Friday, March 26, 2010

Naked Poets, Freethinking Clergymen, and an “Enchanted Island”

In 1928 when poet Dorothy Livesay was 19 and a student at the University of Toronto, she spent a month in Muskoka helping her cousin, who was the director of a theatre on Tobin Island. It was part of the “Muskoka Assembly” of the Canadian Chautauqua Institute. Founded by Methodist minister Charles Applegath in 1921, the Assembly sought to combine spiritual, educational, and cultural enrichment in a magnificent setting that also encouraged healthy outdoor activities like swimming, golf, tennis, and canoeing. Dorothy, wanting to feel more at one with nature, would go off blueberry picking in the nude with her friends. For her this was just an extension of the then-popular Theosophy, a philosophy that combined Eastern and Western spirituality and mysticism, in which God was nature and beauty, and man, a part of this natural world.

Visitors stayed at the Epworth Inn (later Wigwassan Lodge), while some - clergy mostly - also built cottages on the 200 acre property that stretched along 2 miles of shoreline. In addition to classes and lectures, there were entertainments, which included plays, masquerades, and sunset cruises. 

Applegath also sought to promote Canadian literature and music, so recitals and concerts were performed, and famous literary figures like Bliss Carman and E. J. Pratt spent weeks there not only sharing their works, but also being inspired by the picturesque, rugged beauty surrounding them. By 1928, the Muskoka Assembly had become known as Canada’s Literary Summer Capital. Unfortunately, the Depression took its toll on this innovative endeavour.

So it’s exciting to hear that the Muskoka Lakes Music Festival is reviving the Chautauqua, including the Reading Circle. The public is being asked to submit suggestions for this summer’s 5 “Must Read” books by April 31st. Find out more here about the 2010 Muskoka Chautauqua, which will be held at Red Leaves (J.W. Marriot), not far from the “enchanted island” that once offered sustenance for the mind, body, and soul.

In my Muskoka Novels, The Summer Before The Storm and Elusive Dawn, I’ve very loosely based “The Colony” on the Canadian Chautauqua, albeit pre-WW1.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Celebrating the Irish

My hometown was to a large extent settled by Irish immigrants in the 1830s - by that I mean that they had to hack a clearing out of the primeval forests, and struggle to survive in the primitive “backwoods” of Upper Canada. The trees that they cut down were squared into logs and used to build their first homes. House-raising “bees” were common, involving all the neighbours, who could literally erect a cabin in one day - fueled by free food and whiskey. But even the best of these dwellings were bitterly cold in winter. One “gentlewoman” wrote in a letter home that the temperature in her bedroom was 3 degrees Fahrenheit (-16 C)! Water froze in jugs set in front of fireplaces - which had to be kept burning for cooking throughout the blistering hot and humid summers as well.

Bears could be troublesome, and there were hordes of vicious blackflies and clouds of bloodthirsty mosquitoes to fend off, the latter carrying a type of malarial fever called ague (although that fact was not known at the time). An epidemic raged through the area in 1838, killing nearly a third of the population.

But there were also plentiful fish in the lakes and rivers that belonged to no one. Migrating birds were sometimes so thick in the skies that they could be picked off from the settlers’ front steps (and indeed, the passenger pigeon, which once travelled in flocks of up to 2 billion birds, became extinct by 1914). Deer and moose and other wild game were there for the taking, and land was often free for those willing to clear it.

My first novel, A Place To Call Home, celebrates these intrepid pioneers who carved thriving communities out of an inhospitable wilderness. It is currently out of print, but I’m excited to announce that it is now available for the Kindle from Amazon! Click here to find out more.

Friday, March 12, 2010

You've never seen them like this!

An innovative new series by Roderick Benns is putting a delightful spin on understanding Canadian Prime Ministers. He invites readers to get to know them as tweens, plunging them into mysteries within the historically accurate context of their eras. The first in the series is entitled The Mystery of the Moonlight Murder: An Early Adventure of John Diefenbaker. Here’s the synopsis:

“One hundred years ago, under the light of a full moon, 12-year-old John Diefenbaker and his younger brother, Elmer, are nearby when their neighbour is shot to death in a field. The murder in small-town Saskatchewan ignites a desperate search for the killer and when a family friend of the Diefenbakers is arrested for the murder, John is certain they have the wrong person. With the help of the man’s 11-year-old daughter, Summer Storm, John and Elmer set out to prove his innocence. But with only five days left before the murder trial, time is running out…”

This YA novel is receiving glowing reviews, and is sure to give a new perspective on the man who became Canada’s 13th Prime Minister.

Some exciting news for young authors is that Roderick’s Fireside Publishing House will award a book publishing contract to a Canadian university, college, or high school student who writes the best first chapter and outline for a historical fiction children’s book on former Prime Minister Paul Martin.

The book will be part of the ‘Leaders & Legacies’ series on Canada’s Prime Ministers, which imagines the young PMs solving mysteries or getting involved in adventures that one day foreshadow their lives to come. The book must focus on Martin at approximately age 12, the median age of readers.

“It’s great to be part of the ‘Leaders & Legacies’ series,” said Martin. “I always wanted to be a detective and now I’ve got the chance.” Martin added, “Historical fiction – it’s kind of like an alternate reality. In other words it’s kind of like the House of Commons.”

For contest details see

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Losing our stories?

Are we losing our identities in this information rich age when we Twitter, text, email, share our thoughts and activities with the world on Facebook and other social networking sites? Such was the prediction I heard recently from a biographer who claims that since we no longer write letters, we won’t leave records of our journeys through life. Who keeps emails? Whatever bits of ourselves we send into cyberspace are as ephemeral as stardust.

You might think that for most of us it would only matter to our families, but as an historical researcher, I can attest to the importance of correspondence from everyone, whether Lady or servant, Prime Minister or clerk, child or octogenarian. It is through letters from soldiers and nurses that I learned what life was like during the Great War. Not so much about the war itself, since they were reluctant to upset their families with gruesome reports that probably would not have passed the censors in any case. But they did discuss what they did on leave, who they met, how much things cost, what they ate, where they lived, how their beliefs sustained them - or not. The trivia of daily life is rather meaningless while we live it, but is of immense importance to someone trying to recreate an era 100 years later, as are the nuances of language, convention, and social interaction that shine from those missives.

Here are some excerpts from Frances Cluett’s letters home (Your Daughter Fanny: The War letters of Frances Cluett, VAD, edited by Bill Romkey and Bert Riggs), beginning in 1916 when she went overseas from Newfoundland (not yet a part of Canada) as a volunteer nurse:
Before leaving - “[The doctor] inoculated us underneath the collarbone. Oh my! Wasn’t it tender afterwards, I could hardly bear the weight of my clothes on it, it was just like a boil… We have to have three inoculations… I just dread it.”
In England - “Oh Mother! We are put on rations. A 2 lb. loaf of bread must last us two days: and we are also given [1/2] lb. sugar to do us for a week. Each nurse was presented with a small bag to hold her loaf of bread and tin of sugar.”
From a French hospital - “I go on duty at ten minutes to eight in the evening and come off at 8 a.m… I have the care of five wards at night; so you can imagine I am kept a bit busy…. One must keep a look out for all sorts of things, such as amputation bleedings, deaths, drinks, etc. This is a very wicked world, mother; you cannot realize what sufferings there are. Some of the misery will ever live in my memory.”
“Mother I have never seen so many flowers in all my life as I have seen since I came to Rouen. All the hospital tents have them at their front entrances; oh! they are beautiful.”
“Ah! Lil, many a bedside have I stood by and watched the last breath, with rats rushing underneath the bed in groups, and the lights darkened.”

The letters are rich with details, as are the ones compiled by R. B. Fleming in The Wartime Letters of Leslie and Cecil Frost 1915-1919.
In England - “It’s lucky for Les and I that we don’t drink as the bill that most fellows run up is a corker - twenty to thirty dollars a month is a whole lot to spend on drinking, but the big majority do all the same.”
Somewhere in France (as they weren’t allowed to say where) - “There was a canteen - imagine, near the front line, as well as writing rooms and ablution rooms for the men - and all underground. Really, this war is getting to be a business.”
“Cecil and I had Christmas dinner together and a very good dinner it was, turkey, etc. etc. He is situated only a mile and a half from here and so we are able to see each other often.”
March 23, 1918 - “Just a brief line - The Date above will be enough to explain this note if you follow the papers. Just want to say that I am taking [into battle] Mother’s last two letters, which she wrote previous to her operation. I think they would be a help to anybody. Don’t worry about me…. Somehow I can’t say much more. I love you all dearly.”

Both brothers were wounded, Leslie quite seriously, spending about 9 months in hospital. He went on to become Premier of Ontario from 1949 - 1961.

There are many websites that showcase letters from the men and women who went overseas during the First World War - some of these can be accessed from my website, Odd, Intriguing, Surprising Facts About WW1. They are sometimes poignant, usually filled with minutiae, but always fascinating and enlightening, and a treasure trove for those interested in the social history of an era. They are, after all, voices from the past.


my inspiration for a series of novels - visit for more info

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Gabriele Wills's books on Goodreads
The Summer Before The StormThe Summer Before The Storm
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A Place to Call HomeA Place to Call Home
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