Friday, April 21, 2017

Stephen Dale's review of Grace and the Secret Vault

Review of Ruth Latta’s Grace and the Secret Vault
By Stephen Dale

                To mark International Women’s Day in 2017, a group called Equal Voice organized an event in which young women from across the country occupied all 338 seats in the House of Commons. The women spoke powerfully of the issues that are important to them and, in the process, made a strong symbolic statement about how politics might be different if more women were involved. With only a quarter of the seats in Parliament currently occupied by women, it’s clear that the seat of Canadian democracy remains, overwhelmingly, a boys’ club.

                That the number of female Parliamentarians has increased to some extent recently is a testament to the strength of a few trailblazing women determined to defy the odds and take their place on the national political stage. One of those pioneers was Grace Woodsworth MacInnis, who served as the NDP Member of Parliament for Vancouver Kingsway between 1966 and 1974.
                Ottawa novelist Ruth Latta recalls that, as a student at Queen’s University in the early 1970s, she was fascinated with this diminutive yet dynamic women, one of the first Canadian Parliamentarians to regularly raise issues of concern to women on the floor of the Commons. Latta’s latest young adult novel, Grace and the Secret Vault, (Ottawa,  Baico Publishing Inc. 2017  ISBN: 978-1-77216-092-5) is a fictional account of an especially formative period in Grace’s life.
                Although the book doesn’t deal directly with Grace’s work as a politician, in a subtle way it sheds light on how the future MP developed the determined outlook and fortitude of character that would be necessary to storm the bastions of male power.

The novel recreates a particularly turbulent year in Grace’s early life. Her father, J.S. Woodsworth (who would go on to lead the CCF, the forerunner of the NDP) had lost his job as a minister in an idyllic British Columbia coastal town because of his opposition to the First World War. In 1919, with the war over, Grace’s father remains unafraid of courting controversy. He travels the country speaking out for social justice, and takes a role in organizing the landmark Winnipeg General Strike.

Against the backdrop of these historic events, Grace gets an up-close lesson in courage. Her father stands tall in the face of condemnation, economic sanction, and even the threat of violence. Perhaps more importantly, Grace’s mother summons a special kind of strength: keeping the family afloat by working as a teacher, overseeing a chaotic household of high-spirited children, setting a tone of optimism and good humour.

Latta tells this story in a fluid, fast-paced and conversational way, seamlessly weaving together the daily details of life in the British Columbia of a century ago with the book’s overarching political narrative. The characters’ dialogue is conveyed convincingly in the lexicon of the day, but the emotional pull of the story is timeless. And despite its subject matter, the author avoids propagandizing. There’s also a sly twist on the idea of the “mystery” that adds some fun at the end.

Grace and the Secret Vault is a lively read and a historical tale with a clear resonance for the contemporary reader, especially for the young person who might want to grow up to change the world.
Ottawa writer Stephen Dale’s latest book is Noble Illusions: Young Canada Goes to War (Fernwood Books).


Thursday, March 9, 2017

Praise for "Grace and the Secret Vault"

Ed Janzen, editor of Canadian Stories magazine, wrote the following about my novel,
Grace and the Secret Vault:

"Today I finished reading Grace...  I must congratulate you on this book. It became more and more interesting as I read on when I recognized the history contained therein.  I learned so much about stuff I didn't know before.  I don't remember a stitch of information in school history books about this period after World War I..,I think your novel is reading for Canadian  adults. ... Well done."

Monday, February 27, 2017


 Two recent pictures of myself, one with birthday flowers from my niece, the other with my new novel,
Grace and the Secret Vault (Ottawa, Baico, 2017, ISBN 978-1-77216-092-5, $20)

Grace and the Secret Vault (Ottawa, Baico, 2017, ISBN 978-1-772-1-092-5, $20, is a novel set in 1919, a time of social turmoil in Canada as a result of the "Great War".  The novel is presented from the point of view of a thirteen year old girl living with her mother and siblings in an idyllic B.C. coastal village, Gibson's Landing, while her father is working on the Vancouver docks and going on speaking tours sponsored by the labour movement, talking about the need to build a  fairer, freer post war Canada. Grace, the central character, thinks she would prefer a father who wasn't such an activist. But when a General Strike breaks out in Winnipeg, and he is caught up in it, she finds a way to help him and her family.

