inspired it. Baird’s central preoccupation is with the complex interplay between Matt’s interior life and the hostile modern world, with its “snarling gears” and “sweaty, fumey smells” (31) that threatens to envelop him: “Anger, excitement, shock, climax, anti-climax, they seethed in his raw, aching mind as the pain throbbed in his jaw. His mind did not try to deal with them, nevertheless they penetrated and grew, forming some secret substance of which in tomorrow and in days to come his mind was to be made” (56). Although the author’s understanding of this theme is deeply pessimistic – Matt ends the book blind with rage, while Eddy is immolated by a locomotive, a potent symbol of modernity – her portrayal of the heavy psychological toll exacted by prolonged joblessness is moving. Crafted in the 1930s, Baird’s evocative portrait is also timely, as the global economy once again descends into crisis and the ranks of the unemployed begin to swell.