Sunday, January 25, 2015

Whiteoaks of Jalna – Early Soap Opera?

Many years ago I found out about Mazo de la Roche, a Canadian writer who lived from 1879 to 1961 and may have been one of the first Canadian writers of soap opera, although they weren’t called that at the time and weren’t broadcast. According to Wikipedia, the first soap opera (called so because sponsored by soap manufacturers) premiered on radio in Chicago in 1930. At any rate, Mazo’s first book, Jalna, was published in 1927 and won the $10,000 Atlantic Monthly book award. This made 48 year old Mazo internationally famous and a bestselling author.

The series grew to 16 volumes and covered 100 years of the Whiteoaks family. Robertson Davies said in 1961, “"The creation of the Jalna books is the most single feat of literary invention in the brief history of Canada's literature." The series has sold more than nine million copies in 193 English and 92 foreign language editions (Canadian Encyclopedia). The film “Jalna” was made in 1935 and a CBC television series based on the books was produced in 1972.

The story of the Whiteoaks family begins in 1854 with The Building of Jalna (the books were not written in chronological order). It is the story of Adelaide and Captain Whiteoak settling at Lake Ontario and beginning to build their estate. I read the whole series a long time ago and found them as addictive as any good soap opera (Downton Abbey anyone?). Toward the end, though I also found myself thinking, I am sick of this family, though I couldn’t stop reading until it was over. The books are still available.

Perhaps even more fascinating than the Whiteoaks book series, is the life of Mazo Louise Roche, who was born in Newmarket Ontario, January 15. She added the “de la” herself, later.  When she was seven, her parents adopted Mazo’s cousin Caroline. The two girls became lifelong companions and lived together as adults. In 1931 they adopted two orphan children about whom they told various stories. The two women kept their lives very private and when Mazo died, Caroline burned her diaries. The National Film Board of Canada made a film in 2011 called “The Mystery of Mazo de la Roche” which explores this writer’s unusual life through documentary and dramatic techniques. It’s available for download.

Canadian writer Joan Givner published in 1989, a biography called Mazo de la Roche, The Hidden Life. It’s available from the Saskatoon Public Library. From what I can see, the library also has many of Mazo’s Jalna books. If you want to read the series in order, check out Wikipedia.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

“Dream No Little Dreams”

On June 15, 1944 the people of Saskatchewan made history by electing the first socialist government in North America – the CCF (Cooperative Commonwealth Federation). The CCF won 47 of the 52 seats in the legislature. Winds of change had begun to blow.

The day before the election the Regina Leader Post newspaper stated: “It is just plain stupid to say it does not matter who wins this election where the answer to the question will affect vitally the way of living of every individual, will affect the right to own and use property, will enthrone a stultifying dictatorial system; and may start Canada on the road to strife and devastation that has been followed by European countries which faced the same issue and failed to settle it decisively on the first vote.”

The above quote and most of the information in this blog comes from the book “Dream No Little Dreams:  A Biography of the Douglas Government of Saskatchewan, 1944 - 1961” by A.W. Johnson. He wrote it as his Ph.D. dissertation at Harvard in 1963 and it was later rewritten and published as a book. And by the way, the world did not end after that election, Saskatchewan did not become a dictatorship, and we didn't lose the right to own property.

George Santayana said, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Many now, I think, have forgotten the past, forgotten some of the roots of this province, the cooperation that took it out of the dark ages of poverty and difficulty and began to bring it to brighter days.

The Regina Manifesto (1933) of the CCF stated in part, “The present order is marked by glaring inequalities of wealth and opportunity, by chaotic waste and instability; and in an age of plenty it condemns the great mass of people to poverty and insecurity. Power has become more and more concentrated into the hands of a small irresponsible minority of financiers and industrialists.” Sound familiar? Sound current?

Johnson was uniquely qualified to write this book because he spent many years in Saskatchewan government working in various capacities. He was able to provide an insider’s view of how government can work.

“Dream No Little Dreams” gives us the roots of the CCF, the social issues that led to its founding, its values and policies, and the people who made it successful. Johnson takes us into the first months of the new government and beyond. The average age of cabinet ministers was forty-six. Of Tommy Douglas, Premier, Johnson writes, “My sense of him – formed from the time I first met him in the late 1930’s as an annual guest preacher in my father’s church, through my sixteen years as an official in his government – was that the essence of Douglas lay in his idealism and in his capacity to inspire others with his sense of mission.”

