Category Archives: History

I Wish I Could Have Met Helen Armstrong

The working class people of Winnipeg referred to her as ‘Ma’ a term of respect and affection for a woman who fought with such determination and passion to protect their rights.

Filmmaker Paula Kelly called her ‘notorious’ titling a 2001 documentary about her The Notorious Mrs Armstrong.

A CBC feature dubbed her the Wild Woman of the West because she was such a fiery and outspoken advocate for women’s labour rights.

The Toronto Star newspaper once labelled her The Business Manager of Women’s Unions.

This mural by Tom Andrich was destroyed in a storm in 2012. You can see Helen up in the left-hand corner just behind the sign Prison Bars Cannot Confine Ideas.

I first became curious about Helen Armstrong when I moved to Winnipeg in 2011 and saw a mural on a building near my home in the Exchange District that told the story of the Winnipeg General Strike. It featured only one woman. Who could she be?

Helen’s name is at the bottom of the leaders listed on the mural about the Winnipeg Strike of 1919. Her husband George is listed second.

A little research led to me discover that the woman in the mural was Helen Armstrong. She had been born in Toronto in 1875 the eldest of ten children and had grown up in her Dad’s busy tailor shop. He was a labour leader and so Helen often overheard men having fiery discussions about politics and workers’ rights.

It was in her Dad’s shop at a labour meeting that she met a young carpenter named George Armstrong whom she married. They settled in Winnipeg in 1904 and had four children.

The labour causes Helen eventually took on were legion. She vigorously advocated for the working women of Winnipeg whether they were store clerks, stenographers, telephone operators, waitresses or laundresses.

She fired off letters to politicians complaining of poor wages, unfair layoffs, unhealthy working conditions and abuse. She walked the picket lines and had no fear of the police or court officials.

Helen Armstrong between striking Woolworth’s workers- photo from the Manitoba Archives

In 1917 she became the president of the Winnipeg Women’s Labour League and in May of that year led a strike for the women who worked in Winnipeg’s Woolworth’s department store.

During the next two years, she organized a union for women working as hotel housemaids and others for biscuit factory workers and knitting machine operators.

But it was during the Winnipeg strike of 1919 that Helen really came into her own. Helen was only one of two women on the strike committee. Her impassioned speeches drew strikers to the cause. She stood out in front of businesses early in the morning when women were coming to work and convinced them to join the strike.

Advertisement about the cafe Helen organized for striking workers.

She established the Labour Cafe which provided strikers with free meals. Some days they served 1,500 meals to those who had lost their wages because they were on strike.

Helen was arrested twice during the strike for disorderly conduct and when it finally ended both she and her husband George were in jail.

In the early 1920s, Helen unsuccessfully ran for Winnipeg City Council twice but continued to work to protect women workers advocating for laws that would afford them better wages and working conditions. In 1921, Helen helped persuade the government of Manitoba to become one of the first two provinces to institute a Minimum Wage Act for women. The hourly rate for women was 25 cents per hour.

Helen and George Amstrong outside their home on Dunkirk Drive in Winnipeg in the 1930s- Photo from the Manitoba Archives

Helen and George eventually moved to California to be near one of their daughters. Helen died there in 1947.

Paula Kelly who documented Helen’s life on film says that Helen “didn’t mince words, didn’t pull punches and didn’t care what people thought of her. ” Kelly said. “Clearly, she was not concerned about consequences. She was concerned about action and making issues visible and making change.”

Helen Armstrong- Photo Manitoba Archives

I have been unable to find any tribute to Helen in Winnipeg. Does anyone know of a plaque or street name or building named in her honour?

In my latest novel Sixties Girl, I named an imaginary school after her, but I’d like to know if there is recognition of her contributions somewhere in the city. If there isn’t I think there certainly should be.

I wish I could have personally met Helen Armstrong the notorious, wild and warm labour organizer who bravely crusaded for the women workers of Manitoba.

