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. 

A Purple Light

Our city glowed purple this past week thanks to a national epilepsy awareness campaign. A long time friend and member of my writing group, was instrumental in bringing an Epilepsy and Neurosurgery Care unit to our city.  Thanks, Pat. With my own family directly affected by epilepsy I’m well aware of the need for epilepsy treatment facilities. 

It was my family connection to epilepsy that prompted my research into the condition and I used what I learned to write Tainted Amber. In that novel I highlighted the Nazi intolerance to epilepsy and their attempts to sterilize or even murder people with the condition.

What is epilepsy? Surging electrical brain activity that leads to seizures or convulsions.  (Think of an electrical thunder storm).  Modern medicine can monitor electrical surges through EEG. Locating the electrical misfirings can lead to proper medication to control these 'storms'.


How many Canadians are affected by it? About 300,000 (1% of the population) or more than 3 million people worldwide.

Famous people with the condition include: Albert Einstein, Socrates, Charles Dickens and Elton John. 

Thankfully, modern science has found medication that can control unwanted and unexpected seizures. There is no need to sterilize or euthanize people diagnosed with the condition. And with more research, more awareness, more purple light campaigns … we can now support and not stigmatize this seizure disorder. 

Thanks to advocates like my friend, Pat, our city is taking positive steps in that direction. Pat, you look great in purple!

Puzzling Memories

My aunt who inspired 'Marthe' in Crow Stone
Crow Stone was inspired by my mom who died back in 2011 at the age of 92. I’d been collecting her chaotic memories all along, and later put them together into narratives … filling in the missing pieces with background reading and travels … almost like doing a puzzle. As I quoted Kate Morton, last week, I was fulfilling the universal human need to create a narrative.  

A few months after Mom's funeral, I visited her youngest sister who'd been unable to come to the funeral. This aunt lived up in northern BC and passed away the following year.  It was from her that I learned the story about the child she'd fostered during the flight from the Soviet Army in the final months of the war. She claimed that it was this little girl, whom I call ‘Erika’* in the novel, that saved her from my mom’s fate in a POW camp in the Urals. My aunt was 19 in 1945 and looked after little ‘Erika’ until she came to Canada in 1953 after ‘Erika’ had finally reconnected with some of her own family. 

My aunt, date unknown, prob. about 1950

I’d been trying to meet up with ‘Erika’ as I researched the book, to no avail. Imagine my thrill to now finally connect via email. Imagine my surprise to have ‘Erika’ asking me to fill in the details of her early childhood. Imagine my absolute delight to be able to share my book and my research with this woman, now in her early eighties, living in northern Germany. 

from The Guardian, Jan.3, 1947, p.8

I told ‘Erika’ of how much my aunt loved her. My aunt had shared stories about how the surviving East Prussian women and children were forced to work in the newly formed collectives or kolkhozes’.  Those were extremely difficult years. Food was scarce ... hunger and disease was everywhere. But my aunt, smiled with gratitude as she shared, “little ‘Erika’ was our sunshine as she sat amongst the vegetables with us as we worked. She sang to us with her sweet voice and gave us so much happiness.”

To be able to share this memory with the real ‘Erika’ makes me so very happy. Of course, I sent her a copy of Crow Stone. I know it’s not the factual truth … it’s not a memoir. But the magic of story transforms facts into emotional truths that can be just as valid. 

It's making these sort of connections that makes my writing and research efforts seem so worthwhile.

*See Crow Stone, pages 91, 98 and 101 for mention of Erika

welcome sign of collective or kolkhoz in the former USSR
from my own collection

Reading Kate Morton

Kate Morton’s one of my favourite novelists. Her latest novel, Homecoming, had been on my TBR pile for a while. I’ve really lost myself in the worlds of two of her earlier novels, The Forgotten Garden and The Clockmaker’s Daughter. This new one, Homecoming, however, was not quite as compelling. The pace seemed plodding, the characters and POVs too confusing, and the convoluted plot line more irritating than intriguing.  What saved it was the writing!

I love Kate Morton’s writing. Her novels evoke mood through a neglected natural setting. Besides nature gone wild, there are the inevitable neglected homes in her stories ... revealing complicated pasts. I’m reminded of the ruins of East Prussia inside modern Kaliningrad.  Here in Canada, ruins are sparse. If we have any ruins, they're soon razed for new development or burned by homeless people keeping warm. 

Besides nature and history, Morton’s ardent love of books and old things infuses her work. She braids mystery, nature and human frailty into compelling narratives. 

