Sunday, December 19, 2010

Red Poppies/Rote Mohn

No, I'm not blogging about Remembrance Day. I'm looking into the world my dad was in as a young fellow. I know he loved to dance so I'm checking out some of the big singers that he would have heard during the war over in Germany. I've discovered Rosita Serrano. One of her big hits was called "Roter Mohn" (or red poppy) - which is a tango. By coincidence - I have an oil painting of red poppies done by him - in my living room. So, the writer in me is imagining all sorts of things!

Rosita Serrano is an interesting figure. She was born in Chile and entered the German scene in 1936 where she was nicknamed the Chilean Nightingale. But in 1943 she supported some Jewish refugees in Sweden and the Nazis blacklisted her. Her career never recovered and she died in extreme poverty in Chile in 1997.

Still, thanks to our amazing technology, her music lives on.


Friday, December 17, 2010

McNally Robinson Book Signing

It's a signing! Books for Christmas gift giving.

Where: McNally Robinson (Grant Park) in Winnipeg.
To be specific - at the bottom of the spiral staircase which leads
up to the kids' books section.
When: Saturday, December 18th. I'll be there between 3 and 4 p.m.
There'll be children book authors signing all day.

Featured authors include: Rae Bridgman, Martha Brooks, Anita Daher,
Gabriele Goldstone, Brenda Hasiuk, Perry Nodelman, Craig Russell,
Margaret Shaw-MacKinnon, Joe McLellan, Susan Rocan, Chris Rutkowski,
Duncan Thornton, and Larry Verstrate.

I'm just thrilled to be in their company.



Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Logline

I hummed and hawed. Why do I want to go to a scriptwriting workshop? It’s not like I’m about to try writing a movie script. But I was curious, that’s all – especially when I checked out the workshop facilitator’s website. Danishka Esterhazy was not only an award-winning writer, but she’d worked with historical fiction. I knew then that I had to go. My curiousity was not disappointed - the three hour workshop was fantastic.

I learned so much – not about film-making (just awed) - but about story. And without story, you have no movie, no novel, no reader. Danishka dropped the names of a few big weights in the movie scriptwriting business – names of workshops she’s participated in. But I want to be brief here, so I’ll just share one gold nugget.

In her introduction she said, “Art is fire plus algebra.” I don’t remember who she attributed that quote to, but it’s a great image. Now, while I don’t have the happiest relationship with algebra, I have overcome some of my childhood aversion.

Here is the formula for a logline. What is a logline, you ask? It’s the pitch, the story condensed down to its barest form.

(Title) is a (genre) story about (your main character) who (experiences a life changing event) and then must (struggle towards a goal).

The logline should be thirty words or less and it should contain active verbs. It’s a great exercise for any writer and I’m really liking the challenge of applying some algebra to my own work.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Everything Flows by Vasily Grossman

We're into winter now - first week and who knows how many more to go. It's all pretty to look at, but when you trudge through it for four to six hours a day, you know that snow is more than a color. It's a texture, too. Lucky for us, we here in Winnipeg usually have a dry cold and that gives us lighter, fluffier white stuff. Don't get me wrong, I love winter - and have loved it more than ever since I've become a 'walker' by profession. But, it makes me think of those poor victims of Soviet oppression who had to trudge through snow day after day, mile after mile, year after year. It's hard to fathom. Yesterday, I forgot my lunch - and oh how I lmissed that thick sliced dark bread and cheese. But then I thought of those who never got that hole in their stomach satisfied.

The book I've been reading this past week, while I recharge after walking for hours in the snow, is called Everything Flows by Vasily Grossman. On the cover is a photo by Tomasz Kizny. It's of prisoners crossing Vaygach Island in Russia in the 1930s. This book wasn't released in Russia until the late 1980s. (I'm reading a translation by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler/Anna Aslanyan.) It was finished just before the author died in 1964. An amazing book.

Now try to imagine this. Walking through the deep snow, trying to step into the step of the person ahead of you. The wind is whipping you from the northwest. Your boots - if you're lucky enough to have some (me, I got a brand new pair - waterproof, too) have gaping holes. If your boots were stolen while you slept (very likely if they're any good), you have wrapped rags around your feet. Anyway, you walk, like a frozen zombie. Your stomach is just a tight knot of pain. Your fingers are without feeling. Your eyes are frosted shut. Your lips cracked. But the body is an amazing little furnace. As long as you keep moving, you stay warm.

It's the only way to survive the cold. Keep moving.

The most powerful sentence from the book: "And hope, which until then had always oppressed her heart with its living weight, now died." (Chapter 13).

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Local, Universal and Diverse

No doubt you've heard of the 'eat local' movement. Well, here's a twist. I did a 'read local' experiment for the last three months. What an exotic, nutritional, and satisfying diet, it's been.

Back in September I did a group signing with local members of the Writers' Union of Canada. It was great to meet local authors and to learn about their past, present, and future projects. I've been engrossed in reading their wide-ranging works ever since. Having just finished five of their books, it's time for a breather.

It is just so much fun to read books set locally. Empowering, too. And while the streets, retail, geography, etc. might be places familiar to me, it's the characters and their experiences that are so universal. Reading these books has made me feel like Winnipeg really is the centre of the universe.

And then there's the authors. The talent is incredible. Of course, that's not surprising. I mean why shouldn't Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada have some of the best writers in the world? We've got all the proper ingredients - diversity of people, long winters, local publishers, active writing associations, and so many untold stories.

Here's my five great (local) reads.
An Ordinary Decent Criminal by Michael Van Rooy - funny and poignant. An adult crime novel
set in...Winnipeg...and why not! Lots of good stuff happening in Michael's career. Well deserved, too.
Out of the Fire by Deborah Froese This is serious stuff aimed at a YA audience. The book kept getting better. It's about being burned in a fire and about heavy stuff like guilt and moving on.
Driving Blind by Steven Benstead This adult character novel, again set in Winnipeg, twists and turns and always surprises.
The Salvation of Yasch Siemens by Armin Wiebe Speaking of surprises, this book was such a delight. Funny - like FUNNY! It was nominated for a Stephen Leacock Award, back in 1984 when the book first came out. He uses 'flat German' aka Mennonite low German speech patterns in the writing. Setting is rural Manitoba.
Five Years and Counting by Cendrine Marrouat This book of poetry had made me slow right down. I can't read more than a poem or two at a time - it's kind of like drinking wine. There's a lot of intensity here and I continue to sip and savour.

There is something so wonderful about reading books. I think it has something to do with the focus it requires. When you're in the middle of a good book - there's only silence and the power of someone else's imagination.







Thursday, November 11, 2010

Remembering Day

Growing up, Remembrance Day was always a day of great shame for me. After all, my dad had fought on Hitler's side. The poppies on Flander's field brought tears to my young eyes - the poem still does that to me - but they weren't just tears of sadness - they were also tears of deep embarrassment. How could my dad - who was such a warm, kind, funny guy, a parent who understood me so much more than my other parent did - how could he have been a pilot in the Luftwaffe? He should have known better, I'd think to myself. He should have suspected Hitler's crimes. He should have been smart enough to get out of the country while there was a chance.

The other part that confused me about Remembering Day was the dead. There were so many dead in my parents' families. But they all deserved to die, right? I look at the photo of my dad and two uncles. One in the Infantry, dead. The other, an UBoot soldier, dead. Then my father, the pilot, badly injured and five years in a Soviet POW camp. My mother's side...family scattered or dead - with not even a photo left to remember them by.

