Cabbagetown, the place in the book


Cabbagetown is an area of Toronto that has gone through a lot of changes. Apparently it is called that because at one time the inhabitants grew cabbages in their front yards. I came across a book by the same name by Hugh Garner, one of Canada’s more famous writers. I am guessing that he grew up in this area, which at that time was where some of the poorest residents of Toronto lived. The caption under the author’s photo on the back of this edition said “I did not become a writer to grow rich, famous, or socially acceptable.” However, he turned out to be well-known and quite socially acceptable, receiving the Governor General’s Award for Fiction in 1963, among other rewards. He was a prolific writer of books and articles.

hugh garner

Several things struck me about this book. First was the abject poverty, of the sort that we often associate with Dickens or slums in Africa or South America– the people had very little. The story was set during the Depression, so the people went from poor to even poorer, living on relief if they could get it. (and related to that is this article from The Star that came out just after I wrote this: )


The story unfolds in chapters that focus on various characters. The main character was Ken Tilling, whose mother was a drunkard. He fell in love with a girl called Myrla, but she had other things in mind than a fellow Cabbagetown resident. She ended up having an illegitimate child and later became a whore. Another character was Theodore, who was a social climber embarrassed to tell his new friends that he lived in Cabbagetown. He got involved with a fascist group who hated Jews, even though he didn’t really know any. A lesser character was Bob McIsaacs, who turned out to be a criminal and came to a lousy end.

Ken, like the author, became a hobo and travelled across Canada, into the U.S. and as far as Mexico. He recounted stories of the people he met on the road and some of the violent encounters with the RCMP or railroad bulls. He later became involved with people in the Communist party, though he never did join the party itself. At the end, we see him in Spain, as he joined up in the fight against Franco. I assumed that he would get killed there, but actually the ending was ambiguous.

My family was living in Toronto at this time. My grandparents did not live in Cabbagetown, though they were Anglo-Saxon. My maternal grandmother’s family lived near the University of Toronto, a well-established middle class family. My grandmother by then had had two daughters and lived in various places outside of Toronto. My paternal grandmother was living in Toronto by then, though she was from New Brunswick. In the 1930s she had had a son and a daughter and probably rued marrying my grandfather. Her father had been a jeweller and once she told me that during the Depression she had sold off many of the pieces she had been given.

cabbagetown book cover

Some of the aspects of the story ring true today. Young people were having a hard time getting jobs and many were undereducated, dropping out of school to try to find work. Some, like Ken, became politically active in different directions. Some also were attracted to the thought of fighting in situations like the Spanish War, though today we could compare it with those going to fight for or against ISIL.

I found that the story gave me some insights into the lives of my grandparents and it certainly was a stroll down a memory lane that preceded my arrival in the world. It was a good story that looked at the kind of people who even in poverty managed to get through life.