Happy 2016!

I love this time of year...a time of nesting, of reading, of reflecting, of conversing and...of writing. A time of sharing slow-cooked meals and of snuggling with a cat who...ouch!...likes to attack petting hands.

Don't get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoy the cold outdoors. Nothing compares to a walk in the snowy woods, where Robert Frost's words haunt at intersecting trails.  I love the crunch of snow and the brilliant sun on the fresh white stuff. Or at night, the sprinkling of stars in the huge night sky. Winter is winter and since this is Winnipeg, it's not going away anytime soon.

It's the cycle of nature that comforts most. With the December solstice now behind us, winter's end lights up the distant horizon. Knowing that spring will come, lets me enjoy the cold for what it is. Temporary—like life.  My word for the new year is PATIENCE.

Happy Trails to you!

The story behind Broken Stone

Let me share a bit about my upcoming release Broken Stone by Rebelight Publishing. It’s a middle grade novel, set like Red Stone, in the early 1930s. Broken Stone continues the exploration of my mom’s childhood.  The first book, Red Stone, (previously published as The Kulak’s Daughter) happens primarily in two places: Federofka, a tiny village 35 kilometers northwest Zhitomir (about an hour west of Kiev) and in Yaya, Siberia, in the Kemerovo Oblast (about half-way between Tomsk and Irkutsk). Red Stone, told from the viewpoint of an eleven-year-old girl, explores the impact of collectivization on a kulak family.

The sequel, Broken Stone, begins in the Soviet Union (again in the Zhitomir area) and moves to East Prussia. The children travel to the Baltic port city of Königsberg and then head to a small farming town called Kreuzburg (about twenty kilometers south of Königsberg) where they settle in with relatives.

One of the things that has made my research so compelling is that the homes of my mom’s childhood have basically been wiped off the map. Federofka, her birth town, is now Kaliniwka. Königsberg became Kaliningrad, and Kreuzburg is Slavskoye.  After 1945, East Prussia—a  former province of Germany—was divided between the Soviet Union and Poland. And so the Kaliningrad area, along with Slavskoye, is part of the current Russian Federation.

Thus, my mom’s past, before immigrating to Canada in 1953, was completely dismantled. Her father’s windmill was literally taken apart and used to build the new collective manager’s office. Her mother was buried in a shallow, unmarked grave in the frozen ground of Siberia, while her father, a victim of the 1937 Great Terror, was dumped into a mass grave along with thousands of other ex-kulaks. Only a few photographs and some archived secret police files give clues to a crushed past.

Mothers and daughters have, perhaps, one of most complex of human relationships. Ours was no different. By exploring my mom’s past, I’m basically trying to figure out what made her tick (and how that affects me). She could never tell a story of her life in a straight forward chronological order. It came out in bits and pieces, at the most unexpected times. My retelling of her childhood years under Stalin and then Hitler, is an effort to create narrative out of the jumble of emotion that underlines memory.

Broken Stone is about a broken family and a young girl trying to grow up with a foot in two strongly opposing political regimes. She’s torn between her father, still left behind in the Soviet Union, and her own future in fascist Germany. It’s a quiet story. The plot points belong to a girl in transition from childhood to adulthood, from communism to Nazism, from dependent to self-sufficient, from sad to hopeful. It’s also an attempt by me to give my own family some roots. I hope you like it. 

Book review: Forgotten Land Journeys Among the Ghosts of East Prussia

Forgotten Land: Journeys Among the Ghosts of East Prussia
Forgotten Land: Journeys Among the Ghosts of East Prussia by Max Egremont
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've read a view books about East Prussia, including biographies by Marion Dönhoff and Hans Lehndorff, a novel by Ernst Wiechert and histories by Andreas Kossert, among others. What made Max Egremont's book stand out was that it was written by an outsider, a non-Prussian and I appreciated his point of view. Yes, the book was a bit confusing, as it flitted between present and past, followed characters, dropped them, and then picked them up again. However I felt this was an appropriate style for a confusing place and time. Yes it was part history, part travelogue and it was immensely fascinating. It's only strengthened my resolve to journey amongst those East Prussian ghosts. Perhaps I'll find clues to my own mother's confusing teenage years. And oh, did I appreciate the enclosed map with locations identified by both past and present names.

