Prov 17:22

A merry heart doeth good like a medicine... - Proverbs 17:22

Friday, January 27, 2023


Last month, I felt privileged to be a guest on the “Because Fiction” podcast with author Chautona Havig. Chautona’s insatiable appetite for stories and her unabashed enthusiasm for books made her easy to talk to. Although officially discussing my latest release, she had recently finished reading Rose Among Thornes (released in 2021) and we spent time on that as well.

What made Rose’s story especially poignant for Chautona was that, coincidentally,

Relocation Nisei girls getting a bucket of water from one of the hydrants at the relocation center.
Photo credit Manzanar National Historic Site
around the time she read the book, she toured Manzanar National Historic Site near her home in California. Manzanar War Relocation Center was one of ten camps where the US government incarcerated Japanese immigrants and Japanese American citizens during World War II. Canadians did the same here, as you’ll know if you’ve read my book or others. Many of my American readers were previously unaware that the Canadian government took the same action. Though I researched several of these camps, I did not have the opportunity to visit one.

Chautona told me that what struck her most while touring the site was not the primitive conditions under which internees were forced to live—the overcrowding, the lack of privacy, the injustice. What moved her was reading, over and over, the stories recorded by those who ran the camp, about how gracious and lovely the Japanese people remained throughout their incarceration. She said, “All I could think about was, if we put Christians in an internment camp today, would people say we were lovely and gracious? Eighty years later, would we be remembered for behaving graciously?”

Whoa. Loaded question.

How about you? Imagine yourself, born here in Canada but your parents immigrated from a country now suddenly at war with us. Forced to leave your home and most of your possessions, you don’t know when or if you’ll return. For three years, you share rustic barracks with strangers. The surrounding barbed wire fences and guard towers prevent you from leaving. You’re reminded that your countrymen who’ve been taken prisoner by your parents’ country of origin are being treated far worse than you. You should be thankful, you’re told.

Would your guards be impressed with how you exhibited the fruit of the Spirit we Christians are supposedly known for? (If you need a refresher, that fruit, according to Galatians 5, is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.)

None of us knows how we would behave because we haven’t encountered this level of injustice. Perhaps that question can best be answered by how we respond when our “rights” are stepped on. When someone cuts us off in traffic. When we’re left out. When someone else gets the promotion or the contract or the last piece of dessert. When our parcel is delivered to the wrong address. When we’re required to pay too much tax. Or wear a face mask. Or wait in line.

If we can’t display patience and self-control in these smaller situations, how would we be remembered 80 years after our unjust incarceration?

Am I suggesting we shouldn’t stand up for what’s right? Of course not. But if we call ourselves followers of Jesus, we need to look at whose rights Jesus fought for. Always, it was for others. Not his own. Just the opposite, in fact. He willingly remained quiet under abuse, “like a sheep to the slaughter.”

I pray for the level of maturity that makes me become more gracious, like Jesus, each day.

Friday, January 20, 2023

Hard to Pick a Favorite

Once a year, I like to review for you a few of the books I’ve read in the past twelve months. Looking through my list of 47 for 2022, I see that nearly half were either for writing contests I was asked to judge or for research for my own (a few on war brides and several on the 1917 Halifax explosion). Of the remainder, I’ve chosen three to tell you about—all fiction. I’ll save my nonfiction favorites for another column.

Once Upon a Wardrobe by Patti Callahan, may not appeal to you much if you’re not already a fan of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. If you are, you don’t want to miss it. In this clever story set in 1950, Margaret Devonshire (Megs) is a seventeen-year-old math student at Oxford University. When her beloved eight-year-old brother, George, asks Megs if Narnia is real, logical Megs tells him it’s simply a story for children. Homebound due to his illness, George remains fixated on his favorite books. He presses Megs to ask the author of the recently released novel, “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” a question: “Where did Narnia come from?”

Despite her fear of approaching the famous author (a professor at her school), Megs soon finds herself taking tea with C.S. Lewis and his brother Warnie, begging them for answers.

Rather than directly telling her where Narnia came from, Lewis encourages Megs to form her own conclusion as he gradually tells her the little-known stories from his life that led to his inspiration. As she takes these stories home to George, the boy travels farther in his imagination than he ever could in real life.

Lewis’s answers reveal to Megs and her family many truths that science and math cannot. The gift she thought she was giving her brother—the story behind Narnia—turns out to be his gift to her instead—hope.

Until Leaves Fall in Paris by Sarah Sundin is only one of her many faith-based WWII stories, but readers are praising it as her best yet. I agree. When the Nazis march toward Paris, American ballerina Lucie Girard buys her favorite English-language bookstore to allow the Jewish owners to escape. Though the Nazis make it difficult for her to keep Green Leaf Books afloat, she must if she is to continue aiding the resistance by passing secret messages between the pages of her books.

Meanwhile, widower Paul Aubrey wants nothing more than to return to America with his little girl, but the US Army convinces him to keep his factory running and obtain military information from his German customers. As the war rages on, Paul offers his own resistance by sabotaging his product and hiding British airmen in his factory. But to carry out his mission, he must appear to support the occupation—which does not win him any sympathy when he meets Lucie in the bookstore. I loved how the action builds, the details resolve, and the characters grow.

The German Wife
by Kelly Rimmer made my list over some other great books because of the way it portrays both sides of the story so completely. In a manner becoming increasingly popular in books and movies, this story jumps back and forth in time, which fascinates me both as a reader and a writer. 

Despite the title, the book is equally about a German woman and an American woman, following two very different lives. Sofie marries a German rocket scientist during World War II. Lizzie, who lived in the Texas panhandle during the dust bowl of the 1930s, marries an American rocket scientist. The two women unpleasantly collide in Huntsville, Alabama in the 1950s when their husbands work together for NASA. The power is all in the backstory.

