Author Tags: Essentials 2010, Japanese, War
"What the hell. I wasn't born to be Tyrone Power." -- Barry Broadfoot
QUICK REFERENCE ENTRY:
Studs Terkel is generally credited as the pioneer of oral history in the United States; his equivalent in Canada is Barry Broadfoot, whose best-known history remains Ten Lost Years, 1929–1939 (1973), a collection of stories from survivors of the Great Depression. “It flew off the shelves,” recalls editor Douglas Gibson, “to an extent that its success provoked articles wondering how on earth a book by an unknown author, about the Great Depression, for God’s sake, could have such a success. I have an answer. Many of the stories are so good you will never forget them. The book is still in print forty years after it appeared. The hardcover edition sold more than 200,000 copies, and the paperback has sold much more than that.”
Born in 1926 in Winnipeg, Barry Broadfoot worked for a year on the Winnipeg Tribune before serving in the infantry for 1944–1945. After graduating from the University of Manitoba in 1949, he worked primarily as a journalist with the Vancouver Sun for 29 years. He said he originally came to the West Coast as the result of “wanderlust and the refusal to endure another bloody winter.”
While at the Vancouver Sun he published Stanley Park, An Island in the City (1972), with photos by Vancouver Sun photographer Ralph Bower. “He seemed to me straight out of The Front Page,” recalls Gibson, who first met Broadfoot in the late 1960s, “a feet-up-on-the-desk, yell-across-the-noisy-newsroom sort of guy who almost certainly had a bottle stashed away within easy reach. He belonged to that generation of men who had made it through the war and, what the hell, were going to smoke and drink and swear at the boss and have fun.”
Broadfoot once described himself as the world’s greatest listener. “Although oral history has been my financial rod and staff for twenty years,” he wrote in 1991, “I have never been comfortable with the phrase. I prefer the term living memories, used by historian Peter Stursberg.”
Broadfoot’s gruff style seemed anachronistic by the 1990s. Along with the likes of white male literary pioneers such as Eric Nicol, Robert Harlow, Norman Newton and Paul St. Pierre, he was cast adrift in a new age of B.C. literature in which new authors, comfortable with self-marketing and the internet, expect the world to take serious notice of their first books. Broadfoot did it the long, hard way, talking to people and reflecting their deepest concerns.
Like most other B.C. authors, Broadfoot lacks his own entry in the Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature and the Encyclopedia of Literature in Canada. He once said, “The academic historians resent what I do because they say it isn’t history and somehow I’m taking away from the pool of money that might go toward history books. But the people I talk to have no vested interests, beyond the desire to tell their stories as honestly as they could. Precious memories are our heritage.”
Barry Broadfoot is also remembered for Years of Sorrow, Years of Shame (1977) about the internment of Japanese Canadians. Broadfoot’s other works are Six War Years (1975), The Pioneer Years (1976), The Veterans’ Years (1985), The Immigrant Years (1986), Next Year Country (1988) and Ordinary Russians (1989). “History is the lies you believe,” he once told the Globe & Mail. “It’s being rewritten all the time because generals, industrialists and academic historians all serve different interests.”
Barry Broadfoot was the pioneer of 'oral history' in Canada. In 1991, he wrote, "Although oral history has been my financial rod and staff for 20 years, I have never been comfortable with the phrase. I prefer the term living memories used by historian Peter Stursberg." Broadfoot's best-known oral history remains Ten Lost Years (1973), a collection of stories from survivors of the Great Depression. He is also remembered for Years of Sorrow, Years of Shame (1977) about the internment of Japanese Canadians. Broadfoot's other works are Six War Years (1975), The Pioneer Years (1976), The Veterans' Years (1985), The Immigrant Years (1986), Next Year Country (1988) and Ordinary Russians (1989). "History is the lies you believe," he once told the Globe & Mail's Liam Lacey. "It's being rewritten all the time because generals, industrialists and academic historians all serve different interests."
Broadfoot was born on January 21, 1926 in Winnipeg. He worked for a year on The Winnipeg Tribune before enlisting in the infantry, 1944-45. Under the auspices of the Department of Veterans Affairs, he attended the University of Manitoba where he edited the university student newspaper, the Manitoban. After graduating from the University of Manitoba in 1949, he worked primarily as a journalist with the Vancouver Sun for 29 years. He says he originally came to the West Coast due to "wanderlust and the refusal to endure another bloody winter." While at The Vancouver Sun he published his first book, Stanley Park, An Island in the City (1972), with photos by Sun photographer Ralph Bower. Broadfoot left The Sun to travel across Canada, interviewing for Ten Lost Years. The landmark volume of 'living memories', as he preferred to call his interviews, has been the subject for two films and many stage productions.
