Life Writing

Published by: Wilfrid Laurier University Press

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Life Writing

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“I Want to Join Your Club”

Letters from Rural Children, 1900-1920

“I am a girl, 13 years old, and a proper broncho buster. I can cook and do housework, but I just love to ride.”

In letters written to the children’s pages of newspapers, we hear the clear and authentic voices of real children who lived in rural Canada and Newfoundland between 1900 and 1920. Children tell us about their families, their schools, jobs and communities and the suffering caused by the terrible costs of World War I.

We read of shared common experiences of isolation, hard work, few amenities, limited educational opportunities, restricted social life and heavy responsibilities, but also of satisfaction over skills mastered and work performed. Though often hard, children’s lives reflected a hopeful and expanding future, and their letters recount their skills and determination as well as family lore and community histories.

Children both make and participate in history, but until recently their role has been largely ignored. In “I Want to Join Your Club,” Lewis provides direct evidence that children’s lives, like adults’, have both continuity and change and form part of the warp and woof of the social fabric.

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In the Unlikeliest of Places

How Nachman Libeskind Survived the Nazis, Gulags, and Soviet Communism

“I was born in 1909 in Lodz, but my passport says Przedborz …” He stopped suddenly and searched for a button.
 
“Ach, I forgot to explain this,” he said utterly frustrated, then pushed the wrong button and erased what he had just recorded. “Shayze!” An uncharacteristic curse escaped his lips. He took off his glasses and said, “I think it’s time to prepare lunch.”

Annette Libeskind Berkovits thought her attempt to have her father record his life’s story failed. But in 2004, three years after her father’s death, she was going through his things and found a box of tapes—several years’ worth—with his spectacular life, triumphs, and tragedies told one last time in his baritone voice.

Nachman Libeskind’s remarkable story is an odyssey through crucial events of the twentieth century. With an unshakable will and a few drops of luck, he survives a pre-war Polish prison; witnesses the 1939 Nazi invasion of Lodz and narrowly escapes; is imprisoned in a brutal Soviet gulag where he helps his fellow inmates survive, and upon regaining his freedom treks to the foothills of the Himalayas, where he finds and nearly loses the love of his life. Later, the crushing communist regime and a lingering postwar anti-Semitism in Poland drive Nachman and his young family to Israel, where he faces a new form of discrimination. Then, defiantly, Nachman turns a pocketful of change into a new life in New York City, where a heartbreaking promise leads to his unlikely success as a modernist painter that inspires others to pursue their dreams.

With just a box of tapes, Annette Libeskind Berkovits tells more than her father’s story: she builds an uncommon family saga and reimagines a turbulent past. In the process she uncovers a stubborn optimism that flourished in the unlikeliest of places.

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Incorrigible

On a May morning in 1939, eighteen-year-old Velma Demerson and her lover were having breakfast when two police officers arrived to take her away. Her crime was loving a Chinese man, a “crime” that was compounded by her pregnancy and subsequent mixed-race child. Sentenced to a home for wayward girls, Demerson was then transferred (along with forty-six other girls) to Torontos Mercer Reformatory for Females. The girls were locked in their cells for twelve hours a day and required to work in the on-site laundry and factory. They also endured suspect medical examinations. When Demerson was finally released after ten months’ incarceration weeks of solitary confinement, abusive medical treatments, and the state’s apprehension of her child, her marriage to her lover resulted in the loss of her citizenship status.

This is the story of how Demerson, and so many other girls, were treated as criminals or mentally defective individuals, even though their worst crime might have been only their choice of lover. Incorrigible is a survivor’s narrative. In a period that saw the rise of psychiatry, legislation against interracial marriage, and a populist movement that believed in eradicating disease and sin by improving the purity of Anglo-Saxon stock, Velma Demerson, like many young women, found herself confronted by powerful social forces. This is a history of some of those who fell through the cracks of the criminal code, told in a powerful first-person voice.

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Johanna Krause Twice Persecuted

Surviving in Nazi Germany and Communist East Germany

Persecuted as a Jew, both under the Nazis and in post-war East Germany, Johanna Krause (1907­2001) courageously fought her way through life with searing humour and indomitable strength of character. Johanna Krause Twice Persecuted is her story.

