Invisible Boy Review

Invisible Boy, shortlisted for a non-fiction Governor General Award this past year, caught my attention not because of the race issues … but because of the religious ones. Both share the limelight in this memoir.

I’m not black and won’t try to identify with Harrrison Mooney's race struggles, a black kid growing up with white parents in BC's Bible belt.  But, having been raised in a semi-fundamentalist environment (my father kept a healthy distance from the evangelicals), I was drawn to the Christian hypocrisy of Mooney’s growing-up years ... complicated by his insecurities of being an adopted child.

Mooney could never be sure of his acceptance into his adopted family’s faith community—a community where speaking in tongues was a sign of God’s grace. He could also never be sure of his white mother’s love.  Mooney could never be sure if being himself was enough. And so he, the adopted boy, had to adopt a false persona.

It was heartbreaking to read: “Mothers teach love and survival … But mine taught me how to survive without love.” (page 268).  

People who haven’t been exposed to Christian fundamentalism might not appreciate its power to exploit a child’s vulnerabilities.  A challenging, disturbing, but ultimately, uplifting and empowering book.  I hope Mooney's Christian white mother will read this and see him.

If Tables could Talk

December, 1953. This photo shows my extended family celebrating their first Christmas as newcomers to Canada. The women in the photo were born in Ukraine; my dad and Uncle #2 were born in Germany.

Dinner was around a maple table in a rented house in the Wolseley neighbourhood. Yes, there's the ubiquitous fowl … probably a turkey, but maybe a goose … centre stage. 

Because I write fiction, I won't identify these people (except my parents). They don't need to be directly attached to the stories I’ve created about them. Suffice it to say, they’ve inspired my writing. As a fiction writer I'm interested in creating stories with compelling character arcs but I strive to be accurate with the historical and physical setting.

Aunt #1: Far left.  A talented seamstress who would sew any dress a young girl could imagine.

Next, my mom. Three months pregnant with me in this photo. She’s wearing a home-knit red vest, that I might actually still own. 

Next to her, my father. Three years earlier he'd been released from a Soviet POW camp.

Aunt #2: Standing at the back, in the middle.  As my mom’s youngest sister, she adopted a lost refugee child during the flight from the Soviets, back in 1945. Married later here in Canada and had 2 sons.

Uncle #1:  Married to Aunt #1. He was 51 years old here. His history included exile to Arkhangelsk in 1915, life under Stalin, life under Hitler, time as a Soviet POW and finally arriving in Canada where he worked until his retirement as a school janitor. He made some really good homemade wine in his Okanagan home in his later years where he liked to talk about the Russian years to anyone who’d listen. We all dreaded his stories as kids.  

Cousin #1:  Next to Uncle #1,  on the right, daughter of Aunt #1 and Uncle #1.  She was the last of this group to pass on, back in September of this year.  Known for her beautiful garden in the Okanagan she didn't talk much about the past.

Uncle #2: Married my Aunt #3 in 1952. I know little about him. He died of asbestos poisoning after working at Alcan smelter for many years. Mostly, he's defined in my memory as the man with the white Cadillac. 

Aunt #3: Married to Uncle #2. My mom's other sister. Childless, she adopted two children.

A photograph with endless stories. Tragedies, comedies, romances, children’s tales … and big secrets. All the faces seem preoccupied. Are they thinking of the past … of the decimated old world? Perhaps they’re looking ahead ... to the potential of this new world. 

The table around which these Christmas dinner guests sat has been in my house until this fall when my youngest daughter took it over to her new place, also in Wolseley.  Legs chopped down to make it coffee table size, maybe it’ll continue to absorb conversation. 

My immigrant family.  I’m grateful for their adventurous spirit, their courage and for their stories. Maybe I was just a twinkle in my dad’s eye, or a slight bump in my mom’s lap … but like that table, I feel like I’m a part of that dinner, too. And almost 70 years old!

Happy Christmas Dinner to all. 

