My rating: 8/10
As those of you who have been following my blog for any length of time will know, I have fondness for memoirs, particularly those of never-been-famous “regular people” or now-forgotten public figures. Their personal stories are always fascinating, and, if well-written – as they frequently are - wonderfully readable for their occasional poignancy and frequent humour. The glimpses back into times gone by and their unique perspectives on historical events are an added attraction. Hello to Springtime is a good example of this particular biographical niche.
Robert Louis Fontaine was a minor celebrity in his time. Born in 1911, he was a working journalist, a best-selling author of short stories and novels, a public speaking humourist, and an occasional actor.
At the tender age of three, Robert Fontaine accompanied his mother and father by train from Massachusetts to Ontario, where his father had been offered the position of conductor and first violinist of an Ottawa vaudeville theatre. From snippets of memory, from looking at old photographs, and from the accounts of his parents, Robert pieces together a child’s-eye account of the highlights of that trip, and of the years which came after. As his memories solidify, the book progresses into fully formed, detailed anecdotes of the strange and wonderful world of boyhood and adolescence.
Robert tells of his bemused response to the celebration on the streets of Ottawa at the end of the Great War, and of his increasing awareness that life was not simply the ever-present Mama and the away-much-of-the-evening Papa, and listening to the strains of violin practice coming from his father’s room, and playing in the street. It soon broadened to include school, and the usual childhood friends and enemies, as well as beloved and feared teachers, and, inevitably, the maddening but adorable charms of the opposite sex. As well, the Fontaine family was an extended one, and a number of Robert’s relations were French Canadian; visits from various aunts and uncles gave plenty of scope for humorous remembrance in later years.
Just before his final year of junior college, Robert and his family returned to the United States; the increasing popularity of “talking pictures” and the subsequent demise of the vaudeville and music hall phenomenon left his father scrambling for employment; the Canadian days were over.
The author was a strongly opinionated man; he holds forth with vigour on a wide array of topics, from the paradoxical moral standards governing young people and sex, to the evils of compulsory schooling, the complications of organized religion, and the various foolishnesses of civilized society in general. Often didactic in tone, Fontaine’s laying down of the law as he sees it is neatly tempered by his cheerful willingness to poke fun at himself; I was never truly offended by his rather outrageous pronouncements, but found myself frequently (though not invariably) in complete accord.
My initial mild enjoyment steadily increased as the narrative progressed and I became more and more caught up in Robert Fontaine’s reminiscences of his early youth and teenage years, and in his anecdotes about his family. I turned the last page with gentle regret; I could happily have kept going. An insidiously appealing read, this one.
Robert Louis Fontaine is perhaps best remembered for his connection to a popular 1952 feature film, The Happy Time, based on his 1945 fictionalized memoir of the same title. The Happy Time was made into a successful stage musical in 1968. Incidents in all three versions of The Happy Time are also detailed in Hello to Springtime; the author assures us in the forward that “these are the facts”.
I am also in possession of one of Fontaine’s best selling fictional novels, based on the antics of one of his actual relations, 1953′s My Uncle Louis. This was among my late father’s books, and I recall reading it as a teenager with not much enthusiasm; I remember thinking it rather silly. After my enjoyment of Hello to Springtime, I am now keen to revisit My Uncle Louis with fresh eyes. Perhaps the several decades of life which have gone by since that first reading will bring me to a new appreciation. We shall see.
While I wouldn’t recommend that you immediately run out and search for Hello to Springtime, I would encourage you to give it a whirl if it crosses your path, especially if you, like me, enjoy these glimpses into the past via good-humoured personal memoirs.