Broadfoot's name is absent from the Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature and the Encyclopedia of Literature in Canada. "The academic historians resent what I do because they say it isn't history and somehow I'm taking away from the pool of money that might go toward history books. But the people I talk to have no vested interests, beyond the desire to tell their stories as honestly as they could. Precious memories and our heritage." For his final book, he travelled 12,000 miles in the Soviet Union to publish Ordinary Russians. "I kept to the backroads. In places like Georgia I'd go off the main highway and the blacktop would be so full of potholes cars couldn't use it. So the peasants had gravelled in the ditch and were using the ditch as the road."
Broadfoot vowed to quit writing in 1989 but he later wrote a book on logging and collected materials for a project called Broadfoot's B.C., based on his experiences since he came to B.C. as a newspaperman in 1949. "It's about people I've met in every village, every pub, every isolated corner," he says. "It's like taking a 1,000 tons of country rock and refining it down into what I've learned about British Columbia and British Columbians." This project was never completed. "I've been trying to understand the B.C. psyche. I've found that mountains seem to influence people. They come off the prairies and the mountains hit them like a sledgehammer blow. In a crazy way it molds an independent, ever-westering character, the British Columbian."
Broadfoot received the Order of Canada in 1988. With his wife Anne Cornelia, he had two children, Ross and Susan. In 1989, he told Peter Wilson, "I've had it. There's too many books. There's too many authors chasing too few dollars... Eighty per cent of our dollar value is put into American and British books and then when consider that 20 per cent functional illiteracy thing, and then take French Canada away, take 90 per cent of the Maritimes away, take every farmer who never sees a bookstore away, take all of Newfoundland away, take all the people who live in North Canada away and you've got about 18,000 WASPs and we're trying to sell 2,700 books a year to them. The whole thing's insane."
Barry Broadfoot retired to Nanaimo. In 1991 he donated his literary papers to the University of Manitoba Library. In 1996 Barry Broadfoot received an honorary Doctorate of Laws from the University of Manitoba. In 1997, he received the third Terasen Lifetime Achievement Award for an Outstanding Literary Career in British Columbia. In 1998 he suffered a stroke and, afflicted with a failing memory at age 74, described himself as Dead Man Walking. He died in December of 2003.
Review of the author's work by BC Studies:
Years of Sorrow, Years of Shame: The Story of the Japanese Canadians in World War II
Stanley Park, An Island in the City (November House, 1972), with photos by Sun photographer Ralph Bower
Ten Lost Years (Doubleday, 1973)
Six War Years (Doubleday, 1974)
The Pioneer Years 1895-1914 (Doubleday, 1976)
Years of Sorrow, Years of Shame (Doubleday, 1977)
My Own Years (Doubleday, 1983)
The Veterans' Years (Douglas & McIntyre, 1985)
Next Year Country (McClelland & Stewart, 1988)
Ordinary Russians (McClelland & Stewart, 1989)
MY BROADFOOT YEARS – by Douglas Gibson
BARRY BROADFOOT 1926-2003
MY BROADFOOT YEARS – by Douglas Gibson
Canadian readers lost a friend on Friday last week when Barry Broadfoot passed away. His oral history books – Ten Lost Years; Six War Years; and The Pioneer Years, among others – brought Canada’s past to vivid life. By talking into Barry’s tape recorder in kitchens, bars and coffee shops across the country, ordinary Canadians were able to tell their stories of how the great tides of history had affected their lives. It was history told in the first person by bank tellers, farmers, waitresses, and poor bloody infantrymen and it was powerful stuff. His readers responded, making his books into huge best-sellers. I was lucky enough to be part of the story from the start.
I first met Barry in the late ‘60s when I was a wide-eyed young editor travelling the country in search of authors and he was the Vancouver Sun’s grizzled Book Editor – over forty years old, and white haired! He seemed to me straight out of The Front Page, a feet-up-on-the-desk, yell-across-the-noisy-newsroom sort of guy who almost certainly had a bottle stashed away within easy reach. He belonged to that generation of men who had made it through the war and, what the hell, were going to smoke and drink and swear at the boss and have fun. He was gruffly proud of his newspaper stints in Winnipeg, Edmonton and Vancouver, listing in Who’s Who his experience as “photo ed., sports ed., night city ed., news ed., travel ed., book ed.” and so on.
He was also a prankster, “a rogue and a renegade” in the words of his colleague Denny Boyd. Vancouver Sun legend has him affixing a photograph of a city editor inappropriately in the men’s room urinal. Allan Fotheringham tells the tale of Broadfoot the joker checking the news wire at the Sun in 1963 and coming out to announce, “Hey! President Kennedy has just been shot,” to be greeted by jeers of disbelief (“Sure, Barry.” “Get lost, Broadfoot.”) as everyone in the newsroom got back to work on the important news of the day. I can imagine Barry shrugging; what the hell.
