Interview with Open Book: Toronto — Open History

The following is an interview of Connie Brummel Crook by Open Book/Open History in September of 2016.

 

1. Tell us a bit about your book and how it came to be.

Maple Moon is a story of how people may first have learned how to make maple syrup. I came up with the idea when I was doing research for my novel The Hungry Year, which describes the effects of the famine of 1787–88 on a pioneer family living in the woods of Upper Canada. I found several legends about maple syrup and learned how the Missisauga were the first to discover that life-giving food. I also asked Frank Cowie, Chief of the Hiawatha First Nation based at Rice Lake, near Peterborough, to allow me to visit his community. He was very helpful in sharing the history of his ancestors and told me how he wished that more such stories could be written, so the contributions of Native peoples could be more widely known. In the Maple Moon book itself, Rides-the-Wind, a young Native boy, is shunned by the other children because he has a lame leg. The story opens in the midst of a very harsh winter, with the people of his tribe nearly starving. Ashamed and alone, Rides-the-Wind struggles into the forest to hide his sorrow. It is there that Red Squirrel leads him to an amazing discovery, which saves his people from starvation.

2. What drew you to write about this time period in our Canadian history?

I’ve always had a special interest in Canadian history because it has often been underplayed in comparison to American history. Americans brag about their heroes, but Canadians tend to be modest about people who have moulded their story. I focused especially on the heroic lives of the early settlers who arrived in Ontario as refugees from the American Revolutionary War and on women like Laura Secord and Nellie McClung, who changed the course of Canadian history. Why shouldn’t we celebrate these pioneering men and women?

Publishers didn’t always share my convictions. Though Quill & Quire has given me credit for the authenticity of my stories in their reviews, a number of publishers told me that I should focus on current themes and the struggles children are facing today—not on historical events. However, I thought that books about our history would give readers some relief from all of these issues and would help children learn from past mistakes and successes. After many submissions and rewrites, my first book, Flight, was published in 1991. My twelve novels and two picture books, all historical, have followed, and all but one are still in print. Maple Moon was published in 1997—almost twenty years ago.

3. Why did you choose to write about historical events for children today?

During my many years as a teacher, I noticed that a great number of history texts were difficult and boring for students. Only after taking early retirement did I have the time to follow my dream of bringing our Canadian history to life by writing well-researched, lively, and readable stories for young adults. It was sometimes a challenge to choose the events and characters that would be most engaging for young readers. To keep their attention, I knew that my plots needed to include a great deal of action and suspense and that descriptions had to be vivid. In this last area, my grandchildren were an enormous help. When I would tell them bedtime stories, one of them, Ryan, would sometimes say, “I can’t see it, Grandma Connie.” So I would add more details and description. By the time I had finished giving Ryan answers to all his questions, I knew I had a real story. That is likely one reason why Maple Moon won a Storytelling World Award at the International Reading Association’s convention in Florida in 1998. My task was easier in Maple Moon because the book was illustrated by artist Scott Cameron. Though I described “suggested illustrations” at the bottom of each page of the manuscript, Scott’s paintings surpassed my imagination. Except for my other picture book, Laura Secord’s Brave Walk, it was entirely up to me to “paint” effective scenes. In The Hungry Year, the images of pioneers facing a winter of starvation helped make the story a Regional Silver Birch winner in 2002.

4. Why do you think it is important for contemporary readers to remember and reflect on Canadian history?

There are so many tales of struggle, tragedy, and victory related to the settlement of Upper Canada (now Ontario) and of interactions between white settlers and Native peoples. Many of these stories have never been told in an engaging way, so they are in danger of being lost to posterity. By remembering and reflecting on these events, we honour the people who shaped our country, we can learn how to follow their examples of courage and generosity, and we can grow to understand the roots of our identity as Canadians. One such series of events took place when Loyalists fled to the area near Belleville after the Revolutionary War. The British cut off their supplies in 1787, and a summer drought and severe winter resulted in many deaths. If it had not been for the Missisaugas and the Mohawks of that area, many more would have perished. These people taught the settlers how to use wild herbs as food and medicine; how to plant corn; how to canoe, snowshoe, and make garments out of deerskin—and how to harvest wild rice at places like Rice Lake, the setting for Maple Moon.

5. What impact did the theme of Maple Moon have on current Canadian culture?

Survival and courage in the face of harsh circumstances have been constant themes in Canadian literature and culture, and the origins of this phenomenon can be seen in stories like Maple Moon. History often repeats itself – as we see with the influx of refugees today. I am pleased that we are coming to the aid of these talented but unfortunate people – just as the Native people of what is now Ontario helped my ancestors, the Loyalists, to adjust to a new land. I hope that it might yet be my privilege to meet and write about some of the newest refugees coming to Peterborough. With determination, endurance, and great courage, our Canadian ancestors kept struggling on until life became better, and these are worthwhile objectives for every generation of Canadians.

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