Author Tags: Fiction
Born in Vancouver in 1940, Joan Haggerty spent her formative years "on the coast in cedars and salt water", graduating from University of British Columbia with a B.A. in English and Theatre in 1962. For the next ten years she lived in England, France, Spain and New York City. During this period she wrote and published a non-fiction book about teaching, Please, Miss, Can I Play God?: Notes and Sketches on an Adventure in Dramatic Play (London: Methuen, 1966; New York: Bobbs-Merril, 1968). This was followed by an experimental feminist novel about childbirth, Daughters of the Moon (Bobbs-Merril, 1971). It was praised by Marge Piercy and John Irving.
Joan Haggerty returned to B.C. where she taught in Roberts Creek, Vancouver and Houston, B.C. In 1994 she published The Invitation (Douglas & McIntyre), a memoir about re-uniting with the child she gave up for adoption. [See review below] It was nominated for a Governor General’s Award in 1994.
While living in Telkwa, B.C., Joan Haggerty has completed a novel with a long incubation period, The Dancehall Years (Mother Tongue 2016). Twenty years in the making, it's a distinctly British Columbian family saga that follows the reverberations of the forced evacuation of Japanese Canadians from the coast. Young Gwen Killam has enjoyed her idyllic summers on Bowen Island until she can't fathom the sudden disappearance of her swimming teacher Takumi Yoshito, along with his parents who have had a solid reputation as gardeners on the island. The novel traces family dynamics from the Depression, to Pearl Harbour, to the 1980s. In an earlier draft it was 186,000 words, later honed to 352 pages. The Dancehall Years was shortlisted for the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize in 2017. SEE REVIEW BELOW
Please, Miss, Can I Play God?: Notes and Sketches on an Adventure in Dramatic Play (London: Methuen, 1966; New York: Bobbs-Merril, 1968)
Daughters of the Moon (Bobbs-Merril, 1971)
The Invitation (Douglas & McIntyre 1994)
The Dancehall Years (Mother Tongue $24.95) June 2016 460 pages 978-1-896949-54-3 • paperback
[BCBW 2015] "Fiction"
The Invitation (D&M $16.95)
"What's another story, more or less, unless you've lived it yourself?"
B. TRAVEN, THE GREAT GERMAN- MEXICAN storyteller, kept his personal life hidden behind many pseudonyms. Practicing what he preached, Traven lived among and wrote about the Chiapas Indians, researching his stories with lengthy field trips without which he claimed nothing of interest could come from his pen. Of his fiction, Traven said he created "documents" which he put into storyform so that more people would read them. Traven's funeral in 1969 in Chiapas was attended by the President of Mexico. The local descendants of the Mayans renamed their town in his honour. One of his books alone, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, has sold over 40 million copies in dozens of languages, and is still in print nearly 25 years after his death. So Joan Haggerty is in fine company. In her novel The Invitation (D&M $16.95) Haggerty has changed the real persona of her life into characters for fiction by altering only subordinate decorative details. Running her fingers over tender spots, caressing favourite moments, she manipulates her painful experiences into a story.
The Invitation is the true but thinly fictionalized story of a young Canadian woman who gave up her second child for adoption to a French couple she had just met. Her story opens with an invitation to the now 18-year-old's birthday celebration in a 12th century chateau in France. The narrator decides to go and meet her son, the child she barely knew. The way Joan Haggerty chose to live, so common now, was outrageously ahead of its time in the early 1960s. She lived the Bohemian life: three children, different fathers, single woman, writer and self-exile. And then the revolutionary act at the centre of the book, arranging an adoption. The child grew and flourished. The two remaining with her bloomed with exceptional heartiness, because of having more room to grow. After the fact, it seems easy. Between the lines of the narrative, however, are faint echoes of uncertainty seeking support. So what do we call stories such as The Invitation that have been accurate or semi-accurate records of real events? Are they fiction or nonfiction? Does it matter? Is The Diary of Anne Frank, for example, more or less a masterpiece for having really happened? In The Invitation Haggerty is writing in a distinctly Canadian documentary tradition which exists beyond our filmmaking. Yet in an afterword, she makes a special effort to distinguish her book from this tradition. "While The Invitation is a true story, it is not a documentary but a memory." One way or another, the life led leads to the life recorded. Unlike Traven, and perhaps ever the Canadian, Haggerty dares the personal exposure, and puts what we call "the family" under unique and convincing review. 1-55054-097-1
--By Tom Shandel
The Dancehall Years
Gone with the wind and cedars
When young Gwen Killiam arrives at her family’s summer cottage on Bowen Island in 1941, she is ready for another summer of ice cream, swimming at the beach, and spying on dancers in the beautiful dancehall above the wharf. But the spectre of war and the complications of family life will soon shatter the peaceful insulation of her childhood in Joan Haggerty’s The Dancehall Years (Caitlin $24.95), reviewed here by Caitlin Woods-Rotering.