He was such a dyed in the wool newspaperman that I, too, didn’t take him very seriously when he said that some day he was going to quit all this and write a book. Proclamations like this are not unknown among newspapermen, especially grizzled ones, and the quitting never happens, nor does the book. So some months later at my desk at Doubleday I was astonished to get a phone call from Barry. He had quit, and he was writing a book and he was in Toronto. Did I have time for lunch?
Later he described his legendary departure in detail: “I came in, hung up my coat, took the cover off my typewriter and looked out at the newsroom. Suddenly it looked like a Russian tractor factory. I said, ‘the hell with it.’ I put 17 years of inter-office memos into a shoebox, liberated the typewriter and walked out.”
Over lunch he told me that after he’d quit so dramatically he loaded the typewriter into a beat-up Volkswagen and, purely on spec., set off across the country with a small portable tape recorder. In the early 1970s this marvel was a curiosity, and was produced at our table for reverent inspection. He went on to explain that he had spent many weeks wandering around Canada from coast to coast, dropping in on barber shops, coffee shops, bus stations – anywhere that it was easy to strike up a conversation with a stranger – and asking people of the right age group “What happened to you during the Depression?” And the stories, he assured me, came pouring out from people glad to be able to talk about a hard time that had been hidden away. In fact, he said, he had a selection of them, typed out, right here, and he was taking them to Jack McClelland in a couple of days time. I asked to see the stories, whistled as I scanned them amid the clatter of coffee cups, and took them back to the office. He never did get to see Jack McClelland. We signed him up the next day.
Before Ten Lost Years came out in 1973, Barry and I worked to establish an entirely new type of book. There had been other oral histories, of course, most notably by Studs Terkel. But this one would be different. Barry’s voice would be restricted to a general preface, a summary of events and then to a few paragraphs in italics introducing each chapter, and very occasionally to important explanations to the reader about what was happening to the story-teller, e.g. “he breaks down and cries.”
Another difference: the voices would be kept carefully anonymous throughout. There may have been sensible legal reasons for this originally, but the artistic reasons proved to be most powerful of all; these anonymous individual voices became blended in a great chorus where the people of Canada somehow seemed to be speaking, telling what had happened in the real world, not in the archives.
In fact, an alarmingly large proportion of the people of Canada seemed to have spoken to Barry, and he delivered his manuscripts in such volume that they came piled high in sweet-smelling apple cartons. He did his own transcribing on the cheapest paper known to man, in his distinctive e.e. cummings style, which ignored his trusty Underwood’s upper-case function, and with a journalist’s -30- ending each story. Experience showed that with the manuscripts the forty-to-one rule applied: out of forty interviews only one was worth publishing, or out of forty paragraphs one nugget of a paragraph could be mined, given its own title, and inserted into the appropriate chapter.
This chapter by chapter selection process took up the entire floor of my living room (fortunately this was B.C. – before children.) While pacing around the room doling out individual stories to, say, the pile of Farm stories in this corner, I learned the important editorial truth that shoes are not good for walking over scattered piles of manuscript, but bare feet are even worse. Socks, I instruct young editors, are essential to avoid re-distributing the chapter piles over which an editor glides. Hands on experience, you might say.
That experience led to a brief period when I became a certified, card-carrying Oral History expert. I even reached the giddy heights of delivering a paper on my Broadfoot years at the annual Learned Societies Conference, in Montreal, a paper that was later reproduced (be still my heart) in the journal of the Australian Oral History Society. Barry was amused.
The forty-to-one selection rule and the brutally hard work involved in traveling to secure the stories soon scared off the hordes of would-be imitators who wrongly thought that this could be an easy way to produce a book. Allan Anderson (Remembering The Farm) and Bill McNeil (Voice of the Pioneer) were among the few who successfully followed the oral history path blazed by Barry and his tape-recorder. Sadly, at the end of his career, Barry recognized the toll such a book took when we had to give up on his enthusiastic plans to do for British Columbia what he had done for the Prairies in Next Year Country. “I don’t have the legs for it any more,” he told me. This was a loss for us all. He was a fiercely proud British Columbian even if, as he told BC BookWorld’s Alan Twigg, he originally came to the Coast due to “wanderlust and the refusal to endure another bloody winter.”
