Tag Archives: The Occupied Garden

Dahl interrupted

Some of you will remember our Roald Dahl mission, in which we set out to read all of his kids’ stories in a more-or-less row, including the autobiographies. We loved Boy, which revealed the dramatic highs and lows of Dahl’s childhood — how his nose was mostly sliced off in a motor-car accident with his “ancient half sister” at the wheel; how he placed a dead mouse in the gobstopper jar at a mean, grubby woman’s sweet shop, and was caned by his headmaster as punishment; and how he read the entire works of Charles Dickens on his stints warming the toilet seat for a nasty prefect at school.

We moved on to Going Solo with great enthusiasm. The book covers Dahl’s years in East Africa working for Shell Oil, and his experience as a fighter pilot in World War 2. N was shocked and delighted from the very beginning, and especially enjoyed Dahl’s ship voyage to Dar es Salaam, when he regularly encountered the portly and elderly Major Griffiths and his wife out for a stark-naked, stimulating prance around the decks each morning.

“Here was I, a bundle of youthful self-consciousness, gaping at him through the port-hole and disapproving quite strongly of what he was doing. But I was also envying him. I was actually jealous of his total don’t-give-a-damn attitude, and I wished like mad that I myself had the guts to go out there and do the same thing.”

So it started out well. But then war broke out. Dahl — though “just a chap who works for Shell” — was given a platoon, along with the task of rounding up every German attempting to escape Dar es Salaam, and delivering them to the prison camp. He’s told he should “mow them down” if they put up resistance.

(“What does he mean, ‘mow’?” asked N.)

Soon enough, Dahl and his men are confronting a convoy of German families headed for neutral territory along the coast road. There’s an exchange between Dahl and a man at the head of the convoy, who eventually puts a gun to Dahl’s chest and threatens to shoot him if the group is not allowed to escape.

“What came next happened very suddenly. There was the crack of a single rifle shot fired from the wood and the bald man who was holding me took the bullet right through his face. It was a horrible sight. The Luger dropped on to the road and bald man fell dead beside it.”

The chapter ends with Dahl escorting the rest of the group to its prison camp.

“So they won the war?” N asked as I closed the book, though of course the war had barely begun.

My opa, who I like to call the lettuce king soldier, and whose story is told in The Occupied Garden

I tried to explain why the Germans had been rounded up, and why the war was happening, and who was on which side, and who was on no side, and so on, but I realized she had very little context for this story, and the necessary violence it contained. She knows a bit about WW2, because she has a one-legged opa and a copy of The Occupied Garden on her bookshelf, and she has asked questions about that war for many years. When she was little she used to often ask, “Will war come to Toronto?” just the way she would ask if hurricanes would come, or earthquakes, or murderers. And even though years have passed since that stage, I think she has only a very vague concept of war, and that she needs more information for this book to be meaningful rather than just shocking.

In a later chapter, which N’s dad J read to her, a man was beheaded with a sword, and together J and I decided to shelve the book for now. We explained how we felt about it and why, and offered up another book, but were unprepared for her passionate response. We were treating her “like a baby,” and she was so old enough for Going Solo, and what about our Dahl mission, she asked, to read all of his books in a more-or-less row?

It was a strange experience, and I’m still not sure we handled it right. It felt odd to be playing the role of censor, and I asked myself many times if this wasn’t a learning opportunity shut down, but I kept coming back to the same decision. I think it’s great when the books we read together pose big questions about the world, because it gives us a chance to stop reading and talk about ideas the book contains. But you don’t want to do be pulled up so often out of a story that you leave the story behind. And there are so many wonderful books to be read and absorbed at this stage, why rush on to the next one before she is ready?


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Gnomes, hunters and a sleepy kleintje

N’s opa — my father — visited recently, and after he’d spent a week with us and gone again, she asked for a Dutch book given to her a few years ago by my uncle. Now, the “oom” and the “opa” can read Dutch a lot better than I can, but N seems to enjoy hearing me struggle through, and spit out words that don’t make much sense to her. Or perhaps they do? There are certainly lots of connections between the two languages, and this book, Welterusten, kleintje, has plenty. So we bumble through as the little gnome Klaas Vaak climbs on his flying donkey, and takes his nightly trip through the land to sprinkle slaapzand over the children and bring them sweet dreams.

