Quill and Quire

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The Education of Mr. Whippoorwill: A Country Boyhood

by David Zieroth

Although its folksy title and slapdash cover warn of mediocre things to come, this slender memoir by poet David Zieroth is a satisfying and tautly written account of growing up on a prairie farm. Zieroth keeps the interest level high by telling the story in vignettes, each with a prose-poem-like intensity of observation that puts the reader in the middle of the action: on the milking stool and behind the school desk with Zieroth as he matures.

The youngest of four children, Zieroth is mostly left to his own devices outside the routines of school and farm chores, and we benefit from his attentiveness to his local world. The narrative begins with the birth of a calf in a barn – no date, no location given – and holds our attention throughout with a careful unfurling of the specifics of one man’s boyhood. The writing is vivid, and Zieroth’s economical descriptions of family visits and country hijinks pack colour into simple language.

Zieroth also inhabits a child’s point-of-view persuasively, suggesting the wonders and uncertainties – such as his attempts to know his reserved, middle-aged father – that are a constant presence in many a young boy’s mind. And as he reveals the environment gradually – the farm is near Neepawa, Manitoba, the time is the 1950s – Zieroth creates a poignant record of the art of farming as it was then. At one point, he’s assigned the chore of removing mustard weeds from a 40-acre wheat field by hand.

This is a quiet, non-barnburner of a book. File it under wheat, not chaff, though. Zieroth has found a narrative voice that is wry and terse, and his close but unfussy perceptions convey a rich portrait of a way of life that once involved more muscle than machine.