Fascinated by Queen Victoria

Good old Queen Victoria was born on May 24, 1819…200 years ago!! Queen Victoria may be long dead and gone, yet in a way she lives on. She lent her name and birthday to the glorious long weekend we are now celebrating. And she lives on in numerous place and street names around the globe as well as inspiration for books and movies.

My daughter and I recently decided we wanted to watch a TV series together, something British. We selected Victoria and steadily worked our way through Seasons 1 and 2. We were enthralled — addicted? — from the get go! Just so you know, this is NOT your stout, dowdy, “we are not amused” Queen Victoria. This is a young, vibrant Victoria (just 18 years of age when she came to the throne), a headstrong Victoria filled with steely determination to do things her own way. Viewers are treated to pomp and circumstance, romance (both royal and below stairs variety), juicy scandal, and plenty of scheming and intrigue.

The cast is superb. Jenna Coleman plays Queen Victoria, Tom Hughes is her husband, Prince Albert, and Rufus Sewell portrays Lord Melbourne, the prime minister. I have to confess to a secret hankering after the Prince Ernst character (David Oakes), the oh-so-handsome and charming but badly-behaved older brother of Prince Albert.

Season 3 of Victoria comes out on DVD later this month. Cannot wait!

As we watched the series, I also read the companion book, Victoria by Daisy Goodwin, the creator and writer of the TV series. Highly enjoyable. Looking for more Victoria-inspired reading or viewing? Here are a couple of newish offerings I would recommend: Victoria & Abdul (DVD) and Queen Victoria: twenty four days that changed her life (book) by Lucy Worsley.

I have become quite fascinated with Queen Victoria, so I will leave you with two facts I bet you did not know. First, when Victoria was born the chances of her ever becoming queen were extremely remote as she was the daughter of the fourth son of the old King. Also, when Queen Victoria died (in 1901) she was the longest reigning monarch in British history (at 63 years) … though that record has recently been surpassed by her great-great granddaughter, the present Queen, at 67 years, and counting.

Happy Victoria Day!

— Penny D.

Wunderland

Wunderland by Jennifer Cody Epstein is a historical fiction page-turner that brings readers into the lives of two teenage friends, Ilse and Renate, who have vastly different perspectives and experiences during World War II.

The story begins in 1989, shortly after Ilse’s death, when her daughter, Ava unearths Ilse’s long-held secrets. The story then heads back in time, to Berlin in the late 1930’s when Ilse and her best friend Renate are teenagers. It’s through the bond of these two young women that we get varying views of the war and witness the disintegration of their friendship and the reasons for it.

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What made this book stand out from the many, MANY WWII historical fiction books I’ve read, is how Epstein vividly describes what life was like for German citizens leading up to and including WWII. She describes the rise of the Nazi regime and their horrific methods of growing their power and shows how some German citizens began to believe the propaganda and felt justified when they participated in fear mongering and terror of their own neighbours. She also reveals the dire restrictions, discrimination and abuse Jewish families faced from their own government as well as the pitiful aid from other countries as they tried to flee.

While there’s a fair bit of jumping back and forth between time lines (and one that I was less invested in), in the end, Wunderland is an engaging read with story lines that merge into an incredibly revealing look at the rise of Nazism within Germany. But ultimately, the focus on the poignant, heart-wrenching tale about a complicated friendship, long-held secrets, loss and betrayal is what will keep readers glued to the pages.

— Laurie P.

The Island of Sea Women

Fans of Lisa See know and love her for her detailed historical fiction stories that include strong female characters. In See’s latest book, The Island of Sea Women, her story begins in the 1930’s and 40’s during the Japanese occupation of Korea and the island of Jeju. Through the eyes of best friends, Young-Sook and Mi-ja, two young haenyeo, we witness the political upheaval after WWII, the atrocities committed against citizens, and their desire and struggle to control their own country without interference from others.

I had never heard of the haenyeo before reading this book. With her meticulous research, See introduces readers to these well-respected, strong and staunchly independent women and their unique matrilineal society. They are the heads of their families and the sole providers who risk their lives daily to fish using the methods haenyeo have used for generations while their husbands typically stay home to watch the kids (and apparently not much else).