Welterusten, kleintje, as you might guess, means “sleep well, little one.” I don’t know if it’s a gem of a book or not, but I suspect so. It was written by Wil Huygen, and magically illustrated by Rien Poortvliet. The story ends with a lullaby every Dutch child seems to know and covet: Slaap, kindje, slaap. N says that Klaas Vaak himself, pictured above in his chair with his donkey Suzanne, reminds her of Opa, and it strikes me as funny because Klaas Vaak reminds me of my opa too. Not that he looks a thing like him.

My opa died many years ago, and as many of you know was the subject of a book I wrote with my sister, The Occupied Garden. It chronicles his and my oma’s experiences in occupied Holland, and their post-war move to Canada and a much different life. My opa had grown vegetables in Holland, and here in Canada, he grew flowers at a nursery. He had his own garden, too, with an abundance of roses, and one strange little lawn ornament that didn’t seem to suit him.

The kaboutertje, as gnomes are called in Dutch, had been given to him by neighbours who were building a pool. The only way the bulldozers and cement pourers could access the neighbours’ yard was through Opa’s, and he had given his consent, though surely the act of building a pool must have seemed oddly lavish to him, a man from a different world. After the trucking was done, the neighbours, knowing Opa was a gardener, presented him with a bearded little man wearing a red hat. And Opa was touched by the gift – by the fact that someone had given him something. It sat in his garden for years. For the rest of his life, in fact, and has since been passed down (along with the story) to a great-grandson.

So I have a soft spot for gnomes, as does N. And both of us like that this Dutch book is a bit of a mystery. It’s heartening to me that she loves reading so much that she doesn’t always need to understand the words. But we have another gnome book, too, called simply Gnomes, by Huygen and Poortvliet. This one is in English — a gnome tome that tells you everything you’ve ever wanted to know about gnomes, from the  various types — there are woodland, dune, garden, house, farm and Siberbian gnomes — to their physiology to their geographical range to their rituals of courtship, marriage and family. Gnomes are tiny but seven times as strong as man, and totally self-sufficient. They weave and blow glass and work wood and pot pots and even knit underwear, socks, stockings, gloves and scarves out of doe hair. They use gold and silver needles to treat wounded animals with acupuncture techniques they have practiced for thousands of years. They make flutes from hollowed rabbit bones and sing with thrushes and nightingales.

Lavishly illustrated by Poortvliet, with text by his physician friend and fellow Dutchman Huygen, Gnomes was first published in 1977 and became a huge international success. Huygen’s scientific background comes through beautifully in the serious-but-hilarious prose. Here’s an example:

“The cap deserves an extra explanation. It is made of felt and is solid from its tip to the top of the head…. The gnome never removes it except in darkness before going to bed and probably (although we have not seen this ourselves) when taking a bath. A gnome without a cap is not a gnome, and he knows it.”

Poortvliet was a well-regarded Dutch artist, known not only for his gnome images but for his skilled illustrations of animals. This made him controversial too — he was an avid hunter, hence his intricate knowledge of the gnomes’ forest world with its nuts and berries and pinecones.  It’s the world of the hunter, or jager, too.


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Things runnin’ wild an’ catchin’ hold of each other

Van Gogh's Vase with Autumn Asters

Van Gogh's Vase with Autumn Asters, 1886

Right now my daughter and I are reading The Secret Garden, and I’m sure I’m enjoying it as much as she is. It’s a big, hardcover copy, with gorgeous illustrations by Inga Moore – which means the book swells to nearly 300 pages. Five-year-olds get pretty pleased with themselves when they know they’re reading such weighty tomes. We call it “Secret” for short, and snuggle up together each night for at least another chapter of the story (and I’m pretty certain, as with the BFG and so many other stories, we’ll be starting this one all over again when the book is done).

For those who don’t know this classic, or who’ve forgotten, Frances Hodgson Burnett brings us into the world of spoiled Mary Lennox, orphaned in India when her parents die – the deaths are no great loss as her parents didn’t really love her anyway, hence Mary’s surly attitude and sour expression. She’s sent back to England, to live in her uncle’s mansion, and discovers an equally spoiled, surly cousin, Colin, hidden away in one of the rooms, convinced he’s growing a hunchback, and unwilling to go outside. Colin’s mother died when Colin was born, and Colin’s father, sick with grief, hasn’t been able to look at him, let alone love him, in all of the boy’s ten years.