View all my reviews

Who's Watching Whom?

Meandering down my favorite Harte Trail (the former Grand Trunk Pacific Railway), I'm always discovering something new. Nature is never boring. Blossoms in the spring, berries in the summer, colored leaves in the fall, and the peace of snow in the winter. But fall might be my favorite. The air is pungent with decay as my footsteps crackle over the dry leaves. This Great Horned Owl watched me as I watched him.

October is ghost season and while I grieve the loss of my dear dog, Buddy, I feel his spirit in these woods. Rest in peace, dearest Buddy.

Paving Paradise

My favourite farmer’s field is morphing into a new neighbourhood. This particular field grew my first paid article a few years back. I’d wandered through the July wheat as a thunder storm danced closer. Nature’s drama. My piece, published in the local paper, compared it to the fringe festival that was happening concurrently.

Now I’m not knocking change. It’s a sign of life. However, I couldn’t help but think of the song, “they paved paradise and put up a parking lot,” this morning as a cement truck rolled into the field just as a dump truck carried out a load of fertile top soil.  Turns out my neighbour was right: they scrape off the good soil, so it can later be sold back to the new home owners.

I picked a fall bouquet of wildflowers out there today. I never used to, but now I figure, it’ll all get bulldozed anyway. Later I might get charged to see them...in a plant museum. 

First Day of School

I read that in Russia, students bring flowers to the teacher and receive balloons in return. That sounds like it could be a lot of flowers!
File-German school-boy (Heinrich Bruno Wittig), aged 7, with schultüte & schulranzen, on his first day of school, Zeulenroda, 1936.wittig-archiv.jpg 
Over in Germany, it’s been a two hundred year tradition to give young students a large paper cone or ‘Schultüte’ on the first day of school. The cone is stuffed with candy, small toys and even (!) school supplies. The photo on the left dates back to 1936. (Zeulenroda, Wittig Archiv).

That tradition was not part of my life here in Canada. I remember the mixed emotions of my first day at kindergarten. I couldn’t speak English. My mom arranged for an older girl from the neighbourhood to pick me up and deposit me at the school. I remember the other girls’ pretty dresses, but have no memory of my own. I do recall, though, that by grade one I’d become quite comfortable with Dick, Jane, Sally, Spot and Puff.  And that’s where the wedge between my double life began. There was my German immigrant family at home and my English language world of books. As I grew, so did the rift.  So I have some empathy for the issues facing new immigrants and their children starting school here in Canada.

Now-a-days, back-to-school often means a fancy licensed backpack with matching school supplies.  An expensive time for parents, especially those with several children. We live close to a school and when I see the kids walk by, holding a parent’s hand, on these first days, I get nostalgic for my own kids’ schooldays. However, my bank account appreciates the end of back-to-school.

I used to take time off work during the week of back-to-school, just to be there for any jitters or tears or happy cheers. Kids facing the world on their own.  A special time for them. A learning-to-let-go (just a little) time for parents.

Now, it’s just me and Buddy watching the foot traffic eagerly skipping by on their way to school.  Happy first day to all!

The Beaverbrae

More than a quarter of a million displaced Europeans came to Canada after the Second World War. My parents traveled as newlyweds on the Beaverbrae, a converted freighter, in 1953. They left Bremerhafen and arrived in Quebec City on July 20th along with seven other family members. These included my mom’s brother and his wife and two adult children, my mom’s sister and her new husband, and my mom’s single sister. 

These nine people had all gone through horrendous things—and it wasn’t all connected to the war. My mom’s family had been kulaks in the Soviet Union and so their troubles started back in 1930 when the farms were collectivized. They’d made their first refugee trek back in 1932 to East Prussia. Later, they tried to flee the Soviet army in 1945 when it advanced on East Prussia, but were unsuccessful. Today that part of eastern Europe belongs to Russia and Poland.

