A section of Miriam Toews’ latest book Fight Night really jumped out at me. Grandma Elvira, one of the main characters in the novel is explaining how to bury a person in the coldest part of winter.
Here’s what you do, she said. Heat up coals and lay them on the ground till it melts. Dig up that layer of dirt. Reheat the coals and lay them down on the ground till another layer of dirt melts. Dig it up. Keep doing that until you’ve got a six-foot hole. Done!
In my novel Lost on the Prairie set in 1907, my hero Peter is talking about the death of his brother Herman. He says, “We buried Herman during such a cold spell that we needed two wagonloads of hot coals to thaw the ground enough to dig his grave.”
The practice of using hot coals for burial was one I heard about from my father. When his grandmother was killed in a tragic accident in 1943 he was a teenager and helped to dig his grandmother’s grave using hot coals to thaw the ground.
I am curious where Miriam Toews learned about the practice. Did her own mother know about it? I had never heard of it till my Dad told me about his childhood experience.
In Miriam Toews’ latest book Fight Night, the all-female household at its heart is presided over by a grandmother named Elvira. She is quite a character. Elvira loves watching old episodes of Call the Midwife with the subtitles on and the volume level at its highest setting. She is a huge Toronto Raptors and Toronto Blue Jays fan. She literally saws books into sections so they are easier to hold while she is reading them and she can strike up a conversation with anyone. Elvira has no qualms about using the men’s washroom in the airport and has her toenails painted with a colour called You Couldn’t Handle Me Even If I Came With Instructions.
Elvira is quirky and loveable but the thing I appreciated about her the most in Fight Night was the mantra she carols every time she says goodbye to someone leaving the house. Good luck! Have fun! Don’t work too hard! Elvira tells her granddaughter Swiv that in her hometown those three statements were subversive because people didn’t believe in luck, they thought having fun was a sin and believed work was the only thing they were supposed to do.
I like Elvira’s mantra. We all need good luck because in many ways life is a bit of a crapshootand having someone express the wish that the odds will favor us, helps us remain hopeful and move forward with a little more confidence. Fun means different things to different people but Harvard researchers have proven that people who have more fun in life are healthier physically. When it comes to not working too hard a Forbes study has found that working an excessive amount doesn’t actually lead to greater career success.
Elvira’s mantra is so positive and provides some pretty sound advice.
On September 22, just a week from today I will participate in an author event at the Mennonite Heritage Village in Steinbach. Writers Andrew Unger and Mark Reimer will also be on the program. We will talk about our novels, share a reading from them, and answer questions from the audience before doing book signings.
I am really looking forward to this event, the first of three in Steinbach next week. I will be in Steinbach again on September 23 as the guest of two different Steinbach bookclubs, one in the afternoon and one in the evening. Although we haven’t lived in Steinbach for some fifteen years we have so many friends there and visit frequently. I still write for the local paper The Carillon. My family moved to Steinbach when I was eight and I grew up there so I consider it my hometown.
I am especially excited about reading with Mark and Andrew because for a two-year period all three of us were teachers together in the English Department at the Steinbach Regional Secondary School. Both Mark and Andrew were terrific colleagues and it will be great to share the stage with them next Wednesday night.
Andrew has written the award-winning book Once Removed published by Turnstone Press. It is a humorous novel about a ghostwriter named Timothy Heppner who is assigned to write the history of his town. Andrew’s new book The Best of the Daily Bonnet will debut soon.
Mark’s book iscalled The Four Horsemen and was published by Friesen Press. It tells the story of a family struggling to adapt to a new reality and deal with tough spiritual questions after their wife and mother dies.
My novel Lost on the Prairie published by Heritage House is based on an incident that actually happened to my grandfather. It is about a twelve-year-old boy named Peter who becomes separated from his family as they are immigrating to Canada. Peter has all kinds of exciting adventures on his journey to be reunited with his parents and brothers.
I’d love to have some of my blog readers join me and Mark and Andrew on September 22 at 7 pm. at the Mennonite Heritage Village Museum in Steinbach. Just a note that this event will require proof of vaccination for attendance.
During the pandemic when I wasn’t reading as much as I wanted to, I decided to join the Winnipeg Free Press book club. Look at all the wonderful books I’ve read from the interesting titles they have been discussing.
