Book Club Questions for the Author of Ravenscraig

Book Club questionsOne of the greatest pleasures of being a writer is the chance to meet with readers who want to talk about the story you invented.

I am fortunate to be  invited both in person and on Skype to talk with book clubs, service organizations, synagogues and history buffs about the story and to give presentations on the research I did to create Ravenscraig.

It is just a lot of fun to talk with readers who become deeply involved in the story.

The following questions came to me from a book club in Florida.  I couldn’t attend this event due to an ill-timed appendectomy and wrote out the answers to these questions while I was recovering.

Here then, is a little background on the writing of Ravenscraig.  Please do write to me if you have any other questions!

DSCN3574

Why did you decide to title your novel Ravenscraig? What other options did you consider? 

Finding the title was challenging. My first working title was the incredibly bland Willows on the Crescent.  After that there were a number of titles that related to the Titanic.  Finally I settled on Ravenscraig because it was the name of Rupert’s home (Rupert Willows is the lead character) and because it just seemed to work better than any of the other titles I had on my list.

Ravenscraig Hall (a fictional home) is located in the real neighbourhood of Armstrong’s Point which has a charming history and truly remains a sought-after residential neighbourhood to this day.  On the location that I placed Ravenscraig Hall there originally sat a mammoth home known as Bannatyne’s Castle.  How unfortunate that only the gates of that home are still in existence today.  I took the name Ravenscraig from Ravenscraig Castle in Scotland, which is big, ugly and was among the first built to withstand cannon fire.  Once I tripped across that, I knew it was perfect for the mansion.  Coming to the conclusion that it was the right name for the book took much longer.

Naming characters was a similar problem.  I learned all of the baby name sites on the net in my search for names that I felt would be most appropriate. I also did extensive searching through archival materials from Ellis Island, the Canadian Census reports of 1901 and 1911, the Jewish Genealogy website and City of Winnipeg archives.

What is your greatest pleasure – researching the historical underpinnings of the plot or creating the characters and dialog to communicate the historical elements?

I love the research.  The idea of writing a novel first came from stumbling across a great story about the scandals involved in building the Manitoba Legislative building a century ago.  Great story.  The more I learned the further back I needed to go.  What I learned about the conflicts between rich and poor, and English and everyone foreign during the height of the immigration boom (1896-1914) became so interesting that the focus of my story naturally shifted to the stories of that time.

There was such extreme poverty and so little political will to do anything about it that it just seemed unbelievable.  I read stories of 40 or more people living in boarding houses of 800 sq ft or less and thought it impossible that this had happened. Moreover it made me wonder that if it indeed had happened, how had I never heard of that before?  The 1911 census is an amazing document that lays out the truth.  Then, knowing the extent the overcrowding existed set a different colour to the many essays and memoires that I had read and new materials that I sought out.  What I had seen as perhaps exaggerated through a nostalgic memory suddenly came into focus as an undertold story of suffering. I wanted to bring that story to life.

This led to learning about the Typhoid epidemic in 1904-1905 when Winnipeg had the highest rate of typhoid per capita in the western world.  I first learned of it in a book by Dr. Alan Artibise, titled: A Social History of Winnipeg, 1874-1914.  There truly was a Dr. Jordan called in from Chicago to investigate the health crisis. I ordered a full copy of his report from the Manitoba Archives and was shocked to learn that he did not condemn the use of dirty river water being brought into the water mains for use in fire control.  He did say the water should be used “as little as possible”.  Equally interesting was that the Winnipeg newspapers produced no screaming headlines demanding to know the source of the typhoid.  It appears the city leaders just didn’t want the shame on a national scale.

Did Rupert Willows ever get on your nerves?  

Yes. But as awful as his behavior is at times, I admit to a deep affection for him. I enjoy his complexity.

Which is easier for you, description or dialog?  

