With Christmas approaching I have turned again to my parents’ letters written during WWII, from the time they first corresponded in May 1942 through to December 1942, and noted how much had changed for them in that time. At home rationing started to kick in and my mother, Kay, mentioned that stores are sometimes closed because there was nothing to sell. In late November the household was down to their “last three teaballs” and didn’t know if they would be able to ever get more. Blackouts happened with increasing frequency. All lights extinguished on the streets and blinds pulled or curtains drawn. Kay is busy working in Holman's Bible Bindery as a 'bindery girl' and sings in the church choir.
On the war front, many men began to be shipped overseas to Europe. Kay’s girlfriends saw their brothers and boyfriends leave, some for basic training and then a couple on to North Africa. Kay’s brother, Albert, was still home at this point, but not for long. Will was stationed at Camp Lee, Virginia still, working as a statistician, a job that kept him stateside for the time being. Washington D.C. Nov. 1942
Still, there is time for listening to the radio, where Bing Crosby sings “Buddy Love” and Jerome Kern tunes remind everyone that romance is still around. At Wanamakers Department Store there are “victory sings” on Friday nights and the occasional air raid drill can provide opportunities for romance for Kay and Will on one of his few weekend furloughs.
Romance is certainly in the air for them. Through their letters they continue to discover how much they have in common and discuss their love of music, literature, film and many other things. The two times they meet are brief—one day in August and another in October. They speak on the phone a few times and then in November Kay takes the train to meet Will at Washington, D.C. to spend the day with him. She writes to say that she very nervous and has second thoughts about the meeting. Will she return her ticket and not go? Later she explains that she was so afraid that he would see her and realize that she is not for him and that all her imaginings were a dream. Little did she know as she set out on the train that he thought she was more than alright, but that she was THE one. He proposed to her on that day and she floated home on a cloud.
She writes and says that because she's had to give most of her money she earns to her mother she has only "her heart and two willing hands" to bring to him. Also two chairs, a desk and a fifty year old cook book (that cook book is on my shelf now, sixty years later -- add 2 gils of water, 10 cups of flour, etc.-- a real gem).
In December Will was able to get a week’s furlough and spent most of it with Kay visiting her friends and family and his own family. His family was quite extensive with two older brothers, two older sisters and one younger sister, each with their own families. (His parents were still in England with his middle sister). But everyone wanted to meet and congratulate the couple. The furlough meant it was certain he would not be home for Christmas and so the two of them corresponded everyday over the Christmas period and put all their emotions of the first flush of love and future together in their letters while the undercurrent of war made each promise uncertain. Below is a selection of their letters written the few days before and during Christmas. December 1943, though, I fear, was a bit different for them both.
Such a sweet, sweet letter today. Regreting the lost moments of the past we could have shared. Do not regret them, my dearest. They were merely a preparation for the present and the future. Of that I am fully convinced. I myself was not ready for such an ecstasy. I was skeptical and doubtful often that such love as we have experienced existed. But now I know. I know there was building up inside me a person that would appreciate the real values of life. And I think that now I do. A few years ago I was frightened to live, before that I was heatedly rebellious. But I’ve overcome that all now. I’ve grown emotionally and mentally to a stage where I can be wife to you, a partner worthy of your, my dearest. So again I say don’t regret the past years. They have served their purpose. And if it had not happened thru the correspondence and the service. Somewhere, somehow, someday we would have come together. It makes no difference that some may wonder at the suddenness of our love and call it the result of war. To me it is the most exquisite, the loveliest experience that ever happened to anyone. There remains only the final step to make it completely so. I’ve dreamed of being a part of such a love, often. What girl hasn’t? But I wouldn’t admit to anyone before. And I used to shake off the dream and say it wasn’t possible, anymore, that I was an idealist, a dreamer, a romanticist. Call it what you will. Oh I was quite a cynic. But under it all I was forever hoping that the dreamer was right and the cynic was wrong. How thankful I am the cynic was wrong. And I know that the dream was always right. And my dearest, I’ll do all in my power to deserve the blessings that our future relationship will bring to me. I’ll try so very hard to be a good wife. This Christmas we may be apart in reality but in spirit we will be together. I have such delightful pictures in my heart of our future Christmases. You and I trimming a tree together for our children. I wonder what they will look like. Curly–haired no doubt since we both have curly hair. I picture a sturdy little boy who looks rather like me and a darling dark-haired brown-eyed little girl just like you. Why like that? Well I’m a bit superstitious about it. Someone once told me it was lucky for a boy to look like his mother and a girl to look like her father. So just in case it’s so I want our children to be that way. Otherwise I’d want a dark-haired little boy, too. Maybe two little boys and two little girls. Maybe twins, who knows? --Maybe I’d better stop this. How I do go on.
By the way, Min [Will's sister]told me to tell you they have their camera fixed.
Guess what? Albert [Kay's brother- car stolen]got a check from the insurance company for his car. The whole amount he asked for without any argument $185. Isn’t that splendid? He didn’t expect any more than $85
This is all dearest, for tonight. Have a nice Christmas, the nicest possible, and think of me a little, loving you from the very depths of my soul.
Always yours, Kay xxxx
No letter tonight, but instead that lovely sweetheart card. Will, you are such a darling. I did not expect another card after the photo cards but I wasn’t surprised to find one. And such a lovely one. You can be sure I’ll cherish it among my treasures.
This letter should arrive Christmas day. I hope you are having a happy one. But the happiest ones are coming. We’ll have so many together. We are apart today so that those in the future may be together. And how much sweeter they will seem to us because we will know what it means to be apart. As you go through the day, dear Will, I’ll be beside you for I shall be up quiet early Christmas. I always go to church at 6 o’clock in the morning on Christmas day. Then I dash across the street to Elsie’s and have her gift and her sister’s. Then she comes home with me and watches while I open my gifts. After that I go with her up the street while she visits her cousins up the street. Then we come home and she goes home and I take a short nap before lunch. This probably the last year for that program for I hope to be sharing Christmas with my husband in an entirely new fashion next year.
The other night I heard Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne in a Christmas play written by Stephen Vincent Benét. It was beautiful. It was written in verse and it was about the inn-keeper and his wife how the birth of the Christ-child in their stable affected them and made them endeavor to be better people. A very effective presentation. I think you would have enjoyed it if only to listen to the musical voices of the principals.
