Monthly Archives: March 2012

Barack Obama is a Good Writer

There is plenty of debate about whether Barack Obama is a good president. Right now his approval rating is at 47.7% and that is the highest it has been in over a year. Whether or not you agree Barack Obama is a good president, if you read his book Dreams From My Father I think you will agree he is a good writer.  I began reading Dreams From My Father with some skepticism.

I thought Obama might just be another one of those authors taking advantage of his notoriety to get on the bestseller list. I was interested to learn that Dreams From My Father was actually first published before Obama was famous. He wrote it after completing Harvard Law School, just before beginning his political career. 

Barack Obama writes in a way that is honest but never trite or self –serving. His book is descriptive, thought-provoking and engaging. Dreams From My Father tells the story of his childhood and young adulthood. One can’t help but be impressed by Obama who was certainly not born with a silver spoon in his mouth like his predecessor George Bush.  Obama had to work hard for everything he achieved.

The fact he got admitted to Harvard and excelled, becoming the President of the Law Review, is certainly noteworthy in itself. His family life might seem highly dysfunctional–his mother was married several times–he was raised largely by his grandparents–he saw his father briefly only once in his life–but Obama is not writing his book to make us feel sorry for him.  Indeed you can’t help but admire the way he looks for the good in both of his parents and gives them credit for the positive influence they had on his life.

Even if you don’t agree with Barack Obama’s politics I think you’ll enjoy his book. 

Other biographical books I’ve posted about…….

The Paper Garden

The Aviator’s Wife

The Constructed Mennonite

 

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Filed under Books, People, Politics

Autographs from A Conscientious Objector Camp

Dad with his family around the time of his conscription

My father-in-law Cornelius Driedger from Leamington, Ontario was a conscientious objector during World War II. During World War II many Mennonite men who were called to military duty in Canada agreed with the pacifist stance of their church and refused to join the army. They rather participated in an alternative service program that was negotiated by Mennonite leaders with the Canadian government.

Dad and Mom’s engagement photo

Dad received a letter in the summer of 1942, just after he had announced his engagement to Anne Enns, that he was being conscripted to join the army. He took the letter to his uncle and the pastor of his church N.N. Driedger, who said he would apply for conscientious objector status for Dad. Since he was a baptized member of a Mennonite church it was likely his application would be approved, although not all Mennonite applications were.

Dad’s family at the time they immigrated to Canada

Dad came to Canada from Ukraine with his parents in 1924 when he was just three years old and although an earlier migration of Mennonites in the 1800s had been promised exemption from military service, the second group had not been granted automatic conscientious objector status. Their cases had to be heard before a judge. 

Mom and Dad had only been married for four months when Dad received word he would have to report to a former lumber camp in Montreal River, 625 miles north of Toronto where conscientious objectors would be put to work for the duration of the war by the Department of Highways helping to finish the construction of a link of the Trans Canada route.

My father-in-law Cornie Driedger is in the centre

The main jobs of the men were clearing bushland or working in gravel pits. Mom and Dad had both been working at the Imperial Tobacco factory in Leamington. Mom moved in with Dad’s sisters while he was gone.

In the lumber camp bunkhouse. Dad’s on the far left.

Dad lived in close quarters with the other men in the Montreal River camp and made many new friends. 

Going through a box of Mom and Dad’s things I found this autograph book that Dad had saved. In it are more than a hundred messages written by the men he served with at the Montreal River Camp. 

A photo of Dad with all the men he served with at Montreal River

Dad was at the camp with men from all over Ontario because the autographs in the book are from dozens of different places like New Dundee, Preston, Hawkesville, Wellesley, Toronto, Drayton, Shakespeare, and Waterloo. 

The messages in the book are all unique. Some contain a Bible passage like Wilfred Shoemakers from Gowanstown who wrote Seek ye first the kingdom of God- Matthew 6:33 or religious poetry like a friend named Doc Sayyer from Oshawa who wrote Turn your eyes to Jesus, look full in His wonderful face, And the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of His Glory and Grace. 

Other men inked words of advice and wisdom like Jacob Neufeld from Kitchener who wrote If men speak evil of you, live so people won’t believe them or Ross Clark from Toronto who quoted Shakespeare- To thine own self be true or George Lane who wrote To find a friend just be a friend. 

