Poet and novelist Alison Pick finds herself in family history
Story by Andrew Vowles / Photo by Kevin Kelly
What They Left Me
For Oskar Bauer 1880˗20/1/1943
& Marianne Grünfeld Bauer 1894˗20/1/1943
A passion for remembrance.
Two names on a monument at the synagogue in Prague.
The date they were deported to the death camp.
Their twenty-year-old daughter who got out.
Her son: my father.
My own small life.
The first light snow of winter, their ashes at my back.
That’s not all they left her. Decades after her great-grandparents lost their lives in the Nazi camps of the Second World War, Alison Pick found something else hidden inside her “own small life.” Two things, actually, both of which would become central parts of the Canadian author whose second novel, Far to Go, is having a far-reaching impact. One was her family’s buried Jewish identity, which surfaced a half-century after the Holocaust while Pick was growing up in Kitchener, Ont. The other began to unfold near the end of her studies at the University of Guelph.
That was in early 1999, the last year of Pick’s psychology major. Having served as a counsellor in Raithby House that year, she had made plans to return to the peer counselling service in the fall. For that summer, she’d agreed to help paddle on a 4,000-kilometre trek across part of Canada to raise money for mental health. The canoe trip, involving a friend and Pick’s younger sister, Emily – a biology student at U of G – would unfold as planned. But before that, something else occurred in that last winter semester to change not just her counselling plans but her entire career.
Pick signed up for a creative writing course with Prof. Janice Kulyk Keefer in the School of English and Theatre Studies. How much had she written before that? Nothing. Nothing? Seated in a coffee shop near her Toronto Annex home, Pick shakes her head. OK, there’d been a few bits – and there was that instructor’s comment written on an earlier assignment: “If you’re not an English student, you should be one.” But she hadn’t viewed herself as a writer.
Kulyk Keefer, on the other hand, knew what she was looking at. By then, the Guelph professor had published nearly a dozen books of her own, including a story collection, The Paris-Napoli Express, and several novels, including The Green Library, Marrying the Sea, and Honey and Ashes. Remembering Pick, she writes by email: “When Alison enrolled in my course, I could see that her writing showed great promise. She had a striking way of looking at things and of expressing her perceptions. But she also was eager to learn as much as she could about how to make her writing better than it already was, and to discover what mattered most to her in terms of subject matter.”
Something in that elective course worked for her student. “Suddenly everything came alive for me,” says Pick. She began writing poems, including one that a year later won a prize in a contest at the downtown Bookshelf.
Life and death, happiness, sorrow: those were the subjects that Pick explored in a series published in 2003 in her first volume, Question & Answer. In that collection she also began probing roots and her sense of identity through several pieces about her father and his displaced family, including some that would foreshadow the themes of Far to Go.
Says Kulyk Keefer: “I remember particularly the poems she started to write about her grandmother, poems which seemed to unlock a whole world of memories and questions about family history.”
Other poems in that debut collection went in a different direction, drawing on Pick’s trekking experiences, including earlier canoe trips into northern Quebec and the Northwest Territories. Impressions from those travels also found their way into her first novel, The Sweet Edge, published in 2005. That novel traced the separate lives of a young couple one summer – a girl working in an urban art gallery and her boyfriend taking a solo canoe trip into the Arctic.
The Sweet Edge was a Globe and Mail Top 100 Book of the Year. Pick’s first poetry collection had garnered the 2002 Bronwen Wallace Memorial Award, and individual pieces won her the National Magazine Award and the CBC Literary Award.
In 2008, she published her second poetry collection, The Dream World. By the time she settled in Toronto with her husband, Degan Davis, several years later, it was time to tackle another story that had long been forming in her mind.
Pick was still a young teen when she began putting together things about her family that she’d overheard from her relatives. But it was only after her grandmother died in 2000 that she and her father felt they could begin exploring their mutual interest in the family story.
After Hitler’s troops had occupied the Czech Sudetenland in 1938, her grandparents had fled Europe. By the time they arrived in Canada, they had left behind not just a country but their Jewish identity. Alison’s father, Thomas, and her uncle were raised as Christians, with no mention of the loss of her grandmother’s parents in Auschwitz.
Speaking of her father, Alison says, “He grew up not knowing he was Jewish.” He had learned the story by the time Alison and Emily arrived, but the girls grew up in a secular household in Kitchener.
Alison’s initial foray into the past yielded some of the poems in her first collection, including “What They Left Me.” But she wanted to explore something more on a larger canvas. Not a memoir, not yet. Instead, she decided she would write a novel based loosely on her ancestors’ story and the theme of family secrets.
In Far to Go, the fictional Bauers flee the occupied Sudetenland after the 1938 Munich Agreement. Reaching the Czech capital, Prague, they work to save themselves and their six-year-old son, Pepik, who ends up on a Kindertransport out of the country. It took Pick three years to write the novel – an odyssey that, in some ways, involved not just one traveler but two.