Dialogue is much easier for me.  There comes a point where you spend enough time with your characters that you understand their morals, failings, strengths and misery.  I don’t mean to sound nutty, but I got to like a lot of them, especially the ones I spent a lot of time with.  So then, with the kind of research I did in Ravenscraig, you have a real story that you need them to react to.  You create a circumstance, place the people in it and then listen…and type.   There was one night I remember where I had had a particularly productive day.  I work outside on the patio most of the time when the weather allows.  I was working away and was quite overcome by what unfolded.  It was dark. The pool light was on, as was a lamp on the patio table. Katiana, my daughter, came out to ask a question and caught me as I wiped the tears from my eyes.  “ARE YOU OKAY, MUM?”

I think that when we think that these are not just stories, but that each of us has someone in our own ancestry who suffered, who fled, who persevered so that future generations would have a good life, it becomes something worth learning.  Each of us has a history worth knowing. Sacrifice is a big word and it counts for a lot.  It enriches your life when you contemplate the suffering that was done on your behalf.

Who do you imagine as your ideal readers?

Wow.  To be totally honest, this was a selfish endeavor. I wrote something I had searched out to read and couldn’t find. I thought if my mum read the book I wrote I would be happy. It pleases me to no end that the story has touched others and that it has sparked interest among some readers to learn more about their own histories. Historical fiction is not one of those BIG genres publishers are clamouring to publish.

As an author are you more interested in portraying the history of a period/place or in drawing “life lessons” from historical events and suggesting parallels to present issues?

I think there are life lessons in every circumstance and I wanted to tell a story that was historically correct.  I was very concerned about reflecting the attitudes of the day, particularly in the impact on women and the underclass. I like the idea that readers might learn something new that makes them think about the immigrant experience, whether it be a hundred years ago or in modern times.

Even in the most seemingly objective narrations of history, the historian has a point of view, a bias, a cautionary message.  As an author working in the genre of historical fiction, how would you characterize your moral slant or philosophical position.

I think it is very humbling to look at all of the difficulties that were borne by our ancestors.  I have little interest in anyone who might whine about not having the latest cell phone or tablet. Freedoms are too easily characterized as entitlements. I look back at that time a century ago, and imagine who or what I might have done or been. My heart goes out to the unfed children, the women who gave birth with their hair frozen to a wall in an unheated shack, and to all of the men that drove themselves to find any way possible to provide for their families. All of those who faced the tremendous challenge of putting down roots in a country where so many people were against them, simple because of a  name, a religion, or an ethnic background.  I think if I were to have lived in that time I would have thrown all my might behind Nellie McLung and the group of women who saw to it that Manitoba would be the first province in Canada to gain the right for women to vote in 1916.  Can you imagine we haven’t had the right to vote for a hundred years yet?

Why did you choose to conclude the book the way you did? Did you consider other options?

The ending came at the very end.  I had an earlier version that I was just not satisfying so I had to take some time away and just think about it. I have a deep affection for certain characters and it was very troublesome to learn what happened.  I was quite shocked, I must say, when I finally learned.

How does the ending reflect on or influence the themes of your novel. Family, Loyalty, Education, Integrity, Politics, Gender Issues (changing role of women, suffrage, etc.), Responsibility, Community, Work Ethic, Luck, Chance, Identity… personal versus social, ethnic, religious, economic, gender, family connections and expectations.-

Because the ending was the last of the book to be written, I cannot say it influenced the themes. It does influence thoughts of a sequel.  I am interested in the Great War and its impact on the city.  I am greatly interested in the work and strength of the women particularly through the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement, and the suffrage movement.  Sam Bronfman became Canada’s best known Jewish leader after he became known for Seagram.  He and his family started out in Saskatchewan and Manitoba in a variety of jobs which ultimately led to the the hotel business. He became the owner of the Bell Hotel in Winnipeg when he was in his early twenties and ultimately became Canada’s most famous bootlegger. Lots to research in this area.  And then there is the matter of the 1915 scandal of the building of the Legislative Building.

Who are your favorite authors, particularly in the historical fiction genre?

Most of what I read is non-fiction, but I very much admire and enjoy: Chaim Potok, Ken Follett, James Michener, Allan Levine, Margaret Mitchell, Harper Lee, Carol Shields, Irwin Shaw, Alice Munro among others I have forgotten to mention.