Now my dearest, I’d like to say thank you for the new life you’ve brought to me, the undreamed happiness, happiness that I would not have otherwise experienced. I was happy before, content to be alone but it was so mild compared to the ecstasy your love has cause to burst forth within me. Now I know I can never be completely happy alone again. You must be there and I know you are. So that is the most perfect gift I have this Christmas, our love.
Yours always, Kay xxxx
I’ve just finished wrapping packages and straightening up my room. Talk about chaos, my room looked like a cyclone struck. I guess I won’t get to bed at all tonight. Edna[sister] wants to go carolling and she won’t go unless I do. So altho I’ve tried to talk her out of it, we’re going. Of course if I really put my foot down it would be different, but I don’t like to do that because she wants to go so much and it’s her first.
Dearest, I’m awfully sorry about the postal delay. I know how badly I felt last week when I didn’t get any all week. I was really worried by Friday. However, you have the advantage over me. When NO letters arrive you know I’m still in Philadelphia but when I don’t receive any I can’t be sure where you are, whether still at camp or outward bound to parts unknown. I hope it is working regularly by this time as yours to me is doing. Remember this, tho’ no matter what the demands on my time, I always will manage to find time to scrawl a letter to my own beloved. He is most important, more than anything or anyone else. I, too, get that dream feeling now and then and it seems as if I’ve imagined the lovely things that you’ve caused to happen or read it in a book. Then I wonder if others can be as happy as we’ve been and doubt that it is possible. I know that few have the capacity to appreciate such happiness but I think we have.
If only we could arrive at the completion of our dreams of being together for all time. Sometimes that day seems so far off. Now it seems like such an age since I was in your arms and your lips were pressing mine. And heaven alone knows when such bliss will be mine again. I know, my darling, you will make the trip home as soon again as you can, but times is so slow. It’s a long time between kisses.
Now I must go get ready to go with Edna. I’ll be sending my thoughts to you real hard all night long so maybe you’ll dream a happy dream.
Goodnight my darling,
Your own Kay. P.S. I love you more than a little. I love you absolutely.
Thank you ever so much for the beautiful roses. Dearest, you do think of the loveliest ways to surprise a girl. I was so very pleased. When they arrived Margaret McIntyre and my mother’s uncle and aunt were here. I was so excited and proud. Mother, in explanation of my sudden dash to the door told Uncle Andy that we were engaged so we have more good wishes to add to our collection. They also wish to meet you and want to know when we are to be married. I told you about him. He is the one who went to Girard College and is now Vice-President of the first company he worked for. Edna has also spread the news at my grandmother’s so when you are home again we must go there. She is anxious to meet you because you are English. She wants to ask you what you remember of England.
So now you must meet the two sides of my family. Dearest, I had a very happy Christmas and the lovely yellow roses from you were the crowning point of it all.
I was up all night since I went caroling. We walked all over from about 1.30’itl 4.30. Then we came back to church where there was a breakfast of coffee and buns awaiting us. We sat around a while and relaxed and waited until church began at 6.15. It was scheduled for six but the organist had transportation trouble with the 60 trolley and we waited for him. It was quite an inspiring service in spite of the delay. Also in spite of the fact we all were quite sleepy by that time and had a difficult time keeping awake. Just before the Benediction we had six girls, white clad and carrying candles come down the aisle and up to the chancel where four of them recited verses reference to the birth of the Christ and the other two sang. One girl had a surprisingly lovely voice. Surprising because she is not quite fourteen yet her voice was a full round contralto. She sang something unknown to me which was very pretty. The other girl sang Silent Night in an adequate manner but after the first girl disappointingly.
After church I went as usual over to Elsie’s where I greeted her brother just arrived home on a 3 day pass from Fort Monroe. He is now an acting Corporal. I had more coffee and cake there and then I brought Elsie home with me to see my gifts and receive hers. Then she made me go with her to her cousin’s a few blocks up the street as she usually does. I went along because I thought to myself “it will be different next year.” I finally arrived back home at 10.10 to go to bed for a while until 12.00 when my uncle and aunt arrived. I got up then for the rest of the day. Then the flowers came and I loved them. You are very dear and a most thoughtful darling. I stayed at home for the rest of the day and just relaxed. It was a beautiful day but it is raining now.
Will, I had a lot of fun all night and delightful time all day but underneath there was the feeling of wanting you with me and loving you hard. I thought of you constantly. At 5.45 I said to Edna you were just getting up. I called Min [Will's sister] to give her my greetings and intended to call Jessie [Will's sister] right after. But while I was talking to George, Jessie and Owen came in so I extended my greetings to them there. Min was hoping that Ted[son] would call.
I hope you had an enjoyable day but that you missed me a little.
Now I’ll say goodnight for I’m going to bed as soon as I mail this letter.
I don’t have to get tired so I can sleep tonight. I am tired, but I still want to dream of you and I Hope that you dream too. It seems a year since I saw you.
Lovingly yours, Kay xxxx
My Dearest Kay,
Darn these holidays anyhow no mail from you today, being away from you is enough, but not to get some word from you that is more than I can possibly bear. When I used to get your letters so regularly I thought our love was running along the lines of other peoples’ love affairs, but when I receive only one in two or three days I am utterly convinced that ours is more than just attraction. I am afraid, when they don’t come, that our love is a dream. Therefore my halucinations are dispersed by the love which you bear for me written in each of your letters.
I received Christmas cards from both you and Edna. Give my appreciations to Edna, very thoughtful, also decidedly important, my appreciations to Mom for her card. I may have expressed these words heretofore, so it is still not out of place to repeat myself. I presume you all have had the opportunity of admiring or criticizing the pictures I have sent to you. This mail!!!
I presume by the time you receive this letter, you will have your time all tied up [?] many packages. However, I knew your time will be very much in demand, so I won’t expect you to write, not that I would not like one from you. Much to the contrary, I like to hear my name called at mail call, but alas, it appears everyo9jne is waiting for the holidays to subside.
Express my Christmas Greetings to the McIntyres, Gladys and anyone that I met, things went around so fast, I hadn’t the chance to get their names.
Ted, my nephew, sent me a card but no letter, shucks!
