Category Archives: History

“Girl at War”: starting place

I was unsure about Girl at War by Sara Novic. At some points, I couldn’t put the book down. I was so engrossed in the story and in the life of the main character, Ana. Yet some parts of the book left me feeling ‘meh,’ especially the ending. I’m not sure where I wanted this book to go, so I suppose I just went along for the ride.

girl at war


Novic writes about a woman who grew up during a civil war and the story of how her country became Croatia and how she became an America. I think that these are stories of war we need to hear more often. A previous boyfriend’s family had a similar experience of fleeing their Eastern-European country and I couldn’t believe that he lived through those experiences. Through Ana, Novic tells the story of a young girl who sees her family, city, friends, and neighbourhood torn apart by racism and hate.

In high school, I remember that Serbs and Croats would often have fights after school. I didn’t understand the fights (because in my high school there were lots of fights), but I also didn’t stop to ask my classmates or my parents why they were fighting. I had no understanding of genocide and the terror of war. I had no way of comprehending that level of generations of hatred and fear.

So again, I believe that books about teen and child experiences are so important because we get a deeper understanding of the legacy of civil war. In the novel, Ana address the UN as a child soldier, yet she doesn’t see herself as a soldier. She sees herself as doing what needed to be done and not doubting her ability to be helpful in conflict. That is devastating that there are enough children being drawn into wars that we have UN special summits about child soldiers. Other European world wars were men fighting men. Civil wars are a completely different matter.



So, thank you to Sara Novic for bringing us this important story. But that being said, I still wasn’t sold on this book. I’m not the only one who wasn’t a fan of the writing style:

But then, if the writing were stronger and less inclined to clunky phrasing, such as “Not wanting to wake Brian, I compelled myself to stillness for a minute or two, tried to match the rise and fall of my chest with his” or “I snuck a peek down at the Converse high-tops I’d pulled on in a last-minute fit of groggy defiance”, one might not be so demanding of clarity. (Eileen Battersby)

I feel that this book is a good starting point for people curious about the civil wars in the 1990s, yet it’s not a book I would recommend to friends to read. It was just ok.




“Salt to the Sea”: healing through story

I was chatting with some friends recently and we were talking about the idea that after a while, there might be a burn-out of how many WWII novels and movies we can consume. What about the other wars? Or, is it that WWII has left its mark on the world and it’s something we are still trying to fully understand. There are millions of stories that we haven’t heard yet because everyone’s experience was different. During this conversation, I had just started to read Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys. What a great novel! And I have to say that I found it didn’t just retell the same stories I’ve heard or read before. It was something new. Terrible, yet new.



Salt to the Sea is the story of three young people caught up in the war and all trying to find hope and freedom in the docks. Thousands of people are trying to escape the Germans and Russians and end up getting onto refugee boats seeking safety. I had never heard of the Wilhelm Gustloff ship disaster before, but in fact I feel that I should have. The sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff caused more loss of life than the sinking of the Titanic. The Titanic sunk because of hitting an iceberg, whereas the Wilhelm Gustloff, full of mostly women and children and injured men, was torpedoed by the Russians.

Just looking at images online was heartbreaking.











The novel is told from the point of view of four different characters. Each character has a unique story, yet they all end up seeking safety on this ship. One young man is running from the Nazis because of something he stole from a prominent Officer. One young woman is running because she is trying to be reunited with her family after being given permission to stay in Germany because of her skills as a nurse. Another younger woman is running away from both the Germans and the Russians because of her nationality. And the last young man is a German officer who is desperately trying to prove himself as courageous without actually doing anything that requires sacrifice. This cast of misfits intertwine with each other and use and help each other in order to get onto the boat.

Like all war stories, this one has a tragic ending for all involved, even those who survive the wreck. Those who survive are fortunate, yet have to live with the visions of seeing hundreds of people, fellow passengers and asylum seekers, die in the waters around them.

I can’t help but think about all of these people who survived and how they most likely spent their lives living with post-traumatic stress disorder. And not only that, but this book made me start to think about intergeneration trauma: trauma that is transmitted to next generations.