Ravenscraig Ranked #4 in McNally Robinson Bestsellers 2012

DSCN3543John Toews, the ever charming special events coordinator at McNally Robinson Booksellers in Winnipeg, wrote to me with big news last week: “I can happily announce that Ravenscraig is Number 4 on our 2012 Manitoba Bestseller list.” The list is called the Best of the West 2012.

Thank you, McNally Robinson, for being so supportive of authors, and thank you to the readers who have been so wonderful in recommending Ravenscraig to their friends.

I will remember 2012 as a wonderful year of connecting with old friends, and making new ones, through the excitement of being a first time author.  I was thrilled to see two old friends, Kathy and Linda, who came out to my talk about the Winnipeg passengers on the Titanic.  We first met when we were in grade 4.

2013 is getting off to a terrific start.  More news to come.

with Kathy Darvill and Linda Hamilton
with Kathy Darvill and Linda Hamilton

Canadian New $20 Can’t Be Laundered

So those fancy new $20 bills in Canada are pretty snazzy.  I laughed out loud when a grocery store cashier in Winnipeg gave me an impromptu review and a warning.  She jabbed a finger at the new bill and stared me down. “Make sure you don’t leave that new 20 in a pocket and put it through the washing machine. It melts in the dryer, you know.”

She thrust the grocery bag at me as I was overcome with the memory of finding an American single in my freshly washed jeans some years ago.  It made it okay.  As did the electronic key to my husband’s car.  Whew!  So you can run a high-tech German car key and an American bill through the laundry, but make sure to guard those Canadian bank notes.

I wouldn’t doubt it.  The bill is made of a special slippery substance, which is like plastic and features clear windows and some high tech graphics.

I found this background video that explains the choice in the artwork and how this the new bill offers increased security.  I think this is pretty neat.  And yes, I will always check my pockets before I do laundry.

The Manitoba Archives – Destination Vacation

I went to Weston Elementary School when I was little and living on Gallagher Avenue in Winnipeg.  One of my strongest memories from grade three was the start of creative writing.  Our teacher would cut out pictures from magazines and paste them on construction paper.  The picture would be passed around from one desk to the next through the classroom and our assignment was to write a story about it.  The pupil with the best story was awarded the picture as a prize.  How great is that?

Over the years I have developed a rather keen interest in old photographs.  So it is that I find that I have spent countless hours poking through old picture collections.  One of my favourite places to search is the Manitoba Archives.  The staff are excellent and very helpful.

Here are a few of the pictures I found.    This one is part of the Sisler Collection and was taken in around 1915. The note on the file says “Clearing Land South of Elma.”  I am using pictures in my video montage that will be presented at Tarbut tomorrow night at the Rady Jewish Community Centre.  The others are early pictures of Downtown Winnipeg.

Clearing Land near Elma. c. 1915. Sisler Collection N11619 Manitoba Archives
Winnipeg’s Portage Avenue looking west from Main St. 1902 Manitoba Archives ON426
Main Street in Winnipeg, looking north from Portage Ave. c. 1912. Manitoba Archives N17779

Celebrating the Early History of Winnipeg’s North End

Click for more information about Tarbut and to order tickets

I am delighted that Jewish Book Month will bring me back to Winnipeg for a special evening of stories, music and nostalgia.  Join me and the fabulously talented singer, Jane Enkin, on Nov. 22nd at the Rady Centre for the 3rd annual  Tarbut Festival of Jewish Culture.

For me it will be a chance to celebrate the early history of the immigrants in Winnipeg who first settled in what was to become Winnipeg’s famous North End with music, stories, pictures of the early days, and of course, a reading from Ravenscraig.

Click here for more information on programming and tickets.  See you on November 22nd!

Fiddler in the Golden Land

with Sandi Krawchenko Altner, author of Ravenscraig

Join as at Tarbut on Nov. 22nd for a lively evening of musical entertainment and nostalgic memories of the early days in Winnipeg’s North End.

