When I move house I always ask myself, how long will it be before I feel at home in this new place? I worry about being able to join a new community? Will I meet people who will become friends? My novel Alone: A Winter in the Woods probes those questions and others that arise for immigrants and settlers, wherever they find themselves.
I’m wearing a T shirt today which says “Never stop exploring,” but I discovered long ago that exploration doesn’t necessarily mean travelling, but instead digging deeply into one’s surroundings. When I left Toronto, to live in the country after many years teaching in the inner city, we explored the area around our new home. One of our favourite places is Presqu’ile Provincial Park, a small peninsula which curves out into Lake Ontario. Mixed woods and a marsh harbour a multitude of birds, animals and wild flowers. The park also contains an abandoned farm, but not that of the first settler in the area whose name is preserved on a cairn just outside the park gates. A small plaque also records the fact that he, Obediah Simpson, brought his young son and some cattle to their land grant in January 1796, over the lake ice. After building a cabin, he returned to his previous home to collect his wife and young family and bring them up the lake by boat in the spring. The 12 year old boy, stayed alone in the woods taking care of the cattle and the tiny homestead for a couple of months. It was an unforgettable story, prompting questions, which seemed unanswerable.
The Cairn outside the park
After some research, I found that Obediah and his wife died little more than ten years after their settlement. Documents about Simpson’s military service and ones relating to his land grant were readily available and he left a will and an inventory of his belongings. His eldest son took over the farm and raised his young brothers and sisters. But the family left no letters or journals that I could discover. What they had thought and felt remained a mystery.
For a time I brooded over these questions: were families so very different in the eighteenth century from those of today? What might the feelings of the boy’s parents have been about leaving their son alone and what were those of the boy himself? Did parents have very different expectations of their children than we do today? And how could a youngster cope with the responsibilities of keeping himself and the cattle alive and his frightening isolation? In our “connected” world, being completely unable to communicate with family and friends is almost unimaginable, especially for young people. How would the boy deal with such solitude? I wondered how my own sons and some of the students I had met in my years of teaching would respond to this dilemma and concluded that though the challenges and their responses might be different, they would rise to them and that many had already done so. Perhaps it wasn’t so difficult to imagine this boy’s experience, after all.
Slowly the character of John Turner began to come to life and his family grew around him. Alone: A Winter in the Woods is the product of those years of trying to answer the questions which haunted me. The family left behind at the old community became important in the exploration of beliefs, ideas and feelings that might motivate people at that time. Their life is recorded, in her journal by Josephine, a young woman from Montreal, adopted by the Turner family after her mother dies. She has own adventures as she struggles to overcome her feelings of isolation as an “outsider”. Pa and John, travelling through the icy woods to an empty township, have a strong relationship and build on this to increase their trust in each other, while they clear the ground and build a first cabin on their land. That trust strengthens them both, when they have to part. During John’s solitude he comes to know the land grant well and begins to love his surroundings. But it is the work he puts into taking care of the animals, planting a garden, defending the homestead and preparing the cabin for the arrival of his family which most contribute to his perception of the land as home.
With my grand-daughter at the launch of Alone: A Winter in the Woods
I wrote, with a colleague while teaching, several text-books and books for teachers, but later became interested in writing fiction. I, with another friend, wrote two mystery novels that we sent to a few publishing companies but then forgot about them. I’ve published poems and short pieces in anthologies and journals and belong to a regional arts’ group, Spirit of the Hills. The writer-members have produced two anthologies, a mixture of poetry, short fiction and non-fiction called Hill Spirits and Hill Spirits II (Blue Denim Press, 2012 and 2015) I have been one of the editors for these as well as a contributor.
And finally, I am the co-host of a local radio show Word on the Hills in which we interview regional writers and invite them to read from their work.
In the studio