I've barely started this book and I highly recommend it. It’s not a quick or an easy read, but it’s full of fascinating details of this province’s history. The book is in the public library system, and also available on Amazon if you want to buy it.

Sunday, November 16, 2014


A little over 25 years ago the Berlin wall opened to free travel. My father spent his childhood and youth in Berlin, though he left long before the wall went up. Anyway, I felt more than slightly interested in this event, and the spring after the opening of the borders, my son, my parents and I spent some time in Berlin. There were portions of the wall still standing, though people were chipping away at it.

When my father lived there, Berlin was the capital of Germany. and the country and the city were still whole. At the end of World War II (1945), Germany and Berlin were divided, originally into 4 occupation zones (the United States, Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union).  Eventually these were amalgamated into East and West Germany and East and West Berlin. It should be noted that Berlin was located in East Germany. The Soviet Union opposed the other allies’ plans to create a West German republic so on the 26 of June, 1948, they blockaded all ground travel into Berlin. This began the Berlin Air Lift, which brought needed supplies (food, coal, etc.) to West Berlin. My father's mother was living in East Berlin at the time. We were living in West Germany and I'd been born earlier that year. My grandmother had wanted my father to move the family to Berlin; instead, he and my mother started talking about emigrating to Canada. The airlift lasted until May 11, 1949 when the Soviet Union again allowed ground traffic.

The wall wasn’t built until 1961, overnight with no warning. It was a response by the Soviet Union to massive numbers of East Germans fleeing to the west, though they called it protection against western fascists.

Walls can keep people out or in. They are necessary to build houses that protect and shelter us from weather. Walls may enclose gardens or fields. They can be beautiful or ugly. People may build psychological or other walls to protect themselves or to keep out others.

The Berlin wall became a symbol of a divided people, of oppression, of the Cold War. For many Berliners it was a constant stark reminder of tyranny. I heard of a writer in West Germany who deliberately chose an apartment where he saw the wall every day from his windows. We've all heard the stories of those who died trying and those who succeeded in crossing the wall and the “death strip.”

There are many different kinds of walls – walls of prejudice and hate, “glass ceilings” preventing promotions, walls of poverty, lack of education, walls of ignorance and a refusal to see the issues before us.

It’s early to be making new year’s wishes, but it seems appropriate: I wish we’d all spend as much time and money tearing down walls as we spend on armament and war.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Living Alone

Recently someone said, “Living alone is hard.” I don’t find that at all. In fact, for me living alone is peaceful, satisfying, renewing.

I’m at a time in my life when I’m dealing with very elderly parents. Ellis Peters in Dead Man’s Ransom writes, “And sometimes it went the opposite way, kept the good and let all the malice and spite be washed away. And why one old man should be visited by such grace, and another by so heavy a curse, Cadfael could not fathom.” She’s talking about old monks, one of whom remembers only the bad that everyone has done to him. It’s exhausting when my mother phones me nearly every day to complain about something, or to get me to explain once again what I’ve already explained several times before. Is she truly losing her memory, or is she just not paying attention, or does she just want attention? I could go on and on, but my point in this piece is that when things get too much with my parents (or in other areas of my life), my refuge is my house, my peaceful life and my own routine.

I live in a city that is wonderful for walking, which I do as much as I can. My home is in a neighbourhood close to many amenities – shops, the library, restaurants, and the riverbank. My yard is small, but I've planted it with perennials, a few annuals, and I also have a small vegetable garden. At this time of year, the yard and garden are mostly done, though with the wonderful weather we've had this year, there are still sweet peas blooming, the odd rose and a few other things.

There are books in my house, music CD’s, and movie and TV DVD’s, so I have quiet entertainment if I want it. I’m part of a book club that meets regularly, wonderful women who read widely and we have many fascinating discussions. Often some of us will go to a movie or a play together as well.  I’m also part of a writing group, and of course I need solitude to work on my own writing. I have other friends that I meet for coffee or walking.My parents don’t seem to have that kind of network, and I’m not sure they ever did, though they did take part in church and community affairs for many years. Perhaps, since they've always had each other, they didn't feel the need to reach out as much. Anyway, I enjoy spending time with friends and at the same time, I like my own company.

Of course, it’s not easy sometimes when things need to be done to my house. I’m the one who has to take care of everything; there’s no one else to delegate to if something goes wrong or when the eaves troughs need to be cleaned (though I could pay someone to do that). But I've lived alone for so many years (I believe in making ithe best of whatever situation I find myself in.) that I've grown used to coping with things. There’s a sense of accomplishment about sorting out my own problems.