Some of the entries are good wishes for the future. Ed Lessman of Kitchener said May the winds that blow ill, e’re they reach you, stop still. Many expressed the hope that the friendship they had developed in the camp would not be forgotten. In the chain of friendship please regard me as a link, said Earl Oesch of Zurich, Ontario and Earl Litwiller of Petersburg Ontario wrote When evening draws the curtain, and joins it with a star, Remember you have a friend, No matter where you are. 

Some were pretty humorous and original like the entry from  Joseph Martin from Wallenstein Ontario who wrote When some night the wind is blowing, and you read this by the lamp. Remember how we ate those beans at the Montreal River Camp. 

Dad is to the far left

The men obviously had good times at the camp too.  Some of the entries reflect this sense of fun and are just plain silly. Peter Koop from Ruthven wrote to my father-in-law Cornelius, whose nickname was Cornie…..Cornie, Cornie in a tub, Cornie, Cornie forgot the plug. Oh my gosh! Oh, the pain! There goes Cornie down the drain. 

Many of the pages express the hope that the men will be able to keep in touch with each other in the coming years.  Delton Bast from Milverton writes When rocks and hills divide us, and you no more I see, Just grab a pen or pencil and drop a line to me. 

 

The men must have played baseball for recreation in the camp because one page in Dad’s autograph book records the players on a team called The Dynamites. On a previous page, Cornelius is listed as the team manager but on this page, he has been designated as the shortstop (ss). 

Dad on snowshoes Montreal River

Dad’s autograph book is an interesting artefact from his era. I don’t know any people who still have them or use them. Obviously, his time spent in the conscientious objectors camp was meaningful to him since he kept this souvenir of that experience for more than 70 years.

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Filed under Books, Family, History, Religion

It’s All About Community

One of my cousins and his wife spent a month last fall walking a section of the El Camino Trail in Spain. It is a route religious pilgrims have been traveling for over a thousand years. Last night a group of extended family members got together and the returned pilgrims showed us slides of their journey through the Spanish countryside.  At the end of their presentation I asked my cousin what he had learned from the journey, in  particular what he had learned spiritually, since walking the El Camino Trail is traditionally a religious venture undertaken in hopes of gaining some kind of revelation, healing or spiritual direction. My cousin and his wife said the valuable truth or life lesson that became increasingly evident to them as they journeyed was the importance of community. They met so many people on the road who became their friends– people with whom they shared food, maps, stories, life experiences, accommodations and the journey. Indeed they had more photos to show us, and stories to tell us, about their interesting fellow pilgrims, than they did of the scenery or the villages and cities they had traveled through. Their journey had taught them that people long for community, they welcome it and it adds meaning and pleasure to their lives. 

Recently I read the faith statement of a young father-to-be who was joining a church. He talked about the importance of the faith community in his own childhood and teen years and how his relationships with people in the church had helped to provide him with a moral compass and a sense of belonging when he was growing up. He wanted that same kind of supportive community for his own child. 

kevin chiefKevin Chief is the member of the Manitoba Legislature for my riding of Point Douglas and the Minister of Children and Youth Opportunities. He talked about the importance of community during his campaign for office this fall. Someone asked him whether we needed a greater police presence here in Point Douglas and Kevin said added law enforcement personnel wasn’t what was going to change this area of the city and make it safer. The most effective way to do that he said, was to create a greater sense of community in Point Douglas, so it became a place where people truly cared about their neighbors, where people looked after one another, felt they belonged and developed a feeling of ownership for their community. 

It’s all about community!

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Aren’t You Scared to Live in Winnipeg’s Exchange District?

My husband Dave and I made a deliberate decision to live downtown in Winnipeg’s Exchange District when we moved back to Canada from Hong Kong. One reason was because we wanted to manage with one car and living right down town would make it easier to walk places or take the bus.