But I’m glad that the mural near my home introduced her to me and I at least got to know her as an important Canadian historical figure.

Note: The mural pictured in this post was on the wall of the Whiskey Dix establishment. It was destroyed in a bad storm in 2012.

Other posts…….

Bloody Saturday

The Winnipeg Strike- Fact or Fiction

A Strike Mural

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Filed under History, Winnipeg

Nettie Wiebe- A Canadian Woman of Influence

I learned about a community-minded, influential Canadian academic and passionate activist named Nettie Wiebe from an inspiring story about her told in graphic novel style by Jonathan Dyck and Josiah Neufeld in the most recent issue of Broadview Magazine.

Nettie a university philosophy student was spending the summer at home on her parent’s farm in Warman Saskatchewan in 1976 when she discovered that not only her family but others in the area were being approached by a provincial crown corporation to sell their farms to Eldorado Nuclear so they could build a uranium refinery in the area.

Story panels by Jonathan Dyck and Josiah Neufeld from the home page of Broadview Magazine

Nettie researched and discovered that uranium could be used to build nuclear weapons. Nettie was a Mennonite who believed in pacifism and so the thought of selling land to a company that might make weapons was unsettling to her and to the many Mennonite farmers in the area being approached to sell their land.

Nettie and other concerned people in the Warman area formed a citizens’ committee that worked tirelessly for three years to learn about the environmental and health risks of uranium.

The group, which Nettie helped to lead, shared their findings and expressed their concerns as they met with Eldorado Nuclear representatives.

Thanks to their hard work in raising the alarm about Eldorado when three weeks of public hearings on the decision to build the uranium plant were held in January of 1980 nearly 350 local farmers, pastors, Indigenous leaders, peace activists, business people, politicians and homemakers, expressed their misgivings about having a uranium plant in their community.

The dedicated efforts of Nettie’s citizens’ group finally led Eldorado Nuclear to abandon the idea of building a uranium refinery in Saskatchewan.

Photo of Nettie Wiebe from the IPES food website

Nettie went on to serve as the President of the National Farmers Union- the first woman to lead a national farm organization in Canada.

Nettie Wiebe receives an honorary degree from the University of Alberta in 2018 for her contributions as a farming and food security advocatephoto from University of Alberta website

She is a professor emeritus at St. Andrews College at the University of Saskatchewan.

Photo from Wikipedia

Nettie ran for the leadership of the Saskatchewan New Democratic Party

She currently serves on an independent panel of experts shaping debates on how to transition to sustainable food systems around the world.

She and her partner own a farm in rural Saskatchewan where they raise cattle, organic grains and pulse crops.

Nettie Wiebe is a Canadian woman who has made a difference. She’s an inspiration!

Other posts…………

Cora Hind – The Wheat Oracle Who Wore Pants

Today is Saskatchewan Day

A Boy Named Tommy Douglas


Filed under Canada, History

Two-Spirit- A Term That Originated in Winnipeg

You’ve probably heard the term Two-Spirit before. A workshop I attended yesterday helped me to understand it better and I learned it had first been used by a woman from Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Dancers at a Two-Spirit PowWow at the University of Saskatchewan in 2018. Photo from the Toronto Star

According to TransCare British Columbia a provincial health care authority, Two-Spirit is a term used in some Indigenous communities to reflect understandings of gender roles and gender and sexual identities in their culture. The term has spiritual connections as well.

It is important to remember that terms and roles and understandings about Two-Spirit people are specific to individual Indigenous nations.

Before colonization, Two-Spirit people were included and respected as valued members of many Indigenous communities and often took on important roles as healers, matchmakers, ceremonial leaders, and counsellors.

The erasure of Two-Spirit people was part and parcel of the religious and value belief systems brought by the colonizers who condemned any kind of gender or sexual diversity. This led to homophobia and transphobia in many Indigenous groups which often forced Two-Spirit people to leave their home communities which meant they left their families, land and culture as well.

Increasingly the role of Two-Spirit people in Indigenous communities is being recognized and reclaimed.