I guess for me it’s partly about balance. I need solitude and I also need people. Finding the right combination is wonderful.

Here’s a quote from a little book I love, Words on Solitude and Silence: “Loneliness is the poverty of the self, solitude is the richness of the self.” – May Sarton.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Old Man Coming Home from the Forest

Gordon Lightfoot has a song called “Home from the Forest.” Some of the lines in that song seem apropos at this time in my life. My father, who is 92, is probably going to go into long term care. It’s a long time for someone to live, particularly to live independently.

I’ve gone through various stages with my parents in their aging process. These last couple of weeks have taken me to a whole new level. I keep thinking of a quote from Kalil Gibran’s The Prophet – “The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.” It’s not exactly sorrow that’s carving deep into me now, but understanding, empathy and perhaps a kind of acceptance of this mysterious thing we call life (particularly the old age part) that takes us on so many different paths.
I’ve seen one or the other of my parents grapple with the aging process for many years. The body doesn’t work as well as it used to, there are more aches and pains, hearing goes, perhaps sight. How do you find quality of life or joy when this happens? For some years my mother used to say to me, “Don’t get old.” It always bothered me. I thought that she wasn’t really thinking about what she was saying, and I believed that if she had a better attitude she would have a better aging. Finally, one day I got so annoyed that I responded, “So you want me to die young?” After that she didn’t say those words as often and for a few years now I’ve rarely heard her say it.

I don’t recall my father saying much about what he couldn’t do. Even after he lost a lot of his hearing, had to have an artificial eye and lost most of the sight in the other, he still walked nearly every day – to get the mail or around the town where he lives. People said to me that they saw him walking. Sometimes someone would ask him if he wanted a ride, but he’d always refuse, though he liked to stop and chat with people. That’s the kind of attitude I want to have.
In the last few years I’ve seen my father become more crotchety at times, particularly with my mother. This however, didn’t surprise me because I find her constant talking, and at times nagging, annoying myself. She doesn’t realize that since he can’t hear very well, even with his hearing aids, long rambling monologues are pretty much incomprehensible. He doesn’t know when she’s saying something that he has to pay attention to or when she’s just rambling.

I’ve always had a more difficult relationship with my mother and aging has made it even harder. However, these last couple of weeks with my father first being in hospital for a week and a half, and then going into temporary respite to get assessed, have made me at least try to see my mother differently, and to try to have more patience with her. I can see her as an elderly woman who needs my help through a difficult time. Her behaviours may annoy me, but I can put that annoyance aside most of the time and just do what needs to be done. I can sometimes smile at habits that drove me up a wall in the past. This is not to say that I still don’t get weary or annoyed. Silence (mine) is a key coping mechanism.
My parents chose to keep living in the small town where we moved when I was in grade eight. I and at least one of my siblings suggested they move to the city when they retired, but they resisted. As they grew older and needed more medical attention – doctor, dentist, optometrist, ophthalmologist – I thought that they had definitely made the wrong decision to stay there. They had stopped being able to drive and had about a two hour bus ride into the city for many of their medical appointments. Of course, I ended up picking them up at the bus station and driving them to their appointments. One of my brothers was able to do this for a time, but he didn’t always live in the city. Though I could have let them look after their own affairs in this respect, because after all they had made this choice to live where they did, and the difficulties were logical consequences of that choice, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. No matter what issues I had with them, they were and are still my parents and I feel a duty or a responsibility to help make things a little easier.

I think I’ve at least begun to move beyond resentment and my own negative feelings. I do what I do for them out of choice. And I do what I can; I won’t go to the point of exhausting myself. It’s a balance. I also have seen how much that small town takes care of its seniors. Someone will bring my mother her mail once a week. People have given her rides to visit my father when I couldn’t be there. The grocery store delivers. The pharmacy will, too. It’s not the sort of situation I would choose to live in now or in older age, but it seems to have worked and still works for my parents.
Through all this, as I’m attempting to do what I can for them, I’m also conscious that I must take care of myself (get enough sleep, exercise, eat well, do things I love). And I’m learning about the aging process, seeing different attitudes toward it, different ways of behaving. I’m hoping that will stand me in good stead as I move through my sixth decade, into my seventh and beyond.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

What Makes Me Finish a Book?

I used to finish books no matter what, whether I liked them or not. I no longer do this, though I have recently finished books I disliked (most recently Gone Girl).

