Posts Tagged ‘research’

Sisters, scammers, hijinks ensue

Wednesday, February 10th, 2016

Hello, friends! I am still healing from the wisdom tooth extraction and feeling cross about my soup/hummus/pudding subsistence diet. So! Much! Slime! But I don’t want to talk about that. Instead, I’d like to share some of the sources I consulted when writing “The Legendary Garrett Girls”.

As you probably know, I adore research. In this case, though, my research began entirely by accident, with an extended-family holiday to Alaska back in 2007. We rode the White Pass Railway (now a tourist’s toy) and saw the grave of the villainous Soapy Smith, but most of this was secondary. The main impressions I retain from that trip are of the sublime landscape. Still, I bought a souvenir at Parnassus Books (still open! hurray!) in Ketchikan: William B. Haskell’s Two Years in the Klondike and Alaskan Gold Fields, 1896-1898. I flicked through bits of it and then got distracted. I read other books, wrote about other times and places.

Haskell, Two Years in the Klondike and Alaskan Gold Fields, 1896-1898

Several years later, Jessica Spotswood asked me for a short story for her anthology. Her parameters? “Any time in American history, with a girl protagonist.” Talk about possibilities!


Illustrated timeline by Simini Blocker

I knew I wanted to write about a place I knew, however slightly. (I’m daunted by the idea of a real place I’ve never visited. Even with the internet at my disposal, I question whether I can take the measure of a place without smelling it.) And I’m drawn to people and places on the margins. Alaska was logical, the Gold Rush almost too obvious. But what kind of story was this going to be?

What happened next was Fate. I opened Haskell’s memoir and my eye fell on this line: “They now say there are more liars to the square inch in Alaska than any place in the world.” And that was it: I knew I had to write a romp about con artists during the Gold Rush.

Of course, there were logistics to work out, questions to answer. But unlike my novels, “The Legendary Garrett Girls” has remained remarkably true to its initial proposal, a high-energy scrawl of words on a page: sisters, scammers, hijinks ensue. I hope I’ve got the setting mostly, nearly right. I hope Alaskans don’t shake their heads with pity for the presumptuous cheechako who had the nerve to set a short story in their place, their legendary time. As ever, all errors in the story are my responsibility.


Publishing on March 8!

If you’re as entranced by the Gold Rush as I became, here’s a list of the books that I found most enjoyable – and, in some cases, infuriating but essential.

The Legendary Garrett Girls: Sources

Berton, Pierre. Klondike: The Last Great Gold Rush, 1896-1899. 1972.

Emmons, George Thornton. The Tlingit Indians. Ed. Frederica de Laguna. 1991.

Haskell, William B. Two Years in the Klondike and Alaskan Gold Fields, 1896-1898. (1898.) 1998.

Hitchcock, Mary E. Two Women in the Klondike. (1899.) 2006.

Holder Spude, Catherine. “That Fiend in Hell”: Soapy Smith in Legend. 2012.

Smith, Jeff. Alias Soapy Smith: The Life and Death of a Scoundrel. Klondike Research, 2009.

Winslow, Kathryn. Big Pan-Out. New York: W. W. Norton, 1951.

In a couple of weeks, I’ll return to the question of my sources and talk about anti-heroes, historiography, and holdouts.

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Memoir vs. Fiction

Wednesday, October 7th, 2015

Hello, friends! Inspired by some of the recent memoirs – and one novel – I’ve been reading, this week I’m talking about the hazy line between memoir and fiction. Specifically, I’m thinking again about Freddy Spencer Chapman, Nona Baker, and my newest fascination, the Chinese-Belgian novelist (and physician) Han Suyin.

Han Suyin (Elisabeth Comber)

My post is up now at The History Girls.

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A Tyranny of Petticoats

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2015

Hello, friends. This week, I am tremendously excited to share with you the absolutely glorious cover of Jessica Spotswood’s historical anthology, A Tyranny of Petticoats. Behold!


My friend Cat taught me the phrase “on fleek”, and now I just want to walk around now yelling, “It’s SO ON FLEEK!”

Here’s a bit more about the collection, which combines historical realist and historical fantasy stories:

From an impressive sisterhood of YA writers comes an edge-of-your-seat anthology of historical fiction and fantasy featuring a diverse array of daring heroines.

Crisscross America — on dogsleds and ships, stagecoaches and trains — from pirate ships off the coast of the Carolinas to the peace, love, and protests of 1960s Chicago. Join fifteen of today’s most talented writers of young adult literature on a thrill ride through history with American girls charting their own course. They are monsters and mediums, bodyguards and barkeeps, screenwriters and schoolteachers, heiresses and hobos. They’re making their own way in often-hostile lands, using every weapon in their arsenals, facing down murderers and marriage proposals. And they all have a story to tell.

With stories by:

J. Anderson Coats

Andrea Cremer

Y.S. Lee

Katherine Longshore

Marie Lu

Kekla Magoon

Marissa Meyer

Saundra Mitchell

Beth Revis

Caroline Richmond

Lindsay Smith

Jessica Spotswood

Robin Talley

Leslye Walton

Elizabeth Wein

My ARC arrived in the mail just this week, which means that it’s time to proofread my own short story, “The Legendary Garrett Girls”, one last time. As regular blog readers know, I really appreciate this last chance to check the story and catch any clangers. Mostly, though, I’m looking forward to read the other 14 short stories in the anthology. Yes, I could have read them earlier in PDF format, but – call me traditional, if you must – I still find curling up with a print book more satisfying.

I am giddy with delight to be part of this sisterhood, and I owe it all to fellow novelist and worshipper-at-the-altar-of-history Stephanie Burgis: she’s the one who first suggested to editor Jessica Spotswood that I might want to be involved. THANK YOU, Steph!

This was my first time contributing to a fiction anthology and I learned so much. To begin with, the parameters were incredibly open: a story with a girl protagonist at any time in American history. Indeed, it was so liberating that I felt almost frozen with indecision – until I realized that fourteen other writers were simultaneously staking out their own historical and geographical territories. Suddenly, it felt like the start of an open-water swimming race: fast and splashy.

I’ve noticed that in my fiction I lean towards borders and margins, both literal and figurative. Sure enough, I first proposed something along the Great Lakes or in the Thousand Islands area – specifically, a midwinter prison escape from Ontario into New York state, over ice and open water. But Jessica suggested something less marginal and more definitively American, so I began to scan my shelves.

Several years ago, I went on a family holiday to Alaska. True to nerd form, the souvenir I brought back was a reprint of a nineteenth century memoir and travel manual, William B. Haskell’s Two Years in the Klondike and Alaskan Gold Fields, 1896-1898.

Haskell, Two Years in the Klondike and Alaskan Gold Fields, 1896-1898

I’d read bits and scraps of it in Alaska, but when I pulled it from the shelf last summer, it fell open to this quotation: “They now say there are more liars to the square inch in Alaska than any place in the world.” — The Seattle Times, August 1897. Clearly, this was fate: I was going to write a story about con artists in the Gold Rush town of Skagway, Alaska.

That story, “The Legendary Garrett Girls”, is just one of the fifteen in A Tyranny of Petticoats. Gloating over the table of contents, I’m struck by how diverse our geographical choices are: not just Boston and Los Angeles, but Wyoming and Indiana; Washington, DC and Washington State. It reminds me how relatively little I know of American history.

I can’t wait to change that.

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On re-reading

Wednesday, July 8th, 2015

Hello, friends. One morning last week, as I was still waking up, I had a moment of intense clarity about my work-in-progress: its shape is wrong. I need to restructure the first third of the novel.

As I’m less than halfway through a first draft, I did not welcome this insight. Indeed, I spent a couple of days squinting at the corpus-thus-far-assembled, giving it a poke here and a jab there, as though testing the monster’s reflexes. Still, I think my half-waking vision was accurate. Since then, I’ve made a pile of notes and shuffled some ideas. I can keep some of the sections already written, while others need to be excised. About half of it needs to be rewritten.

