Lynne Golding and I have something in common: for longer than we’d care to remember, we both spent oodles of time over the past few years going through archival material to learn more about a place they call the Flower City: Brampton. I was doing so for my book on Ontario’s 18th premier, Bill Davis, a Brampton native. Golding was doing so to learn more about her hometown so that she could write Beneath the Alders, a trilogy set in early 20th-century Brampton. The first book, The Innocent, is now out. It mixes fact with fiction and lots of mystery. Lynne and I discussed her book recently by email.
Steve Paikin: Lynne, let’s start with this: you’ve been a lawyer for three decades. When did it occur to you that you may have a series of novels in your head? Lawyers aren’t necessarily known for their literary prowess.
Lynne Golding: Now, Steve, we lawyers can draft some great contracts. I agree — they don’t necessarily make for gripping holiday reading. But after drafting such documents for a couple of decades, in 2005, I thought I would try my hand at a work of fiction. Little did I know that it would take 13 years to see my work come to fruition.
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In truth, when I first started writing Beneath the Alders, I had no idea that it would be a trilogy. I wasn’t even sure it would be a complete book. It took me a long time to complete it, as I was only able to write on my holidays. I wrote each chapter as a separate word document. After five years of writing, I finally typed the words “The End.” At that point, I added up the words for each chapter and realized I had written a 900-page James Michener-length book.
Obviously, that was far too long, so my book became a trilogy. The first book, The Innocent, takes place between 1907 and July 1914. It ends with the protagonist saying that the future was really looking quite bright.
The second book, The Beleaguered, starts on August 1, 1914. The future is not so bright. That book covers the war years. The final book, The Mending, covers the period from 1919 through to 1932.
SP: You wouldn’t necessarily think that turn-of-the-last-century Brampton had the goods to be that interesting, intriguing, or full of mysterious secrets. But you clearly found the thread. Why did you think there was a story there worth 13 years of effort to tell?
LG: I have to say that I think there are interesting things about pretty much any place that has or once had people in it. People do interesting things. But, in this case, I had a first-person account of many of the interesting things that occurred in Brampton in the early 20th century. The Beneath the Alders series is inspired by stories told to me by my great-aunt, who was born and raised in Brampton. It was a small town then — about 4,000 people. Her family was very involved in civic life. Her father and her uncles were town leaders. Her grandfather was a contractor who built or was involved in the building of many of the town’s finest houses, churches, and public buildings. To my great benefit, she had a terrific memory for what she saw and heard in her years growing up there.
When she was 100 years of age, I helped her move to a new nursing home, about 10 minutes away from my Brampton home. Visiting her every week for the next eight years — yes, she lived to be 108 — I regularly heard these stories, many of which were really interesting. I began to write them down, and they formed the starting point of the book.
What struck me about the stories was how well they expressed the life and times of those years — the innocence of those pre-war years, the devastation of the war years, the unsuccessful attempts to reclaim that innocence after the war, and the eventual realization of a new equilibrium.
These are important stories. Some are unique to Brampton, but many are universal. They are Canadian stories. I think they need to be told.
SP: I did love the way that you weaved real people and real events into a fictional story. For example, former premier Bill Davis’s father, Grenville Davis, makes an appearance. A bit of a clichéd question, I acknowledge, but how much of the book is true, and how much comes from your imagination?
LG: It’s hard to measure exactly how much is fact and how much is fiction. But let me say this: nearly all the major incidents in The Innocent actually occurred. Nearly all the material historical aspects of that book are true. The minor stories that provide context and help develop the characters involved in those major incidents: fewer of them are true. To give an example (without providing any spoilers), and picking up on your example — in The Innocent, Bill Davis’s father, “Dutch,” was a member of the Brampton Excelsiors lacrosse team that went to Vancouver in 1914 to vie for the Mann Cup. That is true. In real life, did “Dutch” ever have a love interest in the character who inspired my fictional character, Millie Dale? Possibly. But, if so, it is just a coincidence. The premier’s maternal grandparents, the Hewetsons, came to Brampton in 1912 to establish a shoe-manufacturing company. Shortly after they arrived, they purchased a large home, known as the Castle, from their chief competitor, potentially saving the competitor from bankruptcy. That is all set out in The Innocent, and, based on my research, it is all true. Had the prior owners of the Castle ever agreed to allow it to be used for a high-school graduating-class dance, as my book suggests? I doubt it.
SP: Finally, Lynne, I know the feeling of opening that box of books from the publisher, just hot off the presses, and actually holding in your hands the fruits of so many years of effort. What was that moment like for you, when you held an actual copy of The Innocents in your hands for the first time?
LG: It was a very emotional moment. For most of the years I worked on it, I had no idea if the book would ever be published. But, finally, there I was, holding a book published by a traditional publishing house [Blue Moon], knowing it would be sold through major retailers. There I was about to speak at the Stratford Writers Festival, speaking on radio and to print media, about to start a book tour. It was incredibly exciting. And humbling. I couldn’t help but think of my great-aunt, of the stories she told me, of the encouragement she gave me to encapsulate them in a book (not knowing that she would be its protagonist), of the gift she gave me in those many years of our weekly visits in her nursing home, and of the privilege I have in being able to share those stories with others.