Tuesday, December 29, 2015

A Good Place to Start

The old covered bridge, built in 1833, was becoming dilapidated in this 1910 photo.

Years ago when I was trying to take my writing "hobby" (personally, I never thought of it as that) to the next level, I began to write a number of articles for the local newspaper. I'd already had an article published in the Ontario Churchman, a piece about a local centenarian I'd interviewed. Hers was a fascinating story about teaching school in the early 1900s. I wondered if there might be a market for more of these personal interest stories.

This was our history and, as it turned out, the local paper took every article I could write. They named the series Quinte Living History. During an interview with a lifelong resident of the town, she described her fear of crossing the covered bridge over the river at night; she also told of the vast Gilmour Lumber Company that used to dominate the scene at the river's mouth, the shops and homes that once lined the main street. 

Because I've always dreaded "cold calling" anyone to ask if they'd agree to an interview, I started out by contacting people I already knew — people from my church, friends of my parents. Fortunately, after the interview several offered suggestions of other folk who had led interesting lives, a local doctor who still made house calls, a Great Lakes sailor, a family who managed one of the first movie houses in town, a Barnardo "child", a larger-than-life, retired police chief who was also a champion pie eater. 

The newspaper was published twice a week in those days before personal computers. Before long, my name became recognized as a writer and someone who was interested in local history. That meant that I was asked to join others who were working on story collections about Trenton and the wider area, and I became a contributor and co-editor for three books of local history. It proved to be a good place to start.  

Happy New Year! Happy Writing!

Monday, November 23, 2015

My Review of Ringing the Changes, by Mazo de la Roche

 I recently wrote a review of the new edition of Canadian writer Mazo de la Roche's autobiography for the publisher, Dundurn Press. They ran it on their blog earlier this month.
 I first started reading de la Roche's Jalna series after taking The Whiteoaks of Jalna in Grade 10 English Lit. class. I was hooked!

The new edition of Mazo de la Roche's autobiography, Ringing the Changes, is enhanced by Heather Kirk's well-documented introduction. It answers a number of questions and provides dates for many events; de la Roche told the things she thought important.

Her autobiography might have been easier to write, the author contends, if her forebears had been other than “distinguished-looking nobodies.” This is typical of her ability to laugh at herself; her sense of humour is evident throughout. Written by a novelist, the book is filled with intriguing characters and dramatic scenes.

The story begins with the arrival of Mazo's young cousin, Caroline Clement, as part of the household in Newmarket, Ontario. The two little girls become lifelong companions.
Both children are artistically inclined; Caroline plays several musical instruments, and Mazo says she herself was born to write. She tells of an idyllic childhood. Her father, though often absent from home, was a reader, a dog-lover, sensitive yet enthusiastic, a man who doted on his young daughter. Her vivid description of her agony over his death is heartrending.
Mazo, “an eternal sketcher”, attended the Ontario School for Art for a time and took some lectures at university. She wrote her first successful story longhand and in pencil. It was accepted by Munsey's Magazine and Mazo was paid $50.

As well as having her own job, Caroline was Mazo's secretary, taking dictation, making travel arrangements for their many trips abroad, and often going house-hunting for the pair.
Throughout her life Mazo de la Roche suffered from “illness of the nerves”, sometimes losing her ability to write. She insisted on seclusion, and at the end of WWI had a cottage built in the woods. At Trail Cottage she was inspired to write Jalna, the book that won her the prestigious Atlantic Monthly prize.

Ill health continued to plague her. Once they were better off financially, Caroline was able to quit work and stay home with Mazo. She found joy in writing again, especially the stories of the Whiteoak family of Jalna.

She and Caroline travelled extensively, falling in love with the English countryside and renting houses in Devon and Cornwall. But they always found themselves longing for Canada. In 1931 Mazo adopted a little girl and a baby boy, and together they returned to Devon. Mazo enjoyed visits to London and meeting other writers. Eventually, they took a house just around the corner from Buckingham Palace. Still, Canada beckoned.

They returned to Erindale, a few miles from Trail Cottage. When they heard that de la Roche's book Whiteoaks was to be produced as a play in London, they went back to England again. RKO made her novel Jalna into a Hollywood movie.

De la Roche was an indulgent parent, providing her two children with nannies and governesses. The household included a cook, a parlour maid, a gardener, and a chauffeur.
In 1938 in Toronto, she received the Lorne Pierce Medal, presented by the Royal Society of Canada for distinguished service to Canadian Literature.

