One theme has emerged for me during this book tour—community. Community and connection, which are obviously closely related. It was a whirlwind tour, one that often left me exhausted and frequently exhilarated. Living in a tiny village has helped teach me about community—both its warts and its jewels. I have to admit, community has always been difficult for me. Ever since the first gang of boys ambushed me simply for being different. In those days in a redneck northern BC town all that had to be was something as basic as wearing glasses and reading books. When group therapy was the craze, I avoided it like the plague. Groups meant threat, not comfort. I preferred my counsel in private, or from great books.
So it was an incredible discovery on this book launch tour to find connection to community in ways I’d never expected. Two groups came out consistently in support of my readings: British Home Children descendants and fellow writers. Everywhere I went—Calgary, Saskatoon, Regina, Nelson, Silverton/New Denver, Slocan, Vernon, Kelowna, Vancouver and Nanaimo they showed up with their smiling faces and warm spirits. I owe all of you a great debt of gratitude.
Calgary • Shelf Life Books • May 13, 7 pm
Paul Wilson of Hagios Press generously banded his three spring authors together in a kind of travelling medicine show of authors, what I call the Hagios Trio, jetting from city to city. It was great getting to know Vangie Bergum (http://www.hagiospress.com/books/detail/downstream-bestemor-and-me) and Dee Hobsbawn-Smith. Anne’s old friend Alexandra Wood played the heroine and picked Anne, Vangie and I up at the Calgary airport, which seems to be in a semi-permanent state of expansion. The traffic snarl getting out of it would have been nerve-wracking were it not for Alex cracking us up with her sense of humour.
Dee’s hometown crowd in Calgary gave us a rousing start to the tour at Shelf Life Books, in the city’s revitalized Beltline district, where we had a savory meal at the Boxwood Café. (http://shelflifebooks.ca / http://www.boxwoodcafe.ca) Shelf Life reminded me a lot of Kelowna’s Mosaic Books—the Last of the Great Independents, showing Chapters-Indigo and Amazon it can still be done. (http://www.mosaicbooks.ca) I bet Dee’s autograph hand was pretty sore by the end of the evening. A renowned Calgary food columnist, cook par excellence and all-round foodie, her Alberta Foodshed (http://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/books-and-media/foodshed-by-dee-hobsbawn-smith/article4100120/) has become something of a prairie classic, as I’m sure her Hagios title, Wildness Rushing In, will be. (http://www.hagiospress.com/books/detail/wildness-rushing-in) We were introduced by the lovely and gracious Rosemary Griebel, whose recent book of poems Yes is another prairie gem. (http://frontenachouse.com/book_authors/rosemary/)
Richard Harrison welcomed me with a beaming warmth that took away instantly any feeling of strangeness I might have had in the Big Smoke. Large cities, like large social groups, are another thing I find alien and potentially threatening. Turns out Richard has discovered he too has a Home Child ancestor and research is progressing to open up the family mystery. He’s also an old university friend of Anne’s from their days at Trent U back in the day, so they had lots to talk about. His 2005 collection Worthy of His Fall is an overlooked gem of poetry that addresses family and political themes with equal adeptness. (http://wolsakandwynn.ca/books/28-worthy-of-his-fall)
Saskatoon • McNally-Robinson Books • May 14, 7 pm
The next morning it was on the plane to Saskatoon, where we were met by Dee’s partner, novelist and poet Dave Margoshes. (http://www.library.utoronto.ca/canpoetry/margoshes/) They greeted each other at the airport like two kids newly in love. Speaking of a fall, somehow Vangie took a nasty spill in the airport parking lot, bloodying her elbows. It punctuated the dusty blue prairie afternoon like a gunshot but quickly faded when we realized she wasn’t seriously hurt.
For once on this tour we actually had a few hours to kill before the evening reading at McNally-Robinson, an indie bookstore chain with branches in Saskatoon and Winnipeg. (http://www.mcnallyrobinson.com/home) Anne and I ate lunch with Dee and Dave at an unassuming Oriental noodle café before driving out to Dee’s acreage. The family farm came to her in 2010, about the time the weather decided to throw a curve and uncharacteristically sink 15 of her 18 acres under water. Instead of drylands fields she now has duck ponds and an assortment of bird life that was astonishing. I spent most of the afternoon staring out through binoculars. Spotted a Northern Shoveller, one of the oddest-looking ducks I’ve ever seen, to mention only one of about six species I’d never seen before. For added poignancy, the pond was scattered with dead cars up to their eyebrows in water. I had to wonder how anyone had ever managed to eke out a living here, wet or dry.
After hunting down a quality espresso thanks to Dee in Saskatoon, we arrived at McNally-Robinson to find the hospitality first-rate. There at the front entrance was a display of the three spring Hagios titles: Vangie’s Downstream: Bestemor and Me, Dee’s Wildness Rushing In, and my Laying the Children’s Ghosts to Rest. Not only that but store staff had thoughtfully placed on adjacent display panels titles by Dave Margoshes and Dee’s previous books. We were welcomed by Caitlin Ward and her sister and as a special bonus I got to meet the typesetter for my book, Donald Ward, as well as my editor Don Kerr with his sparkling wife Mildred. Peter Friesen and his wife—uncle and aunt to Anne’s buddy Gaynette Friesen—drove 100 kilometres to attend the reading. Amazing. It was great to connect with younger people like the lovely Ward sisters who seemed eager to connect with the little-known aspect of Canadian history I’ve written about.
