“On noiseless hinges it yawns before us
Iron-bound and stronger than ten-thousand wills:
Erected over centuries of servitude
It yet survives protesting time
And stands before us, tall and grim,
A stark reminder that he who enters here
Will not quit easily,
And the gate is too high for us to climb…”
The first page of Thomas Courtenay’s novel of grey factory life begins with poetry from a minor character, a writer who needs to take a job at the auto plant.
Courtenay was a Chrysler line worker who needed to write.
The 89-year-old Windsor man won’t get to see his first book in print but he died Thursday knowing a local publisher wants to read his manuscript.
“Even now I’m going to be dying, at least it will get read,” Courtenay said in a low whisper hours before he chose a medically-assisted death Thursday afternoon.
Courtenay conveyed the sweat and struggles of the Chrysler assembly line workers into words, writing and typing after his shift and between the busyness of being a young father. The seasoned workers told him of brutal conditions, the fight to unionize and unimaginable sacrifices they made to keep their jobs and he scribbled the narrative as soon as he got the time.
After being tragically close to finding a publisher for his novel The High Gate almost 60 years ago and later giving up on the book, Courtenay revived his work in the last two years.
He had numerous health issues and two years ago had shingles which paralyzed the left side of his body. Pamela Courtenay-Hall, one of his four daughters who is a philosophy professor at the University of Prince Edward Island, encouraged her dad to get back to writing. She got the typed manuscript into a digital version so he could make revisions, she did minor editing, saw that it gave him renewed purpose and recently contacted Biblioasis.
Hearing a local publisher had asked for a copy this week meant a “great deal,” Courtenay said.
“It would be an exoneration of all those years of work,” he said as his daughter helped to make sure his words were correctly heard.
He couldn’t eat, drink or swallow anymore so he chose a medically-assisted death while he still had the mental acuity, she said.
He had submitted the manuscript — 10 years of writing — to MacMillan Publishing in 1961, she said. Although he received a letter asking for revisions of the “powerful piece of work” and to resubmit, he didn’t. He saw it as rejection.
“He didn’t really understand that really a request for resubmission is a wonderful thing to get,” she said. “That’s really a tragedy.”
She said he would come home full of ideas and hurry to the basement to work on the manuscript.
The novel is set in 1935 in the “grey jungle” of the fictional Empire Motors. The High Gate, the wall around the factory, is a metaphor. It’s difficult to get in and once they get the job and depend on the pay, they can’t get out, she said.
Courtenay worked at the Chrysler plant for 40 years beginning in 1949 and had been the cartoonist for the UAW International and UAW Local 444 newsletters. Even though he had what he considered no encouragement in his writing, he had reworked the novel in the 1970s and continued to write poetry and two other manuscripts based on growing up in Wheatley.
Just talking to a reporter for a few moments about his book made him smile and brought happiness to the end of his life, said Courtenay-Hall who had contacted the Star about a story. She knew what his writing meant to him.
“I didn’t want to see that book die. I knew my dad would die one day but I didn’t think his book had to die too,” she said.
Windsor Chapel Funeral Home (Banwell) is handling the funeral arrangements.