Good guys, bad guys, all guys who were young and who had no choice but to fight for their country. What sadness. Today I'll bake a streusel kuchen for the birthday boy - Albert - who came to visit my mom one last time on November 11th 1944 - for his 22nd birthday and was killed soon after. He, too, fought on the bad side - against the Soviets - that country that had taken his mother, his father, his childhood and his home.

I might be politically incorrect, but on Remembrance Day I will remember the cruelty of war and the wasted lives of both the good guys and the bad guys. And I'll even think of Omar Khadr.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

My Town Monday - what if?

In my last post, I mentioned how I almost spent my childhood in Kitimat, in northwest British Columbia. Well, another place, I might have grown up in - except for a few disturbances, like communism and World War II, is Federofka, (now called Kaliniwka) in Ukraine.

Federofka (or Kaliniwka) is about 25 kilometers northwest of Zhytomyr. Today, Federofka (meaning Feder's little village) has a population of less than a hundred. (I'm guessing. There's about 25 houses spread out over a couple of kilometers.) Back in its heyday - 1911 - the population was under a thousand. So, it's always been a teeny, tiny place.

At the turn of the last century, no doubt many of our grandparents were born in rural communities - either here in North America, or back in the 'old' country. Of course, I'd never really have been born in the old Soviet Union, because my mother would have never met my dad - who was born on the North Sea. Still, it's interesting to think how where we live has shaped our lives - and how world events determined our birthplaces.

I ended being born in Winnipeg (meaning 'muddy waters') - a place I still call home (albeit with several years away - my two oldest were born in Regina, Saskatchewan.) Winnipeg's the kind of city most wouldn't go out of their way to visit. We have no world class zoo, no seaside, no mountains for skiing. Hmm. What do we have? Winnipeg's a people place. People come here for jobs, for the slower lifestyle, for culture (we have ballet, theatre, symphony, etc), and for family. People stay here for the same reasons. And then we go visit the places with the great zoos, coastlines, and mountains.

In 2012 Winnipeg will have a world class Museum for Human Rights. People will come to visit, and maybe some will even stay, have babies, and change lives.

Visit more My Town Monday posts.


Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Book Talk

I was invited to do a talk for a women's book club last weekend. It was great to share my research with a group of adult women. They appreciated my motivation in trying to understand my mother's past. As daughters, I think we have to achieve a certain amount of emotional distance from our mothers before we can safely go back to them. As my mother becomes more childlike, our mother/daughter relationship is turned upside down.

We talked about how childhood trauma becomes repressed and about how that emotional damage expresses itself later on. Discussing the writing of the book with adults, as opposed to children, was a satisfying experience. I focussed less on the actual history, and more on the psychological aspects. Children inherit their parents' issues.

This group of women has a great thing going. I was honored to participate in one of their monthly book studies. Maybe someday when I retire, I'll have time to also be part of such a group.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

My Town Monday - visiting Kitimat

Visiting family in Kitimat (northwest BC) was a rain soaked adventure. The Twilight Series would have felt at home here - a place where the sun did not shine - although there were pauses in the rain. It's a place where forests are thick and lush. I don't know about vampires, but it's definitely bear country. A couple of weeks before my visit (back in September) - a spirit bear (aka kermode bear) was captured and relocated, after it was caught wandering the streets and backyards of downtown Kitimat. Grizzly bears were supposedly still roaming the streets while I was there. Here's a photo of us following a bear trap down the street.


As you can see from this map (or maybe not) - Kitimat is a coastal town - close to the Haida Gwaii or Queen Charlotte Islands - which claim to have some of the biggest and oldest trees of the world. (While I didn't go there this time, I'll make it a point to head over there by ferry on my next visit.)

The main employer in Kitimat is Alcan - an aluminum manufacturer. The city was designed by Alcan and employs about 1500 people (including my cousins and uncles). In the mid-fifties, when my relatives were immigrating to Canada, Alcan provided secure jobs and prosperity to the postwar refugees. I narrowly missed growing up in Kitimat myself. (My mother was too sick during her pregnancy with me, to make the long journey out west, that first year in Canada.) By the time I arrived, my dad had found other work on the sunny, but flat, prairies.








The Douglas Channel - a deep fiord - reaches in to Kitimat and provides the town with a necessary port for importing bauxite - an important ingredient in the production of aluminum - and for exporting the finished aluminum product. It also provided a great view for our seafood dinner in Kitamaat Village's Seamasters Restaurant. Kitamaat Village is the neighboring First Nations settlement. (By the way, Kitamaat means - people of the many snows.)

Thank you, to my cousins and their families, and especially to my dear Tante Berta. I exported a renewed connection to family. Visit more My Town Monday posts.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

My Town Monday in Kelowna

A typical view in the Kelowna's Okanagan Valley which surrounds Lake Okanagan - an eight mile long lake and home of the Ogopogo monster. (No sightings to report.)


We visited the Naramata Bench area near Penticton, just south of Kelowna.


I got to visit some wineries and do some taste-testing. Best of all was the view and glorious summer-like weather. Yes, those are grapes in that photo.

I also did some hiking in the hills - and a lot of noisy singing - as we warded off potential bears. The name 'kelowna' comes from an aboriginal word meaning 'grizzly bear'.

Fortunately, the closest I got to bear, was a stuffed boar in a restaurant.


Travel some more by visiting more My Town Monday Posts!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Chinese Checker Lessons

Back to meandering - my favorite kind of being - just sort of wandering, not driven in any one direction, but enjoying the moment for what it is.

Okay, if that doesn't make sense, just ignore. Posting here once a week gives me a wee link to the big world of the internet, keeps me connected in a small way.

I'm just back from a trip out west - to beautiful B.C. - where I spent hours leafing through old photo albums, listening to intriguing family stories, and playing game after game of chinese checkers. What I learned from the checkers is that there's always a time of being muddled, and then suddenly, a path opens up and everything becomes easier. Persistence, as always, is the key.

The other thing I learned from chinese checkers is that you shouldn't count on your opponent too much. Sure, they can help you set up a great forward jumping pathway - but they can also mess you up. My 84 year old aunt was a great 'Halma' (the German word for chinese checkers) player. But she was an even better story teller. (She made a pretty good vegetable soup, too!)

My exciting announcement is that The Kulak's Daughter has been awarded silver in the Moonbeam Awards competition (historical fiction category). Maybe, it'll help the sequel get published. In any event, it's boosted my confidence and I'll continue to meander through the musty past, looking for story.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Moonbeam Awards

I'm just dancing in the light of the moon. The Kulak's Daughter is a Finalist in the Moonbeam Awards competition - historical fiction category.

Final decision will be made Oct. 15th. &! (That's supposed to be a fingers crossed sign :))

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Decluttering the debris

When you achieve a goal - say, like writing a book - that you've schemed, dreamed, wished and worked on for a long time, it's a great feeling. And this has made me feel quite happy and proud. But working on this goal - which involved a lot of research into the past - has left me with a present that is a bit of a mess. So now I'm tackling my home. As I meander through it, I see clutter everywhere. Twenty-plus years of raising three kids, working full time, and writing has made my house look a bit like it's been hit by a major storm. Debris - in the form of dead computers, dead and dirty stuffed animals, CDs that no one wants to admit owning, incomplete decks of cards, ratty boxes of games, various types of deflated balls, books for piano, for guitar, for reading, for scribbling, bowls of once precious lakeshore rocks and seashells, stacks of great art from grade school, loose photos from the pre-digital age, ... HELP... I need to organize.

