Wednesday, July 23, 2014

From innocence to experience



For readers who enjoy historical fiction, Tracy Chevalier’s Burning Bright is a winner, one I enjoyed even more than some of her other novels. Each focuses on some historical figure in the world of art or literature, uncovering the daily life of this artist and how he or she might have reacted to those around him.

  The setting of this novel is the late 18th century London in a section of the city where life is lived closed to the edge of disaster for many reasons – poverty, violence, and disease.

The characters include the Kellaway family, a sturdy rural family newly arrived in London to improve their living standard.  Tom is a chair-maker and his wife, Anne, makes buttons, selling them to a peddler. Son Sam, about to be married, has stayed behind.  Coming into the strange life of an urban city with them are Maisie, 15, na├»ve, easily awed by the new sights she encounters, and Jem, 13, never quite sure this is the place for him and his idealistic way of thinking.

Philip Astley, circus owner, loves anything splashy that might amuse the masses and put money in his pocket.  Yet he is good-hearted when so inclined. He hires Tom Kellaway to be a carpenter with his busy enterprise.  John, son of Philip, is the villain of the piece, a womanizer, destroyer of what is pure and good.

Also featured in the novel are the Butterfields, long-time residents of London and enured to its ways.  Dick is a schemer looking for ways to make money without working.  Easy-going, a shyster if need be, he loves most the company of those who frequent the pool hall.   His wife does laundry at night to support the family.  Daughter Maggie, who with Maisie and Jem are the main characters in the novel, is a “tyger burning bright,” unschooled yet street smart, looking for answers, never giving up, ready to help.

Romantic poet William Blake and his wife, Katie, live next door to the Kellaways. He is a poet, printer and engraver, artist, who sees the blight in the city and speaks up for the lower classes. His voice cries in the darkness of London about the plight of the poor and children: A little black thing among the snow/ crying ‘weep, weep,’ in notes of woe!/ ‘Where are thy father & mother? Say?’/ ‘They are both gone up to the church to pray’ (“The Chimney Sweep”).

Chevalier vividly depicts life in 1792-3 as seen for the first time through the eyes of the rural Kellaways who mingle with the  hard-scrabble class of rabble, street people, prostitutes, peddlers and  beggars as well as tradesmen such as carpenters, tailors, weavers and middle class merchants and elite upper classes. Each keeps elbowing one another to keep body and soul alive and not be shoved down the social ladder.

Sanitary conditions in the late 1700s were wretched with everything unwanted in a household dumped on the street.  Prostitution was a necessary way of earning a living for some young girls. Bawdy language and rowdy behavior were common.  Children, uneducated, were forced to work at a young age, especially girls. Boys, when possible, were apprenticed to a tradesman.

In this world of squalor William Blake befriends the adolescent Maggie, Maisie and Jem as opportunities present themselves, hoping to instill in these developing minds that the world consists of “contraries” or opposites:  male/female, light/darkness, surface reality/interior,  heaven/hell, and especially innocence and experience, and to learn from this.  He gives them a glimpse of the life of a poet and artist and that knowing how to read can lift them to a higher plane.

Blake believes in the ideals of the French revolutionists attempting to make their influence felt in England at this time, but is not an activist.  He is reverent toward the Bible but hostile toward organized religion.  He abhors slavery and anything that oppresses the spirit. He believes the poor need protection and help in such an adversarial world.

The novel follows the lives of Maggie and the Kellaway children from innocence into experience,  including the tragic seduction and rape of young Maggie. This section depicts tenderly, tragically, the poem for which Blake is probably best known:  Rose, thou art sick,/ the invisible worm,/that flies in the night/ in the howling storm: has found out thy bed/ of crimson joy: and his dark secret love/ does thy life destroy.  Yet Maggie has a resilience that permits her to overcome this terrible jolt into adult life.

Several of Blake’s “Songs of Experience” and “Songs of Innocence” are reproduced in an appendix for readers unfamiliar with his work.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Leslie K Tarr 2014 career award



In June I was given the Leslie K Tarr Award by the Word Guild of Canada for 2014.  Here is the award presentation speech by Belinda Burston followed by my acceptance speech, which she graciously read for me. She also accepted the award on my behalf. 

The Leslie K Tarr award is named in honor of its first recipient, the late Leslie K. Tarr—a journalist, editor, and teacher.  “It celebrates a major career contribution to Christian writing and publishing in Canada. Specifically the award recognizes a Canadian citizen who affirms the Apostles’ Creed and who has demonstrated excellence in his or her own writing, contributed to the development of Christian writing and writers in Canada, and helped position the church in Canadian society, leading to better understanding of Christianity.”

Leslie K Tarr Award Speech by Belinda Burston
Ladies and gentlemen
Editor Wally Kroeker described the challenge of summing up the career achievement of this year’s winner of the Leslie K. Tarr Award.  In his submission to a collection of essays in Katie Funk Wiebe’s honour he asked how he could “Draw a thematic net around her free-range mind.” 

