creation and myth

At closing time the special collections librarian gazed around his reading room tables, where researchers were folding their notebooks on a day’s work.

“I could fill every chair in this room with people who are going to write the definitive book on Ginger Goodwin,” the librarian said. “But so far I haven’t seen any books.”

It was his mild way of warning me that many were drawn to the old story of injustice, but it might be difficult to assemble the fragments and contradictions about Albert Goodwin. In 1918 the union organizer was shot dead by the police in unexplained circumstances on a Vancouver Island hillside near the coal mining town of Cumberland, BC.

The librarian’s caution often came to mind over the next few years as I travelled from my workplace in Edmonton to my home on Vancouver Island, to Calgary, to Trail and Rossland, to the abandoned industrial towns of the Alberta Coal Branch and the Crowsnest Pass. Few records of Goodwin’s life, employment and death had survived; there were a few letters and newspaper accounts and legal documents. My letters of inquiry sometimes got answers and sometimes vanished without trace. I was usually far from any library, and the internet didn’t yet exist.

Over the next six years I encountered other researchers; we shared information, exchanged addresses and sometimes met again. I wrote a CBC Morningside radio play on island coal mining and a CBC Ideas radio documentary on the shooting of Ginger Goodwin. A publisher in Ontario asked me to write a book, but the information was too sparse.

Yet I couldn’t leave the story alone. In Cumberland I talked with anyone who had known Goodwin or the mines he worked in. I finally listened properly to my father Arthur Mayse’s second-hand accounts. I pored over Ruth Masters’ big album of oral history transcripts in the Cumberland Museum. Late at night, kneeling on the museum floor, I traced a huge map of the drifts, seams and airways of Cumberland’s Number Five pit.

One spring I rented a spare bedroom in the townsite for 40 dollars a month from a  single mum and borrowed a cooking pot to set where the leaky roof dripped. I bought bread, apples and cheese at Johnny Leung’s grocery, hung my grocery bag on my doorknob and got on with it.

I wrote a first chapter. A couple of publishers expressed cautious interest, but like the special collections librarian, they’d heard from other writers whose plans hadn’t yet materialized into a book. Eventually I moved to a coal miner’s cottage down Camp Road in Cumberland and kept writing. In 1990 I sent my manuscript to Harbour Publishing the day my daughter was born.

Cumberland people and other readers welcomed a book telling the story they’d heard for years about their friend Ginger Goodwin. My work was done.

Out of the blue this year The Ormsby Review posted a new review of Ginger: The Life and Death of Albert Goodwin a startling 30 years after the book’s release. In “The Ballad of Ginger Goodwin” Dan Hinman-Smith, who teaches at North Island College, wrote a well-researched, fair and thoughtful piece on Ginger.

It’s always interesting to find out what people see in a book—not always what I expect. But I was surprised to see this piece repeat an earlier review’s comment that seemed to miss the point: how could I believe all those improbable oral history tales?

The real question is, how could anyone conclude that I did believe those tales?

In Ginger I’d written, “The making of a union man, a union woman, in those years often sprang from personal suffering . . . cathartic enough to spur them into an all-consuming and often perilous activism. Their stories served as personal creation myths.

“Joe Naylor’s revelation came on an English turnpike in the 1880s. Years later he told the story to Donetta Rallison. When Joe was a young pit lad, made jobless by his Lancashire mine’s closure, he and his friends travelled from one dreary coal town to the next seeking work. One day as they walked hungry and sore-footed, a richly appointed carriage came alongside. The driver reined his splendid team in a spray of mud. A coachman opened the door, and an elegant gentleman leaned out to wish them good day. One or two of the young men doffed their hats and bowed, but plainspoken Joe Naylor told his friends they were fools. Why should starving men bow and scrape to this popinjay? If he truly meant well, he would work to right the country’s wrongs, since he was England’s king. The door slammed and the coach skewed forward. The pit lads walked on, a little colder and hungrier.”

Creation myths, according to my professors of anthropology and classical and mediaeval literature, are fables that people tell to explain the origins of phenomena they can’t describe in realistic terms. The term “creation myth” is exact and self-explanatory, combining the generally discounted religious concept of creation and an accepted literary term, myth. In other words it clearly describes a fable, a fantastical narrative.

My guess is that Joe Naylor told Donetta Rallison a story about his itinerant days in England, and decades later she retold it in the form of a fable.

