Doreen Johnson

From the homestead to the shelf

Doreen Johnson publishes a family history that took decades to write.

Doreen Johnson never stepped into a library until she was 13.

The youngster, born in rural Saskatchewan, was enamoured with books – not just reading, but the idea that you could have a book on the shelf with your name on it.

Until she stepped into that library in Vancouver, after she moved to B.C. at the age off 11, she had never even heard the word “author.”

Now 76, the Fleetwood resident is one herself – after being told by her high school teacher that she would never write a book.

Johnson has published a historical fiction based on her mother Elsie Frey’s experiences in rural Saskatchewan in the 1930s and ’40s.

“Momma, Momma, the Preachers’ Comin” isn’t Little House on the Prairie.

It tells of the hardship, destitution, hunger and cold – conditions that Johnson experienced herself in that house, with her brother Edwin (a year older) and father Raphael.

While Elsie had a Grade 4 education, Raphael never learned to read, and the family struggled on their homestead in Carrot River, a village at the end of a railway line about 250 kilometres northeast of Saskatoon.

They harvested what they could, and had four cows, two horses and a handful of pigs and chickens, allowing them to scrape by.

Doreen says she and her brother were the poorest kids at school. Their father told them each year that the Easter Bunny wasn’t coming, while they saw their classmates eating chocolates.

The kids had three outfits, two for regular use, and a Sunday outfit.

Johnson learned about being poor when on some Sundays, the local Lutheran minister would come to their house, since the nearest church was too far way.

He came with his family, which included two well-dressed young daughters in “city clothes” who snubbed Doreen and her brother.

The kids usually stayed outside while the adults spoke, since the family had only four chairs.

Johnson didn’t particularly like the preacher’s family, and her mother was often upset because of the way she was dressed and had to give away food they couldn’t afford.

“(The preacher) wanted to make sure we were alive, but he sure didn’t bring us anything,” Doreen recalls.

“They had fancy clothes, but you had manners,” Raphael would say to his kids afterwards.

Walking a mile to school (until the later years, when their school was closed and the distance grew to 3.5 miles of walking or hitching rides), they faced deep snow and wind, and winter temperatures of minus 30 or 35. The family’s long-distance transportation was either a wagon or sled.

While their father wasn’t big on pushing them to go to school when the weather was bad, their mother said they should go “as long as we could see where we were going,” recalls Johnson.

Her mother, respecting the idea of learning and reading, was enthusiastic when Johnson returned with homework and reading materials, so she could do some reading herself.

During warm weather, Johnson would sit outside the house for hours watching butterflies and making up stories in her head.

Years later, in high school in Vancouver, she would continue to dream of writing, but after Grade 11, she got a job at a bank that paid $125 per month.

Eventually, she put her destitute past behind her, got married in 1958 to her husband Elmer and moved to Newton, where with hammer and nails, they built a house together.

Elmer died in 2000, and Johnson remarried in 2005. Her husband Bob supported her’s efforts to write an autobiography, and then the idea of writing a novel about her mother’s life.

In “Momma, Momma, the Preachers’ Comin,” names have been changed – including Carrot River – but the history remains.

For the cover, Johnson used the only picture she had of the front of the little house she grew up in. It was taken in 1945 by her brother, then eight years old, with the family’s box camera.

Johnson believes her mother would have liked the cover of the book, with her on it, but she wasn’t happy at the time the photo was taken.

“Mother just about skinned us alive.”

Doreen Johnson’s novel is available at http://amzn.to/1T4vdvA

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