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.
What an incredible honour it is that Ravenscraighas been recognized as the winner of the Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award. I am at a loss to describe how deeply moved I am that this has happened.
Carol Shields was born and raised in Chicago, but lived in Canada from 1957 until her death in 2003. She wrote ten novels and two collections of short stories in addition to poetry. She won the Pulitzer Prize for The Stone Diaries, which was also shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and she won the Orange Prize for Larry’s Party.
The Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award is presented by the City of Winnipeg and this is how it is described on the city’s website.
In 1999 the City of Winnipeg established its first book award. The first Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award was presented in 2000 at Brave New Words, the Manitoba Literary Awards. The Award is a juried annual prize honouring books which evoke the special character, and contribute to the appreciation and understanding of Winnipeg. All genres are eligible. The Call for Submissions is issued in late fall. The Award and its $5000 prize are presented at Brave New Words, the Manitoba Writing and Publishing Awards Gala.
Some years ago, I had the privilege of interviewing Mrs. Shields when her novel, Larry’s Party, was released, and I was working in television news.
Warm, quiet and dignified, is how I remember her. She was a small and gentle woman who seemed somewhat overwhelmed by all of the attention that was paid her at a rather large and boisterous book launch party.
That gentleness shone through in every interview I’ve heard with Carol Shields, including this one, in a biography produced by the CBC in 1982.
Carol Shields was not only wonderfully gifted as a storyteller, she was an inspiring force who shined a light on Winnipeg through her writing about streets that were familiar to her and home to her characters.
In 1992, she was interviewed about her new novel, The Republic of Love. The interview took place in Vancouver and Mrs. Shields found herself being questioned about her choice of Winnipeg for the setting. I love her answer.
INT: It warmed my heart considerably in reading this novel to see Winnipeg portrayed so affectionately because so many people seem to have had the experience – so many Canadians seem to have had the experience – of passing through Winnipeg. It’s a place they’ve been when they’re on the train, it’s a place they’ve flown over and I don’t know that it has ever been done quite this way before.
Carol Shields: Of course I am very fond of Winnipeg. I’ve lived there now eleven years. It somehow seemed right, now, to write about it. The time had come but I’ve wanted to do a couple of things a little differently. I wanted to talk about Winnipeg in the spring, summer and fall and not just in the winter because that is, of course, the stereotypical picture that we all have of it. I also wanted to talk about it as a cosmopolitan centre. It does have more than 0.5 million people and I think that always surprises people that it does function in this big city way as well. So those were a couple of things. But I have to tell you that I did worry quite a bit about setting this book in Winnipeg because I know Canadians are familiar with Winnipeg or at least with the mythology of the city. But this book was being published inNew York and in London as well and I expected at any minute to get a phone call from these people and say “Look, we cannot publish a novel set in what is this place? Winnipeg?” And I had prepared a defense. I was going to say that if Anne Tyler can write about Baltimore, I can write about Winnipeg. But you know? No one even raised this issue so I certainly didn’t raise it.
How fitting that the City of Winnipeg has chosen to honour her memory with the annual literary prize that celebrates Winnipeg.
“As a newcomer to Winnipeg, I had everything to learn from the gripping true stories – the phenomenally fast growth of Winnipeg at the turn of the 20th century, political and business intrigue and the ways of life for the rich and poor
of the city. It was always a treat to see how Altner brought real people into the lives of the Willows and Zigman families.
The imagined characters, living in these exciting times, are connected to two families, one wealthy and part of Winnipeg’s high society, the other new Jewish immigrants. The homes and luxuries, and also the stresses and concerns, of the wealthy characters from British backgrounds were new to me, and fun to discover.
The stories of Jewish immigrant families, starting with their dangerous lives in Ukraine, to their poverty in Canada, through to their gradual success, are very familiar. It’s a story I never tire of hearing, because it’s the story of my own family – my grandmother crossed a river carrying her son to sneak across a border, thought she had started a secure new life in a different part of Europe, then had to start all over again in Canada.”
Click hereto see the entire article in the Winnipeg Jewish Review.
A dream week, with lots to celebrate, and a great deal to be thankful for. Thank you, Manitoba for your enthusiasm for stories about the rich history of Winnipeg!