I watched the most recent book club meeting where author Kelly Bowen’s book The Paris Apartment was up for discussion and was pleased that some questions I had submitted were used.
I was even more pleased and pretty excited when Erin Lebar sent an e-mail and said I was the winner of a free copy of the book club’s September selection Fight Night by Miriam Toews and a Free Press tote bag.
I am particularly interested in Miriam Toews’ books because her father Melvin was my grade seven teacher and he was my son’s grade four social studies teacher. At different times during our teaching careers, both my husband and I were Miriam’s father’s colleagues.
I worked together with her mother, who was a social worker and was sometimes assigned to the cases of children who were my students. Miriam’s older sister was a friend of my brother’s and I could go on, but there are lots of connections that always make Miriam’s books particularly interesting for me to read since many of her characters are based on real people in her familythat I knew.
Miriam’s book Fight Night will be discussed on Monday, September 27th and I already have a couple questions ready for her.
Thanks to the Winnipeg Free Press for starting the book club and thanks for the tote bag and free copy of Miriam’s book Fight Night.I feel like a winner not just because I won a prize but because the Winnipeg Free Press book club keeps me reading winning titles.
I write middle-grade historical fiction and so I do lots of reading in that area. I’ve developed a particular interest in Winnipeg history in the last year since I have been unable to travel to other places. Two books written for middle-grade kids that look at important times in Winnipeg history have been recent reads.
Colleen Nelson has written two engaging, award-winning middle-grade novels about a West Highland Terrier named Harvey. Harvey Holds His Own is the second in the series. Harvey’s owner, a junior high school student named Maggie begins to volunteer in a retirement home. Harvey helps her develop a special relationship with many of the residents in particular with Mrs. Fradette who tells Maggie all about the great Winnipeg flood of 1950.
Through photos and stories,Mrs. Fradette describes the dike that was built around her neighborhood, how her family moved all their furniture and belongings to the second floor of their home, how her brother’s Scout troop helped with flood relief, and howthe threat of the rising waters necessitated evacuation to the small community of Laurier Manitoba. There, in her grandfather’s car repair garage Mrs. Fradette developed the interests that would lead to her becoming the first female car mechanic in Manitoba.
Harriet Zaidman’s City on Strike is about the Winnipeg general strike of 1919. We experience that turbulent time through the eyes of Jack and Nellie who are from a working-class Jewish family living in the north end of the city. 13-year-old Jack has a job as a newsboy in order to bring in money for the household since his Dad is out of work and still recovering after falling victim to the recent flu epidemic. Nellie is a student at Aberdeen School.
Jack and Nellie are caught up in the action on June 21 when the police attack during a peaceful march in support of the strike. Jack offers help to photographer Lou Foote who is recording the striker’s march on film. Foote is a real person well-known for his work chronicling the history of Winnipeg. Nellie witnesses the overturning of the streetcar a classic moment in the strike and is led to safety by her school teacher Miss Ross.
Both Harriet Zaidman and Colleen Nelson have provided great stories about important events in Winnipeg’s past. Although their books were written for young audiences, adults will also find them an interesting and engaging way to learn about our city’s history.
Rescue at Lake Wild by Terry Lynn Johnson was displayed on the shelf just below my novel Lost on the Prairiewhen it first went on sale at McNally Robinson Booksellers at the beginning of May. I was delighted to see my book in the company of a novel by such an accomplished Canadian middle-grade author as Terry Lynn Johnson and even more excited when I discovered she was going to be a guest at the Middle-Grade Literature Book Club I participate in each month.
Last night at our August meeting I got to meet Terry and listen to her talk about her ninth book Rescue at Lake Wild which tells the story of a girl named Madison who rescues a pair of beaver kits. Terry is a conservation officer in northern Ontario and her work with animals was the inspiration for Rescue at Lake Wild.
During our book club meeting with Terry, we discovered that she loved watching David Suzuki’s show The Nature of Things when she was a child and remembers one episode, in particular, that was about beavers and the way they interact with humans. Early in her career as a conservation officer, Terry spent time working with a woman who was a wildlife rehabilitator. Her funny stories about the beavers in her care inspired Terry.