Well, my sweet, do you still love me a little, because my love for you is hollering, shouting, wishing for the time to loom up in front of my presence, so that I can see, I can touch and hold most precious the person I hold most dear. Reserve the couch for that occasion, will you dearest? Make sure that Smoky [cat]stays at the top of the stairs.
This is all sweet my best regards to all—Edna included. My fondest sweetest love to you,
My dearest Kay,
At last I received a letter from you particularly that you had received the picture Christmas cards. I am really pleased to hear that they bear a little praise from everyone. I will look into the matter about enlargements. I can get them made so much cheaper here. In fact after the new year I intend to do some of my own enlarging.
Kay dearest I am overjoyed at your visits of the various members of my family. Keep it up but watch your health these treacherous days, when the weather is so changeable.
I am writing from Richmond having arrived about 1.00. We were given the afternoon and tomorrow off, rather sporting eh what! It is all exceptionally balmy day today, very mild- sun shining- countless Xmas shoppers and a line from here to Hades lined up out side the liquor store buying the Christmas spirit in bottles instead of letting it come from their hearts.
If you have never seen a crowd, by jove the terminals, streets of Petersburg were crammed mostly service men on the way out. It is really a nice place to drive thru at about 50 miles an hour, owned and operated by the Sons and Daughters of Israel. An army truck pickup up about fiftee of us and drove us to Richmond, quite a break! I frequently get a hop to Richmond, save some money that way and I am one among many. I didn’t go carolling last nite, couldn’t even get out of camp, buses just overloaded, no hops whatever so saw “Life Begins at 8.30pm” and well worth the effort.
Very shortly I am leaving to go to my friend’s house, Russell for this nite and tomorrow, more music and hospitality first class.
When I heard today that we were going to get off early, my mind quickly ran to idea I might be able to see you tomorrow. Alas it wasn’t possible. The passes that were issued to us is only good as far as Richmond. The trains are being covered by M.P.s relative to passes North. Therefore I had to dispel the idea later.
I could not get your last letter until almost noon and I needed that definitely they are my sustenance. In “Life begins at 8.30pm”there are several lines spoken by the young man in love with Kathie, which I repeated word for word to you. I touch your hand, to see you when I would come home, to missyou when you were not there, and much more, much more than I could ever enfold on paper,my thoughts are forever racing madly gladly ahead of my pen. My best wishes to all. Lovingly yours, Will xxxx
My Dearest Kay,
I received both letters written Xmas day and the following day. We are up to date now and right glad of it.
The flowers pleased you did the dear, it is my weakness too. I knew undoubtedly that you would like roses. I like to give occasional gifts of flowers, so I hope to continue this practice, praise the lord I am capable.
Well my sweet, my next opportunity I will meet your relations and additional friends, it is quite a job though, you can’t leave too abruptly.
You know sweet, I frequently listen to the Saturday afternoon operas although I did not listen to the “Magic Flute.” I went to Richmond as you already know. I again listened to Russell’s records. On Sunday the Shakespeares had an open house party from 4pm -10 pm people coming and going all the time. Egg Nog is the common drink served during the holidays. One of the visitors was a Senator Fuller of Virginia. We had an interesting discussion about the war. He seemed to think that the war would be settled by Aug 1943 and how I wanted to agree with him. By jove I certainly did, I could begin my life with you, day for day. You by my side helping me to create new life and happiness. I can hardly wait, so that we may have our own place, build and plan this and the other. It really sounds interesting and heavenly doesn’t it dear. It appears that given the present circumstances we probably wll have to plan many things by letter . So let us begin—just where do you like to be kissed best, I prefer the lips. You know it occurred today that I would have a little trouble getting a best man. I thought of Miles, you know the place we were to have visited in Clifton. Maybe I am speaking out of turn but will Edna be the one to stand for you. I would like it because I think quite a lot of her. That is entirely up to you however. If you have further ideas, sing out my sweet. Lights are out now, so my best wishes to all at home. Lovingly yours, Will xxxx
Will at Camp Lee, Virginia, 1942
In the past few weeks, in between all my other activities, including enjoying the unusually wonderful weather and critiquing various submissions for a writing consultancy I work with, I read some more of my parents’ letters. This time I dipped into my father’s letters and noticed that they began about six months earlier, than those my mother wrote. I suppose this is natural since my mother would have saved these letters and she never threw anything away. Will and Kay in Virginia, 1943 on honeymoon
Through reading his letters I was able to go further back in the relationship and have closer insight into how they got to know each other; a picture more detailed than my mother’s short anecdotes or general explanation that they met in night school, her mother sat on his hat when he came to visit once and she painted her nails bright red to see if it would put him off.
Such detail was strange and in some ways funny, because I could think of my mother on the other end of these letters and know some of her reaction. I also detect a little attempt to impress at first with a slightly flowery choice of words. In other ways it reinforced what I knew of their interests and also how much they now reflect mine and others in my family.
Sunday, 5/17/42 (USO stationery)
I received your most welcome letter and it seems that I attend to my correspondence the same day as you.
I have been transferred to the Quartermaster Department and so I start my basic training tomorrow, and that means hard work. There are ample diversions at nite to caress one’s woes of the day provided one is able to take it. We can get plenty of drilling and food, but there are no headaches or woes, no income tax or young ladies and that bothers me a lot. Dances are held but the girls are terribly outnumbered making the dances too short, one is allowed to cut in at anytime.
Well, Kathryn I see you are terribly busy. I guess everyone is praying more, ost of them probably think so.
While I am in this department I don’t think I’ll do any fighting being a non-combatant. In other words I’ll probably not slap a Jap or bury a Jerry.
Give my regards to McReady when you see him, and my best wishes to you.
In the next letter he’s a little more relaxed and even spells her name wrong, something she never liked and calls her ‘Kathy’-- even worse.
Thanks for the letter but am my dilatory (?) with answering before. WE have all been terribly busy, the going has been getting tougher as it progresses. Our company were on the range last week, our platoon shot Saturday. I shot a measly 75 out of 200. Thursday and Friday I was stationed behind the targets 200 yards from the firing range. I spotted and scored the shots. If you saw the movie ‘Sergeant York’ you remember the flag waving they indicate of misses or zeros. They are termed in the firing range “Maggie’s Drawers.”