Happily, some of the changes I’m going to make mean that I also need to revisit one of my favourite books: Freddy Spencer Chapman’s The Jungle is Neutral. I’m SO EXCITED to spend more time with my historical boyfriend! (If you’re wondering who on earth Freddy Spencer Chapman is, I’ve blogged about him over at the History Girls.) I’m reading partly to re-ground myself, and also for a detailed timeline. For example, here’s a map that includes some of his journeys in the month of January 1941:

journeys in Malaya, January 1941

(Pedant alert: Freddy didn’t travel to Telok Anson that month. That leg of the journey is included for SECRET WRITERLY PURPOSES.)

But as much fun as I’m having plotting and mapping, the most thrilling part of re-reading The Jungle is Neutral is how much better I’m able to appreciate it. Freddy is as breathtakingly adventurous as ever, of course. But after two years’ research into wartime Malaya, I’m familiar with all the main players. I know the geography and natural landscape. I have a firm grasp on the politics. And I bring this richness of understanding to The Jungle is Neutral. Everything means more.

I make a habit of re-reading favourite novels every few years: Middlemarch, for example, grows and deepens for me every time. I recently read both The Trumpet of the Swan and Pippi Longstocking with my son, and adored them both all over again. Yet I’m not sure I’d have thought to do this with a work of non-fiction, until now. But it’s true, it’s true, it’s true.

Everything means more.

P. S. I finished Paul “Raj Quartet” Scott’s 1960 novel, The Chinese Love Pavilion, and blogged about it at the History Girls. If you read my original blog post, written when I was halfway through the novel, you’ll want to skip down a few paragraphs. If you haven’t… well, brace yourself!

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Wednesday, June 10th, 2015

Hello, friends. I’m halfway through a novel by Paul Scott called The Chinese Love Pavilion. I know, I know: SKETCHY TITLE ALERT! Don’t worry: this is, and will remain, a PG-rated blog.

Paul Scott, The Chinese Love Pavilion

Cover of the 2013 edition (University of Chicago Press). The pavilion on the cover looks very little like the pavilion described in the novel.

Mostly, it’s research for my novel-in-progress (which is set in Malaya during the Second World War). The Chinese Love Pavilion (another suggestion from my well-read friend Mary Alice Downie) takes place mostly in Malaya just after the war, so I get to experience another writer’s vision of the place. I’d heard excellent things about Scott’s Raj Quartet – four linked novels set in India during the twilight of British colonial rule. I also knew the first novel of the quartet, The Jewel in the Crown, was adapted as a miniseries by the BBC in 1984 to massive acclaim.

The Chinese Love Pavilion, published in 1960, is about a friendship between two Englishmen in the colonies. The narrator, Tom Brent, is younger and in search of a shape for his life. He meets the unconventional, charismatic Brian Saxby in 1930s Bombay and, over the course of a whiskey-soaked evening, falls under his spell. This sets up the men for long conversations about the soul, fate, and the meaning of life. I have a limited tolerance for cod philosophy at the best of times, and that limit plummets when the “exotic” East is used as a picturesque backdrop for these kinds of musings. However, I stuck with it.

The story then skips over the Second World War and picks up in 1946 or so, when a war-injured Brent is brought to Malaya and instructed to find Saxby. Apparently, Saxby is hiding out the Malayan jungle and might be responsible for the revenge-slayings of some Chinese civilians. The metaphysical novel morphs into a kind of homage to Heart of Darkness, with Brent travelling deeper into jungle-dark territory to find his legendary but tortured friend. Promising, right?

Paul Scott, The Chinese Love Pavilion

An early edition

Actually, I can’t remember the last time I was this appalled by a well-reviewed novel. The self-indulgent metaphysical musings drove me nuts, but I am predisposed to like most things thriller-ish, and the pacing of the novel’s second half is excellent. Also, Scott is gifted with an extraordinary sense of place. His descriptions of the Malayan landscape are vivid and entirely convincing, and his eye for natural detail is impeccable.