Their troubles didn’t end with the war.  My mom was a POW in a Soviet labour camp in the Ural Mountains until 1947, while my aunts and cousins worked on a kolkchoz until 1948. The time under the Soviets was something my aunts refused to talk about it.

When they were allowed to leave East Prussia, they entered the Soviet zone of Germany and crossed the border illegally into the British zone. They did not feel welcome in West Germany.  The war-torn country was over-run with refugees, making the decision to immigrate to Canada not that difficult. They had, literally, nothing to lose.

My dad, on the other hand, came from the Schleswig-Holstein area. His losses were of a different kind. He had been in the Luftwaffe and later, after a crash and a long recovery, was sent to the Eastern Front where he was captured and then spent five years in a Soviet POW camp. Upon his release, he discovered that his former wife had not heard from him and so was in a new relationship. With both their young children dead of starvation, they agreed to divorce. So when my parents met, married and emigrated, they were both middle-aged. 

I still have their wooden trunk with the destination label on it. What was in it?  Their wedding china for starters. (Seems to me dishes were a lot more important back then than now.)  A few clothes and a few photographs. I still have the smart-tailored suit my mother bought for the journey. They brought a feather duvet along, with matching pillows and a beautifully embroidered tablecloth that both worked on during the voyage. It's one of my most prized possessions, symbolizing their journey together. 

Here are some memories that my cousin, now in her eighties, and the only surviving family member of that 1953 Beaverbrae trip, shared with me last weekend. She was twenty-two on that boat.

She said the trip cost $400 per person and took 10 days from Bremerhaven to Quebec City. There were 9 to 12 beds in a room. Three layers of bunks. Women and men had separate quarters. No windows. Barely any walking room. Stifling air. Sea sickness. She remembers two young women who were chewing on some kind of green herb who didn’t get seasick.

My parents took work as farm labourers near Morris, Manitoba after they arrived in Canada. In the fall, they moved into the city and my father worked on construction projects. They had intended to move to Kitimat, BC the following year, after my mother’s difficult pregnancy (with me) was over. That’s what the other family members did.  The Alcan smelter was opening up and needed workers. However, by the time I was born in June, 1954, my father felt confident in his job opportunities and so they stayed in Winnipeg.

My parents were extremely proud to be Canadians. They were excited to get their citizenship papers and to belong to a country that gave them plenty of opportunity to prosper. They worked very hard, but they had a good life—a very good life—in their adopted home. It didn’t taken long and they had a brand new house, a cottage, a boat, a couple of vehicles, etc. My dad loved the multi-cultural aspect of their chosen land.

And I’m glad that the Beaverbrae brought them here, because I think Canada’s a pretty amazing country to live in. That seasick voyage was definitely worth it. But what were those women chewing?

On October 3rd, there’ll be Beaverbrae reunions happening in several centres across Canada. The one in Winnipeg is slated for the Lutheran Church of the Cross, 550 Arlington Street from 2-4.  It should be very interesting!


Goldelse - Eugenie MarlittI recently read Eugenie Marlitt's 1867 novel, Goldelse. It was popular in its day, possibly the first ever world's bestseller, originally released in 1866 in serialized form by the popular German magazine, "Die Gardenlaube." I was attracted to the book because of its title. My mom's name was 'Else' which is derived from Elizabeth, and I was curious about her literary namesake.

Could this book have been read by my grandmother?  Considering its popularity, it's quite possible. The romantic storyline is rather predictable, but the book moves along quickly with lots of intrigue amongst its aristocratic characters. It reminds me of Daphne duMaurier's Rebecca—although the books are written seventy years apart.( Mind you, I read Rebecca many years ago and perhaps it's not a fair comparison.)

What drew me to Goldelse, like I mentioned, was the name. And then I was thrilled to find all three names of my grandmother's daughters (ie. my mom and her two sisters) mentioned as characters in this novel. So there is an Else, a Bertha and a Helene. There's even an Emil (one of my mom's brothers). The very same names my grandmother chose to name her children. Coincidence? It seems like a good possibility that grandmother Mathilde really did read Goldelse by Eugenie Marlitt. And knowing this, makes me feel a bit closer to this grandmother I never knew.

