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Sandi Krawchenko Altner



by Jane Enkin, December 2, 2011

A happy group of family, friends and interested readers joined Sandi Krawchenko Altner to celebrate the launch of her first novel at McNally Robinson. Ravenscraig is the story of two Winnipeg families in the years around the turn of the 20th century, filled with feeling and adventure, seamlessly blending imagined characters with vividly drawn historical figures, most of them new to me.

Altner spoke with enthusiasm about her years crafting the book. She thanked her mother, many family members and friends, and the professionals who supported her. She told us her parents' friends inspired her; they were “all political people, who believed in the importance of serving in the community.” Starting points for the novel included Altner's Manitoba roots, her own family history, and her fascination with the sinking of the Titanic.

The historical aspects of the plot, shaping the lives of the fictional characters at every turn, you could find for yourself – if you had time to tap all the many resources Altner has drawn on. She read history books, poured through archived issues of the Manitoba Free Press, and learned from the Manitoba Historical Society and the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada.

Equally important was the time she spent hearing family stories from Winnipeg residents. Several were present at the launch, and Altner gave warm thanks to Louis Kessler, Donald Weidman, and others. Weidman's family arrived in Winnipeg in the 1880's, not long before Ravenscraig's fictional Zigman family. The Weidman family thrived here, and one set of grandparents, early Zionists, made aliyah in 1904.

Just like many of the novel's Jewish characters, Altner values family stories. She urged everyone to record their memories: “Go home and write a paragraph. Someone might read that some day, and it's better than reading a seven line obit. You'll be leaving a gift.”

As a newcomer to Winnipeg, I had everything to learn from the gripping true stories – the phenomenally fast growth of Winnipeg at the turn of the 20th century, political and business intrigue and the ways of life for the rich and poor of the city. It was always a treat to see how Altner brought real people into the lives of the Willows and Zigman families.

The imagined characters, living in these exciting times, are connected to two families, one wealthy and part of Winnipeg's high society, the other new Jewish immigrants. The homes and luxuries, and also the stresses and concerns, of the wealthy characters from British backgrounds were new to me, and fun to discover.

The stories of Jewish immigrant families, starting with their dangerous lives in Ukraine, to their poverty in Canada, through to their gradual success, are very familiar. It's a story I never tire of hearing, because it's the story of my own family – my grandmother crossed a river carrying her son to sneak across a border, thought she had started a secure new life in a different part of Europe, then had to start all over again in Canada.

Ukrainian immigrants, brought as farmers to realize the dream of Manitoba as Canada's Bread Basket, make an appearance at the beginning of the novel. I was disappointed that these characters were left behind as the novel focused on urban lives – perhaps Altner will write a novel about their story. We learn that the lives of Ukrainians and Jews were intertwined, often in positive ways, in the old country and the new. One of my favourite chapters in the book followed an Ottawa bureaucrat as he went from indifference to empathy with Ukrainian settlers.

By the way, the William Kurelek exhibit on now at the Winnipeg Art Gallery provides a beautiful and tender portrait of the Ukrainian farm communities in Manitoba, and the immigrant experience for many families.


I should say that Ravenscraig is not the type of fiction I usually read. The language and descriptions are simple and straightforward. The characters remain true to their traits, although they age and grow. Their thoughts, intentions and feelings are spelled out by the narrator, especially when they are hiding them from others, and expressed in standard terms. The emphasis is not on imagery or rhythm, but always on the plot.

It's an engaging plot with a balance between surprises and heavily foreshadowed events. The characters held my sympathy. I loved the letters they wrote to one another, in formal language infused with tenderness.

Almost every one of them practises deception – some briefly, and others throughout their lives. And the lies, big or small, work for these people, although sometimes there's some tension to sustaining the ruse. A theme of the novel is that people in Winnipeg at the time were “self-made” -- arriving from abroad or from Eastern Canada to make new lives. They had opportunities not only to survive and succeed, but to create the image they presented to others. The city, too, was bent on creating a “self”, an image to present to the world.

There are so many ways that Ravenscraig is relevant today. New immigrants arrive every day, some ready to build new lives and educate their children, others so stressed by their refugee experience that they need support. Winnipeg at the turn of the century had huge problems with clean water supply and sanitation. Today's governments are dealing with the embarrassing tragedy of poor water quality in Attawapiskat and other communities. To my surprise, another motif from the novel popped up on the Winnipeg Free Press editorial page this week – the city is still trying to work out the right locations for massage parlours, and the technically illegal but tolerated sex trade, in ways that are safe for the sex workers and comfortable for everyone else. More than a hundred years later!

I'm so happy to have read Ravenscraig, for the pleasurable story and characters, and for the satisfying lessons in the history of my new home.


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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

Opinions expressed in letters to the editor or articles by contributing writers are not necessarily endorsed by Winnipeg Jewish Review.