Teen-age filmmaker Astrid Mohr recording  The Convict Lover  Bookmark

Teen-age filmmaker Astrid Mohr recording The Convict Lover Bookmark

An article for teachers by Project Bookmark Canada Board Member Hughena Matheson.

Field trips — excitement for your students, but for you teachers, these trips can mean headaches: collecting money and parental permission forms, ordering buses, and the ultimate worry of losing a student. I suggest a field trip without these worries.

Your only preparation is to make sure your students have access to the Internet. With the click of a mouse at www.projectbookmarkcanada.ca, they will discover Canada’s literary trail. On their virtual field trip, they will visit the exact Canadian settings writers imagined as they wrote a poem or a work of fiction. These locations are marked with Bookmarks, plaques with excerpts from these poems and works of fiction.

Over a decade ago, writer Miranda Hill came up with the idea of a literary trail as she walked in the places where scenes she was reading were set. Her idea was that readers could step right into the stories, experiencing the authors’ visions and the real locales simultaneously. She imagined that someday, we could read our way right across Canada.

On this trip, your students will do just that by stepping into Canadian stories from Newfoundland to British Columbia. On a virtual trip, because your students do not have to “stick together,” they can all be in different parts of the country reading the words of our storytellers.

 Construction of the Bloor Street Viaduct, site of Project Bookmark Canada's #1 Bookmark, for Michael Ondaatje's    In the Skin of a Lion

Construction of the Bloor Street Viaduct, site of Project Bookmark Canada's #1 Bookmark, for Michael Ondaatje's  In the Skin of a Lion

They can have “free rein” exploring the trail wherever they want. Some may stop at the inaugural Bookmark. Located on the Bloor Street Viaduct in Toronto, it has an excerpt from Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion. At this stop, they can hear the author reading the dramatic excerpt: “Then there was no longer any fear on the bridge. The worst, the incredible had happened. A nun had fallen off the Prince Edward Viaduct before it was even finished. The men covered in wood shavings or granite dust held the woman against them ...” They can even listen to an interview with the author.

Other students may head to Halifax to visit the Barometer Rising Bookmark. At the top of Citadel Hill, they will be with character Dr. Angus Murray as he looks over Halifax and the harbour the day after the great explosion. Writer Hugh McLennan was a ten-year old boy when that explosion occurred in 1917. The unveiling of his Bookmark was held in conjunction with the 100th anniversary of the explosion. In Halifax, students may wander “off the trail” to learn more about that historic event, the largest man-made disaster before Hiroshima.

 The aftermath of the Halifax Explosion, 1917.

The aftermath of the Halifax Explosion, 1917.

Those heading west will find a Bookmark with an excerpt from Wayson Choy’s The Jade Peony in Vancouver’s Chinatown. Reading this excerpt, either in English or Mandarin, your students will be with 12-year old Jung, one of the children of an immigrant Chinese family living there in the 30’s and 40’s. He has just handed his coat to tailor Gee Sook who puts it onto the massive steam-pressing machine. After “luxurious blasts of steam penetrated every fibre of the coat,” Sooki draped the coat over Jung who feels a transformation: “I felt intense heat embrace my shoulders, then curve over my back and drop upon my chest. I felt like a young warrior receiving the gift of his bright armour, a steely-grey coat born from fire and steam.”

Those students who end up in Hamilton will find themselves at the edge of the escarpment. As they read “Giants,” John Terpstra’s poem, they will imagine giants sitting there a long time ago watching the glaciers recede. The giants were quite excited “about not having to wear their coats all the time, and what the ice and water had done, shaping and carving the gentle, wild landscape.”

Students discovering the Bookmark on Hamilton’s waterfront will learn another interesting back story. One day when writer Rachael Preston was walking this trail, she noticed a plaque commemorating the city’s lost boathouse community. In her research, Preston learned that a shantytown existed there in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Wanting to beautify Hamilton, city councillors voted to abolish this community. No trace of the community remains, but Preston makes this lost community come alive in her novel, The Fishers of Paradise about the fictional Fisher family living there. 

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In Oakville, students will find a Bookmark for Lawrence Hill’s novel Any Known Blood, the story of five generations of a black family moving back and forth across the US-Canada border. The excerpt will introduce them to Captain Robert Wilson who helped runaway slaves cross Lake Ontario to safety. This is another place where students may wander “off the trail” to learn more about that the historical background of the novel.

On a virtual trip, students can visit the trail at their own pace. Some may linger at one spot as they become immersed in the background of a novel. The story behind Merilyn Simonds’ novel The Convict Lover will fascinate them. In 1987, she found a cache of letters, albums, and clippings in the attic of her house in Kingston, Ontario. Among these was a collection of letters written by a prisoner in the Kingston Penitentiary to a young girl who lived near the prison quarry where convicts did hard labour.  From this one-way correspondence, Simonds imagined her novel about the real convict, Joe Cleroux, and the real girl, Phyllis Halliday, who was known to Cleroux as Peggy.

As a side trip, students could watch a short film by Simonds' teenage granddaughter, filmmaker Astrid Mohr, which captures the unveiling of the Bookmark for her grandmother’s novel. 

Sometime on this trip, inevitably one student will shout out, “There are no Bookmarks in our town or province.”  Your answer: “Project Bookmark is only 11 years old. Trails take a long time to blaze, especially across our huge country.”

At this point, you might suggest they do research about Canadian literature, writing and publishing. They could involve the school and community librarians to find out what literature has a local setting. When I asked the librarian at the Cape Breton library I used as a child, I was surprised at how much literature is set in Cape Breton.

If your class is inspired to blaze the literary trail in their part of Canada, they could form a reading circle to make suggestions for Bookmarks. This could be a class, school or community circle. With today’s technology, the members do not have to be in the same location.

I can imagine a cross-Canada reading circle with its members deciding on children’s books to be bookmarked. Children’s literature would be a great topic for a reading circle of young people who still vividly remember the great Canadian stories from their childhood. So far, only one children's book has a Bookmark, Dennis Lee's "The Cat and the Wizard." This book is set at Casa Loma, the castle he writes about in his story.

 The first children's Bookmark, for Dennis Lee's   The Cat and the Wizard   at Casa Loma in Toronto.

The first children's Bookmark, for Dennis Lee's The Cat and the Wizard at Casa Loma in Toronto.

Selecting an excerpt, your students will use their critical thinking skills.  The excerpt from fiction or poetry may be up to 500 words and must be set in an actual and identified location. Is the criteria met by the words your students have chosen to submit? Does their excerpt make the reader wonder what came before and what comes next? Will this piece make people want to read the whole book? Once they have made a suggestion for a Bookmark, students simply fill out the form on the website. This experience will foster an interest in Can Lit. Your students might even select one of the “Bookmarks” currently on the trail as a topic for a class assignment. See the live list of all 19 Bookmarks, or download the map and complete list here

Although you will avoid the usual problems on this virtual trip, you could still have one. You could lose a student or two. Maybe the daydreamers will get lost in thought, imaging ideas for their own poems, short stories or novels.

Decades later, one of your daydreamers is reading a Bookmark excerpt at the unveiling of a Bookmark inscribed with their writing. During the ceremony, your former student recognizes you in the audience and remarks, “I would like to thank my teacher who decades ago took my class on a virtual field trip along this Bookmark trail. Because of that teacher, my writing is now part of Canada’s unique literary trail.”

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