Thom Ernst, known for his role hosting TVO's beloved Saturday Night at the Movies for nearly 10 years, has carved a space for himself as a respected film critic and thinker. But long before he was helping Canadians appreciate film, he was a little boy in Waubamik, a tiny Ontario town near Parry Sound, navigating a painful secret.
Ernst's memoir, The Wild Boy of Waubamik (Dundurn Press), tells the story of his rocky childhood. Adopted at three years old by a Waubamik family, it should have been a happy new direction in a life that had already seen more than enough turmoil. But instead, Ernst was thrown into a heartbreaking landscape of abuse, silence, and denial. His abusive adoptive father was protected and excused as his new family and town closed ranks against an innocent child, with even his mother looking the other way and ignoring Ernst's cries for help.
As Ernst grows up, his resilience and will to survive become woven into the fabric of 1960s pop culture, as he finds himself in the music, film, and media of a revolutionary decade and the art that would go on to become his life's work.
Heartbreaking and powerful, and written with a natural storyteller's flair, The Wild Boy of Waubamik is not easy reading, but Ernst's compelling voice, vivid and loving depiction of the cultural landscape that helped him survive, and ultimate triumph despite a broken system create a memorable, powerful tale.
We're sharing an excerpt from The Wild Boy of Waubamik today courtesy of Dundurn Press, in which we see the wholesome veneer over Ernst's painful childhood, and a hint of the darkness beneath.
Excerpt from The Wild Boy of Waubamik by Thom Ernst:
The way Mom told the story you’d think they adopted the baby Jesus. I didn’t mind; there was a reverential and mystical quality to her telling that suited me just fine. Her voice shifted a few octaves, losing the sharp, no-nonsense edge so common, I think, in people raised in the Depression era. It was a voice suited to a favourite childhood bedtime tale full of magic and wonder recited not from the heart but of the heart. Uncle Bob said that was the Irish in her.
“The Irish are natural storytellers, and your mom was a Flaherty long before she was an Ernst. Remember that,” he told me.
It was best to wait until Mom was comfortable in her armchair and had picked up her knitting. The needles would dance at a master’s clip, the wool rising in an endless thread from a bag sitting on the floor beside the chair.
I sat at the end of the couch closest to her chair. There I watched as she looped tiny rings of wool from one needle to the other, listening to the tips of the needles strike a musical click, click, click, like a distress signal from a forest insect. The repetition of knit-one-purl- two was hypnotic enough to clear her head after a day’s worth of doing busy chores about the house.
In the corner of the room, a birdcage rattled with the movements of a song-less canary, ironically named Tweety, hopping from perch to perch. At our feet, our dog, Clancy, getting on in years, stretched on the floor, elongating her body to the length of a fair-sized rug, the bottom of her greying snout pressed against the carpet, her eyes staring sleepily ahead. From outside came the distinct sound of an engine decelerating as a vehicle veered from highway asphalt to gravel shoulder — a pickup truck turning onto the lane that ran along the length of our property down to Montag’s farm, its headlights bouncing in synchronized rhythm over the ruts, crunching gravel like crushed ice beneath the weight of its wheels. Something heavy and metallic, a loose toolbox perhaps, bounced in the truck’s bed, sending out a crash of steel against steel, creating what Mom called quite the racket.
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“You’re going to lose it if you don’t tie it down,” Mom said, always quick to offer advice to those who neither wanted it nor heard it.
“What now?” Mom’s response had the lament of someone waiting to be asked to lend money.
“Tell me about how you decided to adopt me.”
“What do you mean, how we decided?”
Telling the adoption story, or any of her stories, whether it was the ghost in the rocking chair or the angel outside her bedroom window, required a perception of humility. My role was to beg her to tell the story; her role was to resist and present the illusion of disinterest.
“You know, when you decided.”
She responded with an exaggerated sigh, flushed with full-on irritation as if telling the story required her to leap from her chair and dance a jig across the room.
