Off the couch and into the cold!

I wanted to just be lazy. I wanted to curl up with the characters of a good book. I wanted to spend some quality time doing nothing with my canine. Instead...

I headed out into the cold, windy Winnipeg night. I scoured the Exchange District for a parking spot. I slip-slided over the ice-covered sidewalks. I went for the discomfort of attending an event, where I would hardly know anyone and feel nervous and awkward. And...

I had fun. Had some good Christmas baking, and mingled with some local writers - warm and friendly, not at all intimidating - kind of like my good dog - minus the cold nose.

I suppose my biggest thrill was meeting Dora Dueck. Dora is the author of This Hidden Thing. The novel won the McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award in 2011. It's an excellent book - one of my favorites - about an immigrant woman's experience coming to Canada. The storyline is compelling and the writing is exquisite. I'm sure I've posted about it earlier.

I also got to re-connect with Carla Keist who writes a regular landscaping column in a local newspaper. I was very happy to hear the story of how she got to have this regular writing gig and what it's doing for her writing career.

Another person I met was Sally Ito, contributor to a Pacific Rim blog about children's lit. The Paper Tiger is definitely worth repeat visits. During the open mic, Sally shared part of her grandfather's memoir about the Pearl Harbor attack. Very fitting since December 7th is the anniversary.

Speaking of open mics, Jodi, from my critique group (we call ourselves The Anita Factor - in honor of our inspiring mentor, Anita Daher) braved the unknown and read from her WIP. She had the audience laughing out loud, which isn't surprising since Jodi is a very funny writer and animated speaker. No doubt she'll post her experience on her blog.

All in all, the evening was well worth the effort. Thanks to Anita Daher for doing so much organizing on behalf of the Writers Union of Canada. Thanks to the Manitoba Writers' Guild for hosting the event. I'm proud to belong!

Reading Local

I'm on my last book - the last of my Prairie Horizon shopping spree. I bought seven novels and two picture books. I have so enjoyed these books. All are by Canadian publishers. Several of them are by Coteau Books - a Regina publisher. One was by Thistledown from Saskatoon, another one by Dundurn Press and finally, the first of this grouping, was by Tundra Books.

It's been fun reading local. Kind of like eating local, you know. Just gives me a great since of community. They've all been historical fiction up until now. This last one, Drummer Girl by Karen Bass, is contemporary. Back to the present!

What fun it would be to teach novels to kids. You can cover history, science, geography, social issues, family relationships, etc. just by reading novels. I'm sure math could be worked in there, too. Books! One of the most amazing inventions ever created!

Prisoner of War memoir

Just finished reading a memoir called The Night is full of Stars by Friedrich Schmitz-Herberg. The book was first written in German in 1949, shortly after the author's release from Soviet captivity. The English translation didn't come out until October, 2009.

This book appealed to me because both my parents were prisoners-of-war in the USSR. My mom was released in 1947 due to failing health and my father came out in November, 1949. The final transport of German prisoners-of-war from Russia, didn't go home until 1955.

My father had a friend who was captured by the Americans and spent several years in continental USA. He has fond memories of his prisoner-of-war time. Clean, white sheets and an opportunity to take courses.

Now I'm reading the diary of a Canadian taken prisoner-of-war by the Germans. Interesting to compare the experiences.

Made in Manitoba

Fellow Manitoba writer, Jodi Carmichael, has a started a Made in Manitoba series of author interviews. (Yours truly is her first guest). I look forward to reading interviews of other local authors. It's fascinating to learn how writers work to achieve their goals.

There's a lot of Made in Manitoba talent. Maybe it's our long winters, or our bright clear skies, or maybe it's the saskatoon berries, or the great Shoal Lake water, or ... whatever. We have an energized and varied bunch of authors, and there's another bumper crop just ripening.

Jodi's blog is a witty, inspiring place to spend some time. It's guaranteed to put a smile on your face.

Comparing three historical books

I just noticed that the last three books I read were historical fiction. So, being into historical fiction writing myself, I thought it'd be prudent of me to take a moment and reflect on the differences and similarities with these three books.
The books are (in order of my reading them):
*Shane Peacock's Eye of the Crow
*Karen Bass's Run like Jäger
*Adele Dueck's Racing Home


I picked up all three at the recent CANSCAIP event in Lumsden.

