I hope some of you will join me tomorrow online with the Montreal Gazette at noon for a live chat about my book, With a Closed Fist!
There had been rumours that people were going to crash Kathy Dobson’s book launch Nov. 4 at St. Columba House in Point St. Charles to express indignation over the way they had heard she portrays growing up in the Point a generation ago in her new memoir, With a Closed Fist: Growing Up in Canada’s Toughest Neighbourhood. But it turned out to be a pleasant event, she says.
“I heard those rumours too, that some people were deeply offended that I had misrepresented life in the Point,” says Dobson, now 51 and living in Waterloo, Ont. “I think this speaks to an issue – the way we tend to romanticize poverty. That’s why I wanted to do this book – to show the ugly side of poverty.”
Dobson will be participating in a live online chat with me at noon today at montrealgazette.com. On Sunday, she is scheduled to appear at the Books & Breakfast event at the downtown Le Centre Sheraton.
A review of With a Closed Fist, by The Gazette’s Peggy Curran, was published in the Oct. 22 Books section; Curran called it “Angela’s Ashes on Centre St., without the laughs.”
After the review appeared, The Gazette received several letters to the editor defending life in the Point. Pat Digman Reff, who left the neighbourhood in 1960, wrote from Campbellsville, Ky., that Dobson shouldn’t “make it out that the Point was a tough neighbourhood. It was a good place to grow up, and even after 50 years many of us still keep in touch and have good and happy lives.” Another letter-writer said: “I am proud to have grown up in the Point. I have never been ashamed of it.” And still another wrote of “the hard-working, loving people I grew up with” in the neighbourhood.
For her part, Dobson says she shares the letter-writers’ view that the Point was a good place to grow up, in spite of the district’s disadvantaged conditions.
“If I had to grow up all over again poor – and I’ve said this over and over – I would want to do that in the Point. It was a very connected community,” she says.
Gentrification has given the Point, or at least parts of it, a fresh new look in recent years. Many older buildings have been turned into condos and lofts, including old factory buildings along the Lachine Canal.
“The buildings have changed, but in terms of the people, I’m not an expert on the Point today, but I walked around before my book launch and the people looked a lot like the people I knew growing up,” Dobson says.
Her memoir is written in the present tense, in Dobson’s own voice as she is growing up. It begins in 1968, when she is 8 years old and living with her five sisters and her mother, Eileen. It is through Eileen’s relationship with well-meaning, left-leaning social workers and medical students from McGill University, whom Eileen meets at St Columba House, that she becomes politicized puts Kathy and her two older sisters into public schools in Westmount.
“I went to Westmount Park School, and then Westmount High,” says Dobson. She left Montreal at age 22, returned at age 24, then left again at age 30. Today, she works as a freelance journalist and blogger and is a married mother of five.
With a Closed Fist isn’t the only English-language book that has come out this year that puts a focus on poverty in Montreal several decades ago. In Montreal’s Irish Mafia: The True Story of the Infamous West End Gang, author D’Arcy O’Connor describes how young families of Irish origin in Griffintown used to look to Point St. Charles as a step up in the world.
“I used to hear that, too,” says Dobson. “Just like Verdun was seen as a step up from the Point. In fact, I ended up marrying a guy from Verdun.”
“So you married up, then?” I say to her over the phone.
“Well, that’s what my husband keeps telling me.”