In Rescue at Lake Wild, the hero Madi’s crusade to save the two small beavers is inspired by her grandmother who was a wildlife rehabilitator. Nana has died but taught Madi so much about caring for animals and has left Madi her supplies and notes. I really liked Nana and even though she wasn’t alive in the book I thought about what a close relationship she and Madi must have had with each other. As a grandmother myself it made me think about how our relationship with our grandchildren can have a lasting impact on their lives.
It was interesting to hear Terry say that Madi the main character in Rescue at Lake Wild is the character in her books that is most like her. We also learned that Jane Goodall who is world-renowned for her study of chimpanzees, and who Madi dreams of meeting in the book, is someone Terry would love to meet as well. Madi does not get a chance to meet Jane in Rescue at Lake Wild but Terry hinted that if she writes a sequel to the novel that might just happen.
I was having breakfast with Manitoba poet Joanne Epp last week and she was curious about some qualities that are essential in writing for a middle-grade audience. I used examples from Terry’s book which I had just read to explain.
A middle-grade book needs lots of action and Terry’s novel has that. It starts off with a bang as Madi does a dark and dangerous dive into a beaver lodge to save the two little orphaned kits whose mother and father have been shot. Madi must go to great lengths to hide the kits from her own parents at the same time as she tries to solve the mystery of who shot the beavers and keep at bay a nosy older sister who knows about the beaver kits and is constantly threatening to reveal Madi’s secret.
The second quality in a good middle-grade novel is that the young protagonists must untangle the conflicts in the novel, not adults. And that certainly happens in Rescue at Lake Wild. It is Madi and her best friends Aaron and Jack who end up solving the mystery and saving the beavers.
Finally, a speaker at a children’s writing conference once told me that near the beginning of a middle-grade book there must be some reference to poop or pee. I made sure that happened in my novel and Terry does too with a funny scene where Madison is trying to get the beaver kits to ‘do their business’. After plopping them into a Rubbermaid tub full of water they finally poop.
Terry’s novel Rescue at Lake Wild provides a master class in writing for a middle-grade audience. I also learned from our visit with Terry last night that she has made hundreds of virtual visits to classrooms something I hope to do this coming year as well.
I love the fact that I shared a set of shelves with Terry Lynn Johnson at McNally Robinson Booksellers and I loved her book Rescue at Lake Wild. I can recommend it for adults who’d like to learn more about beavers as well as any middle-grade readers they might have in their lives.
Time Magazine has just recognized The Marrow Thieves by Canadian author Cherie Dimaline as one of the best one hundred young adult books of all time. I read it in 2018 when it was a Canada Reads nominee. The Marrow Thieves didn’t win that year but this is what I wrote about the book as I made the case that it should have.
Metis author Cherie Dimaline sets her storyin the future when global warming has devastated much of the earth. Most people are no longer able to have dreams or visions but Indigenous people still do and so they are being hunted by ‘recruiters’ who want to harvest their bone marrow thinking it holds the key to recovering the ability to dream. The story centers around a strong group of Indigenous people unrelated to one another and from different First Nations who have banded together and become a family as they flee from the recruiters. I really liked this book because ……………
Although the main character is a young sixteen year old boy named Frenchie there are some wonderfully strong female characters in the book like the female elder Minerva who is full of courage and traditional knowledge, the little girl RiRi who is full of curiosity and liveliness and the young woman Rose who is full of rebellion and independence.
The book ably covers two issues very important to Canadian society- climate change and reconciliation with Indigenous people.
This is a young adult novel and I think it can convince skeptics that books labeled young adult can be great adult reading too.
The Marrow Thieves paints a dark picture of the future but it leaves the reader with some semblance of hope for our world and it has great likeable characters you can cheerfor.
We are constantly rethinking just exactly how the word ‘family’ should be defined. Families can each look very different. The Marrow Thieves really makes us think about what it means to be part of a family and that ‘family’ doesn’t necessarily just mean your biological family.
If you haven’t already had a chance to read The Marrow Thieves you might want to put it on your must-read list. After all, it’s been named one of the best hundred young adult books of all time along with such greats as The Hunger Games,Little Women, The Diary of Anne Frank and The Hate U Give.