By the way you refer to ‘Robin Hood Dell,’ that is the one place I am going to miss this season. I don’t know whether I have ever mentioned the fact that I was very fortunate in seeing the Russian Ballet in New York twice previous to my induction and what a treat. There are few opportunities to hear recorded classical music here. I take advantage of some of them, which is not often. We had every detail in the past few weeks that I can think of. Gas mask test- tent pitching- guard duty and others. Well Kathy Cheerio and all the best,
This next letter is a little more fulsome, a bit sheepish and more informative. Not quite ‘Band of Brothers,’ though. My father was 32 at the time and his duties and postings were more directed towards using the head rather than the gun.
Dear Katherine[strike through] Kathryn
Sorry Kay for misspelling your name and here I went again—dress me down!!!
I have two more weeks left and then _________?__________!_____?
I am still studying the administration of the army. We cover quiet an area of ground in the clerical field. We also cover typing and stenography if qualified. In our company we have quite a few men exceedingly important in their particular field in civilian life. We have a major league baseball player, a secretary to a senator from Maryland, several players from famous dance orchestras, men that owned businesses, executives and many others. These camps are the meeting grounds that level off all stations. Only temporary in many cases. They shine eventually. Some of these men know more about certain technical fields than their instructors. In one of my classes, the instructor frequently calls upon a trainee to cite or explain, more fully, certain topics in question.
No matter where we go it is reached by marching in formation. We hear whistles all day long, they are the signal for “fall in.” I guess you have heard of most of this.
You had better take advantage of a vacation because we all need a change of pace while everyone is working so close.
We are given the information that we are supposed to get 30 days furlough a year. The question is when you are given it. And that is precisely a question from what I have heard. Well Kay this is all for the present.
Over the months, I hope to take time and read a lot more of the letters and read them as they would have been exchanged. Then it's time to pause, absorb what I've read and integrate it into my own ideas and perceptions of my parents-- who they were and who I am.
May 23rd was my parent’s anniversary. They would have been married 70 years. They nearly made it to 50 before my father died and considering that my father was 32 and my mother 29 when they married, that isn’t half bad. Kay in front of home
70 years ago America and Europe were in the middle of a world war. My father, an English immigrant, was one of the many drafted for said war, sent not, as he hoped, back to England for eventual posting to France, but to the Philippines. My parents married just before he was sent overseas, having met a couple of years before in night school. This is what I knew, what my parents (mostly my mother) told me as I was growing up.
Some years after my father died, in 199,1 I came across a box of letters in the spare bedroom closet of their condominium as I was sorting out the room for my increasingly frail mother. To my surprise they contained literally hundreds of letters written during the war years between my mother and my father. Amazing. Amazing in the sense that I never knew she had them. This was a mother who was always showing me memorabilia from the past, wedding gown, photo albums, cards, and sharing stories again and again from her experiences and even stories that she’d gleaned from my father’s family of his own childhood. Also, as a child my sister and I would rummage in her sacrosanct closet to ferret out old clothes to dress up in when she was out. I’d never seen them there. My mother was a hoarder so there was always boxes stuffed everywhere and my sister and I tried to leave no box unplundered, curious as we were. Will
As a historian and archivist I was thrilled. Here in my very own family was a cubic foot of genuine raw archives material. Not just a bunch of Christmas cards and photos scattered in boxes (those I knew about), but letters still in their envelopes. But it was clear it was something my mother didn’t want to share. I never said a word to her that I’d seen them, just bundled them back into the closet.
Some years later, when she was dying in a nursing home I had to clean out the condominium in order to sell it and found the box still in the closet, untouched. I took the box home (along with a load of other things I didn’t know what to do with) and there they sat for a few weeks. Eventually, the archivist in me had to look through them, if only to see what was there and to organize them. I put them in chronological order, first my mother’s letters and then my fathers. I opened the first one of my mother’s and read, the historian eager to see social history of the war period from the home front. Kay
‘ Oct 14, 1942
I just arrived home from work to find your letter and the films. I don’t know quite what I should say but I do know how I fell and that it’s just as you do. I don’t know quite what has happened. Life was going on so smoothly and suddenly everything is so complicated. I’ve thought until my head’s in a whirl. I was going to say no when you asked to come see me last week but on implulse I said you might if you w ished. Even so nothing would have changed if you hadn’t kissed me. You know my reputation is one of independence, of being a ‘man hater’because I won’t go out with every man who asks me. Of course I’m not really but I don’t, nor never have, gone off the deep end aboaut this one and that one. I told you I was once in love with someone who didn’t return it. Well that experience left me somewhat afraid of being hurt so I always kept my feelings in check. But whatever this was I was taken completely by surprise. So don’t blame yourself for ‘dozing’ as you say. It was probably as much my fault as yours and it was probably meant to be this way any how.
I’ll answer every letter you send me if I have to write them at work as Gladys does [friend]. She incidentally has been laughing at me all week and saying she knows something happened to me last Sunday because I was all right when I left her on Saturday and the phone call on Monday made her certain something was up. But I don’t care what she says.
Goodbye until the next time. Thanks for everything.
What I read was my mother and not my mother. It was a different view of my mother, in some ways. And it struck me how much we see our family members through the prism of their role in our lives and how our relationship with them can affect so much our perception of them as a person. This is obvious of course, but nevertheless we still unconsciously assume we know our parents.
In any case it stopped me from reading more. With my mother dying and the pressure of folding up her affairs even before she had gone I wasn’t ready to change or discover more about her and my father. In the ensuing 13 years I have moved overseas, first to England and then Ireland, renovated a farm house and dealt with many other things and still the box (archival acid-free) remained unopened.
Amid all the WWII anniversaries and commemorations of the last few years is now the time to go through those letters and read them? It’s something I now think and wonder how it might change my understanding of my parents who had a complex relationship. I don’t know, we’ll see.
Statue of St. Gobnait erected 1950s.
Researching novels has taken me down some very interesting and often different paths, but all of them enjoyable. I suppose I wouldn’t pursue them otherwise. At the moments my travels have been to 5th century, Ireland around the community in which I live now. It’s a fascinating journey and one that has left me continually amazed at how often research and information has presented itself to me in the most opportunistic ways.