Photo of Myra Laramee from the Magazine UMToday in 2021 when Myra was given a distinguished alumni award by her alma mater

The term Two-Spirit was created in 1990 at an international Indigenous gathering for gay and lesbian individuals. It was held in Winnipeg.

The speakers at the workshop I attended yesterday told us the designation Two-Spirit was proposed by Myra Laramee an Anishinaabe woman who said the name came to her in a dream. Myra is currently teaching at the University of Winnipeg.

Often letter designations for inclusive recognition of gender and sexual minorities like 2SLGBTQIA+ begin with 2S. The 2S stands for Two-Spirit.

Now I have a better understanding of what those letters mean and why they are important.

Other posts……..

A Rollicking Read and a Rollicking Interview

Memorable Final Day

Storied Land- Metis, Indigenous People and Mennonites

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Filed under Culture, History

A Chocolate Bar Map

Does anyone remember having a Neilson Chocolate bar map in their classroom? I certainly do.

I’ve found out they were a clever advertising ploy that started in the 1930s when they were offered to schools across Canada.

Horses delivering Neilson Chocolate in 1915 in Toronto – Photo- City of Toronto Archives

William Neilson was a dairy farmer from Ontario who started making chocolate bars in 1906. He died in 1915 and his son Morden took over the business. Morden launched the Jersey Milk chocolate bar in 1924.

Advertisement for Jersey Milk bars in the Toronto Transit- 1955- Photo Toronto City Archives

Some bright salesperson for his products knew kids were the prime target market for the bars and where better to reach kids than in school?

So Neilson made a deal with the Copp Clark Publishing Company of Toronto. Copp Clark sent letters to every school telling them they could get maps of Canada and maps of the world absolutely free.

On this map, Newfoundland isn’t a part of Canada yet so it must date to before 1949

Neilson mailed the maps out to the schools but they included a notice that the map could not be removed from the school and the Neilson Chocolate Bar lettering and the pictures of the chocolate bars could not be covered up on the maps.

The maps had a wooden dowel at the top and bottom. In my school classrooms in the 1960s, they were usually placed above the blackboard and rolled up when they weren’t being used to free up the blackboard space they would have covered.

Neilson claimed they sent approximately 55,000 of the maps out to Canadian schools. Schools could have their maps replaced for free if they became too worn and apparently the company updated the maps twice during the years they supplied them to reflect changes in world geography.

For many schools, especially ones in rural areas these were the only maps available.

I am not sure when they stopped making these maps but they have definitely become collector’s items. I found some online selling for $500.

Other posts………….

A Century-Old School Souvenir Book

My Grandmother’s Shoes

My Dad’s Cowbell

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Filed under Education, History, Sixties Girl

80% of Wikipedia Biographies Are About Men

A number of years ago when I was still working as a mentor for education students at the University of Winnipeg I sat in on a high school chemistry lesson where a student of mine was introducing his grade nine class to some of the great chemists in history.

They were all men!

When I asked him if there weren’t any female chemists he might have mentioned he wasn’t sure where to find information about them.

Jess Wade

That shouldn’t be a problem anymore because as I learned from watching a story on the CBS Sunday morning show in January a dedicated young scientist named Jess Wade has made it her personal mission to write 1,750 Wikipedia pages for female scientists who have made important contributions to their field but have been overlooked.

Jess Wade’s photo in her own Wikipedia article

Jess is an award-winning 33-year-old British physicist who began writing articles for Wikipedia about female scientists in 2017. In an interview with the Washington Post she said, “not only are there not enough women in science, but we also aren’t doing enough to celebrate the ones we already have.

Some of the women Jess has profiled are Dr Sarah Gilbert, an Oxford vaccinologist who helped develop the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine and has had an honorary Barbie doll created in her likeness. 

Jess has written about Kim Cobb an environmental scientist doing groundbreaking work on how climate change is affecting oceans

She created a Wikipedia entry for Ijeoma Uchegbu who is researching among other things how nanotechnology can be used to treat brain tumours.

