Aggie’s Storms Review
by Sharon Sinclair Kimberley, Ontario.
Grey County. October, 2007
Donna Mann's new book, "Aggie's Storms", is a must-read for every Canadian. Following extensive research on the life of Agnes Macphail, Canada's first woman member of parliament, Rev. Dr. Mann has skilfully woven a novel of immense importance to our national identity. Young girls will be drawn immediately into the hopes, dreams and aspirations of the story's central character as Agnes struggles to be accepted in a world that, in some ways, is not so different from our own. Although the picture of early pioneer life is painted with unfamiliar images of home, school, games, clothing and lifestyle, "Aggie's Storms" is a tale of universal themes that will resonate in the heart of every reader.
Young boys may see a little of themselves in the character of Aggie's friend, Will, and hence may emerge with a better appreciation for the rights of their female peers. Men will readily identify with the poignant efforts of Dugald McPhail to provide for his family using the limited material resources of the early 1900's. Fathers may look at their own daughters with a deeper understanding of the vital role parents play in supporting their children's dreams.
Women everywhere will feel like they have come home...home to the very core of what it means to be a female in our society. The strong women in Aggie's family remind us how intricately our lives are woven by inherited values. Like the beautiful quilt that Grandma Campbell and Aggie's mother lovingly craft for a family of new neighbours, our lives are pieced together from the fabric of our early experiences and stitched with the thread of our unique personalities. In "Aggie's Storms" we see in the young Agnes Macphail the determination, compassion and feisty spirit that later found expression in the passionate role she played on the national political scene.
The more we learn of Agnes Macphail, the more we begin to realize what a debt we all owe to this unsung Canadian hero who blazed a trail for us through the causes she championed with her courage, wit and foresight. Just as the name "Terry Fox" is instantly recognized and revered by every Canadian, with Dr. Mann's help, the name "Agnes Macphail" may one day be spoken with that special recognition and pride reserved for our country's best. Bravo, Donna! You leave us waiting eagerly for the sequel. Let us hear all the details about how Agnes as a young woman picked the storms into which she bravely ventured and the remarkable circumstances that resulted from those early choices.
Rearing a special politician
Ray Wiseman for the Wellington Advertiser
September 21, 2007
When I first sat down to write this week's column, I could think of nothing but the upcoming election. I considered dealing with two major issues, the proposed changes to our system of electing representatives to the provincial parliament, and the concept of funding faith-based schools. But after throwing away half a morning staring at a blank computer screen, I realized that I wasn't ready to write about either topic. Both of those issues have much to do with fairness, so I decided to act fairly myself and keep both ideas for another week.
About then I picked up a recently-published book written by a friend, Donna Mann. Just last week the author dropped off a copy of the biography of Agnes Macphail, entitled Aggie's Storms. As I thumbed through it, and read the comments on the back cover, I realized it had much to say about politics and fairness. So I retired to my big green chair, and said, "Phooey on my editor. The column can wait; I'll read this first." A glance at the cover will take readers back 100 years to a schoolroom where they will meet a preteen girl wearing granny glasses. She has hair parted in the middle and pulled back in the harsh style of the time. It's not just any girl. When you open the book you will meet Agnes MacPhail, an intelligent, caring, yet stubborn child, whose determination to set things right eventually made her the first woman to become a member of the Canadian parliament. The author has aimed this book primarily at girls of grade-school age. But that shouldn't limit it to such a narrow range of readers. Boys should read it to understand what their mothers and grandmothers faced in a bygone era and, sadly, what some girls still face today. Parents should read it to evaluate their own approach to fairness and equality. Are they applying the same standards to daughters that they apply to sons? Grandparents should read it to see if they measure up to Aggie's grandparents who encouraged her to live up to her dreams. Following a discussion with her grandmother, reminding her what a cross baby she had been and challenging her to overcome her restless, critical attitude, we see Aggie pondering the rebuke. "Crossest baby? I still know those feelings. Restless? Hmm. Yes, that's a good description of the way I feel lots of times. It's like I'm ready for something unknown and I can't quite wait until it happens. Sometimes I think if I stand on my tiptoes, I might catch sight of it." Aggies's Storms reads like a novel, with all the features that we expect to see: well- defined characters; tensions building; stresses erupting into crises; head-on battles with nature and man-mad calamities; and a heart-wrenching climax. I spent a childhood in difficult conditions on the prairies sixty years ago, but Aggie faced far worse times on an Ontario homestead over a century back. We need to remember what our ancestors went through to make our province what it has become today. These conditions contributed to what Agnes MacPhail became: a defender of women's rights and Canada's first female member of parliament.
The author, The Reverend Dr. Donna Mann, grew up in the Elora area. She served as a United Church minister in Alberta and Ontario, most recently in Durham and Mt. Forest. She now lives with her husband Doug north of Mt. Forest where she does grief counselling and writes. Ask your bookstore for Aggie's Storms, by Donna Mann, published by Brucedale Press.
Agnes Campbell Macphail was born March 24, 1890, “on a stormy day.” She was raised in a log home on County road 9 near Hopeville, walked to the local elementary school then attended Owen Sound Collegiate followed by the Stratford Normal School. Agnes Macphail began her teaching career at the Gowanlock school in Saugeen township.