Sandi Krawchenko Altner will present a reading from Ravenscraig, her award-winning historical novel about Winnipeg, and lead a discussion about the dreamers and strivers who first settled the North End.

Sandi will share stories she learned from her many years of research on Winnipeg’s boomtown years a century ago, when it was among the fastest growing cities on the continent.   The research inspired the fictional Zigman family of Ravenscraig, Russian Jewish immigrants who struggled to put down roots in Canada.  Sandi will also describe the living conditions suffered by the North End’s mix of Jews, Ukrainians and other “foreign born” residents, and the passion that developed in “the foreign quarter”  that ultimately led to Winnipeg’s North End becoming known as one of Canada’s greatest neighbourhoods for “rags to riches” success stories.

It is Tarbut’s pleasure to invite all who have a connection to, or affection for Winnipeg’s North End to join us for this special evening of nostalgia and celebration.

Ravenscraig, by Sandi Krawchenko Altner, Winner of the 2012 Carol Shields Book Award

Romance, scandal, and tragedy grip the lives of two families and threaten to destroy them both in Ravenscraig, by Sandi Krawchenko Altner.  Winner of the 2012 Carol Shields Book Award, Ravenscraig, pitches rich against poor in the height of the immigration boom a century ago.

Rupert Willows buries his cruel past and schemes his way to wealth and power when he buys his opulent home, Ravenscraig Hall. Zev Zigman, a devout Jew, mounts a desperate struggle to bring his family out of czarist Russia. At the center is the feisty Maisie, who hides her Jewish roots to enter the world of “The English” as a well paid maid at Ravenscraig. Love, anger and determination fuel the treacherous journey ahead.

Ravenscraig: The Freebie on Kindle

Click to download Ravenscraig

I am excited to let you know that Ravenscraig will be offered as a special promotion this week.  From Oct. 10-12 it will be available for free download on Amazon.  Click here to download the book….but wait until Wednesday, Oct 1oth, and please be kind enough to  send this message on to everyone you know.

So why does a writer support giving a book away for free?  The idea is the more people who download the book, the better chance this story, and this author, have of finding a readership.  In this new world of enormous strain on traditional publishing combined with the desire for instant access  downloads, I think this might be a most welcome manner to get a Canadian story out to a wide audience. I am particularly hopeful that someone in Scotland who lives within driving distance of Ravenscraig Castle  might download the book.

You will find a short book trailer at the bottom of this post.

About the book

Romance, scandal, and tragedy grip the lives of two families and threaten to destroy them both in Ravenscraig, by Sandi Krawchenko Altner.

Winner of the 2012 Carol Shields Book Award, Ravenscraig, pitches rich against poor in the height of the immigration boom a century ago. Rupert Willows buries his cruel past and schemes his way to wealth and power when he buys his opulent home, Ravenscraig Hall. Zev Zigman, a devout Jew, mounts a desperate struggle to bring his family out of czarist Russia.

At the center is the feisty Maisie, who hides her Jewish roots to enter the world of “The English” and a better paying future at Ravenscraig. Love, anger and determination fuel the treacherous journey ahead.

About the author:

Sandi Krawchenko Altner is a former television news reporter, anchor, and radio host who enjoyed an award-winning career in broadcasting over two decades in Montreal and Winnipeg.   She is a fifth generation descendent of the first colony of Ukrainian immigrants to settle in Manitoba in 1896. Sandi grew up with a keen interest in her roots and a deep love of history. A Jew by choice, she celebrated conversion in 2005.

Sandi moved to Florida in 2001 where her passion for family histories gave rise to her business as a personal historian, and documentary producer.   She specializes in interviewing people about their lives and creating tribute video projects. Ravenscraig is her first novel.

 

Ravenscraig: Questions for the Author

I had a most unusual experience the last time I was in Winnipeg.

It started with a wonderful event arranged by the Armstrong’s Point Residents Association, where I spent a lovely Saturday afternoon in September talking about the early history of the neighbourhood with residents, history enthusiasts, and readers.