The novel I'm hoping to write is closely connected to the story of St. Gobnait, the local patron saint whose story I’ve always been drawn to. Of the tales that are known she always figures as a strong woman, protecting the community by throwing her stone bulla at an encroaching nobleman’s building, sending bees after cattle raiders, or ministering to their needs as a healer and also feeding and providing for the poor. She started a community of women, a convent of sorts, and it lasted well beyond her death. But it was bees and her healing honey that make her so distinct. She had several hives and used their honey for many things, primarily healing.
Taking St. Gobnait's measure
On her feast day, February 11, the Medieval wooden statue of her is brought out and people come to ‘take her measure,’ wrapping a ribbon around her torso and head and the length of her. They recite the prayer to Gobnait and keep the ribbon for healing. I was fortunate enough this year to be able to do just that and view the statue. A memorable event for me.
This past December, coincidently, the topic for the historical lecture at our local Éigse (music festival and workshops) was St. Gobnait, and with the help of a friend I was able to learn about details of Gobnait’s story and the community’s history as recounted by a late nineteenth century writer and local school master. This man, Donncha Ó Loinsigh was from Coolierher, specifically my house (well his house). His grandson was the last person to live here before we bought it. I’ve been able to glean details from this narrative and others that have been published over the years that are housed in our local library. I’ve also enjoyed and had the privilege to talk to some other local people about Gobnait’s story and the community’s past.
Traditional local bee skep
Such talks and sources have led me to explore Medieval Irish beekeeping and to find that it was such a feature in Ireland they established a set of Brehon Laws governing issues that could (and probably did) arise from keeping them. My choir director, locally known for his beekeeping, actually has a beehive created in the manner of medieval beekeepers ( called a skep) and, low and behold, had a copy of the Brehon Laws and an analysis of it. His skep, he explained was made of sedge grass and not straw as it would in England, because Ireland is wetter and the sedge grass would dry and air out more quickly. I certainly couldn’t argue with him on the ‘wetter’ aspect of his argument. He is a coordinator of the local history group and over the years have talked to many elderly people about old agricultural practices and re-constructed them.
So, in the course of pursuing this research, I’m learning much about farming in addition to what I’ve already gleaned (note agricultural word) just from living here in a rural farming community. I now know the difference between a heifer and a cow, a hen and a chicken and that each had a specific value in Brehon law. Bees, however are tricky fellows (and gals) and so they are treated at times like livestock and others like fruit. Yes fruit required legislation. If fruit fell in a neighbour’s field then the first year 1/3 belonged to the neighbour (or something like that). So if any of you might be in a dispute with a neighbour it might be well to consult the Brehon Law. You never know there might be answers there.
In the month that marks the 75th anniversary of Grey Owl’s death and the 125th year since his birth the environment challenges still make this man’s life a testimony to our need to take steps to take better care of our world. To paraphrase Grey Owl’s own words, ‘you belong to nature, it doesn’t belong to you,’ tells us something about his concerns and our responsibility to the environment.
Grey Owl’s life was controversial to say the least, but
his love for the wilderness and concern over its future cannot be disputed. It was a message he delivered over and over again in the 1930s as he toured Britain and speaking before the king, and later in the USA and Canada: the wilderness is not endless, it needs to be preserved and cared for. In his
lifetime he’d witnessed beaver and other furbearing animals in Canada decline to
alarming numbers. He’d seen large swathes of wilderness cut down under the axe and saw blades that clear cut their way across Ontarios and Quebec in the great thirst for timber to feed the building of ships, houses and all manner of man made goods. The
wreckage left in the wake of such tree felling took its toll in the rapid decline of the wildlife deprived of its habitat and the First Nations people who subsisted in those areas.
Anahareo, Grey Owl and friend
Grey Owl, born Archie Belaney, came to the Canadian wilderness from Hastings England after a childhood enthralled by tales from James Fennimore Cooper, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Ernest Thomas Seton. Barely eighteen, he headed straight to the Quebec side of Lake Temaskaming and fell under the tutelage of veteran woodsman, Bill Guppy. Under Guppy’s eye he learned essential bush
skills including paddling and portaging a canoe, important in a region filled with lakes and waterways. Archie spent much time with Guppy until one summer he met a young Anishnabe woman from Bear Island, Angele. Though she knew little English they managed to communicate and he met her extended family and became her acknowledged boyfriend. Less than a year later he married her and lived with her and her family on Bear Island. She bore him a daughter and within a few months of her birth Archie’s restless temperament compelled him to depart in search for new wilderness and adventure. For the next few years he acted as a fire ranger in summer and trapper in winter, sending money to Angele sporadically. In addition to that he became known as an inveterate storyteller, his skin browned in the sun and his chiselled face and dark hair all contributing to the occasional mistake that he was an Aboriginal.
Just before the war, in 1913, he met a young woman Marie Girard and invited her in the bush after a drunken tear. The pair emerged in November and a short while later Archie enlisted in the army and was sent overseas, probably before he knew tha Maire was pregnant with his son. War did not deal kindly with Archie, neither physically or emotionally. Trained as a sharp shooter he was exposed to mustard gas and suffered a crippling wound to his foot. Sent back to Hastings to recuperate, he fell into the company of a childhood friend, Ivy Holmes, a stunningly attractive former dancer who had toured Eastern Europe. Under the encouragement of both families the two married, since none but Archie knew of his prior marriage to Angele and he remained silent. But not for long. A short while later, he made his way back to Canada and wrote to Ivy, before she joined
him there and explained the situation. She divorced him.
Back in Canada, the exuberant inquisitive storyteller transformed after the war into a morose drunken brawler, his lungs and missing toes preventing him from any sustained activity. Slowly, while under the care of an Anishnabe family, The Espaniels, he regained enough physical strength to work some of the year and eventually resumed his fire ranger duties and trapping and occasionally guiding. It was in 1925 while guiding at Camp Wabikon that he met the woman who was to change his life. Anahareo.
He courted and wooed Anahareo carefully; she was only nineteen and he was in his thirties. But he was smitten in truth by her feisty spirit, her young beauty and
her quick mind. All this made him take her to the wilderness and her own joy of it and his patient (and not so patient) tutoring kept her there with him. She’d
grown up in a town next door to the wilderness, but not in it and so she attacked her lessons in bushskills with all the energy and enthusiasm of someone who needed to make up for lost time. That the two were bonded over this love of the outdoors and all the creatures it contained could not be doubted as they accumulated whiskey jacks, a moose, squirrels and various other creatures around their various homes. Such love compelled Anahareo to relinquish her new trapping regime, the cruelty it sometimes imposed was too
much for her. It was the two little orphan beaver kits that brought their concern and care for wild animals sharply into focus and Anahareo encouraged Archie to write his observations of the wilderness down.
