Just the Usual Work: The Social Worlds of Ida Martin, Working-Class Diarist by Michael Boudreau and Bonnie Huskins

Just the Usual Work: The Social Worlds of Ida Martin, Working-Class Diarist offers a historical narrative of Saint John, New Brunswick in the post-war period. Built from short diary entries penned by Ida Martin, grandmother of co-author Bonnie Huskins, the book follows the Martin family and their larger community from 1945 to 1992. Organized into six chapters, an introduction, and a conclusion, Just the Usual Work navigates local labour, gender, and familial histories. The text also raises questions of care and consumerism, and branches out from snippets of Ida’s everyday experiences and into the broader significance of religion, aging, and community relations. Through it all, Ida’s voice rings clear and offers access to a marginalized history of working-class women in the Maritime region.

Just the Usual Work brings together limited source material, family memory, and detailed scholarship to form an effective portrait of a place and people.”

Though Ida and her family are at the centre of the text, Huskins and co-author Michael Boudreau work to fill in the blanks created by the form of the diaries. Written as account-style ledgers of daily goings-on, Ida’s entries are sparse and use an economy of language that excludes detail while, at the same time, suggesting importance and meaning. Refrains like the title’s “Just the usual work” or notes about men “being bad” emphasize, to differing degrees, moments of both monotony and importance. As the authors note, in many places the diaries form a “textual collage . . . which contribute[s] to a representation of Ida Martin’s social and political self” (100). Likewise, Just the Usual Work brings together limited source material, family memory, and detailed scholarship to form an effective portrait of a place and people.

While some chapters scratch the surface of their intended focus, others offer an attentive investigation of their subjects. One of the most compelling aspects develops from an assertion made in the introduction, which outlines how the diaries were not an act of private reflection but rather familial record keeping. As the “key reference in her family’s efforts to reconstruct their collective pasts” (23), Ida’s diaries comprise recollections that were accessible to other family members. This positioning impacts what makes its way onto the page and what stays there. The authors make clear that what is left unsaid, scratched out, or written over in the diaries is just as important as what remains. In this way, the entries offer space for speculation, consideration, and questioning as a semi-public chronicling of events, a “textual projection of a life” mediated by a variety of factors, pressures, and external readers.

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As a literary scholar, I find joy in the slow and careful reading of text within such complex matrixes. This joy is mirrored in Boudreau and Huskins’s methods, as they pay careful attention to language, tone, atmosphere, and materiality while discussing Ida’s writing. They observe, contextualize, and analyze the accounts while maintaining an accessible focus, making Just the Usual Work an enjoyable read for a broad audience. That said, some of the reflections on the difference between literary and historical approaches seem a bit heavy or excessive. There are also areas where I found the authors go to great lengths to underscore why this project matters, almost as if the anticipated reader is someone who will poke holes in, or undercut, the validity of the project. To me, the value of Ida’s life and diaries is overt and exciting, which left me wanting to dive in faster than this impulse to reasoning allowed.

Overall, Just the Usual Work is a wonderful addition to histories of the Maritime region and a loving homage to a woman whose diary practice spanned almost an entire lifetime. As Huskins and Boudreau navigate the accounts of Ida’s life, their analysis offers readers an overview of a community governed by patterns of seasonal labour, the need for frugal spending, and a complicated sense of contentment alongside a desire for stability. Without flourish or the time for embellishment, the ebb and flow of Ida’s narrative are enlightening and unique, so too are the insights Huskins and Boudreau garner from her words and experiences.

Michael Boudreau is professor of criminology and criminal justice, St. Thomas University.

Bonnie Huskins teaches history at St. Thomas University and is adjunct professor at the University of New Brunswick.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ McGill-Queen’s University Press (Feb. 19 2021)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 200 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 0228005493
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-0228005490

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