After surgery to remove a cyst from her throat she returned to Vale House to recuperate. But the threat of war and the fact that they lived dangerously close to London made them return to Canada and a house near the village of Thornhill. There, in 1939 de la Roche finished her autobiography, saying she had no urge to write about life after the war. One wishes that she had.

Mazo de la Roche was seventy-five at the time. Over her lifetime she wrote a total of thirty-seven books, sixteen in the beloved Whiteoak family saga. She and Caroline lived in the Thornhill house for many years. Mazo de la Roche died in 1961. 

Friday, October 16, 2015

Kissing Cousins?

Could Molly Brant Be Related to Pauline Johnson?

During the Q & A session at a recent presentation on Molly Brant: Mohawk Loyalist and Diplomat, someone in the audience asked if Molly Brant was related to the native poet, Pauline Johnson.

It's a logical question. Both women were of Mohawk blood, and Molly's eight children were all Johnsons. It seemed to beg some further research.

Although the two women lived in different centuries, it turns out they both had roots in the Mohawk Valley in central New York state, the traditional homeland of their people. 

Emily Pauline Johnson was born in 1861 on Six Nations territory on the Grand River in Ontario. Her father was a Mohawk of the Wolf clan, the same as Molly Brant. Pauline's mother, however, was English, and the girl was raised in a middle-class family, one where an aloof attitude was fostered, along with elegant manners.

Pauline was proud of her Mohawk heritage and took for herself the name of her paternal great-grandfather Tekahionwake. 

Tekahionwake was born in 1758 (confidentially, the year before Molly Brant moved in with William Johnson) in the colony of New York. At the Mohawk youth's baptism, Sir William Johnson, Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the northern colonies, acted as his godfather. Subsequently, Tekahionwake took as his name "Jacob Johnson", and Johnson became the family's surname down through the generations. 

So, E. Pauline Johnson was no relation to Brown Lady Johnson, as Molly during her years as chatelaine at Johnson Hall was respectfully dubbed. 

Pauline, the Canadian poet, found it difficult during the late nineteenth century, to make a living from her writing, but she became a skilled orator, delivering dramatic recitations of her poems as she toured Canada and the United States. She died of breast cancer in 1913. 

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Q & A for Molly Brant

Earlier this year I was asked to reply to a few questions about my new book, Molly Brant: Mohawk Loyalist and Diplomat. Here are those questions and my answers.

What is your book about?
MollyBrant: Mohawk Loyalist and Diplomat is the story of a Native girl, born in the colony of New York in 1736, who is thrust into history by way of her common-law relationship with Sir William Johnson. As well as being one of the wealthiest and most influential white men in 18th century America, Johnson was also the Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the northern colonies. The remarkable Molly becomes chatelaine of his manor house, Johnson Hall, and the mother of eight of his children.
Johnson Hall, Johnstown NY

When Johnson dies on the eve of the American Revolution, Molly has to leave the family mansion, and she returns to her birthplace, the little Mohawk village of Canajoharie. 
As tensions increase in the colonies, Molly, a respected clan mother, is instrumental in keeping five of the Six Nations on the side of the British. Suspected by the Patriots of harbouring Loyalists and of feeding information to the British, she and her children are forced to flee the Mohawk Valley.

Word of her ability to counsel the Natives has spread, and Molly's assistance is needed at Fort Niagara. Like thousands of others, she finds refuge there.
The book follows her life and that of her young family at Fort Niagara and later, on Carleton Island, her travels to Montreal where her children attend boarding school on the government's dime, and her dealings with the Canadian Indian Department and officials at the highest level of government. In appreciation of her years of service the Canadian government builds her a comfortable house in Cataraqui where she spends her final years and where five of her six daughters marry into white society.

How did you come up with the idea for this work?
Actually, Molly Brant was on a short list of Canadian history heroines that my publisher sent me when I first began writing for the Quest Biography Series. I chose Mary Pickford at the time.
I submitted Mary Pickford:Canada's Silent Siren, America's Sweetheart, and then I was ready for a new writing project. I found I'd enjoyed the challenge of research and the thrill of bringing back to life someone from the past. I returned to the list. After a cursory look at what might be available about the other women there, I chose Molly Brant and began sending for books on inter-library loan. That's where I usually start.
We hadn't finished the copy-edit of the Pickford manuscript when I was asked if I'd write a biography of Laura Secord, its release timed to coincide with the bicentennial celebrations of the War of 1812, so Molly was put on the back burner for a while.
But, as an earlier Molly Brant biographer wrote, “the woman would not leave me alone.” I returned to the research with renewed interest. Over the next couple of years I read, I poured over records in archives, and along the way I visited the Mohawk Valley where I felt I was breathing the same air Molly had.