How could they not be charmed by the energetic McGinty who took Archie’s mackinaw out for a nice long swim while Anahareo and Archie chased her frantically. Or McGinnis’eager assistance when he ably cut down a pole for them, the pole that
supported their humble tent. They were also won over by ‘their sneezes and childish coughs, their little whimpers and small appealing noises of affection, their instant and pathetically eager response to any kindness….’
All those and many more things filled Archie’s writings which later became published in Pilgrims of the Wild and other of his works. The stories and ideas soon found great popularity in Britain, Canada and even the USA as Archie was continuously asked to speak about his work with the beavers. The expanding Parks Canada recognized Archie’s work as an opportunity to link their own efforts at building a national park system for the nation and asked Archie and Anahareo to implement their plans to establish a beaver colony in one of their new parks. The public began to see and hear of Archie’s work under the name ‘Grey Owl’ a choice he made in the light of some assumptions made by some of the media and his own efforts to bring a persona into play that he thought would be most effective. Who better than an Indian to speak about the wilderness?
It was a choice that would resonate down through the
years and raise the spectre of ‘fraud’ shortly after his death in 1938 when the truth of his real heritage was published. It would cast a shadow over his work in conservation, put into doubt the truth of his message and render ineffective his very timeless message that ‘we belong to nature, nature does not belong to us.’ But today we can and must see beyond the controversy and puzzle that was Grey Owl’s life and look once again at what he was trying to tell us.
You can read more about Grey Owl and Anahareo's story in my biography, Anahareo: A Wilderness Spirit, published by Fireship Press.
I am delighted to welcome Jane Bwye to hear about her new novel and ask her questions about its inspiration and background in addition to other elements that have formed the experiences of a fascinating lady.
Thirty years of Kenya's recent history unfold through the lives of Caroline, a privileged woman from the fertile highlands, and Charles Ondiek, a farm labourer with dreams of an Oxford education.
Charles’s love for Teresa, daughter of a hated settler farmer, leads to a drama of psychological terror fuelled by Mau Mau oath administrator, Mwangi, who is held in detention for six years. On his release, Mwangi forces Charles and Teresa apart, then turns his attention to Caroline. But she has inner resources, and joins with Charles to seek out a mysterious ancestral cave.
Against the backdrop of Kenya’s beautiful but hostile desert, the curse is finally broken. But when Caroline discovers the hidden reason for Mwangi’s hatred, she wonders if she'll ever, really, belong in the country she loves.
The novel is published by Crooked Cat Publishing, www.crookedcatpublishing.com and is available from Amazon.co.uk in ebook and paperback format.
Jane Bwye has been a businesswoman and intermittent freelance journalist for fifty years, mostly in Kenya. She cut short an Oxford career to get married, was widowed in her early twenties, and left with three small children – but was lucky enough to remarry. Now her six children and seven grandkids are scattered over three continents, so she’s developed a taste for travel. She has “walked” round the world, buying a bird book in every country.
Her debut novel, Breath of Africa, dedicated to the youth of Kenya, had a thirty year gestation period. The plot and characters are fictitious, but the story draws on Jane’s experiences in a country going through the throes of re-birth.
Kristin : Tell us a bit about yourself and what led you to write.
Jane: Why does anybody write? I’ve always been a bookworm and a dreamer, immersing myself in the make-believe world of others, and conjuring up imaginary situations for myself. I would read anything, and I’m still never happy unless I have a book on the go. My grandparents fed me with Dandy and Beano comics at a young age. I devoured horsey books and read every story I could find about ballet. At school, I fell in love with poetry, especially Shelley, and I still have his complete works. Shakespeare was a bit of an effort, although many quotations still stick in my mind.
But it was Robert Ruark’s Uhuru and Nicholas Monserrat’s Tribe books that focussed my attention on Africa, and got me thinking. I believed I lived in a beautiful, ideal world in Africa. Surely they’d got it wrong? Africa couldn’t possibly be as violently ugly as they described it. Why was everybody so negative about it?
I’d always been good at English, and took Latin as an A-level student, which probably helped my grammar. I used to keep a diary (lost long ago), and then on the eve of my departure for Oxford, the Editor of the Kenya Weekly News asked me to send back
a series of Letters for publication, for which they paid me Shs.50/- each (about £2.50). I’ll never forget the thrill of holding that first cheque.
Kristin: The novel is wonderfully evocative of Kenya and Africa, and really does what it says on the tin: gives you a ‘breath of Africa.’ You obviously brought forth your passion for the place into the novel. Do you miss it?
Jane: Very much. I will always consider it as my home.
Kristin: Was there any particular event that inspired you to write this novel?
Jane: Nicholas Monsarrat is one of my favourite authors, and I have read every word he’s written. His books, The Tribe that Lost Its Head, and Richer than All His Tribe, made a deep impression on me as a young woman, although I could only bring myself to read them once.
I wrote to him years later – on the pretext that there were four pages missing from my copy of his autobiography – expressing my belief that, contrary to what the Tribe books
implied, there was hope in Africa, and a better future in store. Was he perhaps thinking of writing such a book? If not, I might be tempted.
After his death I received a letter from his widow saying that Nicholas had indeed intended to write such a novel, and she wished me luck for the task ahead of me.
BREATH OF AFRICA was conceived on the basis of that hope. The book developed a mind of its own. But
I trust its readers will appreciate the struggles an emerging country has to
endure, while recognising that there is always hope, shining
Kristin: Was the book in any way autobiographical?
Jane: I have drawn from my experiences in Africa, and sometimes included snapshots of scenes that actually occurred, but not in context. I have also made up a great deal.
There’s quite a lot of me in Caroline, and also in Charles, especially when he first arrived in London, and went to Oxford.
I enjoyed weaving the plot, letting it take a course of its own, manipulating events and emotions to see where they would take me. There’s one chapter, though, of a death and a funeral, which actually happened – and
Caroline’s emotions were mine.