However, there’s one massive problem with the novel that (from my current perspective, 3/4 of the way through) taints everything else it attempts: the way it handles prostitution. Women – specifically, the sexual services of young Indian and Chinese girls – are the common currency of this novel. I’m not exaggerating in the least. Here are three conversations from the novel, in the order they occur:

At a restaurant in Bombay, where Brent and Saxby have just dined:

“[The girls are] clean. Clean now, you understand, not later. Later the bloom goes. Disease enters.”

“Does he sell them too?”

“To us first. Honoured guests. Then to others.


When Brent visits Saxby after a three-year gap:

“The little one holding the curtain so patiently, is for you. She is an untouchable, and, I am told, a virgin.”

I looked from Saxby to the girl and back to Saxby. “That was very thoughtful of you.”

He smiled. He said, “I have always been accommodating to my friends.”


In small-town Malaya, where the officer-in-charge offers Brent the use of “his” designated prostitute:

“Did you like her?”

“Yes, I liked her.”

…”Well while you’re here she’s yours. It all comes under the contract but you’ll probably like to give her the occasional present.”

“It’s very hospitable of you. What about you?”

“I’ll manage, I expect.”

Do you see the progression here? Prostitution is first an economic fact, and then a gesture of welcome between friends, and finally a common courtesy, like a cigarette or a cup of tea. I wondered, at first, if this obsessive attention to prostitution could be read as a kind of critique of colonialism, or a comment on the moral effects of the British imperial project. But no.

In a still-later scene, Brent describes a prostitute named Suki “who by European standards was no more than a child and looked absurdly fragile in his beefy arms”. This is an isolated moment of light-hearted physical contrast in a novel that otherwise takes itself extremely seriously. Significantly, it features a young woman who, if she was “European” – that is, worthy of civilized treatment – would be “no more than a child”. I don’t think the word “beefy” is an accident, here. It’s an evocation of what’s familiarly, essentially English. And the “beefy” Englishman who holds Suki – a loud-mouthed but fundamentally loyal and reliable soldier – has the approval of all characters. Could the subtext be any clearer? Child prostitution is a harmless joke, as long as the women are brown and the men are white.

*Let us all pause for a moment to bellow in rage and disgust.*

I am going to finish this novel, because I need to be as thorough as possible in my research. I remain open to the possibility that I could be wrong, and that something towards the end of the book will demolish all my objections. But I’m sad and afraid I’m on the right track.

I have a terrible taste in my mouth right now. What are you reading, friends? What do you recommend to cheer me up, when this thing is over?

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Nona Baker

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2015

Hello, friends. I’m currently time-travelling in the colony formerly known as Malaya. I’m interested, specifically, in the Japanese occupation of Malaya during the Second World War and how different groups of Malayans responded to the threat.

Here in the west, many people don’t learn about WWII’s Pacific theatre of war at school. Certainly, my own education focused on France, Britain and Germany, with a dash of Russia and Italy, and a rousing finale by the United States of America. However, there was also a Pacific War and its Axis aggressor was Japan. The most famous incident in the Pacific War, the bombing of Pearl Harbour in December 1941, was just one part of a multi-pronged assault. On that same night in December, the Japanese simultaneously attacked Thailand, Malaya, Singapore, Hong Kong and the Philippines. The next month, the Japanese turned their attention to Burma, the Dutch East Indies, and northern Australia.

When the Japanese invaded Malaya in December 1941, the local population was an ethnic mixture of aboriginal peoples, Malays, Chinese, Indians, and a small percentage of white (mainly British) colonists who controlled the colony’s industry, politics and, of course, wealth. In the prelude to one of military history’s most ignominious defeats, the British failed to take the Japanese threat seriously. Their attitude is well represented by the the Governor of Singapore, Sir Shenton Thomas: when informed of the invasion, he reportedly said, “Well, I suppose you’ll shove the little men off.” Far from shoving the little men off, however, “Fortress Singapore” fell to the Japanese in just 70 days.