In an article in Psychology Today by Molly Castelloe, she includes this thought:

Transmission is the giving of a task. The next generation must grapple with the trauma, find ways of representing it and spare transmitting the experience of hell back to one’s parents. A main task of transmission is to resist disassociating from the family heritage and “bring its full, tragic story into social discourse.” (Fromm, xxi)

So perhaps we need stories about WWII because we aren’t finished sharing the trauma and the stories. Perhaps people like my parents, who both had fathers in WWII, need to write and produce art that still tells the stories of their parents. Perhaps a world that is afraid of another war, because Veterans from WWII and the Vietnam, Korean, and Gulf Wars, needs to share and tell stories about WWII in order to carry the trauma into the future in order to find healing. In a world that is in desperate need of healing, perhaps stories are the way to healing.



“After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.” -Phillip Pullman


“Bride of New France”: freedom for the determined

I love Canadian history and the more I learn, the more I realize that people coming to this country in whatever era they arrived need a few things to make this  country their home: hope, determination, and joy.  The first time I read Suzanne Desrochers novel Bride of New France, I couldn’t put it down.  I was enthralled by the story of women being sent to Canada and how their lives changed once they arrived.  I was interested in the relationships between the French and the First Nations and how they co-existed.  I was in love with the story line of a sassy young woman out to find her way and not succumb to oppressive rule.



What started for Desrochers as a masters thesis turned into a novel exploring the lives of those who were at the mercy/planning of King XIV.  Men who were in the military were given land in the colony and nearly forced to stay.  Prisoners were banished to the New World in order to build settlements that were permanent.  Men fought to get onto the supply ships heading back to France.  The Coureurs de Bois and the official fur traders were at odds because only the official fur traders were technically allowed to trap and trade.  The women had the worst life: forced into marriages to have babies to populate these new settlements.  Often, as Desrochers writes, the women are left alone in cabins or huts while their husbands disappeared to hunt or spend time with their First Nation women and children.

The story of Laure Beausejour is a story that shows the powerlessness of many at this time in France, especially for women.  Taken from her family at a young age, put into a school where she was on starvation rations and forced to sew, sent to a colony as a wife.  Some of this sounds familiar to Canadians: children taken from homes and put into schools.

Yet as I read I couldn’t help but see Desrochers’ attempt to show the spirit of these new immigrants to Canada: courage, determination, hope, and even joy.  Although Laure is married off to a man she calls a pig and a dog, she finds freedom: freedom to wander, freedom to move about.  Freedom to make new friends and explore life.  Finally after years of imprisonment in a hospital because she was from a low social class, she is free to make some of her own decisions.  In the end, she befriends a strong, independent woman and we are left with the hope that her possibilities are endless.  It’s the ultimate Canadian dream, full of hope and independence.



Canada’s history is full of governments (French or British) trying to get people to stay and live on the land (that was already being used by First Nations people). For hundreds of years, governments have been taking over land and pushing people around all in an attempt to claim the land and eventually to keep away the Americans.  Women were a major part of that initiative: without women, settlements don’t grow.  So Canada’s past is not as bright as Desrochers wants to paint it for us, but I do believe that she caught on to the joy and hope that many felt by being in this beautiful land and the freedom that it brought, for men and for women.



“So far Laure’s circumstances have been more comfortable in the colony.  It is the first time she has had her own room…This is the first garden Laure has been in.  In Paris, only wealthy women like the Superior at the Salpetriere had gardens.” (Desrochers, Pg 176)

“On some levels [Laure] is a selfish character, but how else in such circumstances, if not through wit and strength and even malice, could these women have survived and given birth to French North America?” (Desrochers, Pg 292)




“The Massey Murder”: time of change

This year in my Gr 7 Humanities class, several girls did their final research project of Women’s Suffrage/ The Famous Five.  I was so inspired and felt like our future is in good hands by the way these young women looked at the rights of women and how equality is still something we are working on.  All of this happened while, during Silent Reading, I was reading The Massey Murder: A Maid, Her Master, and the Trial that Shocked a Country by Charlotte Gray.  In our daily Say Something circles about our books, I was happy to share with my students that I was learning about Canada’s history, especially when it came to Canada’s working class and women.



