Kelowna Museum, Kelowna, BC • Thursday, May 22, 7 pm
We always love staying at Joyce House B&B in Kelowna, although this time our hosts Keith and Judy Standing were in Europe. (http://www.joycehouse.ca) Really enjoyed getting to know our new hosts Marnie and Gordon, who made Joyce House both new and familiar as an old pair of slippers at the same time. Marnie is a superb conversationalist. The place is a rare Kelowna heritage treasure—just over a century old. And to boot, it has a connection to the history in Children’s Ghosts. Its namesake, Ellen Joyce, was an aristocratic patron when it was a halfway house for emigrating young British women, many of whom no doubt were raised in the orphanages or workhouses I write about in Children’s Ghosts. Some may even have been emigrated to Canada as underage girls before transferring out west in search of domestic work and husbands. I imagine the walls of its ample rooms resonant with the voices of hopeful young women about to launch into the unknown. Excited, nervous and a little afraid—their lives about to unroll before them like the lush Okanagan valley. To this day there’s a sense of the familiar in the house, an at-home comfort that takes the sting out of being away from home.
Finding parking in an old downtown just nearing the end stages of a year-long reconstruction project had my nerves pushed to the limit. Anne and I should have taken out shares in Calms Forte on this trip. (http://www.hylands.com/products/stress-and-sleep) Didn’t realize we could park right in the Kelowna Museum parking lot so we dragged the books about two blocks. (http://www.kelownamuseums.ca) Christina Neale said just park here so I moved the car. Thank God for her welcoming spirit. Felt like a porter, getting everything set up. But even with a good story in the Kelowna Courier, folks just didn’t go for it. My relatives the Rob Joyce family—Rob, Shirley, Ryan and Darren—were there en block in support, thank God. And as it happened a few other brave souls came out, some of them in the thick of their own Home Child journeys. One in the midst of writing his own book. Another one close to tears, his ancestors’ pain as real as his own.
Christina’s enthusiasm was contagious. She spoke of the possibility of a Lunch Box Series of dynamic history stories at the Museum. The dizzying speed of technological change means she’s getting pressure to “modernize” Museum programs in the hopes of drawing a larger public. I told her I’d love to participate in such a program if she gets the green light. Hell, you could add stand-up comedians add fire-breathing jugglers too.
Vernon Museum • Saturday, May 24, 1 pm
This was the jewel in the crown. (http://www.vernonmuseum.ca) For so many reasons—the wonderful museum staff, the fact that at least two of the stories in the book have major connections to Vernon, and the supportive people who come out to hear my readings. This is a community that values its history. They also value their social justice—as I arrived the plaza was full up with people waving anti-GMO placards. It felt a bit jarring at first, coming just before a reading, until I recognized the connection with what my book is doing. Then as if to underscore the dissonant relationship I have to 21st century technology, I could NOT get the digital projector to work with my laptop.
But making up for it quickly was the presence of two of the families in the book—Vic and Bev Harwood (Vic is Joe Harwood’s nephew) and Ed and Irene Campbell (daughter of Gladys Martin). On top of that, Gladys’ granddaughter Brenda was in the audience, looking the spitting image of her grandmother. It was hard keeping it together, I can tell you, looking out at Brenda tearing up. Then Irene asked me to read the poem Cover Girl, which I wrote in an attempt to convince Hagios publisher Paul Wilson to use Gladys on the front cover. Actually, it’s more like the poem wrote itself, as if Gladys were speaking, plainly yet poignantly. I think it sums up what it was like for a lot of Home Children: “Luckily for me I have a core of strength / that somehow manages to hold / even if occasionally / I collapse…”
Bev Harwood is that great jewel that most families are blessed to have—the family historian and genealogist. Kathy Harwood “discovered” her for me, and the rest, as they say, is history. We got the records from Barnardo’s and it blew open a myth Joe had cultivated of himself as the illiterate 12-year-old arriving in Canada. In fact he was 18—you can see it written plainly in the photograph Barnardo’s took of him on his admission in 1889. (He probably left home in Hertfordshire when he was 12.) And he wrote eloquent letters to their magazine Ups and Downs, as if appealing to a father for approval. More than that, he aspired to be a celebrity poster boy for Barnardo’s in his old age. But the records revealed a darker side, or at least an adolescence where he could have gone either way—into ‘respectable street’ or a blind alley. What my research revealed was a much more complex individual than Joe had portrayed himself. There was his public persona—the jovial old man who loves kids and serves on the local school board—and the private Joe, who did not seem a particularly happy man. Who fell off as many bar stools as the next guy. Like most of us, neither all dark nor all light. In the grey shadows in between lie the shades of what makes us who we are.