From there it was back to Dee and Dave’s ranch for a late night omelette second-to-none thanks to Dee’s expert hand. The late evening conversation was every bit as tasty. Dave and I stepped out to bask a few minutes in the budding half-moon spilling over the lagoon.
Regina • Unitarian Centre • Thursday, May 15, 7 pm
The next morning we picked up Vangie at her hotel in downtown Saskatoon and the five of us got cozy for the three-hour drive to Regina. Okay, I admit it. Growing up in the mountains of BC, the prairies always shock me. The Big Sky seems to throw me into sensory overload. We stopped at a one-pump town called Craik, and I remarked to the others that in Irish that means “good times.” We all chucked about that one. What was most impressive was that Craik still had an old-fashioned grain elevator presiding over the town like a white-gowned clergyman. The Qu’Appelle Valley struck me with its sudden lushness and I thought of the comments in the book from the homeboy who preferred it to other farms he’d worked at in Saskatchewan.
Dee graciously indulged my espresso addiction by steering us toward Regina’s superb Atlantis Coffee where the first sip lit up all the endorphins in my brain like a pinball machine. Definitely a five-star espresso in my books! (http://www.atlantiscoffee.com/about.html) That left us with little time before meeting Paul at a local Thai restaurant, where my dear old friend Dawn Bird was waiting to meet us. I’ve known her since my Nelson days 18 years ago, when she only dreamed of working in the movies. Now she has her own indie production company in Regina, B.E.Zee Productions. (http://bezeeproductions.com) She’s one of those people who dazzles everyone in the room the minute she walks in. She hugged me like it had only been hours, not years, since we last met. How can your heart not melt?
Paul pointed out that the table was surrounded by poets—himself, Dee, Dave, myself and our mystery poet, Anne Champagne, who chose to keep herself anonymous despite her ability to turn out publishable poems after a gap of decades. Paul Wilson just won the Saskatchewan Poetry Prize for his excellent Invisible Library. (http://www.hagiospress.com/books/detail/the-invisible-library) When you see the poets coming, you better run, son! In fact we were a very congenial bunch. Dawn positively sparkled telling Paul all about the Regina film industry’s determination not to lie down and die after the chaos induced by the government’s cancellation of the Saskatchewan Film tax credit. Even if the survivor is the all-Saskatchewan crewed instant B-movie Wolf Cop. (http://wolfcop.com) Dawn talked about wanting to get another film produced in Regina. Paul said of her afterward: “If anyone can do it, she can.”
Unfortunately, Paul had to change our launch that evening until 8:30 since a much-loved prairie writer, Trevor Herriot, was launching his latest book, The Road is How, (http://www.harpercollins.ca/books/Road-How-Trevor-Herriot/?isbn=9781443417914) at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum. Trevor was very gracious, mentioning the later Hagios launch to his audience several times. Then he interrupted his presentation to say, “Well, it’s about 8:25, so if anyone wants to leave now for the Hagios launch no one will think worse of you.” As it happened the launch was just a block away at the Regina Unitarian Centre. A few bold stragglers walked with us through the drizzle to the cavernous space of the church, with its rows of pews. For me it felt slightly odd—the first time I’ve been inside a church (except for the infant baptism of Alex’s daughter Robin) in decades. But hell, at times I feel like an old preacher, and I can certainly do the drama when I need to. Dawn reminded me how I’d been the first to coach her in voice acting back in Nelson when she did the voice-overs for my Bravo TV short The Muse. (Unfortunately only a low-res version available online: http://www.chameleonfire.ca/muse/muse300.wmv)
For this one reading I changed up my presentation to tell the story about the cover of Children’s Ghosts, since both Paul the publisher and designer Tania Wolk were in the audience. That meant reading the poem Cover Girl, inspired late one night by the spirit of Gladys Martin, whose story is in the book. I’d been sleeplessly trying to figure out how to explain to Paul why the original design was lacking something, and why that something was Gladys’ picture on the cover. I wanted an individual child staring back out at the reader, because one of the goals of the book is to write about how child immigration affected individual boys and girls. Luckily I got to meet Tania after the reading and she told me she’d had the feeling too that something was needed for the cover. Her finished design is nothing short of brilliant and has elicited many compliments on the tour.
Supporting us with their presence in the rather lonely church hall was poet Bruce Rice, whose book The Trouble With Beauty (http://coteaubooks.com/index.php?id=772) had recently been released by Coteau Books, along with his publisher Nik Burton. Eric Greenway, whose short story collection The Darkness Beneath All Things (http://www.hagiospress.com/books/detail/the-darkness-beneath-all-things) surely deserves an award for Most Memorable Book Name, is a partner with Hagios Press and said earning buckets of money impresses him less than their mission to publish books that transform readers. Amazing, to hear that, in this day and age!