Tuesday, December 1, 2015

review, The Story of the Lost Child


This is the link to my review of Elena Ferrante's novel, The Story of the Lost Child, in Compulsive Reader.

Monday, November 30, 2015

One Hundred Favourite Novels

I have been rereading Jane Smiley's Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, (2005.) Smiley, an American novelist most famous for A Thousand Acres, examines the novel as a form of literary expression from thirteen different perspectives. She read one hundred novels as preparation, starting with some very early works. At the end of the book she explains the merits and shortcomings of each, in her opinion. I was pleased to recognize many of the titles as books I had read. Her list included Wodehouse's comic novels about Jeeves, early English novels like Pamela and Robinson Crusoe, several books that were the best sellers of their era, some classics of yesteryear that have not held up well over time - and more..  Anyone who writes fiction should read Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel. The title comes from the poem "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird."

Smiley's list of one hundred novels inspired me to list my hundred favourites, books that have enlightened and entertained me and educated me about certain fictional devices and methods of presentation of my stories.  Here is my list, in no particular order.  Maybe later I will go through it and tell you why each book is important to me, and why I think you should read it too.

Lives of Girls and Women
Who Do You Think You Are,  by Alice Munro.
This Nobel Prize winning author writes short stories, but in these two works the short stories all have the same protagonist and serve as chapters of each novel.

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

The Lacuna,
The Poisonwood Bible
Flight Behaviour    by Barbara Kingsolver

P is for Peril
R is for Ricochet
T is for Trespass by Sue Grafton
I have read all of Grafton's alphabet mysteries except for "X" and enjoyed them all, but these three seem to me to be the most compelling.

The Chimney Sweeper's Boy, by Barbara Vine (the late Ruth Rendell)

The Chaperone, by Laura Moriarty

Longbourn, by Jo Baker (Pride and Prejudice from the servants' point of view)

The Ballad of Frankie Silver, by Sharyn McCrumb
(I like all of McCrumb's Appalachian historical and contemporary novels but this is my favourite.)

Martha Quest
A Ripple from the Storm
The Four-Gated City, by Doris Lessing

Braided Lives
Gone to Soldiers by Marge Piercy

Painted Fires by Nellie McClung
 (My mother introduced me to this novel about a young woman immgrant to Canada from Finland and her struggles to make a life for herself.)

These are the first twenty I thought of. More to come later.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Story Starters

The best ideas for short stories come from something we have glimpsed, found interesting, witnessed or experienced. Sometimes, however, the self-generated idea doesn't work out, though, and we are faced with the blank page. Having the urge to write but nothing to write about is like looking at a closet full of clothes but finding nothing to wear.  To others it seems like a non-problem, but it is all too real.

Waiting for the muse to visit can become tiresome for those of us who like to be productive. Accordingly, in teaching writing classes, I provided participants with some ideas, knowing that we bring ourselves to every project and that whatever idea a student chose, the resulting story would turn out to be unique to him or her.

Here is one list of ideas:

1) Start a story that begins: The one thing Chris didn't want as a birthday present is a ............., but here it is.

The writer must decide what Chris especially doesn't want, and why.  In yesterday's blog I mentioned that Vera Brittain in the movie Testament of Youth didn't want a piano because to her it symbolized a restricted, conventional life.  Think of who has given Chris this gift? A relative who chose a gift that makes a judgment or sends a message? In what way does the gift  pose a problem?  What does Chris do with the gift, ultimately.

In my story, "The Strain", in my collection of short stories, Winter Moon, available from me at ruthlatta1@cyberus,ca, the central character receives a Christmas gift that she doesn't want because it is not at all useful in her difficult life.

2)  Another idea: List five things that you would never lend to anyone. The list might include your car, your lipstick, your spouse, an item of lingerie, your child, your home for a party, money....  Choose one of paramount importance to you Then invent a plot in which you, or the central character, is asked for the loan of this particular thing or person.

Ask yourself: What exceptional circumstances would make the central character break this rule? How does the central character feel after lending the item or refusing to do so? How does the borrower react?

In one of my classes a woman wrote a story about a busy, beleaguered young wife and mother who has a single woman friend whom she envies, because the single woman has an active social life and the young mother is at home bogged down in housework and children's needs. On impulse the young mother bought herself a lacy push-up bra some time ago but hasn't worn it. The single friend asks to borrow it for a hot date. As the conversation continues the single woman confesses that it's tiresome and sometimes degrading to search for "Mr. Right"/ "The One", so the young mother gives her the push-up bra, silently thinking of all the good things in her own life, like her husband and young children.

