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Re-Writing Women in Canadian History

By 49thShelf
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A list by Diana Davidson, whose debut novel is Pilgrimage.
The Birth House

The Birth House

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My house stands at the edge of the earth. Together, the house and I have held strong against the churning tides of Fundy. Two sisters, stubborn in our bones.

My father, Judah Rare, built this farmhouse in 1917. It was my wedding gift. A strong house for a Rare woman, he said. I was eighteen. He and his five brothers, shipbuilders by trade, raised her worthy from timbers born on my grand­father’s land. Oak for stability and certainty, yellow birch for new life and change, spruce for protection from the world outside. Father was an intuitive carpenter, carrying out his work like holy ritual. His callused hands, veined with pride, had a memory for measure and a knowing of what it takes to withstand the sea.

Strength and a sense of knowing, that’s what you have to have to live in the Bay. Each morning you set your sights on the tasks ahead and hope that when the day is done you’re farther along than when you started. Our little village, perched on the crook of God’s finger, has always been ruled by storm and season. The men did whatever they had to do to get by. They joked with one another in fire-warmed kitchens after sunset, smoking their pipes, someone bringing out a fiddle . . . laughing as they chorused, no matter how rough, we can take it. The seasons were reflected in their faces, and in the movement of their bodies. When it was time for the shad, herring and cod to come in, they were fishermen, dark with tiresome wet from the sea. When the deer began to huddle on the back of the mountain, they became hunters and woodsmen. When spring came, they worked the green-scented earth, planting crops that would keep, potatoes, cabbage, carrots, turnips. Summer saw their weathered hands building ships and haying fields, and sunsets that ribboned over the water, daring the skies to turn night. The long days were filled with pride and ceremony as mighty sailing ships were launched from the shore. The Lauretta, The Reward, The Nordica, The Bluebird, The Huntley. My father said he’d scour two hundred acres of forest just to find the perfect trees to build a three-masted schooner. Tall yellow birch, gently arched by northwesterly winds, was highly prized. He could spot the keel in a tree’s curve and shadow, the return of the tide set in the grain.

Men wagered their lives with the sea for the honour of these vessels. Each morning they watched for the signs. Red skies in morning, sailors take warning. Each night they looked to the heavens, spotting starry creatures, or the point of a dragon’s tail. They told themselves that these were promises from God, that He would keep the wiry cold fingers of the sea from grabbing at them, from taking their lives. Sometimes men were taken. On those dark days the men who were left behind sat down together and made conversation of every detail, hitching truth to wives’ tales while mending their nets.

As the men bargained with the elements, the women tended to matters at home. They bartered with each other to fill their pantries and clothe their children. Grandmothers, aunts and sisters taught one another to stitch and cook and spin. On Sunday mornings mothers bent their knees between the stalwart pews at the Union Church, praying they would have enough. With hymnals clutched against their breasts, they told the Lord they would be ever faithful if their husbands were spared.

When husbands, fathers and sons were kept out in the fog longer than was safe, the women stood at their windows, holding their lamps, a chorus of lady moons beckoning their lovers back to shore. Waiting, they hushed their children to sleep and listened for the voice of the moon in the crashing waves. In the secret of the night, mothers whispered to their daughters that only the moon could force the waters to submit. It was the moon’s voice that called the men home, her voice that turned the tides of womanhood, her voice that pulled their babies into the light of birth.

My house became the birth house. That’s what the women came to call it, knocking on the door, ripe with child, water breaking on the porch. First-time mothers full of questions, young girls in trouble and seasoned women with a brood already at home. (I called those babies ”toesies,“ because they were more than their mamas could count on their fingers.) They all came to the house, wailing and keening their babies into the world. I wiped their feverish necks with cool, moist cloths, spooned porridge and hot tea into their tired bodies, talked them back from outside of themselves.

Ginny, she had two . . .

Sadie Loomer, she had a girl here.

Precious, she had twins . . . twice.

Celia had six boys, but she was married to my brother Albert . . . Rare men always have boys.

Iris Rose, she had Wrennie . . .

All I ever wanted was to keep them safe.