So what do I do? Do I head to the closet and start sorting? No. I head to the bookstore to find a book to help me start sorting. The book is called Unclutter Your Life in One Week!! by Erin Rooney Doland. I have my doubts. It's taken me decades to get to this point. There's no way my life will get uncluttered in a week. But I like the idea.

I think what I really need is a good editor. Restructure and cut, cut, cut. Someone ruthless, but still giving support at the same time. I'll let you know.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

My Town Monday and the Red River Cart


My town, Winnipeg, grew up in the clay-filled Red River Valley. And before there were trains, like the Countess of Dufferin, there were carts. The carts weren’t available at the local cart dealership - they had to be built from the materials at hand. And so the Red River Cart, pulled by horse or by ox, and built of local hardwoods, was created to suit the local environment. It became a common transportation vehicle for fur traders, and later, settlers, on the prairies.

The cart had two large wheels (three to six feet in diameter), and was entirely made of wood. No nails. (No nail factory around, yet.) It was held together by leather, easy to repair, and so versatile, it could be made into a raft by taking off the wheels. (Why don’t we have cars like that today?!) The carts were said to be very squeaky, especially when traveling in caravans of up to

two hundred. The wheels couldn't be greased because of all the dust. This squeal became known as ‘the Northwest fiddle’ and could be heard for miles around. Ironically, just a few feet away from the cart sculpture, I found a sign banning 'the production of loud noise'. Standing there, I imagined hearing a ghostly squeak from the past.

By 1869, trains and steam boats, gradually began to offer settlers and business people alternative transportation. Peace and quiet returned to the back roads. But in some fields, the deep ruts from the Red River carts continue to resist the farmer's plough.

Please visit more My Town Monday posts!


Saturday, August 14, 2010

My Town Monday and The Countess of Dufferin


When I was visiting Assinboine Park a few weeks ago, I spied what I assumed was a steam locomotive called the Countess of Dufferin. But I was wrong. The photo on the right is not the Countess. She sits in the Winnipeg Railway Museum where she's protected from the wind, rain, and snow. This shiny black locomotive has no name - just a number (CN 6043) - and the honor of being the last of the steam engines.

The Countess of Dufferin's claim to fame, is that she's the very first steam locomotive on the Canadian prairies.

She's named after the wife of one of Canada’s early Governor Generals. Her full name is Hariot Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood, Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava. (And I thought women's lib had invented hyphenated names!) Hariot and her husband, Count Dufferin, happened to be touring Manitoba when the steam engine arrived back in the fall of 1877 and the Countess got to put the first spike into the south leading tracks.

(photo is in public domain)

This mother of nine children is said to have been a gracious hostess and perfectly suited to the diplomatic life she led. Besides Canada, she worked/lived in embassies in Russia, Turkey and India. She was also a writer and published Our Viceregal Life (1889) My Canadian Journal (1891) and My Russian Turkish Journals in 1916. In India, she was actively involved with fundraising to give women better health clinics. Many hospitals there still bear her name. We, in Winnipeg, honor her memory with a locomotive. And it’s aptly named, because this woman was a powerhouse of energy and she certainly did travel.

Now back to the steam engine. Built in 1872 for the Northern Pacific Railway, the locomotive was sold to the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1877. She arrived on October 9th via barge, up the Red River, from Minnesota to her new home in Winnipeg. From Winnipeg, she was sent out in all directions, expanding the new railway system. The steam engine lived on wood/coal and water. There were always plenty of trees around to chop down when she got hungry. It’s said that once a bear clambered aboard during refueling.

Later, the engine was nicknamed “The Betsy” by new owners who used her as a power source for their lumber mill. In 1909, after a life of hard work, she avoided the scrap yard and was donated to the City of Winnipeg to be put on public display.

In 1977 she was refurbished and no doubt looks as good as the day she arrived – a day that was so momentous, it was declared a public holiday. Trains really did change the world back a hundred years ago – kind of like cell phones and the internet have changed our present world. Techology kind of boggles the mind - well my mind, at least - where thoughts just slowly chug along.

What I really found interesting in learning about this locomotive, was the woman behind the name. You can read more about her time in Canada with this link.

The same train technology that opened up North America for development, opened up the vast country of Russia, too. Without trains, all those exiles and prisoners would never have made it to those far flung gulags and special settlements. Shows how it's the tool user and not the tool that makes the difference.

Please visit more My Town Monday blogs. Some fascinating posts about this world we live in.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Ten things to Understand about me

I was just reading someone's website (Alma Fullerton's - because I just finished her wonderful book Libertad - it was shortlisted for the 2009 Governor General's award). She lists ten things about herself. It was an interesting list. We even have some things in common. She likes gardening and thunderstorms, just like me. Then I started thinking about what ten things I'd like people to know about me. Here goes. Ten things about Gabe (in no particular order).

1. In the summer, after work, my favorite place in the whole world is the hammock strung up between my plum and box elder trees. My day job as a letter carrier is fun, but it feels so good to put my feet up at the end of my route.
2. When I was six years old, I tried to sell myself because I thought my family didn't love me.
3. I didn't like my first name and in grade six my teacher let me pick a new one.
4. I love my dog (and miss my old dog). I love my cat, too. But cats don't like going for walks - at least not with people. My cat prefers her favorite blue velvet chair.
5. I love camping - esp. with my 3 kids ('cept they're big now). The air is just different out in the woods, by a lake. It fills you up like an energy drink. And nothing beats a thunderstorm when you're hiding in a tent - hoping that the poles will stay up and that the rain won't come down sideways and find the hole.
6. I love trees - especially old ones. "I think that I shall never see/ a poem lovely as a tree" (Alfred Joyce Kilmer) That's one of my most favorite lines - ever!
7. I spent a year traveling in Europe when I was twenty. I never wanted go home. (Until the end, and then I was very happy to have a home to go to.)
8. When I started school, I couldn't speak English and was very shy. But then my teacher held up my coloring for the whole class to see - and I felt much better. At least I could do something right! Somehow I never did improve my coloring past the grade one level.
9. I'm always interested in the invisible stuff - like why people do something. Maybe that's why I like history - it's the invisible time before now.
10. I love words, reading them, writing them, and understanding them. Take the word 'understand', for example. It means, literally, 'to stand under something.' Not over but under- like getting underneath a car. That's why I write, I guess. To understand life.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

My Town Monday - at The Forks


The word ‘Winnipeg’ means ‘muddy ‘ or ‘dirty’ river in Cree. We have two muddy rivers (muddy, on account of all the clay in our valley) and where they meet, that’s Winnipeg – or at least that’s our starting point, our centre. These two rivers, the Red and the Assiniboine (there’s that word again!) define not only our city, but also our traffic flows. (It’s always a good idea not to have to cross too many bridges for your daily commute – especially in the summer, aka, ‘construction’ season.) The Red River pushes upward from North Dakota, through the low-lying Red River Valley (you know the song) northwards – emptying into Lake Winnipeg (which links up to Hudson’s Bay and finally, the Arctic Ocean).


The Red can be ferocious in the springtime and has caused much flooding. (Read about 1997’s Flood of the Century.) The Assiniboine River, on the other hand, flows west to east, beginning in eastern Saskatchewan near Preeceville. It’s a slower, more shallow, lazy kind of river – creating oxbows as it meanders.