Goldelse is not just the name of a nineteenth century novel, it's also the popular name of a Berlin statue. Completed in 1873, it's a monument featuring the winged Roman goddess, Victoria, symbolizing victory over death and success in war. Due to a move in 1939 by the Nazis as they were redesigning Berlin into 'World Capital Germania' the statue missed the Allied bombings that destroyed its previous location in front of the Reichstag.

Goldelse the monument, weighs 35 tons. Hmm. How much does Winnipeg's Golden Boy weigh? Less than 2 tons. Wow. That puts things into perspective. How about height? Goldelse is 8.3 meters tall. The Golden Boy? Just over 5 meters. I guess our Golden Boy is a mere child next to her. Goldelse is considered one of Berlin's major tourist attractions.

No matter,  we're still pretty proud of our Golden Boy, even if he's not as big and strong as Goldelse. He did survive the First World War cruising about in a ship (after he'd been sculpted in France, the ship delivering him back to Canada was forced into combat) so perhaps he's a Victor. Golden Boy meet Goldelse. You both survived war. You're both victory statues, unlike the mere mortals beneath you.

The Anita Factor Writing Group

I've been privileged to belong to an amazing writing group. We call ourselves The Anita Factor and meet every second Thursday in between the books at McNally Robinson's here in Winnipeg. We've been meeting, sharing, supporting and celebrating for almost five years now.

So what makes a good writing group? Number one is the commitment of each individual member to the craft of writing. If you're not seriously passionate about being a published author, then the group dynamics can quickly peter out to being a social outing, a kaffee klatsch.

Here's our basic format. We take turns facilitating the meetings, offering pieces of advice that we think will be useful to the rest of the group. Sometimes we print up handouts. Often we will do a practice writing exercise, then share our spontaneous words.

After we've warmed up with a lesson and some unfettered writing, we turn to our works in progress (WIP). Writers share their latest chapter or story or article. Each writer shares approximately one to five pages.  Learning to listen as someone reads is a skill that takes time to develop. Often I'll jot down notes on what I like and what I think might need some work. Other members in our group seem to have photographic memories and don't need to make notes. Each of us has different listening ears. One person might focus on tension and plot development, while another connects to characters and dialogue. Some might critique the big picture stuff; others, the little details. We always offer each other positive support. Yes, writers must develop a tough skin. It's not an easy vocation. But like Mary Poppins once said, "A spoon full of sugar, helps the medicine go down..."

After we've done the work, we share our writing news. This is the sweet part, like dessert. Lately, there's been a lot of good news. But we also share the not-so-good news—the rejections, the frustrations, the 'so close but no cigar' moments. There are many of those and we've all been there.

At this point in our meeting, we look at the clock. If there's time, we head to Prairie Ink, McNally's restaurant, for tea and edible sweets. It's closing time when we head back to our busy lives, our families, our laptops, and our WIPs.

In between these regular meetings we meet at book signings—of the Anita Factor—and other local authors, at writing conferences, (most of us are heading to Prairie Horizons in the fall), and our annual writing retreat on the shores of Lake Winnipeg.

Finding the right writing group might take some time, but the synergy created when you do sync, makes the challenge of writing just a bit easier and a lot more fun.

We'll be celebrating all day at The Forks on Saturday, July 18th from 11 til 7. Come and say hello!

Celebrate The Anita Factor at McNally Robinson on July 18

Celebrate The Anita Factor at McNally Robinson on July 18


The stork delivered Red Stone yesterday and I'm grateful to the Rebelight delivery team for its safe arrival. The cover with its stork profile means a lot to me. The original was taken while I was researching my family history in Ukraine by a fellow traveller, David Lange.

It was curious, having a nature guy along on a genealogy trip. While the rest of us were hunkered down trying to decipher old files in musty smelling archives, or interviewing seniors with mouths filled with gold, David was out photographing birds. And what beautiful photos he took!

