When I was a kid, my father took us to Seven Sister’s Falls. There’s the hydro dam, the river, islands, we went for a hike, had a picnic lunch, but what I remembered most about that trip was that because it had rained heavily the previous two days, there was a lot of erosion on the trail on which we walked. My father, never one to miss a chance at educating us, stooped down, signaled with his finger for us to squat beside him to study something on the ground. It was a fragment of pottery.
“Aboriginal,” he said. He picked it up, turned it over in his hand, then gave it to us to hold. He told us not to move. Where there was one piece of broken pottery, there would be more. We squatted there, studying the eroded trail and quickly found half-a-dozen pieces. Before we were finished looking we had pockets full of shards. “Black Duck pottery,” he explained. “This was a major trading spot. Lots went on here.”
When we got home, we managed to fit some of the pieces together. We Crazy Glued them together and I wished that we had searched for more, enough that we could actually see what the pot had looked like. Later, when I had my driver’s license, I went back and added to my stash of shards, always trying to get enough to see the vessel’s shape and the pattern that had been cut into the clay.
In my investigations, I also found ten stone arrowheads. I mounted those in a shallow box.
When I’d bring the pieces home, my father would nod and smile but always ask, “What do they tell you? What information do they contain?” What information do things contain? What can we learn about native culture from the fragments left behind? Objects aren’t just objects, he’d say. They contain large amounts of information. He taught me the same about writing. If you put a brass ring or a gold ring in your poem what story does it tell? Any time I showed him a story, a poem or an article, he always hi-lighted the objects. Beside them he’d add “Connotation? What is the story of this object?”
I used this advice in looking for stories for my book. A large, circular stone on a farm, something I hadn’t seen before, turned out to have been used for grinding grain. It now sat on the ground, nearly hidden by grass and weeds but, after asking, discovered it had been so precious that the original farmer carried it on his back for thirty miles. Not all at once but because it was so heavy, a little at time. It meant his wife could grind their grain without their having to go all the way to town and pay to have the grain ground.
A straight handled scythe nearly hidden in the corner of an unused barn had a blade brought from Bukovina, had been carried by foot, by train, by ship, by train again, by wagon, to sixty acres of bush in the Interlake. It’s handle was made from local ash. A pole cut from birch with a handmade chisel head lay in a shed on what had been an Icelandic farm close to the lake. The chisel head had been pounded into shape by a blacksmith’s hammer. The blows of the hammer could be seen in the metal. Winter fishing, before motors, before automatic drills, required men to chisel through four feet or more of ice. When the Icelanders came to the Interlake, they had no experience fishing through the ice. They had fished the ocean for cod. Everything had to be learned, everything had to be imagined and made. The owner of the chisel had taken a dog sled of frozen fish to Gimli, traded them to a blacksmith who fashioned the heads of three different kinds of chisels, then took his dog sled along the lake, around cracks and pressure ridges.
My father was right. Every object, no matter how humble, had a story. Kings and Queens, the rich, the one percent, kept gold, diamonds, precious jewels, art by famous artists. The people of the Interlake, at one time the second poorest area in Canada next to Newfoundland, found different items precious.
Dmytro brought out a squirrel skin and put it on the table. I picked it up. The skin was like parchment.
“It is a reminder,” he said. “When we get too proud, we bring it out. When the children used to complain about not having something, we’d bring it out.”
I put the squirrel skin back on the table. Dmytro picked it up in his left hand and gently stroked it with his right.
“When my great grandparents came, there was no help in desperate times. English people could get welfare but if you were an alien and you asked for the five dollars a month, you would be deported. Your children were crying with hunger but you did not dare ask for help because you would be shipped back to Ukraine. Cows and horses could feed themselves on grass. Why not Ukrianians?”
He ran his hand gently over the fur.
“Every time I see a squirrel, I say thank you,” he said. “When there was nothing, my great grandfather borrowed a twenty-two single shot. He managed to buy some bullets. He’d heard that the store would buy squirrel skins. He’d been in the army and was a good shot. He and his brother shot squirrels all winter. They ate the squirrels and sold the furs. The price of squirrel skins went up all that winter. They paid for groceries and lamp oil and shoes.”