A Canadian female scientist Jess has researched and written about is Ann Makosinski who invented the thermoelectric flashlight.

I learned from the CBS profile of Jess Wade that only about 20% of the biographies on Wikipedia are of women.

But………. a group of editors and writers from around the world called Women in Red is working hard to change that by adding biographies of women who have made important contributions in many different fields throughout history.

I think I should consider joining them!

Other posts……….

International Women’s Day

Jocelyn Bell Burnell and the Matilda Effect

Where Are the Women?

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Cecil Rhodes is No Longer a Hero in Winnipeg or Cape Town

In May of last year, the 114-year-old Cecil Rhodes School in Winnipeg was renamed Keewatin Prairie Community School because division authorities were petitioned by parents and students to make the change.

The local community objected to their school bearing the name of financier and empire builder Cecil Rhodes who they said was a racist. Rhodes had come to be known as someone who had laid the foundations for the introduction of apartheid in South Africa.

In an art gallery in Cape Town South Africa, I saw a photo by Sethembile Msezane titled Chapungu – The Day Rhodes Fell. It commemorates the day in 2015 when a statue of Cecil Rhodes was removed from the campus of the University of Cape Town.

The chapungu is a powerful African eagle and huge statues of it were found when an ancient African city built in the 12th century was unearthed by archaeologists in the late 1800s. One of those stone statues became the property of the British diamond mine magnate and politician Cecil Rhodes.

In this piece of performance art above, the woman is dressed like a chapungu bird freely rising up above the crowd at the same time as a statue of Cecil Rhodes is being taken down in the background.

According to one of our walking tour guides in Cape Town, all the statues of Cecil Rhodes in the city have now been removed except this one in the Company Gardens.

A cutting line on the back of Cecil Rhodes’ pants shows where someone attacked that statue as well, but it is very strongly made and our guide said would be almost impossible to knock it down without big machinery which it might be hard to maneuver into the garden.

Cecil Rhodes

Our guide explained that when Rhodes established the De Boor diamond mine enterprise in Kimberly South Africa in 1888, slavery had been outlawed in South Africa for more than fifty years. But Rhodes needed cheap labour. So he got illiterate black people in South Africa to initial contracts basically signing their life away to work for a pittance in his mines under horrible working conditions.

Milo was our guide on an excellent walking tour called From Apartheid to Freedom

Our guide Milo suggested that rather than tearing down the statue of Cecil Rhodes in the Company Garden another plaque be added to the back of the statue listing all the negative things Cecil Rhodes did.

For example during his time as prime minister of what was then called the Cape Colony, he used his political power to pass the Glen Gray Act which made it possible to expropriate land from black Africans. He also tripled the wealth requirement for voting in elections effectively barring all black people from voting.

Milo has an alternative idea for the back of the one Cecil Rhodes statue left in Cape Town

I asked our guide if it wasn’t true that Mr Rhodes had done some good things like establish a scholarship fund which has allowed thousands of worthy students to study at Oxford.

Our guide agreed he had – but pointed out that Mr Rhodes had established the scholarship only for white men. However, those who now administer the scholarship have chosen winners that include men and women and even transgender candidates of every race from nearly a hundred different countries.

Our stay in Cape Town made it clear that the effort to balance the historical narrative of colonialism is something that is an ongoing process around the world.

Other posts…………

A Possible Alternative to Tearing Down Statues

Cancel Culture

Is the Term Black Sheep Racist?

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Filed under Africa, History, People

Nelson Mandela – He’s Everywhere in Cape Town

So far in Cape Town, we’ve found Nelson Mandela at City Hall, on the waterfront, on Robben Island, at the art gallery, on our money and at the museum.

On a city walking tour our first day in Cape Town South Africa we saw Nelson Mandela on the balcony of the City Hall. Well, not Nelson Mandela himself, he died in 2013 but a statue of him above that was erected in 2018.