Of course, it was impossible to miss the storks. The birds are huge and during May, when we were there, they are busy parents, soaring back and forth as they feed their young. Storks like the unpopulated rural villages, and the villagers like the storks. Storks bring good luck along with the babies. They work in pairs—kind of like our Canada Geese. And, like our geese, they return to their same nest year after year.

I'm thrilled to have this stork on my cover. It represents a nostalgic rural life in Eastern Europe that is being threatened by urban sprawl with its noise, air pollution and busy-ness. To me, the stork also represents the kulaks who worked hard on the land to support their families.  I'm reminded of a story my mom shared about how as a young girl she could never quite catch the stork when it brought a new brother or sister.

I didn't catch sight of the stork delivering my book either. But then, maybe the storks are being replaced by drones!

June 3rd Lilacs

I can’t let this day in June slip by, without remembering the grandfather I never had. It wasn’t until I went to Ukraine in 2004 and searched through former KGB files in the small city of Zhitomir (Zhytomyr) that I “discovered” my grandfather. What I learned I brought back to my mother, who at eighty-six still did not know what had happened to him.

The file on my grandfather is rich with detail. In June, 1937, spring unfolded with its blooming maybells and lilacs like it always does. My grandfather shared a rented room at 66 Andriivska Street in the Polish section of town near the Teteriv River.  Of course, being a farmer, he would no doubt have preferred being on the land rather than in a crowded city. However, his farm in Federofka had been expropriated back in 1929 to make way for a collective. Since then, it appears he struggled to make a living with his horse—a sort of taxi service

When I visited the area I walked near the place of his final arrest, but the house itself was gone, turned into a vegetable plot.  Speaking of plots, 1937 and 1938 were the years that Stalin’s paranoia reached a frightening crescendo and my grandfather became one of its victims. During the ‘kulak operation’ 387, 000 former kulaks were executed.

According to the Zhitomir file, my grandfather was arrested by Officer Kawrasky of the NKVD. A detailed list was made of his possessions which included: a Bible, a letter from a friend, eight addresses written on paper and his work permit.

All summer long, when my grandfather was not rotting in the sweltering heat of the overcrowded jail,  he was being interrogated by a Troika (three person court).   In the NKVD file  I was able to read (through a translator) of my grandfather’s crimes. He tried to get a German passport in Kiev, not once but several times. (They said this was when he passed on information). He received money from East Prussia, not once but several times. (This was payment for his spying activities.) Of course, as a former kulak, my grandfather was already guilty.  Such were the times.  My grandfather was charged with counter-revolutionary activity—Article 58. Stalin was growing fearful of the rising Nazi party and suspicious of all foreigners inside his own country.

My lilacs are still blooming and now on June 3 I think of how beautiful seasons do not mirror suffering, injustice, violence or crime.  Beauty must not be mistaken for goodness. The two are not the same. 

Sounds of spring in Charleswood

Back to summer mode here in sunny Manitoba. (Last weekend was a chilling, stormy reminder that beautiful weather is a gift to be treasured.) Bird twitter fills my yard. Robins, chickadees, woodpeckers, and others that I can’t identify flit in and out of the trees.  When I take the dog for a walk up on the Harte Trail, there’s another sound, louder and more insistent than the birds. It’s the frogs. Their croaking is amazing. Obviously, they enjoyed the rains of the long weekend. And smart! How do they figure out that there’s a human and a dog passing by? Then once we’re by, they start up again...led by the lead croaker and then the chorus joins in. It’s music to all passers-by. I feel privileged to live in the city with these rural sounds around me. And yes, the construction work on Ridgeway West has begun, but the Harte Trail will survive. Let’s hope the frogs will, too.

Remembering Helmut

Since I retired from my day job to become a full time writer and since my own aging parents have passed on, I have the time to volunteer at a local seniors’ centre. The actual plan had been to volunteer with aging seniors in Ukraine, around the area my mom had spent her childhood. Funds are, however, limited and so I thought I should turn my attention closer to home.  Canada’s nursing homes are filled with aging immigrants. and it’s not necessary to go abroad to hear stories—histories—about world war two and the years around it...both before and after. 