“Did they show Laxness this squirrel skin?” I asked.
“No,” Dmytro said, “it was Natalie’s family who had Laxness as a guest. They showed him something else.”
Dmytro took away the squirrel skin and when he returned, he was carrying a baseball bat. I thought I would hear a story about how popular baseball had been locally. I’d seen pictures of the local teams. They had a league and walked or rode in wagons from village to village. Schools had baseball diamonds. Teams played baseball at community picnics.
Dmytro laid the baseball bat on the table. It lay there, it’s wood gray with age.
“These were special baseball bats,” Natalie said. “The rich people in Winnipeg gave them to the special police they hired to beat the strikers in Winnipeg.”
I had been going to pick up the bat but I stopped, withdrew my hand, and clenched my fingers. The bat suddenly felt that it might have been made of poison oak.
“During the war, there was a shortage of men to work in the factories. Swift Meatpacking advertised for men. Peter walked to Winnipeg. It was a hard job but it meant regular money. When the soldiers came back, they thought they would be heroes. They had lived through hell in the trenches. The war was over. The war factories were shutting down. There was lots of unemployment. The soldiers said it was the fault of the aliens, the bohunks, the Bolsheviks. They marched to the Swift plant and demanded that the aliens be fired. They attacked businesses run by Europeans. They smashed their equipment. They burnt the piano and the books from the socialist office.” She stopped and took a deep breath. The baseball bat lay like a dark stain on the table. It had been passed down four generations.
Valdi had sat silent. Now, he looked up from the bat and said, “You will need to read lots about this. It is not just a Winnipeg story. It affected everybody.” He shook himself like he was awakening. “The strike was between the English workers and the English rich people who owned businesses. The English workers rebelled at being paid badly, treated badly. Inflation had suddenly gone crazy and people were seeing everything they made being stolen at the cash register. Goods up forty, fifty, sixty percent.”
“Like now,” Natalie said. “I wanted to make stuffed peppers. Peppers used to be ninety-eight cents a pound. Now, they are three dollars and ninety-eight cents. A chocolate bar is the same price but is twenty-five percent smaller.”
“The rich English in Silver Heights controlled everything. Thirty thousand people went on strike. Telephone operators. Electricians. The police didn’t go on strike but they wouldn’t sign an agreement saying they wouldn’t so they were fired. The rich panicked. They hired eighteen hundred thugs and gave them baseball bats like this. They attacked men and women. The Mounties were on horses. You want a raise? You want better working conditions? You want to be treated with respect? We will give you a lesson with these baseball bats.,” Dmytro said. “The mounties had guns. They shot and killed two men. We know who they work for.”
Natalie had been listening, watching him, her face concerned. Now, she added, “Peter was downtown. He’d gone to see what was going on. But he had to be careful. If the veterans noticed he was an alien, they would hit him and threaten him. They’d make him get on his knees and crawl and pledge allegiance to the Queen. Suddenly, the mounties attacked and the special police who weren’t police at all but criminals, many hired from Minneapolis. They attacked the protestors, hitting them with baseball bats. They drove people into sidestreets and trapped them there so they couldn’t escape. Then they beat them. Broken bones, broken heads. One attacked Peter. My great grandfather wasn’t big but he was strong. He got this baseball bat away from this special constable and used it on him. The others saw him with a bat and thought he was one of them. He gave them a surprise. He broke some of their heads before he got away.”
“You think there is much difference between those rich English in Winnipeg and the oligarchs in Russia today? Did you watch the Olympics in Sochi?” I said I did and Natalie, said, “Did you see the Cossacks beating the women in Pussy Riot? Do you think rich people in Winnipeg in nineteen nineteen and Russia today are any different? Oligarchs yesterday were no different than oligarchs today.”
I was staring at the baseball bat. If it had turned into a rattlesnake and raised its head to strike, I wouldn’t have been surprised.
“Did they show Laxness this baseball bat?” I asked.
“Yes,” Natalie said. “They gave it to him to hold. They described the peaceful strikers, no violence. The strikers even arranged for bread and milk to continue to be delivered. They asked the police to remain on duty. They told him about the two men shot and killed. Twenty-eight more wounded. Why? Because they didn’t come to Canada to work fourteen and sixteen hour days for not enough money to live on.”