Part One

Around the year 1760, a ship of Scotch immigrants came to be wrecked on the shores of this place. Although the vessel was lost, her passengers and crew managed to find shelter here. They struggled through the winter – many taking ill, the women losing their children, the men making the difficult journey down North Mountain to the valley below, carrying sacks of potatoes and other goods back to their temporary home, now called Scots Bay.
In the spring, when all who had been stranded chose to make their way to more established communities, the daughter of the ship’s captain, Annie MacIssac, stayed behind. She had fallen in love with a Mi’kmaq man she called Silent Rare.
On the evening of a full moon in June, Silent went out in his canoe to catch the shad that were spawning around the tip of Cape Split. As the night wore on, Annie began to worry that some ill had befallen her love. She looked across the water for signs of him but found nothing. She walked to the cove where they had first met and began to call out to him, promising her heart, her fidelity and a thousand sons to his name. The moon, seeing Annie’s sadness, began to sing, forcing the waves inland, strong and fast, bringing Silent safely back to his lover.
Since that time, every child born from the Rare name has been male, and even now, when the moon is full, you can hear her voice, the voice of the moon, singing the sailors home.
A Rare Family History, 1850


Ever since I can remember, people have had more than enough to say about me. As the only daughter in five generations of Rares, most figure I was changed by faeries or not my father’s child. Mother works and prays too hard to have anyone but those with the cruellest of tongues doubt her devotion to my father. When there’s no good explanation for something, people of the Bay find it easier to believe in mermaids and moss babies, to call it witchery and be done with it. Long after the New England Planters’ seed wore the Mi’kmaq out of my family’s blood, I was born with coal black hair, cinnamon skin and a caul over my face. A foretelling. A sign. A gift that supposedly allows me to talk to animals, see people’s deaths and hear the whisperings of spirits. A charm for protection against drowning.

When one of Laird Jessup’s Highland heifers gave birth to a three-legged albino calf, talk followed and people tried to guess what could have made such a creature. In the end, most people blamed me for it. I had witnessed the cow bawling her calf onto the ground. I had been the one who ran to the Jessups’ to tell the young farmer about the strange thing that had happened. Dora talked to ghosts, Dora ate bat soup, Dora slit the Devil’s throat and flew over the chicken coop. My classmates chanted that verse between the slats of the garden gate, along with all the other words their parents taught them not to say. Of course, there are plenty of schoolyard stories about Miss B. too, most of them ending with, if your cat or your baby goes missing, you’ll know where to find the bones. It’s talk like that that’s made us such good friends. Miss B. says she’s glad for gossip. ”It keep folks from comin’ to places they don’t belong.“

Most days I wake up and say a prayer. I want, I wish, I wait for something to happen to me. While I thank God for all good things, I don’t say this verse to Him, or to Jesus or even to Mary. They are far too busy to be worrying about the affairs and wishes of my heart. No, I say my prayer more to the air than anything else, hoping it might catch on the wind and find its way to anything, to something that’s mine. Mother says, a young lady should take care with what she wishes for. I’m beginning to think she’s right.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Why it's on the list ...
McKay’s gorgeous novel was inspired by the real-life stories of Mrs. Rebecca Steele, an elderly midwife McKay befriended shortly after moving to a farmhouse in the Bay of Fundy. The Birth House tells the story of Dora Rare, a a skilled and gifted midwife in rural Nova Scotia who takes on the male medical establishment and their attempts to undermine women's community by institutionalizing the birth process. Interesting that McKay’s book was published right on the cusp of a pendulum swing in North American attitudes towards birthing and pregnancy. This summer, CBC chose the big-bellied, bare-footed cover of this bestseller and book club fave as one of the most iconic images in CanLit.
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The Book Of Negroes
Why it's on the list ...
Based on a historical document that held the names of American slaves trying to escape to Eastern Canada at the end of the Revolutionary war, Hill’s novel is haunting, moving, and unforgettable. Hill tells us the story of Aminata Diallo, a young girl in West Africa who is captured, survives the Middle Passage, endures the horrors and indignities of slavery, and works to free herself. She makes a life in Nova Scotia before eventually journeying to Freetown, Sierra Lione, and London to tell her story. Hill gives us an unflinching portrait of how difficult life was for former slaves even once they reached Nova Scotia. Winner of the Commonwealth Book Prize, the Rogers Writers Trust award, and CBC Reads, The Book of Negroes is in production as a mini-series for CBC and BET.
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Why it's on the list ...
Moore’s Booker Prize-listed novel made history of its own this past year: on the 31st anniversary of the storm that led to the Ocean Ranger Rig’s demise, February won the 2013 CBC Reads contest. Moore’s novel is a meditation on grief. She takes an event where 84 men perished tragically and tells us about the aftermath through the point-of-view of a widow and mother left behind. February also offers a raw and complex portrait of life in contemporary Newfoundland.
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The End of East

At first, what frightened her about this place was the drizzle – the omnipresent grey of morning, afternoon, nighttime too. She was afraid that she would slowly be leached of colour and that, one day, while she was combing her hair in the mirror, she would see that her reflection was as grey as the sky, sea and land that surrounded her. Everything she saw as she moved about the city was filtered through the mist – dampened, weighed down, burdened.