Three great stories for your winter reading pleasure. Let me know what you think of them!

Friday, January 13, 2023

How Bleak is Your Mid-Winter?

The mild weather lately makes me wonder if winter is still revving her engine. Although Christmas is past, January’s dark, cold days bring the lyrics of an old carol to mind:

“In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan. Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone. Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow…”

The song stuck itself in my mind until I decided to do some digging. I wasn’t surprised to learn that the person who penned the words suffered from depression throughout her life. What did surprise me was learning the title has also been used for both a book and a movie!

“In the Bleak Midwinter” began as a poem by the English poet Christina Rossetti (1830-1894). Originally called “A Christmas Carol,” Scribner’s Monthly published it in 1872. Not until 1906 was the poem set to music, first by composer Gustav Holst. This is the tune most familiar to us. Another by Harold Darke composed in 1909 is widely performed by choirs. As recently as 2008, some of the world’s leading choirmasters and choral experts named it the best Christmas carol.

You might question the song’s theology or even its weather. Although it describes the kind of winter we Canadians know well, chances of “snow on snow” at the time of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem are slim at best. Though we don’t know for sure what time of year Jesus was born (some scholars say April), we do know average April temperatures in Jerusalem range between plus 14 and plus 25 Celsius. Still, the song’s lilting melody provides a beautiful background for its message, making it a favorite of many.

The movie version of In the Bleak Midwinter is a 1995 British romantic comedy written and directed by Kenneth Branagh. An out-of-work actor named Joe Harper makes a slow decline into depression. In an attempt to beat it, Joe volunteers to help save his sister’s local church from land developers by putting on a production of Hamlet. The volunteer cast he assembles is not exactly the cream of the crop. Joe casts himself as Hamlet and rehearsals commence with no end of foibles and misadventures. But, as in every great story, something bigger begins to emerge in the village. The film was shot in black and white for artistic effect.

Finally, in 2002, New York Times best-selling author Julia Spencer-Fleming released a mystery novel titled In the Bleak Midwinter. It won six awards for best first novel, including the Agatha Award. The book introduced the characters of Clare Fergusson, an ex-Army helicopter pilot who has become an Episcopal priest, and Russ Van Alstyne, a married police chief who lives in the same town.

In a cold, snowy December in the upstate New York town of Millers Kill, newly ordained Clare Fergusson is on thin ice as the first female priest of its small Episcopal church. Her blunt manner, honed by years as an army pilot, is meeting with a chilly reception from some members of her congregation. Police Chief Russ Van Alystyne doesn’t know what to make of her or how to address “a lady priest.” When a newborn baby is abandoned on the church stairs and a young mother is murdered, Clare must pick her way through the secrets shadowing the town. The book is followed by several more mystery novels involving the same main characters.

So, there you go. Three “Bleak Midwinters” to keep you humming, watching, and reading your way through this one and hopefully make it not-so-bleak.

Friday, January 6, 2023

I Resolve...

According to several online articles, we humans stay pretty consistent about our new year’s resolutions. The top ten seem to be: Exercise more, Lose weight, Get organized, Learn a new skill or hobby, Live life to the fullest, Save more money / spend less money, Quit smoking, Spend more time with family and friends, Travel more, Read more.

Sadly, we’re also pretty consistent in how well we keep them. According to one study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, only 46% of people who made New Year’s resolutions were successful. Frankly, I’m surprised it’s that high.

From my own experience in setting any new goal, I’ve found three major reasons for this lack of success.

The first? Not making “S.M.A.R.T.” goals. Smart goals are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-sensitive. “Reading more” is vague (not specific). How much more? How will I measure it? Can I achieve it? How will I even know I succeeded if I don’t know how much I read last year?

For a resolution such as “Read more” to prove effective, you need to first keep tabs on how much you read. I keep track of every book I read in the back of a notebook, by title, author, and month read. (This also helps my aging brain recall whether I’ve already read something!) Once you’ve kept track for a year, you know that if you want to read more the next year, you need this year’s list to be longer than last year’s. How specific will you be? If you read 46 books in 2022 like I did, shooting for 50 seems reasonable. For those who easily read 100 books a year, 50 is a joke. But far too high if you read only ten last year. The goal needs to be not only measurable but attainable for you.

Then, you must answer more questions. What will you give up in order to create more reading time? Does this goal align with your life’s purpose or does it simply sound like a good idea? Finally, what’s your end date? If you want to read 52 books in 2023, you know you need to average one a week to stay on track. If you read only one a month from January through July, do you really think you’ll cram the remaining 47 books into the last five months of the year? Make a plan.

The second way we set ourselves up for failure is not writing down our resolutions. Let’s say you plan to decrease sugar from your diet, making it achievable by allowing sugar every third day. By writing that down, you clarify what you wish to achieve and force yourself to make choices. You establish intention and provide yourself with a guiding light when opportunities come your way, such as a cupcake on a no-sugar day. When faced with something requiring a yes or no, you can hold it up to the light of your resolutions and find your answer. Writing your goals out also helps you see how far you’ve come when, down the road, you can look back, see what you’ve accomplished, and celebrate. For similar reasons, we need to tell at least one other person our goal—we all understand the power of support groups who cheer one another on.

A third reason we don’t succeed is quitting at the first setback. Declaring yourself a failure and giving up when you take a puff of a cigarette or skip your exercises is a sure road to defeat. Don’t throw in the towel because you blew it today. Start again tomorrow! If you don’t believe you can do it on your own, ask God for help. Lamentations 3 tells us, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are NEW EVERY MORNING.”

So, pick one goal. Write it down. Make a plan. Tell a friend. Don’t give up. Lean on the Lord. You can do it!