While the haenyeo culture and its matrifocal way of life was interesting to witness, the story itself is a bit of a slower read. A lot of historical detail is given and having that background is important to understanding Korea’s struggle for independence and how that influenced the haenyeo. While some scenes were difficult to read due to their violence, I respect that See doesn’t hold back on her descriptions detailing the horrors inflicted on the people of Jeju as they struggled under Japanese occupation and later when the US got involved.

51kn-DDoHlL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_The Island of Sea Women is a historical fiction novel that focuses on the lives of the unique and powerful haenyeo (a culture many people have probably have never heard of), the history of Korea (that many people may have never learned about in school) and the lives of two friends whose sister-like bond is put to the test by family loyalty, hardships, loss and misunderstanding. This is an eye-opening and touching read about culture, friendship and the struggle of a nation to be autonomous.

— Laurie P.

Note: our friends at Kitchener Public Library are presenting “An Evening With Lisa See” on March 25, 2019 at 7:00pm at the Central Library on Queen Street. Registration is required for this free event.

Turning 100

Frank’s Jewellers and the Ellis Little History Room

There is a prevailing perception that libraries are a place for books only. Like most library customers, I’ve spent most of my years visiting WPL for the sole purpose of checking out books. It wasn’t until my teen years that I discovered that the library also has a vast collection of movies, CDs, audio books and programs. Yet the one resource that remained elusive to me over the years was the Ellis Little Local History room. The door was always open and inviting, but I didn’t have a reason to venture inside. It wasn’t until the summer of 2017 that I went in for the first time.

I’ve grown up in Waterloo with a strong connection to the King Street business community. My father was the owner of Mr. Sub for forty-one years. I spent many summers and weekends serving sandwiches and smiles to both Waterloo patrons and neighbouring business owners regularly. The King Street business community as I remember it was tight knit and familial. While we were known as the place to pick up a quick lunch, there were other businesses on King Street that were known for other things: McPhail’s for sports equipment, Tora Tattoo for piercings and tattoos, Ontario Seed for seeds (and a handful of peanuts for my dad), and Frank’s Jewellers for jewellery and gifts.

franks 001Since my dad retired in July 2016, I’ve found myself missing that connection to the Uptown Waterloo community. It wasn’t until Bob Frank, owner of Frank’s Jewellers, approached me with a local history inquiry that I found a way to reconnect with the uptown business community. How was I going to do my research? I would begin by visiting the Ellis Little Local History room.

His inquiry was simple. Bob, the third-generation owner and operator of Frank’s Jewellers on King Street, wanted to confirm that his business was indeed celebrating its 100-year anniversary in 2019. Realizing that the Ellis Little Local History Room was the best place to begin my research, I made my first visit and began exploring the shelves of Vernon business directories, local business news clippings, and archives of photo negatives to find evidence that in 1919, Bob’s grandfather, W.P. Frank, took over operations from the previous owner.

During this search, my research expanded from finding evidence to solve this important question to finding any artifacts that trace the mark Frank’s Jewellers has had on the Uptown business community for the past one hundred years. The search has been fruitful! I’ve found many old articles and pictures in the Ellis Little Local History room. I’ve found pictures that reflect the changing landscape of King Street over the years like the image above of Frank’s Jewellers from the mid-1970’s when Bob’s father was the owner.

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 I’ve also found pictures that reflect the strength and camaraderie of the Waterloo business community that traces back to July 27, 1938 when a wide landscape of Waterloo merchants gathered for a first annual picnic which Bob’s grandfather, W.P. Frank (Picture left: middle row center with striped tie) attended.

I’ve lost myself for hours poring over business directories, maps, and books that map the history of Waterloo Region by local authors. I know I’ve only scratched the surface but these discovers have allowed me to appreciate the library for another purpose: being a local history keeper. The library not only brings people together for a love of reading, but for a shared history of our community that has grown from the small farming town to a modern tech start-up city.

Another local history resource that I’ve perused is OurOntario where I’ve searched through thousands of photographs as well as digitized Waterloo Chronicle newspapers. It’s an excellent resource that saves the time and energy previously spent going through microfilm and has been a very helpful resource.

The online and offline history collection at the Waterloo Public Library has been and continues to be an excellent resource to find answers to any local history inquiries. Should you require help with more specific requests, contact Janet Seally to assist your local history missions. To see Frank’s Jeweller’s collection of historical artifacts, follow them on Instagram and/or Facebook.