Many creation myths are beautiful and moving. Metaphorically they lie at the heart of religion, art and literature, even if few people still believe literally in the Garden of Eden or Gilgamesh’s journey to the underworld. But I am deeply interested  in what creation myths suggest about the people who pass them on, including what they deem possible and believable.

In using the term I trusted that readers would share my understanding of these Cumberland stories. Personally I didn’t believe them all, but I didn’t scoff at them any more than I challenged the Dene shaman who told me all the ailments he could cure through his spiritual power, or any more than an anthropologist interrupts to rebut a tale about giants or monsters. Instead we listen carefully, draw any credible information from them and reflect on what purpose those stories might serve for their tellers and listeners. We need to look deeper than the accounts themselves, which may not be notably factual. Once I realized some of these stories were fables, I was there to understand what they meant.

We can parse this story about Joe Naylor and the King of England. The storyteller believed that a powerless young worker was once offered an opportunity by a wealthy and privileged person from elsewhere and turned it down as an ethical gesture. She believed that the powerless doff a cap and humbly accept largesse from the powerful whether they want it or not, out of courtesy or more likely fear. In her story one young man is fearless. He doesn’t fear the systemic classism that he encounters. He’s not a rich man, but he is a free man. Her story seems to reflect how many people in early 20th-century Cumberland viewed Joe Naylor and other labour socialists.

Donetta Rallison’s story wasn’t about a real event; it was a metaphorical reading of character. We don’t need to be anthropologists or literary scholars to understand this. Generally I find my readers are intelligent and thoughtful. If they do encounter an unfamiliar term, they google it or reach for a dictionary. But then my readers are overwhelmingly down-to-earth working people.

Ginger is not an academic study. If I’d wanted to write an academic book, that’s what I would have written. But why? Even as a student writing on Welsh mediaeval literature and history, I told my professors that I meant to write papers in a popular style so that others would not only read them but want to read them, thus reflect on and remember their points. The professors, to their credit, gave me carte blanche in the sharing of wealth. History belongs to all of us. 

In writing Ginger my purpose was not solely to enumerate facts but to move people. I wanted to reach them emotionally and also to launch them into action that creates change. It seems to have worked. Thirty years later, people still contact me to pass on new information.

My approach ruffled feathers. Instead of waiting for approval, I got down to work. I didn’t ask permission from anyone but my living sources. I didn’t follow accepted academic research methodology. I didn’t seek grants or other financial assistance. I researched and wrote on spec, without a publisher’s commitment or advance. I funded my research from a freelance writer’s skint income. Until I came home to the island, my mailing address was an Edmonton post office box. I was the daughter of another freelance writer who was a former logger, and the granddaughter of a Yorkshire coal mine worker.

In Canada we congratulate ourselves on creating a classless society. It’s a lie. Ask any refugee, member of the working poor, person of colour or Indigenous person. This story, like many others, is about class and classism.

In the 1880s a pit closure left everyone in my family out of work and homeless. Together they walked, grandparents down to small children, from Sheffield to the south coast of England, living mostly on windfall apples that dropped into the roadside ditches from farmers’ orchards. No work was to be had in the south, but the pits soon reopened, so they walked back north. Any family is a patchwork, and my own also includes landholders and inventors and empty titles, but this is my best inheritance.

Is this family story a creation myth? Certainly.

Is it true? Mostly true, I’m guessing, apart from the apple diet. Birds’ eggs, edible greens and maybe snared rabbits would thicken the stew, and the adults might have found occasional farm work in exchange for food.

One point of the story as I heard it was that the family didn’t steal even in desperation. Another is that life is hard, but if we work together, we survive. It’s not a great leap from “my flesh and blood” to “my brothers and sisters in solidarity.”

Remember that library reading room and all those definitive books waiting to be written? This would be the place for a weary aside about elitism or trolls, but in truth I’ll be delighted to see those books. There’s room for all those views and voices, from Laura Ellyn’s fun graphic novel Ginger Goodwin: A Worker’s Friend to theses and academic works to Roger Stonebanks’ well-researched Fighting for Dignity: The Ginger Goodwin Story.

I choose not to believe that arrogance and exceptionalism tempt anyone to disrespect untutored people whose working lives were their real education, as they were mine. Those working lives underlie all labour studies; they’re the grist in the mill. Working people in my experience offer their observations to researchers and writers freely to further knowledge and understanding. I’d like to think we can all say the same.

further reading:

“The Ballad of Ginger Goodwin,” The Ormsby Review, 27 July 2020.

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