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.
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.
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.
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.
Perhaps the greatest enjoyment in writing a book is getting notes from readers who are touched by the book. This weekend I received two special notes that I would like to share.
The first is from Heidi, a friend from my early days in radio in Winnipeg.
“I lent my book to my 82-year old father who just returned it today. He’s a German immigrant who was a Wpg transit bus driver his entire working life in Canada and spent many a year driving in the north end. He LOVED your book, and that’s high praise from someone who doesn’t have English as his first language.”
The second note is from someone I only know by reputation for her fantastic Deli on Corydon in Winnipeg, Marla Bernstein of Bernstein’s Deli. (I’ve edited the note to be sure there are no spoilers.)
I finished your wonderful book this evening on the way home from the lake . As a Jewish Winnipegger I knew that I would love RAVENSCRAIG from the first time I heard about it…(I actually do not remember if it was a review in the Jewish Post, or Free Press, or CBC Radio).
Having Grandparents who immigrated here from Eastern Europe about 20 years after your Ravenscraig characters came to the Golden Land I can appreciate the Jews who were the first and how horrible it was for them at the beginning. By the time my Family arrived here I would think that a lot of groundwork must have been done and although poverty stricken they must have had more of a support system in place than your immigrants did.
I love the story of the allotment of acreage for those willing to farm. I love the story of the Zigman Family.
Ravenscraig is a wonderful saga. It even prompted me to take a slow joy ride through Armstrong’s Point, which I have never paid much attention to in the past.
Thank you Sandi for providing me with such a good story.
Thanks for hearing me out ! Enjoy life ! When you are back in Winnipeg and you get hungry during the day I would love to invite you to my Deli for a sandwich and a bowl of soup,(another reason I love the Zigman family)>
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.
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?
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.
“Our Street was Paved with Gold”, is the title of a film about Montreal that is a charming and nostalgic piece produced by the NFB.
During the mass migration that began in the late 19th century, every city had a similar story when it came to the location of the immigrant neighbourhoods. As writers like Abraham Cahan often described: You got off a boat, or a train, and walked until you found someone who spoke your language.
In New York it was the Lower East Side.
In Winnipeg, it was Point Douglas and ultimately, the North End.
And in Montreal, it was St. Lawrence Boulevard, the long street known as “The Main” that ran down to the harbour. Mordecai Richler described the famous neighbourhood with these words in Son of a Smaller Hero:
“All day long, St. Lawrence Boulevard, or Main Street, is a frenzy of poor Jews, who gather there to buy groceries, furniture, clothing and meat. Most walls are plastered with fraying election bills, in Yiddish, French and English. The street reeks of garlic and quarrels and bill collectors: orange crates, stuffed full with garbage and decaying fruit, are piled slipshod in most alleys.”
Similar impressions are captured in this NFB film that takes us back to 1973, and the vibrant colours of the changing neighbourhood on St. Lawrence. Directed by Albert Kish, it is called Our Street was Paved with Gold.
If your family history touches Montreal, and you remember the smell of sausage being smoked in the corner store, and the mouth watering sensation of sinking your teeth into a fresh warm bagel, you will enjoy this film.
How interesting and comforting, for those who love Montreal, to see that when it comes to making bagels, nothing much has changed in technique or atmosphere in all of these years. I think the equipment used today may well be the very same that we see in this film.
By the way, I am firmly of the opinion that once you have tasted a Montreal bagel you will be spoiled for life, and will have set a standard for bagel excellence that can not be equalled by any other bagel maker in any other city. Period.