Here are some of my favourite lines from Homecoming

About story:

 “…the first and firmest human addiction is to narrative.” (p. 116)

About walking:

“…to walk was to think, to think was to breathe, to breathe was to stay alive.” (p. 193)

About home:

“Home, she’d realized, wasn’t a place or a time or a person, though it could be any and all of those things: home was a feeling, a sense of being complete.” (p. 543)

About time:

“…a sense of timelessness, of nature, older and more pervasive than anything human beings and their histories could generate, grew thick and warm around them.”  (p.544)

about travelling

Me and Lenin in Zhytomyr in 2004
People travel for different reasons. Some, of course, travel because of work. But many deal with the stresses of new time zones, busy airports, and passport controls by choice.  Some travel to escape … and any random destination will do. Some travel to re-connect … with people, times, or places. Some travel to get lost. Some travel to find themselves. Some travel because of weather. In spite of our warm houses, warm cars and layered clothes, we still wimp out on the cold. Some travel to relax in spite of  luxuries in their own homes. Some travel for adventure. Some travel, not by choice … some are exiled. 

Others don’t travel much at all. Like me. I’ve been restrained by finances and family health issues. Past family travel carefully avoided the big (expensive) spectacles of the world and focused on local, nature-centred camping trips. 

As I youngster, I had my first suitcase at age three … a round blue-with-white trim affair, with a slot for an umbrella. I was sent on a journey as my parents prepared for the arrival of my only sibling. I guess that trip made me an exile.

sunset in Bucerias
As a student, I traveled to escape and find myself … doing the requisite year-long backpacking trek through Europe. Later, the few trips I managed to squeeze in while raising kids focused on exploring my roots. 

This last trip was the first time, in 40 years, that I went on a trip for fun. Holidaying in Mexico, last month, was weird. I felt strangely out of step with my fellow tourists. Hedonistic even. This is what people do? Eat in restaurants, have drinks, buy stuff they don’t need and get too much sun? Just for the fun of it? 

It doesn’t explain why I’ve booked a holiday in Mexico for next year. Practice, perhaps? I need to practice. But mostly, I promised my family that I’d share. After all, they were house-sitting, care-giving, and dog-walking while I was soaking up the sun. 

Truth be told, I find reading to be an awesome way to travel. Right now, I’m in southern Australia, soaking up the drama of a Kate Morton historical novel. Love how she time travels between present and past. 

And for me, time-travel is the best kind of travel!

Déjà vu

I recently learned about Ksenia Karelina’s arrest in Russia. According to CNN, “Ksenia, a dual citizen, went to Russia to visit her 90-year-old grandmother, parents and younger sister. She has been accused of treason for allegedly donating $51.80 to a Ukrainian charity in the US.”

She became an American citizen in 2021 but Russia does not accept dual citizenship and she now faces a potential 20 year prison sentence if found guilty. Treason? Because of a fifty-dollar donation supporting Ukraine? Boggles the mind. Putin’s re-creating a Stalin terror-state.

My grandfather was found guilty of treason back in 1937.  That was under Stalin. A person charged under Article 58 was considered an ‘enemy of the people’ and a counter-revolutionary.   The law was in place until 1958 under Nikita Krushev. That was the same year my surviving relatives received letters of ‘rehabilitation’ from the Soviet government, entitling them to pensions. 

With Yuri, translator who helped me peruse a thick file
involving my grandfather in the secret police files/Zhytomyr

Modern Russia’s version of Article 58 is Article 275, updated in April 2023. It defines treason as "espionage, disclosure of state secrets, or any other assistance rendered to a foreign State, a foreign organization, or their representatives in hostile activities to the detriment of the external security of the Russian Federation, committed by a citizen of the Russian Federation."

It’s been 20 years since I accessed the secret police files in Zhytomyr, Ukraine. With the help of a translator, I read through my grandfather’s file along with the files of his brothers. On thin pink papers, I read of the money he received from family and a church group in Poland and East Prussia. Eight DM (Deutsch Marks) in July, 1934, 11 DM (Deutsch Marks) in November, 1934, another 8 DM in April, 1934. A pittance of money to help him survive as he struggled to get an exit visa out of the country.  A pittance was all it took to charge him with treason. Translated, from his file:

Executions were carried out in the basement of this building
- former NKVD headquarters in Zhytomyr

“Found guilty on August 28 and  condemned to death.  This should be carried out on September 19, 1937 at 3:13.” 

And now, a young woman, accused of treason for sending a Ukrainian charity fifty-one dollars. Déjà vu, indeed!

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Fitting In

Just read C all Me Al, written by Wali Shah and Eric Walters . It’s a middle grade novel exploring the immigrant experience in Canada. Hav...