Readers have praised the novel for bringing to life a key event in Canadian history and introducing the impetuous, outspoken Grace.  The novel involved extensive historical research into the girlhood of the real life Grace Woodsworth MacInnis, who, in the 1960s and 1970s, was a strong advocate on "women's" issues in the House of Commons.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

"Gerlinda", by Emily-Jane Hills Orford

It’s always a treat to read an excellent new novel like Gerlinda, by Emily-Jane Hills Orford. Gerlinda, (Madison VA, Christine Anderson Publishing and Media, 2016) is about the importance of having someone who believes in you.  Although the central character, Gerlinda, is not technically an orphan, she might as well be. Orford's novel is more pessimistic in outlook, however, than the classic orphan novel Anne of Green Gables.

Set in 1966, the story opens with Gerlinda being taunted by bullies crying "Cooties" as she walks to school. Sleep-deprived and grubby, she feels that "the cat calls were just words, the hunger was a gut pain." Jarred to learn that she shoplifts to feed herself, readers are curious to know the details of her predicament. 

By the second page, we learn that Gerlinda's father, nostalgic for his Hitler Youth days, drinks and fights with his wife, keeping the children awake at night and again our curiosity is piqued. Later we learn that he takes his wife's earnings from her cleaning jobs, and has so destroyed her spirit that she has given up providing for the children.

School is often a refuge for children in troubled homes, but not a haven for Gerlinda for a variety of reasons. The one area in which she is respected is in sports. Her athletic ability is a ray of hope in what is essentially a tragic story.

The teachers and administrators seem unable to stop the bullies from verbally abusing Gerlinda. The Grade 8 teacher, Mr. Fernandes, shows good teaching and human relations skills and tries to treat all of his students fairly, but he faces a tough challenge. One of the difficult children is Denise, the ringleader of the girls who taunt Gerlinda. Denise belongs to a religious group that doesn't want its children singing the National Anthem. Instead of absenting herself for the opening exercises, however, the girl sings her favourite popular songs under cover of the Anthem - like "Polka Dot Bikini"!  A promising school project - dressing in the costume of one's ancestors' homelands - goes awry and brings down ire from the mayor because of Gerlinda's costume, which she wears innocently in the hope of being a big success.

In this novel, disasters sometimes have silver linings; for instance, Gerlinda's costume fiasco leads her to an almost-saintly fairy godmother figure who enlightens and helps her. Another drastic incident forces Gerlinda's mother to assert herself and seek help for one of the children. Unfortunately, the "silver linings" don't really make up for the awfulness of the "clouds". This is not a criticism of the novel, which is an outstanding example of gritty realism.

Ms. Orford has created intriguing fully-rounded characters. Readers have the satisfaction of concluding for themselves that several of the adults are deplorable human beings. Orford's explanation of the Nazi period in Germany is important information for young readers to know. Wisely, she is not specific as to the exact location in North America where the story takes place. By leaving it unspecified, she shows that bullying and scapegoating can occur in any community. The characters' names indicate a variety of backgrounds and cultures.

Orford dedicates her novel "to a childhood friend, may she rest in peace." Is the novel to some extent based on real events? Is the author "Janet", the one girl in the school who was friendly toward Gerlinda? In any case, readers' hearts will go out to Gerlinda, along with hopes that the next phase of her life is happier.  Perhaps we will find out in a sequel. Five stars!

Friday, February 10, 2017

Feedback on Grace and the Secret Vault

It's always gratifying  to receive positive feedback about one's book. Two knowledgeable people, one an Ottawa author, the other a church leader and book club member, liked "Grace and the Secret Vault" and told me why.

Author Catina Noble wrote a comprehensive review from which I will quote a small part.  She said:  "The novel begins just after the First World War with fourteen year old Grace finding out from her parents that they are moving in with another family because Father has lost his job. To make matters worse, her father will be leaving to travel once again...empowering the lower class that they do, in fact, have a voice.  No matter lifestyle or social status, everyone has the right to be heard, the right to a fair wage and the right to safe working conditions... Throughout the novel, Grace wants to be supportive of her parents because she believes in what they stand for, but doesn't understand why it should be herself and her siblings who sometimes have to pay the price....Ruth Latta's novel is engaging, historical, beautifully written, and readers will fall in love with Grace from the first page."

