Excerpted from The Nine Lives of Charlotte Taylor by Sally Armstrong. Copyright © 2007 by Sally Armstrong. Excerpted by permission of Vintage Canada, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
SALLY ARMSTRONG is a 3-time Amnesty International Canada award winner, a member of the Order of Canada, the holder of 7 honourary degrees, a teacher, journalist and human rights activist. She was a member of the International Women's Commission, a UN body that consisted of 20 Palestinian women, 20 Israeli women and 12 internationals whose mandate was assisting with the path to peace in the Middle East. The bestselling author of Veiled Threat: The Hidden Power of the Women of Afghanistan (2002) and Bitter Roots, Tender Shoots: The Uncertain Fate of Afghanistan's Women (2008), she is also the author of a fact-based novel about her settler foremother, The Nine Lives of Charlotte Taylor (2007).
1) Can you tell us how you became a writer and journalist?
It’s a long story–to make it brief, I started out as a physical education teacher (a job I loved) and was quite involved with two innovative projects at the time: fitness for women and perceptual motor development in children. A man was starting a new magazine in Canada at about the time I was pregnant with our third child and wondering what I would do while staying at home with the children. My friend Anna Hobbs gave the man my name as a potential contributor to the magazine. He hired me as a “special projects writer” which was a huge surprise to me and I started writing stories for the launch issue. The magazine was called Canadian Living!
2) Charlotte’s story must have percolated in your mind all your life. When did you know it was time to write this book?
In 1992, while I was editor-in-chief of Homemaker’s Magazine, I wrote an editorial about Charlotte Taylor to mark women’s history month. To my great delight I heard from relatives of Charlotte Taylor from all over the world–the U.K., Kenya, Saudi Arabia, the U.S. and all over Canada. I knew then that I would write this book and wrote back to all of them asking for any material they might have about our ancestor. I thought I would start soon after that but I kept being sent off to cover zones of conflict in Bosnia, Somalia, Rwanda, the Middle East, Afghanistan etc. So I kept gathering data and finally, in the summer of 2004 decided to take time off my journalism work and tackle the manuscript.
3) How did you conduct the research for this book? What was the most exciting piece of history you uncovered?
The initial research was through family archives. Since Charlotte had three husbands and ten children there is a rich supply of anecdotes. There is a lot of material in the New Brunswick archives and in history books about the area, including the work of explorer Nicolas Denys and historian William Ganong. But then the really tough slogging began. It felt like every time I wrote a sentence it led to a research question. For example–they left England by ship. What did the ship look like? How long would it take to sail from England to the West Indies? How did they live on the ship? What did they eat? What would a mid-Atlantic storm be like? I depended on the internet to find these details. I also consulted a sailor, a botanist and a food historian and others to make sure my assumptions were correct.
What surprised me? Nearly everything. But overall, the size of the challenge of surviving during that time.
4) Can you tell us about the process of taking the story of a real person and fictionalizing it?
I wrote the first draft in non-fiction because I wanted to contribute to the history of New Brunswick and add the lives of women to the accounts of the past. Once finished, I realized that the dialogue I’d written and the fictional bridges I needed to create to get from one known fact to another were too much for a work of non-fiction. So it was with some relief that my editor and I decided to switch to fiction and let the story tell itself without fear of controversy.
5) Aside from Charlotte, who is your favourite character in this book, and why?
Aside from Charlotte, Wioche was my favourite character (although I did thoroughly enjoy creating the wily Will MacCulloch.) I spent a great deal of time with Gilbert Sewell, the Mi’kmaq storyteller, in Northern New Brunswick, trying to bring verite to the life of Wioche. We tramped through the woods, plucked berries and leaves, sat by Pabineau Falls and immersed ourselves in what would have been the times and troubles of Wioche.
6) As a journalist, you’ve earned a reputation as an advocate for the rights of women. How did that perspective influence your work on this story of your famous family matriarch? And to reverse the question, did her life influence your career?
This is a good question. Many people I know have made comments like “the apple didn’t fall far from the tree.” Certainly as a girl growing up I was influenced by the stories told by my relatives about Charlotte. I liked having such a woman in my family tree and wore her like a badge. But to be fair, I don’t think I would have had the gumption to face what she had to deal with and wonder if I wouldn’t have been on the first ship back to England. Having said that, I am delighted that Charlotte’s story broadens the history of the strong courageous women who settled this land.
7) Are there any tips you would give a book club to better navigate their discussion of your book?
