Since last I wrote, my life as an author has slipped into the background. It’s been a sabbatical after ten years of relentless research to keep a promise I made to my father before he died—”I’ll find out more about your grandmother.”
When I realized the story I was uncovering “needed to be told”, I set about learning to write a book. Exchanging my oral communication with ongoing feedback from students that I used when teaching , for the lonely business of placing sentences on a page, felt like a challenge I could not meet. I began with short sections. As I wrote and rewrote, piecing together and recreating the scenes of my great-grandmother’s life, I began to see and understand this forgotten person through the mists of time. She gradually came to life and sometimes even felt to e sitting on my shoulder directing my fingers on the keyboard. My confidence grew as I wrote, and the last two chapters of the book just seemed to fall into place.as I wrote. There were times when depression from living with her heartbreaking story begged me to throw in the towel. But friends encouraged me to continue and mustering all my resources, the book finally went print in July in 2012.
The five years since For Elise came off the press have been more rewarding than I could have imagined. My fears faded away as my confidence grew. A great deal of positive feedback has assured me that my struggle was worthwhile. The Vane family threw off the shameful secret that had been so unjustly laid upon them. Furthermore, a number of readers with their own sad histories are celebrating a female ancestor now understanding that she was the victim of male power. Also I hope my book will inspire others to write their own unique family story before they disappear Elise is now a respected prairie pioneer. Her sacrifice and her children’s work provided the income enabling the Criddles to survive on an unproductive sand hill. Through her training in art, she taught Norman to learn to draw and paint, thus enable him to find employment beyond the homestead and eventually become Manitoba’s entomologist. Norman’s income allowed the Vane boys (in their mid-30s)after their mother’s death to escape and begin to build their own lives. My work is done:
Finally, over this Christmas season, I’ve enjoyed my ‘mother role’, using my mother’s pumpkin pie recipe with real whipped cream to serve the family, their favourite. I baked an enormous batch of oatmeal cookies. For our tough little grandsons, I’ve mended seams and put patches over vanished ski pant knees. A mother’s work doesn’t survive long, but there is immeasurable joy in having such a loving family.
My only engagement was to present a session at the Manitoba Genealogical Society on my Mother’s side of the family. It’s an amazing history tracing back to a Saint in Montreal and the unfortunate Samuel Wardwell, hung in Salem. Their story may be told another time.
Book Awards in the past were simply news, I read the lists, felt pleased for the shortlisted authors and more pleased for the winners. Now that I’ve had the honour to be a participant in the process, I’m sharing my experience.
All twelve authors shortlisted in the four categories, fiction, non-fiction, crime fiction, and poetry, were invited to the Whistlers Writers Festival in October. For Elise was one of the three finalists in the non-fiction genre. (For more information google, Whistler Independent Book Awards.)
A Finalist Reception the first evening provided an opportunity to meet each other before our four minute opportunity to ‘pitch’ our book. I found the time short but finished just as the bell went. After our reading each author was presented with their finalist certificate and evaluations. Not knowing what to wear for the occasion I wore the 1902 dress sewn for me to celebrate Elise’s life.
I opened my envelope and read: Members of the Vancouver chapter of the Canadian Authors’ Association have selected the finalists according to four criteria: Ideas/Organization/Content, Style/Voice, Word Choice/Sentence Fluency, and Conventions/Production Values. I was thrilled to discover that For Elise earned 93 of the 100 points awarded.
Summary of For Elise: ‘This compelling story is at times almost too painful to be read. But it uncovers women’s history that, as Veldhuis describes, “disappears like meals placed before hungry men.” The content is rich in many ways: family ties, Canadian history, class structures perpetuated by settlers, etc. This is a story that cannot easily be forgotten. Its rich detail and personal style create the power for it to become a classic in print, and perhaps as a stage or screen play. The narrative and primary sources are seamlessly woven into a story that keeps the reader on the edge with Elise and her family. The design and format of the book will appeal to readers of history and women’s studies.’
Following the selection of the three non-fiction tiles from the longlist the books went to two published writers, Susan Oakley-Baker and J. J. Lee. Their decision of the winning author was to be announced the following evening.
Miji Campbell from Calgary won the non-fiction category. Many thoughts went through my mind following the announcement. It would have been wonderful to win, but I had learned too much to expect the judges to choose For Elise. It is a very unusual book, not exactly what book stores expect both in subject, style or size. I had willingly broken rules in order to tell the story my way. For instance, I needed to use footnotes, actual documents, and letters, to verify my account and then combine them into a story.. It took courage to break the Vane’s promise of secrecy and share it openly under the shadow of an already recorded Criddle family version. Nor do historians appreciate challenges to accepted history. Initially, my plan had been simply to learn more about our ‘vanished from history’ ancestor. The trail at first was very faint—a name, her birth and death dates and country of origin. But I uncovered much more, and with each new discovery the path became undeniably more tangled and troubling. The nameless woman had a name, Elise Harrer. She was an educated, talented woman, who survived many painful traumas. Through her and her children’s sacrifices, the Criddle family survived and thrived. Truth without anger was paramount as I wrote, but, her story needed to be told. The original documents supplied the truth and I carefully set them into context. I felt at peace. Back home For Elise‘s many fans had been sure the book would win, but they have accepted their loss graciously, saying, “For Elise is a winner with us.” I thank them.