Nowadays, this river junction is marked by a dynamic downtown site called ‘The Forks.’ It’s a place I take most visitors because it offers a bit of everything. Restaurants, markets, a hotel, a children’s theatre and museum, etc. Being on the river, the site also has water taxis and boat tours. In the winter, it rivals Ottawa for the longest ice rink. You can also watch dogsled racing and there's even a toboggan run. There's fireworks on special holidays, outdoor concerts (I got to see a Randy Bachmann and Burton Cummings reunion), and we're all anticipating the new Human Rights Museum which is now under construction.

My one pet peeve of the place (not that anyone’s listening) – is that the place didn’t become a car-free zone. Considering it’s historical significance, a more timeless place could have been created if traffic had been banned. But don’t let my criticism stop you from visiting. Please come meet a Winnipegger at The Forks, down where the rivers converge – like it’s been done for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

Please visit more My Town Monday posts and enjoy the trip.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Sashenka by Simon Montefiore

Sashenka by Simon Montefiore is the best book I've read this year. It starts in St. Petersburg in 1916 and ends in Moscow in 1994. So it covers the time from pre-revolution Russia to post-communism. About a lifetime. What a story. What a heroine. This book is full of history, heavy with sensuality, and page-turning plot.

The reader gets glimpses of Rasputin, of Lenin, Stalin, and various other heavyweights from the communist era. While it skips over the 1917 revolution itself, the 1937 Great Terror, and the collapse of the Soviet Union, it shows how these events affected the lives of a single family.

The book begins and ends in the archives. The Soviet archives are a most incredible place. Bureaucrats kept track of interrogations, imprisonments, and causes of death. I found my own grandfather's signature in a former KGB archive. Arrested in June, 1937, after a hot summer of imprisonment, he was ready to confess to being a counter-revolutionary spy (the much-used Article 58) and sentenced to death. Death was a shot to the back of the head - in September of '37. Was he quilty? Of course not. None of those people were guilty. And the Sashenka of Montefiore's novel wasn't guilty either. I can't give anything away - don't want to spoil anyone's enjoyment. Just read the book!

Oh, and because I loved the writing style so very much, here's a short sentence: "The sun and moon watched each other suspiciously across a milky sky." The smells are rich and the love scenes, both adult and parent/child are richly drawn. The suspense is always there. Every reader knows that with Stalin in the picture, no one was safe.

This is Simon Montefiore's first novel.
Click here to listen to Montefiore talk about his book. Visit his website for a list of his past nonfiction books and new works.

Monday, July 26, 2010

My Town Monday - Assiniboine Park

Every city must have its green space. New York City has its Central Park (that I got to explore this past May!), and Winnipeg has its pride and joy, Assiniboine Park. Last night, Buddy (the dog) and me, pretended we were tourists and meandered through the 1100 acre park. Of course, we couldn't explore the whole place, and we were thoroughly wiped by the time we found the car again. Even Buddy was happy to rest.

Assiniboine Park was established back in 1904. On the north edge there's the Assiniboine River and on the south edge, there's the Assiniboine Forest. The park is home to a Conservatory - filled with tropical plants and flowers all year long, and a great restaurant (which we can go to if you're ever in town); a Zoo - which is seriously underfunded and a source of debate; a cricket field; an eye-catching pavillion with an art gallery, a duck pond, a sculpture garden, an English flower garden, and an outdoor stage which last night was playing some great jazz. The dog, however, was mostly interested in the other dogs playing frisbee on the vast green spaces and the forest trails, although he did peer over the foot bridge to check out the Assiniboine River. Later, he got to taste that river, too.

But a city isn't a noun, so much as it's a verb. And everything I see (or don't see - like the dandelions and mosquitoes) is a much discussed issue in our city. Beautiful green spaces like Assiniboine Park don't just happen. It takes a lot of money, political will, and planning to provide the public with a free place of beauty like a park. (No we don't need condos in the park!) Let's hope that all cities will continue to give its citizens (their families and
their pets) such pieces of Paradise to enjoy. And may we never take them for granted.

Please visit My Town Monday Headquarters for more links to explore!

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Uncle Leo

It had to happen. I offended a relative with one of the characters of my book - and explaining the difference between fiction and non-fiction didn't help.On the cover of my book it says, 'based on a true story." It doesn't say 'a true story.' Historical fiction is a creative re-telling of the past. I had to put words into the mouths of my characters.

The character most strongly fictionalized is 'Uncle Leo.' I made him up. In real life, there was instead a good-hearted half-brother. He was seventeen years older and shared a father with Olga and her siblings, but had a different mother. (I presume the first wife of my grandfather died in childbirth - a much too common occurrence in those years.) So the 'real' savior of the younger children in Siberian exile was not a communist supporter.

As a novelist, however, I make no apologies for creating 'Uncle Leo.' I wanted to show how nobody could be trusted in those years. Bad guys are so much fun to create - and a book full of victims could become uninteresting. Also, as someone recently pointed out, Stalin can't be blamed for all the deaths in the Soviet Union. He couldn't have done it without help - and there were plenty of people like my fictionalized 'Uncle Leo' who were only too happy to improve their lot at the expense of others. This is true in every society. The exploited become the exploiters.

What remains true, though, is that millions of kulak families lost their homes, many their lives, and all suffered untold hardships, when the Soviet Union switched to collective farming in their first Five Year Plan.

Monday, July 19, 2010

My Town Monday and the Assiniboia Downs


The word ‘Assiniboia’ is used a lot in Winnipeg. The people of the Assiniboia First Nation were the original bearers of the name. Since then we’ve named a river, a zoo, a municipality, numerous businesses, and a racetrack after them.

Fast Facts about Horse Racing for the total Know-Not-All:

I’ve never paid it much attention, but now that one of my kids has a part time job there, I’m suddenly curious. I’ve even attended my first horse race this past weekend and lost three whole dollars!

Usually, in the mornings when I drive past the track on my way to work, I’ll see horses prancing around in circles like they’re part of a merry-go-round. Sometimes there’s a smoky fire nearby, to keep the mosquitoes away. I’ve now learned that the carousel devices are called ‘hot walkers.’ Four to six horses can exercise at the same time for about half an hour.

Track Facts:

The racetrack opened in 1958. Before that, races were held at Polo Park (which for all of my lifetime, has been the name of our biggest shopping mall).

The Assiniboia Downs racetrack is six and a half furlongs long. (To put this in perspective, the track for the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs is 10 furlongs). There are 8 furlongs in a mile.

Live thoroughbred racing happens only during the summer – on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. What is a thoroughbred, you ask? Somehow, they can all trace back their lineage back to three specific horses that were bred in England. Thoroughbreds come in a variety of colors, and sizes – measuring from 15 to 17 hands. (A hand = 4 inches.)

Other Horse facts:

Filly – female three years or younger

Mare – female over three years old

Entire – male stallion

Gelding – a male horse that’s been castrated

Non-horse person that I am, what I find most fascinating about the whole sport is naming of the horses. Here’s a sample of some recent Assiniboia Downs competitors: Ally Scatter, Gentle Rain, Black Iris, Awaytobelieve, Fine Feline, and Oh Holy Moley. These names must rival the names chosen by rock bands. It's not a good idea to place bets according to names, though. I lost my three bucks betting on Gentle Rain.

