White Coal City: A Memoir of Place & Family
by Robert Boschman
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Keith Foster
Price $21.95 ISBN 9780889777965
As Margaret Boschman stepped onto a busy Saskatoon street from in front of a parked car, an oncoming vehicle smashed into her, killing her instantly and hurling her shoe through the air. Six months pregnant, and dead at twenty-nine.
A masterpiece of creative nonfiction, Robert Boschman’s White Coal City: A Memoir of Place & Family records the impact of this pivotal event of June 29, 1940. The narrative revolves around the ripple effects his Grandmother Margaret’s death had on the entire multi-generational family.
Margaret’s death utterly destroyed her husband, John, who witnessed a travelling salesman from Toronto slam into his beloved wife. The salesman stopped, surmised that Margaret had merely been knocked unconscious, and drove off.
A violent, short-tempered man who took his Mennonite religion to an extreme, John unleashed his anger on his three sons. He also scolded his young grandson Robert for crying when his candy floss stuck to his face.
For most of his early days, Robert and his two younger siblings lived in the rear of Prince Albert’s King Koin Launderette, cleaning and maintaining the equipment and making change for customers. A federal penitentiary stood on the edge of the city, and a turn-of-the-century jailhouse for men one block from his home. Walking to school, he passed it daily.
Born with one eye turned inward and afflicted with low self-esteem, Robert was an easy target for derision. Looking at himself in a mirror, he was disgusted with his face, and smiling made it worse. “My lips were too big, eyes crossed, glasses taped up and crooked.”
Robert recalls the streets of PA seething with hate and violence in the 1960s and ’70s. He loved hockey, but was a poor player because of his crossed eyes. The incessant teasing drained any enjoyment. He was bullied, but he also bullied. One day he punched a friend on his abscessed tooth just to see his reaction.
As his narrative alternates between past and present, Boschman toys with readers, slipping them pieces of a puzzle to fit together. His descriptions are vivid – one of his teachers had “black hair slicked back with Brylcreem; wore thick-rimmed black glasses and had a black mole on the tip of his long, sharp nose.”
White coal refers to the energy that a proposed hydroelectric dam called La Colle Falls was to produce, making Prince Albert developers rich. The project went bankrupt in 1913, an unfulfilled dream. The unfinished structure remains to this day.
The white coal may also allude to the racism Borschman says existed as he was growing up in Prince Albert. He was ashamed of his white colonizer-settler background. When his family adopted an Indigenous baby girl, Crystal, as part of the Sixties Scoop, one woman advised his mother to “scrub Crystal’s face hard every single day and thereby whiten it.”
Throughout White Coal City, the entire Boschman family, and especially John, are unable to find release from their grief – always seeking but never finding closure.
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