Kristin: One of the key aspects of the novel is the interaction of two widely different cultures and how their differing views and cultural outlooks often lead them to misunderstand, clash and at times brutalize each other. Is that a reflection of your own outlook and at times did you ever feel like a cultural interpreter or defender?
Jane: I suppose I felt more like an observer – I can understand both sides. Different cultures inevitably clash, but we are all essentially human. If you probe deep enough, people of every race have similar feelings and emotions. Nobody really wants to fight … unless they feel aggrieved!
The poignancy of a young prostitute touting for business has always stuck in my mind: “Me pink inside, just like white woman…”
I have sometimes found myself confronted with extremism, and to my shame, kept quiet. It is only as I’ve got older that I’ve had the courage to question and try to dampen such bigotry – by offering the other viewpoint. I guess this book is a reflection of that desire.
Kristin: With Kenya’s election making the news recently, do you find that the situation has
improved since your novel’s time period? Are you hopeful for Kenya and the rest of Africa’s future?
Jane: Of course -without hope, there is no life! As green shoots spring from fire-blackened soil, so will Africa always emerge – smiling. That’s what I love about the country I still think of as my home. And the situation has indeed improved since the 1950s – 1980s. The people are free to make their own mistakes, and to learn from the mistakes of others. They can choose their own path, and hold their heads up high. And by and large, they are better off, materially.
Kristin: Are you working on another novel?
Jane: There is one book I want to get off my chest before I tackle the sequel to BREATH OF AFRICA. It is a completely different story of a carer who finds herself in a place she never wanted to be.
Kristin: Do you have any tips for aspiring writers?
Jane: Yes – it is a tip which I’ve heard over and over again. Never give up! It is so true. If I can do it – so can you!
It’s been a year since I first began this blog after I received my first publishing contract.
The journey has been an amazing one and I feel I’ve learned so much since I opened that email in Italy. Receiving two contracts for two books and to have them both published in the same year is an achievement that still leaves me breathless at times. It’s been
a year filled with blessings and I can only thank profusely all those who
supported me in so many ways.
Anahareo's family with me
My recent visit to Canada and America in September was one of the memorable parts of the year. I flew first to Philadelphia and after a brief weekend adjusting to the hot temperatures I had to fly off again to Calgary (via Dallas?!). Hosted by my colleague and friend Don Smith, Grey Owl’s biographer, he escorted me first to a luncheon to celebrate the launch of my book, Anahareo: A Wilderness Spirit, attended by staff of the Glenbow Museum and Archives, women’s history scholars and people connected with Anahareo’s story. I was thrilled to meet so many people who were enthusiastic about Anahareo who were committed to spread her message and story.
Following the luncheon there was an official book launch at the Glenbow Museum and Archives. Don Smith and Doug Cass, the director of the archives both spoke. After
their introductions Katherine Swartile, Anahareo’s youngest daughter said a few words and gave some personal insight on her mother’s personality. I rounded off the launch with my own presentation of Anahareo, showing first the book trailer and then giving an overview of her life and achievements. To give the presentation a little interest I showed the photograph of my great-grandmother in her version of Indian dress complete with feather and buckskin dress, a real example of a stereotype of the time period.
Set against Anahareo’s elegant image it made a strong point.
During the reception I was thrilled to be able to finally meet Sandra and Glaze, Anahareo and Grey Owl’s grandchildren. There was no mistaking their ancestry. Glaze especially looked very much like Grey Owl as he sat their solemnly during the speeches. There were also other members of Anahareo’s family in attendance and what a pleasure it was to see the many generations gathered to hear Anahareo’s achievements.
Following the launch I drove 8 hours west to Katherine’s home to help go through and then collect the papers of Anahareo and her daughter, Dawn who died in 1984. There were also a few letters written by Grey Owl too, as well as wonderful photographs, letters, reports and newspaper clippings. I was so grateful that Katherine and her family decided to donate the papers to Glenbow and duly took them back to Calgary to be lodged there. This is a particularly special collection because it is rare enough to have the papers of a First Nations woman available for research.
I packed a lot in a few days but felt very satisfied with
the result and headed back to Philadelphia. There I appeared first at Glenside Library, where I used to work as a children’s librarian some years ago. It was wonderful to see old faces and meet some new ones. My Mt. Airy connections even came into play when someone from the Irish Center attended and
quizzed me about living in Ireland.
From Glenside it was onto West Windsor Library in Princeton Junction to give a workshop, Writing a Novel. Attendance there was overwhelming and in the end we had to turn people away. It was an enjoyable experience though and I managed to pack a load of tips and guidelines and distributed handouts. One of my professors said he always judged the quality of a workshop by whether there were handouts or not. So I must have
After West Windsor Library it was back to Pennsylvania again, this time to Radnor Library. In that fabulous library with its lovely meeting room I was able to wax lyrical to an interested audience about both books. It was a lovely evening and I met some very interesting people there as well.
Overall I was away nearly a month and was as close to an extensive book tour as I will probably ever come.
Bookshops are becoming endangered species in some places and libraries are the natural replacement to promote books in person. I do enjoy the personal connection, but it is a tiring experience too. I don’t envy the likes of Hilary Clinton who are constantly engaged in shuttle diplomacy.
Now, as Christmas approaches, I’m back in my writing cave working on the next novel, and formulating the ideas for the novel after that (the ideas keep coming in without any control). I must say I do enjoy it, but I still feel the draw to connect to other readers and writers and anyone who enjoys a good story.
The big news is that Selkie Dreams is now available in paperback. So if anyone wants to
give a Christmas present of a book it is there for the choosing. If you live in the US you’ll have to get it from www.bookdepository.com rather than Amazon because the US publication of paperback Selkie Dreams is deferred until May. But for UK residents (and Ireland) you can buy the paperback from www.amazon.uk as well.
I have been buried away in the proverbial writer's attic these past few months and have emerged finally so that I can tell you about Karen Charlton's giveaway contest for her new book, The Missing Heiress. It's a cosy historical whodunnit set in early 19th century England featuring the real Bow Street Runner, Detective Lavender.
WIN A SIGNED COPY OF THE
To celebrate the launch of her latest novel, Karen Charlton is running a fantastic promotional competition on her website.