Perhaps this is a good place to stop. I haven’t touched on the jockeys, the actual racing, or the betting procedures. But I do want to recommend a young adult book I read awhile ago. It’s written by Annie Wedekind, called A Horse of Her Own. Great story about the horse/human relationship and some insight into the complicated horse world.

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Sunday, July 18, 2010

Die Frauen von Janowka (The Women of Janowka)


Just read a book that I had to order from Germany - therefore the cost of delivery was more than the book itself. But the price was well worth it. Die Frauen von Janowka (The Women of Janowka) by Helmut Exner drew me in quickly and kept me turning pages until the end. While it's a 'roman' or novel, it's more of a family memoir and is filled with photographs, maps, and brief lifelines of the individuals, to help the reader along. I found myself constantly go back and forth, checking the photos and maps to review the who's and where's. I found this immensely helpful.

One of the main characters is the author's grandmother, Serafine, and her parts of the book were my favorite. The Russian part of the story happens before my own mother is born. It's about the exile of thousands of Germans to remote parts of Siberia during WWI.

This book is dear to my heart because it's also my family's story. Like the author, I too have family spread all over the world - family that shared beginnings in Volhynia. What really brought this story close to me was not just the beginning, but the ending - specifically, the last photograph in the book. It's of the Brokenhead River by Beausejour. Next weekend I plan to drive out there - it should be a less than two hour drive. The family that started off by a river in Volhynia (once in Russia, later in the USSR, now in Ukraine), now has some of that family farming in my own province.

One of the book's strengths was the humorous banter between the couples - led by the Exner men - and passed on through the generations. The author did a great job in giving life to his deceased family members. An excellent read, all around. (Also, considering my German isn't as strong as it used to be - the language flowed and was quite accessible.)

Sunday, July 11, 2010

My Town Monday and the Winnipeg Folk Festival

I’ve spent twenty summers going to the Winnipeg Folk Festival. This summer I’m not there – physically – but I can still feel its vibes, and I’d like to share some of those with you. Here are twenty facts about this most amazing musical, spiritual, and community experience.

1. The Winnipeg Folk Festival always happens on the second weekend of July. (The weekend starts on a Wednesday.)

2. The Winnipeg Folk Festival site is at Birds Hill Provincial Park – about half an hour northeast of Winnipeg.

3. The Festival began as a one time event back in 1974 by Mitch Podolak and Colin Gorrie. That’s 37 years ago!

4. In an effort to provide a quality experience, 2010 is the first time that attendance will be capped at 14, 000 per day. (No more waiting to see what the weather will be like.) It’s sold out this year.

5. Only 6000 campers are allowed. Sites are unserviced.

6. The Festival generally avoids the big names in music – but some star attractions have included Blue Rodeo, Elvis Costello, Bare Naked Ladies, Great Big Sea and Bruce Cockburn.

7. The ‘morning tarp run’ is a chaotic scene where thousands of people are let through the gate to place their tarp in front of the mainstage. Scary!

8. Small venue workshops start at 11:30 a.m. and offer an intimate setting for your favorite (and soon to be favorite) acts.

9. Handmade Village offers unique items from soaps to walking sticks to clothes, ear rings and bracelets.

10. Whale’s Tails are an annual must at the Food Village. So are the fantastic fruit shakes.

11. No glass, alcohol or other ‘stuff’ is allowed into the festival area.

12. 2200 volunteers make the festival work. It’s amazing how it’s all organized. I volunteered for a few years as ‘site security’. It was a super experience. And the food? Wow. The volunteers and the performers get exceptional food.

13. There are two campgrounds at the Festival site. ‘Festival’ and ‘quiet’. My family has only camped at the ‘quiet’ site. We learned quickly to choose a camping spot with some shade.

14. There’s poison ivy out there, so stay on the trails. (Our family learned this the hard way.)

15. Wristbands define your status as a camper, weekender, or daily visitor.

16. Family Area is for kids. Big sand dune, crafts, and kid-friendly music. Our family spent many hours over the years in this area.

17. Young Performers Stage is a way for budding artists to perform and be mentored by older, more experienced musicians.

18. The average age at the folk festival? Every age. From newborn to 93.

19. My favorite memory? Watching my three kids wiggle their little bums to the music.

20. Second favorite memory? Seeing a most awesome rainbow while being surrounded by swaying people as beautiful music pulses through the air. (After we'd all been soaked by the rain!)

Twenty summers with my kids. Good vibes!

Visit their website http://www.winnipegfolkfestival.ca/wp/about-us/

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Sunday, July 4, 2010

My Town Monday and the Burton Cummings Theatre

Winnipeg has a downtown establishment called The Burton Cummings Theatre. (I got to watch Leonard Cohen there a few years ago.) The venue was originally called the Walker Theatre when it was built back in 1906. Then in 1991 it was re-furbished and re-named after one of our famous sons, Burton Cummings. Burton was the lead singer of the internationally acclaimed band from the seventies known as The Guess Who. Here's a chance to listen to their song, Share the Land.


Archives of Manitoba, Winnipeg-Theatre-Walker, Image 9/N13272.



The reason I'm sharing Burton's theatre now is because he's been in the news lately. You see, Burton was a high school dropout. But this past June, he (and my youngest daughter) both received their high school diplomas - only not at the same school. His school was St. John's High in the North End - which even back in the 70s was notorious for its rough edge.

My question is this. Does someone who has not fulfilled the requirements of a high school diploma, deserve one? Of course, Burton Cummings moved on to become successful without finishing school. But what message is that sending to young people graduating today? I'm not sure.

Whatever the answer is, I still want to send huge CONGRATULATIONS to all the Class of 2010! The world is yours!

And to anyone who's interested, here's a listing of upcoming Burton Cumming's Theatre Events.

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gardening and writing

Here's some more writing insights I've learned from gardening. I don't go for the formal, defined garden, but even a casual, informal garden takes a lot of work. While I love color and blossoms, I also love shade trees and lots of green. The two don't always mix. In my writing I lean towards the dark side of life - which doesn't mean it has to be dreary - I just have to remember to have pockets of sunlight - surprise hugs of warmth. Contrast keeps writing and gardens interesting.

Gardening, like writing, is more successful when there's anticipation. And a garden with plants that promise future blooms, rather than a constant sameness of color, keeps the garden visitor coming back for more. Each morning I walk through my garden and indulge in the growth that makes for constant change. In books, I want a character and a plot that surprises me and that makes me want to re-visit the character and see what's developing in that imaginary world.

I've also learned that pruning and weeding are ruthless, but necessary parts of gardening. To do this properly, I've had to learn to identify the difference between a weed and a promising flower. It's taken me a while, but I'm learning. In the same way, some words I write are simply weeds. But it's only by getting in there and writing that I can gain the confidence to distinguish strong writing from weedy trash.

And the greatest thing about gardening and writing, is that you can always re-plant and re-write. And then there's that great recycling place called the compost pile. Nothing is ever wasted. All it takes is time and a little bit of getting dirty.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

My Town Monday and the Fifa 2010 World Cup of Soccer - the Winnipeg Connection

No, my town, Winnipeg, doesn't have one of our fine athletes playing for one of the national teams over in South Africa. Some day though, we will, because we have a thriving youth soccer scene.

But we have two thrilling connections, none-the-less.