“And us aliens,” Dmytro said, and it was like he spit out the word, “the capitalist owners hated us, the strikers hated us, the soldiers hated us. The railways wanted us so the owners could get rich but they wanted us to make them rich in silence. No complaining. Many who protested against the way they were treated were deported.”
“Like the Chinese,” Valdi added. “Except for them, it was worse.”
“Yes,” Dmytro said with a bitter smile. “It is good we have the Chinese. It’s always good to know you were not treated the worst.”
We were sitting in the Romanyuk’s kitchen under a picture of Natalie’s great great grandmother. Her photograph had been taken at the railway station in Selkirk, Manitoba. She is standing with two other women, a young man and two children. There is a stack of trunks, bags and bedrolls. The women are wearing babushkas, blouses with wide sleeves, long, dark skirts but it is impossible to say what color they are because the picture is in black and white. One of the women is wearing a long, embroidered vest. They are all laughing.
After Dmytro’s statement about the Chinese, we were silent. It was like a barrier had gone up, no one could talk about the baseball bat on the table anymore. Dmytro stood up, took the bat and said, “Years later it was used for baseball. When they hit the ball, they pretended it was the head of a special constable.”
As he went to put the bat away, I asked about the picture of Domka. I could see why the photographer would have taken her picture. She was young, beautiful, laughing, exotic. Natalie said it had been published in a newspaper and someone had given Domka a copy. It had been passed down the family along with the story that her great great grandmother, when she was in her eighties, had said when they looked at the picture, “This was the last time I laughed for many years.” Domka had not yet gone by boat to Gimli, not yet walked through the agony of black clouds of mosquitoes, not waded through swamps and hiked over gravel ridges to a dugout with a roof made of saplings and bulrushes.
Years later when Laxness and Valdi’s father had stumbled through the door of Domka and Peter’s house, there was a door to stumble through, whitewashed walls, a stove, benches for sitting and sleeping on, a shanty barn for the stock, chickens, a garden that was in the process of being drowned by days of relentless rain.
“This Laxness was unhappy that his clothes were ruined with mud. He said he didn’t mind being wet. In Iceland, he was always wet,” Natalie said.
“Clothes were very important to him. He would spend money on expensive clothes even if he then had nothing to eat,” I said.
“He was fortunate,” Dmytro added as he came back into the room, “because the hens were laying. They were able to give him two eggs for his breakfast and the end of a loaf of bread. A few years before he would have got some rabbit bones to suck on.”
“He was going to be a big shot in the movies,” Natalie said. “Rich in Hollywood. Did he become rich in Hollywood?”
“No,” I answered. “Many Icelanders went to Hollywood. Everybody wanted to be a movie star. Most became carpenters or chauffeurs or unemployed. It was dream city.”
“Ukrainians, too. Broken dream city,”Dmytro said and I thought about my own dreams, dreams I didn’t talk about, dreams beyond getting a better teaching job, dreams of writing successful novels, having them turned into movies, making enough money to live on, being a star instead of a high school teacher who was publishing stories and articles in magazines that didn’t pay anything except two copies of the magazine. You can’t eat magazines, not even with lots of catsup my wife, Jasmine, had said. She thought we should spend all our spare time dancing. You work all the time, she said. The ant and the grasshopper, she said, don’t make a happy couple.
“Why did he come here?” Natalie asked.
“No one knows for sure,” I answered. “Maye he thought he could borrow money from these immigrants who had come to the land of plenty. He borrowed money everywhere. He didn’t think of it as a loan to be paid back. It was an investment in his talent. His job was to write and it was up to others to support him.”
“It was a strange place to come for money,” Dmytro said, shaking his head. “Everyone here was poor. Many farmers lived in shacks. They raised their crops. The fishermen lived in shacks. They caught fish. When my father was a boy, the fishermen used to come with sacks of frozen fish in winter. They wanted to trade for anything the farmers had. Cream, butter, eggs, vegetables, meat. He remembered them coming to the door. Frost on their beards and moustaches. Wrapped in coats and scarves, coming with a horse and sleigh. He remembered them saying to his mother, ‘Missus, you want to trade for fish?’ Sometimes my father had a quarter of a deer to trade. They sometimes had scurvy because they didn’t know to eat vegetables.”
