Tag: family

Five Reasons Authors Love Orphans

One of the fundamental aspects of writing a novel is developing a cast of characters to act out the story you want to tell. These characters will come from work/play relationships, hobby groups, proximity . . . and family. 

Since family is the first and most significant set of characters we encounter in real life, we would expect family to be paramount in the development of a story. Cinderella’s step-mother starts the ball rolling in that fairy tale. A foolish mother, a gaggle of sisters, and a negligent father create the impetus for Pride and Prejudice, while Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights is a terrible dad in all respects.

Yet, despite the seminal role of family in real life, in fiction, especially romantic fiction, the family is often absent. Why? I have a few suggestions.

  1.  A young woman without a family, is extra vulnerable.  This vulnerability opens up many avenues for story. She may be victim, heroine, fighter, or survivor. 
  2. The absent family may be the seed for a quest story. Our orphan sets out to discover her roots and perhaps some long-lost relatives. 
  3. An orphan is a perfect foil for a misfit story. She may be adopted into a family that exploits her, or tries to shape her in their own image. Modern history is full of tales of Indigenous children taken into non-indigenous families. No matter how well treated, the orphan knows she is “different.” Of course, if she is treated badly, that is a whole other story.
  4. The orphan’s tale may be a story of self-discovery. Who am I? Did my mother abandon me? Where is my self-worth?
  5. A character without a family becomes a story of survival. How does she earn her bread? Where can she live? What obstacles must she overcome to achieve happiness and security?

 

My list is not exhaustive nor immutable. Clever writers take those tropes and turn them upside down all the time. I’m reading a Jennifer Crusie book where the heroine not only has a family and a best friend, she goes home to mother when her love-life falls apart. The results are hilarious.

“Barbie” has no progenitors yet the movie maker gave her a great life, a journey or self-discovery and a good ending. 

Still, I’d bet most of us want to have a happy family, live in a comfortable home, and know where we came from. We want big family gatherings at Thanksgiving and Christmas, and birthdays, and summers at the lake. We’d like “Leave it to Beaver” and “The Waltons” as the backdrop of our daily lives. That’s why “fiction” is fiction. Given a choice, most of us don’t want to go hungry, or fall prey to criminals, or be homeless, or . . .  But fiction thrives on a host of calamities afflicting the main characters. At heart, readers are voyeurs. We peer in at the lives of others and thrill to their adventures, ache for their mistakes, long for them to find true love — all from the comfort of our armchairs. 

To all my friends in Canada, I wish you a Happy Thanksgiving with wonderful family gatherings.

Visits: 253

Thanksgiving

Practicing gratitude is always a good idea, but here, in Canada, we set aside the second weekend in October to give thanks particularly for the harvest.  This is a wonderful season of the year, warm days, cold nights, the leaves turning to scarlet and gold, and the bounty of field and garden coming to fruition.  Thanksgiving is one of my favourite holidays, not only because I love the harvest, but because it’s an excuse to feast with friends and family, to have a day off work and be done.  No weeks of shopping, baking, wrapping, decorating, concert-going and entertaining. Décor can be as simple as a pumpkin on the doorstep or coloured leaves scattered across the dining room table.  And when it’s over, it’s over.  Cook the pumpkin and make pie.  Throw the leaves in the compost, and life goes back to normal.

I might sound a bit like a curmudgeon and I do love Christmas, but I feel the “festivities” have replaced the “festival.” Thanksgiving, so far, has escaped that fate, although I have friends who love to ramp up the decorations.

While Thanksgiving in Canada celebrates the harvest of food crops, it doesn’t hurt to remember the other harvests in our lives.  For a writer, a finished manuscript it a lot like harvest – a project that has been seeded and tended and weeded and cultivated and finally comes to fruition.  For a knitter it could be a year’s worth of handknit socks, or afghans or dishcloths.  For a potter it could be store full of thrown, fired, painted, glazed and fired again pottery.

In our lives we have relationships to nurture and be thankful for. Memories of loved ones who have passed but who still bless our spirits. Family who may frustrate and delight us in the space of a few minutes but who are “ours” bound together for life in the rich soup that is parents and children, cousins and aunts, in-laws and steps, siblings by birth or adoption.  I’m never-endingly grateful for the messy, swirling mass of humanity that is my family.

I count Canada among my blessings, a beautiful land where we promote peace with our enemies and foster friendship with our neighbours.

My church– where I worship without fear– nurtures my soul and surrounds me with fellowship.

Newscasts of the day are filled with horrors, disasters, and evil deeds. It is easy to believe that the world is a dark and terrible place.  As an antidote to that litany of grief, go count the pumpkins, and practice gratitude for the deeds that are loving, the people who race to help when disaster strikes, and for the everyday moments of compassion, heroism, and generosity that never make it to the nightly newscast. Those moments give us hope, they deserve our attention, and must be on our gratitude lists.