When Gwen Killiam arrives on Bowen Island for the summer of 1941, her Aunt Isabelle is waiting to see her, as usual. But this year things will be very different. It turns out her Aunt Isabelle, at age twenty-one, has fallen secretly and scandalously in love with a young man named Takumi Yoshito.
Takumi, who also happens to be Gwen’s swimming teacher, is the son of Shinsuke and Noriko, keepers of some of the most beautiful gardens on Bowen Island. The Yoshitos have been an integral part of Bowen Island for years, caring for the Bowen Inn gardens and living in a lovely Scarborough house which was gifted to them in their former employer’s will.
After December 7, 1941, the Yoshitos are no longer gardeners or friends or neighbours—they are enemies. The surprise invasion of Pearl Harbour means Japanese Canadians can be forced into camps in the Interior, and their homes are no longer safe.
Takumi flees the island by boat, narrowly avoiding capture. His sudden departure leaves Isabelle with a broken heart and a very uncertain future.
Takumi takes refuge along the British Columbian coastline, using his skill and ingenuity to hide out and survive in the wilderness for years. Upon finally hearing that the war is over, Takumi returns to his home on Bowen Island only to find it has been sold by the government and bought by Isabelle’s brother-in-law.
With the home he has been dreaming of now occupied by someone else, Takumi hitches a ride on a fishing boat and finds himself across the border in Blaine, Washington. Just when he thinks he has escaped his painful past, he runs into an old family friend from Bowen Island—and a big surprise.
Takumi’s story is one of many rich narrative threads in Haggerty’s novel. The numerous characters in The Dancehall Years are all well-developed; each with their own secrets, betrayals, heartbreak and guilt. The stories intertwine beautifully as the graceful narrative floats through their interconnected lives, taking the reader deep into their homes and their memories.
The novel follows this complex web of lives into the 1960s when a grown up Gwen falls deliriously in love with her university professor and starts a family of her own. After making the move to America and abandoning her university degree to be a mother, Gwen’s marriage begins to crumble.
Haggerty’s sharp depiction of Gwen’s devastation and longing for a relationship with her husband makes for a raw and heartbreaking read. Gwen heads back home to Canada with two daughters in tow and tries to put the pieces of herself and her life back together. The family she returns to is a shadow of the one we are introduced to at the beginning of the novel.
Her beloved Aunt Isabelle has been cast out for many years, left alone with her husband, Jack, who is deeply traumatized from the war and in need of constant care. Isabelle and Gwen’s parents are no longer on speaking terms, for reasons her mother refuses to disclose.
A complex webs of secrets has been built up over the years. The decaying dancehall on Bowen Island remains as a haunting reminder of how the idyllic past can never been regained. When Gwen and a friend embark on a project to restore the dancehall, a mysterious stranger arrives who has a connection to their childhood days. Her presence threatens to unravel the tangled threads of Gwen’s family history, which perhaps is just what they need.
The Dancehall Years is a beautifully written saga. It combines the deep complexities of family, love, memory and community. This is a sophisticated novel that will feel strikingly familiar, not only to anyone who knows the landmarks of the West Coast, but to anyone who has ever been in a family with a secret. 978-1-896949-54-3
The Dancehall Years
The Dancehall Years by Joan Haggerty
(Mother Tongue $23.95)
by TOM SHANDEL
Joan Haggerty has always been in a vanguard of very few. Her first book, Please, Miss, Can I Play God (1966), was based on her teaching drama to inner-London kids. Daughters of the Moon (1971) her debut novel, presented a struggle for self-determination via the power of childbirth and the independent female. It was followed by The Invitation (1994), another story of motherhood transcending shibboleths.