A couple of days later I wound up in the hospital with an emergency appendectomy.  A little scary, and very disappointing as it interrupted my planned meetings and visits in Winnipeg, but it wasn’t all bad. I was in and out in less than 48 hours and all went well.  I also had the pleasure of extending my visit and recuperating in my mother’s house, while she baked pies with apples harvested from her backyard.  How wonderful is that?

While I thoroughly enjoyed the time with my mother, and the rest of the family, it was disappointing that I had to miss a book club event at home in Florida that had been in the works for some months. Jane, who had invited me to speak to the club, sent on some questions and promised to read the answers in her “best Canadian accent” to her book club members.  Following are the questions and my answers.  By the way, if  there is anything you would like to know about the story in Ravenscraig, please email me at Sandi.Altner@gmail.com.

Thank you, Jane.

Why did you decide to title your novel Ravenscraig? What other options did you consider? 

Finding the title was challenging. My first working title was Willows on the Crescent.  After that there were a number of titles that related to the Titanic.  Finally I settled on Ravenscraig because it was the name of Rupert’s home (Rupert Willows is the lead character) and because it just seemed to work better than any of the other titles I had on my list.

Courtesy Provincial Archives of Manitoba c. 1915

Ravenscraig Hall (a fictional home) is located in the real neighbourhood of Armstrong’s Point which has a charming history and truly was a sought after residential neighbourhood.  On the location that I placed Ravenscraig Hall there originally sat a mammoth home known as Bannatyne’s Castle.  How unfortunate that only the gates of that home are still in existence today.  I took the name Ravenscraig from Ravenscraig Castle in Scotland, which is big, ugly and was among the first built to withstand cannon fire.  Once I tripped across that, I knew it was perfect for the mansion.  Coming to the conclusion that it was the right name for the book took much longer.

Naming characters was a similar problem.  I know all of the baby name sites on the net. I also did extensive searching through archival materials from Ellis Island, the Canadian Census reports of 1901 and 1911, the Jewish Genealogy website and City of Winnipeg archives.

What is your greatest pleasure – researching the historical underpinnings of the plot or creating the characters and dialog to communicate the historical elements?

I love the research.  The idea of writing a novel first came from stumbling across a great story about the scandals involved in building the Manitoba Legislative building a century ago.  Great story.  The more I learned the further back I needed to go.  What I learned about the conflicts between rich and poor, and English and everyone foreign during the height of the immigration boom (1896-1914) became so interesting that the focus of my story naturally shifted to the stories of that time.

There was such extreme poverty and so little political will to do anything about it that it just seemed unbelievable.  I read stories of 40 or more people living in boarding houses of 800 sq ft or less and thought it impossible that this had happened. Moreover it made me wonder that if it indeed had happened, how had I never heard of that before?  The 1911 census is an amazing document that lays out the truth.  Then, knowing the extent the overcrowding existed set a different colour to the many essays and memoires that I had read and new materials that I sought out.  What I had seen as perhaps exaggerated through a nostalgic memory suddenly came into focus as an undertold story of suffering. I wanted to bring that story to life.

This led to learning about the Typhoid epidemic in 1904-1905 when Winnipeg had the highest rate of typhoid per capita in the western world.  I first learned of it in a book by Dr. Alan Artibise, titled: A Social History of Winnipeg, 1874-1914.  There truly was a Dr. Jordan called in from Chicago to investigate the health crisis. I ordered a full copy of his report from the Manitoba Archives and was shocked to learn that he did not condemn the use of dirty river water being brought into the water mains for use in fire control.  He did say the water should be used “as little as possible”.  Equally interesting was that the Winnipeg newspapers produced no screaming headlines demanding to know the source of the typhoid.  It appears the city leaders just didn’t want the shame on a national scale.

Which is easier for you, description or dialog?  

