Ross Annett

Alberta's unknown literary populist

By Aaron Giovannone

If you’ve heard of Ronald Ross Annett, that’s probably because his name graces the Writers’ Guild of Alberta’s award for Children’s Literature, established in 1982. Before Annett died in 1988, he was also recognized with honours from the City of Edmonton and the Province of Alberta and a medal for the Queen’s Jubilee in 1977. But while echoes of his name can be heard today, Annett’s work lies forgotten. An internet search returns no news or magazine articles, nor even a Wikipedia page about Annett. In academic databases, I didn’t find any peer-reviewed articles about him, and I only could dig up two mentions in literary histories. Happily his one published book, 1978’s Especially Babe (a reissue of the 1942 first edition), contains an illuminating introduction by Rudy Wiebe and an interview with the author himself. Otherwise, to find out more about Annett you need access to the archives of The Saturday Evening Post, Maclean’s and the Calgary Herald, which is where I went.

Ronald Ross Annett was the author of a long-running series of family-friendly short fiction in the iconic American magazine The Saturday Evening Post. His 72 stories, appearing between 1938 and 1960, feature six-year-old Babe and her family: father Big Joe, drunken Uncle Pete, tutor Miss Hans and older brother Little Joe. The stories are set in the fictional prairie town of Benson, Alberta—inspired by Annett’s life in the farming village of Consort, Alberta, where he lived for 30 years. With his fiction appearing regularly in a magazine that enjoyed a weekly circulation of six million at its height, Annett may have been the most widely read Canadian writer of his time, and most certainly was the most widely read Albertan.

Why, then, has Annett’s work fallen into obscurity? His stories were strongly shaped by a Depression-era populism, which aligned the common “people”—generally Babe’s family—against the “elite”: the police, debt collectors, the wealthy, even a fussy reverend. This populist vision thrived during the scarcity and class conflict of the 1930s. In the post-Second World War period, however, Annett’s populism fit awkwardly into a nation growing in affluence and developing a social democratic consensus, which accepted the legitimacy of elite management of the economy, government and even culture, through cultural institutions such as the CBC, the Canada Council for the Arts and the expanding public universities. Today, we are living through our own economic and political turmoil, with the legitimacy of the social democratic nation severely eroded by decades of neoliberal disinvestment, and with distrust in institutions and elites growing. In our time of renewed populism, Ross Annett’s Babe stories are worth revisiting, not just for history’s sake, but also for their unique charms and comforts.

 

Annett was born in 1895 in Watford, a farming village in southwestern Ontario, halfway between London and Sarnia. According to a 1941 autobiographical note included in The Saturday Evening Post, Annett lived in New York as a young boy, but then was sent back to Watford to live with his grandparents, where he spent the rest of his boyhood. (His mother’s grave is in Saratoga County, New York, and so perhaps she never returned to Canada.) A 1978 biography lists Annett’s favorite writers as Charles Dickens, Sir Walter Scott and—the most obvious influence on Annett—the late-19th-century popular adventure author G.A. Henty. After graduating high school, he took a job at the London Advertiser and sold his first story, a piece about hunting, to the Canadian outdoors magazine Rod & Gun. At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 Annett attempted to join the Canadian Expeditionary Force but was rejected for being too short. Then he moved west, to Wetaskiwin, where a brother lived, and there he met his future wife, Lenora (known as Leyanne). Annett hustled jobs around central Alberta, including as a farm labourer and biscuit salesman, but found out he could make as much money teaching. After brief assignments in Thorsby and New Norway, in 1915 he successfully enrolled in the armed forces, joining the Western Universities’ Battalion. He fought and was wounded in the hip at Vimy Ridge, which incident, according to The Saturday Evening Post, left Annett with a limp.

The acceptance letter came with a request for more stories—and a cheque for $500. That was nearly half a year’s salary in Annett’s school district.