What was the hardest part of writing your book?
The hardest part of writing about Molly Brant was trying to keep her larger-than-life brother, Joseph, from taking over the story. Joseph Brant has been widely written about. There are records of his dealings with the American government officials in Philadelphia, his celebrated trips to London to see the colonial secretary, his letters to the governor of Quebec. He did an interview with James Boswell in 1776, and his exploits are well documented in the papers of Governor Haldimand, Sir William Johnson, Daniel Claus, and Guy Johnson.
Joseph Brant

Molly and her seven-years-younger brother were always close. During the American Revolution she constantly worried about his whereabouts and his safety. After the war the Canadian government built both Molly and Joseph houses in Cataraqui adjacent to one another because they knew of this closeness.
I'm actually grateful that so much has been written about Joseph Brant because Molly's life runs like a thread through his, and we are able to infer much of Molly's story from that of her warrior brother.

Did you have a specific readership in mind when you wrote your book?
The Quest Biographies are written for a high school reading level, with some crossover to adult. That suits me well because that seems to be most natural for me. Even when I was writing novels for young readers, I never intentionally changed my style. I'm not a scholarly writer. My style, I think, is more folksy. People tell me my historical biographies are very readable, and that pleases me.

What are you reading right now?

I'm always guilty of reading several books at the same time. I'm currently reading Charlotte Gray's biography, Sisters in the Wilderness: the Lives of Susanna Moodie and Catharine Parr Trail. I'm also reading Songs in Ordinary Time, by Mary McGarry Morris. I just finished All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. It will go on my list of all time favourite reads.  

Monday, June 29, 2015

An early Summer

The month of June is almost over. We've been living at our cottage for the past four weeks while renovations are taking place at home. I feel a little out of touch; the calendars in the house are still turned to May. With no internet connection at the lake, I've driven to the nearest public library and used their free wi-fi in order to check my email. But there's never enough time for social media conversations. Are you still there, Twitter?

We've had a wet June in this part of the province, with torrential downpours that left puddles the size of small lakes in front of the cottage. The robins loved it, anyway. I've spent my time reading, writing, and taking brisk walks. I even managed to do a thorough clean-up inside, emptied cupboards that hadn't had the shelf paper changed in years! I got all the windows cleaned too, which is more than I can say about the windows at home. I shudder to think about the gardening I should be doing. On the few quick trips back to the house to do laundry, buy groceries, and have a hot shower, I've only stayed long enough to dead-head a few of the flowers. The weeds are knee high. 

We've never "opened" the cottage this early in the season. Nights are still cold at the lake in June, making it necessary to haul the flannelette bedding and the feather duvet from home. 

But if the sun is shining and you can position your lawn chair out of the persistent wind, it is pleasant to sit outside and savour the first days of summer.


Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Scariest Person in My Childhood

Who was it? That was the question the writing prompt asked, suggesting I write one page. I didn't have to think about it for long. The scariest person I can remember was actually two persons.

Taken at our house along the Richelieu. Myself, my younger sister, and my older sister.

On the corner of the lane that ran behind the houses on our street was the home of the cross-eyed boys. At least, that's how my sister and I referred to them (but only to each other, of course). Was it just one of them whose eyes were crossed? Or were they both similarly afflicted? 

Adding to their mystic was their mother, who operated the wringer washing machine on their back porch, scowling at us with suspicion whenever we passed, and whose left arm had been mysteriously amputated above the elbow.

My older sister and I walked to school together every morning, with no problem. But if she was staying after school to play ball or going in the other direction with her friends, I had to walk home alone. There was no way to avoid the big clapboard house that occupied a corner on the side street that I had to take in order to reach either the lane that ended at our backyard or Richelieu Road that passed our front hedge. 

The school the boys went to must have finished each day before our final bell rang, because invariably the brothers would be lying in wait for me. They'd dash across their yard, screeching to a stop within inches of my terrified person, jumping up and down and hurling curses in their native French-Canadian while I scurried past, looking straight ahead, the back of my neck feeling the heat of their scorn. I was sure it was only a matter of time before they grabbed me. It never occurred to my nine-year-old self that it was all an act. 

Not content in knowing that this skinny English-speaking girl was deathly afraid of them, one afternoon they enhanced their performance to include spitting. Luckily for me, their mother was on the porch, threading wet clothes through the wringer. "Ici," she shouted. "Vite!" 

All three of us came to attention, and the boys slunk back across the stony yard. Maman tromped down the steps, grabbed the boys and held them to her with her one good arm. Then she twisted the ear of first one and then the other, till they shrieked in pain and batted her off.