Two books I read recently show how hatred towards a certain group of people can happen insidiously. In the case of both novels, aimed at a teen and young adult audience, it was the Jewish community that was the target of discrimination.
Gabriele Goldstone’s Tainted Amber is set in East Prussia in the late 1930s, during Hitler’s rise to power. Katya, the book’s heroine, is a servant girl on the Richter’s country estate, where they raise fine horses, some for use by the German army. Katya loves to write and pens regular letters to her good friend Minna, a Jewish maid who was once a valuable employee of the Richter family, but for some reason was summarily dismissed and moved to Vienna. It isn’t long before other changes take place. David, one of the Richter sons, who has a romantic interest in Katya, must change his name to Klaus because David sounds too Jewish.
On a train trip to visit her family in the capital city of Königsberg, Katya has to hide the copy of a novella she is reading by Nobel Prize-winning German author Thomas Mann. Mann, who has a Jewish wife is accused of using his writing to expose the dangers of dictatorship. While visiting her family Katya learns her two sisters and her cousin have become enthusiastic members of the BDM, Bund Deutscher Mädel, a female section of the Hitler Youth. Over cookies and tea in a restaurant, one sister confides her BDM leader has taught her that Jews are inferior.
Katya returns back to the Richter estate only to find they are now flying a Nazi flag.
Through the eyes of Katya and Gabriele Goldstone’s detailed descriptive writing which evokes such a marvelous sense of time and place, Tainted Amber gives the reader an inside look at how anti-Semitism gradually became an accepted part of society.
Shelly Sanders’ Rachel’s Secret is set in Kishinev, Russia in 1903 and is based on true events. Rachel, the book’s heroine, loves to write and dreams of being a journalist someday. Her life is turned upside down when she witnesses the murder of a young Ukrainian man named Mikhail by a member of the local police force. He had a romantic interest in Rachel.
Due to anti-Semitic sentiment fueled by the local newspaper, members of the Jewish community are seen as possible murder suspects by the local citizens. Rachel knows this isn’t true but doesn’t go to the police because she thinks they won’t believe her story.
The Jewish community flourished at one time in Kishinev. They ran many successful businesses and lived peacefully with their neighbors. But a rumor that Jews used the blood of Christians in a Passover ritual got wildly out of hand and after Mikhail’s murder led to a riot that resulted in the death of fifty Jews and the destruction of 1,500 of their homes. Rachel’s father is one of the people who is killed and her family’s home is leveled.
Through the eyes of Rachel and Shelly Sanders’ exciting plot-driven novel, we are given an inside look at how anti-Semitism gradually changed the dynamics of society and eventually led to violence.
Rachel’s Secret and Tainted Amber are set in two different times and places and one thing I appreciated about both books is that they don’t place characters into black and white categories. In Tainted Amber many of the people who eventually affiliate themselves with Hitler are good and kind and Rachel’s Secret is told from the point of view of Rachel who is Jewish, but also from the perspective of Sergei a very fine young man who is part of Kishinev’s Christian community.
Both Rachel’s Secret and Tainted Amber were inspired by the experiences of the authors’ family members.
Anne of Green Gables was a favorite childhood book of mine. I inherited my first copy of the novel from my aunt. I read it aloud almost every year to my elementary school students when I was a teacher. I read it aloud to my older son when he was six. Canadian author Lucy Maude Montgomery created a heroine in Anne that has appealed to several successive generations. Anne’s adventures have earned her fans around the world.
You may not think of Anne of Green Gables as a book where you would find spiritual insights but one of the most popular pieces I wrote when I was a columnist for the Faith Page of the Winnipeg Free Press some twenty years ago, was about what people of faith can learn from Anne of Green Gables.
“She’s glad to be a Christian”, is Anne’s remark after being introduced to the wife of her church’s new minister. Anne finds Christians a rather melancholy lot until she meets this cheerful young woman. It’s refreshing for her to encounter someone who is serious about their faith, but also takes such delight in living, and finds real joy in her relationships with others.
Anne sees a picture called Christ Blessing Little Children and wishes the artist hadn’t painted Jesus looking so serious. “I don’t believe he looked that sad,” says Anne, “or the children would have been afraid of him.” Anne envisions Jesus as someone who enjoyed life and took pleasure in his interactions with others.
