Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of November 27, 2006
Depression tale rings true today
Author crafts an award-winning story about reconciliation
By RAMON GONZALEZ
WCR Staff Writer
Mary is certain she will get new shoes for Christmas but the Depression has hit her family so hard her parents can't afford to buy Christmas presents. Mary tries to hide her disappointment when she gets a doll made out of canvas and oats instead.
Her older sister Judith didn't fair any better: She got a pair of used shoes. She feels neglected.
Mary ends up liking her crude doll more than she expected, but the doll fuels rivalry between her and Judith. When the doll mysteriously disappears, the tension increases.
As spring comes, the doll becomes the catalyst for reconciliation.
Author Joseph Simons, a special needs teacher assistant at St. Mark's Catholic School, once heard this story in 1990 from his late father-in-law, John Doerksen, and he decided to turn it into a book.
"He claimed that this story happened in real life to a family just a few farms over during the Great Depression," Simons said. "And since I heard other people saying that they recognized the story I decided to expand it. What he told me was like six or seven sentences and now I have 100 pages."
Under a Living Sky was published a year ago by Orca Books in the Young Readers Series (ages 8 to 11) and so far has sold 1,600 copies. It has also found a place on the shelves of many Catholic schools in Edmonton and across Western Canada.
"Mostly it is doing well here on the Canadian Prairies, although you can get it all over North America," Simons said.
The book, with illustrations by John Beder, is set during the Depression in Saskatchewan. It covers from Christmas 1936 to Easter 1937, the worst year of the Depression.
Through the book, we learn that Judith and Mary have never had a good relationship. Judith, who always seems to make life hard for Mary, gets even meaner when Mary starts to like her doll.
Then the doll disappears and so does Judith's bad attitude. Mary and Judith become good friends and Mary is really looking forward to attending school next year with Judith.
When Mary discovers that her missing doll was actually buried by Judith during a hailstorm, she has a big decision to make. "On Easter morning they have to decide whether or not their friendship can continue, whether there is trust there," explains Simons.
Mary and Judith must deal with their relationship in an environment marked by poverty and depression of all kinds, including the fact their mother recently suffered a miscarriage.
"This story is about conflict and reconciliation," explains Simons. "I think reconciliation in our world today is something that could be pursued with a little bit more energy. We have so many conflicts going on around the world. This is a story from long ago but it is a story that can speak to many of the issues of the day."
Family Friendly Book Award
Although Simons did not write Under a Living Sky for a Christian audience, he is pleased it is listed among the five winners of the 2006 Family Friendly Book Awards at the International Christian Book Fair in the United States. Winners help "promote reading as a tool for family bonding, relaxation and individual, mental and spiritual development."
As well, the London, Ont., Public Library rated Under a Living Sky as a five star book. In 1992 Simons won the Dorothy Shoemaker Literature Award for joint Ontario Libraries and Ministry of Culture contest for unpublished writers. He has since placed as runner-up in other fiction contests.
Simons, 50, has probably five other unpublished books under his belt. He is now polishing them for publication. The sequel to Under Living Skies, called The Woman in Gray, will be ready next summer.
Born in Oakville, Ont., in 1956, Simons moved to Moose Jaw in the late 1970s to study at Briercrest Bible College. It was there that he met his wife Karen who wanted to be a writer.
After college, he worked on farms, then as a bus driver, and then in a home for persons with mental disabilities. The Simons, who have been married for 23 years, moved to Edmonton from Ontario seven years ago after Karen was hired as English professor at the University of Alberta.