There are lots of love-starved people in The Secret Garden (which, funnily, my daughter first called The Occupied Garden). And then there is the boy Dickon, with his broad Yorkshire accent and keen understanding of the natural world. Dickon rides a wild pony, converses with robins, walks with a crow on his shoulder, and knows how to make himself look like grass and trees and bushes in order to put animals at east. He manages to make Mary laugh, too. Dickon’s idea of how a garden should look matches my own:

“I wouldn’t want to make it look like a gardener’s garden, all clipped an’ spick an’ span, would you? It’s nicer like this with things runnin’ wild, an’ swingin’ an’ catchin’ hold of each other.”


I think I’m enjoying this book so much partly because it’s just a great story, but also because gardens and the natural world have played such an important part in my own writing. That happened by accident; it was never my intention. I mentioned early on in this blog that I knew I wanted to write from a very early age – what I wanted to write about was harder to decipher. I studied journalism because I knew I wouldn’t be able to earn a living writing fiction (at least not right away). For a while I worked at a magazine, writing, proofreading, copyediting. My plan was to come home at night and launch into what I really wanted to write. But by the end of a long day, I found I had spent all my words at the office. I realized I needed a change, and happened upon a want ad for a floral designer: “no experience required, will train.”

This was a real stroke of luck – most shops want designers who already know what they’re doing, but this one, The Purple Orchid in Calgary, prided itself on doing things differently. They wanted someone to whom they could teach their own peculiar tricks of the trade, rather than someone who could churn out FTD arrangements. And they chose me – about twenty years ago now. I was surprised when my work at the flower shop brought me in touch with my Dutch roots. Flowers came packed in long boxes from Holland, and people with Dutch accents called on the telephone.

I often thought of my Opa back then, and how he had come to work in the flower growing industry when they’d come to Canada in the early 1950s. He was a prized employee, a kind of grown-up Dutch Dickon whose very presence seemed to make things thrive. That’s not true, of course: he was hardworking and diligent, and he knew what he was doing. For years he had grown vegetables in Holland, and then in a new chapter of his life he was tending roses and chrysanthemums, and appearing in advertisements for Jiffy Pots.

jiffy opa

Anyhow – I entered the flower world thinking it would give me a clear head for writing, but I didn’t realize that it would actually become part of my work, tangled up with the words like virginia creeper. All of my novels are spun through with creeping thyme and moss and wildflowers, lilacs and white pines and spindly jack pines. Much of that is due to the landscape of my childhood, but also to my work at flower shops: first in Calgary, then on Granville Island in Vancouver, and finally at East of Eliza here in Toronto. I remember when I first walked into East of Eliza to drop off my resume, and saw the vases of overblown tulips dotted around the creaky old home that then housed the store. The petals were curling back and the stems had gone all twisted and strange – some would have said the flowers were done, but they looked so gorgeous and wild and natural in their state of decay that I knew right away this was the place for me. I worked there for many years, until I was able to start writing full time. It was a second home for me, and a place full of drama, really, because of the reasons people buy flowers: love, death, marriage, birth, gratitude, betrayal. And I still feel a pull towards my flower shop days when I pass a store that has loads of them on display out front, and I smell the sweet-spicy mixed-up smell of all different kinds together.

Van Gogh's Butterflies and Poppies, 1890

Van Gogh's Butterflies and Poppies, 1890

Says Dickon, “Mignonette’s th’ sweetest smellin’ thing as grows an’ it’ll grow wherever you cast it, same as poppies will. Them as’ll come up an’ bloom if you just whistle to ’em, them’s the nicest of all.”