By this time I'd escaped. But now I had to worry what special sort of revenge I was in for next time.  

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Spreading the News!

It's up to us, you know. 
A book doesn't sell itself.

Unless you happen to be a famous author whose reading public has been waiting months for your next bestseller.

For the rest of us with a new book about to hit the shelves, it's time to get on with spreading the news. For me, this is the hardest part of the whole process. Most of us would rather just keep writing. But we owe it to our book and all the hours we've put into it, and to the publisher who has put his faith, not to mention his finances, into bringing forth our creations.

My publisher has assigned me a publicist, and I'm grateful for that. For a while now she's been alerting the media, sending out press releases and review copies. But she also has a hundred other titles to promote, this year alone. So, the rest is up to me. Hence the long list of places to send my author flyer, bookstores to visit, libraries to contact, family and friends to invite to my events, announcements to make both online and in print, updates to prepare for my own website, and dates to keep track of on when to post on social media.

 I'm officially launching Molly Brant on May 2nd at Lighthouse Books in Brighton, Ontario, between noon and 2 p.m. Above is the invitation, so if you live in the area, consider yourself invited. We tied the launch into the Authors for Indies event already scheduled for May 2nd. I think that was a great idea. Sometimes we need to join forces, and since there will be people coming to the store that day anyway, why not?

Today, I'm being interviewed by the local press, and on Thursday, by the radio. On May 16th from noon till 2 p.m. I'm doing a book signing at Chapters, Belleville. And that, I hope, is just the beginning. 

Stay tuned!

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Cover designs

As soon as I saw the cover of Jane Urquhart's new book, The Night Stages, due to be released in April, I was struck by how similar the cover is to that on my middle grade novel, Growing Up Ivy, published by Dundurn in 2010.

Do you see it? Or is it only me?

Both stunning covers, anyway.  And I am happy to be in any kind of company that includes Jane Urquhart.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Mohawk Friend and School Teacher - Celia B. File

Finding Celia

While I was researching Molly Brant for my upcoming book, I encountered another interesting woman. I would loved to have met her in person, but she was of my grandmother's generation. She died in 1973.

Celia B. File was born Celia Vandervoort in 1887 in Napanee, Ontario. As an adult she was a farmer's wife as well as a school teacher. For six years she taught at the Mohawk Central School at Tyendinaga.

That experience turned her preconceived, racist opinions of Native people upside down, so much so that she called the six years she spent living among the Mohawk the happiest years of her life. She was given a courtesy title by the Mohawk at Tyendinaga —Kanoerohnkwa — meaning the loving-hearted, for her unselfish devotion as a teacher, nurse, and friend.

* * *

It had seemed only logical for me to begin my research on Molly Brant at the Tyendinaga Mohawk Library. It was an easy forty-minute drive from my home. It was here that I learned about author and poet Beth Brant, who'd grown up at Tyendinaga with her father's family, and who had fairly recently returned to the library to work on a special project, collecting stories from the Mohawk elders. The end result of this was Brant's book titled I'll Sing Till the Day I die: Conversations with Tyendinaga Elders (McGilligan Books, Toronto, 1995).

Kanhiote – Tyendinaga Public Library. Photo from library's website.

One of the elders Brant interviewed recalled that during the 1920s there'd been a white woman teaching school on the Reserve. AND this woman was writing a book about Molly Brant. NOW I was really intrigued!

Who was this woman? And where was her book now? Was it ever published?

During the course of my investigation I learned that the teacher's name was Celia File and that what she was writing would become her Masters thesis in 1930.

She'd been teaching at Tyendinaga about three years when she became an extramural student at Queen's. Eventually she made the decision to become a full time student and said a sad goodbye to her little school and all her Native friends. She admitted that the love of study had gotten the upper hand.

In 1929 Celia B. File earned an honours degree in English and history and won the Sir James Aikens Fellowship in Colonial History. That meant her M.A. She'd spent a summer working at the Public Archives in Ottawa and she wrote that Molly Brant kept "thrusting herself into the limelight." Celia knew she had found the topic for her thesis.

Bust of Molly Brant at Rideaucrest Nursing Home, Kingston. 

When the thesis was accepted File wrote that she wouldn't say it was completed, for "the woman will not let me go." She had become obsessed with her subject,

It was only natural that she would go on to write a book. How disappointing to learn that before the book was published the manuscript was lost in a fire, while Celia was teaching at Oil Springs, Ontario. She never felt well enough to rewrite it.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

My Confession

It's a bit late in my life to confess this, but writing is hard for me.
It doesn't come easily. Stories don't fly off the ends of my fingers onto the computer — or in my case, out the end of my pen; computers are for later drafts.