Lending a husband to help a neighbour with some simple, everyday task, like raking leaves, could be problematic if the wife thinks the neighbour is going to make a play for him.

3) Another idea:  A couple who are happy in a committed relationship with each other are enjoying a domestic evening when the doorbell rings. On the doorstep is the ex-partner of one member of the couple. The ex wants something. 

Your job as the writer is to decide what the ex wants and how it affects the couple. My writing students' ideas about what the ex wanted ranged from money to a kidney to a home for a child.

I had good luck with this idea. My novel, The Old Love and the New Love, is based on it. In my novel the ex wants a safe place to hide out for a while.

Good luck with these ideas.

Friday, November 13, 2015

movie review: Testament of Youth

In 1933,  English peace activist and novelist Vera Brittain published Testament of Youth, an autobiographical non-fiction book that made her famous. It is the story of a generation decimated by World War I.  In 1913, Vera, then twenty, wanted to attend Somerville College, a women's college at Oxford University, and was studying independently, hoping her parents would agree to let her take the admission test.  Shortly after she began her studies there, Britain declared war on Kaiser Wilhelm's Germany.Soon her brother Edward, her boyfriend Roland Leighton, and two other close friends from Edward's school were in the army, fighting in France.  During the course of the war, all four were killed. Vera left university to train as a nurse in order to be useful, and eventually was sent to work in the war zone in France.

This compelling story is still in print and has been the subject of two film adaptations, the first a BBC series (1979), the second the 2014 film starring Alicia Vikander as Vera and Kit Harington as Roland Leighton. Now on DVD, it is a coming-of-age story in which Vera leaves behind a confined, ladylike existence and becomes engaged in the great events of her era.

Near the beginning of the movie, we see Vera reacting badly to the piano her parents buy her for her birthday. It cost the equivalent of a year at Somerville College and it symbolizes for her the domestic, ladylike life her parents want for her. They don't want her to become a "bluestocking", but to find a husband.   She throws the books that she has been studying out the window and confronts her parents, Edward and his school chum, Victor, declaring that she will never marry. Just then a handsome young man comes through the open door. He is another of Edward's school friends and he hears her loud remark,and commets. "That's clear, then!"

During the course of his visit (he is Roland) they get to know each other well. They share an interest in literature and poetry; both plan to become writers. Roland's mother is a well-known writer and supports the women's suffrage movement, so Roland is no stranger to independent women.  Together they vow, "No more fear!" Edward convinces his father that he should let Vera go to university and she and Roland look forward to seeing each other there every day.

But in the meantime, after an idyllic summer, war is declared and the young men feel it a duty to sign up, especially as they believe they will beat the Germans by Christmas. Vera's father, who seems to be prescient about the long bloody conflict ahead, forbids Edward to join up, until Vera says that he has to let Edward be a man.

Vera's nursing instructors give her a hard time because they think she will put on airs and not work hard. She throws herself into her work, caring for young men like her brother and his friends, and urges Roland in her letters not to try to spare her feelings but to write to her the realities of war, as she is not afraid to confront things that are real.  Their relationship has its ups and downs. When they managed to spend time together prior to the war, they are heavily and comically chaperoned by her aunt.  When Vera sees him off to France he is ill. On his first leave he is angry and uncommunicative with her, convinced that she can't understand what he goes through in trench warfare and also sure that "leave makes you soft." Someone he knew went home on leave, got engaged, then came back to the trenches and forgot to keep his head down. 

In a dramatic confrontation by the sea Vera demands that he talk to her and make her understand. When he tells her the story about the engaged man who forgot to keep his head down and was picked off by the enemy, she assures him that they don't have to get engaged or married. At that, he says that a wedding might be nice - she in a white dress, surrounded by their friends, having cake. She accepts his proposal to be married on his Christmas leave. He writes later that he has been posted behind the lines and will be out of danger.

But Roland was sent to the front and was shot while mending wire. Vera doubts the official story about a noble, painless death because she knows he spent anentire day in hospital before dying. She ferrets out the true story, but, in a letter to their friend, Victor, who is just being sent to France, she  repeats the official line about a painless death.

