94 years ago ...

Nancy Drew debuted on April 28, 1930. She'd been conceived by Edward Stratemeyer, son of German immigrants, and fleshed out by a ghostwriter we all knew as Carolyn Keene.  After his early death, his daughter, Harriet Stratemeyer Adams kept Nancy Drew alive, by supplying outlines for her mysteries. Carolyn Keene, as mysterious as the mysteries she penned, was Mildred Wirt Benson for the first 23  books. 

But this post isn’t about the authors.  I’m  thinking about the timing. April 28, 1930.  Even though the Great Depression had descended with a thud, it didn't dampen the success of the series.  Nancy Drew and The Secret of the Old Clock was an immediate hit.  Her earliest ghostwriter, Benson, said: “ … (ND) was everything her author—or any girl, in fact—wanted to be and then some.” (page 117, Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her by Melanie Rehak).

Because I’ve been obsessed with my mom’s history for the last twenty years, I can’t help but compare my eleven-year-old reading habits to hers. What was Katya, aka my mom, reading in 1930? (Hint: It wasn't Nancy Drew because the Russian translation for Nensi Dru didn’t come out until 1994.)

My mom wasn’t much of a reader.  Kulak daughters like her weren’t visiting libraries or bookstores to find adventure.  At 11 years old she was about to embark on a journey to Siberia. She did have a bit in common with Nancy though.  Both lost their mothers at a young age. Both adored their fathers. Both had a pet dog. 

But while girls on this side of the Atlantic escaped with mystery novels, girls in the Soviet Union were either joining the compulsory Young Pioneers or dealing with homelessness, exile and imprisonment.  No wonder my mom seemed jealous and even discouraged my love of reading. But forbidden fruit is so very sweet. During the sixties, I read and reread Nancy Drew along with a required dose of German poetry and Martin Luther bible verses. While the German translation of Nancy Drew debuted in 1966, I didn't get a copy.

April 28, 2024. Nancy Drew is still on bookshelves. Forever young. Forever single.  Forever driving her blue roadster. Once regarded as a trashy serial, too low-brow to be ‘real’ literature, she finally made it to library shelves in the 1960s and she's been in circulation ever since. 

The power of novels ... such a mystery. 

Border Issues

Another one of my former EAL students recently received her Canadian citizenship and I'm so happy for her.  Applying for a passport will be the next step.  It’s been a long and tedious journey. Dealing with bureaucracy takes tenacity and patience.  Her new-found Canadian pride reminds me of how fortunate I am to have a passport and to not have border issues … at least not with most countries.  Borders around the world seem to be growing in importance.  How did that John Lennon song go?

 “Imagine there's no countries/It isn't hard to do/Nothing to kill or die for/And no religion, too."

My mom's family: fresh arrivals in Winnipeg 1953

Winnipeg attracted many European immigrants back in the late 1940s and 1950s. I remember the term DPs quite well. It wasn’t a positive label. DPs, often Eastern Europeans, came to Canada after the war to avoid repatriation to the USSR.  Resettlement in our overcrowded city was marked with language issues and financial strains. 

My mom’s family experienced decades of homelessness and went from displaced people, (as kulaks) to migrants (as orphans), to refugees (fleeing war), to forced labourers (war reparations) to migrants again (to Germany) to Permanent Residents (in Canada), to full citizens (in Canada). 35 years of not belonging. 

At the former border between East and West Berlin

This rootlessness probably started back in the 1860s when my great-grandparents migrated from the Gdansk/Danzig area to settle in newly opened farmland of the Volhynia area. In Volhynia they stayed long enough to establish not only villages but an infrastructure filled with schools, churchs and business.  They stayed enough years to call Volhynia home. 

