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Write On Ottawa: Novel celebrates the joy of music and the power of self-discovery

By Alejandro Bustos on January 16, 2014

For the past 35 years, Ottawa-based author Ruth Latta has been publishing works in various genres.  From articles to short stories to mysteries to novels aimed at young adults, her impressive body of work comprises more than a dozen published books.

Now with The Songcatcher and Me, her second book for teenage readers, Latta has penned a story that will appeal to multiple generations.

Set in 1957 in rural Ontario, the novel tells the tale of 14-year-old Sheila, who goes to live with her grandmother Jerusha and uncle Cam after the death of her parents.  (Sheila’s father died fighting in World War Two, while her mom passed away from an illness).

Frustrated with life, Cam is dismissive of his elderly mother and teenage niece, putting both of them down repeatedly.  When an intriguing woman named Alice shows up asking to see Sheila’s grandmother, however, everything changes.

Alice explains that she is a songcatcher, a person who collects and records traditional songs in order to preserve musical history.  Having heard that Sheila’s grandma is a talented singer, she asks if she can record her songs.

“Many years ago I interviewed a real songcatcher for a local newspaper,” writes Latta in an email to Apartment613, when asked how she came up with the idea for the novel.  “Then, the year before last, an academic researcher asked me for a copy of that article.  The interest in it inspired me to write a story featuring a character something like that songcatcher.”

The resulting story is a touching look at three generations of women.  For Sheila, who ends up working as Alice’s assistant, her new adventure opens up her eyes to the wider world.

songcatcher and meAlice, meanwhile, provides a model of an independent women (this is the 1950s we must recall), as well as a selfless lover of culture who lives to preserve Canada’s musical heritage.

Finally, there is Jerusha, who in her old age realises that she can still live an active life, despite Cam’s bitterness towards her.

In fact, Sheila’s coming-of-age process is not that different from her grandmother’s discovery that she still has a lot to offer.

“Many teens seem to get along better with their grandparents than with their parents, so I thought they would understand the mutual affection between Sheila and her grandmother,” says Latta.  “Certainly Cam’s unhappiness affects both of them, but more importantly, Grandma and Sheila are both marginalized people with a lot of talent and ability going unrecognized until Alice the songcatcher ‘discovers’ them.”

Throughout the book the reader can find numerous songs that represent traditional Canadian compositions.  Impressively, a large portion of these songs were written by Latta herself, who neither plays an instrument or sings, but who does write poetry.

“I realized when writing The Songcatcher and Me that I couldn’t quote lyrics from folk songs that I’ve heard on CDs, because that might violate copyright,” says Latta.  “I looked through my poems and picked out eight that were the most like folk songs, and used another lyric, with permission, written by an old friend and mentor of mine. I was thrilled when local singer/songwriter Pat Moore wrote music for one of the lyrics Beneath White Sails He’ll Fly.”

At present, Latta is working on another novel about Sheila when she is 17 going on 18.  She also has a few other manuscripts that she would like to publish, although a release date has not been set at this time.

Ruth Latta’s books are available from her at and or from her  publisher: Raymond Coderre of Baico Publishing, at 294 Albert Street, Basement Suite, Ottawa K1P 6E6,, 613-829-5141.