Roland Leighton's personal effects included poems addressed to Vera. Two of them, "Violets" and "Hedcuville, November 1915". the latter written the month before he died, are quoted in the movie and available on the internet if you search under his name.  Both are heartrending. In the latter, he tells Vera that in the beautiful natural setting where they first met, she may meet "another stranger" and that it would be "better so". His resignation to his fate is deeply upsetting.

One of the terrible ironies is that, as a nurse in France, Vera finds her brother among the wounded brought to a field hospital, and saves his life, only to have him go back into the war and ultimately die.

The film takes some minor liberties with facts. In 1925, Vera married George Catlin, a political scientist, war veteran and peace activist, but she did not know him during the war years. The movie has them meet twice during its time frame.  It also shows Vera meeting Winnifred Holtby, a fellow Somerville student and writer who became her close friend until Holtby died in 1935. The film has Winnifred caring for Vera when she collapses from post traumatic stress disorder, but, in fact, that happened later in the early 1930s when Vera had to relive her wartime experiences while writing Testament of Youth.  But these small inaccuracies are necessary to give viewers a hint of what happened to Vera after the time frame of the movie. and they do not detract from its power.  I happened to see it just after Remembrance Day.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

"A CAKE" - poem

A few months ago, this poem was published in Good Times.


by Ruth Latta

I'm going to bake a plain white cake,
the sort that Mother used to make,
with flour, sugar, milk...Let's see:
What else is in the recipe?

The cookbook's in a cupboard, lair
of bake pans, clutter. Here is where
some serviettes have taken rest.
I may well need one for a guest.

I must clean out this hidey-hole,
not be a sloven, lose control
of cupboard space. Beneath the sink?
Oh, what would Betty Crocker think?

The page where "White Cakes" ought to be
is missing, left out, lost to me.
The loose leaves here are old and worn.
My plans for cake have died stillborn.

A thought occurs to save the day -
the food store, just a block away.
In "Bakery" there is plain white cake
much like my mother used to make.

recent reviews published

Above is the link to my review of the short story collection Bonds of Love and Blood in Compulsive Reader

Saturday, August 29, 2015

review of "The Dressmaker"


Above is the link to my review of "The Dressmaker" by Rosalie Ham, in Compulsive Reader.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

My half-day at Prose in the Park

Two Saturdays ago, I had a table at the Prose in the Park event in Parkdale Park in Ottawa, and while there I was fortunate to have a table near that of Karole Dumont, a writer and publisher. She is the author of the "in time" series of novels, a saga featuring First Nations people in Canada, and published by her publishing company, Metis Publishing, under her pen name, K.D. Beckett.

I enjoyed being outdoors seeing other authors, although book fairs don't result in big sales for the writers because there are too many of us competing with each other in a confined area.

The fact that I was able to attend and enjoy it is thanks to my husband, Roger Latta, who helped me move my books  there, lugged a heavy table to my location because the organizers were too busy, then helped move the table when the organizers informed me that they wanted it moved. He directed another writer to the source of the tables and located an organizer to help this other writer when the tables were all gone. He sat at my table and minded my books while I circulated within the park fence to meet other writers; otherwise I would have been confined to my table. Being outside the fence (perhaps because I was late in registering) I couldn't hear the readings by the big name authors imported for the event, but it didn't matter because I had him to talk to. I couldn't have managed without him!

My recently published work

My short story, They Can't Understand It, soon to be published in the Carleton University literary magazine, Passages, appears on their website, below:


My review of Flash Fiction International,a collection of very short stories, appears in Compulsive Reader, see the link below:


Saturday, May 23, 2015

A Bad Question for Small Talk

The question came when I least expected it. Tilted back in the dentist's chair, wondering if I were going to choke on my saliva, I clutched the arms as the technician cleaned my teeth. Then, out of the blue, she asked, "Do you have children?"

"Glug!" I said. This unclear reply didn't matter. The technician was just back from maternity leave and wanted to talk about her baby and preschooler. I was her captive audience.

I remembered a winter day two years earlier. I was in the foyer of a church I'd started attending, waiting for my husband to pick me up after a book club meeting. The chief news-spreader of the congregation was standing with me, both of us making way for parents coming in to pick up their children from the day care centre in the church hall.

"Aren't they cute at that age?" she remarked. Clearly she expected a "yes", so I said "yes." Then she asked, "Do you have children?"