Helmut was such an aging immigrant. He came to Canada from Germany in the early sixties. Using the big photographs of one of my dad’s collected coffee table books about ‘the old country,’ I was able to figure out where in Germany this old man came from. (Often being old enough to need the care of a nursing home means communications aren’t easy.) However, the photographs helped—better than the small print of a map. Besides, current maps of Europe are different than the maps of Helmut’s childhood.  

Helmut came from Upper Silesia (Oberschlesien).  You won’t find that on a map. It’s now part of Poland and called Gorny Slask. It was the same area where Auschwitz was built—not something that Helmut seemed to know about. Ah, yes. German memory...German responsibility...German guilt—passed on from one generation to the next. I was born here in Canada and yet I too carry that guilt. Back to Helmut. 

Helmut remembered being a refugee. (Funny, they’re just discussing current refugees on the CBC. Refugees are a never-ending issue in our world.) His family was expelled from Upper Silesia at the end of the war. The Poles had good reason to rid their re-established country of their worst enemy, the Germans. Nine-year-old Helmut and his family moved to West Germany where they were equally unwelcome.

It’s no wonder local Germans resented the intrusion of the refugees. The end of the war had destroyed much of Germany and there was no room or infrastructure in the newly formed West Germany for the up to twelve million displaced ethnic Germans. This explains the bulge of German immigrants to Canada in the fifties—including my own family.

Helmut remembers being beaten by his new teacher who hated the influx of refugee children. With pride, Helmut told me how his mother marched back to the school and told the teacher off. That teacher never beat Helmut again.

Just a small anecdote about an old man who died in a small, less than stellar nursing home (staffed mostly by a new group of immigrants, by the way) here in Winnipeg. Helmut loved the mountains and told of trips he made to the Austrian and Swiss alps. Oh, how he loved the mountains. Peace to you, Helmut. I hope you’re now breathing that fresh mountain air. 

Victory Day... for some

Victory Day, anniversary number 70, is over. Big celebration in Russia—but boycotted by many western countries as a protest against Russia's aggression against Ukraine. I was in Ukraine for the 59th Victory Day celebration. It's truly a big deal over there. War for those people isn't simply a formal ceremony of remembrance. War destroyed their families, their towns, their lives. Civilians often don't have the rituals of military tradition to express their memories. Rather, their memories are in the old music, in the damaged buildings, in the old photos of once whole families, in the addictions to numb, un-numbable pain, and in the faces of the old surviving women. That's where the war still rages—in the minds of old people whose youth was ruined. Like so many millions, my mom and dad's lives were horribly distorted by the second world war. In May, 1945, each of my parents—still strangers to each other—were settling down to some POW time in the Soviet victor's land. The war for them was long from over. My dad was released from Soviet custody in November, 1949. Victory Day for him (and for my mom, released in July, 1947) was the beginning of yet another fight for survival.

Happy Mother's Day, Mom. RIP

May Day

Yesterday was May Day. Nothing special—except that here in Winnipeg we’re having awesome weather. Buds are budding, dandelions are bursting with brilliance, and birds are tweeting their little hearts out.  So nature’s celebrating May, but in Manitoba, there’s no official holiday on May 1st

In many parts of the world, however, May 1st is International Workers Day. You can read an interesting piece in Time about its inception, and about how we in North America, showing our lack of solidarity for anything communist, chose September for our Labour Day holiday.

But before communists and workers chose May 1st as their day, this time of year was already being celebrated. Pagan cultures celebrated Walpurgis and then later Christian cultures continued the tradition. May Day has honored spring—with dancing, maypoles, flowers and pretty dresses—for centuries.

International Workers’ Day, however, isn’t quite so pretty. Demonstrations, military parades and speeches are the norm.  In 1992 the former USSR renamed International Workers’ Day. It's now called "The Day of Spring and Labour."