The first is Hector Vergara who is one of the refs. Hector actually went to the same high school as me - albeit a decade later. At a soccer awards banquet I once heard him deliver a soul-inspiring talk about how hard work can make dreams come true. He's an awesome example of this. Born in Chile, he's now officiating at his third world cup - which is quite an achievement. Being a ref at a soccer game is a very tough job. And it's the kind of job that only gets noticed when you mess up. So congrats to Hector, you make Winnipeg proud. He worked the Portugal/Brazil game last Friday and more games will depend on the evaluation of that game. It's a tough, tough field.

Winnipeg’s Hector Vergara is thrilled to be reffing at his third World Cup.
(Photo from the Associated Press Archives)

Then there's another quiet, mostly unnoticed, but extremely important Winnipeg connection to the 2010 Fifa World Cup. I'll give you a clue: it's green. No, not the Portugal jerseys. It's the grass. The grass seed was supplied by a local Winnipeg company called Pickseed Canada. Read more about it here.

Soccer Ball On The Grass

So, go teams, go. No matter who you're cheering for (I was thrilled with Germany's Sunday win over England) remember that my town of Winnipeg is right in there, supporting them all!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

My Town Monday - The Harte Trail


I’m going to try following and participating in the ‘My Town Monday’ blog by Travis Erwin. While I don’t live in a high profile place like San Diego or NYC , I shall try to prove that my town is every bit as interesting. I live in Winnipeg, Manitoba – pop. about 700,000. It’s a place where currently there are way more mosquitoes than humans (excuse me while I swat, scratch, and temporarily go mad).

Let me start off close to home on the Harte Trail. It’s 6.5 kilometers long (about 3 miles). This former CP Rail line (built in 1894) is part of the Trans Canada Trail. My dog and I explore it on an almost daily basis. There’s no motorized traffic allowed on the trail and this makes it a calm escape from city life.


This morning’s sensory delights included: seeing five or six deer munching in a brilliant yellow canola field, hearing frogs croak their little lungs out, tasting the first ripening Saskatoon berries, feeling the sweet south wind in the open areas, and smelling the delicate scent of the pink wild roses. (I think that includes all five senses!) There’s always something new on this trail as it cuts through a farmer's field, prairie grasses and trees, which include aspen, Siberian elm, chokecherries, and also Saskatoon bushes.

Because of the heavy rains this spring, mallard ducks continue to hang out in puddles that normally dry out. Sometimes I hear woodpeckers loudly knocking on wood, and there’s often a rabbit scurrying across the trail. (This is where I must hold tight to that leash!)

Joggers, bike riders, and dog walkers all use the trail. Exercising in a natural setting on an historic trail, which is part of a national trail system, makes ‘my town’ a great place. If you ever do decide to trek across Canada, via foot or bike, make sure you stop by. We can watch a prairie sunset together. Just don’t forget the bug repellent!*


*Or hike/bike in the fall - when it's bug-free and even more perfect!

plum lesson

I planted a tree this week and learned a lesson that I'd like to share about writing. You see, about six years ago I planted a plum tree. I could already imagine all the plum jam and plum wine that I'd be serving to my family and friends. Trouble was, the beautiful plum tree grew and grew and flowered beautifully each spring. But there was no fruit. So, taking some friendly advice, I went out and bought a second plum tree. Cute little thing that became littler that first winter when our new dog pretended he was a deer and chewed it down. But I was patient. (After all, I'm a writer, patience is one of our defining qualities.)

But it turns out that this cute, little, chewed up plum tree will never bear fruit in my yard. Why? It's the wrong kind of plum tree. It's a cherry plum and my other tree is a European plum and the two don't cross-pollinate. So now I've dug out the cherry plum and put in a European plum (same but different than my first one - a very important point) and now I am again filled with hope. Someday I will have two trees giving me fresh plums, cellars full of wine, and juicy jams.

The writing connection? Writing has to find the right publisher to produce. Sending your work to the wrong place will result in no book. I'm giving my little outcast plum tree to another gardener. May it happily produce plums in the right yard. Of course, all fruit trees need bees to do the cross-pollination work - in the same way, perhaps, that authors need agents - those hardworking networkers of the publishing world.

I better stop right now and get writing.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

More historical fiction

Have I ever mentioned that I love historical fiction?

Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay is a New York Times Bestseller and needs no promotion from me. The book is written with two points of view. One is that of a young Jewish child - set in 1940s France. The other view is that of a contemporary American woman married to a French man. I love this technique of two narrators, but it is a complicated approach that needs a skilled writer. Maybe someday, I'd like to try it. I'm going to watch out for this type of writing. Suggestions welcomed.

The other recently read book is Best Friends Forever by Beverly Patt. It's for kids. Again this is a war story. (Why, does that horrible war continue to interest us so much?) It also has two points of view. The publisher, Marshall Cavendish, has done an amazing job with the layout. The book imitates a scrapbook filled with mementos and photos that a young girl collects over the course of a year or so. Letters between the two adolescent girls move the story forward. When one girl is sent to a Japanese detention camp, both struggle to understand why. Their friendship endures and grows. There's a bibliography at the back to continue researching this topic.

Historical fiction is for all age groups. It's a great way to try and understand the incomprehensible. By fictionalizing the past, it becomes personable. I think this is what attracts the readers. Don't we all want to get inside the heads of the people who lived, because of the quirks of time, out-of-the-ordinary lives?

Saturday, June 5, 2010


I got to meet Claire and Monte Montgomery at the NBN booth during Book Expo. They're also signed with Blooming Tree. Their upcoming book, Marvin Invents Music, arrived in ARC (advance review copy) form just in time for their BookExpo signing. It was fun watching them see their new arrival for the first time. Marvin Invents Music has a great cover that exudes the same dynamic energy that vibrates out of Claire and Monte Montgomery. It was good to meet them and I wish them much success.

Here's a photo of them with their agent, Leslie Kaufmann.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Book Expo America - wow!

Click photo to enlarge for a better idea of the crowd. Book Expo America (BEA) is over. It was quite the whirlwind tour and experience. I got to sign and offer copies of my book to strangers from all over the place. The majority of the educators, librarians, booksellers, and fellow authors were from the USA. It was a grand opportunity to connect with potential readers and I very much enjoyed and appreciated the event. Thank you to NBN and Madeline Smoot (CBAY Press) for letting me be a part of it all.

Here I am, signing The Kulak's Daughter.

And here's Donna St. Cyr signing her mid grade humorous read, The Secrets of the Cheese Syndicate.

What a city! I was quite prepared to dislike the place. I expected it to be crowded, noisy, and chaotic. And it was. What I didn't expect was to feel comfortable in the crowd, to enjoy the noise, and to indulge in the pure mayhem of it all. How does it all work - this mass of humanity? Of course, Times Square is a touristy spot and there's much more to NYC than what I saw in my three days there. But now I understand why it attracts so many visitors.

One thing BEA and NYC does enforce is size. I am but a mere ant on this planet and there are millions of books, billions of people out there. We're all doing our own thing, and the world keeps moving. I'm just grateful I was a pedestrian and not a driver while there.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Busy!

It's been such a hectic month - school visits, changes at the job, spring yard work, lots of soccer (my daughter- not me, I'm just a dedicated fan), a wedding (again, a co-worker - not me) - and now I have to hurry up and prepare for NYC. What do people wear in a place like that? I'm guessing it's not sandals and jeans. So do I dress to be comfortable, or to make others around me not embarrassed to be seen near me? Always a compromise, I suppose.