I count myself lucky that I knew so little about the publishing industry when I started writing Ravenscraig. It would have gotten in the way of the writing.
Well over a decade ago, I tasted the freedom of “making up a story”, when I started to play with words outside of work. As a news reporter, my writing was constrained by the rules of truth and responsibility, and a strong journalistic ethic to be unbiased and thorough. It was a tantalizing treat to find that fiction would cut me loose. I could invent anything. Well, not exactly. I’m not the science fiction type and I’m not much for literature that involves flying dragons or dripping daggers. While I love reading history of any kind, as well as mysteries, biographies, political memoires, and even the occasional juicy “beach trash” novel, as a writer, my heart is in historical fiction.
So it was that I gravitated to the news stories of Winnipeg, in the late 19th century and found myself writing a novel. I buried myself in research and learned fascinating tales about a hard living western saloon town bent on success. I spent evenings and weekends combing through the Internet as well as piles of documents, tattered books, scholarly works, newspaper archives and microfilmed testimony from a hundred years ago. I learned about prostitutes, typhoid epidemics, the struggles of immigrants, anti-Semitism, fire fighting in the 1890s, travel in the gilded age, and of course, I became all but swallowed up by the most appealing subject of all: the Titanic.
I developed a great passion for historical research, but it was the people I studied who set my imagination on fire. A parade of characters, some true, some figments, wandered into my mind, demanding that I pay attention and hear what they had to say. Writing their experiences, dealing with their emotions and living with their joys and heartaches became a very fulfilling journey over a great many years.
If you are not a writer, and perhaps, even if you are, about now you might think me a bit of a nut, someone who has imaginary friends to hang out with and lives a small and withered life in the back corner of a dusty library, communing with spirits. I can assure you that I am actually quite well grounded, and deeply content in my life, and that I prefer to sit outside when I write. (I gave up snow for palm trees.) But we can talk more about the satisfaction gained from living as a writer on another day.
A part of every trip to Winnipeg was and is dedicated to research. Most trips started with visiting Burton Lysecki and Karen Sigurdson at the fabulous Burton Lysecki Book Store. They specialize in rare Manitoba works and always kept special books aside for me, and helped me track down works I needed. I also spent a lot of time at the Manitoba Archives, the Manitoba Legislative Library, Heritage Winnipeg, the City of Winnipeg Archives, and the Jewish Historical Society, where I read family accounts of early Winnipeg memories.
More than anything it was the photos of those many years ago that truly inspired my desire to learn more about how people managed.
There was such great poverty and hardship suffered by so many people in the foreign quarter.
It is astonishing to think about it, especially when we look at pictures of children. The Foote collection at the Manitoba Archives is particularly interesting and sobering.
Equally of interest to me was learning about the wealthy class. Winnipeg, like so many other cities with rapid growth at the turn of the century was a city of stark contrasts and home to a number of millionaires who traveled the world, enjoyed theatre, opera and the musical society as well as sports such as curling, golf, and fox hunting. There were two distinct worlds in Winnipeg and undoubtedly many people lived out their entire lives never seeing “how the other half lived”.
In 2009 I was ready to expose my work to friends and family. A cumbersome prospect for a novel of 500 pages. My mother certainly wasn’t going to read anything like this on a computer. I found a print on demand company that charges you by the book. I ordered a few a copies and it was the best thing I could have done. When that box arrived and I opened it, on March 6th, 2009, I was over the moon with excitement. It looked like a book. It hefted like a book. And the best was, it didn’t look like it was going to fall apart. I felt like an author for the first time.
To my utter delight, I had very encouraging feedback from my advance readers. Three comments stand out.
First from my friend Jane, an oncologist in Florida, who called me on a Sunday afternoon: “Sandi, I have to tell you that first I wanted to read this only because you’re my friend, and I’m too polite to have said no to you. I’m a hundred pages in and just had to call to let you know that this is really good.”
Janet, a dear friend in Montreal: “I was reading your book while in line at the grocery store cash register, and I was so taken with the story, I had tears running down my face. The manager offered me a chair, so I could weep in comfort while I finished the chapter.”