Dialogue is much easier for me.  There comes a point where you spend enough time with your characters that you understand their morals, failings, strengths and misery.  I don’t mean to sound nutty, but I got to like a lot of them, especially the ones I spent a lot of time with.  So then, with the kind of research I did in Ravenscraig, you have a real story that you need them to react to.  You create a circumstance, place the people in it and then listen…and type.   There was one night I remember where I had had a particularly productive day.  I work outside on the patio most of the time when the weather allows.  I was working away and was quite overcome by what unfolded.  It was dark. The pool light was on, as was a lamp on the patio table. Katiana, my daughter, came out to ask a question and caught me as I wiped the tears from my eyes.  “ARE YOU OKAY, MUM?”

I think that when we think that these are not just stories, but that each of us has someone in our own ancestry who suffered, who fled, who persevered so that future generations would have a good life, it becomes something worth learning.  Each of us has a history worth knowing. Sacrifice is a big word and it counts for a lot.  It enriches your life when you contemplate the suffering that was done on your behalf.

Who do you imagine as your ideal readers?

Wow.  To be totally honest, this was a selfish pursuit. I wrote something I had searched out to read and couldn’t find. I thought if my mom read the book I wrote I would be happy. It pleases me to no end that the story has touched others and that it has sparked interest among some readers to learn more about their own histories. Historical fiction is not one of those BIG genres publishers are clamouring to publish.

As an author are you more interested in portraying the history of a period/place or in drawing “life lessons” from historical events and suggesting parallels to present issues?

I think there are life lessons in every circumstance and I wanted to tell a story that was historically correct.  I was very concerned about reflecting the attitudes of the day, particularly in the impact on women and the underclass. I like the idea that readers might learn something new that makes them think about the immigrant experience, whether it be a hundred years ago or in 2012.

Even in the most seemingly objective narrations of history, the historian has a point of view, a bias, a cautionary message.  As an author working in the genre of historical fiction, how would you characterize your moral slant or philosophical position.

I think it is very humbling to look at all of the difficulties that were borne by our ancestors.  I have little interest in anyone who might whine about not having the latest Smart Phone. Freedoms are too easily characterize as entitlements. I look back at that time a century ago, and imagine who or what I might have done or been. My heart goes out to the unfed children, the women who gave birth with their hair frozen to a wall in an unheated shack, and to all of the men that drove themselves to find any way possible to provide for their families. All of those who faced the tremendous challenge of putting down roots in a country where so many people were against them, simple because of your name, your religion, or your ethnic background.  I think if I were to have lived in that time I would have thrown all my might behind Nellie McLung and the group of women who saw to it that Manitoba would be the first province in Canada to gain the right of women to vote in 1916.  Can you imagine we haven’t had the right to vote for a hundred years yet?

Why did you choose to conclude the book the way you did? Did you consider other options?

The ending came at the very end.  I had an earlier version that I was not happy with. I have a deep affection for certain characters and it was very troublesome to learn what happened.  I was quite shocked, I must say, when I finally learned.

How does the ending reflect on or influence the themes of your novel.Family, Loyalty, Education, Integrity, Politics, Gender Issues (changing role of women, suffrage, etc.), Responsibility, Community, Work Ethic, Luck, Chance, Identity… personal versus social, ethnic, religious, economic, gender, family connections and expectations.-

Because the ending was the last of the book to be written, I cannot say it influenced the themes. It does influence thoughts of a sequel.  I am interested in the Great War and its impact on the city.  I am greatly interested in the work and strength of the women particularly through the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement, and the suffrage movement.  Sam Bronfman became Canada’s best known Jewish leader after he became known for Seagram.  He and his family started out in Saskatchewan and Manitoba in a variety of jobs which ultimately led to the the hotel business. He became the owner of the Bell Hotel in Winnipeg when he was in his early twenties and ultimately became Canada’s most famous bootlegger. Lots to research in this area.  And then there is the matter of the 1915 scandal of the building of the Legislative Building.

Who are your favorite authors, particularly in the historical fiction genre?

Most of what I read is non-fiction, but I very much admire and enjoy: Chaim Potok, Ken Follett, James Michener, Allan Levine, Margaret Mitchell, Harper Lee, Carol Shields, Irwin Shaw, Alice Munro among others I have forgotten to mention.