My school visit was posted in two rural newspapers. Very exciting for me. Check out the front page of the Carmen Leader, and then the bigger Morden Times. Thank you, reporter Gail Aubin. I'm so grateful. And thank you again to teacher Marg Head for making it all happen. Kids need to know that Stalin, gulags, kulaks, and a place called the Soviet Union existed. Stalin's name should be as synonymous with horror as Hitler's.

At BookExpo, I'll be signing at Booth 3777 (National Book Network) on Wednesday, May 26 from 11 til noon. Please visit if you're there! Please! (A little bit of begging.)

Oh, yes. Almost forgot. Today I'm having lunch with fellow Blooming Tree Author, Leslie Carmichael. She's in town from Calgary for a convention. Her newest book, The Amulet of Amon-Ra, is shortlisted for the Prix Aurora Awards (Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy) for best English novel. It's really a great story and I sure hope she wins!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Communism blurb

I must share an assignment my daughter did in her Creative Communications course at college. It's a 'blurb' on communism.

I also did another school visit this past week. This time, most of the kids hadn't read the book. I had a lot of backstory to explain. They hadn't heard of communism, or the Soviet Union, or Stalin.

I'm getting excited about going to NYC in ten days. It'll be like entering the centre of the solar system - and I'm sure I'll be happy later to go into outer orbit, back in little ole Winnipeg.
video

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Thank you Carman grade six-ers!

Back in January I discovered that a teacher in Carman, Manitoba had ordered a class set of The Kulak's Daughter. Of course, I was delighted. As they studied the book, they kept online contact with me, asking questions and delving into issues relevant to the Soviet setting. They even set up a web page as they studied, with links to my blog and online resources.

This past week I got to visit the class. They are wonderful kids. Grade six-ers are my target audience and their teacher, Ms. Margaret Hand, did an amazing job in using my book to teach Soviet history, heroism, and character. The questions those kids asked were so good. I hope I didn't confuse them as I explained the real characters behind the imagined ones.

One wall in the class was lined with student drawings showing how hope was kept alive when things went bad for my protagonist, Olga. It was very touching and I wish I'd brought my camera along to remember those images.

I don't know if, as the years go by, those grade six Carman Elementary School kids will remember Olga and the kulak times. But I do know that I'll never forget my day with them. Sharing the research I did with such an interested audience is every writer's dream.

Thank you!

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Not so bad

First the bad news. I didn't win the McNally Robinson's Book of the Year prize at the Manitoba Book Publishing Awards gala last Sunday. Of course I'm disappointed, but hey, Eva Wiseman is a superb writer and Puppet is a wonderful book. I'm honored just to share a shortlist with her.

But on the brighter side of life ... I got to have dinner with three very interesting people on Friday. Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch is on a cross-Canada tour to promote her most recent book, Stolen Child. Marsha is a powerhouse of inspiration. Orysia Tracz has translated several books on Ukrainian folkart and customs, writes a regular column for a Ukrainian weekly, and leads annual tours to Ukraine. Susan Zuk spearheads an organization supporting Ukrainian education for schoolchildren. It was an evening of warm and lively conversation.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Real Uncle

Went to visit my mom yesterday and she was having a very good day. Her mind was sharp and she could remember the past without breaking down.

There are some differences between my novel and her life story. One big one is that it wasn't an uncle who retrieved the survivors from Siberia, but rather a much older half-brother. His name was Erich and he was seventeen years older than my mother. You see, my grandfather's first wife died in childbirth and Erich was that child. I knew Uncle Erich. He'd immigrated to Canada in 1953 with the rest of the surviving extended family. By then he was already in his fifties. Back in '31 Uncle Erich took a train up to Yaya, Siberia and collected his orphaned half-siblings. He then adopted them as his own. His poor wife - my Tante Marthe. They had two toddlers of their own and a baby on the way. Getting four new children must have been very hard. But Uncle Erich had the proper documents and was able to get everyone out of the USSR. Without him, they'd all have stayed Soviet citizens. My grandfather never got his documents together and couldn't leave. But that's another book!

Later, in 1947, after my mom was released from a prisoner of war camp in the Urals because she was too ill to work, it was the same Uncle Erich who smuggled her across the border into West Germany. But that's a whole other story. This Uncle Erich lived to be 93 and died in Kelowna where he had a comfortable home. I'd visited him a few times as a youngster, growing up. To me then he'd been just another old man from the old country. You couldn't tell by looking at him that he'd lived such an adventure-filled life. I just knew he was a retired school janitor and that he made his own wine.

If I could only go back twenty years and mine his mind! Oh, the stories he could tell. But in those days, I didn't have ears that could listen.


Sunday, April 18, 2010

another review

The the local Winnipeg Free Press mentioned my book - and in a positive way, too! Hurrah! Although the reviewer said parts of the story weren't 'pleasant' reading, she also called it 'compelling.' I make no apologies for the unpleasant parts. I only had to write about them, the reader only has to read about them, but my mother had to live through them and so did many other children.

Childhood can be a happy time, but we all know that it's one of the most difficult times of our lives. Even today, in a prosperous, peaceful city like Winnipeg, children struggle. Even if our children have every material need looked after, they are - just by being children - vulnerable and insecure. But hey, isn't that the human condition? I, for one, have never outgrown feeling vulnerable and insecure. Then again, perhaps that just a writer's condition.

Friday, April 16, 2010

awful

So, I was just thinking ...
the word beautiful means something is full of beauty, but the word awful, doesn't mean full of awe, it means the opposite. The English language- awesome, beautiful, and even awful - all at the same time. Sometimes you just trip on a language pothole and sit there wondering why.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Kate Brown's A Biography of No Place

Kate Brown's A Biography of No Place is the kind of nonfiction that I read with a pencil in hand, constantly underlining and exclamation-marking. This book came out in 2004 and I wish I'd read it sooner. I learned so much while reading it. The 'no place' that the title refers to is that borderland area between Russia and Poland where my grandfather and mother were born. The author traveled throughout the region and sat on benches with the old people listening to their memories. She wandered through some of the same areas I traveled in.

For example, from page 111, she visits a village that the Soviets re-invented, during collectivization. Let me quote: "When I arrived there on a blustery spring day I found five elderly men sitting on a bench in front of a short row of cottages." She learns that the Germans were all forcefully removed from the area, but nobody remembers when. Then she writes, "They could have left during anyone of the progressive, prophylactic, and punitive mass mobilization efforts that shook the border zone during the long and troubled thirties and into the forties."

But Kate Brown isn't just talking about the Germans in her book. (The Germans are just my major interest). The Poles, Ukrainians, and Jews were all forced to fit into moulds that outside forces imposed. I think her main thesis in the book is that these people were happily nationless. They got along together without thinking of each other as 'other'. In the 20th century they were forced to become part of nations, rather than on the edge, on the border, fluid and flexible. Being undefined, being merely farmers, neighbors, and villagers, was seen as their major weakness. The Soviets had to categorize them according to class and then the Nazis had to categorize them according to race.

And all they wanted was to be connected to their land and their families. Instead, they were shuffled around the vast Soviet empire through deportations, arrests and war. So finally they lost that connection to their land and to themselves.

Of course, I'm making it too simple. Brown is an absolutely eloquent writer and a sensitive researcher. This is a must-read for anyone interested in Ukraine - past and present.

Friday, April 2, 2010

spring

After four glorious months off work, I'm back on the street delivering mail and loving it. There's something so good about walking and being physically tired. Maybe, it's because it's so simple. And I missed my customers. I've done the same route for more than ten years now and recognize the perennials that emerge each spring, see the children (or grandchildren) growing, and (sadly) see endings - divorce, old pets, and yes, old customers. This past winter was hard on my route - at least four deaths. Death generates a lot of mail.