She taught in the area for a few years but soon found her place in the quest for social justice. Her ability to not only speak up but also express herself eloquently led her into politics.
She was active in the Ontario Agricultural Co-operative Movement and the United Farmers of Ontario. While she entered politics to represent the farmers of her region, in office she also came to represent women. 1921 was the first federal election in which women had the vote and Agnes was elected to office, the first women to sit in parliament. She served until 1940. In 1943 she was elected to the Ontario legislature. She was one of the first two women there. She was also the first woman appointed as a member of the Canadian delegation to the League of Nations where she served on the disarmament committee. While she supported civil rights she was not an active suffragist. She was a friend of Nellie McClung but her issues were for equal pay, prison reform, and rural farm issues such as protective tariffs. She was elected during a time in which there was no unemployment, no old age or disability insurance, no family allowance, no student support, no crop insurance, no medical insurance. She saw the need for these things and was able to speak to that. Author of Aggie’s Storms, Donna Mann says, “Agnes became a champion of women and friend of the farmers.” She had the kind of mind that could not only hear what others said, but understand what they meant, and she could make their words shine. She could process the thoughts she heard from other people and put those feelings into words, “build a case around it Mann was prompted to write a book about Agnes Macphail’s early life after an encounter with a group of elementary students. They were looking for names of famous Canadians and responded with “Who’s that?” when Mann suggested Agnes Macphail.
“So,” she says, “the credit goes to the children. They fed a passion that was already stirring.”
Mann says she grew up on stories of Agnes Macphail. In some ways her upbringing parallels Macphail’s. Raised on a farm in Wellington county her father wasn’t an auctioneer but he was active in politics and the discussion around the table was community minded. Mann has led the local movement to acknowledge Macphail’s birthplace and family home. Most recently Grey county road nine has been given distinction of an added title, The Agnes Macphail Road. The historical novel “Aggie’s Storms” tells of a young Agnes Macphail and her school years in Proton Township, Grey County. The opening scene has Aggie flat on her stomach on the floor playing marbles. “That’s not fair, Will. It’s my turn,” ten year old Aggie said. She watched her friend Will’s marble roll slowly into the circle. “Don’t go changing the rules. You always do that.” Later still on her stomach she was thinking, “Why try to play a game with a boy? It never works.”
While there was support in the community for recognizing Macphail’s contribution to Canadian culture, there was a lingering concern that the younger generations had not heard about her. Mann felt Macphail’s name, life, and the principals she held dear, such as the value of family life and community were things to be remembered.
To get in touch with young Aggie was a challenge. The minimal basics of her early life, such as where and when she was born, were covered but with very little elaboration. There were no journals, no memoirs. Mann collected newspaper, and magazine articles, speeches, and letters written by Agnes. She says the articles were personal, provocative, and informative and they helped her gain insight into the sorts of issues that Macpahil was thinking about. She visited the site of her birthplace, her residence in Ceylon, the cemetery, walked the road she took to school. She also became a familiar face at the Dundalk, Flesherton and Markdale libraries. She talked to neighbours and family members, and was able to piece together information of the era. “I was able to interpret what life was like then and put together an honest representation of that era.” She says she wondered, “What kind of little girl would she have been to grow up to be so in touch with other’s needs. Who would her friends have been? Who would she have stuck up for.” She is certain that Macphail was enveloped in family support, grandparents who told her stories, and parents who believed in her. She believes she grew up realizing that she had good opportunities, the ability to make decisions, and with an understanding of the value of a good family environment, good relationships. These would have provided her with inner confidence, with the ability to speak up for those who did not have a voice. “When students read about her school days, her chores and her dreams, I’d like them to realize that youthful understanding of equality, justice and respect can develop into great leadership in all stages of life.” Says publisher Anne Duke Judd, “Aggie’s Storms’ is based on real people and events enlivened with the author’s imaginative touches. Mann has created conversations and family activities faithful to what is known of the Macphail and Campbell lives. Grandmother Campbell was the one who told Agnes, ‘There’ll be a lot of storms in life, you just have to pick the ones you’re going to venture into’.” Mann is not new to writing, she has written novels, has penned her memoirs for a church fundraiser, and a book entitled, Labour of Love, about midwife Ethel Ayres will soon be released. Ethel Ayres left England in 1910 for Edmonton and was a nurse and midwife in Alberta during the First World War. In some ways, says Mann, she was very like Agnes. “Both these women lived their lives in dedication to helping others find value in their own lives.” Mann regrets never having met Agnes Macphail. Mann moved to the area only a few years after Macphail passed away in 1954. Aggie was buried in Grey county on a stormy February afternoon. Said one old farmer as the community gathered to lay Aggie to rest, “She came in on a Grey county storm and she’s bloody well going out on one.”
Aggie’s Storms is published by Brucedale Press. Ask for it at your local bookstore or contact:
Anne Duke Judd at 519-832-6025
ISBN 978-1-896922-37-9 Cost: $15.00
The Making of a political pioneer: A new book suggests Agnes Macphail's rural upbringing shaped her later political career
By June Flath
The childhood of the first woman elected to Canadian Parliament told in award winning novel:
Aggie’s Storms is published by Brucedale Press.