We love theatre, movies, concerts, museums, sports and art galleries and so living within a few blocks of the Manitoba Theatre Centre, many cinemas, the Centennial Concert Hall, the Warehouse Theatre,the Winnipeg Art Gallery, The MTS arena and the Goldeyes Stadium was very appealing. We are also an easy walk from the river paths, shops and restaurants of The Forks and the Human Rights Museum. millenium centre main street winnipegWithin two blocks of our home I can access the overhead and underground walkway system which allows me to stay indoors and walk to the Winnipeg Millennium Library, Portage Place, the Bay, the MTS Centre, the YMCA and the University of Winnipeg. We are within a few blocks of Winnipeg’s China Town where we have already discovered at least one small shop that serves Won Ton Mein almost the way we remember it in Hong Kong.

Emptyful by Bill Pechet

I was surprised therefore when so many people asked me how I could live in the Exchange District. Wasn’t I scared? I admit there are shootings and robberies in our area, but these happen every where in Winnipeg. I know many people in the suburbs who’ve had their cars broken into while they were sitting right on their driveways.

There are six restaurants within two blocks of our building that are open till late in the evening, which means there are always lots of people out and about, and so I feel safe even if I do come home at a later hour. By 7:00 in the morning on a weekday the streets are already alive with cars and pedestrians hurrying to their downtown offices.  On the weekends the Ashdown Warehouse employs a security guard who is on duty all evening and night. He makes sure only tenants and their guests are in our building.

Almost every time I go for a walk in our area I see one or two or even more Down Town Watch ambassadors in their easy to spot uniforms, or police officers in cars or on foot, or security teams from various businesses and malls. I think our area is probably more closely monitored by security people than most in the city.

Winnipeg Exchange District painting by Caroline Dukes at the Millenium Library

Last week within one day four different people commented on the dangers of living in the Exchange.  “Wouldn’t you be happier living in an area like Lindenwoods or Bridgewater Forest?” suggested one person.  A friend told my husband he’d love to live in the area we do but his wife would just be way too scared. “I have a relative who is a police officer and he says down town Winnipeg is even more dangerous than the media reports,” someone said. Hearing these kind of things repeatedly does give one pause, but isn’t enough to make me want to move anywhere else. 

There are too many pluses to living in The Exchange, to even consider exchanging our home here for one somewhere else in the city. I think if you take sensible precautions it is no more dangerous a place to live than anywhere else in Winnipeg. There are more and more residential spaces being built in down town Winnipeg all the time. The more people who move here and make their homes in apartments and condominiums here the safer the area will be. 

Maybe I need to start asking people why they live in the suburbs when they could be living in The Exchange down town. 

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A Lament for Letters

During one summer of our courtship my husband Dave and I were separated for several months because we had jobs in different countries. We exchanged letters about two or three times a week. I have saved them all and frequently reread them.

Dave and me just before the summer of 1972

The emotions, ideas and dreams expressed in those letters have been a real source of encouragement and strength during our four and a half decades of marriage. We were poor college students in 1972 so we couldn’t afford to call each other during our summer apart and it was long before everyone had personal computers.  The only way we could communicate regularly was through cards and letters.

My grandparents

At my grandparents’ 60th wedding anniversary, two of my aunts, who both had lived most of their lives in places far from their mother’s Manitoba home, presented a readers theatre that gave a humorous and entertaining look at our extended family’s history. Every line of the dramatic script was an excerpt from one of the hundreds of letters my grandmother had written to her daughters.

Letters found at Hadrian’s Wall

When archaeologists were working at the site of a former Roman garrison at Hadrian’s Wall they unearthed a large cache of letters written nearly 2000 years ago on wooden postcards. The letters were penned by serving soldiers and their families. They provided a remarkable look at daily life at the northern edge of the Roman empire about the time Christ was born. Invitations to birthday parties, samples of children’s school work, letters to friends that complain about bad roads, lack of money and illness paint a true to life picture of society in that time and place.

Heinrich Enns and his wife Gertrude my husband Dave’s grandparents

My husband’s grandfather Heinrich Enns was doing alternative service in a forestry camp in Ukraine in the late 1800’s. He went to church with a buddy and met a girl named Gertrude Unruh. He had to go back to the camp but he wrote Gertrude such passionate and beautiful letters, she agreed to marry him. Later during World War I when he was serving as a medic in Moscow his letters were the ones all the villagers back home wanted to hear read aloud because they provided such a descriptive and informative picture of the battle front. In those letters he was also able to offer advice and encouragement to his young wife who was trying to run their large estate alone during his absence.

