Them Days by Glenn P. Booth released in April in the Fiction – Historical – Coming of Age genre.
Discrimination, war in Europe, a pandemic. . .
Sofiya, a young Ukrainian immigrant, experiences all of this and more. It could be 2022, but it’s Manitoba in the early 1900s.
Sofiya is the third consecutive girl born on a poor homestead near Gimli in 1903. She is bright and feisty but nothing more is expected of her than to be a domestic, and at age thirteen she is sent to be a maid to a wealthy family in Winnipeg. There, she experiences the condescension of the English towards the ‘Bohunks’, while her half-brother is interned during WW1, deemed an enemy alien.
While the Great War is raging in Europe, an undeclared war between the classes is being fought at home. This conflict comes to a head in the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 when the working classes rise up against their English masters, shut down the city and demand a better deal. The city is divided and everyone must choose a side.
Them Days takes you on Sofiya’s journey, as she discovers what it means to be an immigrant and a woman, struggling to find love and her identity – at the same time that Canada is breaking free from Mother England’s apron strings.
“In them days, we wuz poor but happy.”
You’re probably laughing at how trite this is. But I’ve heard my sister Helen, and several other members of my family, speak those exact words more times than I care to remember. And it’s exactly how they remember “Them Days.”
For us, Them Days goes back to growing up north of Winnipeg on marginal farmland at the turn of the 20th century. Like tens of thousands of Ukrainian and other Eastern European immigrants, my family had come searching for a better life in Canada, lured by the promise of free land.
For the most part, the promises were kept, although, as it would turn out, a few “extras” were thrown into the deal. Unfortunately for my family, like many Ukrainians, they had requested land with wood on it. Back in the old country, they had often frozen through long winters on the Steppes because of a lack of wood for building fires. The Canadian government’s land agent obliged, and they were given some scratchy stony ground near Gimli, Manitoba, where the fertile prairie gives way to swampy Boreal forest. But it had wood!
With this endowment, it was bound to be a hard life. But my sister still remembers it as a time of happiness.
Memories—how they play tricks on us—and how they vary from person to person. It never ceases to amaze me how my family members remember the same events so differently.
It was a warm June day in 1982, the last time the seven of us who had survived to late adulthood had gotten together for an informal family reunion. We were sitting in my youngest sister’s trailer, which was parked on the old family homestead. None of us were regular drinkers, but the occasion had inspired my brothers to have a little whiskey, and my sisters and I were sipping some white wine.
Sure enough, whether it was the heat, the alcohol, or just our age and the occasion, my siblings waxed maudlin. And it didn’t take long before Helen spoke those familiar words, “In them days…,” and my brothers nodded in agreement. Soon, happy stories of Them Days came pouring out like a prairie river spilling over its banks in the spring.
AUTHOR Bio and Links:
Glenn was born and raised in Winnipeg, where he lived with his Ukrainian grandmother, Helen Lesko, after he and his brother were orphaned just before his fourteenth birthday. He grew up listening to Helen’s stories about ‘Them Days’ growing up on the homestead near Gimli, and life in Winnipeg in the late 1910s and 1920s.
Glenn attended the University of Manitoba and the University of Alberta where he respectively obtained his Bachelor of Science and Master of Arts (Economics) degrees. Among other jobs, he subsequently worked with Canada’s National Energy Board, where he held positions including Chief Economist, Executive Director of Corporate Planning and External Relations, and Executive Director of Communications and Human Resources.
Glenn has published one other novel, Demons in Every Man, a murder mystery set in the Calgary oil patch, published by Friesen Press in 2019.
The author lives in Calgary with his Brazilian-born wife of 36 years, Elisabeth. Glenn and Elisabeth have two grown sons who are now successfully making their way in the world. Glenn enjoys returning to Winnipeg every summer to visit with his cousins and old friends, and to enjoy cottage life on Lake Winnipeg. While in Calgary, he loves scrambling and hiking in the Rockies, as well as mountain biking and X-country skiing with friends. Of course, Glenn is also an avid reader.
What Inspired Me to Write “Them Days”
My mother and father split before my fourth birthday and we never saw my father again. My younger brother and I were raised by our mom, and we spent a lot of time with our grandmother who had to step up and take care of us while our mother worked. After our mother suddenly and unexpectedly passed away just before my 14th birthday, my brother and I lived with my grandmother full time.
My grandmother, nee Helen Lyszko, was a Ukrainian immigrant to a homestead north of Winnipeg, Manitoba in the early years of the 1900s. She used to tell us stories about “Them Days” growing up on the homestead and living in Winnipeg as a young woman. Indeed, she often uttered the exact opening words to the novel, “In them days, we wuz poor but happy.”
Of course, as a young teenage boy, I wasn’t particularly interested in these stories as I had other things on my mind (mainly young teenage girls). But as I got older, eventually married and had children, I started to appreciate all that she had done for my brother and I when we were younger. She essentially had had to become a mother again, and I know that I wasn’t exactly the easiest kid to raise.
I started to think a little more seriously about the stories she told me – about her little brother Paulie being attacked by a goose and subsequently dying of a seizure, about two of her siblings dying of the Spanish flu, about the discrimination she faced from the English, about living through two world wars and the Great Depression – and realized that she had lived an amazing life, and that she had been so resilient through it all.
The idea of writing a novel loosely based on her life, and the life of so many other Ukrainian immigrants to the Canadian Prairies at that time, slowly began to take shape in my mind. As I started to research the period, I realized that it was truly an incredible time in our history. In addition to WW1 and the above events, the world was being tugged in two directions by opposing forces: on the one hand, the drive to capitalism; and on the other, the negative reaction to the inequities of capitalism, as manifested in the sweeping allure of communism. Although it’s hard for us to understand today, at the time communism stood for equality of humans and freedom from the repression of the factory floor.
This conflict came to a head in Winnipeg with the great General Strike of 1919, the largest strike in Canada’s history, and a landmark event in the struggle for workers’ rights across North America. My grandmother recalled being in the streets when the authorities brutally put down the strike, arresting the leaders in the dead of night in their homes, and shooting and killing two strikers on Main Street, Winnipeg.
In short, after doing the historical research, it was a ‘no-brainer’ for me to write this novel, as it is not only an homage to my grandmother and thousands of similarly-placed Ukrainian immigrants, and the sacrifices they made, but also an homage to the struggles of the working class of the time. Those struggles eventually resulted in legislative changes that have really helped Canada to become the great country it is today (despite its warts and ugly history with First Nations).
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