Born in Dresden into bitter poverty, Krause received little education and worked mostly in shops and factories. In 1933, when she came to the defence of a Jewish man being beaten by the brownshirts, Krause was jailed for “insulting the Führer.” After a secret wedding in 1935, she was arrested again with her husband, Max Krause, for breaking the law that forbade marriage between a Jew and an “Aryan.”

In the years following, Johanna endured many atrocities—a forced abortion while eight months pregnant and subsequent sterilization, her incarceration in numerous prisons and concentration camps, including Ravensbrück, the notorious women’s camp near Berlin, and a death march.

After the war, the Krauses took part enthusiastically in building the new socialist republic of East Germany—until 1958, when Johanna recognized a party official as a man who had tried to rape and kill her during the war. Thinking the communist party would punish the official, Joanna found out whose side the party was on and was subjected to anti-Semitic attacks. Both she and her husband were jailed and their business and belongings confiscated. After her release she lived as a persona non grata in East Germany, having been evicted from the communist party. It was only in the 1990s, after the reunification of Germany, that Johanna saw some justice.

Originally published as Zweimal Verfolgt, the book is the result of collaboration between Johanna Krause, Carolyn Gammon, and Christiane Hemker. Translated by Carolyn Gammon, Johanna Krause Twice Persecuted will be of interest to scholars of auto/biography, World War II history, and the Holocaust.

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Just a Larger Family

Letters of Marie Williamson from the Canadian Home Front,1940–1944

The Second World War had been under way for a year when Marie and John Williamson welcomed two English brothers to join them and their two children in their small house in north Toronto for the duration of the conflict. Marie wrote over 150 letters to the boys’ mother, Margaret Sharp, imagining that she could make Margaret feel she was still with her children. She shepherded the boys through education decisions and illnesses, eased them into a strange new life, and rejoiced when they embraced unfamiliar winter sports. The letters brim with detail about family holidays, the financial implications of an extended family, their involvement in their church, and the games and activities that kept them occupied. Marie’s letters reflect the lives and concerns of a particular family in Toronto, but they also reveal a portrait of what was then Canada’s second-largest city during wartime.

The introduction is by Mary F. Williamson, Marie’s daughter, and Tom Sharp, Margaret’s youngest son. The book features a foreword by Jonathan Vance that puts the letters in historical context. </p

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Kinds of Winter

Four Solo Journeys by Dogteam in Canada’s Northwest Territories

After a fifteen-year career as a sled dog racer, musher Dave Olesen turned his focus away from competition and set out to fulfill a lifelong dream. Over the course of four successive winters he steered his dogs and sled on long trips away from his remote Northwest Territories homestead, setting out in turn to the four cardinal compass points—south, east, north, and west—and home again to Hoarfrost River.

His narrative ranges from the personal and poignant musings of a dogsled driver to loftier planes of introspection and contemplation. Olesen describes his journeys day by day, but this book is not merely an account of his travels. Neither is it yet another offering in the genre of “wide-eyed southerner meets the Arctic,” because Olesen is a firmly rooted northerner, having lived and travelled in the boreal outback for over thirty years. Olesen’s life story colours his writing: educated immigrant, husband and father, professional dog musher, working bush pilot, and denizen of log cabins far off the grid. He and his dogs feel at home in country lying miles back of beyond.

This book demolishes many of the clichés that imbue writings about bush life, the Far North, and dogsledding. It is a unique blend of armchair adventure, personal memoir, and thoughtful, down-to-earth reflection.

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Leaving Fundamentalism

Personal Stories

In a time when religious conservatives have placed their faith and values at the forefront of the so-called “culture wars,” this book is extremely relevant. The stories in Leaving Fundamentalism provide a personal and intimate look behind sermons, religious services, and church life, and promote an understanding of those who have been deeply involved in the conservative Christian church. These autobiographies come from within the congregations and homes of religious fundamentalists, where their highly idealized faith, in all its complexities and problems, meets the reality of everyday life. Told from the perspective of distance gained by leaving fundamentalism, each story gives the reader a snapshot of what it is like to go through the experiences, thoughts, feelings, passions, and pains that, for many of the writers, are still raw. Explaining how their lives might continue after fundamentalism, these writers offer a spiritual lifeline for others who may be questioning their faith.