When I was a kid my head was full of story ideas. Now, not so much. I wonder if it is because I've since learned about all the elements a good story is supposed to have — conflict, inciting incident, a story arc. Am I worrying to much about this and blocking my creative flow, being forced into deliberate thinking?

But even before all the how-to books, I was never one of those brilliant writers who could hardly wait to finish one story to start the next, because they already knew what the next one, or the next half-dozen, was going to be about. I am envious of writers with such skill, and honestly, I don't want to hear about it.
It used to take me agonizing months of Morning Pages before I'd finally discover a character taking shape on the paper, someone I could feel empathy for and work with.

Maybe that is why I've lately preferred writing non-fiction and have published two biographies, with the third to be released in a few weeks. It's the research into the subject that has opened the doors and let me start a new project. I love the research. And maybe that's not such a bad thing.

Write on!

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Is Anyone Home at Molly's House?

This was Molly Brant's house, her home during her happiest years. I like to think her spirit is still there.

It was here in 1763 that she and her partner, Sir William Johnson, moved their young family, even though construction on the manor house was not fully finished.

Molly and William had two young children at the time — Peter, who was four, and Elizabeth, just two years old. Baby Magdalene would be born that same year; perhaps Molly was pregnant during the move. 

Over the next eleven years more babies would arrive — Margaret, George, Mary, Susanna, and Anne. 

Johnson Hall, closed for the season.

 The family had moved from their former home, Fort Johnson (pictured below), on the Mohawk River, three miles west of Amsterdam, New York.
Fort Johnson

The new house, north and west of Fort Johnson, was nine miles back from the Mohawk. It was bigger and more elegant than Fort Johnson. 

Johnson Hall is a New York State Historic Site, open to the public. Currently, it is having some of its rooms refurbished. I recently saw pictures on the Facebook page of Johnson Hall State Historic Site that showed painting and other restorations being done in the children's room. 

The first children ever to use that room were those of Molly Brant. I love to imagine the halls of the stately home echoing with the sounds of Molly's children.

It was at Johnson Hall that Molly Brant proved her mettle as Mistress of the Manor. She and William hosted elaborate dinner parties and entertained visiting dignitaries, both white and Native. Sir William was Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the Northern District and frequently held meetings with the Six Nations, right there on the grounds of Johnson Hall.
View of the back of Johnson Hall, showing one of the two stone blockhouses.

Approaching Johnson Hall from the side, showing first of two stone blockhouses. 

 Molly lived at Johnson Hall until Sir William's death in 1774. After that, she took the children and returned to her Mohawk town of Canajoharie. 

Sir John Johnson, William's principal heir and the son of Catherine Weissenburg, moved his family into the manor house. In 1776, during the American Revolution, Sir John fled to Canada, and Johnson Hall fell into the hands of the Patriots.

For more on this story, Molly Brant, Mohawk Loyalist & Diplomat, available in April, 2015

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Molly Brant, Founding Member

St. George's Anglican Cathedral, Kingston.

Did you know that Molly Brant, the subject of my upcoming biography, was the only female founding member of St. George's Anglican Church in Kingston. Ontario?

The idea of such a thing would've have been beyond the wildest imaginings of the Native girl, born in 1736 in poverty, in the Mohawk Valley of New York State. But here's how it came about:

The Rev. John Stuart, a Loyalist refugee from New York and a missionary to the Mohawk community there and later, in Montreal, petitioned for land at Cataraqui in December 1783. He applied to become chaplain of the troops stationed at old Fort Frontenac.

Stuart arrived in the spring of 1784, around the same time as Molly Brant, then about forty-seven years of age, and her family. The Canadian government, in recognition and appreciation of the service Molly had given this country during and after the American Revolution, was building Molly a comfortable house in the town, and saw to her relocation from her former home on nearby Carleton Island.

There was no church building in Cataraqui (Kingston) when Stuart and Molly arrived, and the commanding officer allowed Stuart to use a large room in the garrison as a place of worship. Soon the local inhabitants, including Molly, began turning out for Sunday services.

Shortly, Stuart was writing his bishop that his congregation had grown so large that the room they were using above the barracks could scarcely hold them all. The Reverend began to raise funds for a new church, starting by donating the first ten pounds himself.

Among the names of those who contributed to the building fund was that of Molly Brant. She was the only woman in the 1792 founding charter of the first St. George's Anglican Church. A memorial plaque inside today's magnificent Cathedral Church of St. George tells the story.

You can read more about this remarkable woman in Molly Brant, Mohawk Loyalist & Diplomat, to be released in April of this year.