She would come home after a day in Chinatown and find her wool pants covered in tiny drops of water – cold, as if no human being had ever touched them before. If she didn’t brush them off, they would seep into the fabric until they chilled her skin and she shivered into the night, long after the dishes were washed and everyone else had gone to bed.

In the summer, the sun finally emerged, dried up the puddles, opened flowers that had cowered in the rain. Buttercups shone in the light and multiplied in the lawn faster than she could dig them out. Children spat watermelon seeds over the porch railing, laughing at the squirrels who scurried across the lawn in fear. But every year, as winter returned, these days slipped from her memory. Too good to be true, perhaps. Too few to be important.

One morning, she woke and realized that she had come to accept the drizzle, that she had grown resigned to the squelch of rubber boots, the smell of damp wool on the bus. She walked around the park in the mornings, a film of fine water on her cheeks and eyelashes. Soon, she could not start her day without washing her face in the mist, letting the coolness do away with the bad dreams from the night.

And the half­light that lingered throughout the day let her believe that she was somewhere else, a dream-like netherworld in which anything might happen. Men could become lovers again. Women could be ageless. Children might even come back home.

But what she settled for was the cool, wet breeze that came in through the windows, the air that straightened her spine as she walked. The way the drizzle stayed with her, soaked into her hair, her clothes, her sheets. It pushed itself onto her skin, huddled with her when she cried, remained cool even as she cooked at a blazing stove. Unshakeable. Like family.


Stanley Park

"It is time," my mother says as she pulls me from the cab, "to run that old­man smell out of my house."

As I haul my luggage out of the trunk, the smell of smouldering dust and gas fills the air, burning my nose and mouth. I follow my mother’s rapidly retreating body around the side of the house to the backyard, wondering if she has finally snapped and set one my sisters ablaze.

In the driveway off the lane, she pokes angrily at a crackling fire with a metal garden rake; I catch my breath, holding my suitcase in front of me like a shield. Piles of my grandfather’s old, woolly clothes line the backyard and spill into the gravel alley, waiting to be tossed into the gassy flames. A light rain begins to fall, generating puffs of smoke that blow into my face. I cough, but she doesn’t seem to hear me above the snap and sizzle.

Waving the rake in my direction, she shouts, "Take your suitcase upstairs and go help your sister." As I turn back toward the house, she slaps down a stray spark that has landed in her permed, greying hair.

Once inside, I scan the front hall. The same rubber plant behind the door. My old slippers by the stairs. I breathe out, and cobwebs (suspiciously familiar) sway in the corners.

My mother steps through the door after me, her hands on her wide hips. "What’s taking you so long? I thought I told you to run upstairs."

"I’m jet­lagged," I mutter, kicking off my shoes.

She inspects my face closely, staring at me through her thick glasses. "Jet-lagged? Montreal is only three hours ahead. Go. Penny is waiting." She spins me around with a little push and pokes me in the back with one sharp fingernail.

I trudge up the stairs to my grandfather’s bedroom, where my sister is on her hands and knees, ripping out the nubby red carpet he brought over from his small apartment in Chinatown. Her long black hair drags on the sub-floor.

"Samantha," Penny says, pushing her bangs out of her eyes. "I feel like I’ve been waiting for you forever."

My hands shake. I try to tell myself that it’s only the dampness in the air that’s causing this deep bone shiver. But, really, I am simply afraid. When I was sitting in the airplane, the idea of coming home didn’t seem so real or so final, and I could pretend that I wasn’t passing over province after province. Standing here, in my grandfather’s old room, with my mother’s footsteps coming up quickly behind me, I know that I have irrevocably returned.

