How do you get through the dark winter months of a pandemic? By reading exciting work by long overlooked Canadian women writers.
Consider the first generation of Canadian Jewish authors who wrote in English. Readers will know the poet Irving Layton — whose death we commemorate on Jan. 4 — as well as novelist Mordecai Richler and singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, all of them Montréalers.
But you may not know the women who published poems and prose alongside their more recognized male counterparts.
Prairie writers Miriam Waddington, Adele Wiseman and Fredelle Bruser Maynard and Torontonians Helen Weinzweig and Shirley Faessler were among the pioneering figures who produced daring work out of their own experiences as women.
My research on Canadian Jewish writers has led to a deep appreciation for the work of these accomplished women who deserve recognition for their contributions to the field.
Who were these women and what did they publish?
Winnipeg-born Waddington (1917-2004) participated in the rise of modernist Canadian poetry.
A prolific writer, she published 14 volumes of verse during her lifetime. Waddington’s poetry is deceptively accessible: it is personal but never private, emotional but not confessional, thoughtful but never cerebral.
Waddington wrote layered verse always from a gendered position, first as a social worker who saw aspects of herself in her most vulnerable clients. She detailed intoxicating romance and mature love, the pleasures of marriage and motherhood, the experience of raising two sons to adulthood and the ineffable pain of divorce.
As she moved through middle age, Waddington wrote of her ancestral past, the death of her ex-husband and loss of close friends, and later of growing old. Her poems of a Winnipeg childhood, modern urban life in Montréal and Toronto, visits to London, Berlin, Jerusalem and Moscow, of art and writing, probed irreconcilable differences of place and identity, politics and work.
At the core of Waddington’s poetry was a moral quest for knowledge and understanding. A two-volume critical edition of her collected poems was published in 2014.
Wiseman (1928-92) was also born and raised in Winnipeg’s North End when it was largely Jewish.
She is best known for her two novels that mine the Prairie landscape and the Jewish culture that was her inheritance. Both works are set in insular communities whose practices reflect traditional Judaism.
The Sacrifice, published when Wiseman was 28 in 1956, received the Governor General’s Literary Award that year. This tragic novel revealed her interest in characters who challenge normative behaviour and affirmed Wiseman’s belief in community. It centres on the murder of a woman by its devout protagonist Abraham who misinterprets her flirtation.
Crackpot is the epic story of Hoda, an obese Jewish sex worker, who services the boys and men of her North End community. Hoda is garrulous and outspoken, determined and resilient. Tested by fate and the son she must give up at birth, she remains one of literature’s most memorable characters — for playwrights, poets and readers alike.
Today, Crackpot is universally admired, but in 1974, the year it was published, the Canadian audience had little taste for its novelistic treatment of unconventional sexuality and incest.
Fredelle Bruser Maynard
Born in Foam Lake, Sask., Maynard (1922-89) spent her youth in Winnipeg. Her two memoirs, written with honesty and poignancy, foreground her experience as a Jewish woman.
Raisins and Almonds (1972) evokes Maynard’s childhood and family life on the Prairies, where she recalls growing up feeling “Jewish and alien” in rural Western towns during the 1920s and 1930s.
She continues her story in The Tree of Life (1988) with an emphasis on relationships with her mother and sister, her artist husband Max Maynard — who was an alcoholic for the duration of their 25-year marriage — and her writer daughters Rona and Joyce. A brilliant student who earned a PhD in English from Radcliffe College in 1947, Maynard also exposes the gender norms of the time that prevented her from pursuing an academic career.
Born in Radom, Poland, Weinzweig (1915-2010) immigrated to Canada at the age of nine with her divorced mother. Her novels and stories are dark, spare narratives that critique the institution of marriage.
The experimental novel Passing Ceremony (1973) blends surreal and gothic styles to present a sombre picture of the ritual of marriage. It communicates Weinzweig’s belief in the paradox that tragedy always lurks beneath the seemingly innocuous conventions of everyday life.
Basic Black with Pearls (1980), which won the Toronto Book Award, is a “feminist classic.” Written as a highly subjective interior monologue, it too examines the vacuousness of traditional marriage. An ingenious work of puzzles, the novel’s clever use of transformations and masks sharpens the interplay of reality and illusion at its heart.
“My Mother’s Luck,” another monologue included in the short story collection A View from the Roof (1989), records the difficult life of a dynamic character based on Weinzweig’s own mother.
Weinzweig’s fragmented, discontinuous stories propel readers toward a heightened awareness of the contradictions of contemporary life.
Faessler (1921-97) was born and raised in Toronto’s Kensington Market when it was a Jewish enclave, and used this setting for her fiction.
The novel Everything in the Window (1979) describes the marriage of Sophie Glicksman and Billy James, a convert to Judaism. Set during the 1940s, it draws readers into a vivid world of contrasting sensibilities: the Jewish openness in Sophie’s family versus James’s gentile politeness.
On the back cover of A Basket of Apples (1988), Alice Munro proclaims Faessler “a witty and uncompromising writer.” Munro admired the nine stories in the collection, six of which return to the Glicksman family.
In a 2014 edition of the six Glicksman stories, linked via chronology and a consistent first-person female narrator, a cast of lively characters of the 1930s and 1940s speak to us across time through Yiddish-inflected English.
Readers will enjoy the rich diversity of Canadian Jewish experience reflected in the poetry of Waddington and the prose of Wiseman, Maynard, Weinzweig and Faessler. The work of these authors remain evocative and relevant — perfect for long winter evenings.