Personal letters are a special and unique form of communication. Somehow e-mail missives just aren’t the same as hand written letters. 

I lament the loss of personal letters every time I look at this lovely heirloom letter writing set I inherited from my maternal grandmother Annie Schmidt.  She had beautiful handwriting and wrote many letters to family members. 

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Mailboxes of Distinction

Say It In A Letter

A newer version of this post can be found here. 

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Filed under Family, History, Reflections

A ‘Chick Flick’ My Husband Might Have Liked

My husband Dave isn’t a big fan of romantic movies so while he was in Omaha watching NCAA basketball with friends I took advantage of his absence to go and see the movie The Vow.  I expected to revel in a routine, tear-jerker kind of schlocky love story. 

 

Here’s the basic plot.  A young married couple has a car accident and the woman Paige suffers head trauma. She wakes from a coma having forgotten the last few years of her life during which she turned her back on her family, gave up her promising law school career, broke up with her fiancée Jeremy, became an artist, fell in love with Leo and married him. After the accident Paige wants to return to her old familiar life. She doesn’t remember her husband.  Leo tries to win her back. 

There are five reasons why this movie appealed to me and made me think my husband might have liked it too. 

1) It is set in Chicago. Here the happy couple is kissing under Chicago’s signature sculpture “The Bean” or Cloud Gate by Anish Kapoor. Leo and Paige’s wedding takes place in Chicago’s Art Institute. Dave and I visited Chicago in November and in this post you can read about our visit to the Art Institute and Cloud Gate. 

2) This isn’t a fairy tale. It was based on the real life story of Kim and Krickett Carpenter. They have written a book about their experience The True Story Behind The Vow. Reading the reviews for that book,  one major difference from the movie is that the Carpenters are very clear it was their faith in God that got them through their crisis, while the movie characters never talk about their religious beliefs. 

3) Leo, the male protagonist in The Vow has an ethical choice to make. He can tell Paige about a scandal in her family in order to win her back. Will he take the high road? I like the fact the movie raises an ethical dilemma that makes the viewer wonder what they would have done in a similar situation. Leo’s ethical choice is much like the one character Matt King faces in the movie The Descendants

4) Academy Award winning actress Jessica Lange plays Paige’s mother. She was excellent.  I really admired her in the scene where she is telling Paige why she stayed with her husband even after he was unfaithful to her.   “I chose to stay with him for all the things he’s done right; not the one thing he’s done wrong. I chose to forgive him.”

5) The movie doesn’t have a perfect ending. It ends without us knowing for sure whether the two main characters will get back together. The movie reminds us that a marriage relationship can be worth holding on to even when things are far less than perfect. 

The Vow isn’t a great movie, but it was an enjoyable afternoon escape and had enough redeeming qualities that even my husband might have liked it. 

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Movie Buddy Wanted

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Broadway Rocks

“In America arts groups are folding everywhere. It is so great to come to Manitoba and perform for such large audiences who are here to support this wonderful organization behind me”, said Christiane Noll gesturing to the members of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra.

Christiane, whose performance of Defying Gravity from Wicked was just lovely, was one of three award-winning Broadway stars who sang a bevy of hits from musicals like Phantom of the Opera, Mamma Mia, Hairspray and The Lion King as part of the Broadway Rocks performance at the Centennial Concert Hall last night. 

I attended with my sister. My thoughtful husband Dave had arranged the evening, since he knew he would be away and had given the tickets to us as Christmas gifts. On nights like these I am so happy to be living downtown in the Exchange District. I had an excellent pre-concert dinner with my sister at Blue Fin Sushi which happens to be on the main floor of my building. Then we walked over to the concert hall just a few short blocks away, and after the concert I walked home in five minutes. 

 

The concert also featured LaKisha Jones who came in fourth during the 2007  season of American Idol. She was a single Mom, a bank teller in Maryland, when her daughter encouraged her to try out for Idol. She’s since had a role on Broadway in The Color Purple and has released an album called So Glad To Be Me

LaKisha has quite a voice! I especially enjoyed her rendition of I Will Survive from the musical Priscilla Queen of the Desert. I have the Gloria Gaynor version on my I-Pod and that song always puts an extra bounce in my step when I’m walking or inspires me to pick up the pace when I’m housecleaning or exercising at the gym. LaKisha certainly did the song justice last night. 