By the time the British surrendered to the Japanese in February 1942, nearly all white civilians had evacuated – and had done so, very conspicuously, at the expense of the local non-white population. One remarkable exception to the white flight was Nona Baker, “a parson’s youngest daughter” from Dunstable, Bedfordshire.

Nona Baker

Nona Baker first travelled to Malaya to keep house for her brother, Vin (V. B. C. Baker), who was general manager of a mine at Sungei Lembing, “the single largest tin mine in the world”. Before the war, her brother was the most powerful man in the region, universally called Tuan Besar, or “Big Master” in the Malay language. Nona became known as Missie. Vin Baker seems to have been a classic Victorian paternalist in his management of the mine and his workers. Nona believes that “he was a king and father to the people, and they certainly adored him”.

When the Japanese invaded, Vin couldn’t conceive of a British defeat. Even as the Japanese advanced rapidly south through Malaya, Vin refused to leave his community. He made plans to hide in the jungle with Nona: after all, it would be only a matter of weeks, or perhaps a couple of months at most. Three trusted workers built Missie and Tuan Besar a hut in the jungle and stocked it with a primus stove, paraffin and tinned food. Still, denial prevailed. When the Japanese Army rolled into Sungei Lembing, Vin and Nona were quite rattled: “In the hurry of our departure, I had seized the tool kit from the car and taken it with me, instead of carrying something which might have been of some use.” They also forgot to bring any reading material, an omission they bitterly regretted during their long, idle days in hiding.

As it turns out, they weren’t in hiding for a few weeks or months. Nona Baker remained in the jungle for THREE YEARS. Despite the danger of being caught by the Japanese or betrayed by spies, their faithful servants visited them every ten days in the jungle to bring them fresh food, coffee, paraffin and news. (The servants also had Vin’s false teeth repaired, again at immense personal risk: the dentist who fixed the dentures recognized that they were made in Europe.) After the first year, Vin and Nona’s supply of money ran out and they took the decision to go live among the orang bukit, or “hill people”: a euphemism for camps of Communist guerrillas who lived in the jungle and actively resisted the Japanese occupiers.

Nona and Vin were welcomed by the Communists, both out of principle (Nona says that she never saw a refugee turned away by guerrillas, even when food was extremely scarce) and financial savvy (Communist leaders recognized that they could raise funds locally, using Vin’s name). For three years, Nona and Vin lived as very few white people had ever done, in Malaya: on terms of relative equality with local people.

In 1944, Vin Baker died of illness – a combination of malaria, dysentery and beri-beri. He’d suffered from bouts of depression since going into hiding, and these must have contributed to his weakness. What’s much more remarkable is that Nona Baker survived. She gives a few dutiful reasons for her persistence: wanting to demonstrate that not all British were cowards and quitters; looking after Vin; the need to tell her mother, after the war, how Vin died. But there must have been something beyond that – an essential desire to learn, to know, to live. Despite her self-effacing explanations, Nona Baker was an extraordinary woman.

The 1959 edition, published by Constable

The 1959 edition, published by Constable

Nona Baker was briefly famous after the war, when she was delivered into the care of Force 136 (the equivalent of SOE in Southeast Asia), contributed information to Freddy Spencer Chapman‘s report on local Communist organizations, and returned to England. But it was only in 1959 that she felt able to dictate a memoir of her time amongst the Communists. It’s called Pai Naa: The Story of Nona Baker. (Pai Naa, the name she was given by the guerrillas, means something like, “White Nona”.) Nona Baker remains the only documented white woman to have survived the war by living in the jungle. While it is true, as she admits, she was only “busily saving my own skin”, it is remarkable to have her even-handed portrait of life amongst the guerrillas. It’s an intimate record that otherwise wouldn’t exist.