Photo by Udo Weitz- Associated Press

Mandala stood on this balcony to address the public and give his very first speech after being released from prison in February of 1990 after serving a 27-year sentence for trying to overthrow the government of South Africa. He wanted South Africa to be an independent country that no longer practised apartheid- legal segregation on the basis of race.

An exhibit at the Iziko South African Museum provided us with a comprehensive timeline of Nelson Mandala’s life.

We learned many interesting things about Nelson Mandela’s childhood, his difficult and challenging journey as a freedom fighter for South Africa, his imprisonment on Robben Island

The Inauguration of Nelson Mandela by Harold Mettler- 1994- I photographed this artwork at the South African Museum of Art

and how as the leader of the African National Congress he became the first president of South Africa and won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Down on the Cape Town Harbour in Nobel Square, there are statues of the four South Africans who have won the Nobel Peace Prize, including Nelson Mandela.

One day we took a boat out to Robben Island

where Nelson Mandela, along with many other freedom fighters was imprisoned from 1964 to 1982.

One of our guides was a man who had been imprisoned on Robben Island as well.

We were taken into the area where Mandela had his cell,

we saw the quarry where he did hard labour,

and the courtyard where he worked breaking up rocks.

We saw the kind of straw mat he slept on,

Prisoners’ food on Robben Island was rationed differently depending on whether the prisoners were black, coloured or white

the prison food menu

and the way letters to and from family members were censored.

Finally, we got to see the actual cell where he stayed for some of his time on Robben Island.

The desire to learn about the legacy of Nelson Mandela brings many tourists to South Africa.

I photographed this art piece at the South African Museum of Art. It is called Mandela’s 85th Birthday Celebration outfit in 2003 by artist Jane Makhubele

Nelson Mandela died in 2013 when he was 95 years old.

Nelson Mandela’s picture is on the 100 Rand bill here in South Africa

Nelson Mandela is definitely a hero in his country and indeed the world. It is interesting to learn more about him and talk with people here about how he, and the political party he led, are viewed in South Africa today.

Other posts………

Getting Involved at the Human Rights Museum

The Trees of Rideau Hall

Images of Apartheid

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Filed under Africa, History

Crow Stone Launches Tonight

“We stumble along past the polluted streams, as pussy willows lose their kitten plush, morph into pollen-dusty worms, then leaf into green leaves. Spring insists on life in spite of burned-out houses, charred trees, blackened fields.”

That’s just an example of the vivid meaningful descriptions you will find in Gabriele Goldstone’s new novel Crow Stone. It is the fourth in her series that tells the story of a young woman named Katya determined to survive one tragedy after another beginning in the early 1930s when she is forced to move from Ukraine to Siberia and then to East Prussia, and in 1945……. after Germany is defeated in World War II, back to work in a Soviet labour camp.

One by one Katya loses her family- her parents, her siblings, her aunts and uncles and her cousins until she is left all alone to fight the battle for survival.

Crowstone Gabriele’s latest novel about Katya has already garnered some excellent reviews – Kirkus called it …..

“Difficult, harsh, and worthy of attention” praising Gabriele for the way she paints the horrors of war vividly and comprehensively.

The excerpt below gives you an idea of what the Kirkus reviewer is talking about. It is part of the description of Katya’s seemingly endless walk to the labour camp after she and a large group of women have been captured by the Soviets.

“At night it’s still cold. We huddle like cows, on the thawing ground, drinking water from puddles like orphaned dogs. Rivers, contaminated with death, littered with empty prams, broken furniture and bloated bodies, continue to flow. Death contaminates us all.”

The amount of meticulous research Gabriele has done to write her series is so impressive as the supplemental reading references at the end of Crow Stone attest. She has also made trips to many of the locations in her novels to look for documentation and background material and to see the places she is writing about for herself.

Katya’s story is all the more moving and meaningful because it was inspired by memories Gabriele’s mother shared sparingly with her daughter throughout her life.