Having tea at Vic and Bev’s place after the reading was just the thing to wind down. Really wasn’t looking forward to the three and a half hour drive home. Bless Bev and her homemade raspberry jam!
Greater Vancouver Public Library, Central Branch • Vancouver, BC • Wednesday, June 4, 7 pm
Although I dread venturing into the snarl of traffic and human congestion Vancouver presents, I’ve always loved the airy, open feeling presented by the Vancouver Public Library (VPL) Central Branch, with its Romanesque architecture and atrium-like main concourse. We were staying with our dear friend Indi in Burnaby who wisely advised us to take the Hastings Street bus downtown. The day we arrived, The Province headline was: Vancouver Tops Traffic Congestion in North America!
So it was a lovely touch that VPL staff made sure one of their young interns was there to greet us on the concourse so I could store books before the reading. We’d arranged to go to dinner with Indi and Anne’s longtime buddy Jacquie Pearce, a successful children’s book author with 10 titles to her credit. (http://jacquelinepearce.ca) After a lovely feed of Japanese food at Junsei River on Robson we made our way through the west coast sunshine to Library Square, where my old friend Lucas Aykroyd was waiting for us. (http://www.lucasaykroyd.com) Lucas and I met when he was just a lad of 18—22 years ago already! At the time we were both aspiring authors dreaming of success. He’s gone on to have his articles published in the Washington Post, National Geographic, New York Times, and other top-drawer publications. He regularly reports on World Hockey Association finals and has probably clocked enough air miles around the globe to fly to the moon and back several times. I’d asked him to introduce me at the VPL, following staff member Jane Franke’s welcoming announcements.
Unfortunately, despite repeated attempts through phone calls and emails to the Vancouver Sun, CBC Radio and The Georgia Straight, I was unable to rouse any media interest in this fundamental aspect of Canadian history. Consequently the audience was small. Small, but very engaged—the question period after the reading was very lively. Best of all, Fred and Ruth Roberts and family were present in the front row! I’d worked with Ruth through several drafts of the chapter on Walter and William Roberts, and have used Walter’s tragic story repeatedly on the tour. The brothers’ story provided the perfect light/dark contrast for the British Home Children saga in Canada—William treated kindly by the farm families in Manitoba and Saskatchewan he worked for, while Walter was nearly killed by the disturbed farmer who took him in.
Vancouver Island Regional Library • Harbourfront Branch, Nanaimo, BC • Friday, June 6, 6:30 pm
Nanaimo was a breath of fresh air—the brisk salt air of the Georgia Strait—after the chaos of Vancouver’s downtown. Nanaimo’s inner harbor has been lovingly tended by the municipality, with plenty of promotion of arts and culture and restored heritage buildings in the old downtown. The roads are a spaghetti junction nightmare of navigation, but once you get past that it’s well worth the effort to visit this jewel of a coastal city. We stayed at the Painted Turtle Guesthouse, feeling strangely out of place amongst all the student backpackers but made to feel warmly welcome by the wonderful staff. (http://www.paintedturtle.ca) The place is kept clean and tidy and our only quibble was the constant street noise from traffic and the clubs disgorging mouthy patrons at 2 am, but that’s hardly the guesthouse’s fault.
Anne and I had a day to poke around the harbor and shops in the old downtown, while searching for an independent bookstore. Although the city is chockablock with used bookstores, it seems indie sellers of new books there have been yet another casualty of Amazon and Chapters. There’s certainly no shortage of healthy eating options downtown, and our first dinner was at the Thirsty Camel, a socially conscious eatery specializing in falafels. Generous portions and delicious food! (http://www.thirstycamelcafe.ca) Anne’s French genes had her lusting after a meal in Le Café Francais but with my severe dairy and wheat allergies I’d have had to eat celery sticks for dinner. I soon discovered Fascinating Rhythm, a music store that has the largest collection of LPs I’ve seen since the 1980s. I was in heaven! (https://www.facebook.com/fascinatingrhythmnanaimo)
The next morning we had our breakfast at Gabriel’s, which sources its food from local farmers and grows its own herbs in light boxes right inside the café. As we ate at a sidewalk table in the sunshine, a truck pulled up to deliver Vancouver Island-made sausage. I’ve become a bit of a ‘coffee snob’ in recent years so I’m always on the hunt for the serotonin zinger espresso and once again Nanaimo doesn’t disappoint, with plenty of options. My candidate for Best Named Coffee Joint: Javawocky, on the inner harbor promenade. A name to warm a writer’s heart! Damn fine espresso too. So far my favourite espressos on the tour have been Atlantis Coffee in Regina and Pulp Fiction in Kelowna—with similar flavours in the fruity, delicate range of the spectrum compared to the more earthy, spicy variety we typically get in the Kootenays.