“Haven’t you heard that story enough?” she asked.
And I’d say, “No, I haven’t.”
Mom put on an impressive show about how she must have told the story umpteen billion times, and can’t she have a moment of peace to herself? It was a show designed to downplay any notion that she took any personal pleasure in having an audience. I didn’t mind, except that it seemed like an awful waste of time since she would tell the story, anyway. And, as expected, she sighed once more for good measure, sat back, focused on her knitting, and began the story.
It started at the Harmony Lunch diner.
“You sauntered in like you owned the place,” Mom took a break from her knitting and did a little pump with her arms, mimicking a younger me in a jaunty gait. Mom preferred to create visuals with broad pantomimes and caricatures rather than with words. I’d see myself at three, stepping into a diner, quite likely my first, with an assertiveness fuelled by naïveté and innocence. I’m a little man, enthusiastic and curious but dignified. I didn’t buy the jaunty gait shtick, which I found vaguely insulting.
“We took you in for ice cream. It was me, your dad, and Anna.”
“I don’t know where Valerie was — off gallivanting somewhere. You know teenagers.”
I didn’t, of course, but recognized that being a teenager was explanation enough for all sorts of weird behaviours.
“Do you want to hear the rest of the story or not?” she asked.
“You marched in, made a beeline for the counter, and tried climbing up on the stools. You would have fallen off and cracked your skull open if I hadn’t been there. We tried to get you to sit in one of the booths, but you’d have none of that. It had to be those stools because they spun, you know.”
“I was spinning around on the stool?” I asked, not really a question but a reminder to not leave out any details (especially any detail that would highlight my more winsome attributes).
“Well, you wanted to. I don’t know if we let you or not. Probably not.”
“But you let me sit on them.”
“You weren’t going to have it any other way. I thought to myself, if he falls off, serves him right, he’ll know better next time. But, of course, I was there to make sure you didn’t.”
“Don’t know how you can.”
“I remember sitting on the stool at the counter, and we ordered ice cream.”
“Right. And you had to have yours in a bowl to make soup out of it.”
Admittedly, the ice-cream-into-soup memory was familiar but only in a foggy dream-like way: sitting at that counter, making soup by mashing up the ice cream until it melted into a cool, sweet, liquid pool. I saw my mother sitting beside me. My mother, who, with a knowing and slightly patronizing wink in her voice, the kind that adults exchange when accommodating the silly whims of a child, told the waitress, a faceless young woman who carried with her an aura of apathy, that I required a bowl, adding, in abstract intonation, “so he can make soup out of it, don’t you know.”
The memory is fuzzy; a flash from a drama played in a constant loop without the benefit of colour or definition, the picture marred by static and poor reception. I see myself on the stool, little pants, little shirt, little shoes, brush cut. I’m a silent witness to my own past, like Alastair Sim in A Christmas Carol, an observer without influence. But once Mom neared the end of the story, the memory belonged only to her.
“I got you down from the stool, and you made a beeline for your father and took his hand, just like that. No one was telling you to do it. You just did it. Like it was the most natural thing in the world. And that’s when we knew you were ours.” Mom said all this without looking up from her knitting.
And the adoption story ends on a pictorial image of an orphan taking the hand of the one person willing to provide him with a family and a home. Rockwell could not have sketched it better.
But it’s in that exact moment that an orphaned child ran across the floor of the Harmony Lunch diner and took the hand of the one person who would do him the most harm.
I trust what Mom told me about that day was true. The understanding of my history relies on it. But, if her version is accurate, if her memory is correct, if I did take my dad’s hand and, by doing so, sealed my fate forever, then I only have myself to blame. There is no other recourse.
Excerpt from The Wild Boy of Waubamik by Thom Ernst, published by Dundurn Press. Copyright Thom Ernst, 2023. Reprinted with permission.
Thom Ernst is a film writer, broadcaster, and critic. He was the former host and producer of TVO’s Saturday Night at the Movies. Thom currently lives in Toronto.