November 14, 2012

Sepia Saturday # 152: What was he reading?

My Grandfather, Guy Wheelock Harris,
on the front porch at 9 York St., Glace Bay

I've had this photo of my mother's father in my possession for some time, and I love it for many reasons.  I like the casual, relaxed pose in the rocking chair.  I love the fact that he's on the porch of the house where my mom and her siblings were born and raised.  Most of all, I love that he has a book in his lap, and judging by the bookmark, he was about three quarters of the way through.

I have always longed to know what that book was.  At first, I assumed he might be reading the Bible - my mother came from a staunch Catholic home.  My Grandfather, Guy, upon marrying my Grandmother, converted to the Catholic faith.  He had abandoned the Baptist faith of his family and ancestors and for a long time, his family ostracized him as a result.  In fact, it wasn't just his family; the Protestant townspeople who knew his father, made sure that he couldn't get a job with any of their businesses.

I have always known that my Grandfather was a clerk for The Dominion Coal Company which ran the coal mines on the edge of Glace Bay, but I only recently learned that he was a insurance salesman when he was first married to my Grandmother, Katie McNeil.  I found this out when I happened to do a search using my family tree on and their new Canadian Voter Lists record popped up.  There's my Grandfather, at 9 York St. listed as working in insurance.

Sure enough, my mother confirms that this was the job he had to take to feed his family, until I guess, my Great-grandfather (his Father-in-Law, the Town Clerk) secured him a job with Dominion Coal.

But back to the book.  When I doctored up this photo from its original state, and then zoomed in on the book, it was easy to see that it was not the Bible.  This presented a mystery that I just had to try and solve!

Knowing that the photo was taken in the 1950s  (I think it's around the time that my aunt, Joan wed her husband, Malcolm Read in about 1955.)  I know that their first child was born in 1956, and since she had children almost every year until 1962, I can deduce that the first baby was born right away, which testifies to the 1955 marriage date.

Given that books were not as readily available as they are today (especially in a small town), I would say it is likely the one on his lap could have been from a library.  I did some digging.

In 1950, the Glace Bay branch of the brand new Cape Breton Regional Library was opened. Hmm.  Now, what books were popular in the 1950s?

Here's a great list I found:

(It's interesting how many of these books were turned into films.)

1. From Here to Eternity, James Jones
2. Return to Paradise, James A. Michener
3. The Silver Chalice, Thomas B. Costain
4. East of Eden, John Steinbeck
5. Giant, Edna Ferber
6. The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway
7. The Robe, Lloyd C. Douglas
8. Desiree, Annmarie Selinko
9. Battle Cry, Leon M. Uris
10. Love is Eternal, Irving Stone
11. The Egyptian, Mika Waltari
12. No Time For Sergeants, Mac Hyman
13. Auntie Mame, Patrick Dennis
14. Andersonville, MacKinlay Kanto
15. Bonjour Tristesse, Francoise Sagan
16. Peyton Place, Grace Metalious
17. Eloise, Kay Thompson
18. The Tribe That Lost Its Head, Nicholas Monsarrat
19. The Mandarins, Simone de Beauvoir
20. Rally Round the Flag, Boys! Max Shulman
21. Blue Camellia, Frances Parkinson Keyes
22. The Scapegoat, Daphne du Maurier
23. On the Beach, Nevil Shute
24. Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand
25. Doctor Zhivago, Boris Pasternak
26. Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
27. Exodus, Leon Uris
28. Poor No More, Robert Ruark
29. The Ugly American, William J. Lederer and Eugene L. Burdick
30. Lady Chatterley's Lover, D.H. Lawrence

 I can rule out a number of these titles. Anything that is frivolous or risque ("Lolita", for example) is out! Anything that is strictly for the woman's market, like "Peyton Place" - nope.  That leaves me with religious stories (quite possibly, "The Robe", "The Silver Chalice" or "Exodus" might be candidates). A war story like "From Here to Eternity" might be the one. I want to narrow it down further, so I decide to take a look at the original covers of these books to see if I can match them to the photo. The book looks dark with white writing to me - could be dark blue or black, and the title looks to be either one or two words only - a bold heading.  Looking at some of the vintage covers on various sites, I can rule out almost any of the ones I was considering, until ... I hit upon this one:

It just so happens, that this book was published in 1955.  I can see my 61-year old Grandfather signing this out of the fairly new local library to read a tale that interweaves the stories of real and fictional characters in the Civil War who were held captive at this notorious war-prison.  It sounds like a cracker of a book to me!