(This post also appears today at the History Girls.)

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Research thrills

Wednesday, September 10th, 2014

Hello, friends. I’ve been reading Nicholas Shakespeare’s Priscilla: The Hidden Life of an Englishwoman in Wartime France. It’s a hard thing to categorize: a book encompassing fragments of a memoir, many elements of biography, and a tightly focused history of France during the Nazi Occupation. It’s completely gripping and extremely well told.

Priscilla, by Nicholas Shakespeare

The aspect that I want to focus on this week, however, is how so much of Shakespeare’s insight into his aunt’s life is the result of a series of happy coincidences. He begins the book with his childhood memories of Priscilla, his glamorous aunt with a mysterious past. She’d been married to a minor French aristocrat, lived in France under the Vichy government, and spent time in an internment camp. She was clearly scarred by those years, and nobody in the family spoke of them or questioned her directly.

After she died in 1982, Shakespeare continued asking questions but received few answers. There was a box of intriguing but inconclusive photographs and letters. It revealed that Priscilla had been adored by many men, but not who these men were or what kind of role they’d played in her life – and the larger history through which they’d all lived.

Years, and then decades, passed. One day at the Bodleian Library, writes Shakespeare, “I was in the final stage of putting to bed an edition of Bruce Chatwin’s letters, a project which had occupied me intermittently since 1991, when I noticed a reference to a Sutro Collection, recently catalogued and stored in the same building. In no real spirit of expectation, I pulled out the catalogue and saw that the Sutro archive had been bequeathed by Gillian [Sutro, Priscilla’s lifelong best friend]; further, three specific boxes related to my aunt.”

Do you see the extraordinary string of coincidence and happenstance at play, here? Nicholas Shakespeare happened to be working on the Chatwin letters. He happened to notice (how?) a reference to a Sutro Collection (a distinctive name, especially in England). The Sutro Collection happened to have been recently catalogued. It happened to be stored in the same building (the Special Collections Room of the Bodleian Library) in which Shakespeare was presently at work.

But the gifts of fortune continue! Shakespeare ordered up the boxes and found more harmless letters and photographs from before and after the war. “Interesting, I thought, but nothing more, and opened the second box, which was full of red and yellow notebooks. Then I read my name.”

Did your hair just stand on end? Mine did! Shakespeare explains that he’d mentioned his aunt’s wartime history in a magazine article in 1992. Gillian Sutro had read the article. In it, a factual error on Shakespeare’s part acted like a detonator on Sutro’s memory and emotions. It forced her to rethink her entire relationship with her lifelong best friend; made her re-sift the evidence of their conversations after 1941; and impelled her to interview others in their circle, to uncover what had really happened.

Shakespeare says, “For three months, I read and transcribed Gillian’s notebooks. Again and again, I had the freakish impression of being taken by the wrist and led down, through a procession of unlocking doors, into the cellars beneath one of the most fascinating and yet, in spite of all the literature on it, incompletely explored moments of the twentieth century – a period over which France continues to draw firm bolts: ‘Four years to strike from our history,” is how the French still refer to it. Because what Gillian had written down was the other half of the key.”

I love this analogy of “being taken by the wrist and led down… into the cellars”. It inspires the precise blend of excitement, helplessness, and foreboding that I recognize from my own (considerably less deus ex machina) research work. It’s one of the best things I know.

How about you, readers? Have you had comparable – or wildly different – moments in your own research?

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Nostalgia and serendipity

Wednesday, May 7th, 2014

Hello, friends. I spent yesterday morning very happily shuttling around libraries.

The first was Stauffer Library, the humanities and social sciences library at the university where I did my PhD. You could say I know my way around it. For a few years, it was as familiar to me as my own apartment. I had the positions of the stacks memorized; I knew which photocopiers worked best; I was on nodding terms with even the crustiest of staff. Heck, I had a personal study carrel on the fourth floor, with a lockable shelf where I kept my books. Nerd aristocracy, that was me.