"No," I said, "I have a husband - and there he is !", and I escaped into the snowstorm.

"Have you any children?" is a question I was frequently asked when I was younger. When I said "No," people waited for me to explain, and looked displeased when I didn't. Now that I'm old, I hear it less, and when I do, it jars me. I suppose I should be flattered that people still say "children", not "grandchildren."

"Have you any children?" is not a good question to ask when making small talk with someone you've just met or know only slightly.  Even nowadays there are strong social pressures on women to have children, and if you ask and the woman doesn't have any, it sounds as if you are prying or getting ready to criticize. Even among women who have had children, you can still strike a nerve.

An elderly friend in a retirement home whom I used to visit always introduced me to her new friends among the other residents. One woman in particular seemed very sociable, and after she had left us, my friend filled me in on the great tragedy of her life. She and her husband had had a son, who had suffered from an incurable disease of which he died in his early twenties. If he were alive he would be about the age of my husband.  I expect that the pain of losing her child has become endurable over the years but I'm sure it's still there.  I was thankful that it is not my practice to ask new acquaintances, "Have you any children?"

Someone else who might find the question uncomfortable is an acquaintance of mine who has two children in their twenties, one chronically unemployed and sometimes in trouble with the law;  the other trying to make something of himself but struggling. A query about her children is like opening a can of worms.

A few  months ago I learned something about making assumptions when I was having a conversation with a woman in my age group who, like me, has no children.  She was telling me about a young couple she knows who have an infant and don't like being parents. My friend, who is a religious woman, wondered aloud why God had blessed them with a child they don't want, while she couldn't have any. This rhetorical question about the unfairness of life was a revelation to me, because I had thought that she, like myself, had decided not to have kids.

We never know the hidden pain that a careless question can cause. So instead of asking women, "Have you any children?", ask something else, like "How about those Senators?" or "Seen any good movies lately?"

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Far from the Madding Crowd

Every so often I reread my favourite Thomas Hardy novels: Tess of the d'Urbervilles, Jude the Obscure and Far from the Madding Crowd, so naturally I was interested to learn that a new film version of the latter, starring Carrie Mulligan as Bathsheba Everdene, has just been released.

I own the first film version of Far from the Madding Crowd, starring Julie Christie, Alan Bates and Terence Stamp.  Back in the days when VHS players were state of the art, and few people had them, I rented this version to entertain a family we were visiting. The father of the family had his doubts about the entertainment value of the movie, but when it began, he was hooked by the depiction of Gabriel Oak's work tending his flock of sheep, because, as a cattle farmer, he knew the difficulties of making a living off the land. His interest confirmed my appreciation of the classics of literature. I was charmed, recently, when an acquaintance of mine mentioned that her ninety-year-old mother was rereading Thomas Hardy again in preparation for being taken to see the new version of Far from the Madding Crowd.

Roger and I saw it yesterday and were impressed. The earlier version is more faithful to Hardy's novel, but it was long; it had an intermission, and the new version had to abbreviate the text to achieve a more normal length. The new version has a more real feel to it. Landscape and weather play a big role in Hardy's fiction, and the film emphasized them. We get a sense of what it was like to walk around a farm at night in an era prior to flashlights, electric lighting and motor vehicle lights. The characters looked grubbier and more authentic than in the earlier film.

Bathsheba Everdene rises in the novel from unemployed governess to owner/manager of a large farm, and Carrie Mulligan conveys the young woman's delight at the opportunity to take over this inheritance, her nervousness as she meets her farm workers for the first time, and her pleasure in working in the field with them and being on the land. Hardy was ahead of his time in depicting a woman who lucked into a career that fully made use of her intelligence, a chance to head a business with great potential. In the end she succeeds in that, even though she has made mistakes in her personal life.

It is amusing to read Hardy, writing in the 19th century, in Victorian times, about a woman's erotic awakening. I remember first reading the seduction/rape scene in Tess and not being sure what really had transpired between her and Alec in the forest.  In Far from the Madding Crowd Hardy was subtle and conveyed things symbolically so as not to offend publishers and readers. (He deeply offended them, later, with Tess and Jude.) On the screen, in this remake of Far, we get a better sense than in the novel as to why Bathsheba's romantic life works out as it does. Carrie Mulligan looks young, as befitting a heroine who is 20 when the novel opens and 23 at the end.

