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

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.

Storytellers: Deborah Feldman, author of Unorthodox

Deborah Feldman, author of Unorthodox

Deborah Feldman was one of the most impressive authors I was privileged to hear speak at the Jewish Book Council Network Author’s event earlier this month.

I was in New York to talk about Ravenscraig, my novel about an immigrant family fighting to maintain their Jewish identity  against pressure to assimilate a hundred years ago.  Deborah was there to talk about Unorthodox,  her memoire of breaking away from a Hasidic Jewish life rooted in restrictions she could no longer tolerate. The contrast in our subject matter could not have been more pronounced.

Married at 17, a mother at nineteen, Deborah found her courage and purpose in sneaking to the library to read books that she was not allowed to read; books like Matilda by children’s writer, Roald Dahl.

Unorthodox, the Scandalous Rejection of my Hasidic Roots, is a book that many communities and Jewish Book Festivals may shy away from, for being “too hot” a topic for their reader groups. I am very pleased that I first learned of the book when the sisterhood at my own synagogue chose it for our summer reading event.

My heart goes out to Deborah Feldman, a talented writer and gifted storyteller who has given us an inside view of a very difficult emotional journey.  There is much to learn and much to discuss in this  work.  It’s one of the most interesting books I’ve read this year. The strength of the book is in the frank telling of details of her life.

Learn more at Deborah’s website and from the interview in the video below.

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.

Next up, New York!

I am very excited to announce that I will be participating in the Jewish Book Council Network.  What a fantastic organization.  The Network program supports authors who write books that are of appeal to a Jewish audience.

From the JBC website: For authors, this is an opportunity to go on an all-expenses-paid book tour around North America. For program directors, it is the source of a wide selection of interesting authors who will speak in your community without an honorarium.

In June they will bring together a couple of hundred people from all over Canada and the US who are looking to book authors for events and speaking engagements.  Authors, like me, will have a two minute opportunity to make an impression that will hopefully lead to invitations to speak.  It has been described by one participant as a combination of the Gong Show and Speed Dating. Can’t wait.  Here’s a little video about the event.

More to come.  I will update you on all of the details of my trip.  I am set to present on June 3rd.  It happens that my daughter, Katiana Krawchenko, will also be in New York, so I am looking forward to memories that will be made.  Katiana is a journalism senior at the University of Florida and has been granted a ten week internship at CBS News in New York. How proud are the parents?

Exciting Times

It’s been a very busy and interesting April with a book tour that took me to Montreal and Winnipeg.  I met with old friends and new and was thrilled to discuss Ravenscraig with impassioned readers who had much to say about Rupert Willows and the early days of Winnipeg when it was among the fastest growing cities in North America.

Click here for the news and events page to see pictures and read details about my visit to Montreal and Winnipeg.

It was great fun to do my first international radio interview a couple of weeks ago, with Marc Montgomery of The Link on Radio Canada.

Click on the photo to link to the interview.

An updated version of the book trailer was posted on Youtube today.

And I am deeply honoured to be in the company of such a fine group of talented writers who have been nominated for the Manitoba Book Awards, which will be announced on Saturday night, April 28th.   I am still pinching myself that Ravenscraig, a debut novel,  has been short listed for the Carol Shields Award.

Storytellers: Daniel Karasik wins Canada Writes Prize

One of the things Canada’s public broadcasting company, the CBC, does well is encourage Canadians to read and to write.  There are recommendation lists, interviews, contests and hoopla that all quietly support a sense of national pride in the simple act of enjoying a good story.

Today the winners of the short story competition in CBC’s“Canada Writes” competion were announced.  Out of more than 3750 entries, the grand prize was awarded to Daniel Karasik, an Ontario poet and playwright.  His marvelous story, Mine, is well deserving of the honour.   You can find it here, on the CBC website.

Here’s what the CBC shared on their website about Daniel Karasik:

Daniel Karasik’s award-winning plays have been seen in Toronto, New York, and Germany. He is the author of The Crossing Guard and In Full Light, a volume of plays published by Playwrights Canada Press, and is one of eleven poets featured in Undercurrents: New Voices in Canadian Poetry, a Cormorant Books anthology; Cormorant also plans to publish his first poetry collection in 2013. He recently completed his first novel, for which he received the Alta Lind Cook Prize and the Norma Epstein National Literary Award.

Montreal Book Launch for Ravenscraig

Please join me on April 10th for the Montreal book launch of Ravenscraig.

Librairie Paragraphe Bookstore 
2220 McGill College Avenue
6:00 – 7:30 p.m.
April 10, 2012

How exciting it is for me, a Titanic fanatic, that this coincides with the 100th anniversary of the Titanic setting sail on her maiden voyage.

About the book:

Ravenscraig is historical fiction that is of particular appeal to readers interested in Jewish migration to North America, The Titanic, and anyone with an affection for Winnipeg’s history in its boom town years, a century ago.

The Storyline: 

Nothing is more important to Rupert J. Willows than the image he has built to hide the deep secret of his true identity.  A master manipulator, the ruthless and charismatic Rupert schemes his way into the upper class when he purchases the opulent mansion, Ravenscraig Hall. It is the turn of the 20th century in one of the fastest growing cities in North America; a brawling, raucous, frontier boomtown with a taste for fine theatre and loose women. True power is within Rupert’s grasp as long as his secret stays buried.

Malka Zigman is a survivor. Orphaned in London, she has just joined her Uncle Zev and his hardworking Jewish family in Canada. Recent immigrants who escaped from poverty and violence in czarist Russia, the Zigmans struggle to put down roots in the New World. With family resources stretched thin, Malka takes a risk. Everything is about to change as she reinvents herself as Maisie Rosedale and crosses over to the exclusive world of “the English” as the new maid at Ravenscraig.

Tragedies, and triumphs grip the lives of these two families as their futures inextricably twine together to culminate on the Titanic.

Author Bio:

Sandi Krawchenko Altner

Sandi Krawchenko Altner is a Jew by choice who enjoyed a long career in television and radio news in Canada. You may remember her as a reporter for Pulse News at Montreal’s CFCF TV. Sandi was born and raised in Winnipeg, and is a fifth descendent of the first group of Ukrainian immigrants who settled near Vita, Manitoba, in 1896.  She grew up with a keen interest in her roots, and a deep love for history.  Sandi now lives and writes in Florida.  She and her husband, Bob Altner have two daughters and two spoiled dogs. Ravenscraig is her first novel.

Praise for Ravenscraig:

Ravenscraig has been shortlisted for the 2011 Manitoba Historical Society’s prestigious Margaret McWilliams Award in Popular History.

“Wonderful…Welcome to Downton Abbey and Upstairs Downstairs with a Winnipeg Twist.”

-Ron Robinson, Winnipeg Free Press

Ravenscraig is superb. It is a book that almost seems to have been written specifically for me, involving Jewish immigrants who resemble what my great-grandparents were like, and reflecting the attitude and hope that I have in life.”

—Louis Kessler, past president, the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada