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?
Karen Black helped a great deal with inviting me to her afternoon drive show at CJOB, and I am very grateful that Style Manitoba Magazine profiled Ravenscraig in its current issue.
It was thrilling and wonderful and I couldn’t be happier that people are interested in a story about Winnipeg’s boomtown years a century ago when it was the fastest growing city in North America.
On Friday we learned we topped the best seller list at McNally Robinson, even edging out one of my favourite titles, “The Help”. This has been one very memorable week. My humble thanks to all who helped make this such a successful launch.
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.
Ukrainian-speaking peasants from Eastern Europe were not anywhere near the preferred list of immigrants wanted by Canada in the early 1890s. English, French and American farmers were the top choice. But, the government had a huge problem. Not enough of these “acceptable” people were interested in breaking the land in the Canadian West, and the Americans were expressing a keen interest in annexing the vast open land.
The government decided it had no choice but to look to less attractive immigrants to solve the problem of populating the prairies.
When I speak of quality I have in mind something that is quite different from what is in the mind of the average writer or speaker upon the question of immigration. I think that a stalwart peasant in a sheepskin coat, born on the soil, whose forefathers have been farmers for ten generations, with a stout wife and a half-dozen children, is good quality.
~ Clifford Sifton
One man, Clifford Sifton, Canada’s Minister of the Interior and charged with the responsibility of immigration (1896-1905), drove the campaign to open Canada’s doors to Central and Eastern Europe. The country needed to establish farming on the prairies, and they needed people who could survive on their own to do it.
Among the first to respond to Canada’s invitation for free land were peasants from Galicia and Bukovinia in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. They were poor farmers who were being crowded off of their meager farms. As their families expanded, the land they had available to share with their children was being divided down to nothing. Facing a bleak future and deep poverty, the idea of being given 160 acres of land they would own, with bush that would provide wood for fuel and animals for food, became a powerful force in motivating them to strike out for the new opportunity.
In the summer of 1896, the first Ukrainian-speaking settlers arrived in Manitoba. They were a group of 27 families from Galicia, who had sailed on the SS Sicilia from Hamburg to Quebec City. From there they took the train to Winnipeg, before making their way to their allotted lands, 75 miles southeast of Winnipeg at Stuartburn. Among this group of immigrants were Petr Strumbicky and his wife Irena Goyman, and their five children from Zalischiky, Galicia. They sold everything they had, and brought only what they could carry. Their worldly goods, upon arrival at Winnipeg, amounted to little more than some seeds in a handkerchief and the equivalent of seven dollars.
The eldest child, Nikola, would marry Aksana Shmigelsky, a girl he knew from the old country who arrived with her family some years later. Aksana’s family was from the village of Blyschanka. Aksana and Nykola were exactly the kind of people Sifton spoke about. They would raise six children and live out their lives on their land at Vita.
The following story is an excerpt from my novel, Ravenscraig. This chapter tells the story of Nykola and Aksana, and is inspired by family stories and other accounts that I have read about the experiences of the these early pioneers. I am humbled by their resilience and their success.
I am posting this chapter in honour of the 80th birthday of my mother, Mary Krawchenko. Aksana and Nykola were her grandparents, and my mother’s childhood was spent on their farm at Vita.