While it is clear that Gabriel Oak is the best man of Bathsheba's three suitors, his proposal to her, early on, after a short acquaintance, is so unromantic and direct that it is off-putting.  He is  ten years her senior, ready to settle down, and she is not. He has mapped out their future and that it will be a dull one, featuring a piano, cucumber frames and babies' birth announcements in the paper.Can we blame a twenty year old girl, who hasn't had any suitors, for wanting more?  Later, when  Mr. Boldwood proposes to her, he does it in similar terms; it is all about the material things he can offer her. He says she won't have to do farm work any more, not realizing that she likes being a hands-on manager, and that she can provide for her own material needs for herself.  Sergeant Troy is clearly a slimeball, but to a girl barely out of her teens, dazed by her sudden rise in the world, he is glamorous in his red coat. Unlike the other two, he courts her by praising her beauty. No wonder she falls for him.

In the three novels mentioned above, Hardy creates complex female characters well worth reading about even in the 21st century. Like most Victorian novelists he is verbose, and sometimes in his role as omniscient narrator, discussing the characters' thoughts, he is not enlightening, and it is better when their actions speak for them. His explanations of farm work, however, are of interest nowadays, as technology has changed and most of us live urban lives. His appreciation of folk songs and customs and his love of the natural environment are attractive qualities.

Originally, Far from the Madding Crowd was written as a magazine serial, and as a result, the chapters usually end in cliff-hangers, thus maintaining suspense and reader interest. I hope the remake of Far from the Madding Crowd will encourage people to read the book.

Friday, May 8, 2015

My story in Passages anthology

Back in the winter I entered a creative writing contest held by Carleton University's English Department, and a few weeks ago I was delighted to learn that I came second in the fiction part of the contest with my short story, "They Can't Understand It".  The honorarium and gift books from Anasi Press were very welcome, and so is the news that my story is not only being published in the anthology, Passages, but will be mentioned, or included, on the Carleton University English Department website.

Friday, April 17, 2015

"A CAKE" - my poem in Good Times magazine

A friend emailed me to tell me that my poem, "A Cake" is in the current (April 2015) good times magazine
and that she is saving her copy for me.

Here is the poem.


by Ruth Latta

I'm going to bake a plain white cake,
the sort that Mother used to make,
with flour, sugar, milk - Let's see:
What else is in the recipe?

The cookbook's in a cupboard, lair
of bake pans, clutter. Here is where
some serviettes have taken rest.
I may well need one for a guest.

I must clean out this hidey-hole,
not be a sloven, lose control
of cupboard space. Beneath the sink?
Oh, what would Betty Crocker think?

The page where "White Cakes" ought to be
is missing, left out, lost to me.
The loose leaves here are old and worn.
My plans for cake have died stillborn.

A thought occurs to save the day -
the food store, just a block away.
In "Bakery" there is a cake
much like my mother used to make.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Shameless - a review

My review of Marilyn Churley's recent non-fiction book, Shameless, has just been posted on Compulsive Reader, and I thought I would post it here, too.

Shameless: The fight for adoption disclosure and the search for my son,
by Marilyn Churley
reviewed by Ruth Latta

Marilyn Churley's non-fiction work, Shameless (Toronto, Between the Lines, 2015, ISBN 978-1-77113-173-5) is a mother-child reunion story, and more. The former Ontario (Canada) cabinet minister has written a memoir about the search for the baby she relinquished in 1968, and, as well, a history of the struggle to get the Ontario adoption disclosure law changed. She shows how social mores of the 1960s were hostile to women's needs, and how men's concerns delayed the effort to open adoption records to adoptees and birth parents.

"On January 30, 1968, at the age of nineteen, I delivered a seven pound, thirteen-ounce boy in a hospital in Barrie, Ontario," she writes. "I never got to hold him." She gave him up for adoption through the Children's Aid Society because she lacked the means to support him on her own.

Churley's story is commonplace, yet unique. She grew up in a log cabin in Gander-Happy Valley Labrador where her father was a cook at the military base. Her parents, from Newfoundland, had married young and had little education, although her father eventually retrained for a skilled trade. The second of five children, Marilyn did well in school, attended church, and was raised "blissfully ignorant" about sex.