This year, May Day rallies were banned in the Ukrainian cities of  Kiev and Kharkiv. However, in Russia, on the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, there’s to be an especially big parade planned for May 8th,  which is a holiday called Victory Day.

I have a chapter in my upcoming book, Broken Stone, about a May Day parade. It’s 1931 and there’s a definite military air to the Soviet-style celebration. Not a good day for kulaks, or their children.

Back here in Winnipeg, I welcome this new season. Time for biking, gardening, and outdoor eating! 


I was going to blog about dogs...in keeping with my latest thoughts, it was going to be about old dogs, but I got sidetracked (a common occurrence in my life) by an article in the Books section of my local paper. I’m usually way behind on my newspaper reading. I let other family members go through it first, then later I get to snip out pieces I like. (Yes, I’m a hoarder of newspaper snippets!). So I was looking for a piece by Helen Norrie, the children’s book reviewer about my friend Jodi Carmichael. Jodi just had her second book published.  We share a writing group, The Anita Factor, that meets every two weeks at the our local McNally Robinson Bookstore (such a friendly and supportive retailer of books). Anyway, I found a wonderful piece on Jodi in Saturday’s paper. It called her “promising” among other  things—all of which are true. Jodi’s worked very hard to be the success she is today and deserves all the praise coming her way. Go, Jodi, go!  

Speaking of my Anita writing group...Jodi’s not the only talent receiving acclaim. Melinda Friesen’s dystopian YA novel, Enslavement, is being well received and another in the series is due for release next year. Mel Matheson has a picture book, Hokey Dowa Gerda and the Snowflake Girl, shortlisted for awards and she’s competing with friend and fellow Anita member, Deb Froese and her book,  Mr. Jacobson's Window! Both of these authors also illustrated their books—yes, their talents run deep. (Can’t there be a tie?!) And then there’s Suzanne Costigan who’s also short-listed, in the Older Children’s category. Her YA novel, Empty Cup, is gritty and tough. And I can't forget dear Pat, who put years of teaching into words of support. Her book The Other 'R' in Education is a must-have handbook for young teachers. 

These women make success look easy, but they have each worked so hard for this. They're dreamers, writers, artists, mothers, busy women with a multitude of responsibilities...working word by word towards actualizing their goals. Each of them is an inspiration to the rest of us in our Anita group. And to Anita Daher, our mentor, whose book, Wonder Horse, coming up this spring—thanks for getting us started!

I wish them all success. Manitoba Book Awards are coming this weekend! For those short-listed..fingers crossed!

Old trees

I’m into old things, which makes things a tad easier when I look in the mirror. I’ve always been curious about old, because for me old is just a veneer, a mystery to be solved. As a kid I loved to explore abandoned houses left behind in empty fields. Behind old is a lot of time, a lot of experience, a lot of story.

Some of my favorite old things are trees. Old trees creak in the wind, provide shade in the heat, give homes to birds and scampering space to squirrels. They inspire poets (like Joyce Kilmer), give wood for our houses, for our furniture and fire up our nights. They even provide inspiration to map our pasts—where would genealogy be without the arms of a tree? Where would books be without trees?  Would we have read stone tablets while waiting for the invention of e-books?

I’m fortunate to have a yard filled with trees. Most of them were mere sticks when I planted them. They’re living testaments to the wonders of time, of aging, of enduring. Long live old trees. They pair perfectly with the young—room for a tree house, a swing, a shady spot to read a book. Old trees and children belong together kind of like old stories and young people. Everyone needs old trees in their lives. I hope you get to hug one today!

Back when I researched my family's Soviet past, it was trees that marked forgotten places and lives. Trees and people have strong connections. One of my mom's favourite songs mentions a linden tree. Old linden are scattered throughout Eastern Europe. Oh, the stories they could tell!


