Writer immerses herself in history
Kath MacLean is in her element.
Surrounded by walls teeming with art, antiques everywhere you look, and a piano just waiting to have fingers laid across its worn keyboard, she sits down with a cup of coffee and drinks in the atmosphere.
The setting couldn’t be more perfect, as MacLean settles into the century-old Mackie Lake House as Okanagan College’s and Kalamalka Press’ 2013 writer-in-residence.
You see, MacLean loves — make that lives and breathes — history.
A multi-media artist, who writes poetry, creative non-fiction, fiction, reviews and performance poetry and drama, and has taught writing at both Grant McEwen University and the University of Alberta, MacLean has come to Coldstream from Edmonton to work on her latest projects, which are coincidently set around the same time as when the Mackie house was built in 1910.
“I write mostly about historical and spiritual stuff so when I was contacted to do the residency here, it just seemed right,” she said, also crediting former Okanagan College writing professor and regional dean John Lent for playing a part in bringing her here.
MacLean met Lent at a poetry festival in Edmonton years before, but her connection to Kalamalka Press (the publishing house at Okanagan College, which Lent co-founded) goes back even further.
Her first book of poetry, Cappuccino on Bloor (named in homage to her Toronto roots), was nominated by Kal Press for its First Writers Award. (She ultimately had to turn down the award as days before she had accepted another one, and says she could only have her manuscript published by one of them.)
MacLean has gone on to receive many more awards, more recently the Anne Green Award for her excellence and innovation in film, poetry and performance.
But it’s her latest projects that have brought her to the Mackie Lake House, and they are steeped in history, circa the First World War.
The first is a historical novel set around the time of the Spanish flu epidemic and the other is a book of poetry, situated just after the Great War, which recollects modernist poet and writer H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), who was a patient of Sigmund Freud’s.
“It’s about her early memories of working with Freud and explores the dreams and spiritual early days of psychoanalysis,” said MacLean.
However, it’s the former project that MacLean has devoted her life to, so to speak, for the past four years.
“It was around the time of the H1N1 flu in 2009. It is a first cousin of the Spanish flu. I had (H1N1) and it got me thinking about what it was like for people who had the flu back then,” she said.
MacLean’s interest was further intrigued while perusing through a photo book of pre-First World War Edmonton.
“One of the photos had three women leaning out of a window with masks on,” she said, adding many who had the Spanish flu died at the time. In fact, it took more Canadians than the war did soldiers.
“It killed so many people. Cities were looking at each other for guidance. This was before there were boards of health. If you got sick you turned to your family and neighbours to look after the farms... The soldiers weren’t home until 1919, and by then, the flu had already arrived. Many accused them of bringing the flu. There was a lot of finger pointing at the time.”
Dividing her book into the different regions of Canada affected, MacLean’s research led to archives, and even a journey east to a small Ontario town after she discovered an intriguing mystery about a missing school teacher, named Felicia Graham, who went missing in Edmonton in 1918.
“They thought she had fallen ill from the flu. She just disappeared... Her body was eventually found in the river in Hawkins Ferry east of Edmonton,” said MacLean. “She supposedly haunts Westmount (a junior secondary school in Edmonton), although she doesn’t have a reason to haunt the building as she only worked there for a month-and-a-half.”
Upon further research, MacLean also discovered that Graham was one of few women to graduate with a master’s degree from the University of Toronto circa 1909, and that her family hailed from a wealthy farming community in Lindsay, Ont., located approx. an hour north of Toronto.
It was there where MacLean tried to uncover further information about Graham.
“I talked to her family in Lindsay, including a cousin, and none of them knew anything about her. It was like that side of the family had never existed. I think there had been a family squabble in the ‘60s that led to them drifting apart.
“It was difficult in the end; strange things ended up happening and files went missing. There were so many inconsistencies in the police reports and lack of family history. Even her thesis went missing from UofT. They said they had everyone else’s thesis, but her’s was not there. All they had was an article about her missing.”
In the end, MacLean says she has culminated information to write what will be a non-fiction-based novel, but will have to include some theories on what happened to many people who suffered and died of the flu during the time.
“There’s a number of reasons why people haven’t written about the flu,” she said. “People didn’t want to talk about it. They knew roughly when the flu was going to arrive in Edmonton. They could see it coming on the train... There was a lot of depression, with war rationing and unrest about worker’s rights. It was tough times.”
Those wanting to hear more about MacLean’s projects have the opportunity to meet her at a public reception at the Mackie Lake House, 7804 Kidston Rd., on Sunday from 2 to 4 p.m. MacLean will also read from one of her books at the event.