On graduating from high school in 1966, she went to Ottawa, the nation's capital, to attend university. Churley underwent extreme culture shock, experiencing a major city, so different from the small town in which she had grown up. Living in student co-op houses, she found that "a sexual revolution was happening; women were fighting for equality and being sexually active was part of that equality, yet it was nearly impossible for unmarried women to get birth control... abortion was illegal."

When Churley  sought a prescription for the birth control pill, her doctor refused, saying that it might "make her promiscuous."  When she realized she was pregnant, she and her boyfriend, the father, were no longer a couple, so she briefly considered abortion. After seeing the seedy abortion venue, she fled and decided to have the baby.

When she contacted her former boyfriend, he said she could move in with him and his spiritual mentor, a charismatic monk who was hostile to her. Fearing for her safety, she contacted a woman friend in British Columbia and asked to come and stay. Knowing her parents would be shocked and angry, she didn't tell them she was pregnant, but instead said she was dropping out of school to get a job in B.C.

British Columbia denied her welfare assistance unless she could show that she'd told her parents of her condition and that they'd refused any financial assistance. Eventually, the ex-boyfriend of her woman friend, who was visiting from Ontario, asked Marilyn to come and keep house for him until the baby was born. She accepted, and moved with him to Barrie, Ontario, near his military base, where they "lived the life of a normal couple expecting a baby", except that the baby wasn't his. Though Marilyn hoped they could be a family and raise the child, the young man insisted that he wanted her to move out once she had recovered from the birth and relinquished the baby for adoption.

In hospital, after a terrifying labour, a nurse called Churley a "shameless little hussy". Marilyn replied: "I am frightened and sad, but I am not ashamed." (This insult provided the title for her book.) After giving up her baby, Marilyn went to live with friends. Some months later, after the grace period for reclaiming her baby had passed, the man who had provided her with a roof during her pregnancy asked her to marry him. She did, but on her mind was the thought: "Here we were, married, and my baby wasn't with us."

Marilyn writes that this man, her first husband, was "a product of his time, as was I", and "one of the finest men I've ever known." Clearly he didn't want to raise another man's baby. Certainly he had no obligation, and he never led her to expect that he would, but his attitude is ungenerous, compared, for instance, to that of the adoptive parents who took Marilyn's son to be their own. Thirty years later, when Marilyn contacted the birth father because her newfound son wanted to meet him, she received a similarly cold, ungenerous response. Her former boyfriend, now married with children, first reacted with the thought that she or his son wanted money. He had never believed that the baby was his, and wanted a DNA test to prove paternity. It did. His attitude was like that of those who later opposed changes in the law governing adoption disclosure.

Marilyn and her first husband went to Europe, then broke up. She spent a year travelling in  Europe and North Africa, then returned to Toronto to become a temporary worker in government agencies. At twenty-five, in a relationship with a music events promoter, she had a daughter under happy circumstances. The family moved to Montreal, then to Vancouver, where Marilyn enroled at Simon Fraser University. But her common-law husband was not the sort to settle down, so eventually she returned with her young daughter to Toronto, where she administered a community health centre and a housing co-op, and found a new relationship which was to last fifteen years.

Her activism on social issues like affordable housing brought her into the public eye, and in 1988 she won a seat on Toronto City Council. She next ran as a New Democratic Party (social democratic party) candidate for the Ontario legislature and won her Toronto-area seat. When the New Democratic Party won a majority in 1990 and formed the provincial government, Marilyn became Minister of Consumer and Commercial Relations and Registrar General of Ontario. Adoption records were part of her purview.

Between 1927, when "closed" adoptions became the rule, and 1979, when the first step toward opening records began, over 250,000 children were adopted in Ontario.  By the 1970s, adoptees were demanding to know their biological roots, and organizations such as Parent Finders were being formed. In 1979, thanks to a New Democratic Party legislator, an adoption disclosure registry was established. It allowed birth registrations and adoption orders to be  provided to an adult adoptee or to a birth parent, provided that both parties had indicated a willingness to have that information divulged to the other. If one party had asked and the other hadn't, no disclosure could take place.

Meanwhile, in the 1980s, Churley started looking for her lost son.  When she contacted the Simcoe County Family Services for non-identifying information about the adoptive parents' circumstances, she received a patronizing refusal. She then joined Parent Finders, an organization of volunteers who searched old newspapers' adoption announcements, and published a newsletter in which adoptees and birth parents could request information. Parent Finders located the family who had adopted Marilyn's son, and, in 1995, Marilyn wrote to him, saying that she did not want to disrupt anyone's life, but only wanted to know if he was all right, and to explain why she had given him up.