Reading By the Ghost Light

When I heard the author, R.H. Thomson, being interviewed about his new book, By the Ghost Light, back in November, I knew I had to read it. Couldn't believe that a Canadian with British ancestry—highly regarded in the theatre world—would come down hard against patriotism. However, I'm grateful that he did.  

His international project, The World Remembers, aims to name all the First World War dead ... of every country.  Here my family's losses are on par with the victor's losses.

The book's title refers to the lone light left on in a theatre after a play is done. Here’s a quote from the book: “To stand in a dark theatre after so much life has been acted out is a thrill. The only motion is the beating of my heart, the photons fleeing the ghost light, and my shadow shifting on the walls.” (page 168).

As a theatre actor, Thomson asks whether it’s worthwhile to tell stories that inevitably fade. He answers with an italicized Yes! (page 169).  Why?  Because it’s part of the “cycle of creation.” (page 169).  I appreciated his nuanced approach to shameful parts of his family history ... "I understand that I do not carry guilt for Augustus' actions, but I do carry the burden." (page 301). 

He shares family photos, letters, memories and encourages us to share ours. Even my family losses … silenced by so many years of Remembrance Day services that didn’t include my lost uncles, grandparents or civilian dead. I was an adult before I stopped wearing a poppy ... before I realized that the red flower celebrates military violence, rather than mourning war’s destruction.

public domain, Grieving Parents, K. Kollwitz, Belgium
I came across a review of the book by Dave Obee, in the Times Colonist. Obee writes, “It is a complex, fascinating, and passionate book that, despite side journeys, never strays from the main theme of wars, memory and families.”  I’m grateful to Obee, a BC journalist and genealogist who, along with Don Miller, have greatly aided me in solving my own family mysteries about the Germans from Volhynia. 

The final image of Thomson’s book comes via the art of German sculptor Käthe Kollwitz (born in Königsberg), who lost her son, Peter, during the Great War. The pain of a mother grieving the loss of a son to war is universal and her sculpture, Mother with her Dead Son, has been recreated inside the Neue Wache museum in Berlin.  Her Grieving Parents sculpture sits outside near Peter’s grave in Belgium.

CC Neue Wache, Berlin
Mother with her Dead Son by Kollwitz
Again, I’m reminded how my lost family members never got graves. For a long time, they didn’t even have names. But I’ve found them, named them and given them life in my own stories. Because sharing stories is part of remembering, part of healing, part of creation. 

 Thomson's book is worthwhile reading and it's prompting me to check out Chris Hedges, whom he quotes: "Until there is a common vocabulary and a shared historical memory, there is no peace in any society, only an absence of war.." (page 152)

Christmas is near ... time for family ... time for sharing stories and always, a time for peace.

Christmas Away from Home

Der Watzmann, CC BY-SA 3.0
I remember my first Christmas away from home. I was in Germany, in the town of Berchtesgaden near Salzburg, forever infamous as Hitler’s mountain getaway. I’d been on a university work program when I’d landed a serving position in one of the town’s pensions. The original six weeks morphed into almost a year of backpacking throughout Germany and the rest of Europe.   I met interesting people and had a myriad of experiences.

In between trips, I’d return to Berchtesgaden where I’d always find work. Berchtesgaden was like Canada’s Banff, filled with tourists and always in need of workers. Serving tables was a great way for me to improve my language skills and being in Germany was my first real attempt to explore my elusive roots. Life was an adventure. 

But working past midnight, as Christmas Eve became Christmas Morning, serving cocktails and caviar to well-off holiday skiers, took a toll on me.  I returned to my little servants’ quarters that I shared with some fast-asleep young women from Turkey, feeling more than tired—I felt lonely. 

What cheered me up? I had one gift to open from an aunt living in the opposite end of Germany … near Hamburg. I just remember the thrill of opening that present. It was a wallet with some German money inside and a note to come visit her. It made that Christmas memorable and even today I’m reminded of her kindness and of the power of gifts. 

Christmas makes loneliness more lonely. I’ve tried to convey that in my novels, and I hope to be sensitive to those around me … to reach out and give. 

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