Esther Paul

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A Railway Kid



A Railway Kid: Stories of a Prairie Childhood in the Great Depression

About the Book

This book is a memoir about a girl growing up in Minnedosa – a small railway town in Manitoba, in the era of steam trains. It was originally written for the author’s grandsons, to tell them about life in a very different time: the 1930's, an era far removed from today’s fast-paced technological world. Esther says, “The old way of life is long gone and I felt it would be a pity to be forgotten; not that it was better, but simply a road travelled to where we are now.”

Esther says, “These are my recollections written with some licence to fill in the gaps where my memory fails me.”

Esther’s book appeals to railroaders, as well as to small-town prairie people from the 1930's — the years of the “Great Depression.” The end chapters on her nurses’ training in the early 1950's will resonate with all nurses of her generation, before modern technology took over.

Author Mary Cook says, “A most enjoyable read. Esther has most skilfully mixed humour with pathos.”

Minnedosa train station circa 1930's


Read Excerpts from A Railway Kid:

Prairie Fire

“...Our wood-burning kitchen stove soothed me when, as a child, I rocked by the hour on an old armless rocker by its hot side. Painted white, the rocker had red and white gingham-checked cushions on its seat and back. I can still hear its hypnotic creak, creak, creak. I’d sit there, comforted by the stove’s warmth, rocking and dreaming, as often as I could commandeer that spot, for it was also favoured by my two brothers Billy and Charlie and my older sister Patsy.

A daydreamer, my mind in the clouds, wandering exotic landscapes, dressed in flowing robes of reds, oranges and yellows, with long blond tresses (unlike my actual mousy brown hair), I engaged in conversation with creatures of my mind, both human and divine. Rocking there, I felt transported from my everyday existence as I indulged in my favourite pastime – endless what-iffing.

My what-iffing sometimes got me in trouble – particularly when I put my ideas into action. Take the time, at age five, when I set the prairie on fire with stolen matches from the upper warming cabinet of the kitchen stove. I had climbed up on a chair and helped myself. Matches could be struck on anything back then: a rock, a fence, my shoe.

Across the road from our house, the huge field of dry prairie grass beckoned. One hot, dry, windy August day I pulled out tufts of grass, mounded them up, struck a match on a rock, and held it to the little pile. The wind blew it out. Tried again. Same thing. A-h-h. Must shield the flame with my body. Success! The grass caught and quickly burned a black fire circle. Too quickly, the circle widened alarmingly. I tried to stamp it out but it spread to room size, then house size. I had not known, until then, the power of the wind. Frightened, I backed away, turned tail, and ran. . . .”

My Irish Grandfather

“...My Grampa, named Thomas Donlon, stowed away at age 12 on a boat bound for Canada in 1869, so the family story goes. Without a goodbye to his mother or family he left poverty behind in Ballymakeegan, County Longford, Ireland. Tales of a better life in the new world beckoned.

Upon his arrival he sought employment wherever he could find it – in lumber mills and logging camps in eastern Canada. He later found work building the new Canadian railways: the Great Northern and then the Canadian Pacific, where he later became a car foreman in Manitoba.

When he was about 20 my grandfather returned briefly to Ireland, perhaps a little homesick, and to reassure his mother that he was all right. He had saved up enough money for his passage. He simply walked in the door of his childhood home without any forewarning.

I can picture his homecoming: after a quick rap on the door, he would open it without waiting for an answer and step into the dark interior of the small thatched cottage on the hill. He would see his mother bent over a peat fire, perhaps stirring a pot of stew simmering there. She would swing around, spoon in hand, squinting at the tall stranger in the dim light as he spoke.
“Hello, Mother,” he would say in his deep manly voice, a shy smile upon his face.
She would stare hard, with head cocked quizzically, then give a small yelp as she recognized the grown version of her son Thomas. What a reunion! . . .”

Fetching Potatoes

“...As a child growing up on the Prairies in the 1930s, I found life to be both a challenge and a wonderful adventure. In the magical years before I turned eight or nine I allowed my imagination free rein, which proved most often to be a blessing, but sometimes could be a curse. My flights of fancy, wherein I was the star, exhilarated and entertained me for hours on end, but I suffered the agonies of being annihilated by dark and dangerous creatures too. One such fearful fantasy involved fetching potatoes from the bin in the cellar.

That cobwebby underground cavern housed an ancient coal-burning furnace with pipe tentacles reaching upward like an upside-down spider. Its greedy maw needed constant feeding in Manitoba’s sub-zero months. When Grampa got that thing red-hot it cracked and hissed and every once in a while gave a thump when a clinker fell into the ash-pan. One dim bulb illumined the whole earthen-floored cellar. In the darkest corner of the cellar, farthest from the light, Grampa had built two floor-to-ceiling wooden bins half full of sand where, each fall, he buried the summer’s root vegetables to tide us over the winter: potatoes, carrots, and beets. No light in these bins. . . .

...When Mom told me to bring the potatoes from the cellar for supper I would always try to get out of doing it, for I loathed that task.

“I got them last time,” I’d whine. “Can’t Billy get them this time?”

“No. Just get on down there – you’re a big girl now. Don’t be so silly!”

I didn’t feel very big right then, even though I was seven. “Oh, I hate it down there. Can’t I do something else instead?”

“No. Now stop this nonsense! Get going!”

Quaking inside, I reluctantly opened the trap door to the cellar and quickly descended the steep narrow wooden steps, which were more like a ladder than stairs. A boogeyman could reach through the black spaces between the steps to grab a little girl’s legs!...”

ISBN 0-88887-215-1


Copyright 2012 © Esther Paul. All rights reserved.