In 1996 he replied. He had always known her name, which was on his adoption orders. In recent years, he'd seen "Marilyn Churley" as the signature on elevator certificates (thanks to her position as Minister of Consumer and Commercial Relations) and wondered if she could be his birth mother. Busy with university and happy in his adopted family life, he hadn't gotten around to looking for her. Their reunion and subsequent relationship is the sort of story of which adoptees and birth parents dream.

When the New Democrats lost the next provincial election to the Conservatives, the their full-disclosure bill on adoption became defunct.  As a private member, Churley introduced another bill on the subject, and, in 1997, went public with her own story.

"People told me I brought a bourgeois respectability to the movement, which made me laugh, but I guess it was true," she writes.

In 2001, Churley's third adoption disclosure bill reached committee stage, the opportunity for people on both sides of the issue to air their views. Opponents of retroactive full disclosure claimed concern over the privacy of birth mothers. In fact, no birth mother had ever been guaranteed privacy in writing, and birth mother's names were usually on the child's birth registration, as in Churley's case.

In time, Churley realized that the opponents, mostly male, were worried because birth mothers sometimes named the birth fathers on the registration. Men were afraid that children they had fathered, or might have fathered, would turn up on their doorsteps.
Their fears were unfounded. If the birth mother had added the father's name to the birth registration, the government deleted the father's name from the birth certificate. Relinquishment of a baby meant that the birth parents had no obligations - as well as no rights over - the child. While a few adoption reunions hit the headlines, such as singer Joni Mitchell's with her daughter, in most cases any contact between adoptees and birth parents happened discreetly, not in the realm of public knowledge.

Adoptees told the media that they were well aware that their births had involved problems. They had weighed their fear of what they might find out, against their need for medical and other information about their roots, and most had decided that they wanted to know.

In 2003, when a new Liberal government in Ontario announced its plan to reform the adoption disclosure laws, Churley got behind their bill. It faced strong opposition and a court challenged. Although 75% of Ontarians wanted full and retroactive adoption information disclosure, the opposition Conservatives "conjured theoretical scenarios" about aged rape or incest victims being "outed" in their old age by unwanted offspring. In response to one farfetched article in the National Post, Churley wrote: "This bill is not a search and reunion statute, but about the right to personal information."

Finally, in June 2009, an adoption disclosure bill, which included disclosure veto and contact veto provisions, became law, and Ontario joined the many other jurisdictions that had updated archaic systems. Nowadays, when adoptions occur, the birth parent is usually given the option of staying in touch with the adoptive parents and receiving photos and updates about the child. The right to know one's background is still a struggle among people conceived through reproductive technology and by aboriginal Canadians adopted by white families during the "1960s Sweep."

These days, Churley is happily married and the grandmother of two little boys, one her daughter's, the other, her son's. Her son is proud of his background, both birth and adoptive, and is on good terms with all of his relatives. Still, Churley says she still can't look at Billy's childhood photos without weeping.

"I was a tough little nut," she writes, "a real survivor, and, as bad as things were, I got through it and was able to do well in my life. But what I really wanted was my baby back."

Information about Ruth Latta's books is available on http://ruthlattabooks.blogspot.com

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Count Me In (a review)

My review of Count Me In is in the current issue of  the online magazine, Compulsive Reader, and I thought I would republish it here.

Count Me In
by Emily White
reviewed by Ruth Latta

Emily White, a Canadian environmental lawyer turned author, published her first book, Lonely: Learning to Live with Solitude (Toronto, McClelland and Stewart) in 2010. It became a national best-seller. In it she shows that loneliness affects one out of every four people, that it is "being egged on and aggravated by our culture," and that it is hazardous to our health.

White blended her personal experiences with an examination of the existing medical and sociological writing on loneliness. Among the studies she referenced was a 2002-5 survey from Rush University Medical Centre in Chicago, showing links between loneliness and cognitive declined. She cited research showing a sharp and continuous decline in socializing over the past thirty years.

Loneliness first hit White as a child when her parents' marriage broke up, and was worsened when she was a young adult and her father died. Distinguishing between "depression" and "loneliness", she says that depression feels like something "hounding and snapping at you" while loneliness is "drowning in absence."  Surprisingly, she found that the depictions of loneliness in fiction were more accurate than those she found in medical/mental health literature.