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Open here and start

writeI recently rediscovered a pile of old stories and drawings I’d made when I was about the age my daughter is now. She, too, loves to make “books,” and whenever we end up in a conversation with someone about the fact that I am a writer, she pipes up, “I’m a writer too.” Sometimes we take one of her homemade books to the library, and sneak it on to a shelf, as in Daniel Kirk’s Library Mouse, in the hopes another reader will discover and enjoy it. It strikes me that she is very conscious of the book itself, not just the story it contains. She’s aware of the author and, when applicable, the illustrator. She talks about the cover and the flap that protects it (and wraps her own creations in plastic so they won’t stand out from the rest on the shelf); she’s aware of the chapter titles and the page numbers, and she loves bookmarks.

Some of my own first books contain instructions:

bk1before moving into the actual world of the story. This particular example comes from my version of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling, and it’s interesting for me to see that such a story continued to fascinate me for decades. One of these days I will post a more updated version of The Ugly Duckling, about a boy who runs away from home. But for now, here is my first try, circa 1972.



bk4I love the line “it wasn’t a chicken at all” — actually I used it again later, but more about that another time. I also love the red checkmark at the end — how good it must have felt to see that. The equivalent of a great review these days, or a kind letter from a reader.

Lately, as September approaches, I’m excited for my daughter to start Grade One and be in school full time. She is in for so many adventures, and I get to watch all of that unfold. September has that odd mix of beginning and ending about it — a melancholy feeling and a wide open sense of possibility at the same time. It’s strange how that lasts, for so many people, into adulthood.

I’m looking forward to my own “open here and start” when she is off to school, too. Although I’ve written all through the last six years, I’ve had to use pockets of time and wee hours (again, like Library Mouse, who works through the night in the school library, experimenting with various genres). I remember cradling my newborn on my lap while I tinkered on the last drafts of Origin of Haloes. And nearly falling asleep at my desk during The Occupied Garden. Now the days will be clear and consistent; structured. But as is the way with milestones, there is something lost here too.



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The rhubarb patch and other places in other times

darwin copy

When I was little, we had a huge rhubarb patch in our backyard. My mother made rhubarb crumbles and pies and jams, mixed with strawberries to sweeten the sour taste, but we would also eat the long stems raw, fresh from the yard, dipped in sugar. This is the house we left long ago, when I was a teenager, but (along with the place I live now) still “home” when I think of the definition of that word.

It was a funky kind of place in the seventies, with an orange carpet and a striped green couch, and various things my mother had made: beaded macrame plant hangers, colourful papier-mache lampshades, still-life oil paintings. I wonder now where she found the time, having three girls and, for many of those years, a full-time job.

When I look at the picture above, I remember how the cat sat in the flower bed and scratched at the lower screen of the picture window to say he wanted in. And I remember the car in the driveway, a red Rambler convertible, one in a series of very cool but not terribly reliable vehicles my father acquired: a three-wheeled Messerschmitt, two Jaguars, an Alfa Romeo.

One of a number of tune-ups, this time in Italy, 1960

One of a number of tune-ups, this time in Italy, 1960

When we left this house, my sisters had already grown up and moved away. So this is the last place we lived together — my sisters, my mother and me — and for all of us it is cram-packed with memories. On a recent visit to my hometown, we all went for an evening walk together, and looped around Darwin Crescent (yes, named for Charles Darwin). This is something we’ve done often over the years, with casual glances towards the windows.  Earlier that day, Mom had been complaining that she didn’t have enough rhubarb for a pie, and we had teased her that she should pop over to Darwin to get more. And now, as we passed, she spotted the current owner in his driveway, and called over to him to ask if he had any rhubarb to spare. This is the beauty of small towns. He said she was welcome to it, since it was hers anyway, and the next thing we knew we’d been invited in for a tour.

It’s a strange thing to visit your old home after nearly thirty years away. Almost everything was different. Rooms had been torn out and reconfigured. An addition stretched into the backyard, where our picnic table used to be. The bedroom where I slept (the one mentioned in earlier posts, with the Farrah and Vinnie posters and the barrel of barbies) remained more or less in tact, but the room across the hall was a bathroom instead of a bedroom, and our bathroom, with its bright flower stickies in the tub, had ballooned in size and morphed into a bedroom. And yet there were tiny spaces that looked just the same. A strip of wood paneling around the front door. The long hallway down which I raced two small elves tucked into their glass candle holder cars.