If my Grandfather did sign out this book, (Let's say, on his way home from work, he popped into the library, perused the NEW BOOKS shelf and took this one up to the front desk), he could very well have handed his selection to this, then 48-year old  lady, to have her stamp his card, smile and say, "Have a nice day!'

Ida Gallant Delaney (click image for bio)

Of course this is all just speculation; I will never know for certain that this is the book that was resting on his lap in this photo. He could have favoured NON-fiction, for all I know. For that matter, Ida may not even have worked at the front desk, but it's sure fun to imagine!

Coincidentally, only this morning, I have just discovered the e-books feature on Goodreads and have begun to read a book that I have been meaning to read for ages.  It also happens to be the last one on the FICTION list.  I don't think my Baptist-to-Catholic Grandfather would have approved, do you?

Don't forget to visit the Sepia Saturday blog to find everyone else's take on the image below:

Click to link to SS.


  1. I love your detective work Kat!! Great job! I saw "Auntie Mame" on your book list. I haven't read the book, but it is one of my favorite movies! Rosalind Russell is spectacular as Mame Dennis.

  2. Thanks, Jana! It was lots of fun! So "Auntie Mame" was a true story? I never knew that. I haven't seen the film in its entirety - only bits and pieces, and of course, I know the song. Will have to watch for it on TCM.

  3. Too bad he didn't hold the book so you could see the cover better.

    Coincidentally, my post is probably going to be called "What Are They Reading?"

    1. I know! It would have been very helpful if he had been holding it up! Oh, well!
      I'll look forward to that post of yours Postcardy!

  4. What an exciting post. It's amazing how many of those popular books are still well-known today. And by the way, my parents had "The Robe" on their nightstand in the 50s.

    1. Thanks, Wendy! I think my own parents had a copy of "The Robe". My dad read all sorts of books, and that would definitely have been one he would read too.

  5. Really enjoyed your combination of detective work and speculation! It's fun to see where a photo can lead. And that is such a great picture! Do you also do mind reading? I'd like to know what he is thinking about. Did he just read a passage from the book that made him want to stop and think about it? Or did he bring the book out on the porch to read, but got lost in thought about something else?

    1. Ha! Thanks, Kathy! I think he hasn't opened the book yet. He's just enjoying the feeling of sitting, having a smoke(I think) and knowing that he can read it if he wants to. That would be me (minus the smoke).

  6. I like the photo too, even though I have no hope of making out what book he is reading. I like the way some old photos are sort of misty and mysterious looking. My sister was in Auntie Mame in high school. I can't remember if she was Auntie Mame or someone else.

    1. I think my photo-work in Picasa may have added to the mysterious effect, Kristin.
      I really must get hold of this "Auntie Mame"; everyone talks it up so well.

  7. Goodness, Kat -- I've read 12 of those books, including Lady Chatterly, which we all thought was absolutely scandalous back then; now, of course, it's probably considered boring! Great post!

    1. Deb, what was interesting was that my husband had placed the book in the 1950s and I had thought that it was far earlier. Of course, we both forgot how it had been banned for over 30 years! I'm sure it won't shock me, but there may be words that will make me squirm!

  8. Kat; it is a beautiful, very precious photo. The picture has a very nice ambiance. Books from 1955, these are the books I read, still can pick one up and read again. Peyton Place was très risqué!
    How clever of you to find out what sort of book your grandfather was reading.

    1. Thank you, Titania. I love the ambience, as you say, very much. I didn't know him very well, since he died when I was Three, but I do have a very strong memory of holding his hand and him buying me an ice cream in a cup. I would love to have known him better-- discussed his book with him.

  9. It's a meaningful photo. You present good research too, it's wonderful! I loved the book list you presented of the 1950. I have only a few of them on my ebook reader like Dr. Zhivago and Lolita, but unfortunately, I have not read yet.

    1. Thank you, Chris, I worked at it for some time. When I get a bee in my bonnet, there's no stopping me! Like you, I have loads of books that are waiting to be read.
      I haven't read any of this list though.
      So far, I am liking "LCL", but I'm only up to Chapter Three.