Spring is here - in all its dirty, windy, litter-ful untidiness. In the evenings I walk Buddy through the woods. Even there, spring is messy - soggy, muddy trails - mosquito breeding puddles. But the pussy willows are out and last night I heard my first frog croak. Today, the wind's direction is from the north. Yes, it's the semi-annual, battle of the seasons. Nobody said change was easy.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Monument to Stalin - in 2010!

Doesn't seem possible, but it's a fact - a monument to Stalin will be put up in the southeastern Ukrainian city of Zaporozhie in time for this May's Victory Day. Another monument is planned for Kiev. Is time moving backwards?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Recipe for Disaster

I'm reading the other authors shortlisted for McNally Robinson Book of the Year for Young People Award. I'd read Eva Wiseman's Puppet when it came out last year. I read all her books - because they're historical fiction and because they are so good. I would give Puppet the best chance to win (but then, I'm not done reading all the nominated books yet).

Now I've just finished Maureen Fergus's nominated book Recipe for Disaster. I approached it with a critical mind, looking for weaknesses because, of course, her book is competing against mine. And I admit, at first, I felt a teensy bit comfortable. But the book just kept getting better and better, and by the time I was done, I was feeling pretty insecure. Not only is Recipe for Disaster super funny, it's also very well written, and has a main character who matures in a subtle but believable way. I'd compare the writing to Barry Summie's I So Don't Do Mysteries series.

There were several times I laughed out loud. What really stands out are the verbs. Francie, the main character, is so full of energy she just moves the action along. During the last half of the book I started checking off those verbs. Here's a sampling: sprinted, screeching, tumbled, clomped, whizzing, plunged, leaping, dazzled, hustled, burst ... you get the picture. The book is full of action. And I think it's got everything a young adult (middle grade) reader wants in a book.

It's also very visual and I could just see this as a movie.

Recipe for Disaster is a great read, and considering my own book is anything but fun, I so enjoyed laughing along with Francie as she tries to be successful in that dangerous period of life called the teen age.

I'm honored to be on the same shortlist! One more book to read.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

face of ukraine

This is from a letter by Alex Brzhezitskyy reporting on Ukraine's "Woman's Day"(March 8th) - an annual day to recognize women and their struggles in former Soviet bloc countries and around the world.

"If someone asks what Ukraine is, I would not hesitate to say that it's an old village lady sitting on the bench near her house. On her face you can see years of hard - not rewarded labor on the collective farms - loss of her husband, worries about her children and at the time always welcoming and friendly ready to share humble food from her kitchen garden."

In Canada, our old women sit inside. I'm reminded of my recent visit to a seniors' place. They, too, have humble pride. Hmm. Humble pride - aren't those opposites?

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Book Burning

The newly elected pro-Russian government in Ukraine just had a book burning. What did they burn? History books - books that demonize the Soviets and glorify Ukrainians. It's frightening to think that in 2010 the truth about the past is still seen as threatening. No wonder the old people that survived the gulag, the Holodomor, and World War II are so broken in spirit. The experiences of their youth are still considered figments of their imagination.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Shortlisted!

So thrilled to announce that The Kulak's Daughter is on the Manitoba Book Awards shortlist for Young People (Older Category) Book of the Year Award. Pinch me! The winner will be announced at the end of April at a Gala event that I wanted to attend last year, but then felt too intimidated. It's okay if I don't win, truly - just being nominated gives me my confidence back.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Old Folks

I went to a seniors' place yesterday and gave a book talk. It was wonderful to connect with the mostly women there. It's funny, but I see them so much like the young girls they used to be. It's a fact that women live longer than men - and so many live alone. It's touching to see how they still care about the same things they cared about when they were young - about their hair, their clothes, cake, and their friends. The important things!

A couple of women wanted to show me their apartments. They are so proud of them, and rightfully so. They're filled with beautiful things - photos of the gorgeous grandchildren, handmade crafts, and everything is in its place. I used to cringe when I saw such perfection, but now I recognize the decades that led to this small apartment - and how having a tiny place of one's own is so important. Life is hard work for most of us, and old age can be so lonely.

The women I talked to had similar backgrounds to my mother - displaced refugees from WWII. They came in the 1950s by the boatload. And now they finally have time to remember.

I guess Neil Young sang it best.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Book Expo America

Looks like I'm going to Book Expo in NYC in May. That's one place that's never been on my radar, but I figure why turn down an opportunity like this. Might never come again. I'm more of a camping kind of person and usually avoid the city life, but I gather NYC is more of a state of mind than an actual geographical space. Also, I have to pay my own way, but I'm used to that.

At BEA I'll have a whole hour to sign books - now I just have to figure out how to make people notice me and The Kulak's Daughter. I do believe in my story and must give it any opportunity for attention that's reasonably available. I'll be at the National Book Network booth on Wednesday, May 26th at 11 a.m. Please come and visit. I'm sure I'll post about this again.

Oh, and any tips on NYC or BEA will sure be appreciated.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Cry out of Russia and other old stories

Finished reading another memoir, Cry Out of Russia, by Anna Fischer. This is a self-published work and I met the author last year at a geneology conference in Medicine Hat, Alberta. (The book is available through the University of North Dakota - Germans from Russia Heritage Collection.) Technology has made self-publishing such a great way to pass on family stories. I'd never considered it myself - but had I known how difficult a journey publishing was - I honestly admit I might have considered it. Of course I'm relieved that I didn't, yet there are definite advantages to self-publishing. The big one is that you have total control over the final product.

The negatives? Well, there are many disadvantages to self-publishing. The one I noticed in this book is the poor editing. But then, the writer is a woman in her eighties - so I'm not trying to be overly critical - I totally admire her for doing this. Like my mother, she probably only had a grade three or four education. Still, it would be so simple to have someone (a college student, perhaps) review the text for basic grammar and style. In this case a lot of the German words were misspelled. Why would someone go to the expense of self-publishing and not have the basics double-checked? Editing aside, I found Cry Out of Russia to be a heart-wrenching story of a woman's life during a time and in a place that has not had a lot of publicity. Anna never got to be a child and I'm amazed at how strong she continues to be. I understand now why the Germans from Russia have continued to support each other.

The photos in the book were an excellent addition - making the book feel like a family album. When I see the photos of her extended family - those that got shipped to Siberia - I think of my mother and her family. The tragedy of the Germans from Russia - like every tragedy - needs individual faces to be understood. The whole experience of reading this book felt like an intimate chat with an old woman, baring her soul. I'm so sorry, Anna, that your life was so very hard. Thank you for telling your story. You are a true survivor.

Which reminds me... I had an afternoon chat with a local man who didn't come out of the Soviet Union until 1972. He'd been separated from his family since 1944 when the German army retreated, taking the German civilians with them. This man now lives on a quiet street, living a quiet life - his neighbours have no idea what a life he's lived.

That's what I like about being a writer - we get to shine flashlights on the secrets - whether they're under the bed, old maps and photographs covered with cobwebs; in the proverbial closet, an old worn jacket, amongst the fine clothes; or in the old letters, refolded, stained, and written with now illegible and fading script. Then, as writers, we get to add our imaginations to these truths and create story. So in spite of feeling discouraged (yes) I've no choice but to continue exploring and writing. Curiosity hasn't killed this cat yet.