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Term Definition

The novel Cabbagetown provides a relatively distinctive perspective into life in a slum in the city of Toronto, Canada. Cabbagetown was actually the name of the slum itself. The main plot of the novel is set during the Great Depression. As such, the novel has sometimes been recognized as a kind of Canadian equivalent of the more famous novel Grapes of Wrath, by Steinbeck, which portrays America during the Great Depression. 

Introduction To Cabbagetown

Cabbagetown is a 1950 period novel by British-born Canadian writer Hugh Garner (1913-1979). Set in the impoverished titular enclave of Toronto at the outset of the Great Depression, the novel is one of the few pre-60s books to candidly depict topics like sex, profanity, and radicalism.

The novel opens with Ontarian teens making awkward transitions to admittedly dead-end adulthoods. Prospects are bleak in Cabbagetown, but struggling youth like Ken Tilling and Myrla Patson bide their time with odd jobs and recreational flings. But when the stock market crashes, the bottom falls out on an already weak local economy. As conditions go from bad to worse, youthful mischief gives way to various acts of crime. Sensing little in their futures, the characters turn to everything from theft and prostitution to violence and political extremism. 

Plot Of Cabbagetown

Cabbagetown is notable for casting Depression-Era Toronto in a grim light, in contrast to the puritanical facade that was typically assigned to the area during the early 20th century. This is not the Old Ontario of propriety and manners; it's an environment where young people engage in promiscuous sex, binge drinking, and crimes of every type while showing no respect for customs or authority. The political turmoil of 1930s Europe also touch upon the characters in Cabbagetown, where some kids get lured into violent fascist activity and Tilling later enlists in the Lincoln Battalion for the Spanish Civil War.

Critics have noted that one of Garner's main strengths is depicting the struggles faced by common people in Depression-scale crises, and the poor choices that many people feel forced to make under such circumstances. The author sympathizes with the working class and takes a critical eye toward the unregulated corporate monopolies that lead to economic meltdowns, but he stops well short of advocating a worker's revolution; arguing instead for state intervention on the free market only at times when the public is most in need.

Additional Information On Hugh Garner

Cabbagetown stood out from other depictions of Old Ontario in large part because of Garner's working class, inner-city Protestant upbringing. It was a rare combination of starting factors for a Canadian writer of his generation, but it all added up to a world view—one of empathy towards socio-economic victims and frankness regarding society's seedier underbelly—that he channeled into most of his work, of which Cabbagetown is the most famous example. 

Cabbagetown was originally published in abridged form, but an expanded version hit the market in 1968, at which point the book's tales of social strife and reckless, ill-spent youth seemed timelier than ever. In 1976, Garner published a sequel, The Intruders, which depicts conditions in the Cabbagetown enclave after a quarter-century of gentrification. Today, the now middle-class neighborhood shows virtually no trace of the squalor and decay that the author illustrated in his 1950 novel.

By the 1970s, Garner's earlier work had become far less shocking to younger readers as newer author's explored similar topics with more vulgarity. Garner himself turned mostly to writing mystery novels until alcoholism claimed him by decade's end. A Cabbagetown housing development was posthumously named in his honor.

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