Until yesterday, I hadn’t been back to Stauffer since that slightly bittersweet day when I returned the last of my library books and gave up the key to my study carrel. (I really loved that study carrel. I wrote tens of thousands of words in that carrel.) And then, this week, I needed to borrow a book. I was curious how the library might have changed, whether it would smell familiar, how they might have reinvented the “information commons”, aka the place where everybody used to check email at rows of sticky-keyed public computers. I was expecting a pleasant compare-and-contrast.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the rush of nostalgia that welled within me when I touched the outer door. Even the resistance of the door against my arm, the curvature of its handle in my palm, felt absurdly right. I crossed the foyer (empty, now that the academic year is over), entered the library itself, and suddenly, I was back. The only slightly discordant note was the absence of my backpack. I don’t think I’d ever entered that library without its weight on my shoulders.

After finding my book (I went to the wrong end of the stacks at first), I walked a circuit of the fourth floor. I even paid a visit to my former study carrel. Stauffer is still a terrific place to work: quiet, with lots of natural light. But I felt like a tourist there, an outsider who should know when to move along. And that’s appropriate, too.

Nostalgia is a fundamentally limited emotion or approach; it gilds the view, offers a shiver of delight, and little more. Worse, I think it inhibits more productive thoughts or feelings from developing. That’s a realization I’ll need to hold fast as I continue work on The Next Book. The past is elusive enough, without the fog of nostalgia.

After leaving Stauffer, I continued to the public library. And there, in the Friends of the Library’s book sale, was this:

Shinozaki, Synonan My Story

Syonon: My Story, by Mamoru Shinozaki, is a memoir that’s been hovering at the edges of my research for The Next Book. I’ve thought, repeatedly, must chase that down. And there it was, sandwiched between The Wealthy Barber and What is My Cat Thinking? (I swear I didn’t make that up.) Really, what were the chances? And what if I’d given in to nostalgia and sat down to work at Stauffer? I might never have found Shinozaki.

Some of the most serendipitous moments of my life have been in libraries. How about you, friends? Have you had any big moments – serendipitous, nostalgic, or otherwise – in libraries, lately?

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Kingston Penitentiary, Part 2

Wednesday, November 6th, 2013

Hello again, friends. Two weeks ago, I wrote about my recent tour of the now-closed Kingston Penitentiary. It was an intense and memorable experience, and today I’d like to round it out with a few more photos and explanations. In my earlier post, I walked you through the main prison building and mentioned the native ceremonial grounds. Just past these grounds there is a second major building that was in daily use: the prison “shops”. This is the building in which inmates could work and learn.

There was a wood shop, a metal shop, and a furniture-maker – the clearest indication of the prison’s rehabilitative function. (It may seem hard to believe, but when Kingston Penitentiary was first built in the 1835, it was considered an enlightened and modern place.) Here, in the shops, inmates could learn skills that might change their futures.

Inmates who held jobs earned a small amount of money – according to our tour guide, David Stewart (pictured), the inmate wage topped out at $6 per day and was reduced in recent years, due to budget cuts. Inmates could spend their earnings at the canteen (which sold snacks and cigarettes). Prisoners who applied for extended visits with their families were also permitted to buy and cook their own food in the family units, using money earned in the shops.

Here’s an image of the metal shop, with its beautiful Victorian brick-arched ceilings.

It’s an interesting level of trust, to have a sole teacher working with a group of inmates using heavy machinery. According to someone who worked as a prison teacher, the consensus was that it was fairly safe: the teacher was seen as an ally, or at least a bystander. If any violence occurred, it was much more likely to be between inmates.

Up on the second floor, there was also a school. You can see the small sign below. Some of the inmates would have been working towards their high school diplomas or possibly university degrees, but many lacked even elementary reading and math skills.

After the cool gloom of “the shops”, Dave led us back outside. The prison grounds house a hospital with a permanent psychiatric ward, and there is also a gym. We didn’t see either of these but we got a strangely beautiful sight of the outdoor exercise area.