The soloists which included Doug LaBrecque were backed by a very enthusiastic adult choir called The Rainbow Harmony Project. Winnipeg Free Press reviewer Holly Harris commended them for “singing their hearts out.”  I had never heard of the group before so I went to their website. Directed by Victor Hooper, the former Music Coordinator for the St. James Assiniboia School Division, the group does many performances each year in churches, at banquets and at community events. They have won awards in music festivals and have sung in concerts across Canada. Rainbow Harmony Project is a volunteer choir established in 1999 to foster spirit and pride in Winnipeg’s gay, lesbian, bisexual,transgender and two-spirit community through singing.

I had never heard the term ‘two-spirit’ before but my sister explained it comes from the First Nations people. In the past it was used to describe people who had a male body but female intuition. They were considered blessed and often were spiritual advisors. Now it is used to refer to First Nations people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.

The Rainbow Project Choir as well as the three Broadway soloists all came on stage in 60’s hippie outfits at the end of the show to perform a rousing version of Aquarius from the 1967 musical Hair.  The enthusiastic audience was on their feet clapping and singing along by the end of the number. It was a great ending to a very enjoyable concert. 

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Filed under Music, Winnipeg

Making Lists

I wonder if my grandmothers made lists. Did they need to write down what they planned to do each day.  Somehow I don’t think they kept lists at all. They didn’t have time to make them. I suspect they just got out of bed each morning and began to tackle the endless round of work that presented itself cyclically–laundry, cleaning, cooking, gardening, egg gathering, sewing, child care, looking after elderly and ailing relatives, milking, canning, butchering, baking……..

Why can’t I just wake up each morning and begin to work? Why do I need lists? I really thought when I retired I wouldn’t need lists but I seem to need them more than ever. If I don’t make a list when I get to the end of the day I ask myself…….What did I do today? I seem to need a list so I can check things off and feel a sense of accomplishment. I seem to need lists or else I forget important things I should do. 

In my job as a teacher I had to make plans for each lesson I taught. It wasn’t a list exactly but it was a plan for what I was going to do in a class, what we were going to accomplish. I can’t seem to get away from that. My instinct before I go to bed each night is to make a plan for the next day. 

I am lucky I guess to be married to a man who never makes lists, at least not ones he writes down. He was an excellent teacher but his plans for his lessons were mostly written in his head.  He takes life as it comes each day. He sometimes makes it difficult for me to follow the lists I’ve made because he’s always saying, “Let’s go out for coffee” or “Let’s go to a movie” or “Let’s do that job later.” He keeps me from becoming a slave to my lists. 

Dave is out-of-town for five days and so naturally I’ve made a list of twenty-four things I want to accomplish while he’s gone. I’m not sure I’ll get them all done. 

Deepak Chopra, author, life coach and spiritual guru of Oprah Winfrey fame says making a list for each day is a great way to take charge of your life. He does advise not being a slave to your list but adjusting and adapting it to a length that makes you feel comfortable yet successful. 

My lists inspire me. They give me peace of mind. At least for the time being I still need them. 

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A Controversial Statue

This statue of Manitoba’s Metis founding father Louis Riel caused quite a stir when it was unveiled on the grounds of the Manitoba Legislature.  Eventully that controversy led to it being relocated to St. Boniface College where Louis Riel was once a student.

In the middle of the art work is a 12 foot high cement sculpture of Louis Riel. It was created by artist Marcien Lemay. Around the statue are two 30 foot high half cylinder shells that bracket the sculpture and have Riel’s name and a quote from him etched into them. The shells were made by architect Etienne Gaboury a distant relative of Louis Riel’s. 

 Artist Lemay said Louis Riel was a controversial historical figure so he wanted to create a controversial statue. He made Louis Riel’s face contorted in anguish. His body is naked and twisted. He wanted to show Riel as a martyr who suffered for his people. It is true that Louis Riel was controverisal.He spent time in a mental institution. He had some very strange fanatical religious prophesies. The Canadian government labeled him a rebel and a murderer, sent him into exile and eventually hung him.

