Arts featured Labour

Book review: Fight on! Cape Breton coal miners, 1900-1925 – A great book for your favourite niece or nephew

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – There’s a very nice little book out about the coal miners’ (and steel workers) fight against greedy and heartless corporations in early twentieth century Cape Breton. 

What’s especially great about it is that author Joanne Schwartz wrote it for kids, not the really young ones I guess, but say the 10 to 15 year old. Nimbus, the publisher, suggests children as young as 7 may go for it, it depends on the kid, I guess.   

Schwartz, who has deep Cape Breton roots, describes the hard and dangerous lives of the miners, including young boys whose job it was to open trapdoors and who spent long days underground in complete darkness, alone, “with only rats for company.”

The book describes in detail how miners and their wives resisted the greedy company owners, the strikes, and the cruelty of the likes of BESCO manager Roy Wolvin, a.k.a. Roy the Wolf. 

It’s richly illustrated with photos, the chapters are short and to the point, and the anecdotes are telling. There’s a moving section about the lives of the pit ponies, always in the dark, always underground.

Meanwhile we learn about the meaning of Davis Day, what the term Standing the Gaff means, and are exposed to a healthy dose of Dawn Fraser’s poetry.    

One of my personal heroes, union organizer J.B. McLachlan, gets his own loving chapter. I read David Frank’s excellent biography of McLachlan while we spent a week in Cape Breton a couple of years ago, and I have loved the man ever since.

As the title indicates, there’s no doubt where the writer’s sympathies lie, and no effort to promote both-sidedness in the face of such immense corporate greed and cruelty. 

Much as I liked this book, I do think it’s a pity the writer isn’t more clear about McLachlan’s membership of the Communist Party of Canada. 

At one time the CPC was an important player in Cape Breton as it was in other parts of industrial Nova Scotia, why not write it? As well, there’s a whole history of dirty union politics and betrayals always playing in the background that’s never mentioned. But I know, it’s just a book for kids, so feel free to ignore this criticism.   

See also: Daniel Samson: The presbyterian communist – J.B. McLachlan’s library

What matters is that the book exists. I love that Nimbus said, yes, there’s a market for a book like this, let’s publish it.  

It’s Davis Day today. No better day to rush out to your independent bookstore and buy this wonderful book for your favourite niece or nephew.  

Fight on! Cape Breton coal miners, 1900-1925, by Joanne Schwartz. Nimbus Publishing

See also: Review: The True Cost of Coal, a beautiful little book for kids of all ages

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