It’s easy to live somewhere for your whole life without questioning where you live. You may have just moved to Waterloo two years ago. You may be a third-generation resident. It’s worth questioning and learning about the place you live in because each of us plays a part in how it became the place you inhabit today. History may be the story of our past, but it’s easy to overlook our place in the present.

— Eleni Z.

Six Degrees From a Typewriter

A popular game suggests that all things in the world are six or fewer steps away from each other. Who would have thought that this applies to a vintage typewriter?

This tale begins when a staff member offered a vintage typewriter for display at the Main Library. Shortly thereafter I displayed the typewriter in the lobby near Borrower’s Services on an equally old oak desk the library had kicking around. Immediately our customers began to try out the vintage machine and the click-clack of the keys could be heard in the library.

This is not a new idea. The book “Notes From a Public Typewriter” edited by Michael Gustafson and Oliver Uberti is a collection of a series of notes left on a vintage typewriter set up in a book store in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The book combines essays with favourite notes (like “I ended up alone on my birthday but being here makes it easy to forget that. Thank you.”) as a nod to community.

At WPL we too began to experience our own unplanned community-building exercise. Jokes, words of advice, famous quotes and reminiscences were typed up, slowly or quickly, on the old machine at the Main, revealing the heart of our community here in Waterloo.

The heartwarming:

“Dear whoever reads this. You matter.”
“You are loved. You are accepted.”
“Love yourself.”
“Books are good for you and books love you too”

Gentle advice:

“Learn something new every day.”

Salutations:

“Hello person who is reading this.”
“Whoever you are? Have a good day.”

Memories:

“My dad had a typewriter like this in his office in Buffalo.”
“This is the typewriter that I learned on in 1950 when I could do 40 words a minute.”

Kids:

“Give me ccccoooookkkiieeeessss.”
“I wish I could use one of these for school. It’s cooler than Google docs.”
“This is old school. How did anyone ever type like this?”

Generations mingled:

“This is an ancient keyboard.”
“It’s not that old. I used to have one!!!”

Suddenly, I began to see images of typewriters everywhere I looked including on the cover of Tom Hank’s collection of short stories “Uncommon Type”. Each of Hanks’ stories features a typewriter almost like it was a character in the story. My favourite “Christmas Eve 1953” tells the story of a World War II vet who has achieved the American dream but is still haunted by flashbacks to Christmas 1944.

Hanks himself is an avid collector of typewriters which he talks about in the documentary “California Typewriter”. The documentary examines the extinction of the beloved typewriter and the movement to keep these “ancient” machines clicking away.

WPL customers really enjoy the sound from yesterday. Customers noting “The sound of the keys clacking is nice.”

In the popular feature film, “You’ve Got Mail“, a cherished neighbourhood bookstore (owned by Meg Ryan’s character) is being pushed out by a big book store chain (owned by Tom Hanks’ character). Another character in the movie collects vintage electric typewriters, rhapsodizing about the hum of the machine and the sound of the keys. Spoiler alert, he doesn’t keep the girl – but he does hang onto the vintage typewriters! The viewer can judge who got the better deal.

If all this typewriter talk has made you want to learn more about the trusty machine, check out the book “The Typewriter Revolution” by Richard Polt. It includes a chapter on care and repair which I may need when unsticking keys and adjusting the ribbon every morning. Curious customers have a habit of fiddling with buttons and adjusting levers and, as one typist freely admitted, “Help! My finger is stuck between the keys!”.

Finally, I seem to be right back where I started – the typewriter. You see, I have my own typewriter story. When I started at WPL almost 30 years ago one of my jobs was to type catalogue cards on just such a machine. I think a WPL customer summed it up best when they so wisely clacked out in short staccato strokes “Remember who you are. Remember who you were”.

— Maureen S.

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The Romanov Empress

If you like historical fiction, The Romanov Empress by C.W. Gortner is a great read! Narrated by Maria Feodorovna, the mother of the last Tsar of Russia, it follows her life from her idyllic childhood as a Danish Princess through to her role as Dowager Empress of Russia during the Bolshevik revolution.