Hope your Thanksgiving was filled with warmth and laughter, good food and good friends – and maybe a good book.

Visits: 205

Our Story

I’ve just come back from a family reunion — the descendants of those pioneers I’ve mentioned over the past few weeks.  We’re all older now.  The cousins I knew as kids chasing through the hay fields are all grown up.  Some are grandparents themselves.  The old farmhouse has been renovated with a modern kitchen and new wiring, the barns expanded and modernized.  Tractors and harvesters have taken the place of draft horses and hired men.  What remains is the land and our story.

The fields, cleared by my grandfather yield corn and grains and hay, just as before.  Cattle and babies live off its bounty.  The valley traps the heat, the hills on either side offer a cool respite.  I sit under a tent on Sunday morning and listen to a preacher talk about God and gardening while my eyes rest on the old homestead.  It’s a wonderful moment of connection.  I feel the pioneers smiling.

But it’s more than the place that draws us together, it is the stories.  Cousins I hadn’t seen for decades gathered on the verandah and we talked about playing hide and seek in the big house.  (It’s the only house I’ve ever known with both a front staircase and a back staircase, plus a couple of interconnecting rooms. Perfect for restless children!)  Members of the succeeding generations added their stories, weaving their memories into the fabric of the family.  That pioneer lady, with her eyes and heart set firmly on family, faith and farm, lives on in all of us.  We  each add another chapter, or maybe only a paragraph, but together we build the story of who we are, where we came from and what we stand for.

I’m sometimes annoyed at businesses or sports organizations that run advertisements that tell a story to align themselves with the nation or with a particular value.  I keep thinking, “it’s only a game,” or “it’s only fast-food” but those ads remind us all of the importance of story and the importance of roots.

Some people dismiss fiction as fluff, preferring documentaries or hard news.  Yet, story is who we are.  It roots us in place and time, it encompasses us as a family or a nation or a world.  A genealogy chart may show our blood lines, but it’s story that makes us human.

Here’s to my pioneer ancestors, here’s to family, and here’s to the storytellers among us, wherever you are.

Visits: 199

Working Hands

Continuing my theme of the hard-working pioneer, the lady pictured here is baking bread — at the age of 90.  Once the habit of hard work is established it cannot be broken.
Family lore holds that in the early years, she’d lay her baby in the shade of a tree with an older child standing guard while she picked blueberries.  Then she’d carry  the baby and the berries a half-mile to the house and set about making pies.  As the years passed and the family grew, she routinely put up ninety quarts of wild strawberries every summer.  Note, those are wild strawberries, tiny little things no bigger than the tip of your baby finger.  Picking ninety quarts is a mind-boggling task, never mind preserving them in jars sterilized and processed on a wood-burning stove in summer.
Of course, picking and preserving fruit were extra chores.  Her regular days consisted of baking bread, churning butter, washing clothes on a scrub-board, scrubbing pine floors with lye soap.  Then, when the children were in bed, getting out her sewing machine and making the children’s clothes.  She also spun the wool from her own sheep and knitted mitts and socks for her brood.
So many of the tasks we look on now as hobbies or crafts, were necessities of life to the pioneer woman and she did it all without electricity or running water, or store-bought aids, like soap.

There is another story of her husband being annoyed because she’d been put to extra labour to entertain some visiting men while she herself was still recovering from a bout of pleurisy.  In her words “I was recovering because I was in active service.  There was no one to take my place.”
While her offspring like me are aghast at the mountains of work she accomplished, she didn’t complain or sigh.  In fact her memoirs are filled with descriptions of happy times, like the annual Fall Fair, and her pride and excitement when a horse or cow from their farm came home with a blue ribbon.

Her life revolved around her family, her faith and the farm.  She nursed her children through whooping cough and scarlet fever and ‘flu.  She sent one boy to the Great War in 1914 and another to WWII in 1939, then welcomed them home when the conflicts ended.  She lived a very long life, saw the world go from horse and buggy to a man on the moon.  Through all these momentous changes, she kept her focus — family, faith, farm.

Not a bad recipe for a good life.
Here is her recipe for hand soap.

Have grease rendered.
Take 9 cups of grease and put in crock. Heat to lukewarm.
Put 1 can Gillette’s lye in 6 cups soft cold water.  Stir until thoroughly mixed.  Lye will heat the water.  Put 1/2 cup borax, two table spoons ammonia and stir, leave it to cool until lukewarm.  Pour lye in with grease and beat (by hand!)for 10 minutes or until it looks like honey.  Bake in layers.

Visits: 304

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