Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Introducing a Young Writer from Long Ago

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Barrage balloons over London, WWII. (public domain)

I’m not sure when Doreen Jones first started writing. Given how this kind of thing goes I would say it was probably around the same time as she was mixing fragrant wild flowers into potions for her friends and dolls. Or maybe it was closer to the time when she got the lizard and the two Australian boarders who shared her home proved to her that lizards ate crickets and not ants eggs as told to her by the shop keeper.

Doreen grew up in a boarding house. It was the only way her mother could keep body and soul together in the hard days after Doreen’s father died. Her sister, ten years her senior, didn't like the fact that all these strangers were now living with them. Her mother felt guilty and sad. But Doreen didn't mind, she saw stories and eventually wrote them down into a book years later.

Our young writer went to work at an early age. One had to back then. Things were tough. Europe was falling to the Nazis, one country after the other. England was standing on the brink. Standing strong. But the future was uncertain and people were afraid. It was during a radio broadcast that Doreen’s boss laid a hand on her shoulder, patting it gently, and peered into her face, saying, “There, there, Doreen, we won’t let you get muddled up in that nasty war.”

Doreen always thought the fierceness and fearlessness inside her came from her grandfather. He was a Viking, according to her father. That made Doreen one quarter Viking and proud of it. She spun around right then and there, marched to the door, kept marching until she hit the war office, and signed up.

She was seventeen.

Her mother didn't take the news well at all.

Doreen was placed with the Balloon Brigade. She and her fellow women soldiers would hoist up the big barrage balloons when German bombers were spotted on the horizon. She grew up in the war, this young writer. She would later say that she liked the “lovely Canadian lads” very much. She would tell about how a British soldier had proposed marriage to her, in the rain, on a street, at night. So romantic. But her heart was already taken by another. Harold was in a prisoner of war camp in Africa. She wrote to him every day.

Doreen had fun too. There was the time she and her mates wanted to go out but their superior officer wouldn't let them, so they tied her to a flag pole and stole her rubber boots. Then there was the time their laundry was exploded after a bomb hit the building across the street. Doreen said the only point she felt scared was the time she forgot her helmet. Admittedly, a helmet was not much protection when bombs are raining down. But that was it. One time.

Eventually the bombers stopped coming and the Germans sent Doodlebugs instead, so named because of the droning sound they made as they fell from the sky. Barrage Balloons were no match for those, so that was the end of the war for Doreen.

When World War II finally wrapped up and Harold was released, Doreen was ecstatic. Unfortunately he was pining for a girl, and it wasn't Doreen. Stupid man. Now this girl hadn't written to him at all during the war, and in fact wasn't that interested in him. Her rejection finally cleared his vision and he and Doreen were married.

This should have been a time of calm and rebuilding in England. But the Spanish flu hit killing more than the war ever did. Doreen’s mum didn't get sick at all, nor did she or her older sister. They helped all the people on their block, tending to them, and bringing them food and cheer.

Every remembrance day I remember the stories my grandma Doreen told me about her time in the war. She’s a great story teller. Even to this day, she and the women of the Balloon Brigade get together once a year to laugh and remember. There are less every year.

So I guess it’s up to us. The kids and grand-kids of these great women and men to continue telling their stories, because that’s what history is – stories told over tea, in front of a snapping fire, while tucked in a warm bed. Stories that tell us our past and help us choose the right path to the future.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Kim Firmston

Kim Firmston is a writer and creative writing instructor in Calgary. Her teen novels Schizo and Hook Up were Canadian Children's Book Centre Best Bet Selections. Her short story "Life Before War" was shortlisted for the 2008 CBC Literary Awards. Her most recent novel for teens is Touch, about a teenage hacker with a troubled family life.

Go to Kim Firmston’s Author Page