“If I were a man I think I’d be a minister”, Anne declares. She goes on to say she’d be sure to pick short, snappy texts for her sermons and preach with imaginative creativity.Lucy Maud Montgomery created her lively red-headed character in the early 1900s when there was no female clergy. How brilliant to use her novel as a way to explore the possibility of women behind the pulpit. Anne goes on to ask “ Why can’t women be ministers?” She says if any work needs to be done in the church from fundraising to meal preparation, the ladies of the congregation carry out the task with energy and success. Why couldn’t they preach too?
“I don’t think it’s fair for the teacher to ask all the questions. There were lots of questions I wanted to ask”. Anne makes this observation after her first experience in a Sunday school class. She figures churches should be places where people feel comfortable asking lots of questions.
“If I really wanted to pray, I’d go into a great big field. I’d lie down and look up into that lovely sky, that looks like there’s no end to its’ blueness and then I’d just feel a prayer.” Anne makes that observation when she is trying to think of a way to address God and isn’t sure what to say. One particularly beautiful day Anne says, “The world looks like something God imagined for his own pleasure.”
Be cheerful. Enjoy life and human relationships. Appreciate everyone’s talents and gifts. Ask questions. Get out into the great outdoors to renew your soul.
Some sound spiritual advice from Anne of Green Gables.
Truth and Reconciliation. Pandemic. Black Lives Matter. Immigration. As I prepared this annual column of reading recommendations I realized current news stories had certainly influenced my choice of books this past year.
Five Little Indians uses rich language to relate deeply personal stories about five survivors of the same residential school. They each describe their own incredibly sad childhood. We follow them into challenging adulthood where their lives braid together and their strength of character, astounding resilience, and innate goodness are revealed. Author Michelle Good is a Cree lawyer who has represented residential school survivors in court hearings. Five Little Indians has won a host of awards.
David Robertson’s memoir Blackwater was another favorite this past year. It describes how David developed a relationship with his father after they had grown apart, and how that new relationship helped David learn to understand and appreciate his Cree heritage.
In The Pull of the Stars Emma Donoghue takes us into a cramped Dublin Hospital maternity ward during the 1918 flu pandemic. Julia is the courageous duty nurse, and the story revolves around her as well as a plucky volunteer named Bridget and Kathleen, a doctor and political activist. The depth of the author’s research gives readers a graphic and disturbing picture of a past pandemic. It makes you appreciate all the medical advances that are helping us navigate our current health crisis.
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles was fascinating. The novel’s hero Count Alexander Rostov makes the most of his life despite being sentenced to a decades-long house arrest in a hotel in the Russian capital. The endearing Alexander provides a road map for how to live through a time of isolation with humor and hope.
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennet was certainly a page-turner! The novel follows two light-skinned African American sisters from 1968-1988. As young girls, they witness their father’s lynching. One sister decides to pass for white and ends up living in the lap of luxury in Los Angeles. The other sister maintains her black identity and becomes an FBI employee in Washington DC. Although the two women break off contact, a generation later their daughters meet, and the sisters’ lives intersect once again. The book definitely makes readers examine their own racial biases.
The Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi is about both racism and immigration. It tells the story of a family from Ghana who moves to America. Gifty, the protagonist, is a brilliant neuroscientist trying to make sense of a past that includes her brother’s struggle with addictions, her mother’s battle with depression, and the systemic racism her family faced. Just as science and religion are often at odds these days, so is Gifty’s heart as she tries to balance her emotional attachment to her religious beliefs with her scientific sensibilities. This is a beautifully written book that raises important questions.
American Dirt by Jeanine Cumminstells the compelling story of Lydia and her young son. They are fleeing to the United States to escape the Mexican cartel that killed Lydia’s journalist husband. Along the way they meet other migrants who have remarkable tales to tell. I was totally invested in the characters and the book kept me in nerve-wracking suspense. It helped me understand in a visceral way what it might be like to be an undocumented immigrant.
My recommendations this year certainly aren’t for light summer reading but at a time when our world seems to be at an important turning point, these books definitely widened my world view and gave me new ways of looking at things.