The story of a young maid who shot her male master from a prominent Canadian family shocked Toronto, and not just because a Massey was involved.  Throughout the trial, women were pushing for more rights and more representation.  Women were entering the workforce because the men were gone fighting in the war in Europe.   Women were seeking the right to vote.  Women were becoming a bigger part of public life, like never before in European-Settler culture.  So when Carrie Davies was found not guilty of point-blank shooting her unarmed employer, people paid attention.  Carrie was made out to be a young, innocent English girl who had a sweetheart in the war and who sent money to her poor widowed mother back in England.  Self defence?  Fear of assault?  It was different times, yet Gray highlights how the murder case of Carrie Davies shows the shift in sympathy: Toronto did have rich elites, yet the working class was the catalyst for the push to free Carrie.



Although Carrie Davies disappeared from the public eye after her trial, Gray uses her trial to show how much Canada was desperate for change.  Through describing Canada’s efforts in the war and how that lead to Canada being its own signatory at the end of the war, Grey is able to demonstrate how the shift in power was coming from the grass roots, up through the government.  This was the time of women’s suffrage, of the Winnipeg General Strike, of  the disappearance of the influence of the old Family Compact left over from pre-Confederation politics.  This was also a time when women were beginning to break the ideas of women as house angels and were asserting their rights.



The trial of Carrie Davies hung on the fact that she was a young, innocent virgin was so afraid of being defiled and ruined that she shot her employer after he tried to seduce her.  As Gray states in her book, the court (Judge and Jury) were more sympathetic towards an ideal of what women should be and less sympathetic to the fact that she killed an unarmed man.  Gray explains that the times were different and that Carrie was in a vulnerable position, yet the concept of the ideal woman allowed her to walk away from the noose and live her life away from her past.  In fact, at the end, Gray writes that her own children and family had no idea that she had killed Charles Massey.  In an interview with both Gray and Frank Jones, the author of Master and Maid (a story written about Carrie years previous), Jones describes how he found Carrie’s daughter and gave a bit of a happy ending to the story: Carrie devoted her life to helping young women in trouble, even to the point of running a home for girls.  From her powerless position as an underpaid house maid, she was able to see the possibilities for others in similar situations.

One of the biggest contributors to fueling the controversy was the press: the newspapers at the time made Carrie’s case headline news.  Rival papers were telling different sides of the stories, reporters were finding interviews with family members, and one paper even started a legal fund for Carrie.  In that respect, Toronto in 1915 was similar to today: media plays a huge role in how we see our own society.  In fact, media loved Rob Ford and often fought over if he was a hero or villain.



Overall, I truly enjoyed Gray’s book.  It was about politics, a shift in societal attitudes, class wars, newspaper wars, actual wars.  I am grateful that I am a woman who has a job I like with enough money to provide for myself and that I don’t have to worry about work place harassment (and if it does happen, there are laws protecting me as a human, not as an innocent or disreputable woman).

2013_02_09_TorontoStarFebruary9-1915_640 copy


“As the country developed, so Canada’s laws, lawyers, and citizens adapted to its shifting values.” (Pg 285)



“Away”: unexpected connections

It turns out that I have diviners on both sides of my family. My Great Uncle Warren could divine water, which was handy on the prairies, and he often helped people around the Harmattan area find wells for their homesteads and farms. More interesting though is my Dad: my Dad can divine water, but also pipes, even abandoned lines. We have decided that us kids need to practice with some copper rods in the backyard to see if the gift was passed on. I know that my Dad’s mother couldn’t wear a wristwatch because the energy in her would throw off the time. The unexplained abilities in my family and the curiosity I have to see if it has passed on down the line were only amplified as I read Away by Jane Urquhart.



This is the first book I’ve read by Jane Uquhart and I’m not sure how I have managed to overlook her.  I love poetry and so I thoroughly enjoyed her writing style.  I also enjoyed her sense of timing throughout the novel.  In the novel, she follows generations of Irish women and chronicles their attachment to mythical connection between water and men.  The first woman goes ‘away’ as a ship is wrecked on the shore of their Irish island.  The story follows this family for generations, as they move to Canada to escape the devastating landlord system and potato famine in Ireland to the back-breaking work of trying to farm on the Canadian Shield, to the shores of Lake and even the water falls near the then new Canadian Parliament.  Throughout the novel the women are taken away to another world and seem to be stuck between the two.


One of my favourite parts of the novel is when young Eileen develops a relationship with the crow in the willow tree outside her family home.  The crow predicts what will happen, and Eileen listens.  She does not question the validity or the sanity of the situation: she just listens and trusts.  This got me wondering: what listening skills have we lost as adults trying to fit into a world of sight over faith?