Both judges had positive feedback about the book.
J.J. Lee, who wrote The Measure of a Man: the Story of a Father, a Son, and a Suit
I quote some insightful comments from his review.
‘For Elise is a book from a genre that is often difficult to evaluate because the genre has its own criteria and demands. The genre is family and local history. The difficulty is should a work be judged on literary merit when so much of what drives it is the recovery of experience, the reinsertion of artifact and document back into a chronology of a life lived, and the simple reassertion that we or they were here?
The author smartly recognizes the importance of ordinary people’s history and prepares us for the humble, though epic in scale, tale. But the apology is unnecessary because Elise Harrer is a decisively literary, heroic, vital person whose struggle with the frontier has all the elements of a compelling Western tale. . . . ‘
‘The instigation of the author is both real and compelling – witnessing her father honour the grave of a mystery woman from her family’s past. The writer drops us quickly into the whirlwind of action, setting us to sail across the ocean and prairies. It is breathless in a good way, and it is a great bit of wonderfully historical fiction backed by actual historical documentation.’ . . .
‘It is a mammoth accomplishment. The work is admirable for its detail and doggedness. The writer has a great tone and keeps things quite simple – getting out of the way of the story and her source material, a hard thing to do. I think this book will be a valuable resource and an important corrective with regard to this period in time and as a feminist re-history that does so much to honour and restore Elise. The writer’s father may have placed the stone but it is the writer who has carved out the undying epitaph. I won’t forget Elise. That is for certain.’
Susan Oakey-Baker: wrote Finding Jim
I quote from her review: ‘Your meticulous research (the letters, the diaries etc.) has resulted in a story rich in history. The day-to day colloquial voices you have created elicit emotion. The repetitive nature of the events, such as the failed crops season after season, mimics the rhythm of the homesteaders’ lives. Elise, Edwy and Percy are memorable characters. You evoke a strong sense of place and many times reading your story I felt hungry, cold and deprived. The captioned photographs lend authenticity to the story. Living with abuse is always a relevant topic, even today when woman have more rights in many parts of the world. You have crafted a story that bravely unveils secrets in which you honor a woman who was poorly treated yet who maintained integrity in the face of incredible adversity.’
Susan went on with advice of ways I could have changed the story to make it more marketable for a general audience. But I was not writing for profit. The general public are welcome to read the story, and have done so. But, I wrote this book for the Vane family descendants and their healing. I had but one opportunity to share my research and I included what I found. Elise’s, plus or minus, ninety living descendants have the whole story. I have achieved my goal. Perhaps another author can take my book and fashion it into a skimmed down version more palatable for the average reader as Susan suggested.
I have been honoured and my life enriched by this experience. I thank the visionaries whose planning made it all possible. Traveling to Whistler with my husband Art to participate in the Festival will remain a treasured highlight.
The awards were jointly administrated by the Whistler Writing Society and Vivalogue Publishing. The Whistler Independent Book Awards provided independent authors with a unique opportunity to have their work recognized through a juried process typically reserved for trade-published titles. This was the first, I hope other independent writers will take the opportunity to enter their book next season.
My next blog will say more about the experience of being a finalist for The Whistler Independent Book Award. But first an introduction.
It is not every Manitoban in their eighties who manages to drive almost 6000 kilometers to enjoy the beauty of Whistler. We felt a little daring starting out with the weather forecast threatening snow. We travelled between storms and my little blue Yaris purred along without hesitation over long stretches of brown prairie. Calgary provided a challenging slushy section of highway but once into the mountains we left the snow behind and discovered blue sky by the second day. Cache Creek heading south on Highway 99 was amazing as we twisted and turned up and down from one stunning vista to another—sunshine on brilliant white mountains above golden poplar trees framing blue water beside us. Whistler village was a wonder nestling on the mountain side. We settled into Summit Lodge within walking distance of the Fairmont Chateau Whistler higher up the mountain where most of the Festival events would be held.
As a finalist in the Whistler Independent Book Awards I received a reduced price for our suite and with a kitchen and excellent grocery store nearby we ate well. For our lunches though, we discovered the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre where the food was both distinctive and excellent.