Minnie, as she is known by friends and family, is betrothed to Nicholas Romanov, the heir to the throne of Tsar Alexander Romanov II. Falling terminally ill unexpectedly, Nicky begs Minnie, upon his death, to marry his brother Alexander III. At the age of 19, Minnie feels that she has no option but to accede to her late fiancee’s request and marries the new heir apparent, a bullish and brooding man, quite unlike his gentle and refined brother. With time though, Minnie, now officially Maria Feodorovna, develops a deep love and respect for this besotted man and bears him six children.

Covering the time period from 1862 to 1918, the story illustrates the dynastic entitlement that accompanies those born of royal blood. We are witness to the opulence and extravagance of the wildly wealthy while at the same time observing the tremendous pressure borne by those fettered by the traditions and behavioural mandates of the Royal family.

As we watch the lives of the Romanovs unfold over the years, we are also witness to the fomenting of rebellion within Russia. While the Royals live lives of extraordinary excess, extreme poverty for many Russians affords them a life of hopelessness and hunger. Dissent runs rampant in the country with many assassination threats and attempts on the Tsar’s life. After one group, the Nihilists, are eventually hung or banished, their cause is picked up by Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks. We all know the story does not end well for Maria’s son, Tsar Nicholas and his family. Facing utter contempt from his citizenry, in part due to the reliance the Royals have put on a ‘sorcerer’, Grigori Rasputin, the Romanovs are without support from the masses and the country rings out with calls of death to the Tsar.

0425286169This novel was well-researched and gives the reader plenty of opportunity to observe the excesses and trials of the Russian monarchy. It also gives additional information on the fate of the surviving Romanovs after their escape from Russia. There are two family trees in the front of the book, one for the Royal Family of Denmark and one for the Imperial Romanovs of Russia.

I would strongly suggest that readers avail themselves of these familial road maps as the interweaving of the families makes it hard to keep straight who the characters are and from which bloodline they descend.

— Nancy C.

Men & Women of Our Past

Greetings from the Ellis Little Local History Room!

The Ellis Little Local History Room is located at WPL’s Main Library. The many threads of Waterloo’s history are woven together in our extensive collection of photos, documents, newspaper articles, books and more. One of the most unique and precious collections in the room is the Ellis Little Papers.

Ellis Little was a local historian and retired teacher who spent many hours at the Waterloo Public Library researching the history of Waterloo. When he passed away in 2004, all of his research papers (“The Ellis Little Papers”) were donated to the library. Often Little’s research notes were written on the backs of scrap paper, which adds an interesting flavour to the files. His papers have given many researchers (myself included) insight into those hard-to-find local history topics.

There are many intriguing files in the Ellis Little Papers, but one of the best is called Men and Women of Our Past. This file is a collection of handwritten biographies that Little wrote during his years of research. The biographies focus on people from Waterloo’s earliest days. Some cover the expected prominent figures, such as Abraham Erb who was the first permanent resident of Waterloo, but many more are about people who might sometimes be overlooked.

For example, did you know that there was a Waterloo doctor named Dr. William Sowers Bowers who married a woman named Hannah Flowers? Dr. Bowers trained at the University of North York, and had a medical practice in the house of John Hoffman on King Street South. The charming story of this rhyming family is just the beginning of what can be found in the Ellis Little Biographies.

Sometimes the biographies are only a few lines long, but no matter the length, each biography has a list of information sources at the end. The book Welcome to Waterloo by Marg Rowell, Ed Devitt and Pat McKegney must have been a favourite resource for Little as it often appears in the source section for the biographies. Little also used newspaper articles, local atlases, registries and Waterloo Historical Society articles as sources for the bios. These source lists now provide an excellent path for researchers to chase down primary documents and find even more information about the people Little wrote about.

The Ellis Little Biographies are definitely worth checking out if you want to know more about past Waterloo residents. The original paper versions are available in the Ellis Little Local History Room. With volunteer help, we are transcribing all of the Ellis Little Biographies and making them available through Our Ontario, which hosts WPL’s local history collection online. This is an ongoing digitization project but we already have 80 biographies uploaded and ready for you to enjoy.

Reading through these biographies is a great reminder that the past is made up of people who lived their daily lives and made decisions that would influence the future, just as we are doing today.

— Jenna H.