On the other hand he is officially recognized as the founder of Manitoba. He was an educated spokesperson for the Metis people and fought valiantly and eloquently for their property rights. He was elected to the Canadian Parliament three times and Manitoba has an annual public holiday in his honor.

 Louis Riel’s name is in big letters on the bracketing walls of the artwork and near their bottom is this quote……..”Yes I have done my duty. During my life I have aimed at practical results. I hope that after I die my spirit will bring practical results. I know that through the grace of God I am the founder of Manitoba.”

 The statue caused a great deal of controversy when it was unveiled in 1970. Some people thought it was ridiculous to spend $35,000 on a statue of someone who “was unbalanced mentally and who influenced and inflamed the Metis to go on the war path.” The Metis community said, “The statue is an insult to Louis Riel and the Metis people. It is horrible- him standing there stark naked looking leery, when throughout his life and even at his execution he carried himself like a statesman.”

The statue stood at the legislature for 24 years and was attacked by vandals on many occasions. They spray painted and defaced the statue and at one point even cut off Riel’s penis.

 Finally in 1994 the statue was taken down at the Legislative grounds and a new one was put up in its place. Lemay and Gaboury’s statue was moved to St. Boniface College.

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A Graphic Louis Riel

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The 1919 Winnipeg Strike- Fact and Fiction

I am taking a course at the McNally Robinson community classroom from Roland Penner, a former dean of the University of Manitoba law school and the province’s Attorney General in the 1980s. The course is called Winnipeg History- Fact and Fiction. In each class, Roland gives a quick overview of an event in Winnipeg’s history and then introduces us to novels which have been written about those events. I decided I would try to read one novel about each event. 

Protesters during the Winnipeg General Strike

In our first class, we looked at the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919. For six weeks beginning in May, more than 30,000 Winnipeg workers walked off the job. The strike was the product of poor working conditions, unemployment–especially in the case of returning World War I soldiers, the economic recession and the activity of union organizers.  The strikers wanted an eight-hour workday, collective bargaining and a living wage. 

The strike virtually brought the city to a standstill. Work stopped at the railway yards and factories. Winnipeg had no mail, streetcars, taxis, newspapers, telegrams, telephones, gasoline, or milk delivery. Most restaurants, stores, and even barbershops closed. Police, firefighters, and employees of the waterworks joined the strike. 

The strike leaders were arrested and imprisoned and the strike ended on June 21,1919 when a contingent of Royal Northwest Canadian Mounted Police charged a group of strikers, killing two and injuring 30 others. 

 

The novel I read about the strike was Fox by Margaret Sweatman. There is a rather elegant and obviously wealthy young woman on the cover. Her name is Eleanor and it is basically through her eyes and that of her upper-class friends and family that we view the strike.  Eleanor leads a very privileged existence and knows little about the lives of Winnipeg’s working class. However, when she begins a romantic relationship with a book store owner who is a strike supporter, her eyes are opened to the working conditions of Winnipeg’s lower class as well as the suffering they experience as a result of the strike. 

Although it is clear author Margaret Sweatman’s sympathies lie with the strikers, interestingly her grandfather Travers Sweatman was one of the Company of 1000– a group of Winnipeg citizens who banded together to bring about the unconditional defeat of the strike. They hired 2000 militiamen to take the place of the striking police and discouraged all attempts to try to find a peaceful negotiated settlement with the strikers. Margaret’s grandfather was an attorney who helped in the legal prosecution of the strike organizers. One wonders if writing her novel was a way for Sweatman to do penance for the sins of her grandfather.

I was glad I knew some general information about the Winnipeg Strike before I read Fox. I think I might have been confused otherwise since Sweatman doesn’t provide a straight forward narrative but rather a kind of fascinating jumble of newspaper articles, lists, headlines, stories, letters, poems and journal entries. She does a fine job of juxtapositioning events–a high society wedding is described right after we read that the strike leaders have been arrested– while Eleanor is hosting a tobogganing party the union leaders are meeting illegally at the Walker Theatre. Margaret shows what clear and widely disparate economic and social class distinctions existed in Winnipeg at the time of the strike. 

What next? In our next class, we are going to look at famous Winnipeg crimes both in fact and fiction. 

Other posts……..

Strike Mural

Bloody Sunday

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Filed under Books, History, Politics, Winnipeg