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.