Recently a photographer friend told me he had finally, at 50, let go of this kind of nostalgia. He is one of that unusual breed whose father still remains in the family home, and he had an idea that he’d like to document the place with its contents, room by room. But when the time opened for him to move forward with the idea, he realized he’d lost the need to do so. He says his focus is forward now, rather than back.

I like looking backwards. Maybe because I have a child now, I’m even more curious about the child’s world — what sorts of things impress them, how and why their perspective differs from ours. Writing from the child’s point of view feels both strange and natural and the same time. The house on Darwin Street is more or less the house in my first novel, Water Wings, and though the novel is indeed a novel, there are many details stolen from real life. The Rambler and the Alfa Romeo, even the rhubarb patch.

Every home teems with artifacts that hold the stories of its inhabitants. This is the why the childhood home leaves such an impression on us — not for the things themselves, but for the lives that take shape around them. When I first met my now-husband, he was at work on a project called Habitat, for which he photographed the interiors of abandoned houses. I was stunned by the things that had been left behind, and by the sense of loss that emanated from the images.

shane's room

Detail from Jeff Winch's Habitat series

When we were researching The Occupied Garden, set sixty years ago in Holland, we circled my father’s house in Leidschendam. We paused at the front of it and crept down the back lane. We peered through the wooden fence and noticed the patches on the brickwork, where, in the ’40s, new bricks had replaced the ones damaged by bomb fragments when my dad was a boy. I often wonder why we didn’t muster the courage to ask if we could go inside. What would that have been like for him, now in his seventies? Many times, during the course of our research, he was surprised by his own emotional response to something he didn’t think would effect him — this likely would have been one of those times.

In the home I have now, there are clues to the family who lived here before us, but over time they are disappearing with our updates and minor renovations. We noticed when we first moved in that there was a figure etched into the glass of the kitchen window. You could only see it from certain angles, in certain lights, but it was there nonetheless: a childish stick figure of a girl with a triangle dress. The artist must have stood on the counter to scratch it into the glass — certainly a wayward act at the time but a curious surprise for us later on; a glimmer of what had been.


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Mourning kings and angels

china nell, cropped

This regal picture was snapped several years ago. Happily, my daughter seems to be moving out of the princess phase. I like to think it’s because she listened when I told her that princesses were overrated — she says “over-aided,” which is also true — but maybe it’s just a natural progression and has little to do with me. What irks me about so many of the princess stories is that the heroine does so little for herself. Sleeping Beauty sleeps. Cinderella weeps until the birds and mice come up with bright ideas.  These are beautiful victims, desperate to be saved. What makes us adore them so much?

Actually I don’t remember loving a princess when I was little, but I’m sure I must have. The heroine who sticks with me from early childhood is Pippi Longstocking, who could outsmart policemen and lift up her horse with one hand. She was no beauty, not in the traditional sense. But later, as I approached my teen years, something must have shifted: I had a Farrah Fawcett poster on my wall (along with Vinnie Barbarino and Fonzie), and had already been infected by that adoration and the accompanying dread that I would never be nearly so lovely, no matter how I styled my hair.

Since Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson died, the news everywhere speaks of “the king” and “the angel.” Radio stations and websites and talk shows are asking us to share our thoughts, about “Jacko” especially, as we embark on some collective form of mourning. But what are we mourning, exactly, aside from the loss of talent and the tragedy of famous lives cut short? An old friend of mine said, “It’s always sad when part of your childhood dies,” and that seemed to encapsulate the wave of sorrow so well — celebrities’ highs and lows, from our perspective, are more about us than them. So in this way the screen that we stare at is really a lens that looks inward.

I remember when Elvis Presley died. He was a king too, of an earlier empire. I was eleven years old, and knew of him just because everyone did, not because I or my parents listened to his music. We didn’t. But I knew it was an historic day, and I remember taking the front page of the newspaper up to my room, and folding it and putting it in my drawer. I thought it was something I would always keep, and I recall having the sense that this was the first time I had consciously shared in something that touched so many people, united by their focus on one man. I suppose one of the functions of celebrities is to form a community among strangers.

