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Seasons Before the War

by Bernice Morgan; Brita Granström (ill.)

“Once upon a time, long, long ago, in a world where the First World War was history and the Second World War was unimaginable …” That’s how Bernice Morgan sets the scene for her new picture book. It’s a dramatic start to a narrative that was originally part of a Christmas choral concert, performed by Shallaway Youth Choir.

Morgan depicts her childhood growing up in 1930s St. John’s, Newfoundland, using a seasonal motif. In spring, the children lay claim to the fields closest to their home. It’s relatively safe for the narrator to roam; thanks to her grandmother, she’s well aware of the dangers of chasing a ball into the street or venturing too close to the wharf.

In summer, readers enjoy a tour of the city’s shops, meet tradespeople, and encounter curiosities like horses that deliver “flowered-covered caskets to graveyards” and bull’s-eye stores where children can trade glass bottles for lemon jawbreakers and chocolate mice. 

Scenes of fall and winter mainly take place indoors, with the narrator starting school, playing near the big, black kitchen stove that keeps the house heated, or watching a parent repair a shoe.

Morgan’s elaborate descriptions are enhanced by Brita Granström’s evocative illustrations. Granström’s masterful use of light lends a cozy glow to the book; her characters are whimsical and her landscapes and streetscapes are true to the time period.

While Seasons Before the War is a charming picture book, it still reads like concert narration – there are characters but no discernible conflicts, and a vivid setting but no plot. It isn’t an obvious choice for young readers, unless they’re naturally interested in this particular place or time.

But this lovely collection of childhood memories will no doubt find its audience – adult readers who enjoy reminiscing and sharing stories about their own years growing up in Newfoundland and those who lived between the World Wars.