My greatest worry was how this was going to read in the Jewish community in Winnipeg. I am a Jew by choice, having converted in 2005. I have no genetic link to Judaism that I know of. My knowledge comes from study so it was very important to me that the story rang true among those whose roots are among the Jewish pioneers of Winnipeg. I sent the draft to Louis Kessler, former president of the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada, whom I first met in Junior High. We were in class together at Edmund Partridge.
Louis sent me this note: “I thought Ravenscraig was superb. You can add another dozen superlatives here. But it is a book that you almost seem to have written specifically for me, being located in Winnipeg, referring to landmarks and locations that have meaning to me, involving Jewish immigrants who resemble what my great-grandparents were like, and reflecting the attitude and hope that I have in life.”
What followed next was sending the book out to publishers. The letters came back gently refusing the work. But one in particular was very encouraging. In evaluating the manuscript, the editor wrote:
“There is a great deal to admire as well as to be charmed by in the novel: Ms Altner’s ability to imagine herself into the minds-and hearts-of characters who are very different from each other, and distant from ourselves by virtue of the traditions and conditions of the time. I learned a great deal about the growth of the city of Winnipeg, which I have always thought one of the most intriguing cities in Canada (western yet not quite, the incubator of fiercely held political/social beliefs, an arts capital), and found the approach to issues such as the pressure to assimilate, never mind outright racism, sensitively and intelligently treated.”
This editor, whom I have never met, but to whom I am indebted, had also provided clues on what was needed to address the weaknesses in the manuscript. I rewrote the book twice over the following 18 months, conjuring up an imaginary version of this editor to rake me over the coals and help me find the path to a cleaner story.
I cautiously put the new version into the hands of a select few new readers. Among them was an old Winnipeg friend who had gone into the film business in Toronto, Greg Klymkiw. Greg was a tremendous help in both his enthusiasm for the work, and his bold statement. “I want to be your editor.” Over several months Greg would “Skype me in” and we’d have these fabulous story building sessions talking about characters, story lines and how to think about writing action as opposed to reflection. I am very grateful for Greg’s valuable and generous input and can only say that if you ever have the opportunity to work with him, you will be truly blessed.
At the same that I was working through new revisions with Greg, Ravenscraig caught the attention of Peter St. John of Heartland Associates and the long road to find a publisher ended in Winnipeg with Heartland purchasing the Canadian rights. Publisher and editor, Barbara Huck, provided the polishing touch to the manuscript and was the driving force to get it out in time for Christmas and Hannukah. This week Ravenscraig is rolling off the presses at Friesens in Altona, Manitoba. A Manitoba story with a Manitoba publisher and a Manitoba printer. I am utterly thrilled that Heartland took this on and was so determined to make this happen.
It is a long and interesting road to bring a book through traditional publishing, especially in these challenging times in the industry. Thank you, Peter and, especially Barbara, for moving mountains to make this dream come true.
Heartland and Associates, a Manitoba publishing house, has purchased the Canadian rights to Ravenscraig by Sandi Krawchenko Altner.
The book will be launched in Winnipeg on November 29, 2011, at the McNally Robinson store at Grant Park.
A sweeping epic set at the turn of the 20th century, Ravenscraig reveals the secrets and lies that tie two families together. Rupert Willows has hidden away his past to manipulate his way to wealth and power. Zev Zigman, a devout Jew, mounts a desperate struggle to bring his family out of Russia and put down roots in Winnipeg’s North End.
Tragedies, triumphs, and the Titanic shape the lives of these two families as their futures entwine to illuminate a dark corner of Winnipeg’s past when it was the fastest growing city in the Dominion.
About the Author:
Sandi Krawchenko Altner enjoyed an award-winning career in television and radio news in Calgary, Winnipeg and Montreal, before she left to follow her passion for writing fiction. She is a fifth generation descendent of the first colony of Ukrainian immigrants to settle in Stuartburn, Manitoba in 1896. Sandi grew up with a keen interest in her roots and a deep love of history. A Jew by choice, Sandi celebrated conversion in 2005. She lives, writes and blogs in Florida where she is active in her synagogue. Sandi and her husband have two daughters and two happy dogs. Ravenscraig is her first novel.
Click on the image below to see the book trailer for Ravenscraig.