All three are by Canadian authors. Peacock comes from Ontario, Bass from Alberta, and Dueck from Saskatchewan.

All three books are published by Canadian publishers. Peacock by Tundra in Toronto and the other two are published by Coteau in Regina.

All three books have a male protagonist. Peacock's book features a thirteen-year-old Sherlock Holmes. Running like Jäger has seventeen-year-old Karl. And in Racing Home the main character is twelve-year-old Erik.

All three are told as third person narrative - except for the excerpts in Bass's book where Herr Brandt shares his stories. These are told as first person.

As you can imagine, there are many, many differences. I'll just mention the obvious.
*Peacock's story happens in 1867, in London, England.
*Bass's is set in mostly two places - Berlin and through-out WWII battle scenes - with a focus on the eastern front; and in two time periods - now and during WWII.
*Dueck's is set on the Saskatchewan prairie around 1908/9.

But in the end all three stories solve an external mystery, while learning something about themselves. Not all the mysteries were as obvious as solving a crime, like in the Peacock book. Bass's book attempts to solve the mystery of what it really was like to be a German during the war. And in Dueck's book, the external mystery to be solved is quite minor, while the emphasis is on a much deeper, inner issue. As the reader, I closed each book feeling richer because of learning something about a place and time different than my own; but also richer, because I was privy to a character's development. All three were people books - character-driven.

Aren't we all so curious about why people do things? Writers get to dig into people's psyche and try to figure out the secrets behind the actions. Whether it's fantasy, contemporary, or historical - story is like math. This plus this equals this. Oh, dear. I'm off on a tangent. Time to go.

P.S. One more similarity - all three are highly recommended!

A New Season

It's that time of year again - fall - such a sweet, but melancholy time of year. I'm surrounded by fluttering gold and September prairie-blue sky. The Canada geese honk overhead as they do their annual practice runs, and a variety of birds like flickers and these little yellow canary-like ones, pass through the yard on their southern migration route.

It's time for sweaters and socks, soup and hot chocolate. Nature is awesome. So predictable, so messy, and so powerful. Soon I won't be sitting out here on the deck. I'll be huddled inside and turning up the thermostat.

But in the meantime, there's autumn. Time to play Autumn's Here by Hawksley Workman!

Lumsden, CANSCAIP & Shane Peacock

Back from the CANSCAIP conference in Lumsden and I'm ready to continue tackling the challenging (yes!) career of being a children's author. There was so much inspiration at the retreat that I feel quite empowered. The Saskatchewan hospitality was as warm and genuine as ever.

I met many wonderful people and came home with a bundle of books that I can't wait to read.
I'll review them here over the next six weeks or so (and continue to share, as I process the workshops' info.)

I'm focusing on Shane Peacock's Boy Sherlock series at the moment. Shane was the keynote speaker at the conference and he shared with us his slow start, but then determined road to success. He credits Robertson Davies (one of his U of T instructors) as the connection who helped open doors to the publishing world. It's always good to get that one link, isn't it?
For me, I think it was Miriam Toews. And while she didn't get me a contract, she helped me along, and for her confidence in me, I'll always be grateful.

I got to sit next to Shane at lunch on Sunday. Our whole table was delighted with his presence. One nugget I learned from him that I'll share here is: decide what your book is about in one word. ONE word! It's a simple enough challenge.

Anyway. Back to the books.

2011 Prairie Horizons

Tomorrow I head out west for the bi-annual prairie CANSCAIP conference. It's the only writing conference I get to attend this year, so I plan to enjoy every minute of every workshop.

Shane Peacock is the featured speaker. I'm reading his book, Eye of the Crow right now. It was the winner of the Arthur Ellis Award in the Juvenile category. Very much enjoying it.

Sad News

The kulak's daughter is gone. My mom died unexpectedly yesterday morning. There'll be an obit in the Saturday Free Press. The funeral is on Wednesday, August 24th, 10 a.m. over at Chapel Lawn, 4000 Portage. Her body will be put next to my dad's. Her name has been on the marker for more than 18 years - waiting for her final year to be entered. Now it will say: 1919 - 2011

I think she died at peace with life. She was looking forward to getting her hair done and then going to a noon hour BBQ. Just last Sunday, her and I picked fallen apples off the ground at her personal care home. It's gladiola season and her favorite flowers are blooming. I'm happy for her.

Love you always, Mom!

Happy Canada Day 2011, etc.

It's only coincidence that the last two books I read were by Mennonite writers, both from Winnipeg. This Hidden Thing by Dora Dueck received McNally Robinson's Book of the Year Award and Miriam Toews, well, I always read what she writes.

A friend asked me why the Mennonites are such good writers. Well, I'm no Mennonite, but I was raised as a German Baptist, and the two cultures have a lot in common. My theory is this: both cultures immerse their people in word-study from a very young age. (Of course, the word-study revolves around the Christian bible - but there's an easy transition from the biblical to all literature.) The other thing about being immersed in a religious culture like the Baptists is that you spend an awful lot of time reflecting and introspecting. Maybe there's other reasons, but that's my 2 cents on the matter.

HAPPY CANADA DAY! Let's enjoy our freedom. What a wonderful country. Let's work on keeping it that way.

By the way, Dora Dueck's book was a compelling read and her use of metaphor was simply exquisite! It very much deserved the 2011 Book of the Year Award.

comparing two exiles

Finished reading between shades of grey by Ruta Sepetys (Philomel Books). It's a story about the exile of Lithuanians during WWII. Siberia. Long trips in freight trains. Stalin. Sound familiar? I was totally surprised by the number of parallels to The Kulak's Daughter.

Let me list some of these similarities. (SPOILER ALERT!)
1. This story, like mine, is based on family history.
2. Narration is in first person. Sepetys uses a 15/16 year old girl named Lina. I use an 11/12 year old girl named Olga.
3. The pre-existing conditions. Suspicion. Who betrayed them? Why were they chosen for exile?
4. The conditions during the horrible freight train trip. Death of an infant.
5. A rock. Both characters carry around a special rock.
6. Both Lina and Olga are separated from their fathers. Both hope for reunification.
7. Both girls have a younger brother who is important to the story.
8. Both girls witness the death of their mothers under exile conditions.
9. Both girls have the saddest birthdays ever in their remote exile camps.
10. In both books there is a guard who shows limited kindness. (Sepp and Kretzky).
11. Both girls meet a boy at camp who teaches them survivor skills. (Sasha and Andrius)

There's a decade between these two novels. The Kulak's Daughter happens when Stalin's first Five Year Plan is executed - for collectivization. Sepetys' novel, between shades of gray, is set during WWII when Stalin focused on removing the intellectual class from the Baltic countries. So Olga's exile was to destroy an economic class, and Lina's exile had to do with the destruction of a country. However, to have a 1941 character call it genocide (page 182) is incorrect. The word was not coined until 1943.

The guards in my book are called the OGPU, while in Sepetys they have morphed into the NKVD. This changeover would have occurred in 1934. (I did an earlier blog post about the name changes.)

I am thrilled to see a growing body of literature that focuses on Stalin's atrocities. I hope that students will continue to have opportunities to study and discuss world issues. It's only through enlightenment that the darkness goes away. I urge everyone to read this book.

write on!

It's not that I don't want to post more often - because I do. It's just that I spend very little time online right now. When I do get a chance to use the laptop I realize how disconnected I've become to the online world of children's writers.

All's not lost, though. I'm working on a new project, I have a great new critique group, and I'm reading some very good books. Just finished Miriam Toews' new release, Irma Voth, and loved it. I like the way her story developed, closer and closer to the SECRET and then it's out and everything else falls into place. Miriam Toews was writer-in-residence at our local library a few years past - just before her breakthrough novel, A Complicated Kindness, was released and she was most encouraging and supportive with my then unpublished manuscript of my first book.
(I say first - fingers crossed and working hard - so that it will not, hopefully, be my only published book.) Toews' writing is funny, smart and oh so sensitive. I keep hoping that if I read enough great books, I'll eventually write one. On the other hand, reading a great book is a reward in itself.