Ten Lost Years was a phenomenon. It came out in fall ’73, and the initial orders for a book by an unknown author about stories from the Depression were not exceptional. The sales were. We printed again and again and again as the book flew out of the stores, to become one of Canada’s all-time best-sellers with, at a guess, well over 300,000 copies now in Canadian homes. Not long after the book had come out in trade paperback (which usually kills the hard-cover sale) we found that we had to go on re-printing the hard-cover edition. Clearly word of the book had reached people who did not read review pages, or buy many books, but who had survived the Depression themselves and wanted this book, because it commemorated their own experience, and they wanted it to be a real book, which to that generation meant a hard-cover.
Barry and I worked together on his second book, Six War Years, about the Second World War at home and abroad. Even after I had left Doubleday to become Editorial Director at Macmillan, special arrangements were made to allow me to continue the editing of the book, again on the living room floor. The book was well produced and sold by Doubleday and became another classic. His main concern, I recall, was that in promoting the book nobody should suggest that his own role as a young rifleman in France was in any way heroic. Born and raised in Winnipeg, he never lost his Prairie disregard for those who put on airs, and it made for an uncomfortable collision with celebrity.
His later books were also successful but one of them especially tells us a lot about Barry Broadfoot. He was determined to do a book on Canada’s internment of its Japanese citizens. “It won’t sell worth a damn, Doug,” he told me, “but it’s a book I’ve got to do.” Years of Sorrow, Years of Shame was his very effective way of setting straight a great wrong, although his what-the-hell style would not have allowed any such fancy description.
As his later books attracted new readers – and he published his last two books with me in the late 1980s – he still maintained the same low-key response to his success and fame, as a defense against the discomfort they caused him. Awards and honours like the Order of Canada, or the honorary degree from the University of Manitoba, or the B.C. Lifetime Achievement Award were not exactly shrugged off but, hey, what the hell. I tried to persuade him, in person, by phone, or in our voluminous (mostly one-way, mostly lower-case) correspondence – that they were well-deserved tributes for a significant career that had brought our history alive, but he was so determined not to seem pompous that I fear that he routinely undersold himself in commenting on these public honours.
He undersold himself in my presence once in Toronto, when for the first time he attended the superb play drawn from Ten Lost Years. The Toronto Workshop Production show ran for many months in Toronto, toured Canada and went to Europe, where it was a great hit at the Edinburgh Festival. I took Barry to see a production in Toronto for a high school audience. At the end of the show the house lights went up and he was introduced. He rose from his seat in the back row of the theatre, a trim white-haired figure in his trademark tweed jacket and turtleneck shirt, and the high school kids – and, much more important, the actors – joined in loud applause, and he threw up an arm in brief acknowledgment then sat down. He alone in the world knew the way in which those stories had originally been delivered by the real-life narrators, and he could have held us spell-bound by comparing real life with the actors’ interpretations but, no, a quick wave, then down. What the hell, don’t want to make a fuss. And then he flashed his toothy grin and suggested that we get out of here and go for a drink.
His last years were difficult. In 1998 a severe stroke interrupted the idyll that he had been enjoying in retirement in Nanaimo with Lori, the old Winnipeg sweetheart who became his second wife. It robbed him of his sight and of his short-term memory. Callers found it disconcerting to be told, very cheerfully, at the start of a phone conversation: “It’s nice of you to call, but you know in twenty minutes I won’t remember this conversation.” But he enjoyed visitors and retained a keen interest in the book world and the wider world through CBC radio and through Lori’s a capella reading of the Globe. But a life without reading was hard.
Just last month a royalty cheque from McClelland & Stewart arrived in the Broadfoot household, proving that sales of Ten Lost Years are still going on, and bringing him, Lori tells me, the greatest pleasure. For a man who has decided – what the hell – against having a funeral or a tombstone, there is always the plaque in his honour outside the Vancouver Public Library, the building that with typical irreverence he called “the Coliseum.” There are the CBC tapes of the dramas entitled Ten Lost Years and Six War Years. And on bookshelves across the country – perhaps your bookshelf – there are books by Barry Broadfoot full of the stories that will always be his true memorial, as the man who gave a voice to thousands.
[Douglas Gibson is the President and Publisher of McClelland & Stewart Ltd. He was Barry Broadfoot’s editor, publisher and friend. Portions of this appreciation originally appeared in the Globe & Mail. Reprinted by permission of Douglas Gibson.]
Born in 1926, Barry Broadfoot, the journalist who became Canada’s foremost oral historian with Ten Lost Years in 1973, died in Nanaimo in December. The former Vancouver Sun book page editor received the Terasen Lifetime Achievement Award for an outstanding B.C. literary career, the Order of Canada, and an honorary doctorate from the University of Manitoba. He once described himself as the world’s greatest listener.
[BCBW Summer 2004]