Foreword by Thomas Moore

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The Life and Letters of Annie Leake Tuttle

Working for the Best

Annie Leake Tuttle was born in Nova Scotia in 1839 and died there in 1934, yet her search for education and self-support took her far afield. During her life she filled important positions from Newfoundland to British Columbia, as an educator of teachers and as the matron of a Methodist rescue home for Chinese immigrant women who had worked as prostitutes. Her autobiography paints a vivid picture of the joys and hardships of growing up on a pioneer farm and documents her spiritual and educational quests and conquests. In addition, readers see the independence and strength of character that enable Annie Tuttle to take on family obligations that fall to an unmarried daughter and sister, and to meet the challenges of step-motherhood, the adjustments of aging and ultimately the prospect of death.

Marilyn Färdig Whiteley gently frames Tuttle’s autobiography by placing it into social and historical context. She delineates the way in which Annie claimed her identity as she began to record her life story and demonstrates how her evangelical faith enabled her to show, in her narrative, that “One above” was always “working for the best,” helping her in the work she was intended to do.

In The Life of Annie Leake Tuttle: Working for the Best, we find a rich collection of the writings of an articulate woman who shows herself to be both ordinary and extraordinary. It is a fascinating chronicle of the spiritual and secular life of an independent and spirited woman in early Canada.

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The Life Writings of Mary Baker McQuesten

Victorian Matriarch

How did a privileged Victorian matron, newly widowed and newly impoverished, manage to raise and educate her six young children and restore her family to social prominence?

Mary Baker McQuesten’s personal letters, 155 of which were carefully selected by Mary J. Anderson, tell the story. In her uninhibited style, in letters mostly to her children, Mary Baker McQuesten chronicles her financial struggles and her expectations. The letters reveal her forthright opinions on a broad range of topics — politics, religion, literature, social sciences, and even local gossip. We learn how Mary assessed each of her children’s strengths and weaknesses, and directed each of their lives for the good of the family. For example, she sent her daughter Ruby out to teach, so she could send her earnings home to educate Thomas, the son Mary felt was most likely to succeed. And succeed he did, as a lawyer and mpp, helping to build many of Hamilton’s and Ontario’s highways, bridges, parks, and heritage sites, and in doing so, bringing the family back to social prominence.

Mary Baker McQuesten was also president of the Women’s Missionary Society. The appearance, manner, and eloquence of various ministers and politicians all come under her uninhibited scrutiny, providing lively insights into the Victorian moral and social motivations of both men and women and about the gender conflicts that occurred both at home and abroad.

This book will satisfy many readers. Those interested in the drama of Victorian society will enjoy the images of the stern Presbyterian matriarch, the sacrificed female, family mental illness, the unresolved death of a husband, and the dangers of social stigma. Scholars looking for research material will find an abundance in the letters, well annotated with details of the surrounding political, social, and current events of the times.

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Love and War in London

A Woman’s Diary 1939-1942

Olivia Cockett was twenty-six years old in the summer of 1939 when she responded to an invitation from Mass Observation to “ordinary” individuals to keep a diary of their everyday lives, attitudes, feelings, and social relations. This book is an annotated, unabridged edition of her candid and evocative diary.

Love and War in London: A Woman’s Diary 1939-1942 is rooted in the extraordinary milieu of wartime London. Vibrant and engaging, Olivia’s diary reveals her frustrations, fears, pleasures, and self-doubts. She records her mood swings and tries to understand them, and speaks of her lover (a married man) and the intense relationship they have. As she and her friends and family in New Scotland Yard are swept up by the momentous events of another European war, she vividly reports on what she sees and hears in her daily life.

Hers is a diary that brings together the personal and the public. It permits us to understand how one intelligent, imaginative woman struggled to make sense of her life, as the city in which she lived was drawn into the turmoil of a catastrophic war.

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