Besides the reading, writing, and critiquing, there's also a garden to be edited (or weeded, watered, and talked to). There are various young people drifting through my house - usually in a hurry - looking for food, socks, head phones, rides, car keys - or even - a bit of encouragement.

Then there's the day job. Big changes in the last month. It's a good thing I like walking because with my new route I'm walking two hours more a day. You know what they say, what doesn't break you, only makes you stronger. I feel strong. But all I really want to do is get my next book published. So, write on, I shall.

Happy writing, reading, editing, and gardening to everyone.

Wretched Land Review

This decade-spanning saga of a family in eastern Ukraine begins in 1907 and ends with Ukraine's independence in 1991. The story follows the lives of Dmytro and Khrystina Verbitsky and is based on the lives of the author's grandparents. They lived through several famines (including the Holodomor), the Bolshevik Revolution, WWII, the death of Stalin, and finally the slow disintegration of the USSR.

The book was a page-turner. The story is very well-written and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in this era of history. There's a lot of the historical framework added so that the reader understands the bigger context and not just this particular family's experiences. My only quibble would be that I'd have liked a family tree added. The Verbitsky couple had such a large family and I had trouble keeping track of them. I had to keep turning back and forth to remind myself.

But quibble aside, the book is full of positive vibes, in spite of much sadness. It's obvious that a lot of soul went into the creation of this work. On more than one occasion I was brought to tears. One example is during the German retreat when the collective's barn is set ablaze and Khrystina almost dies.

Another profound moment is right near the end of the book after the war. It's peacetime now, yet the family is still having difficulties. Khrystina says, "What's wrong with out children, Dymtro? Why are they so cruel to other people?" And Dymytro replies, "Nothing is wrong with our children. It's the war. It has made them cruel."

The book is brimming with wisdom and love in spite of personal tragedy. It's powerful stuff and I wish the author, Mila Komarnisky, much success with it.

Visit her website for more info.

A Quote

Escape from Warsaw

Historical fiction - or rather, 20th century war stories - are my special interest. Because of my family's personal history, perhaps I'm genetically-programmed to being obsessed with this dark past. There's no shortage of books on the subject, so I know I'm not alone with this interest. A family member said to me recently, why don't you just forget about the past. It's not healthy. Perhaps, it's not. But when I go visit my mom in the nursing home, and I see all these old people, I can't help but imagine what they've seen, who they once were, and where they come from. Life is about so much more than the present - unless you're a dog, of course.

That preamble was to justify my reading of yet another war novel. Escape from Warsaw - a mid grade novel by Ian Serraillier - was first published in the UK in 1956 with the title, The Silver Sword. In 1957 it was turned into an eight-part children's TV series by the BBC.

I've been doing background reading for an adult novel I'm working on and know so little about Poland. While I prefer reading non-fiction as research, I also enjoy learning about narrator techniques in novel-writing. It is, after-all, point-of-view that determines the story.

Escape from Warsaw (or The Silver Sword) is primarily an adventure story. Four children leave Warsaw in the search for their parents in Switzerland. The war has just ended and Europe is in shambles. While not rich in character, the novel does reveal an important aspect of war - families were torn apart and homes did no longer exist. Children were often without adults, and had to survive on their on. I imagine when this aired on TV - a mere ten years after the war had ended - that there would have been an intense interest.
I was delighted to do a return visit to Mrs. Hand's grade six class out in Carman, Manitoba last week. When I got to the school several students were watching and waiting for me - The Kulak's Daughter in hand. So first off I had to sign their books. Next, they took me on a tour of the school and introduced me to the principal, the librarian, the gym teacher, etc. They also showed me their favorite place - which was the kindergarten room. Then we headed off to their Grade six area.

I had a powerpoint to go along with my presentation and the students took care of all the technical details - which was great, because I'm still a bit of a luddite when it comes to technology. (I learn something more, and then something new comes along.)

Mrs. Hand's students had extremely interesting and well thought-out questions. They asked about Stalin, about my life as an author, and about the characters in the book. I was delighted to receive a copy of this question and answer exchange in the mail a few days later.

Thank you Mrs. Hand's grade six class! You made me feel very special, and Carman, Manitoba
will always make me think of bright, enthusiastic students and every author's dream of a teacher.