It’s hard for me to judge how large this space is – maybe three football fields put together? Dave said that in the 1970s and 1980s, it was quite common to have three hundred inmates in the yard, and two unarmed guards locked inside with them. There would also have been guards with rifles posted at two or three lookout points over the yard, but even so, it’s a daunting thought.

This next image is a closer shot of the guard tower. The entrance you can see is the old one; it was filled in some time ago and you now access the guard tower from outside the prison walls. If you’re a Kingstonian, these guard towers are iconic. Along with the front door, they are the only parts of the prison you can see from the outside.

As our tour neared its conclusion, we walked along the west wall towards the entrance. Again, I was struggling to capture the scale of the place but I remembered that there have been escapes from this penitentiary in which inmates have managed to climb the walls. Here’s what the climb would have looked like, over the west wall.

The final brief sight on our tour was of this neatly landscaped limestone building. It now houses the prison’s administration. Can you guess its previous function?

This was the Female Department: Canada’s first prison for women. I’m not sure exactly when it was built, but I believe that originally, female inmates were housed in a separate wing of the men’s prison. They were allowed to bring their children with them. The Female Department was used to hold prisoners until 1934, when the Prison for Women was built nearby.

At this point in the tour, we asked Dave how he’d managed to work in Corrections for thirty-two years. His answer was both encouraging and admirable: he said that the most important thing was to remember that each inmate was a person, and wanted to be treated as such. He emphasized the importance of always being watchful, because prisons are always potentially dangerous. He also said he’d been lucky because he had missed the 1971 riot at the Pen, when prisoners seized control of the building for four days, killed two inmates, and took a number of guards hostage. However, Dave finally said that he tried always to speak to inmates with respect, and to do what he said he would do, and he felt a similar respect from them in turn. I really admired his approach.

I know this is a lot of material to contemplate. But before I go, I want to leave you with a link to this CBC documentary about Kingston Pen, Tales from KP. It’s quite melodramatic but it offers a number of interesting insights into the prison. And it mentions that Charles Dickens toured the Pen in 1842! Dickens called it “an admirable gaol… well and wisely governed, and excellently regulated in every respect.” Despite the suffering and injustices that must have taken place within the walls of Kingston Penitentiary, it is good to know that it was born of generous and progressive intentions.

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Wednesday, August 7th, 2013

Hello there, friends. I’m sorry for my lapse last week. I had an outrageously slow internet connection (now partly fixed – it’s only somewhat slow) that made even a simple email check a struggle. Today, I thought I’d show you what I’ve been up to.

We went a bit crazy with the tomatoes, this year. It was our first year starting them from seeds and we planted a lot, thinking that only about one in three would make it. Ahem. We have about 30 tomato plants producing right now. I’m not sure what we’ll do with them all: we’ll either learn to can, or take to leaving them on neighbours’ doorsteps in the dead of night, I guess. Anyway, the tomato bed was a million-tentacled green monster, and it took me most of a day’s work to prune and stake them. I hope that doesn’t sound like a complaint: it’s a strangely addictive job, and it pains me to admit that there are two sad, drooping, crawling plants I haven’t yet found the time to attend to.

Here’s another gratuitous tomato shot:

Isn’t it exciting? We’ve had a few cherry tomatoes already and they’re lovely: sweet and complex, and all the more delicious for being the (literal) fruit of our labours.

And then there’s the garlic: 50-odd cloves planted last autumn, which we harvested last week. They’re currently drying out and I think the effect is like oddball musical notation.

Apart from frantically trying to reclaim the garden, I’ve also begun work on The Next Book. Here are the 3 novels I’ve ordered from the public library to read next:

Tan Twan Eng’s The Gift of Rain

Tan’s sequel to The Gift of Rain, The Garden of Evening Mists (2012)

Madeleine Thien’s Certainty (2006)

If you didn’t already know (or perhaps if you did), can you guess what I’m working on next?

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