Gudrun Pausewang

I’m reading one of my favorite contemporary German authors right now. Gudrun Pausewang. I’ve read a few of her YA novels and currently it's a collection of her short stories, Ich War Dabei: Geschichten gegen das Vergessen. (Carlsen, 2007) Loosely translated: "I was there: stories to keep us from forgetting." Again she tells of the war and the after-war years from the point of view of German youth. She’s a wonderful writer, so clear and so engaging. Last night I read the story, “Ganz vergessen” (Totally forgotten).

It caught (and held) my attention because it could easily have been my teenaged mom and her younger sister hiding in the woods. They're trying to avoid detection by the Russians who have just occupied their village. This story happens in Schlesien, on May 10, 1945. The war is finally over and it’s a beautiful spring day. Dandelions cover the fields, the sun’s shining, and a rabbit hops nearby. The two girls are freezing. They’ve been cowering outside in the woods all night—as their mother instructed— to avoid rape. And now it's early morning and a Russian soldier approaches, with a horse and wagon.  As he gets closer, they notice that he's stuck a dandelion behind his ear, and on the horse harness, too. He’s a good looking young man and he’s singing loudly and with deep melodic melancholy. As he fades away, still singing, the younger sister says, "but, he's just like one of us."  Later, when the two girls return to the safety of their mother’s house, the girls mention his good singing voice to their mother and she tells them the Russians are well known for the good voices. It’s a touching, poignant story. Makes me want to cry. Simple things like singing and dandelions and ends of war do that to me, much too easily. Or maybe it's just the power of a well written story.  Reading Pausewang's stories bring the war right close and personal. 

More about the author: Gudrun Pausewang was born in 1928 in what became Soviet-occupied Germany. She's received many awards for her writing. Some works have been translated into English including Dark Hours (Annick Press, 2006), and Traitor (Lerner, 2010). 

I gave a copy of Traitor (in the original German) to my aging aunt and she loved it. Said it was very true to life.  YA has a readership in the very old. Anyway, I'm happy to read books that reflect my family's experiences and show the 'other' side. 

But it's a good cold...

Yes, it’s cold out there. Still, the dog likes his walk and I like walking him. My smart phone app tells me it’s -31, -43 if you care about the wind chill. I try not to pay attention to the numbers. Is the sun shining? Yes. Are the trails drifted in? No. Will we be sheltered from the wind? Yes. The trees minimize the wind chill. So it’s a blue-sky day with good walking conditions. We’ll be fine.

I layer my clothes—undergarments, then over-garments. Gortex windpants, my extra thick smart wool socks, my gaiters, my winter hiking boots, with the cleats, my neck warmer, my toque, my insulated parka, and my heavy leather mitts.

Once the dog sees me sliding on my windpants he knows it won’t be long. He goes to sit by the door. The leash hangs nearby and I grab it. What am I forgetting? Ah yes, the treats. I back up and put a couple in my pocket. Grab a doggie waste bag, while I’m at it. The dog’s now standing and I’m ready.

I hitch the dog to the leash and open the door, blink into the welcoming sunshine and crunch down the path to the sidewalk. The snow’s brilliantly white. I pull up my collar to the northwest wind blowing us along and we’re off. Around us chimneys puff and car exhausts huff. We head to the woods, to the snowy woods. The dog’s eager. He knows where we’re going.

As we hurry along, I warm up and by the time we turn onto our trail, I’m no longer aware of the cold. It’s just the woods and the snow and dog following his nose. I unleash him and while he moves forward doing a canine version of Facebook, I breathe in the peace of the woods. Chickadees twitter in the trees. Crows swoop above the tree line. Is it the sunlight? Is that what’s making them exude such energy? 

I’m surrounded by crisp blues of the sky and whites of the earth as I meander through the mottled grey of aspens and oaks. Yellow lichen covers some of the bark. Dried berries, leftovers from summer, hang on smaller bushes. Tiny footprints tell of other lives. Voles, maybe? I keep an eye out for the coyote who recently crossed our path.

 As long as we keep moving, the cold stays away. When the trail ends, the dog returns for his treat, for his reconnection with me and the leash, and we head home—against the wind this time, feeling the bite of the wind, looking forward to our warm house.

February. Cold and good. 

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