The Kiss, with crowns on

The Kiss, with crowns on

Who would ever wish to be so relentlessly famous? People are gathering in huge crowds for Michael Jackson just as they did for Elvis and John Lennon and Princess Diana. I keep thinking of one of the interviews I watched on David Lynch’s new Interview Project, in which an 85-year-old woman, rocking on her porch, sums up her life as child, mother, grandmother, in just a few minutes. “I just don’t know of anything I would change very much,” she says. “I’ve lived a good long life. … To be right honest, I don’t care if anyone remembers me or not.”

I find these stories about ordinary people so refreshing. Interview Project is not perfect — in my opinion, it relies too heavily on romantic rural images like dusty roads and birds on a wire, and the questions asked of its participants are often too broad to really be meaningful in such short clips. But the idea behind the project is excellent — a crew traveling across the country and finding people as it goes; collecting and documenting their stories.

When my sister and I were first working on The Occupied Garden, someone asked me what made our family worthy of a book, what was different about them than any other family. And I found myself scrambling for an answer, when really the point was that they weren’t different to any great degree. It’s interesting how in fiction we like to read about “ordinary people” as characters, but memoirs, biographies, and autobiographies in large part are reserved for the celebrities among us. We crave their stories. And yet it’s hard to decipher the truth of those stories — to find the person inside them — when we make them into kings and angels.

***Just adding an interesting aside to this post, having recently come across the Fallen Princesses photos by Vancouver photographer Dina Goldstein. Here, “Disney’s perfect princesses ” come up against “illness, addiction, and self-image issues.”


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Writing by hand (and the origin of tickling)


Charles Darwin's daughter Annie

Still reading about Charles Darwin, this time Annie’s Box, a lovely family memoir written by his great-great-grandson, Randal Keynes. Annie of the title was Darwin’s daughter, who died at the age of ten. This book has loads of personal detail about the family itself, and weaves Darwin’s professional life with his years as a husband and father.

Darwin comes across as a devoted parent whose fascination for his children stemmed not only from fatherhood but from his work. Keynes mines Darwin’s many notebooks for insight into his ancestor, and Darwin’s enthusiasm for a wide array of topics shines through as we read of him designating notebooks for his various explorations.

His “natural history of babies” began in a book with a white vellum cover, inside which he noted how his infant son “stretched himself just like old person” and how, when Darwin touched the sole of his baby’s foot with a piece of paper, “it jerked it away very suddenly and curled its toes, like person tickled, evidently subject to tickling…. What can be origin of movement from tickling?”

I love the idea of Darwin scribbling away in his books, a different one for each topic, and how he let his thoughts tumble forth at random, not worrying about how illegible they were or how awkward the sentences. These were private notebooks at the time, and obviously an integral part of his process.

For me, the act of writing by hand is still an important part of my work, though so much of my writing day is spent at the computer. I tend, in the early stages of a project, to stay away from the computer altogether, and simply carry a book with me, so I can jot down my thoughts as they come — at random, without context, but full of promise that they will somehow be strung together into something legible and compelling.

Occasionally I’ll even paste images or articles that seem connected to my thoughts, so the books take on a kind of scrapbook look over time. All of this is such an essential and intimate part of my process, and has been since I started writing seriously. Sitting in front of the blank computer screen is too daunting early on, not to mention uninspiring. But when a story starts to take shape, or when a character seems human, I’m rooted in my chair, fingers on the keys while I work the notes into something more cohesive. Things grow from there.

But even once the story gets going, there are still times when I’ll move back to the notebook — times when I’m stuck and need a closer physical connection to the page. So for me, it’s very much an act of moving back and forth between the old-fashioned notebook and the computer. We can make “notes” now on the computer, and do so many things that mimic handwriting — scratching a red line with the Track Changes tool, and adding our new ideas in red, or any colour we like. While I use those tools extensively, I don’t use them exclusively. They aren’t quite (for me) the real thing.


Strangely, with The Occupied Garden, I made  a notebook after the fact. The research and writing of this book was such a long an arduous process that I had trouble letting it go and moving on to something new. So I began to collect notes and images that hadn’t made their way into the final story, and I placed them into a book that became a memento of that time.

I’ve never stayed loyal to one brand of notebook, as much as I like the idea of that. Certain projects seem to require certain types of books, and I like to feel that out when I’m looking for a new one. But recently I came across some gorgeous ones called Cover Stories, given that their covers are taken from vintage hardback books and transformed into spiral-bound journals. The maker of these charming journals, Eva Kolcze, says that for the most part the books were rescued from a box in a rummage sale or a shelf at Goodwill.