We all fell silent again. We sipped our coffee and tea. I helped myself to another piece of poppy seed cake with white icing. I wondered if Natalie might offer to give me a slice to take home. My ex-wife would never have made a poppy seed cake. It would mean she was being exploited. I had negotiated some things with her, if you do this, I’ll do that. It proved to be too aggravating. It was easier for me to do t hem myself. I hadn’t made poppy seed cake but I knew how to make chocolate cake and bundt cake. Jasmine had not objection to eating t hem after I’d made them. As she chowed down on a third slice of bundt cake, she didn’t say, see you’ve just allowed yourself to be exploited. However, I think when she went to bed at night and while she was lying in the dark, she added up all her points for the day to see if she’d won. After a while I began to feel exploited, and I was less interested in watching her dance in her harem pants. Who would have thought bundt cake could get in the way of sex?
“The Winnipeg General Strike,” Valdi said. It was like we had tried to put away the topic with the baseball bat. Left to ourselves, we would probably have talked about hockey or farming.
“War isn’t bad for everybody,” Dmytro said. “Poor people’s husbands and sons get the front line. They get killed. The smart guys, the connected guys, the guys with friends in Ottawa don’t get killed. They make lots of money. In Winnipeg, the factory owners loved the war. They never wanted it to stop. They got rich on government contracts. The government helped them get rich. They passed a law against pay raises but not against raising the price of what they made. More and more profits as they raised prices with no more expenses. Good Anglicans who went to church every Sunday.”
“Now, the same kind of people move their factories to other countries where there are no laws protecting their workers. It is the same thing over again. Fourteen, sixteen hour days, dangerous working conditions, starvation wages. The next time you go shopping for clothes look to see where they are made. If you ask one of these company executives, will he tell the truth, will he say, our factory is in Bangladesh or Vietnam because that is where we can abuse workers the most?”
“The Bible says the poor will always be with us,” Valdi interjected. “It should say that the one percent who exploits them is always with us. The one percent in Iceland were hogging all the good land, making deals with the Danish authorities, betraying their fellow Icelanders, charging outrageous interest on mortgages. If someone managed to buy a small farm, he had to have sheep or milk cows. The rich farmer who sold him the farm leased him the animals and charged big interest, maybe sixteen percent. The rich farmers took care of each other. They made the law so they stayed in control. They beggared the people and then they punished them for being beggars.”
“Thomas, you need to read lots about this,” Dmytro said. “The Russian Revolution was over in 1917. Two years later when the workers in Winnipeg said they wanted raises and better working conditions, the rich people who controlled the government in Winnipeg screamed Bolsheviks. Bolsheviks, what Bolsheviks? They were just ordinary people, firemen, policemen, telephone operators, electricians, steel workers. They wanted to be properly paid.” He slapped the palm of his hand onto the table.
“Dmytro, maybe you shouldn’t talk about this anymore. You have to watch your blood pressure.” Natalie turned to me and said, “Have another piece of cake, Thomas.” She said it as if it were Toe-mass and I liked that. It made me feel that my boring name had a slightly exotic aura to it. “We are not bankrupt yet. Even if the one percent are stealing most of the money. We can afford another piece. You are too thin. You need a wife to keep an eye on you.”
“I am not such a bad cook,” I said, “but I would like to know how to make hollopchi. I don’t like deli hollopchi.” Cooking was my defence against being dependent. I’d seen too many of my friends get married because they didn’t know how to cook or do much of anything else. They needed to go from Mom to Wife. One of the Phys Ed teachers had split from his wife, had moved into a one room apartment and discovered that he didn’t know how to do anything but heat food in the microwave. He lasted two months, then crawled back home defeated, humiliated, rumpled, hungry, prepared to put up with a bossy, demanding, snarky wife who know how to cook a roast and how to sort laundry.
“I will show you,” Natalie promised. “It just takes patience rolling the cabbage leaves. I put my cabbage in the freezer to wilt the leaves. It’s easier than boiling.”
“Did Laxness eat the hollopchi Domka gave him?”
“He must have,” Natalie replied. “It’s not like there was a menu.”