Kingdom of Trolls

Just finished reading Rae Bridgman's Kingdom of Trolls. (Sybertooth Publishing, New Brunswick) It's the fourth book in her Middlegate Series which is set here in Winnipeg, but over in the magical part - you know the area - in between the cracks of reality.

In Kingdom of Trolls, Sophie and Wil, the two young protagonists travel to Iceland - obviously inspired by the author's visits over there. I got to go to the book launch back in February and was thoroughly entertained by Bridgman's expressive reading. She weaves 'an enchanted web' over her listeners and I do hope she gets many opportunities to read her work out loud. The writing style - with its Latin, Icelandic and troll sounds - begs to be dramatically presented. That said, my one minor criticism would be the way the troll words were written. I found the mix of capitals and non-capitals hard on the eye. But then, that mix does convey the gruffness of troll's speech.

Bridgman's beautiful ink drawings throughout add another dimension to the story, and I kept referring back to the colorful cover (another author drawing) when the two characters were deep in troll country.

I don't read a lot of fantasy, so this was a real treat - to escape into a plot full of talking rocks, ghosts, trolls, crystal balls, and more. My favorite lines come in the translation of one of the Latin chapter introductions: Chapter XXXVII: Observation: Problems can multiply like flies. Another observation: Gifts soon beget gifts. Third observation: The story certainly changes depending on the storyteller.

This storyteller gives readers the gift of make-believe with dramatic style and an incredibly vivid imagination.

p.s. I heard that the first three Middlegate books have been translated into Chinese. Congrats, Rae!

Timothy Synder's The Bloodlands

Just finished Timothy Snyder's book, Bloodlands, Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. What a heavy read. It's mind-numbing. Page after page of senseless deaths reported.

The area that Snyder refers to includes most of present-day Poland, Ukraine, and Belarus, plus Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and western Russia. 14 million people. And this is just the 'non-combatants.' He's including the years of the Holodomor and the Great Terror, but
excluding the people collectivized under Stalin's First Five Year Plan.

If you think things were bad during those years, think again. They were, in fact, much worse. The camps liberated by the Allies in '45 were just the tip of the iceberg.

In one of the early chapters, Synder writes about the victims of the Great Terror. My grandfather was shot in September, 1937. His crime was documented and filed and I was able to read the interrogation proceedings, back in 2004. Part of my grandfather's crime was requesting and receiving food aid during the famine in 1933. Here's an image of those 'top secret' files
listing the letters, the amount of money involved and the dates.

And now, through Synder's book, I'm able to identify the weapon that was used. Here's a quote from the book (p. 83) describing that 1937/8 kulak operation:
"The killings were always carried out at night, and in seclusion ... The executioners were always NKVD officers, generally using a Nagan pistol. (Image of weapon from World Gun website) While two men held a prisoner by his arms, the executioner would fire a single shot from behind into the base of the skull, and then often a 'control shot' into the temple." The bodies were then dumped into prepared ditches. This is a photo of my grandfather's ditch, here.
Having a researcher like Timothy Synder corroborate my own findings about my missing grandfather is empowering. I want to share one more powerful quote from Snyder's closing paragraph.

"The Nazi and Soviet regimes turned people into numbers...It is for us as scholars to seek these numbers and to put them into perspective. It is for us as humanists to turn the numbers back into people. If we cannot do that, then Hitler and Stalin have shaped not only our world, but our humanity." (The Bloodlands, p.408)

Here's my grandfather's face. He once had a wife and a family. He had a home, a bit of land, a windmill and a purpose for living. For this, Stalin killed him - one of the 14 million.

From the Rhine to the Red River

I'm meandering around so much in the real world, that my online meandering has lagged behind. But I do want to continue this blog and will make every attempt to write a weekly post.

I've just finished a memoir by Anne Ullenboom Van Humbeck called From the Rhine to the Red River. This self- published book is a story of a woman and her family. It's written with warmth and humor. I especially enjoyed the first half where she shares her childhood war memories and then later, her first years in Canada as a newlywed and parent. My parents, too, were immigrants from Germany and so I always find it interesting how other families experienced the transition.

This is the second self-published book I've read this year and I must admit, I am impressed with the quality of the copy-editing and especially, with the strength of the writing. Again, a beautiful cover and a great read!