When the Canadian Pacific Railway opened the Royal Alexandra Hotel on July 19, 1906, it was one of the finest in Canada. It cost a million dollars to build and was designed with the sophisticated business traveler and lavish Winnipeg party host in mind. With 450 rooms, including many luxury suites, it was a dramatic testament to Winnipeg’s self-procaimed reputation as the fastest growing city in the Dominion. In a story about the opening, The Winnipeg Tribune called the impressive hotel a: “guarantee in brick and stone that the future growth of Winnipeg is assured.”
Another article, this one by The Canada Hotels Journal, in August, 1906, told its readers: “The new CPR hotel, the Royal Alexandra, which was opened last month in Winnipeg, gives to that city one of the finest hostelries in Canada and one that is surpassed by few on the continent.”
Indeed it was. Named for a queen, the hotel was immediately dubbed the Royal Alex and declared its place as the social centre of Winnipeg.
It would be another six years before the hotel’s prime competitor, the Hotel Fort Garry, would be built, giving the Royal Alex plenty of time to assert her grandeur and attract her followers.
The hotel was built at Higgins and Main, on the North-east corner. To allow for it’s construction next to the Canadian Pacific Railway station, a number of “Hebrew” businesses were reportedly displaced from their established locations along Main Street.
The Royal Alexandra offered exquisite menus and the finest services available for travelers and local residents in need of pampering. If advertising is to be believed, it even provided one of Winnipeg’s early locations for top level beauty treatments.
This advertisement for a beauty parlor that perhaps needed no name, appeared in the Manitoba Free Press, shortly after the hotel opened.
“I have at considerable expense laid out a first class parlor, fully equipped in every branch of hairdressing, hair-dyeing, wig-making, scalp treatment, facial steaming and manicuring departments, all of which will have my personal supervision.”
The ad was placed by William Saalfeld who explained his extensive training in Paris, Montreal, London and other cities, and added that he had bee a court hairdresser.
While the salon may have been reason alone to visit the Royal Alex, the hotel was most certainly seen first as a highly desirable event location.
Weddings, galas, and Royal visits were hosted in the sumptuous halls that included the greatly loved Café, lined with oak and suffused in East European opulence. Champagne, caviar, and a seemingly endless flow of moneyed guests maintained the hotel’s aura of richness.
But, it was a dream that started to fade all too quickly. As hopes for continued growth in Winnipeg started to wane, so too, did the glamour of the Royal Alexandra start to dim.
By the time the hotel was sixty years old she was a tattered old lady no one wanted to visit. Wrong location, too costly to keep warm, and too old to care about. The hotel was closed at the end of December in 1967.
The last event in the grand hotel marked the beginning of a new life for someone else. It was a wedding on December 30th, 1967. Mr. and Mrs. R. J. Linton were caught by a Winnipeg Tribune photographer as they left the hotel.
For the next four years the Royal Alex stood empty, but for the security guards who patrolled her halls and listened for ghosts from parties past. There were many ambitious plans put forward to save the building, to find another purpose for her many rooms, and to preserve her historical value. But alas, the plans all fell under the weight of crushing costs that could not be supported.
The terrible announcement was made on March 1, 1971. The building had to come down. There was nothing that could happen to stop it. A local wrecking company, owned by Alexander Billinkoff, was hired to bring down the decayed and decrepit Royal Alex. Because it was Winnipeg, there was still a lot to argue about despite the decision. The history fans were appeased with the promise of an auction and many Manitobans were able to cart away special treasures to hold dear and perhaps even pass down to their grandchildren. But not everyone took things to keep in private collections.
One special couple, Allan and Donni Stern had a bigger idea and joined forces with Alec Billinkoff to make it happen. They decided they wanted to save the one dining room that had been left untouched by renovations in the hotel. The Cafe, which had seen many names over the years, would be lovingly preserved and rebuilt in a new location.
Piece by piece the décor of the famous Café, then known as the Selkirk Dining Room, was carefully removed, coded and stored. The initial plans for rebuilding the room in Winnipeg did not work out and the Café sat packed away for over 25 years before it was rescued from storage and recreated in all of its splendour in the Canadian Museum of Rail Travel in Cranbrook, British Columbia in a millenium project almost one hundred years after the hotel had first been built.
So, if one more spin on the dance floor in that marvelous old room would make your heart sing, you might consider a trip to Cranbrook.