Manitoba has been good to me. Four-Star reviews from the Manitoba Library Association. The inclusion of my first novel, Rachel’s Secret, in McNally Robinson’s Teen Book Club. And I’d never set foot in the province. Then I was chosen as a Touring Author for TD Canada Book Week 2015. In Manitoba. Finally, I would get a chance to visit the province that had embraced me as an author. To share the history and personal inspiration behind The Rachel Trilogy. I never expected the province and its people to have such a profound impact on me.
Growing up in Illinois and Ontario, I must admit to being unaware of the history within Manitoba, and how this prairie province is the setting for some of the most influential and dramatic events in the country’s past. The Forks, where the Red and Assiniboine Rivers meet, has been a gathering place for trading for six thousand years. Today, this busy marketplace is a national historic site and is filled with local arts and crafts, restaurants and talented musicians working as buskers.
On the grounds of the Manitoba Legislature Building stands a monument of Nellie McClung, who helped Manitoba women be the first in Canada to win the right to vote in 1916. She was also a best-selling author and a lifelong champion for human rights.
Three years later, on June 21, 1919, a strike by local workers outside city hall ended in tragedy when the government used force to stop it. Two people were killed and at least thirty injured; this monumental strike was called, ‘Bloody Saturday’. While it didn’t make the lives of the strikers much better, it did lead to a new political movement and marked the beginning of Canada recognizing workers’ rights.
St. Boniface, directly across from Winnipeg, on the other side of the Red River, is home to the largest French-speaking population outside Quebec and is where author Gabrielle Roy and Metis leader and founder of Manitoba, Louis Riel lived. In fact, Gabrielle Roy’s home is now a museum, and the St. Boniface Museum holds the largest collection of Louis Riel artifacts in the country. You can even visit Riel’s grave, in the St. Boniface cemetery, where I see fresh flowers have been left in memory of this charismatic man, the only person I remember from grade ten Canadian history.
My newfound understanding of Manitoba history was just the beginning of my growing appreciation of this province. The heartfelt welcome I received wherever I spoke, and the teachers, librarians and students I met, gave me a rare look at the heart of Manitoba, the people whose families have lived here for generations, the people who proudly work the land, and Canadian Children’s Book Centre volunteers like Gail and Dave who gave up entire days to drive me around the province in the name of literacy.
In Elm Creek, I spent time with an animated librarian who spends her summer months farming with her husband and two sons. Even on the day I spoke, her older boy had to leave school early to help seed the land. She tells me this is not unusual, that most of the students are from farm families, and leaving early to help out is normal. Later, as I was being driven back to my hotel by another teacher, I found out that at least half the school population is Mennonite. Including the librarian. I worried about my choice of words during my presentation, especially when the teacher told me some families were “hard-core” Mennonites. Curious, I asked if these families owned televisions. No, explained the teacher. But they do have internet and video games. Interesting, I thought. These kids can watch porn over the Internet but can’t watch cable TV.
I found myself in the middle of what seemed like an Alice Munro story when I had lunch with three women in Morris, Manitoba. One petite white-haired woman, Claudia, with the energy of a teen, was one of the founders of the Valley Regional Library, the smallest library I’d ever seen. Another was a rosy-cheeked town councillor and I’m not sure about the third woman. One thing I did know, from their comfortable banter, was that these women shared a long-time friendship and had lived in Morris forever.
As soon as we walked into a diner on the main street, that suited the town with its lived-in tables and chairs, Claudia asked for the specials, hot turkey sandwich or egg salad, and announced we should stick to one of these because they would be quick. We all listened (I don’t think it’s possible to argue with Claudia) and chose egg salad. Claudia then launched into details about her plans to expand the library (on hold because she had severely underestimated the cost), her aging furnace (which had broken down that morning), and her complete disinterest in gardening.
The councillor interrupted, asking Claudia if she’d heard about Marg, “who likes to burn things,” in spite of the burn ban. What does she burn? I asked, incredulous. And why do you need a burn ban? Apparently, there’s been a draught so a burn ban is in place, but Marg disregarded this ban and decided to burn her leaves. When she couldn’t get the fire going, she added gasoline and flames erupted in poor Marg’s face and arms. The councillor turned to Claudia and matter-of-factly suggested she visit Marg because “she wasn’t going out much right now.”
My two most memorable moments while touring came from students themselves. One, Eric, who is in grade eight, approached me after my presentation and said he wanted to read all three of my books. You can buy them at McNally Robinson or Chapters, or on-line, I told him, adding that they were much cheaper than video games. With a serious expression that belied his age, Eric said he didn’t play video games and that he was going to save up to buy my books. You made my week, I told him. I wanted to give him a hug but refrained, knowing full well that this would be going too far.
The second moment came on my last day, in Pinawa, which means ‘Calm Waters’ an hour from Winnipeg. As students filed into the classroom, I couldn’t help but notice a tall boy with Down’s Syndrome wearing a jacket and tie. Seated in the front row, he listened intently as I spoke, and, with great difficulty, due to speech issues, told me his father was Jewish after I’d finished. He thanked me for coming with a sincerity that moved me, and left. One of the teachers smiled and said the boy’s father was not at all Jewish, that the boy was sensitive and had probably been so affected by my presentation that he identified with Jewish people. She also told me he wore the jacket and tie on special occasions, like my visit.
For the first time in a long time, I was speechless. After speaking to hundreds of students during Book Week, and thousands before, many of whom saw me only as a break from class, I was stunned to have had such an impact on this boy. To be worthy of a jacket and tie. I will never forget his face and how he struggled to get the words he wanted to say out of his mouth. For it is students like him and Eric that I continue writing and speaking, along with the students who peppered me with thoughtful, sometimes difficult, questions. And it is these students who will stick in my mind when I think about Manitoba and my week as a touring author for TD Canada Book Week 2015.