So, I started thinking, what is it about a book that makes me keep reading?

For one thing, there’s got to be at least one character that I like. In Gone Girl there weren’t any. Nor were there in The Dinner. I finished reading Gone Girl anyway because I was reading it on a 6-hour Greyhound bus ride and it was the only reading material I had. By the time I reached my destination I was far enough in that the plot started to interest me a little, so I decided to go on to the end. My verdict: it wasn’t worth finishing. I hated the characters and couldn’t imagine that everyone around the female character was so stupid they couldn’t stop her insane behaviour.
In regards to The Dinner, I kept reading initially because I sort of liked one of the characters. When I discovered that I no longer liked the character, I finished the book partly because it was for my book club, and partly because the writing was good enough to keep me going. I also wanted to see what would happen, how the characters would resolve things or not.

Good writing isn’t enough for me to start or finish a book. I admire Margaret Atwood’s writing and ideas, but I don’t read many of her books. They are full of interesting ideas and characters, but for me they are too much in the head and not enough in the heart. Margaret Laurence’s books, on the other hand, I consider to be full of heart, poetic language, and characters I can love, with plots that keep me engaged.
So plot is quite important to me: how the characters interact, what happens that’s new or keeps me guessing. And it’s got to be believable, with characters that feel real, in any genre, including fantasy or SF. Though I can read and enjoy books that aren’t necessarily plot driven, if they’re well written and the imagery captures me, for example,  Anil’s Ghost.

The writing has to be reasonably good for me to continue reading, though if the characters and plot grab me, I can continue a book that isn’t the most literary. The Millennium Trilogy is one set of books like this. The Girl With the Dragon Tatoo I could not put down because I loved the two main characters, the plot kept me guessing, and the background and culture was new to me and intriguing (I like learning new things from fiction and following it up with my own research). I feel the same way about the other two books in the series. I can put up with flaws in the writing for these reasons.
So with books I really enjoy and go back to time after time, there’s got to be a number of elements: a story that intrigues and absorbs me, a character or characters I like (I prefer books with several characters that interest me), reasonably good writing, heart or emotion that reaches me, believability, and new information or a new way of looking at the world and life.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Queen of Fire Excerpt

My fantasy novel, Queen of Fire, was published in the spring of this year (2014). It’s Book One in The Leather Book Tales, a series that will be at least 4 volumes. In this excerpt from Queen of Fire, we meet fifteen year old Rowan, a girl who lives with her mother in a northern forest. The two women are herbalists and healers.

Although this series is fantasy, I chose to make the geography very similar to that of western Canada. In volume one, we travel through a land of northern forests, grasslands, dry badlands, and mountains (similar to Saskatchewan and Alberta).

I also decided to include some cultural elements from present day Canada, as well as those of other countries. So there are people who speak French, nomadic grasslands people, and wild cattle similar to bison. There is also a trading city with language based on ancient Rome, architecture similar to parts of Spain, and elements of the Arabian peninsula.

Queen of Fire is available from Amazon and on Kindle, as well as available at McNally Robinson Booksellers in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

I am currently working on Book Two, and have completed a first draft of Child of Dragons.


Queen of Fire
Chapter I

I’M KNEELING in dirt, grubbing around the strawberries, weeding between herbs, and whispering encouragement to make our garden grow. Mother always says that plants do better if you talk to them, and she must be right because we produce some of the best food around. Of course, she has traded for seeds from far away, and has plants that no one else in the area has seen before, like lettuce. She’s also been able to transplant wild things such as onions and make them grow bigger.

These are probably some of the reasons why people mutter about Mother and me – a woman in the village turns away as we pass, or talks behind her hands to a neighbour. A couple of children might follow us, then run when I swivel to look at them. I’ve never heard the word ‘witch’ uttered; though I’m sure they gossip out of our hearing. Still, even the ones who look at us askance don’t hesitate to buy our vegetables or to take advantage of Mother’s herbal lore.

I yank at a weed which refuses to budge. A weed is any plant that grows where you don’t want it. Like me stuck here in this clearing in the woods. I wonder what it would take to release our roots, propel us out of this place where I’ve lived all my life. These days I find our three-room cottage nestled into a low hill too cramped, though I used to love it.

 “Rowan! Rowan!”

Mother’s voice carries over the sound of leaves rustling in the aspens nearby, bird song and a faint rush of water. She is using tones of persuasion, but I manage to ignore her for the moment. She knows where I am and could easily take the few steps from the house to the garden. As I finish and stand up, her call comes again.