Remember Me by Sara V. Mosher

I’ve just finished reading Remember Me, No. 110 (Hyderabad) Squadron, Royal Air Force. by Sara V. Mosher. The book is beautifully produced, from the striking cover, the many photos, to the meticuously researched notes and appendix. But it’s the undercurrent of love and respect – not just between a daughter and her father – but between two generations, that gives the book its soul. The book isn’t just about the author’s father. The book is about a squadron of young men. It’s about youth, it’s about dying, and it’s about old men who remember. The title is perfect.

Once upon a time, - back in the sixties and early seventies of the last century, in a far away place – out in the western suburbs of Winnipeg, some children were playing, learning and growing. What I’m trying to say is that Sara and I have been friends since way back. Then we grew up, moved away and rarely saw each other.

Back to this current century. Unknown to each other, while I was busy trying to figure out my mother’s life, Sara started to research her own family’s past. We both had fathers who were in the air force (albeit different teams). Both fathers ended up living quiet lives in the suburbs, raising their children, worlds away from what were the tumultuous, life-changing years of war.

My reactions to the book? First of all, how very sad. So many young men died. Sara gives them names and faces and events. Boys with smiling faces. Dead.

My second reaction is awe. I’m impressed with detailed names of places, of planes, of dates. For anyone with an interest in World War II – whether because of family, or because of the military, this book provides exact details. There are no sweeping generalizations here. No blame, no verdicts. Just real people in unreal situations. The amount of research is amazing.

My own father’s war experiences disappeared into forgotten memory when he died. Sara has grasped her father’s military experiences and put them into a compelling narrative.

My favorite chapters were near the end where Constance Pitts and Kenny Mosher become a couple and thus, the future parents of my friend. Here, the author’s wry sense of humour sneaks out. The warm feeling that the large Mosher family still shares, is also evident.

Well done, my friend. I recommend this book to anyone connected to WWII.

Excerpt from the opening paragraph of Chapter 16, page 101:

“A clothes peg drops suddenly from her mouth as she tightens her grip on the other wooden peg that clips the freshly washed pillow case to the line. Her eyes are fixed on the sky as she stares at the German airship flying its customary scheduled route from Germany to New Jersey, passing over Apple River. It flies low and slowly. Mrs. Larsen feels sure the Germans are mapping the countryside. No one trusts Hitler. Even so, later that summer when a neighbor with a battery operated radio shouts anxiously across the field to Mrs. Larsen, "We're at war again with Germany," the news is met with disbelief."

For more information visit her webpage at or visit her blog at

Upcoming Presentation/Human Rights Museum Issues

I'm reviewing my research notes from The Kulak's Daughter as I prepare a talk for next month. The talk will be held at the Ukrainian Cultural Centre on 184 Alexander Avenue, Wednesday, Feb. 9th at 7 p.m.

I'll be sharing my photos from my visit to Ukraine, as well as relevant background reading I did on collectives, kulaks, and their exile to remote parts of the Soviet Union.

For more information please follow this link. If you're in the Winnipeg area, please visit!

Also, Winnipeg will soon be home to the Canadian Museum of Human Rights. This massive project is slated for a Spring/2013 opening. As it stands right now, the Holocaust and the Canadian aboriginals will be the only 'permanent' exhibits. The Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association (UCCLA) is challenging this proposed plan. They want a permanent exhibit for the Holodomor.

What is the Holodomor, you ask? That's why we need a museum. Perhaps the King Solomon solution to this controversial issue would be to have only the made-in-Canada human rights issues as the permanent features and all the other human rights atrocities as the revolving exhibitions.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out.


2011! (Three more years - and then I'm RETIRED! Now let me see - 3 years, with 52 weeks, that's 52 times 3, minus vacation...I won't bore you with my calculations.) But the changing of calendars does bring out the calculator in me.

2011 this week looks a lot like 2010 last week. We were at -28 Celcius last night. Clear sky. Great for star gazing while walking the canine.

That's one thing we all have in common, no matter where or when we are in this huge world ruled by geography and time - sky. I wish everyone a happy new year and some daily sky time. Just you and sky. Now that's a monitor!

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