Virginia McClatchy wrote: "I thoroughly enjoyed it and found it hard to put down. I also learned some history I was unaware of.  This past week I attended "The Colony of Unrequited Dreams" about Joey Smallwood and Newfoundland's joining Confederation.  I enjoyed it very much as an historical play and found this a very enjoyable way to learn history.  I felt the same way about your book and find it so appropriate that your book is new in Canada's 150th birthday year.  It would be wonderful if it were in every school and library in Canada.  Both the play and your book have inspired me to want to learn more and find some relevant history books. I have passed your book on to my daughter."

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Grace and the Secret Vault

In 1919, a general strike is called in Winnipeg, and thirteen year old Grace learns that her father is involved in it. In this crisis, she finds a way to help her family.

Grace and the Secret Vault (Ottawa, Baico, 2017, ISBN 978177216096,  $20) is available from and from

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Interview with Ruth Latta about new YA novel

R.K.L. Interviews Ruth Latta

Q. Your latest young adult novel is Grace and the Secret Vault. What is it about?

A: Grace and the Secret Vault is about a thirteen year old girl, Grace, who experiences a crisis in her family life as a result of an event which became a major landmark in Canadian History. The novel takes place in 1919, a time of social unrest following the dislocation and hardships of the First World War.  Grace's father is involved in the labour movement and in the historic Winnipeg General Strike of 1919.  Grace comes to terms with his activism and its effect on her family, and finds a way to help her family during this tense time.

Q: What inspired you to write Grace and the Secret Vault?

A: Over twenty years ago a friend and I researched and wrote a biography of a woman in politics whom we both admired. Her name was Grace Woodsworth MacInnis. When she was a Member of Parliament from 1965 to 1974, another turbulent time in Canadian history, she was a strong spokesperson on matters of particular interest to women, and we were impressed by that.

In researching Grace's life for the biography, my co-author and I read about her girlhood and the impact of the Winnipeg General Strike on her family and on her political awareness.

My friend died a couple of years ago, and at that time, when thinking about the fun we'd had doing our research, I realized that the story of the General Strike and its importance to Grace would make a good novel for young readers, and grown-ups too.

Q: So the earlier book was a biography but Grace and the Secret Vault is a work of fiction?

A: Yes, Grace and the Secret Vault is a novel. It is based on real events, and some of the characters are real people, such as Grace's father, J.S. Woodsworth. But I have created several characters who are fictional, I've used scenes and dialogue, I've shifted some of the family events around in time a little bit, so the book is fiction - historical fiction.

Q: How do you think Grace and the Secret Vault will affect readers?

A: I think readers will go hand in hand with Grace as she learns from the dramatic, frightening events of this period in Canadian history and comes to understand her parents better.

It's a story about the process of growing up and taking on some grown-up responsibilities and challenges. Young adult readers can relate to that.

Also, young readers may learn a little about our history from this novel, and be inspired by the characters who have the courage of their convictions.

Q: What made you feel that you could write this novel?

A: I've always loved reading and history has always been a major interest of mine. Back when my name was Ruth Olson I completed a Master's in History at Queen's University, and this background has been an asset to me in researching and writing this book, and earlier ones.  Long ago I taught elementary school, and more recently I've been reviewing children's and young adults' books for Canadian Materials. I've read a great many excellent historical novels for young people and couldn't resist the temptation to write one.

Q: What is your favourite part of the book?

A: I like the part where Grace's father says, "It must have been hard on you. You must have been scared" and Grace, who has been very worried, says, "Maybe a little bit."

Q: What is your next book?

A: It's another novel, again about Grace. It begins in 1928 when she's 23, studying in Paris, and, like most people in their early twenties, trying to find true love and a life's work.  After some trial and error, she finds her "calling" and also finds "The One." So I've been in a "state of grace" with my writing for a couple of years now, and look forward to continuing in it for a while.