  10. I believe I have read almost half (14) of the books on your list and I even have a 1957 copy of Daphne du Maurier's "The Scapegoat" on my bookshelf. Fine photo - I wonder whether in a few years time a library's electronic records will be able to tell people what we read today.

    1. Wow, Bob! You must be quite well read! You haven't read "Andersonville", have you? I've seen film adaptations of Du Maurier, but not read her. I've been to the "Jamaica Inn" in SW England, Cornwall, I think ( I wasn't the driver and it was 20 years ago).

  11. Imagining a hypothesis and then do the detective work! Well done and as long as nobody comes up with a better idea...
    Judging by the way your grandfather holds his left hand (was he left-handed?) he was smoking a cigar.
    And as far as your last question is concerned, you will never know whether your Baptist-to-Catholic Grandfather ever considered a career in forestry :)

  12. Peter, I think he may have been smoking a narrow cigar, but I have never considered if he was Lefty. I do have another photo of him smoking; I'll have to check that out when I'm on my desktop PC.
    Not sure about the Forestry, but you did pick a very likely option since Cape Breton is loaded with forest. In fact, I had an uncle and cousin who both were in the lumber industry.

  13. Replies
    1. Thanks for reading; glad you enjoyed it.

  14. I have read 14 of those books, including the last one. It was over shadowed finally by Fifty Shades. It looks like the book your grand had has a picture of someone's face on it. Maybe he liked biographies.
    Great sleuthing.

    1. QMM, Don't get me started on "Filthy Shades". (That's NOT a typo.)

      Hmm! I hadn't considered that there's a face on the cover; back to my research then!

  15. That is an amazing list, I have read most of them and did not think Exodus was that old, but there it is. You have done a lot of thinking on this obviously. I think his photo on the porch is reminiscent of a Rockwell sketch. And yes the bitterness and bigotry between Protestants and Catholics existed well into the 1950's in the PA town where I grew up too. At least to me it seemed the Protestants always thought themselves superior, lots of thoughts from your post.

    1. Pat, I was fortunate not to grow up in an arena of religious bigotry, but being the child of an Irish Catholic father, I was we'll aware of it.
      You're right about the Rockwell, I think he may have been due to my grandfather's slight frame. Rockwell's figures always seem to be rather skinny, don't they?

  16. I'm glad you researched the book and not the cigar (smoking bad, reading good!).

    1. That's it in a nutshell, Rob! I'm very much against smoking.

  17. A very entertaining detective story. Reading is such a personal choice and one we can rarely discover about our ancestors. I remember when library books had cards and a date stamp, you could learn the name of the last person who had read that copy. Google books usually include the image of that last page.

    1. I remember that too, Mike! That was my favourite part--putting one's name on the card signified ownership in a way, if only temporary. It was also a reminder that you would have to pay up, if you missed that day on the stamp. Of course, some of those cards just happened to go astray, on occasion. :-)

  18. What a story you weave Kat, magnificent. As for final proof of which book it was, I guess you will have to wait until the Glace Bay Library records are digitised! Now that would be an interesting archive to have on-line.

  19. Ooh, I hadn't though of that, Alan. There are so many Internet eventualities that will solve lots of mysteries, aren't there?

  20. Wow...what interesting detective work. This was just a terrific post and I love the book list. You have an incredible imagination and weave a fascinating web.

  21. Fun detective work and now I must add Andersonville to my list of books to read on Goodreads.

    One of the things that I love about one of the diaries I am reading is that the diarist sometimes recorded what she was reading, the names of plays she went to see and the names of musicians at musical performances. I am positively itching to research each page!

  22. @Peter M - Well, if the SHOE fits ...

  23. Ah!! My father also went from Baptist to Catholic in order to marry my mom, but only on paper. He was not ostracized by his fellow baptists but my mom was... Me, I was given a free pass as I showed no interest for the Catholic faith, but then, I didn't either for the Baptist one... My curiosity was short lived.

    I love how you search to find what he might have been reading.
    This is a good possibility.
    The only one I remember reading for sure is Bonjour Tristesse as Sagan proved to be a favorite of mine during my teens and early adulthood. Like you said, many of those other titles were made into movies, which I've seen.

    Good post!!