His discussions with Alison had inspired Thomas to take his own historical journey. In turn, his discoveries wound their way back into his daughter’s novel. He pieced together documents that traced his parents’ travels between 1938 and their landing in Quebec three years later. He also found unpublished memoirs by survivors from Czechoslovakia.
He even connected Alison with a man named Tommy Berman, whose father had managed the textile factory begun by her grandfather in Europe before the war. Berman had left Czechoslovakia on a Kindertransport and arrived in Scotland as a preschooler (he was an elderly man by the time Pick met him); subsequent letters between the boy’s parents and his adoptive family helped her shape the youngster in Far to Go.
Published in Canada by House of Anansi Press, the novel has also been published in the United States, the United Kingdom, Italy, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic and Brazil. The novel itself was shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize and was a Top 10 of 2010 book at Now magazine and The Toronto Star. Both of Pick’s novels have been optioned for film.
She says the awards and positive attention are gratifying, but she tries to keep them in perspective. “Your main task as a writer is to become your own best reader and editor and try not to give too much credence to outside reviewers,” she says. “You have to write what is pleasing to you.”
She stresses that point when teaching in the Humber School for Writers’ Creative Writing by Correspondence program. Her own favourite writers include novelists Emma Donoghue, Jamie O’Neill and Susan Minot, and poets Jack Gilbert, Charles Wright and Jane Hirshfield.
Referring to a “collaborative process” between writer and characters, Pick says she aims to let her characters grow onto the page. Easiest to come in Far to Go was Anneliese, Pepik’s mother, who shares many traits with Pick’s late grandmother. Anneliese’s husband, Pavel, stands for the importance of nationalism and Judaism: “I understood Pavel from the beginning.” More slow to develop was Marta, the family’s nanny, whose actions send their lives in unexpected directions. Pick says it was important to get Marta right, as her character grew into the viewpoint for wartime events in Czechoslovakia.
In an interview about her novel with University of Chicago historian Lucy Pick that was published on her cousin’s blog (Lucy Pick Books), Alison says: “The idea of an unreliable narrator was appealing. I often turn to Jack Hodgins’ A Passion for Narrative – my novelists’ bible – and I think it was his suggestion to view the main characters, in my case Pavel and Anneliese, through outside eyes.”
While writing the novel, she also turned to her historian cousin for comments about detail and accuracy.
A number of readers have confessed to choking up over the portrayal of the Bauer family’s plight in Far to Go, particularly Pepik’s journey. “I have to say that it is always very gratifying for me to know the book has struck an emotional chord,” says Pick. “The main thing I myself as a reader want out of a book is for it to make me feel something, so I'm especially glad to have been able to do the same for my readers. Three things I’ve learned about writing: to trust myself and my instincts; to protect my writing time at all costs; and to write the story that I myself would want to read.”
Now retired, U of G’s Kulyk Keefer says: “You can’t teach anyone to become a writer; what you can do is to create a community of people who want to learn about the process of writing through intensive practice and ‘applied curiosity.’ This includes reading, as writers, the work of ‘the greats’ and of one’s peers; coming to understand writerly techniques and strategies; and learning to apply them in one’s own work.”
Last spring, Far to Go won the Canadian Jewish Book Award for fiction. That award was especially poignant for the author. In 2009, she and her husband converted to Judaism. They don’t attend a synagogue; their conversion was more about observing cultural practices and sharing heritage with the next generation. Pick was pregnant with their first child during their conversion, and while she completed and sold Far to Go. “The timing worked out beautifully. Ayla was a year old when it was published.”
Pick says she was thrilled to learn about the Jewish book award. “I hope it will help the book get into the hands of the readers who will most enjoy and relate to it. Since Judaism goes far back in my family but is fairly new to me individually, I felt a certain level of acceptance and welcome on winning it.”
Now almost three, Ayla can sometimes disrupt her writer mother’s schedule, but Pick says she still writes every day. “I go to bed at night and can’t wait to get to my desk the next morning.” She’s now working on a memoir of sorts, tentatively titled Between Gods, incorporating her father’s story and his own quest into the family’s heritage.
Meanwhile, her father’s labours have also yielded his own book: an album of family photographs, a genealogy and his own writings that Thomas copied for family members, including his daughters. Near the end of the album, their great-grandmother, Marianne Bauer, appears in a photo taken sometime in 1942; on the facing page is a copy of Alison’s elegiac poem “What They Left Me.”
Glancing through her copy of the album, Alison identifies the faces in the black and white photos. She lingers over the pages, pointing out the family resemblance shared between her and several generations portrayed in her father’s album. “It’s meaningful to me that he took the time to put it together.”