Ottawa writer Stephen Dale’s latest book is Noble Illusions: Young Canada Goes to War (Fernwood Books). He has reviewed fellow Ottawa writer Ruth Latta’s most recent novel, Grace and the Secret Vault.
To mark International Women’s Day in 2017, a group called Equal Voice organized an event in which young women from across the country occupied all 338 seats in the House of Commons. The women spoke powerfully of the issues that are important to them and, in the process, made a strong symbolic statement about how politics might be different if more women were involved. With only a quarter of the seats in Parliament currently occupied by women, it’s clear that the seat of Canadian democracy remains, overwhelmingly, a boys’ club.
That the number of female Parliamentarians has increased to some extent recently is a testament to the strength of a few trailblazing women determined to defy the odds and take their place on the national political stage. One of those pioneers was Grace Woodsworth MacInnes, who served as the NDP Member of Parliament for Vancouver Kingsway between 1966 and 1974.
Ottawa novelist Ruth Latta recalls that, as a student at Queen’s University in the early 1970s, she was fascinated with this diminutive yet dynamic women, one of the first Canadian Parliamentarians to regularly raise issues of concern to women on the floor of the Commons. Latta’s latest young adult novel, “Grace and the Secret Vault,” is a fictional account of an especially formative period in Grace’s life.
Although the book doesn’t deal directly with Grace’s work as a politician, in a subtle way it sheds light on how the future MP developed the determined outlook and fortitude of character that would be necessary to storm the bastions of male power.
The novel recreates a particularly turbulent year in Grace’s early life. Her father, J.S. Woodsworth (who would go on to lead the CCF, the forerunner of the NDP) had lost his job as a minister in an idyllic British Columbia coastal town because of his opposition to the First World War. In 1919, with the war over, Grace’s father remains unafraid of courting controversy. He travels the country speaking out for social justice, and takes a role in organizing the landmark Winnipeg General Strike.
Against the backdrop of these historic events, Grace gets an up-close lesson in courage. Her father stands tall in the face of condemnation, economic sanction, and even the threat of violence. Perhaps more importantly, Grace’s mother summons a special kind of strength: keeping the family afloat by working as a teacher, overseeing a chaotic household of high-spirited children, setting a tone of optimism and good humour.
Latta tells this story in a fluid, fast-paced and conversational way, seamlessly weaving together the daily details of life in the British Columbia of a century ago with the book’s overarching political narrative. The characters’ dialogue is conveyed convincingly in the lexicon of the day, but the emotional pull of the story is timeless. And despite its subject matter, the author avoids propagandizing. There’s also a sly twist on the idea of the “mystery” that adds some fun at the end.
“Grace and the Secret Vault” is a lively read, historical tale with a clear resonance for the contemporary reader, especially for the young person who might want to grow up to change the world.
Ruth Latta, Grace and the Secret Vault. Baico Publishing Inc. www.baico.ca ISBN: 978-1-77216-092-5