“Never mind hollopchi,” Dmytro said impatiently. He wanted to talk about the Winnipeg General Strike, not hollopchi.
“You can come tomorrow, Thomas. I am making hollopchi. You can learn.”
“The police refused to say that they would not strike so they were all fired. There was no violence. The rich people panicked. They kept screaming Bolsheviks,” Dmytro said.
“Were there any Bolsheviks? I asked.
“A few,” Dmytro answered. “Not enough to fill up a Mennonite van.” He rubbed his jaw with the knuckle of his index finger. He named the Bolsheviks and with each name he held up a finger. “Paul Krat, Popowich, Shatulsky, Ferley, the Narodowtsy group. Robochy Narod was their paper. You see today, even though we are all Slavs, the Russians and Ukrainians do not get along so good. We came to Canada to escape the Czar. We were happy to see him deposed. That did not make us happy to see the Russians take over. Hysterical English rich people who knew no history! They thought Russians and Ukrainians were the same.” Dmytro looked disgusted. He added, “The Mounties arrested ten leaders and took them to Stony Mountain penitentiary. Not many people supported Popowich, Naviziwski or Lototski but when they dressed up as tourists and took the train to Gimli and hid out on the farms, a lot of people thought it was a good joke.”
“I need to check that I have enough rice,” Natalie said, trying to change the conversation. Dmytro’s face had become red. “If not, you will have to bring me some, Thomas.” She got up and went to the cupboard and took out what was left of a twenty-five pound sack. “There’s enough for tomorrow but, Dmytro, we have to buy another sack next time at Costco.”
“Hollopchi! We are talking about history. Can you only think about cabbage rolls?” Dmytro asked.
“At supper time tomorrow, if I serve you history for supper, you will not be very happy.”
“Do you know that Laxness became a Communist?” I asked. “Hard core. Laxness made speeches supporting communism and he traveled to Moscow many times. My research says that he became a communist because of Upton Sinclair, the American writer.”
Natalie was looking through her cupboard, taking out utensils she would need the next day. She stopped and faced us with one hand on her hip. “Yes, your Laxness gave up praying with the black maggots. It was good because after the strike the black maggots were against unions. Maybe Domka and Peter helped him with that. Dmytro, I can’t reach the roasting pans. You have to take them down.”
Dmytro got up and reached own three blue roasting pans and put them on the cupboard. “I have done this all my life,” Natalie said, “this making hollopchi. Ever since I was before going to school. I like doing it. I hope I can make hollopchi after I’m dead.”
“There were lots of Icelandic communists in the Interlake,” Valdi said. I turned to look at him. My grandfather had mentioned a woman who often stood at the well and handed out communist literature but he’d never said anything about there being lots of Icelandic communists in the Interlake. I knew there were enough communists in Iceland for there to be an organization. “Laxness wasn’t alone in loving communism.”
“He made lots of speeches about how wonderful communism was,” I replied. “Lots of ideals and propaganda about a worker’s paradise in Russia but he refused to look at what was happening right in front of him. Even when his friend Vera Hertzsch was arrested when he was in her apartment in Moscow, he refused to see what was happening. He wanted his books published and his getting published made him choose to be blind.”
“It is a disease that hasn’t been cured,” Valdi replied. “What do you think the CEOs of our Canadian companies in Russia refuse to see?”
“Our people fled from the Czar,” Dmytro said. “They cheered when he was defeated. Why not? They thought now Ukraine will be free. Instead, everything turned into a personality cult. The Russians didn’t understand democracy. They still don’t. They make oligarchs today. They think Putin is the new Czar. They do not understand freedom. Everyone celebrated their new freedom when the Czar was deposed and then Stalin made the Holmodor.”
Natalie turned sharply toward him. “Do not say that word in this house.”
“What will one call it? Eight million Ukrainians deliberately starved to death. This was their freedom. And on the news recently, the newscasters who have never heard anything about this genocide talk about Russia invading Ukraine as if it was going to be a friendly visit.”
Valdi looked at his watch. “Tom, I think we need to be going. At the nursing home they’ll be sure I’ve become lost again. They don’t like their residents getting lost. They don’t want them dying outside of God’s Waiting Room. They worry about being sued by the relatives.”