At the end of Crow Stone Gabriele lists the facts from her mother’s life she incorporated into the book and I found it so interesting to go back and find the bits and pieces of her mother’s story in the places they were referenced.

Another fascinating detail is that the cover of Crow Stone features the 1947 prisoner-of-war release papers for Gabriele’s mother.

I particularly appreciated the way Crow Stone shows us that it is not always easy to figure out who is your enemy and who you should hate. A young woman named Natasha, a former employee of Katya’s family, puts it well when she describes so many people caught up in the war as…….. those who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Crow Stone is a riveting engaging read, tragic and troubling certainly, but ultimately a tribute to the human spirit of survival.

Gabriele who is a friend of mine, and a member of a writers’ group I have belonged to for almost a decade, launches her book tonight at McNally Robinson Booksellers and I am so sorry that I will be travelling and will have to miss her launch.

I’m inviting you to go in my stead for what is sure to be a wonderful evening and a great opportunity to buy her excellent book and have it signed.

Other posts………..

Hatred Happens Insidiously

Broken Stone

Red Stone

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Filed under Books, History

But What About Jane?

My grade two class at Sir John Franklin School with our teacher Miss Ushey on the far right. I am standing in the back row on the far left, next to our principal Hannah Fisher.

When I was in grade two I attended Sir John Franklin School in Winnipeg. It was torn down in 1991 but I have distinct memories of my time there, my friends at the school, and my teacher Miss Ushey.

Standing outside Sir John Franklin School with my younger sister Kaaren

Since I have used Sir John Franklin School as a setting in my upcoming novel Sixties Girl, I started researching the explorer Sir John Franklin for whom the school was named when it opened its doors in 1921.

Sir John Franklin- Wikipedia image

I wondered why you would name a school after a man who essentially failed at the most important mission he was asked to carry out – to find the Northwest Passage. He never did. All the men on his expedition died and the two ships he commanded for the trip both sank.

So why did he attain a heroic place in history that led educational authorities in Winnipeg to name a school after him? Good question.

Lady Jane Griffin Franklin

Well, it turns out that the reputation and legacy of Sir John Franklin were protected and fiercely defended by his wife Jane, who some of her biographers insist, singlehandedly turned her husband from a failure into one of England’s noblest heroes.

Painting of the doomed Franklin expedition by William Thomas Smith

Jane was a world traveller herself and used her money and influence and writing skills to make her husband and his doomed mission legendary…. even though John Franklin was anything but a dashing hero. According to one biographer Sir John was old and unfit and a bit of a thorn in the side of naval authorities when he set sail in 1845 to find the Northwest Passage and subsequently perished.

Jane financed five different missions to find her lost husband and these voyages made such a major contribution to the mapping of the Arctic that Jane was awarded a special medal by the Royal Geographical Society.

John Rae speaking with the Inuit in the Boothia Peninsula -artwork from the Hudsons Bay Company History Foundation

In 1854 explorer Dr John Rae, who was on one of the missions to look for the lost Franklin expedition found evidence the crew members had resorted to cannabilism before they died. He learned a great deal about the expedition from his contacts with local Inuit people.

Lady Jane Franklin worked tirelessly to shift the narrative so that this story was discredited. She enlisted the help of author Charles Dickens to have Dr Rae’s reputation sullied and have him ostracized from society.

Dr. Simon May examines the bones of Franklin expedition sailors which prove the crew resorted to cannabalismphoto from the CBC

Later evidence proved Rae was right about the Franklin crew’s cannibalism and also proved that Franklin and his crew had died because they were too arrogant to ask for help or communicate with the Inuit people who might have helped save their lives once their ships were stranded.

Jane would however brook no criticism of her husband. She was a lively and interesting writer who lionized Sir John in her work, naming him the discoverer of the Northwest Passage even though many explorers had found it before and it wouldn’t be till 1906 that Roald Amundsen would actually sail the entire passage.