After the war Annett returned to teaching in towns across Alberta and dedicated more time to writing for “the pulps”: westerns, war adventure and detective stories. He married Leyanne in 1922, and a year later the couple found themselves in Consort, where Annett was teaching at the school. However, in 1924, still hoping to become a professional writer, Annett packed up his young family and headed to the US, first to Great Falls, Montana, then Salt Lake City, then finally New York City. “To make money, you have to go where the money is,” Annett wrote about this experience in Maclean’s in 1926. The young family rented in New Jersey while Annett worked an office job in Manhattan. By 1929 he had a poorly paying magazine writing contract for an overwhelming 20,000 words a month for Street & Smith Publications, which owned several pulp outfits. With the Depression now beginning to bite, in 1930 the couple returned to Alberta, settling again in Consort, where Annett was offered the principalship of the school. The farming village in eastern Alberta became the Annetts’ long-time home and furnished Annett with the material for his unlikely writing success to come.

While working as a teacher and raising his family, Annett still wrote and sent out stories, with declining success as the Depression wore on and publishing venues closed. According to a 1956 column in the Calgary Herald Annett liked to write late at night. He’d drink a pot of strong coffee at 10 p.m., stop for a pipe of tobacco at midnight, then keep writing until 3:00 a.m.. The Christmas break of 1937 allowed Annett some breathing room, an opportunity to put extra care into a story called “It’s Gotta Rain Sometime,” about a widower father on a dustbowl farm. He sent it to the prestigious and well-paying The Saturday Evening Post on January 31, 1938. “I never even told my wife,” he said. “Just false hopes.” On February 17 the acceptance letter came, with a request for more stories—and a cheque for $500. That was nearly half a year’s salary in his school district. “I’ll never forget getting my first $500 cheque,” he said in a 1971 interview. “Word got around, and the postmaster asked, ‘Gee, Ross, that’s for how many volumes?’ ”

Annett would publish another story in the Post that year, “The Tooteress,” in which he introduces the character of Miss Hans, and both stories were smash hits. In a poll of Post editors “It’s Gotta Rain Sometime” was chosen story of the year, and “The Tooteress” received top spot in a poll of Post readers.

In 1941 Annett quit his day job to write full-time for the Post, publishing four or five Babe stories a year for the next 22 years. Established with the Post, Annett wrote little else during his career, although I found three of his short stories published in Maclean’s magazine in the early 1940s. In 1953 Annett moved to Edmonton to be near his adult children, and while he lived in the provincial capital until his death in 1988, Annett, his wife and two of his children (that I know of) are buried in the Lakeview cemetery in Consort, indicating the deep connection they felt to that place.

 

Annett’s characters are simple but charming. “Children and even animals took to Big Joe fearlessly,” Annett writes of the wheat-farming and cattle-raising father, despite his “ragged black mustache and generally uncouth appearance.” Big Joe, too, is loyal to the memory of his dead wife when it comes to taking care of the family. The equally lovable Uncle Pete is an “old soak” who only desires two things: his next drink, and the best for Babe. “Sometimes his bleary eyes rested upon Babe with a faint awareness, as though he were thinking: In an otherwise drab world, ain’t she somethin’.” Babe herself is an angelic creature whose “yellow hair was bright as summer sunlight,” who likes everyone and is adored by them in turn. Eight-year-old Little Joe, “black of hair and eyes and mood,” likes hunting gophers but hates school. The severe tutor and housekeeper Miss Hans extracts Uncle Pete and Big Joe from their run-ins with the law: “Are you smart or are you smart,” Big Joe will typically say to her.

The plots almost always revolve around money. Big Joe needs gas for the tractor, Little Joe wants a .22 rifle, Babe wishes for a new Sunday dress—but where will they find the money? Sometimes Big Joe and the family rebuff an evildoer’s deceitful design, like the rich rancher Bill Hausmann, who falsely claims they rustled his cow. The earliest stories relate the impoverishment and precarity of the Depression, as Babe and Joe don’t even have enough clothes: “Their bare hands were blue with cold, for it was a raw March day and they had no mittens. They had no stockings either. Bare legs and feet showed here and there through rents in overalls and shoes.” Whether Annett’s family experienced this level of poverty, I don’t know, but certainly for Annett money was a constant concern. In a 1941 editorial note to the Post Annett says, “Sometimes I think I write because I need the money.”