“I feel as though I’m giving the books a new life and purpose,” she says. “There are certain books that I’ve found recently that are far too special to turn into journals, for example I recently came across a 1939 Pears Encyclopedia and a tiny book about John Ruskin which was probably printed in 1903.”


A great lover of hardcover books, she says she chooses the images for their “distinct colours, illustrations, fonts and stories they contained.” That they contain them no longer is a little unsettling for me as a writer, but then again maybe it’s not such a disturbing idea that decades from now one of my own covers evolves, and provides inspiration to a scribbler like me.


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On memoir: "As if I were a dead man in another world…."

Charles Darwin, 1816

Charles Darwin, 1816

For a mish-mash of reasons, lately I’ve been reading Charles Darwin’s Autobiographies, which he never intended for public view, but rather for his family. It’s a slim little book, full of asides that give wonderful insight into his character — and also sage advice for writers of memoir.  It begins:

A German editor having written to me to ask for an account of the development of my mind and character with some sketch of my autobiography, I have thought that the attempt would amuse me, and might possibly interest my children or their children. I know that it would have interested me greatly to have read even so short and dull a sketch of the mind of my grandfather written by himself, and what he thought and did and how he worked. I have attempted to write the following account of myself, as if I were a dead man in another world looking back at my own life. Nor have I found this difficult, for life is nearly over with me. I have taken no pains about my style of writing.

When my sister and I were writing The Occupied Garden, we often used personal accounts and diaries in our research — but what we would have given to have found such a document within the family! We were very often frustrated by the fact that we didn’t know what had happened on a given, dramatic day, and it was SO tempting to make something up, as is allowed and expected in fiction. And we would often joke with each other, “Oh didn’t I tell you? I found Oma’s diary….” A little magic book that explained everything and contained the family’s deepest secrets.

Of course such books, when they do exist, are usually not terribly dramatic. That doesn’t make them less fascinating. Wrapped up in our familiar lives, we often forget that what is ordinary to us might be of great interest to our children and grandchildren and so on. Old letters and documents and autobiographical musings from one’s family can be just as mesmerizing as old photographs.

For some years, my mother has been working on her life story — not a book to put out into the world, but to leave behind for us. Of course it’s for her too, and I’m sure the process is immensely gratifying. I get the impression that she enjoys delving into her memory this way, and digging up what she can about the street she grew up on, the school she attended, and the time she chopped the heels off a pair of  pumps to make fashionable flats, and to her dismay, the toes stuck up. I love the infinitesimal details, pragmatically recounted: how much it cost for a hair cut, and what route she and her siblings took when Great Uncle Ernie led their bike-riding excursions.

The internet is overflowing with how-to sites about memoir-writing, geared to the “non-writer” (whose work, while valuable on its own, can often be a gold-mine for the professional writer). In my opinion, excellent advice can be found at Days Road Writers’ Workshops.


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Needle and thread: the need to connect

honestMy grandmother’s gloves are coming to me in the mail. They’ve spent some time at Honest Ed’s, “the world’s first true bargain store,” a fixture in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood since 1948. The shop seems a strange place for the elegant gloves, but they were part of a Koffler Gallery exhibit called “Honest Threads” by Toronto artist Iris Häussler. Participants donated an item of clothing that had special meaning for them, along with a passage explaining the item’s personal history, and a photograph showing the chosen piece. Visitors could then borrow and wear another’s garments, literally stepping inside someone else’s experience.

It seems to me that these kinds of shared stories are especially popular right now. On our website for The Occupied Garden, we invite readers to send anecdotes and photos of their own family’s war experiences, and a year after the book has been out, they still keep coming in. Last year, my husband Jeff Winch, a visual artist, did a video installation documenting the high and low points of the lives of some thirty people. Viewers were moved to tears by some of those stories, which lasted no more than a few minutes each. There are countless other examples, such as the Pier 21 site, where immigrants from various eras and homelands post stories of their arrival in Canada; or the wonderful Pocket Stories blog, which states “the doors of The Gallery are opened each time an object is removed from a personal space such as a pocket, a wallet, or a handbag and a story is revealed.”