Follow the threads. That’s what I did when I tried to figure out what she did and how she managed. Check dates and events and come to your own conclusions about how she loved and lived. I purposefully left some mystery for the reader to discover.
8) What question are you never asked in interviews but wish you were?
After meeting with dozens of book clubs, I doubt there’s a question I haven’t been asked.
9) Which people have been most influential to you in your career, both as a journalist and a novelist?
I’ve been fortunate to have been influenced by many people. June Callwood and Doris Anderson were both mentors and dear friends. I remember, when starting out on this manuscript and worrying about the size of the task, June telling me that soon enough I would get up in the morning, turn on my computer and Charlotte would be waiting for me on the screen, just like an old friend. She was right of course. Doris Anderson was one of those marvelous women who could pump you up with equal parts confidence and challenge, and stick with you while you navigated the sometimes churning waters of your task.
13) If you weren't a writer or a journalist, what would you want to do for a living? What are some of your other passions in life?
I like fixing things–turning wrong to right. Whether writing about injustice or delivering a speech about it, I feel that’s what I’ll continue to do because it gives me a sense of worth and purpose, and heaven knows it’s a topic that presently seems an endless source of work.
14) If you could have written one book in history, what book would that be?
Stick around. I’ll write that book yet!
1. Sally Armstrong writes of Charlotte in the book’s introduction, “For as long as I can remember, I’ve tried to imagine the real life she lived and how she ever survived it.” (p. xi) How was your experience of reading this book affected by knowing that it was based on the story of a real person?
2. As Pad lays dying in Jamaica, the degenerate Lutz comments to Charlotte, “Many widows, alone and grieving, are grateful for the support of a proper man.” (p. 34) Does this opinion about the desperate condition of women in Jamaica also apply to the situation in which Charlotte finds herself in New Brunswick? Is her situation better or worse there?
3. Charlotte briefly rues her love affair with Pad, thinking that he may have survived if they had never left England–and that she would not be in her current predicament. Had it not been for her romance with Pad, do you think her life would have taken a more conventional path?
4. During her first Christmas in Nipisiguit, Charlotte is treated to a fireside ceremony with her new Acadian and Mi’kmaq friends. “There in the wilderness, by the light of the fire and surrounded by the spirituality of two peoples she has come to know, Charlotte covers the final distance between England and the New World.” (p. 143) What does this mean?
5. As they watch the burning ghost ship on the night of Charlotte’s wedding with Blake, Commodore Walker comments to the men jeering at Mi’kmaq legend, “Aye. But their Great Spirit is but God . . . it might become us on occasion to be humbled by his works, whatever they be and whatever He may be called. We’re a proud lot, we men. A day may come when we shall be glad of mysteries.” (p. 174) What does Walker mean by this? Do you agree?
6. Some of Charlotte’s marriages appear to have been made for quite pragmatic reasons, and with virtual strangers, yet she turns down the proposal made by Commodore Walker, with whom she has an affectionate relationship and who promises her a life of comfort. How would her life have been different had she accepted his proposal? Why do you think she made the choices in marriage that she did? Were they the right ones?
7. Charlotte and Wioche maintain a love affair that lasts many decades until her death. How do they manage this bond despite the damage done to his people by hers? Why do they never marry?
8. It is the men who “settled” New Brunswick who have dominated historical accounts of this period, stories involving war with the Acadians and the First Nations. Charlotte’s story reflects a different perspective. What is it about Charlotte’s character that allows her to move so skillfully between worlds and cultures? Why is this quality significant?
9. For those dwelling along the Miramichi, including Charlotte, nature is a fierce opponent in the struggle for survival. But Charlotte also carries with her the instinct to love the beauty of this untamed wilderness. Discuss this contradiction in Charlotte’s relationship to nature.
10. Charlotte has many opportunities to return home to England, why doesn’t she go?
11. Why do you think Charlotte leaves all her land to William Wishart?
12. Near the end of her life, Charlotte comes to believe herself complicit in the expulsion of the Acadians and Mi’kmaq from the Miramichi. “Her whole life here, it seems, has been lived in the knowledge that everything she wished to secure for her family helped to undo the security of her friends.” (p. 382) Discuss this perspective. Was she complicit?
13. BONUS: FUN WITH FOOD AND FICTION
Charlotte gives her children a glimpse into her once affluent past when she teaches Elizabeth to make Welsh Rabbit in the manner of her family’s cook. (p. 286) Look up a recipe for Welsh Rabbit (sometimes known as “Rarebit”) and consider making it for your book club meeting.