"We have to get rid of your grandfather’s junk before the wedding. We’ll need his bedroom for the tea ceremony," my mother says, pushing me aside to inspect the closet. She turns to Penny: "I don’t know why you have to get married so fast. I’m too old to run around like this. Inconsiderate girl." She lets out a loud breath, punctuating her rapid, angry Chinese with a huff.

"Grandfather’s been dead for ten years, Mother," Penny says quietly in English, as usual. "And we’ve been engaged for almost a month. You’ve had plenty of time."

She waves her hand. "Why do I think you’ll understand? I’ve had other things to do, like look after all you girls by myself."

Penny looks at me with her round, seemingly innocent eyes and shrugs.

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Why it's on the list ...
Jen Sookfong Lee imagines three generations of a family in Vancouver’s Chinatown in her acclaimed first novel. The End of East tells an important story of Western Canada and explores, in both the public and the private, how the devastating Chinese Head Tax laws and racial segregation/racist immigration policies affected a community and individuals within it. In a talk at the University of Alberta in 2008, Lee explained that her research into looking at historical documents and immigration papers led her to imagine what these men’s lives were like when they came to Vancouver in the early 20th century and what it was like for the women they left behind in China. From there, she wrote the Chan family. The tension between Sammy Chan and her mother is complex and unresolved and is one of the most memorable mother-daughter relationships in CanLit.
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Into The Heart Of The Country
Why it's on the list ...
Pauline Holdstock is an accomplished historical fiction writer whose work on subjects as diverse as Renaissance Italy and the Boxer Rebellion land her books on multiple prize lists. Her most recent novel, Giller-longlisted Into the Heart of the Country, looks at the eighteenth-century origins of contemporary Canada by telling the story of Molly Norton. Holdstock imagines Molly as the mixed-blood daughter of historical figure Governor Moses Norton and a lover of the real-life explorer Samuel Hearne. It is a heartbreaking look at the "country wife" and the role Aboriginal women played in ensuring the survival of menwho built the fur trade. Holdstock is a master at weaving historical detail into a riveting narrative and her choice to tell Molly’s story in dream-like sequences gives the book a haunting quality which pushes us to question how we understand our past.
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The Imposter Bride
Why it's on the list ...
In her Giller-shortlisted novel, Richler gives us a layered and beautifully-crafted snapshot of post-WWII Montreal. She tells the story of Lily Azerov, who survives the horrors of war in Europe to immigrate to Montreal and marry into a prominent family. She is one of many girls immigrating to be married off into the city's tight-knit Jewish community as they deal with the aftermath of the Holocaust and try to secure Canadian passage for survivors. The Imposter Bride explores the psychological and social ramifications of Holocaust survivors’ guilt in a uniquely Canadian context—against the backdrop of a changing Quebec. And as we discover that Lily is not what, or who, she says she is, Richler pushes us to question what it means to be authentic in the aftermath of the 20th century’s most pervasive trauma.
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Kiss of the Fur Queen
Why it's on the list ...
A beautiful, heartbreaking, spiritual novel that follows two young Cree brothers from Northern Manitoba who endure Catholic residential school and work to reclaim their culture through art. Highway’s book is on my list for two reasons. First, the depiction of Mariesis Okimasis’ grief when her two boys, Champion (Jeremiah) and Ooneemeetoo/Dancer (Gabriel), are forced to leave the family and attend residential school is a visceral portrayal of what that institutional colonialism/racism did to families. Second, Highway uses details from the 1971 rape and murder of Helen Betty Osborne to make us think about that tragic event (and lack of response to it) in new ways.
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The Extraordinary Life of Louis Riel's Grandmother
also available: Hardcover
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Finally the wind shifted to the southwest, and almost overnight the temperature climbed. On May 5 the ice on the Saskatchewan River broke. Soon the purple heads of wild crocuses had popped out of the slush. A flock of nine white swans flew by — a loud, clear klooo, kwooo honked out. Everyone in the fort thanked God that they had survived the terrible winter.

To make up for the poor haul of buffalo and furs, the Lagimodières decided that as soon as the weather permitted they would leave for the bison hunt. This year they would journey much further south in their quest.