Simply read the extract of The Missing Heiress posted on the books page of her website:
Then, using the form provided on the home page answer the question:
'What is the name of the thief arrested by Constable Woods at the Whitechapel Toll Gate?'
And you could be the lucky winner of a signed copy of her latest novel!
But Hurry! The competition closes on December 31st.
The winner will be announced in January.
Full details available on her website homepage:
photo courtesy of Lee Valley Outlook
Tuesday, July 3
There were no spare seats in the packed library in Macroom, Cork when I appeared there to celebrate the publication of Selkie Dreams. Former colleague and librarian, Paula Walker, introduced me and
shared amusing insights about the staff’s enjoyment of working with an aspiring author, who ultimately published not one, but two books in a year.
photo courtesy of Lee Valley Outlook
The audience greeted the book trailer with enthusiastic applause.
The warm and supportive atmosphere grew when I explained the part the song played in the book’s inspiration, so that when I sang the song and played the harp, some of the audience joined in at the end. The readings, selected from the novel’s opening and from a scene when the main character, Máire, meets her match in another main character, Natsilane, prompted several questions and many compliments at the end. The night finished with a wonderful array of homemade nibbles and a special feature of Selkie Dreams wine.
The Bantry Library, in the historic harbour town of Bantry, Cork, provided a fitting setting to present Selkie Dreams, as
part of the West Cork Literary Festival. With the sea at the library’s doorstep I explained the sea-based myth of the selkies, where seals take on human form, and how the song and its themes formed the novel’s structure. The Irish Times journalist, Lorna Siggins, introduced me and recounted that her own recent work took her to the northern coast of Ireland where she encountered a variation of the selkie myth.
The audience, fascinated by the book trailer, the song, and the selected readings that gave a taste of the book’s storyline and nature, shared some of their own ideas of the myth. I also gave insight into my work with the Tlingit of Alaska
that provided the other part of the book’s inspiration. The explanation prompted one audience member to recount her grandmother’s experience in the late 19th century traveling from Ireland to America to settle near the Cheyenne in Montana.
The West Cork Literary Festival, now in its sixteenth year, attracts literary figures from all over the world and continues to grow.
This year’s festival included Anita Desai, Anita Shreve, Dava Sobel and Micheal Parkinson.
Me and Eilis
14 June 2012
In a night filled with music, readings and a spectacular movie
trailer, the crowd that gathered in Ballyvourney Library, Co. Cork, for the launch of Selkie Dreams, and the biography, Anahareo :
A Wilderness Spirit were not disappointed. Award-winning singer and university lecturer, Eilís Uí Shúillebheán, began the programme with a humorous and informative introduction, explaining the idea of selkies in Irish folklore, before recounting my background in history and the love of music that drew her to live in Ballyvourney.
A movie trailer of the novel, directed and
produced by Gerry MacBride, provided a dramatic and effective insight into the book. The audience really enjoyed it. Accompanied by a soundtrack of singing and harp music, it showed wonderful sweeping shots of the Irish
landscape and photos of 19th century Alaska, and was accompanied by singing and harp music. With the scene set, the characters on stage, I gave the story life when I read two compelling excerpts to the audience. The icing on the cake I felt was when I sat down at the
harp and sang a rendition of the haunting song that framed the book, ‘The Silkie of Sule Skerrie.’
My great grandmother
After presenting the novel I moved to the biography on Anahareo and began by explaining how it was a chance viewing of the film, Grey Owl produced by Richard Attenborough that began the journey, a journey prompted by my husband pointing out Anahareo as an obvious subject for me to study.
I showed the trailer of the book and read an excerpt from the biography
that gave an indisputable insight into Anahareo’s strong and determined
character. I also summarized her
contributions in the area of
conservation and her own challenge to the negative images white people generally held of First Nations/Native Americans, including that of the ‘noble warrior’ close to nature, which prompted many organizations that celebrated white people’s idea of what native ceremonies and native people did. These events I illustrated with the photograph of my own great-grandmother dressed in Indian costume as part of her lodge, The Daughters of Liberty.
With plenty of drink and food to fuel the chat and craic it was truly a great night to kick off the book launches.
Shrewsbury Library, England
20 June 2012
Set in a beautiful 15th century building, Shrewsbury Library was a wonderful setting for any historical novel. I presented my books to the Shrewsbury Readers Group, an interesting organization of very enthusiastic and discerning readers who gave over their monthly meeting to my presentation. I was hosted by my friend, Sandra, who had moved there from Cleethorpes, some eight years ago.
A few staff from nearby libraries also attended and the reception was nothing less than enthusiastic. It was nearly midsummer’s night, the perfect night for selkie transformation, something I explained in great detail, so that they could be on alert in the days to come.The format I used was fairly close to the one I had presented in Ballyvourney only I was the technical crew as well as
the presenter. Nevertheless I managed to play the book trailers without any mishap, handle the money and also stand on one leg (not really) all in the course of the hour. A great experience in a beautiful old English town.
28 June 2012
I journeyed from Shrewsbury to Cleethorpes, my old library when I lived in Lincolnshire.
It was a great reunion with friend and fellow writer, Moon who kindly hosted me and made the arrangements for the presentation there. She was no shirker; I had plenty of coverage in the Cleethorpes Chronicle and even the Grimsby Telegraph made me the centrefold in their ‘what’s on’ section. First and last time, I’m sure. The Olympic torch also arrived in town just as I did, making the paper along with me. A great thunderstorm blew in just as it was making its way down the seafront, but that didn’t seem to daunt anyone involved.
Before the event itself I was able to attend my old writer’s group and had a lovely time meeting up with them and hearing the various projects they are working on. Moon, Dave Evardson have had their novels published this year and two other members have their work under consideration. A truly talented group, I’d say.
Rain was never far away in the time I spent at Cleethorpes and it certainly came in with a bang when I gave my presentation. Thunder and lightning no less, providing a dramatic background to the tales of selkies while the waves crashed ashore across the road from the library. Water was a big theme that day, causing floods and also creating a memorable experience for a friend from the Grey Owl Society who came all the way from Newcastle to see me at this event and get copies of the biography and even the novel too. A day out in Cleethorpes almost became a night and another day as he struggled to get home on the train. Finally he made it in the wee hours of the next morning, having been delayed and detoured due to all the floods.