Annett writes adeptly in different genres over the run of the series, producing comedy, mystery and western stories, consistently delighting with a twist ending. His limited means (stock characters, happy endings) spur admirable creativity, much as a skilled cook, constrained by frugality, uses the same ingredients to produce new recipes each time, with an added spice here and there.

Nothing bad ever really happens to Babe or her family. In a clever metatextual commentary, Annett shows he’s well aware that his duty is to provide feel-good tales. In the 1939 story “Uncle Pete Laid a Negg,” Big Joe is telling Babe a tragic bedtime story—about a blind girl named Mabel and her dead cow—but soon realizes he needs to change tack:

“‘O-o!’ moaned Babe. A hot tear fell on Big Joe’s hand and played hob with the stern realism of the creative artist. Having decided upon a happy ending, Big Joe made a thorough job of it… Babe sighed happily. Big Joe wished the Lord would banish grown-ups’ troubles as quickly as he himself could wipe away Babe’s.”

In the 22-year run of Babe, the children do not grow up and the adults don’t age. “The Post actually ran a poll with their readers,” said Annett in 1978, “and thousands wrote in saying ‘Never let Babe grow up.’” With its creator thus committed to keeping things as they are, as the years wear on Babe’s world is out of step with the emissaries of the contemporary world that arrive, and this becomes the source of narrative conflict. In the final instalment of the series, “Big Joe’s Dilemma,” published in 1960, the modern style of the young woman selling encyclopedias—“who is so sleek and self-possessed”—both intrigues and threatens Big Joe, “who feels more than usually big and awkward.”

Yet if read the right way Annett’s stories register the passing of time in his own life. A story in the Calgary Herald on May 8, 1944, reports that Ross Annett’s son, Robert J. Annett, a sub-lieutenant in the Canadian Navy, was missing in action after the sinking of HMCS Athabaskan. The ship was torpedoed on April 29 while engaging German vessels near Île-de-Batz, off the northwest coast of France, killing 128 Canadian sailors, Robert Annett among them. Robert (Bob) Annett’s service portrait can be found online, showing a shyly smiling, good-looking young man of 19. The next story his father published in the Post, just one month later, in June 1944, hinges on the return of a young man named Wally Stevens, who is sorely missed by his elderly father. Wally makes a triumphal entrance in a climactic courtroom scene:

“Hi, pa!” cried Wally. He left the stand and bounded across to his father, hugged the old man to him.

“Wally!” cried Mr. Stevens. “Where you been, Wally?”

“I’ve been bombin’ Germany, pa.”

“I knew it!” declared Mr. Stevens, looking about him proudly, and everybody cheered.

This happy ending, as pat and formulaic as it is, is in fact what tens of thousands of Canadian families like the Annetts would have preferred to the news they did receive.

Annett had four sons with his wife Leyanne, and one daughter, Carol Lynn. She was born in August 1937, five months before Annett sent his first story to the Post featuring the angelic Babe. Sadly, according to findagrave.com, Carol Lynn died in April 1940 at the age of two. Annett never mentioned a daughter as inspiration for the Babe character, but a story titled “Especially Babe,” published in the Post in December of that year, just a few months after Carol Lynn’s passing, is Annett’s most lyrical, perhaps the best of all his stories. “There was a snoring wind that you had to lean into,” he writes in the opening paragraph, “It whipped at Babe’s dress and stream-lined her yellow hair and snatched the words from her lips when she tried to speak.” In this story, Big Joe is plunged into renewed grief about his long-dead wife, described with elegant simplicity: “For awhile it was hard to see anything was worth while.” Annett himself seemed to consider “Especially Babe” his best story, or at least the most representative of his work, since he named his one and only book after it. And the dedication page reads “To Babe.”