The first night of the festival I we met the other authors and each made their four minute pitch for their book. The following night we learned the winners in the four categories: fiction, non-fiction, crime fiction, and poetry. It would have been wonderful to win, but I was not surprised to remain a finalist. Deep down I knew ‘For Elise’ would not win. The book was too unusual for the regular book market—the very reason I had self-published. Just being there however, filled me with pride. What a privilege to converse with the winners, and so many other exceptional writers. A highlight of the event was a panel of six authors in conversation with Bill Richardson. Emma Donoghue, Gary Gedded, Affinity Konar, Cea Sunrise Person, Anosh Irani and Madeline Thien. Madeline has since won the Giller Prize with her book Do Not Say we Have Nothing. Bill’s insightful questions and gentle responses helped the authors express themselves so deeply our hearts were filled to overflowing. I felt overwhelmed by the privilege of being in their presence. I wish I had many more years to attend this enriching event.
You might think 6000 kilometers was an exaggeration of the distance (return) from Winnipeg to Whister, BC. You are correct to think so. We added several excursions to the direct route which I hope to describe in the future. Without exaggeration we enjoyed the trip.
Launching a book is a transcendent experience. I quote Mark Winston’s words from his book: Lessons From the Bees that describe my experience. ‘It is simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying, much like I imagine bungee jumping or shy diving. It takes a great act of faith to leap, believing that the chord will hold, the parachute open, the book will not fall flat on its face.’
So it was for me before my launch at McNally Robinson Booksellers back in September 2012. I was so fearful I asked the folks there to be prepared to rescue me if need be. It takes courage to rewrite history, but I’d made the decision to go ahead, and I couldn’t back down with eleven hundred books hot off the press.
I could not foresee the positive reception For Elise has received with 2 more printings and four scrapbooks of appreciation letters to reread in my ‘old age’. Nor did I dream of being a finalist in the Whistler Independent Book Award now in 2016. Response to positive letters is a pleasure, and I’ve tried to reply to everyone. They assure me that my great grandmother is no longer a forgotten woman. I’m so very thankful to completed my task and opened the door for others’ awakenings to their own fore-mothers. History I’ve discovered holds a lot of secrets.
No author can control how readers will respond to their book. I expected controversy and have fortunately had only a few critical letters. There were two soon after the book was published from readers unhappy with my approach. They wanted to keep the picture Alma Criddle painted in her book, Criddle-de-diddle-ensis, of the happy family living under Percy’s benevolent leadership.
Then I found a short review on ‘Goodreads’ that surprised me since I had included footnotes to make clear that this was a true story based on facts.
Cheryl gave it 3 stars and wrote: “Too depressing and although heartbreaking ….found the book a little unbelievable for a true account. Even considering the era, I found myself feeling there is still much more that has NOT been told. Left me feeling empty.”
Wendy found the book in Brandon last year on a cross Canada trip to her daughter’s wedding. Within the pages of For Elise she found her Bellhouse family. I met wendy on my travels in Ontario.
Wendy rated the book five stars and wrote: This book is an excellent read.
Elise was a close neighbor and friend to my Ancestors. I can assure you that the pains taking details that Oriole writes in this book are very actuate. Not only does Oriole provide a voice for Elise, she provides many factual based accounts of what our Ancestors were faced with when they came to Manitoba and homesteaded.
Elise was a trusting woman who did what she needed to and believed in, she provided for her family. Given the time period “Victorian” to “Edwardian” – women really did not have a voice.
I have admiration, respect, for what she did. I felt the sorrow for her on many levels, most importantly the single word for Elise is: Benevolence
A must read for anyone interested in Early Canadian History – Thank you Oriole – my family stories and what was in this book is like holding hands – and to find out that we have a distant family connection via the Clarks.
I received this letter from history professor emeritus at McMaster University.
Dear Mrs. Veldhuis,
I’m reading the 2013 edn. of _For Elise, I’m on page 177. Hard to put down! I stay up late, reading another chapter to find out what happens to her, Percy, and the children. I find the lives to be compelling.
I’m wondering about your sources for the italics – Elise’s thoughts. These are fascinating. They appear to be your reconstruction of what she must have been thinking, based upon your understanding of your subject. Is that correct? Percy’s diary (as cited in your book) does not appear to even hint at her thoughts. He appears to have been untroubled, uninterested, in her thoughts. The 2 really interesting aspects of your book are the Percy diary entries and Elise’s thoughts. Love to learn how you reconstructed the latter.
I posted my replay on my webpage (Elise’s thoughts) under Story. This is his response.
Thank you for writing such a splendid reply! And, there must be many, many people who are very glad that you carried this project to successful completion.
Elise was clearly a very strong person. She survived so much. The inner struggles of hiding so much from her Mother (when alive), her brothers, Mrs. Criddle (?) and the Criddle children, and her community, must have been heart-breaking. From your book, it seems clear that it was Elise’s faith which kept her upright, doing good, every day. It is wonderful that her families remember her with so much affection.