Here’s what I wrote about my grandmother for “Honest Threads”:


These are my grandmother’s gloves, worn on her wedding day, September 22, 1934. Her name was Doris Lillian Deverill and she was born in London, England. Eighteen months later, her father stood talking in the kitchen with his foot on a chair, his elbow on his knee, when suddenly he fell to the floor, dead at 42. Five years later, with WW1 raging, Doris’s mother died of cancer, and Doris wore a black poplin dress and a white felt hat with a ribbon to the funeral. By then she was a student at Charles Dickens School, a detail I love because I’m a writer. She was taken in by Bebbie, a family friend, and they sometimes stood on the balcony together and watched the flaming Zeppelins fall from the sky. Eventually Bebbie brought Doris to Canada, leaving her older brothers and sister behind. How must it have felt, at 9, to cross the ocean and leave everything she knew? Bebbie had a weak heart, and soon working became impossible. The only option was for Doris to leave school – a smart, 14-year-old girl who loved learning – and go to work at Kellogg’s, the cereal factory. She was devastated by the loss of possibility, but after a few years her life looked brighter – she fell in love with a young university student named Fred, and hoped to marry him. But Fred had a brain tumour, and died – and then Bebbie died one evening at dinner, collapsing, grabbing her chest. It’s hard to believe that my grandmother could experience so much tragedy in a mere twenty years – and harder still to cram so much tragedy into a single paragraph about gloves. So I’ll end with this, the point at which my grandmother’s life took a beautiful, ordinary turn: at Kellogg’s, Bill, a cheerful young man working the bran dryer, had been watching Doris for some time. It’s him you see in the picture beside her. Besotted – absolutely smitten. They were married for more than sixty years, and as a kind of evidence, there exists a scrapbook of Valentine’s cards from him to her, each one signed with a “?”, though of course the sender’s identity was no mystery. I think a lack of mystery can actually be the most wonderful thing. When Doris died (an old lady by then), rheumy-eyed Bill would often smile and shake his head, thinking of her. “She was one heck of a lady. I miss my Dory.” He died not long after, happy to go, believing they’d be reunited. These gloves make me think of both of them – one hand holding another.


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Strength, tenacity, and the stranger you know

img-behind-coreng1Last night we did a talk about The Occupied Garden. Our middle sister, Heidi, came along with us. A lot of people say she looks strikingly like Oma in this particular picture.

Had she lived, Oma would have celebrated her 10oth birthday in January, so it’s interesting to see how some sense of her stays alive through this book, but also through the simple fact of a granddaughter looking like her grandmother.

Heidi told me a story just the other day, of an encounter she’d had with a woman who looked so much like Oma that she felt compelled to say something. And when she spoke to the woman, she discovered that the woman was not only Dutch, but had come to Canada in the 1950s, as Oma had. “Just Dutch genes working their magic,” H wrote. I love those moments of familiarity with strangers — sometimes it’s less obvious what the connection is, but you feel it in your bones. As if you know the person.

I’m continually amazed by the stories I hear about women of Oma’s generation. As a child, I had known my grandmother as a reserved, strictly religious woman with a tight bun, big nose, and tube-like polyester dresses. I was astonished to find she had the strength, tenacity, and courage I can only dream of. And hers is only one story.


Oma in Canada, 1951

A while ago I got an email from a man who said that his mother had read our book and wanted to talk to us. “She doesn’t have email,” he said, “because she’s 93. But could you call her?” The conversation we had was lovely. She told me she had lived in Amsterdam during the war, and that she’d given birth to the son who’d written to me by the light of one candle late in the hunger winter. “It’s amazing we both survived,” she said, and I told her how I just couldn’t imagine what that must have been like – that as easy as my life is, comparatively speaking, I was a little paralyzed by motherhood for that first bit. I could hear her shrugging.

“You just do what you need to do,” she said. “You just keep on.” She told me that during the war she had seen people dragged from their houses, crying and screaming. “That’s a sight I won’t ever forget,” she said.

And it struck me that these are the reasons we need to tell stories of all kinds: to put the world in perspective for each other.


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