 

Magazine publication meant Annett’s work would be ephemeral. Especially Babe can still be found used online and in most Alberta libraries, and while it’s still a delightful read, the stories lose some of their charm by not appearing in their original format accompanied by the striking visuals of the Post’s illustrator, Amos Sewell.

Annett never completed a novel, which might have given him a firmer presence in the literary canon, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. An editorial note in the Post in September 1939, just a year after his first Babe story, announced that Annett was working on a novel, as did another interview with Annett in the Calgary Herald in 1971. In 1978, however, he said that by the time he retired the Babe series and had more time, he had “lost his pep.”

The biases of Canadian cultural institutions also militated against including Annett in the canon. Canadian culture was built by explicitly differentiating itself from the American. But Annett’s major work appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, an iconic publication of its era, the famed outlet of Norman Rockwell’s illustrations, and a magazine that claimed on its cover (rather dubiously) to have been founded by an American founding father, Benjamin Franklin. In George Melnyk’s The Literary History of Alberta, Annett’s work is described as “Americanized.” But in Annett’s day, especially during the Depression, there were few publishing opportunities in Canada. “I always resented having to sell in the US,” wrote Annett, “but I had to make a living.”

In his introduction to Annett, Wiebe claims Annett as “the first of the popular prairie humourists,” and we can understand Annett better by comparing him to Canada’s recognized master in the genre, W.O. Mitchell. A 1942 editorial note in Maclean’s, which had recently published stories by both Mitchell and Annett, mistakenly asserted that both men lived in Castor, Alberta, and that they knew each other. Only Mitchell lived in Castor, but the mistake is understandable given the similarities of their humorous prairie tales.

Given that they work in a similar genre and are from the same region, the differences between the two men’s writing are perhaps more revealing. Mitchell, born in 1916, was nearly a generation younger than Annett. Mitchell’s tales are doubtlessly more modernist and more psychologically complex than Annett’s. Coming to prominence in the postwar era, Mitchell’s work embodied the dominant ideology of the emerging affluent nation, with its existentialism and humanist liberalism, philosophies that highlight individual experience. For the growing middle classes in the postwar period, with the worst problems of capitalism apparently solved, life’s concerns took an increasingly individualistic hue.

Annett’s work, on the other hand, was honed in the Depression, a time of scarcity and intense class conflict. It was strongly populist, with an underlying ideology that distrusted the elite, the rich and the powerful. This point of view did not age well in the postwar decades of affluence, when the growing middle class aspired to be or actually were elites themselves. Annett’s simple characterizations often emphasized type—what class or group a character was—over their individual psychological profile. This can be insufficiently nuanced, and at times it was. But sometimes simplicity is morally clarifying.

Mitchell himself became one of these elite. He had a bachelors degree and a masters and held positions in key Canadian cultural institutions during his career, including as literary editor of Maclean’s, founder of the Banff Centre for the Arts creative writing program and writer-in-residence at several Canadian universities. None of these professional-class positions were available to Annett, a working writer. It seems Annett sometimes claimed (at least according to columnist Ken Liddell of the Calgary Herald) to have attended Queen’s University, although this fact doesn’t appear in any official biographical note.

Late in life, Annett perhaps regretted that he didn’t have Mitchell’s success. The 1978 biographical note for Especially Babe mentions that “it was his dream to live in a house in the foothills south of Calgary, close to trout fishing, but that dream never materialized.” Fair enough; that sounds like a pretty nice dream—but it’s also the rather well-known biography of W.O. Mitchell, who lived in a house in High River, now known as the W.O. Mitchell house, and whom the Edmonton Journal described as “a foothills fisherman” in 1948 on the heels of the success of Who Has Seen the Wind.

But if Annett had some regrets, I can’t help but admire someone who raised a family on his writing alone and who garnered millions of readers in his time.

 

Aaron Giovannone’s most recent poetry collection is The Nonnets (Book*hug, 2018). He lives in Calgary and in the Okanagan.

 

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