It’s not known whether the Lagimodières travelled with other freemen in the spring of 1811, but probably they were accompanied by the Chalifoux family as well as others. An incident occurred along the way once again involving LaPrairie, now two years old, that made them all nervous. It’s related by Marie-Anne’s biographer, Georges Dugast. One day several Assiniboine arrived at the freemen’s tents. The chief dismounted and asked to speak to Mme Lagimodière. Jean-Baptiste, who had some proficiency in that language, agreed to act as a translator. It was obvious that the old man was enthralled with LaPrairie. Dugast described what happened next

The chief represented that they desired to have the boy and taking the rope which held the finest horse he put it in her hand making signs that he would give it in exchange for the child. As one can well imagine Madame Lajimoniere refused his offer and made signs that she would never consent to such a trade. The Indians believing that she was not content with one horse drew up a second and put the cord of this one also in her hand . . . She said to her husband, “Tell him that I will not sell my child that he would have to tear my heart out before I would part with him.” “Very well!” said the Indian, “take the horses and one of my children.” “No!” said she, “you can never make me consent to such a trade,” then taking her child in her arms she began to cry. The Indian apparently was touched by her tears, for he ceased to insist on the [ex]change and went on his way with his people and horses.

This was a most unsettling episode because the Lagimodières and the others were travelling to the Cypress Hills, which had traditionally been a hunting grounds for Aboriginal peoples; whites were not welcome there. Once again the Lagimodières were teasing fate.

It was an ideal place to track down buffalo. In the 1850s Captain John Palliser called Cypress Hills “a perfect oasis in the desert.” Another visitor wrote, “No better summer pasture is to be found in all the wide North-west than exists on these hills, as the grass is always green, water of the best quality is always abundant, and shelter from the autumnal and winter storms always at hand.”

Cypress Hills received more rain than the plains, and as well as supporting nutritional grasses which “cover the ground like a thick mat,” it sustained forests of lodgepole pine, Jack pine, white spruce, and Douglas fir. But storms also descended with deadly speed; the Cree called the area Thunder Breeding Hills.

These hills are a strange phenomenon, huge mounds, almost mountainous in height, pushing up from the flat grasslands. Unusual animals — reptiles, insects, and birds — are abundant. According to Cree myth, the creatures have been left alone from the time God created the world. The native people were too frightened to hunt them down because they thought the woods were full of demons who made the winds howl and lightning flash.

After three weeks of travel, the party finally arrived at their intended destination — the southwestern part of the hills. The trail climbed upward, circling round and round until the plateau was reached. Here on the top of the prairie world, silver and yellow grasses stretched for miles. Marie-Anne kept her eye out for a spot she thought was suitable. She found it in a circular grove of mixed poplar and birch, with evergreens standing behind like tall soldiers. There they camped and the preparations began. A bed of moss was laid on the ground, branches of lodgepole pine cut. Two days later, Marie-Anne gave birth to her third child. Jean-Baptiste baptized the baby Marie-Josephte, after his mother. But like her brother before her, she was forever known by her nickname, LeCyprès.

Despite all their efforts to get there, not long after the birth, the Lagimodières give up on the buffalo hunt and headed north again. Exciting news had reached them. A colony of English-speaking immigrants was to be established at the forks of the Red and Assiniboine rivers, under the patronage of the Scottish philanthropist, Lord Selkirk. It was expected that eventually thousands upon thousands of farmers, poor crofters from Scotland and Ireland, would settle in a huge area that was now called Assiniboia. The Lagimodières decided at once to join them. It had been such a hard year — the near- starvation, the anxiety of conflict with the Indians, the poor fur catch — but that was not the primary reason they decided to give up on the North West. At Red River, they imagined fields of wheat tall as a man’s belly button. Cattle grazing. Orchards full of apples. Pretty houses with gardens. And most important, a church with an imposing steeple and bells clanging them to mass every morning. The children could finally be baptized as God ordained.

The Lagimodières probably didn’t realize it, but it would be many years of unremitting hardship before this paradise became reality.

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Why it's on the list ...
Siggins’ biography of Marie-Anne Lagimodière (nee Gaboury) reads like a novel. Siggins weaves facts about the first white woman to come West into a compelling narrative. We get a picture of a complex, determined, and intelligent woman who outgrew her small rural town in Quebec, survived the gruelling voyageur portage out West, and built a family with a man who, among other things, already had a Cree "country wife" and children who were none too happy about Marie-Anne’s arrival on the prairies. In Siggins’ Marie-Anne, we see a woman adept at making connections and learning languages and mentoring her famous grandson, Louis Riel. Hers is an important history of Western Canada and Siggins is a master storyteller for it.
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