Arley McNeney’s THE TIME WE ALL WENT MARCHING is, besides being an engrossing story, one of the best examples of “show, don’t tell.” This writers’ adage is especially important when we write about justice. “Don’t preach. Show.”
In THE TIME WE ALL WENT MARCHING our protagonist is Edie, a young woman paired up with one of the young men in Canada’s Great Depression era who went on the trek to Ottawa to protest the plight of workers in that desperate time. Throughout the story Edie recalls Slim’s tales of the On to Ottawa Trek, the detailed hardships of the men who took part in it, riding atop boxcars in freezing weather. The trek ended in disaster, of course, with the riot in Regina, Saskatchewan, when the government of Canada cracked down on the movement. Slim was lucky. He didn’t get killed or even wounded — visibly. He did suffer damage to his respiratory system due to tear gas. His lungs were already shot; for years he had worked in coal mines. His one talent seemed to be locating the profit-making strains of coal or ore deep in the bowels of the earth where breathing dust was about as natural as taking in air.
McNeney gives us graphic descriptions of the whole scenario. Slim and Edie live with their small son in a tent. By the time we arrive in the story, Slim is about burned out, spending his money, such as it is, on liquor and women other than his wife. Edie is fed up, and we learn the whole tale through her memories as she takes Belly their son by train to her mother’s house in New Westminster, British Columbia. We feel her determination amidst a wallow of fearfulness about her chances in the world of the poor. We see and feel and smell each detail in this dash for freedom, for the chance of a new life:
On the walls, stains where the water has found the wrong way out of the pipes make the shapes of continents (in the candle light). The mould and the rusty water give the bathroom the odour of stone underneath the human stink. The pipes knock as if there is someone trapped nearby, tapping out a code, waiting to be saved… The water sputters out of the tap, hairs floating in the tub, but there’s no time to care about that; nothing is clean here; nothing has been clean anywhere they’ve lived; there is nothing to be done; snow is the only whiteness for miles and even that will be greyed by dirt and soot come morning.
When a landslide occurs and a boulder crashes into their train, injuring Belly’s face with broken glass, Edie longs for someone to take charge and tend the boy, but in the end she is the one who has to sew together the gash without the help of anything to diminish the pain for her son. When the cut becomes infected, she is desperate with fear, does what she can to remove the pus, but the dream cure, penicillin, is something for the rich in Canada.
A poignant addition to the mix is Belly’s four-year-old perception of what is happening. Encouraged by his mother in his imaginary fantasies of war and adventure, he navigates the change and uncertainty of this trip, the painful surgery and infection, and his fear of losing his mother, keeping us on tenterhooks as to the outcome of the story. Will she just leave him and go her own way? Poverty can dull even the basic instincts of decency, much less of justice. By the end, while admiring Edie’s pluck and her will to survive, all we can do is dread her next step, whatever it is, because any outcome from this point can only bring tragedy and pain.
Arley McNeney has the great gift of storytelling. She brings us into the story with her. Through the eyes of her characters we learn just how far away justice can be.
Throughout the novel we see the deterioration and loss of dreams of both men and women, and the terror and despair that begins to dominate their minds and bodies. Even Edie’s goal of returning to her mother’s house, allegedly to deposit her son so she can get on the road to find a better future for herself, is tragic. The only resource she can think of is to return to the relative safety of a home which only ten years before she had been desperate to escape — a broken home where the children were more or less the caregiver of their single mother. Yet “home” means a house which Edie never had in her married life. “Home” also includes a “mother” who would know what to do in a medical emergency, unlike Edie herself.
Even more than the physical details, we experience the mental distortions that both feed and disillusion the poor. We become caught up in the downward spiral with all of its emotion and confusion.
The Time We All Went Marching was published in 2011 by Gooselane Editions of Frederickton, New Brunswick.