I’ve lost touch with Joan Haggerty over the last twenty-five years or so, but her new book brings back to mind so much of what made our friendship work for me. In The Dancehall Years, she is as fearless as ever in revealing her guts with shameless honesty.
The Dancehall Years fills an important gap. Not many books reveal a street-level depiction of Vancouver in the 1940s, ’50s, ’60s and ’70s before it became “world class” and corporate.
Vancouver during those decades was a place for intolerance of racial and religious differences, unquestioning acceptance of the status quo, unarguable patriotism, the sacred belief in manners and financial self-reliance. This small c conservativism of middle class Canada prompted many of us to renovate ourselves—Joan Haggerty included.
For Joan, this prevailing conservatism was found in leafy south Dunbar, Southlands, Magee High School and summers on Bowen Island. Although The Dancehall Years is set in Joan’s own history and memory for its authenticity and accurate detail, it soars beyond memoir when it brings important contemporary values to bear on the idyllic world on Bowen Island.
A young, central character, Gwen, must come to grips with the Japanese internment during WW II, inciting her to forge her independence from the constraints of her upbringing. Inter-racial marriage and childbirth out of wedlock are the touchstones for her emotional and critical responses.
From 1939 onwards, we follow Gwen’s progress as she matures and experience Bowen Island through her eyes.
Bowen Island in the 1940s was to Vancouver’s middle class what Georgian Bay is for Ontarians. Taking the Union Steamship from Vancouver harbour to Bowen was a couple of hours’ journey, far enough away that many people stayed over in rentals or brought their tent. Bowen’s small community of locals serviced the annual invasion of summer visitors.
The not-forgotten struggles of The Depression were lightened by escapes to the soft summer days on Bowen. At the heart of Bowen social life was the local hotel and the dance hall, the centre of adult pleasure where Gwen and the other kids gathered in the early evenings to stare in wonder through the windows at the fairyland world where children were not allowed.
Then came Pearl Harbor in ’41. Due to patriotic racism, the Japanese Canadians, even if they were born in B.C., were forced to be exiled inland, even from quiet and comfortable Bowen, and properties were confiscated. In The Dancehall Years, as a youngster, Gwen watches uncomprehendingly the removal of a respected Bowen family integral to the life of the island.
Most of us know about the internment story through the writings of Joy Kogawa and David Suzuki, or through documentaries such as one made by Linda Ohama. As someone who has lived most of my life on the West Coast, I thought I knew all about the Japanese Canadian internment story, but this rendering has made a deeper impression on me.
As an old Japanese Canadian couple is dispossessed of their property, the indifference of Bowen Islanders to not only former friends but important suppliers of food from their gardens is shocking. This easy bigotry is handled brilliantly, particularly within the intimacies of Gwen’s own home with her Dad.
But Haggerty takes it much further. Not only is there the reality of inter-racial relationships in 1941, but a child is born, and in a monstrous attempt to “protect” both the young unwed mother and the family’s reputation, Aunt Isabel is told the baby died at birth. This family skeleton haunts her book, and Gwen, as she grows up, comes to understand the horrific lie which middle-class sensibilities found necessary.
Along the way, The Dancehall Years also offers a multi-faceted representation of coastal life: an appreciation of tides, of commercial fishing, of UBC and “higher learning,” of synchronized swimming, and of being a single Mom in an age when pregnancy out of marriage was something to hide. Same sex relationships were taboo and families still valued their pristine reputations higher than children’s originality and possibilities.
Few novels resonate so well with the zeitgeist of my formative years here since the 1950s. We were a post-Beatnik, pre-Hippie generation—not necessarily a lost generation but surely a mostly ignored one.
Tom Shandel is a journalist and filmmaker who knew Joan Haggerty when they were wannabe actors in the Sixties, taking classes at UBC. Before he became a prodigious documentary filmmaker, they both appeared in Elmer Rice’s Dream Girl for the UBC Players Club.