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.