BY Keith Roulston
It’s not often that I get to review a book about living in this part of Ontario but, thankfully, Dorothy Brown Henderson periodically provides an opportunity to do so. Her most recent example is her novel, Dreaming in Grey .
A retired minister, most recently at Calvin Presbyterian Church in Exeter, Henderson is currently living in Waterloo. She has written three previous novels: The Season for Strawberries, Happy Are Those, and Dr. Bloom’s Event. She’s also written a cookbook: Loving it Local: Preparing Delicious Fresh Local Food. In fact she includes a couple of recipes as an appendix.
Dreaming In Grey covers five generations of a Grey County family, dating back to Granny Stewart in 1935, through her daughters, Jean, who marries a farmer and Edith, a school teacher; Jean’s daughter Ruth, who married farmer William Armstrong; their sons Greyson, who marries Debbie, and their children, Kep, Sara, Ben and Normie as well as Greyson’s younger brother, Tom.
The book begins with the current family in 2008, jumping backward in that most recent generation of the family, including the sudden death of Debbie, soon after the family moves to Markdale from a farm farther north in Grey. The story is centered around one of the children, Sara.
After 50-odd pages, it jumps back to the earlier branch of the family, in 1935, again around one of the children, Ruth, her aunt Edith, a teacher, and her grandmother, who live together in Flesherton.
Another roughly 50 pages and we’re back with Sara, whose father Greyson is hoping to become reeve of Markdale in the new era of municipal amalgamation in 2002.
We return to Flesherton in 1938 when Ruth prepares for high school while living with her Aunt Ruth and grandmother. During the war years, she marries William in 1939, while she’s still a teenager, and they begin an operation growing vegetables and hire the Farmerettes, a service of young women who helped with farm work when there was a shortage of labour during World War II. After they arrive, Ruth decides to attend the Hamilton Technical Institute to put her sewing talents to work helping meet the labour shortage and intensive work at war plants.
While she’s away, William gets one of the Farmerettes pregnant and a bitter Ruth comes home to adopt the baby, Greyson, and raise him. Much later, when she is 41, too old she thought to get pregnant, she has a son Tom. Greyson and Tom, 20 years apart in age, never get along. We end the story with Sara in 2009 when she and her brother Kep meet for Christmas. More secrets are revealed.
If it seems like a lot to keep in your mind, it is. It becomes a little hard to keep all the people straight in all the time periods. Still, Henderson has many good story lines to reveal — such as the Farmerettes. She’s also anxious to show us something of Agnes Macphail, a Member of Parliament from Grey and an early member the of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) the forerunner of the New Democratic Party.
There are other items about the interesting history of Grey, such as the settlement of Black refugees from the U.S. on the Old Durham Road in the 1800s, all gone by the 1930s. There’s a sense of what the Depression was like for people who had little, even if they didn’t starve.
Indeed sometimes it seems as if Henderson wants to make sure readers are aware of as much of the story of northern Grey as possible and sometimes it seems they might get swallowed up by the history.
Still, despite that, it’s an enjoyable leap into the story of Grey over 80 years and there are interesting characters for readers to care about. Whether you’re from Grey or just want to learn about it, you may enjoy this book.◊