Armstrong’s Point: Home to Ravenscraig Hall

Armstrong’s Point c. 1915 courtesy Manitoba Archives. Filed under Winnipeg Streets.

Armstrong’s Point is among my favourite neighbourhoods in Winnipeg and was the ideal choice for the location of the fictional home Ravenscraig Hall in my novel Ravenscraig.

Tucked into a bend in the Assiniboine River, the lush landscape and expansive lawns of “The Gates” as it is often called, have continued to inspire new generations of homeowners for more than a century.  There is no other place quite like this, and it fascinates me.

You will get a sense of the luxurious homes that were built in Armstrong’s Point at the turn of the 20th century if you read the opening chapter of Ravenscraig, which you will find here on line.

To this day, Armstrong’s Point remains a distinctly beautiful and peaceful residential area, hidden away from the busy streets of downtown, yet a short walk to the city centre, public transportation, fine restaurants, bakeries, walking paths, as well as churches and a synagogue.

No, you will not find a real Ravenscraig Hall, there, but I can tell you exactly where it would have been located had it existed.

I wanted to share this short video to show what Armstrong’s Point looks like today. It was produced by Compass Digital Media of Winnipeg and is narrated by Bill Richardson.   I hope it will help you understand why the residents association of Armstrong’s Point remains so fiercely protective of their historic neighbourhood.

The following notes were posted by Compass Digital Media to accompany the youtube video.

Historic Armstrong’s Point received its name in the mid-1800s, when the land was first granted by the Hudson’s Bay Company to Captain Joseph Hill.

When Captain Hill returned to England five years later, he left his boatman James Armstrong in charge and the area gradually came to be known as Armstrong’s Point. In the early 1880s when Hill heard that land values were escalating in the Canadian west, he returned to Winnipeg, reestablished his title to his property, and sold it to a syndicate headed by J. McDonald and E. Rothwell.

The Armstrong’s Point Association was formed 54 years ago to “preserve the residential nature” of one of Winnipeg’s most cherished neighbourhoods. Over the years, residents have come and gone, but still somehow, this peaceful, naturally beautiful setting remains, cherished by all who live here and visit here.

Of the 123 homes on the Point, 75 are on the city’s Inventory of Historically Noteworthy Buildings. The ornamental Tyndallstone gates were erected in 1902 and were designated by the City as historically significant in 1993.

The Cornish Library, a Carnegie library built in 1915, was named after Winnipeg*s first mayor, Francis Cornish. Ralph Connor House, home to the University Women*s Club at 54 West Gate, has been designated municipally and provincially and was recently named a National Historic Site. Beechmount at 134 West Gate is on the Canadian Registry of Historic Places.

Family Research Leads to Writing Ravenscraig

Mary Krawchenko and her mother Tillie Bachynsky with
Mary’s daughters, Sandi and Margaret, 1958

I have a real fascination with old black and white pictures.  I am especially interested in photos of people I know, but can spend days looking into any antique photo collection to learn about how people lived their lives generations ago.

I expect this is a familiar feeling for anyone who has looked through old family pictures and wished that there was someone still around to explain who was in the picture and what was happening on that day. Was it a birthday?  A visit to a relative?  Or just a walk in a park to share good news?  The black and white photos tucked away in shoe boxes so quickly become anonymous faces staring out at us from another century with stories that are rooted in imagination instead of fact.

If I had to settle on a single reason why I wrote Ravenscraig, it would have to be this interest in old pictures.

Ravenscraig is a novel that tells the story of some of the major events in Winnipeg during the height of the immigration boom that began in the 1890s.  Two families– one Jewish, poor and struggling to put down roots in the New World; the other rich and resistant to the foreigners among them–together provide a view of what life was like in a booming frontier city in Canada at the turn of the 20th century.

The research for the story was a most gratifying journey that included wide ranging resources from scholarly works and rare books to archived collections of rare documents, private letters and microfilmed court testimony.  Online sources included such favourite websites as the Manitoba Historical Society, the City of Winnipeg Department of Planning, Canada Census Records and the online newspaper archives like the Manitoba Free Press.