I’ve had several conversations over the years with friends and family about the link between our spirits and the energy in nature.  What are we missing?  What are we choosing to ignore?  What are we telling to be silent?  Maybe a gift for seeing someone’s hazy future?  Maybe a gift for diving water?  Maybe a gift for reading cards or tea leaves?


Sources: Tea leaves ; Divining

As I was reading, I enjoyed learning about how this gift of being away, or having unexpected connections to people and nature, allowed these generations of women to connect to something beyond what was right in front of them.  The first woman had a pull to be near the ocean and to then speak or write poetry.  The second had a pull to be near a lake and to live as close to the land as she could and so to live near those who also chose to live close to the land.  The third had a pull to be near the lake as an older teen, which reawakened her childhood memories of talking to the crow.  For these women, human interactions were not enough to sustain them: they needed and found a connection with nature that others saw as unnatural.

As I learn more about Blackfoot culture and traditions, I am drawn to a deeper connection with nature.  The Blackfoot word for mother is nah-ah (as in Mother Earth) and in ceremony and in prayers, they pray to nah-ah to bless them and they thank nah-ah for sustaining us and giving us what we need to survive.  In the stories I have heard from Elders and what I have learned, there are generations of stories of people connecting to this land that I live on; it’s not just the Irish.  So in the end, I am lead to believe that our differences are what bring us together; we are all part of unexpected connections, if we listen closely enough.



“Alone, Mary knew there was something hidden inside her, a lost thing she could find again when she had need of it, for she had fragments of the old beliefs.  They were gone from her husband but they had not been completely stolen from her…had become dormant, instead, in a kind of winter sleep.” (Uquhart, Pg 74-75)

“Does not wisdom call out?  Does not understanding raise her voice?” (Proverbs 8: 1)



“Greener Grass”: love your neighbours

Greener Grass by Caroline Pignat is on the best YA fiction list by CBC and I can see why. It is the story of one girl’s experience of living through the Irish potato famine (The Great Famine). Pignat tells the story of Kit, a young Irish girl with spunk. And so it goes.


Pignat’s novel won the Governor General’s award in 2009 and I can see why. Once I started reading this book, I couldn’t put it down. It was a late night and a rough morning! Through the determination of Kit, Pignat is able to show the hardships and devastation for a lot of Irish people brought on by blights of potato crops and the cruel and heartless English landlords. In the novel, neighbours die at Public Works programs, they die in the Work House, they die from starvation, they die from being burned in their homes by landlords. It is no wonder that so many came across to North America. They didn’t have money, food, or homes. And they didn’t have the support of those with power and the ability to help them.

Through the teenager eyes of Kit we are able to see the inequality of a corrupt system. Throughout the novel she struggles with her hatred, and even ends up in prison at one point and then hunted by the landlord’s men for the actions she tries to commit because of her hatred. Yet that righteous anger was necessary for change. Her anger kept her alive and kept her looking for ways to either improve or else to escape their miserable living as tenants of an English Lord. The sight of men waiting beside the Public Works site for men to die so that the waiting men could take over and earn some money, the sight of hundreds of cottages and homes burned to the ground, and the sight of people begging to get into the work houses shows the desperation and the pain of what some Irish had to live through. It was a harsh reality for Kit and her family, and was hard to imagine as a reader, and I cannot imagine actually living through these horrors.

I have to say that Kit was a firecracker and I enjoyed her view of the world. She demanded justice, she wasn’t afraid to ask questions, and she saved her family in the end, even though it meant she might never see them again. My favourite part of the novel is when Kit walks into the ancient forest to clear her mind. While sitting on an ancient stone, she is able to find peace and calm through tracing a labyrinth: “My fingers outlined the ancient pattern etched in the stone beneath me, following the endless spiral as it looped its way through three great whorls, circling back upon itself. I’d always wondered about who’d carved this all those centuries ago” (Pg 124).


As a work of young adult fiction, this was a great read. The narration was smooth, believable, and you know that when a person is telling their own story, they can’t die (well, unless you look at Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel). And the best part? There’s a sequel!! Wild Geese, the story of Kit in Canada.

