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The Connection Is Real

If you follow me on Facebook, you already know that I have finished writing my novel, Billy Boy and have sent it off to a publisher. It took me six months. I began it on New Year's Eve (while the rest of the world was out partying), and I finished it on June 29th.

The idea for the book arrived like a slap in the face. I was finished the edits for my fall book, Closer To Far Away, and I was looking for a new story. I knew I wanted an historical setting -- but what? I was thinking something relevant to Canada like the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919. So I did a bit of preliminary research and toyed with a possible storyline, but I wasn't overly inspired -- certainly not enough to write a novel.

And that's when the lightning bolt struck. I would write a story based on the early life of my grandfather, a man I knew only from my mother's stories, my genealogy research, and the Dr. Barnardo records my cousin (also a family genealogist) had shared with me.

Though I knew quite a bit about my grandfather's history, I didn't know enough to tell his particular story accurately. But I knew his experiences weren't unique, and I could certainly write a story which reflected the life of Barnardo children in general, as well as the experiences of the multitudes of Canadian home children.

It's difficult to explain, but searching a person's past and getting glimpses of who they were, where they lived, and what they did brings them to life. They are no longer just names and dates. They are people I start to care about, and I yearn to fill the gaps in their stories and discover more about who they were. It's not that I'm a voyeur; it's that I feel who they were has a bearing on who I am, and I want to better understand that bond. In a strange way, writing Billy Boy has helped me do that. The events and characters are fictional, but I have included many bits of factual information from my grandfather's history, so that I really do feel his presence in the story. Consequently the writing of this novel was more personally impactful than any other book I've written -- something that has rocked my boat a little, because it made me emotionally vulnerable to my protagonist's journey, and I wasn't prepared for that.

Because middle-grade readers are the target audience for this novel, I had to make it relevant to them. William (Billy Boy) was forced to endure trials and hardships today's children -- at least in Canada -- will never have to experience, yet they can still relate to his reactions to these things. William's thoughts and feelings are universal. But more importantly, I hope this story helps Canadian children realize that many of them are related to home children. Between the 1860s and1940s, more than 100,000 children were sent from Britain to Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa, and that means Billy Boy's story may well be that of someone in their families too, and the quality of life they take for granted is the result of their great-great-great grandparents overcoming unbelievable hardships and challenges.

The subject matter made this a difficult story to tell:

Born into the slums of East London, eleven-year-old William already knows that what people want doesn’t usually have much to do with what they get. So when his mother dies and he and his sister, Lily, are placed in Dr. Barnardo’s Home for Destitute Children, he accepts the situation. He also accepts that Lily must be hospitalized, and when he is sent to Canada as a home child—without Lily—he accepts that too. But when life on the farm where he’s been placed becomes a matter of survival and William loses touch with Lily, he can no longer allow his life to merely happen. He is determined to escape his horrible situation and find his sister.

That's heavy stuff, and somehow I had to find a way to lighten the mood and infuse some humour into the story. For me that was the biggest challenge. I didn't want to take away from the gravity of the situation, but I couldn't subject readers to 200 pages of doom and gloom either. Hopefully I've achieved that. You decide. The following excerpt is from Billy Boy's medical exam when he arrives at the Dr. Barnardo receiving home in Stepney Causeway, London.

(Excerpt ...)

William scratched his neck and leg and then wrapped his arms around himself, partly because he was self-conscious wearing nothing but a towel around his middle, but mostly to try to get warm. He rubbed his hands briskly over his arms and shoulders. The examining room was freezing.

            The man who’d introduced himself as Dr. Wyatt was filling out a form. “Hair colour—brown, eyes—brown, vaccination marks—nil,” he said as he wrote. “Stand with your back against the tape on the wall and your arms down at your sides, please,” he said. “I want to see how tall you are.”

            William did so.

            “Four feet, eight inches,” the doctor said as he wrote on his paper. “Now I need to measure your chest. Arms straight out to the side.”

When William had assumed the position, the doctor pulled a string around him. Though William was already cold, the touch of Dr. Wyatt’s icy hands made him catch his breath.

            It didn’t go unnoticed.

            The doctor smiled. “I apologize,” he said. “I forget how cold my hands can be.” Then all business again, he wrote the measurement down and told William to step onto a strange-looking contraption called a scale. He said it measured a person’s weight. “Fifty pounds,” he announced and wrote that down too.

            “Is that good?” William asked.

            Dr. Wyatt’s forehead buckled in thought. “Well, most boys your height weigh between 75 and 90 pounds, which is more than half again what you weigh.”

            William cocked his head curiously. “Is it bad then?

            The doctor’s expression softened. “Let’s just say a few extra helpings of meat and potatoes wouldn’t go amiss. But other than that, you’re fairly healthy. We’ll put ointment on that impetigo—the sores on your head—and as far as the fleas causing you to scratch, we shall drown them with soap and water and calamine lotion. Your clothes are riddled with them too, so those will have to be burned.”

            “What about the other clothes I brung?”

            The doctor nodded. “Those too I’m afraid.”

William gasped. “But what’ll I wear?”

            “I wouldn’t worry too much about that,” Dr. Wyatt said. “Summer is coming. You should be warm enough.”

            William felt his eyes bulge and his mouth drop open.

            That’s when Dr. Wyatt grinned. “I’m teasing you, Billy Boy. We have other clothes for you. Never fear.” He patted William’s shoulder and smiled kindly. Then he walked across the room, and opening a door, he crooked a finger. “Come.”

            William hesitated. Without clothes, he wasn’t anxious to go anywhere. For all he knew, the door led back to the main entrance. He could end up on the streets of London in his altogether. “Where are you taking me?” he asked warily.

            The doctor swung the door wide and William strained to see what lay beyond.

            “It’s a bathing room,” Dr. Wyatt said.

            William inched closer.

            His mouth fell open again. In the middle of the room stood the biggest washtub he’d ever seen. The only baths he’d ever had were in the tub his mother used for washing clothes, and when William sat in it his knees crowded his ears. There was no room to move, let alone wash himself. But this washtub was huge. And it was filled with enough steaming water to drown in!

            “It’s called a bathtub,” the doctor said. The bathrooms off the dormitories upstairs all have them, so you will be able to bathe regularly.” He gestured to the side of the room. The bathrooms are also fitted with sinks and toilets.”

            William leaned into the room to see better, and then his curiosity got the better of him and he went all the way in.

            “Is it a privy?” he asked, walking over to the toilet.

            “It is,” the doctor replied.

            “But it’s indoors!” William was incredulous.

            The doctor nodded.

            “And it’s got water in it!”



            The doctor pulled a chain dangling from a box on the wall above the toilet. Immediately there was a great roar and the water in the toilet was whooshed away and replaced with more water.

            William jumped back.

            The doctor smiled. “It flushes away your business. You’ll get used to it. It’s much more sanitary than an outdoor privy and—on a cold, rainy night—much more convenient.”

I think I achieved what I set out to do with this book. It was a story I needed to tell -- a story that needs to be read. Here's hoping I find a publisher who feels the same way.

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5 days ago

Lovely post, Kristin. Like your excerpt as well. You know I’ve written a few novels based on my family stories, so I understand the tugs on the heart during the writing process. And yes, it is surprising, but so rewarding. 😊

5 days ago
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Very much a surprise, Diana. Stirred up lots of emotions. The thing is I never even met my grandfather. Such a powerful thing writing is -- not just for the reader but for the writer too.

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