Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ten Questions, with Marion Fargey Brooker

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Marion Fargey Brooker

Edmonton-based writer Marion Fargey Brooker is the author of Hold the Oxo! A Teenage Soldier Writes Home, a book based on actual family correspondence from the First World War.

Marion Fargey Brooker talks to Open Book about Hold the Oxo!, the young soldiers who fought for Canada and reading recommendations that are sure to excite history buffs.

Open Book:

Tell us about your latest book Hold The Oxo! A Teenage Soldier Writes Home.

Marion Fargey Brooker:

It is nearly a century since my grandmother covered the shoebox with cream velvet, painted a Union Jack Flag on the lid and intertwined roses around the sides interspersed with the words God Save our King. It has travelled many miles and three generations since that night of October 14, 1914 when it held the evening lunch for a Box Social put on by the Belmont Patriotic Society as a fundraiser for World War I which had been declared on August 4 of that year. Little did she dream that nine months later this box would hold letters home from England, Belgium and France to his family by Jim, her 17 year old son.

Both the box and its contents show the wear of the years with sagging corners and the folds in the letters wearing thin. To preserve these memories — not only of Jim but of all who have helped keep our country free — I wrote Hold The Oxo! A Teenage Soldier Writes Home.

OB:

What were some of the challenges and opportunities of drawing on original correspondence?

MFB:

Whether because of censorship or to spare his family back home the horrors of the trenches, Jim’s letters speak more of life on the farm than of war — the price of pigs, the hail storm that wiped out the crops. Except for family interest these often don’t make for exciting reading. The decision as to what to include and what to leave out was difficult at times.

Possibly my biggest struggle was in deciding who should tell the story and how much of me, as the author, should enter into it. Through excerpts from Jim’s letters I have let him tell his own story and to point the directions the story should follow.

Possibly the greatest reward for me in writing his story was to come to know my Uncle Jim who had died before I was born and who was previously just a name. To touch the field diary and slim pencil Jim had used at Ypres and the Somme let me know him. In opening the Bible inscribed by his mother the day he left home with ‘Remember thy creator in the days of thy youth', I felt the pain and fears of my grandmother as a young mother.

OB:

Did you have a specific readership in mind when you wrote your book?

MFB:

I absolutely delight in going into schools and speaking with young people so to me the decision was easy — write it for the young adult reader. As I have found with my book Noreen and the Amazing No-Good Horse, although it is written for young people it evokes many memories in adult readers.

OB:

Was Jim’s experience typical for a young soldier? What drew you to his voice?

MFB:

Jim was 17 when he enlisted. As many as 20,000 underage soldiers served overseas in World War I. Jim was a farm boy. A large percentage of the soldiers enlisting were from the farm. Although Canada in 1914 had less than 8 million people, 430,000 men and women served overseas. Of those 61,000 were killed and 138,000 wounded. Jim was wounded during the October 8 offensive at the Somme and died seven days later. So yes, he was very typical.

I have travelled to Ypres and Vimy and the Somme but Jim’s letters home seemed to me the closest I would ever get to a first hand knowledge from a young boy's perspective. The letters are becoming very fragile and I wanted to preserve that history for our own family.

OB:

Describe a recent Canadian cultural experience that influenced your writing.

MFB:

I am always moved by Remembrance Day services. Recently our Junior High granddaughter volunteered to help with a Remembrance Day program for her school. With the help of teachers and students of Laurier Heights school in Edmonton and using excerpts from Jim’s letters they produced a short play for 5 voices. I became aware of a need by schools for such resources. I have taken this idea and developed a play for 6 voices — Remembering — which will be available on my soon to be launched website: www.marionbrooker.com.

OB:

Tell us about your ideal writing environment.

MFB:

I tend to mull things over in my head for some time and then sit down in my quiet den looking out on my backyard and write.

OB:

What would you recommend to a reader interested in Canada’s military identity?

MFB:

There are many wonderful books available but these are a few I found helpful:

At The Sharp End, Tim Cook
The Somme: The Day-By-Day Account, Chris McCarthy
The Battle of the Somme: The Heroism and Horror of War, Martin Gilbert
Gas Attack: The Canadians at Ypres, 1915, N.M.Christy, CEF books
Futility and Service: The Canadians on the Somme, 1916, N.M. Christy, CEF books
Winning The Ridge: The Canadians at Vimy Ridge, 1917, N.M. Christy, CEF books
Slaughter in the Mud: The Canadians at Passchendaele, 1917, N.M. Christy, CEF books

OB:

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received as a writer?

MFB:

I belong to a group of ten writers. Their advice comes more as thoughtful suggestions for improving a piece. The encouragement of these writers and a fresh ear to listen is always helpful. Ultimately, as a writer the final decision has to be yours.

OB:

What book have you read recently that you really loved?

MFB:

Since I love history I was fascinated with the journeys of the Sarajevo Haggadah — the earliest Jewish religious book to be illuminated with images — from the 1480’s to today. People of the Book in the hands of author Geraldine Brooks is a wonderful treatment of the book’s journey and the courage of the people who saved it from destruction.

OB:

What are you working on now?

MFB:

My first picture book Tadeo’s Search for Circles will be out this fall. It is illustrated by Kyrsten Brooker, my daughter. After that I have many, many unfinished short stories I would like to complete. Also, circling around in my head is an idea for another youth book but time is needed for it to hit the computer.


Marion Fargey Brooker spent many years writing historical dramas and human interest stories for educational radio for Grades 1 to12. She is the author of Noreen and the Amazing No-Good Horse. Her stories and poems have been included in school textbooks and anthologies. She lives in Edmonton.

For more information about Hold the Oxo! please visit the Dundurn website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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