Katie Funk Wiebe was born in 1924 in northern Saskatchewan where she grew up the daughter of German immigrants from Russia. With her husband and children she left Canada for Kansas in 1962.  Her husband died shortly thereafter. She is the mother of three children and grandmother of six. 
To the church Katie Funk Wiebe is an agent of transformation; a life force that has pushed its way through the firmly packed soil of tradition.   She is 89 years old and she is a Mennonite biblical feminist.

At a time in which women in general and women in Katie’s tradition in particular, hardly questioned that their place and fulfillment was firmly and only in the home, she hungered for more.  She advocated for academic excellence; the right for women to have a voice in matters of the church and wrote articles in a column for women that were so stimulating that she attracted readers of both sexes. She captured people’s interest with an ability to explain complex issues clearly, in down to earth language and vivid imagery.

In one of her memoirs Katie writes that she wishes she had had more courage and that only she knows how much she held back. She faced fears, doubts and insecurities and wishes she had “galloped at breakneck speed.” But it was costly to challenge the status quo and she endured painful opposition and misunderstanding even from women. In spite of this the record of her accomplishments is impressive by any standard and her life a model of faithfulness to her calling.

Katie Funk Wiebe, professor emeritus of Tabor College, Hillsboro, Kansas, retired in 1990 after teaching English for 24 years. She has devoted her retirement years to bringing meaning to life through writing, speaking and teaching. She has a deep love for the church, family history, women’s issues, and the personal development of older adults. She presently lives in Wichita, Kansas. 

Before leaving for Kansas in 1962 she attended the Mennonite Brethren Bible College in Winnipeg for two years (1945-47) and is a graduate of Tabor College (BA 1968) and Wichita State University (MA 1972). 

In addition to hundreds of articles, she has written and/or edited 20 books, focusing in the last years on aging and personal and family history. 

I finish with a quote from Katie that expresses who she is; written when she was only 83:
I tell myself it is important to keep reaching ahead for goals I personally will not win…I want to die climbing.

Ladies and gentlemen, I am honoured to present the 25th annual Leslie K. Tarr Award for Career Achievement--to Katie Funk Wiebe!

Leslie K. Tarr 2014 acceptance speech by Katie Funk Wiebe

Members of The Word Guild: editors, writers, speakers, and friends

It is a humbling and gratifying experience to be recognized for an award at any time. It is  especially rewarding when this honor comes from one’s peers.  Thank you for giving me the Leslie K. Tarr award for 2014. 

Writing has been part of my life for decades.  In high school I wrote on a scrap of paper: “I’m afraid to be a writer…..I’m afraid to put things down on paper I might regret later on… No one will ever see these things I write. No one will ever know they belonged to a girl who once had hopes and dreams.” Yes, hopes and dreams. But what does one do with hopes and dreams?

I was the third daughter of immigrant parents from south Russia to Saskatchewan in 1923.  Writing as a vocation was an unknown entity to them--and to me.  In my little village no one wrote for a living, let alone to fashion a life. But my dream, in all its vagueness, persisted.

But why write if I had nothing to write about?  As a young adult a few words in Oswald Chambers’ My Utmost for His Highest gave that dream direction:  “You shall be holy for I am holy.”  The purpose of life is “not happiness, nor health, but holiness.” I clung to that thought.

But I still had many mountains to cross before writing could become a reality: early widowhood, finding my way in a new country, getting an education, becoming a college professor, helping my four children grow up. As they became more independent I thought about writing again.

My late entry into the work world taught me of the need for dreams and the willingness to risk in achieving them.  By now I had learned that you only learn to teach by teaching and to write by writing.  Both disciplines involve people, language, and ideas.  I also learned to appreciate the need of coaches, especially editors, in accomplishing those dreams. I owe much to the many editors in Canada and the United States I have learned to know and value. They have opened doors for me.

I have always enjoyed language, although I’m not sure about this flare for words people talk about. I think of a word as a jewel, always carefully chosen, placed in its special setting.  I have never seen myself as a particularly gifted writer, mostly as a hard worker.  I find myself jealous of poets and they way they can make music and paint pictures with words.

I have always hated jargon, including religious jargon, even when I didn’t know what it was. My goal has always been to put ideas, especially theological concepts, into language people will understand and say, “Ah, yes, Katie, you’ve helped me.”  I am grateful for the hundreds of people who have written to say thanks over the years.

A small dream started me on my writing journey, which now includes many books, articles and much more.  That dream and the words of a writer in an unlikely book, a tattered book of devotional readings I found on a dusty bookshelf, challenge me even in this, the ninth decade of my life, to dedicate “my utmost for God’s highest.”  And to keep at this always holy, yet rewarding, task of writing. Thank you for your support and recognition of my work and life.