This time there is an undercurrent of temptation, like a lure to a hungry fish in the river. I want to resist that coaxing tone, be like the girl I saw the other day in the village who stamped her foot, turned her back on her mother and ran away down the street. I’m too old for tantrums, but can make a small rebellion by staying here.

“Rowan!” Her voice commands me now. I’ve heard her use that tone on a trader who tried to cheat her and know it’s not to be resisted.

I throw a last weed on the pile, brush dirt off my hands and skirt. “Yes, Mother?”

She sits on a stool by the door of our cottage as she often does, finger weaving grass and twigs with lengths of spun wool. In this pose she appears gentle and innocuous, one of the many guises she uses. Various shapes and sizes of her creations hang from roof, rafters and trees – triangles, star shapes and hexagons, the shades of tree, leaf, earth, sky and cloud. Their intricate interlacing and knots capture and hold the eye, are meant to snare evil intentions and keep them imprisoned, but I wonder if that’s just superstition. Mother taught me to make them when I was small; I liked them because they were pretty. Now and then the wind blows a few away, but even with that we have a surfeit of them, and I wish she’d stop.

“Have you seen Thea?” Mother asks, tilting her head in the way that is so familiar and as irritating as a pebble in my shoe. Many things about her annoy me these days, and I swallow a sigh.

“The goat is gone again?” I brush at the strand of black hair tickling my nose, then notice that there’s mud on the back of my hand, probably transferred to my face now. “No, I haven’t seen her.”

“I don’t know what’s the matter with her the last few days. She’s continually wandering off.” Mother shoos at the chickens pecking the ground around her feet.

I rest my back against a tree, not ready to give her reasons why the goat may have disappeared. It could tell her too much about my own thoughts, though Mother probably knows that I’m increasingly discontent. My friend Lynx and his family passed through a few weeks ago heading north as they always do at the beginning of summer.  They left us some of last years’ wild grain, which grows in shallow lakes. It’s delicious with meat and vegetables or with milk. I suggested to Mother that we travel with Lynx’s family for a couple of days. We could have harvested herbs and other plants as we went. Mother didn’t agree. I considered running away then, but this year they were fourteen with the new baby and on thinking it over, I wasn’t sure I could stand the crowd. When Lynx and I first met, he couldn’t believe that my mother and I lived alone.

“Only two of you?” he said. “Where’s the rest of your family?”

A good question, but I changed the subject by asking him about the land to the north of us. Where the trees stop is beautiful in a different way than the forest, Lynx told me – you can see all the way to the place where earth meets sky. I try to imagine long stretches of flat land where a person can see nearly to forever and wonder where animals find places to hide. Lynx says there are vast herds of a kind of huge deer, myriads of birds and small creatures. He spoke of a sky crammed with stars at night, and circular sunsets, as well as a time when the sun barely dips to the horizon at all.

“Thea may have gone looking for excitement,” I say.

“Hmm?” Mother glances at me and puts down her weaving. “I’m going after that goat.”

Purplish-grey clouds are massing over the trees to the west. “Storm coming,” I say.

Mother gathers her white-streaked red hair in both hands, twists it into a knot at her neck. I wonder whether my father had black hair and that’s where I got mine from. Mother never talks about him anymore, though when I was small she used to say that he’d gone on a long journey. I remember nagging her to describe him and asking what games he played with me; she would start talking about something else or snap at me to stop pestering her. I think he must be dead, must have been dead all this time and Mother didn’t know how to tell a child that he wasn’t coming back.

 “I’m going to find that stupid goat before she falls in the river and is swept away,” Mother snaps. “You shut her kids into the shed with the donkey, and close the chickens in there, too.” She frowns. “Pay close attention to what needs to be done. You’ve been abstracted lately.”

I feel a sudden lurch of guilt, my stomach roils. “Wait,” I say and dash into the cottage. Mother’s green-dyed leather cloak hangs on a hook beside mine just inside the door. I bring it to her. “In case you’re caught in the rain.”

A smile lights her grey eyes and she touches my cheek in thanks, then briefly the necklace of leather, wooden beads and a sapphire at my throat. She made it for my fifteenth birthday, just a fortnight ago, and I love it. I have a sudden impulse to hug her, but she has already stepped away.

“Are you sure you don’t want me to come along?” I call as she starts off.

She turns. “No. Keep the stew warm and stir it once in a while so it doesn’t burn.”

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