I’m on my way, by bus, to Winnipeg, Manitoba. The city takes its name from Lake Winnipeg, the Western Cree word for muddy water. Early nineteenth-century settlers heading west to take up offers of cheap land took the newly constructed railway to Sarnia, but impenetrable forest forced them to continue on by steamship over Lakes Huron and Superior.
The Canadian Pacific Railway line finally reached Winnipeg in 1881, and the city now developed rapidly. Poor immigrants, hoping for a better life in the west, packed into overcrowded trains chugging across the country. They slept on the wooden seats and purchased food at stops along the line. Some were high-spirited, unruly, even destructive, and women in towns and settlements hastily gathered up their children to protect them when the trains filled with “rowdies” pulled in.
The new railway line effectively divided the city of Winnipeg in two: the well-off Anglo-Saxon population lived in the southern section; the North End was settled by immigrants, and locals dubbed it “the Foreign Quarter,” or, because of the large number of Jewish incomers, “New Jerusalem.” Soon enough, the great influx resulted in overcrowding, a shortage of drinking water, open cesspits, and unpaved, filthy streets. Health inspectors found ten-room houses occupied by five families with one water closet, one sink, one bath, and washbasin; an unsympathetic press accused the newcomers of idleness, lack of cleanliness, and suggested deportation was the solution to the problem.
But the immigrants were here to stay, and they were anything but idle. Eking out a living as bottle collectors, rag pickers and peddlers, or taking up dangerous, badly-paid jobs in brickworks, factories, railway yards, and on construction sites, their children integrated, went on to study, become successful, move southward into the city’s better quarters.
The Jewish Historical Society has invited me here to talk about my book Finding Home, and the venue is out on the University of Manitoba campus. I am sharing the talk with Joil Alpern, a well-known local figure, and the auditorium is quite full. Alpern is presenting his book, No one Awaiting Me, in which he describes how he, his brother, and a mere handful of Romanian Jews survived the Holocaust and deportation to Transnistria. However, Alpern, a gentle, sensitive man, has decided he is incapable of speaking about this traumatic experience in front of an audience. After excusing himself, his wife takes the microphone and reads a prepared text. When the presentation is over, the audience sits in a respectful but shocked silence, for no one can remain indifferent to such a story.
Now it’s my turn, and it’s up to me to change the mood — no easy task. My book is the story of those who crossed all of Romania on foot between 1889 and 1907 determined to reach America and freedom. Some of them were those first immigrants who arrived in this city. When I recount that, to research the book, I, too, crossed all of Romania on foot, I see that the audience is there with me. Soon they are laughing in all the right places and hanging on my every word. When that sort of thing happens, it’s magic.
When my time is up, there is enthusiastic applause. I then ask if there are any questions. One man, elderly, aggressive, and with a heavy accent, immediately pops to his feet.
“I don’t believe you,” he shouts. “I don’t believe one word of this story. I don’t believe you walked across Romania. I don’t believe people walked across Romania back then either. You made the whole thing up. It’s a lie from beginning to end.”
Well, now what am I supposed to do? No one ever told me this sort of thing would happen at a book talk. There’s no way I’ll convince that man that the story is true. Do I have to try? Of course, I don’t. In any case, I’m so surprised by his outburst, that I start laughing.
Then, suddenly, there is another shout — high pitched, and furious. An elderly woman, several rows behind him, stands and begins waving her fist. In heavily accented English, she berates the man.
“Who do you think you are, you good-for-nothing? What do you know about Romania? Nothing. You’re a Pole, and you think all the truth in the world is in your hands. I believe this whole story. But you? You’re too stupid to know the truth when it hits you in the head.”
“Who do you think you are to tell me off?” shouts the man.
And so, the verbal battle continues. Soon, everyone in the audience is roaring with laughter.
I do manage to sign and sell a few books — not a vast amount, of course — but enough. And tomorrow is another day, as everyone says.
In the morning, I wander through the icy cold streets, passing fine old buildings in a slow state of crumble, although in Winnipeg’s famous “warehouse district” many are being converted into fashionable bars and shops. After crossing the railway tracks, I find myself in the more desolate North Main, and here, paint flakes off in chunks from the frames of boarded-up windows, brickwork looks nibbled, garbage fills empty lots, and a population of no-hopers shuffles past pawn shops and a closed-down soup kitchen. Things don’t seem to have changed much since the bad old days.
Eventually, I head out to quite another section of town where Angela, my publisher’s ineffectual publicity agent has miraculously arranged a reading and book signing of my mystery, Slanderous Tongue, at the wonderful Whodunit Mystery Bookstore. At six-thirty, I’ll be catching a plane and flying to Regina, 356 miles away, for another talk at eight-thirty this evening. It’s a tight schedule — and it makes me feel somewhat like a big shot — but the bookstore is close to the airport, so I’m not unduly worried.
However, when I arrive at Whodunit, the door is locked, and there are no lights on inside. I pace around for a while, glance at my watch, pace some more, go for a coffee, come back. The door is still locked. I call the bookstore — perhaps someone is hiding inside — but there’s no answer. Finally, an hour and a half later, the door opens. I burst in, announce I’m the author who will be doing the reading. The owners, Henrietta and Gaylene are kindly women, but they stare at me with undisguised surprise.
“You’re certainly early.”
“You are. The book talk and signing isn’t until seven o’clock.”
“It isn’t?” I know my expression is one of astonishment. And dismay. And horror. “But Angela said that it was at four-thirty…”
“She did? But we did tell her our book talks always start at seven. There will be quite a crowd coming, too.”
“Thank you, dear Angela,” I mutter and, via telepathy, send her an evil message.
In the end, Henrietta and Gaylene have me sign a few books. “You can always come back another time.”
Sure, I can. It’s only several thousand kilometers from home.
“Maybe some people will show up early.”
I hang around chewing my knuckles. Yes, a few people do show up and I do a hasty blah-blah, but I have to leave. I’ve cut time as short as I can, and now there’s every possibility I’ll miss my flight.
I race through the airport, squeak through as the plane doors are closing, arrive in Regina and get to the bookstore in record time. Then I pace around waiting for people to show up.
“You’re not a local author, so you might not get much of a crowd,” says the sympathetic and kindly owner.
He’s absolutely right. Only one man shows up: Lionel. He isn’t here for the book signing. He just happens to be in the store, but he is a member of the local historical society, so he comes over and asks me a few questions.
“Not much of a turnout,” he says.
“Nope,” I say with feigned indifference.
He buys a copy of Finding Home.
No one else shows up. Finally, it’s closing time.
Lionel is still here, and he feels sorry for me. “Come, I’ll take you to a nice place for a glass of wine.”
I think about all those people in the Whodunit who, earlier this same evening, showed up for a book talk that didn’t take place. I think about all the books I could have sold and signed. I think about how much fun I could have had. I think about the vagaries of fate. I think about murdering Angela. And, I mutter, “Tomorrow is another day.”
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