The black silhouette of a tree with root

“So let me tell of of a time, not your time, but mine. I am Kathleen Mary Margaret Byrne. This is my story. And so it goes.” (Caroline Pignat)

“There are always going to be poor and needy people among you. So I command you: Always be generous, open purse and hands, give to your neighbors in trouble, your poor and hurting neighbors.” (Deuteronomy 15:11)

Irish Potato Famine Memorial, Dublin, Ireland

Irish Potato Famine Memorial, Dublin, Ireland


“Half of a Yellow Sun”: unshakeable love

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was fantastic. I think I would not be cliche in calling it an epic saga. Adichie writes about Nigeria in the 1960’s, a time in Nigeria’s history where the country separated into Nigeria and Biafra.

This book was no summer breezy delight. It was more like a large steak meal that had to be savoured for the subtle details and difficult subject matter, chewed thoroughly because it was impossible to binge read, and prolonged because the characters were so real that I didn’t want the book to ever end.


I am grateful for my Book Club because without them I would never have found this novel. I am a lover of history, so this novel was such a wonderful surprise. Over the years I have enjoyed Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert K. Massey and Exodus by Leon Uris and Half of a Yellow Sun seemed to be the best of both: it had such minute details about politics and history of Nigeria and it also had such beautifully written characters that I am convinced they actually exist.

The premise of the novel is that two sisters, twins, live through Biafra’s push to be independent of Nigeria and the heartbreaking struggles they endure and the people who surround them. From the start to the surprising end, both women have faith in their ideals and their beliefs and it allows them to survive all kinds of horrors of war. Conscription, starvation, bombings, mass killings, torture, rape.


My favourite character in the novel is Olanna, one of the sisters. She is an educated woman who is not afraid to assert her power or declare her ideas. She creates a community with those around her by loving them and seeing every person as a human being. From the start of the war to the end of the war, Olanna survives and does not become bitter; she continues to love those around her and work for a better future. As we learn more about Olanna, we see that she has a fierce love for her family, even when they hurt her. She especially has a deep love for her twin sister Kainene. In a discussion about reincarnation, Olanna states, “When I come back in my next life, Kainene will be my sister” (pg 541). The strength of her love in the midst of so much hurt and sorrow and pain shows the capacity of humanity to forgive each other and see our faults as part of who we are, not all of who we are.


In the midst of chaos, confusion, and devastation, Olanna remains constant. Constant in her love, but also in her beliefs. She refuses to marry her boyfriend because she does not want to change what they have; she does not want their relationship to slowly drift. In the middle of deciding whether to marry her boyfriend Odenigbo she has a conversation with her Aunty Ifeka and her aunt’s advice is this: “‘You must never behave as if your life belongs to a man. Do you hear me?’ Aunty Ifeka said. ‘Your life belongs to you and you alone'” (pg 283). This advice strengthens Olanna and allows her to love Odenigbo yet not lose herself in the process. She becomes partners with Odenigbo and they talk and share their ideas as equals.

All this being said, Olanna is capable of doubt and fear, yet she channels that fear into action. Her experiences of unexpected bomb raids force her to see herself in the big picture and her realization motivates and mobilizes her: “The war would continue without them. Olanna exhaled, filled with a frothy rage. It was the very sense of being inconsequential that pushed her from extreme fear to extreme fury. She had to matter. She would no longer exist limply, waiting to die. Until Biafra won, the vandals would no longer dictate the terms of her life” (pg 351). Throughout her time in refugee camps, in cramping housing, and everywhere in between, she strives to make a difference. She shares, she offers advice, she remains faithful in the movement, and she listens to others. Her kindness is never destroyed by the bombs or the bullets. She chooses love over hate.


Adichie’s novel is full of characters who will undoubtedly worm their way into your hearts, to the point where you hold your breath waiting for them to make their way through something horrible. The emotional reaction to this novel is important because it tells the story of so many Igbo people who survived, and who did not survive, the fight for independence from British-influenced Nigeria. Not all stories end happily and the people of Biafra were not successful and were accessioned back into Nigeria after three destructive and deadly years.

As a post-colonial look at Africa, this novel was a fascinating glimpse into the aftereffects of the “Scramble for Africa,” and a history I knew nothing about. I am interested to hear what the other members of my Book Club will have to say.


“I am drawn, as a reader, to detail-drenched stories about human lives affected as much by the internal as by the external, the kind of fiction that Jane Smiley nicely describes as ‘first and foremost about how individuals fit, or don’t fit, into their social worlds.” (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)

“And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)

Biafran Coat of ArmFlag