Sir John Franklin memorial in Westminster Abbey by artist Matthew Noble- photo by Laurence Cook

Jane paid for a memorial for her husband in Westminster Abbey and a statue of him in Waterloo Place in London and it was due to her influence and lobbying that the Queen knighted her husband shortly after she married him.

Lady Franklin Rock in the Fraser River- photo by Barry Sale

While Sir John Franklin has been lauded in song and story in Canada and his name is affixed to all kinds of buildings and geographical locations, interestingly a small island in British Columbia’s Fraser River is named after Jane Franklin and commemorates her stay in the nearby community of Yale in 1861 when at age 68 she was on one of her many life-long travel adventures.

Jane actually logged many more travel miles in her lifetime than her husband ever did and wrote about them in 200 interesting travel journals and 2000 letters to friends and family.

Greta Scacchi plays Jane Franklin in a television series about the Franklin expedition called The Terror

Researching this post led me to discover all kinds of interesting things about Jane Franklin too numerous to share here. I’d like to read some of the books and novels that have been written about her.

In 2020 the Canada Mint released a special silver coin designed by Matt Bowen to honour Sir John Franklin.

Jane Franklin was definitely a formidable female force. Her husband can thank her for the fact that many people nearly a 180 years after he died still recognize his name.

Perhaps the school I attended in grade two in Winnipeg should have been named after Jane Franklin instead of her husband.

Other posts…………

Attending a School Named For An Explorer

My Photos Find New Homes

The House on Beaverbrook Street


Filed under feminism, History

Small Things Like These- A Moving Story

Over the Christmas holidays, I read the novella Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan. In keeping with its title, Small Things Like These is a small book only a hundred pages. It was shortlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize and won the Orwell Prize for Political Fiction.

Novel illustration by Daniela Alfieri from the review in the Sunday Times

Set in 1985 it tells the story of a rural Irish man named Bill Furlong who sells wood and coal for a living. While making a delivery at the local convent he begins to suspect something untoward is going on there. What will he do about it?

Bill Furlong seems at first a simple soul devoted to his wife and five daughters and providing for them with honest hard work, but in Claire Keegan’s capable hands he becomes something so much more- a complex, thoughtful man with an interesting past of his own.

Small Things Like These is a beautifully written and stirring story and while it takes place at Christmas would be a perfect read any time of the year.

Illustration by Anna Gusella for the review of Small Things Like These in the New York Times

I knew a little bit about the Magdalene Laundries one of which plays an important role in Small Things Like These because I had seen the movie Philomena starring Judy Dench. But I had no idea of the scope and impact of the laundries on thousands of young Irish women till I did a little research after reading the novel.

The Magdalene Laundries ( named after Mary Magdalene in the Bible) were essentially ten workhouses in different locations in Ireland from which profitable businesses were run to raise money for the Catholic Church.

From 1922 to 1966 as many as 30,000 young Irish women were essentially held prisoner in these laundries and subjected to severe psychological and physical mistreatment. The woman were unwed mothers, the daughters of unwed mothers, and girls who had been sexually abused or had mental or physical health issues.

Many were considered burdens by their families or were sent to the laundries by clergy, police officers, hospitals and psychiatric institutions. Confined for decades while starved of food and education, forced to work in silence from morning to night, they were isolated from society. Punishments for refusal to work included food deprivation, shaving of hair, solitary confinement and beatings. Many of the women as well as their children died.

It was only in the early 1990s when unmarked graves were discovered on a Dublin convent’s land that a public scandal ensued and what had truly happened in these laundries came to light.

Although knowing more about the Magdelene Laundries makes me want to read Small Things Like These again, its story stands on its own without the historical background I have provided in this post.

The book prompts us to think about what things are going on in our communities that we don’t notice or choose not to notice. What is our responsibility as community members to do something about them? It reminds us that while we cannot change the past we can still confront it and deal with it.

Other posts…………..

Silent Prey

The Long Wait and Forgiveness

The Children Are Watching and Listening and Wondering

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Filed under Books, History