The Alice Network

The Alice Network unfolds along two timelines, one being 1915, the early years of the Great War and the other being post-WWII 1947. The 1915 story is based on real characters from WWI, a fact that I didn’t realize until I finished the book. I am a fan of historical fiction and this one did not disappoint. The unfolding of the lives of the women who were part of the real-life Alice spy network was fascinating. The patriotism that propelled them into this kind of dangerous work and the bravery they demonstrated day after day in their attempts to bring down the German war machine are hard to comprehend by someone who has never had their own existence challenged in such a way. I found myself wondering how I would have managed myself given the same circumstances.

One of the main characters in the 1947 segment is a 19-year-old girl from a wealthy New York family who has broken the chains of her parent’s bondage and has fled to France to solve the mystery of her cousin who went missing during WWII. She attempts to persuade Eve Gardiner, a war-weary former member of the 1915 Alice Network, to help her on her quest. Eve agrees to accompany Charlotte, ‘Charlie’, to France but not for the purpose that Charlie has envisaged. During their journey, the story of Eve’s experience as a spy unfolds and a thread of connection is drawn between the two women.

Eve, as a young woman of 22, is determined to do more with her life that work in the steno pool and when she is approached by Captain Cameron, who recruits candidates for the English spy network, she jumps at the chance to be part of the action. After a mere 2 weeks of training, she is sent to the field where she is met by Lili, the leader of the Alice Network, who trains her on what it really means to be a spy. Hired to be a  waitress in a restaurant owned by Rene Bordelon, a narcissistic and exceedingly greedy man, she begins her spy work in a most intense and compelling manner.

Eve at 54 is war-weary and broken by her experiences 30 years in the past. Charlie is repelled by her officious and offensive attitude and behaviour but continues to pressure Eve to help her find her missing niece, Rose. That search takes them on a journey of self-discovery and the devastating unraveling of the past that threatens to do them both in.

It doesn’t hurt the story at all that a handsome Scot, Finn Kilgore,  who happens to be Eve’s ‘minder and driver’, accompanies the pair on their journey. He is a supportive character but not a ‘rescuer’ of the women who are ‘rescuers’ in their own right.

This is a relatively easy read in spite of some content that at times can be most disconcerting.

-Nancy C.

The Dark Town Series Continues

Lightning Men is the latest offering from Thomas Mullen and picks up two years after Darktown, the first book in the series, left off.

Once again, Mullen brings his readers into the gritty streets of post-WWII Atlanta with its social and political issues, racial intolerance, corruption and outright brutality that continues to be the status quo for so many. Mullen doesn’t shy away from these emotionally charged topics in this character-driven crime novel.

Readers continue to witness the Black officers struggle within the confines set for them by their supervisors as they police the Black neighbourhoods which are grossly overpopulated and in need of even basic necessities. This is in stark contrast to the White neighbourhoods — and many Whites are fine with the way things are, thank you very much. The dichotomy between Black and White continues within this second Darktown book and I like that Mullen doesn’t give easy answers or hold back on the gritty, hard-to-read scenes.

Mullen also continues to educate readers about aspects that many may not know about, myself included. For me, that issue involved the Columbians (aka Lightning Men) who formed soon after the end of WWII. With their lightning patches on their uniforms they, like the Nazis that inspired them, reveled in promoting hate against Blacks and any diversity and were a smack in the face to those American soldiers who had just returned from battling similar hatred overseas.

The cast, including Rake, Boggs, Smith and MacInnis, continue to show great depth and readers get some backstory on each but I still feel there’s a lot of untapped issues that Mullen will bring forth in future books. The only issue I had with this book is that I found there to be a lot of characters to keep track of.

48538-v1-600xMullen shows that, unfortunately, the process for social change is a very slow one as we sadly continue to witness in recent events. Racism, both blatant and covert, remains a timely issue and racial tensions ran high then as they do now.

Like the first book in the series, Lightning Men is eye-opening, gritty and gripping with well-rounded, well-flawed characters who struggle within the stifling confines of racial injustice, ignorance, indifference and intolerance. Mullen weaves compelling characters with historical issues within his story with great skill. I highly recommend this book but strongly suggest starting with Darktown.

— Laurie P.

Note: in 1948, eight African-American men (picture above) joined the Atlanta police force. They inspired Thomas Mullen’s latest novel, Lightning Men.