Dinner before the library event had us meeting Kim Goldberg (http://pigsquash.wordpress.com), Gary Geddes (http://library.utoronto.ca/canpoetry/geddes/index.htm) and Ann Eriksson (http://www.anneriksson.ca), three more supportive writers who joined us on this tour. It was Gary who put me onto Hagios Press in the first place, and has been incredibly supportive of my writing since we met at Nelson’s Oxygen Art Centre (http://www.oxygenartcentre.org) a few years ago (I think it was 2011). He and his wife Ann were themselves just coming off book launch tours, Gary for his book of selected poems, What Does A House Want, once again demonstrating that he is a Modern Master; and Ann’s new novel, High Clear Bell of Morning. Anne had found a copy of her earlier novel, Falling From Grace, and was immediately captivated by it, both for its theme and scintillating language. Gary’s refreshing sense of humour always adds grace and a sense of lightness to any dinner table. (http://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/books-and-media/review-falling-from-grace-by-ann-eriksson/article1389527/)
The library area set aside for the reading filled up quickly, thanks no doubt to Julie Chadwick’s excellent article in the Nanaimo Daily News. (http://www.nanaimodailynews.com/entertainment/home-children-legacy-explored-1.1080014) I was told it also made front page on the Harbour City Star and it was in the entertainment column listings the week of the reading. Thanks Julie! Librarian Lee Losell had to keep putting out more and more chairs until there were about 60 people seated. Any performer will tell you that gets you primed—you pick up on all that energy and just ride the crest. I probably went on a little longer than I needed to, which left less time for question period, though I did entertain a number of comments and questions. Probably 75 percent of the audience were Home Child descendants, and I believe there were two there who had been at the Prince of Wales Fairbridge Farm School near Duncan. I made it clear that I tried to paint a balanced picture of Fairbridge—neither all bad nor all good. As a writer I won’t gloss over faults, such as the sexual abuse scandal at the Duncan farm in the early 1940s. But I also acknowledge in the book that for some kids, particularly during the summers on Okanagan Lake or the Koksilah River, it was a lovely experience. Anne said she saw tears in many eyes. One gentleman wanted the audience to know about the Fairbridge bursary for high school students going on to college or university. (http://www.fairbridgecanada.com/bursary.html) One man had his father sent to Canada by Barnardo’s and his mother by Fairbridge. Everywhere I’ve gone on this tour, BHC descendants have come out of the woodwork, each one with an amazing story to tell. If I only had more time!
In the crush of people coming up to have books signed I felt hard pressed to give each one a fair hearing of their stories. Unfortunately we were pushing against the library’s 8 pm closing time so it just wasn’t possible to connect for more than a couple of minutes with each person. One gentleman, Tom Alexander, had a New Denver historical connection—his brother-in-law had worked at the Bank of Montreal there, now the Silvery Slocan Museum. Apparently his initials are still carved in the bank vault door. It was dizzying trying to take it all in, but deeply gratifying. Several people thanked me for writing the book. I was warmly invited back to the library when I have another book to launch.
After the library was locked up we spent a half hour or so chatting with Kim Goldberg, an investigative journalist and poet whose work Anne has respected since her days working with Valhalla Wilderness Society. Kim is working on a book titled Refugium: The Coming Electroplague, case histories of people with severe electro-sensitivity who are suffering in the electromagnetic soup of cell phones and wireless devices. (http://electroplague.com) Having researched the subject myself since 2007, I was excited to hear of her project. We’d arranged to stay with our friend Liza Ireland on Saltspring Island, so that meant rushing off to catch the last ferry. That was a mistake—my energy was spent after performing and I was a crotchety bear to live with for poor Anne. Next time, we crash for the night after a reading. But then we got to wake up Saturday morning on Saltspring and go to its incredible artisan’s market! But that’s another story…