Nikola Strumbicky and Aksana Shmigelsky Strumbicky, 1958, Winnipeg

The inspiration for my desire to learn about the early days of Winnipeg grew out of a fascination with my own family roots.  My family came to Manitoba in 1896  from Zalischiky, Galicia, which is now part of the Ukraine.  They were “Stalwart Peasants in Sheepskin Coats” as Clifford Sifton the minister responsible for immigration had called them.   They came to Canada to farm, answering the invitation for free land in Canada’s determination to populate the prairies.

It is a most gratifying journey to learn about one’s past.  What pictures are in your shoebox?

Celebrating Winnipeg’s Past

Ravenscraig,  The Blog

This blog celebrates the history of Winnipeg, my hometown, and occasionally allows me to indulge in some wider observations of the world that catch my interest.

Here you will find stories about Winnipeg at the turn of the 20th century when the Manitoba capital declared her glory as one of the fastest growing cities in North America.  The research behind the stories you will find on this site was done over many years and became the basis for the storyline for my novel, Ravenscraig.  I welcome your comments, questions, and suggestions.  Email me at:  sandi.altner@gmail.com

Boomtown Winnipeg:

The early years in Manitoba were very exciting, with Winnipeg recognized as the gateway city for people and goods traveling west to the new frontier. From these years of rapid growth in Winnipeg, 1874-1914, there developed a large group of millionaires and the crop of mansions they built to impress each other.

Historian, Dr. Alan Artibise, referred to these captains of industry as “the commercial elite” and truly Winnipeg was seen by those “down east” in Ontario, as the place to be for those seeking to make or increase their fortunes at the dawn of the 20th century.

Dufferin, corner of King c. 1904 N7962 Courtesy Manitoba Archives

But not everyone had a shot at the big money in Winnipeg.

On the other side of the tracks, newly arrived immigrants struggled to overcome the horrors of poverty, disease and anti-foreigner sentiments as they fought to put down roots in the New Country. It is from this determination of the newcomers to survive and prosper that the famed Winnipeg North End came to be.

To help understand the rich mosaic in this colourful history, I’ve included a selection of films, featuring such topics as Jews in Winnipeg, life in a Ted Baryluk’s store in the North End, and a terrific NFB film about a man whose job was to keep the tracks clean for the Winnipeg street cars.

You will also find that I indulge in some nostalgic remembrances of my childhood  on Gallagher Avenue and at Principal Sparling School, and share stories about my family history.  I am very proud to have descended from the first group of Ukrainian settlers in Manitoba.  The first 27 families  arrived in the summer of 1896 and settled in the southeastern corner of the province.  My family farmed near Vita.

Titanic, I must say, is my true love in research topics so you will find a number of postings about Winnipeg’s Titanic connection, and Titanic in general. In all there were more than thirty passengers on the ship who were on their way to Winnipeg to return home, stay for a visit, or like survivor Eva Hart’s family, to settle in Manitoba as immigrants.

I was a child when I first learned about the Titanic. My dad took us for a drive to point out Mark Fortune’s house on Wellington Crescent and told us about the six people from the Fortune family who were on their way home to Winnipeg when the great ship struck an iceberg and sank.  I was horrified, and instantly hooked.

Years later, the Fortune family and Winnipeg’s connection to the Titanic came to occupy a significant part of my imagination, and the Fortunes found their way into my novel, Ravenscraig, which has recently been published in Canada by Heartland Associates.

Thanks for visiting.

About the name Ravenscraig:

Ravenscraig, the blog, (and title of my novel) is taken from the name of a fictitious home, Ravenscraig Hall, in Winnipeg’s Armstrong’s Point and owned by Rupert Willows, the lead character in the book.

About the novel:

Ravenscraig is about two families: the Willows—wealthy, powerful and anti-Semitic, and the Zigmans—newly arrived Jews, struggling to put down roots in Winnipeg’s North End.

Click on the image below to see the book trailer for Ravenscraig.