Bye for now
Ontario 6: Cottam, Essex, and Windsor
My connection to the area reaches back to the war of 1812 when John Clark, my ancestor fought the Americans. I have a little story about that to add. For his service there and again on the western front near Windsor he was granted land. He may have fought with Tecumseh and been present that sad day.
Cottam: Fast forward to 1957, my younger sister Pearl registered at the Metropolitan Hospital in Windsor to train as a nurse and looked up her Clark ancestors. Lo and behold she located Nip Clark and his young nephew who very quickly won her heart. She and Ken built their dream home on the Queen family’s traditional land in Cottam. Pearl provided children’s story time at the Cottam library for many years. Pearl now lives in Winnipeg and took a picture to bring back. It was good to stand firmly on ancestral land.
In Essex we met a small but amazing group. An Essex historian, the boy my sister had taken camping with his mother, a vibrant reader and library enthusiast, and . . . “I’m your cousin, and you wrote about my family in your book.” Taken by surprise he explained that he came from the ‘Blain’ line, the family in Chapter 2 who stopped by on their way to their homestead. It took a moment for the cobwebs to clear and then I managed to fit him into my fame as later one of the children in the family married a Clark.
“Have you read the book? I wanted to know.
“No, I haven’t. I bought it when it first came out, but it was so beautiful I couldn’t bring myself to break the cellophane cover. I’ll read my sister’s copy next summer.”
Windsor: I hoped to meet some members of the historical or genealogical society because my Clark ancestors were from the area. The picture of the wagon truck on the last page of my book was taken at the Canadian Transportation Museum and Heritage Village near Kingsville. There you will find preserved the Clark cottage, home of Alexander and Sarah Jane when they left for the west in 1879.
Windsor: The main library was bustling with patrons coming and going, but my reading had been overlooked. They remembered only in time to put up a poster at the front desk as I arrived. They gave me space and a mike. There can always be a first for such a thing to happen—what to do? Three people arrived, a woman interested in history, and our friend Sybrun, who brought a friend with an ancient Veldhuis family connection. Art played and I carried on. We had a good discussion. The library added my book to their collection, but know about it and take it out? As I left, I felt as if I was abandoning Elise.
And so my Ontario adventures ended with a return to our friends in Lucan. Could there ever be more gracious hosts in our time of need? London airport and home. Art soon had another Vertigo attack, but this time we knew not to panic. We found a physio solution to his condition and he now has the freedom to continue helping our son with his bees.
I very soon received amazing news: For Elise was nominated to the long list. Two weeks later the book was short listed with two other titles, for the Whistler Independent Book Award. Another trip to plan, life is full.
Ontario 5: Guelph, Elmira
Guelph: My year at MacDonald Institute was one of my mountaintop years. (MacDonald Institute has given way to progress and is no longer an entity on the University of Guelph campus.) As we approached the city, faces and voices from the past, reached out to me. So many of those vibrant young people have lived their lives, made their contributions, and are now departed this life. We found our destination and were warmly welcomed by Peter and Elizabeth Moffat. After many decades they returned the hospitality we offered them in their early days of ministry in the west.
They gathered a group of friends to talk about my book. Art played Für Elise as planned before his sojourn in intensive care. It was a lovely intimate evening of sharing.
Elmira: Our home, for three memorable years while Art and I shared a team ministry. In leaving Winnipeg, our teenage son agreed to move anywhere so long as he could have a horse and we thought a community where Old Order Mennonites farmed would provide that opportunity. He got his horse, and we loved it there. Unfortunately the congregation found supporting two ministers more than they could afford and we returned to Manitoba leaving many good friends. One of them was Sally, who having read my book, believed everyone should read Elise’s story. She had been lending out her copies for over a year. Some men, in fact most found the story extremely uncomfortable, but for Sally’s sake, read it. How could such injustice be explained? Our gathering in her Mennonite Church was very ecumenical, Old Order and Elmira Mennonite, and Trinity United and together confronted the historical narrative of a woman’s faith in horrific circumstances. Had the book been fiction, they would have walked away, but the facts revealed, and compelled them to recognize its reality. Elise’s story sizzles away in minds, and her influence continues long after the cover is closed. I am humbled by responses to her story that evening and continuing as these excepts describe.
I am almost finished For Elise! And some part of me will never be finished. My heart hurts recognizing the horror of injustice, the total selfishness. Part of it was my maternal grandmother’s story.
Percy Criddle, the ‘autocratic ruler of his little empire’ (p. 474), reminded me of the same class of Englishmen who came to the Caribbean, owned people as slaves, tried to pretend they were the elite, & lost their humanity.
Your book is a gift to the world.