Then in the 1930s, Stalin forcibly ‘resettled’ kulaks into Siberia and other remote areas. (See Red Stone)  A few years later, family in pieces, my mom and her siblings crossed the border from Soviet Ukraine into East Prussia (explored in Broken Stone). Later, in 1945, she crossed the border back into the USSR.(Crow Stone) A 1947 travel visa let her travel to Soviet-occupied Frankfurt an der Oder. She then needed to do an illegal border crossing into Western Europe, where she registered as an official ‘refugee’. 

She had no documents to prove her birthplace. The refugee category allowed her to obtain eventual German citizenship and further, an opportunity to immigrate to Canada. It took her until 1964 to get her Canadian citizenship. (A scene in my new book!) She was so proud of her Canadian document and of her new passport.  

I cross international borders without much worry except about the carry-on liquids I carry.  Passports are keys to safety, to opportunity and to new lives.  As long as there are borders, we will need passports to unlock the gate.

Now our country has new waves of immigrants, wanting only peace and freedom. Seems simple.


Fitting In

Just read Call Me Al, written by Wali Shah and Eric Walters. It’s a middle grade novel exploring the immigrant experience in Canada. Having spent the past seven years meeting with newcomers as an ‘English language facilitator,’ I can appreciate the challenges of adjusting to Canadian culture.  I grew up in an immigrant family and know what it’s like to live in two worlds. Call Me Al was told from an insightful and captivating young person’s perspective.


Wali Shah, author and spoken word poet

Wikipedia image

Like any young person, 13-year-old Ali desperately wants to fit in, hence his name Ali, becomes Al. This reminded me of an incident working in an after-school science program, a few years back. We had Syrian refugees in the grade three class and I was unsure of one boy’s name. “Just call him Mohammed,” one white boy shouted. “My dad says they all have the same name.” Like skin colour, names matter when you’re a kid … they can label you as different. 

While I didn’t have to deal with the challenges of racism, back in the sixties I had to deal with the post-war stigma of having German parents. My father had been in the Luftwaffe and still had a rough, military exterior. My mother … well, we dismissed her messed up past as too confusing … something I’ve tried to make up for with my novels. 

'Gangsta'-posing at Anita Daher's potluck
May, 2023
with the award-winning & prolific
Eric Walters

In Call Me Al, Ali needs to please his self-sacrificing Pakistani parents who expect him to become a doctor. Turns out that at 13, Ali has emotional and social needs that can’t be neatly resolved with perfect math scores. 

Without giving too much away, the novel ends with a compromise. I’m not sure every immigrant child’s story ends so neatly, so happily. But middle-graders might feel empowered by Ali’s story. It’s the kind of novel I wish I had an opportunity to read when I was an awkward grade eight kid, ashamed of her family and living in two worlds. 

About April

My backyard in April

T.S. Eliot, in The Wasteland, called April the cruelest month and I’d have to agree. It’s a month of transition and even change for the better is difficult. Stronger sunlight battles brisker winds. Snow turns to puddles, which return to ice before grudgingly retreating back to puddles, which shrink ever so slowly. Skinny, naked branches thicken with buds and eventually green sprouts emerge in even the shadiest spots. 

April was a cruel month in Europe, back in 1945. Sifting through old magazines I’ve collected over the years, I’m reminded of Nazi atrocities. That April, the Allies were like a spring sun bringing warm winds and exposing Nazi crimes of unbelievable proportions. Charred bodies, ditches filled with corpses, stick-like survivors. Images befitting the cruel month of April. Hitler belongs to April, too. Born April 20, 1889, he shot himself on April 30, 1945. 

Gardelegen Massacre in April, 1945:  CC  Max Stuck

So April is a month of endings, of beginnings, of transition. Ugly, cruel and yet hopeful. I’ll take it one day at a time.

And if this sounds too depressing, I also have fond memories of this month. Of anniversaries, of birthdays and of unexpectedly warm, summer-like days. My favorite April moment: finding pussy willows ... so tenacious, soft and brave. 

April … cruel to be kind?  A lyric from a modern poet. Thanks, Nick Lowe.  Let’s hope the cruelest month will finally be kind to us all. 

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