White ended Lonely by noting the few efforts here and there being made by public health agencies to encourage social connection. Her own plight was eased when she found a life partner and moved with her from Toronto to Newfoundland.

White's new book, Count Me In (McClelland and Stewart/Random House, 2015, ISBN 978-0-7710-8771-4,) picks up where Lonely left off, with regard to her personal story, but is subtitled: "How I stepped off the sidelines, created connection and built a fuller, richer, more lived-in life."  We meet White back in her home town of Toronto, having broken up with her partner of five years. Although she had (has) family and friends in Toronto, she missed the sense of community she'd had in Newfoundland, and, because of her change of circumstances, had to abandon her work-in-progress, which was about the nature of community in small towns. Back in the city, she combined her personal quest for a social network with research into how to achieve a sense of community.

As a young environmental lawyer working on contract in  Iqaluit in the Canadian Arctic, White had a sense of belonging. She walked under the midnight sun with her roommate's dog and gained inner peace from the land.  Hoping to attain that feeling again, she listed the things she needed for "belonging": a dog, nature, faith, home and neighbourhood. Since she already had a beloved aging cat, she decided not to acquire another pet. Her project led to satisfactory involvement in a community garden, an organization drawing attention to the inhumane treatment of pigs, and a gay Catholic congregation. Other ventures proved less rewarding, and she examines why.

White's search for community confirmed her belief, first expressed in Lonely, that social policy affects people's sense of belonging. Her good experiences at a public pool and community garden were made possible by elected officials of the past who directed tax dollars toward construction of a the community centre that housed the pool and the park that had space for the garden. These days, governments are providing less funding to public spaces people can meet others, and White thinks it's a shame.

White's quest taught her several things. One was to be open and receptive to people from different walks of life. In one group, she gravitated toward people in her age group (mid-forties) with careers, until one evening she conversed with a man in his eighties who told fascinating tales of Toronto in the pre-high-rise days.
She learned, too, that, she had to start with what she cared about. She walked out of a group that was both badly led and homophobic. Much as she loves language, literature and helping others, she decided she lacked the patience to tutor students taking English as a Second Language. She rejected team sports because she doesn't enjoy them, but notes that they are a highly praised form of social connection and work for some.

White advises people to examine their expectations. Close friendships won't blossom right away, if ever, but when relationships are lower key, as in the community garden, you can relax and don't have to be "on" all the time.

If a group situation doesn't work for you, don't be too quick to blame yourself, she says. Volunteer work, for instance, is always lauded as the route toward community building and a sense of belonging, but may not be so. Fewer organizations use volunteer help these days. Some that do are very task-oriented at the expense of human connection.

On finishing Count Me In, I wished I could talk to Emily White about some of my recent ventures into the community. She would probably encourage me to explore more activities. When you create a sense of connection for yourself by becoming part of a group, she says, you are helping to bring more warmth into the public realm.  In her view, the world is now at a tipping point where we will either match our desire for connection with action, or turn to "private relationships, commercial experiences and pre-packaged community of the type you might find on a cruise."

"All it takes is one step," she says, "the first one off the sidelines."

Monday, February 9, 2015

Recent publications

My review of William Klaber's book, The Rebellion of Miss Lucy Ann Lobdell, is in the current issue of Compulsive Reader.

My short story, "M.J." and regular column "Ruth's Ruminations" appear in  the February/March 2015 of Canadian Stories.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Yanks are Starving, review

Glen Craney has written a compelling historical  novel, The Yanks are Starving, about the "Bonus Army" of war veterans who, in the summer of 1932, at the nadir of the Great Depression, marched on Washington, D.C., in an effort to convince the U.S. government to pass a bill giving them the bonus money promised to them for their service in the First World War:  My review of The Yanks are Starving has been published by the online magazine Compulsive Reader. The link is below: 

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

review of The No Nonsense Guide to Degrowth and Sustainability

My review of Wayne Ellwood's  book, The No Nonsense Guide to Degrowth and Sustainability (Toronto, Between the Lines Publishing, 2014) has been published by Compulsive Reader. The link is below:

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

"Most of All" is on Amazon Kindle

My novel, "Most of All"  has just been published as an electronic book on Amazon Kindle. To look at the cover and take a peek at the contents, click here.