Wednesday, March 6, 2013

They called her 'Pony' - a free spirit

Welcome to author Kristin Gleeson, who is going to talk about her controversial biography of Anahareo, an Algonquin/Mohawk girl who grew up in a small Ontario town during WW1 and became famous for her marriage and conservation partnership with the man known as Grey Owl.

Amazon book link

Originally from Philadelphia, Kristin  lives in Ireland, in the West Cork Gaeltacht, where she teaches art classes, plays harp, sings in an Irish choir and runs two book clubs for the village library. She holds a Masters in Library Science and a Ph.D. in history, and for a time was an administrator of a national denominational archives, library and museum in America.

Kristin's website
Kristin ’s multi-talents include services to other authors and I can highly recommend the partnership she has formed with two other published writers; these are people I trust.  Check out Famelton Writing Services - their prices and services are clearly stated.

Kristin Gleeson is better known for her historical novel ‘Selkie Dreams’ so it makes a change for her to be interviewed about 'Anahareo', which was published the same year as 'Selkie Dreans', 2012, but with a different publisher, Fireship Press.

Welcome to my blog, Kristin.
Your book sparked off all kinds of questions! What made you write about Anahareo? Many people will be saying ‘Who is she?’

I was brought to the story oddly enough by seeing the film 'Grey Owl' (with Pierce Brosnan) one Christmas at my mother-in-law's in Cornwall.   My husband Dave and I talked about it afterwards and he pointed out that Anahareo was the story that should be told and I should tell it. 

How did you go about the research? You must be really pleased that the family love the book but did that give constraints on what you could write? Did you have enough material?

My Ph.D. focussed on women's history and I also have a lot of experience documenting and writing about Native American experiences.  Then began a five year journey trying to get to the sources and tease them out.   It isn't always easy working with Native Americans/First Nations because many have  a great distrust of outsiders of course and since Anahareo had short shrift in the past (and Grey Owl) they were naturally suspicious of me and my motives at first.  It took a great deal of time to build trust.   Also, I am living in Ireland and though I took trips to Canada, when I was there I was always working against the clock at an archives or with a family member who would dole out the material a little at a time. I had bad luck with the national archives because they brought the wrong boxes from across the river which meant that instead of 3 days examining the material I only had 2.   I was also financing it myself since, not being Canadian or Irish, I had no chance of getting grants to support the work.   So I didn't examine every piece of evidence.  That is for others, because now the papers are safely deposited in the Glenbow Museum.  My goal was to get her story out there, not put in the minute details.  

How amazing that you took the project on after seeing the film - I'd imagined you must have had a request from the family or some such personal connection. The practicalities of research are fascinating too.

Anahareo has been described as ‘the great woman behind the great man’. Is that how you see her?

I think Anahareo can stand in her own right.  Though she did inspire Grey Owl, she was also a woman whose own singular outlook and manner challenged the stereotypes society held about Native Americans. She didn’t wear a fringed buckskin dress or have her hair in long braids.  She was stylish with her bobbed hair and would on occasion wear makeup.  She never wore a dress, though.   She wore breeches and lace up boots and still managed to look a million dollars.  Few women would dare to wear that in those times, and fewer First Nations women.  She also was a prospector, could survive on her own in the bush and could paddle a canoe as well as any man.  She was campaigning for animal rights in her fifties, sixties and seventies, long after Grey Owl was dead.
What’s your take on Grey Owl? Many people saw him as a con-man when they found out, after his death, that Archie was really British, with no First Nation heritage at all.

I think Grey Owl truly believed that the best way to get his message out was to allow everyone to think he was First Nations.  He recognized that people, especially the British, would be more likely hear the message of the danger of the disappearing wilderness if it came from a First Nations man who they saw as close to nature.  He was under that spell to a degree, too (unlike Anahareo) and felt a great empathy for the issues First Nations people faced. 

Anahareo did finally gain recognition. She was invited to join the Order of Nature in 1979 by the International League for Animal Rights, an honour previously only given to Albert Schweitzer and in 1983 she was given Canada’s highest award, the Order of Canada. Why do you think these awards were given at this time?

Anahareo was awarded the medal of honour because of the guilt I think they felt for belatedly recognizing her contribution and Grey Owl's.   She campaigned hard in the 1960s and 70s for animal rights and for environmental issues.  Though I mentioned some of her appearances in detail, I didn't have the time to gather information for every appearance and felt that if I put it all in it would slow down the narrative. 

What came over to me was how hard Anahareo had to fight just to stay alive. Your book gave a new meaning to the term ‘pioneering spirit’ and I had no idea so many women prospected for gold (including Anahareo) But I found the poverty and alcoholism depressing.

It is a depressing story and the whole First Nations and Native American story is depressing.  I could go on and on why.  They are no more prone to alcoholism and drug addiction than anyone else, it is just that they face extreme poverty and its attendant health care issues, as well as unemployment, cultural restrictions and racism and many many more subtle obstacles.  The average life span of a Native American on the reservation is 45 for men and 48 for women.  With nowhere to go, nothing to do, why would you care if alcohol is bad, or eats your money, damages your kids?  I'll stop now!

amazon book link
Your novel ‘Selkie Dreams’ portrays a 19th century love affair between a feisty Irish girl and an Alaskan Native American man who embodies the culture. What draws you to write about that cross-cultural enrichment?

I’ve always been fascinated by other cultures and family seem to embody that cross cultural link with  links now to Thailand, Cuba, South America, Native Americans and the Jewish culture in my family.  I was tame and married a Cornishman and lived in the UK and now I live in Ireland, picking up on my own heritage. 

With regard to writing more generally, you have an exciting new venture in Famelton Writing Services. What are you offering writers?

I am really excited about being asked to join my two colleagues in offering consulting services to various writers.  We know from our own experience how tough it can be to break into the publishing world and we would like to help writers achieve.  Whether it’s someone who would like to have an experienced person review their manuscript to ensure that it’s has the important elements to make a good novel or non-fiction work or they just need someone to go through and help them polish it, we want to ensure their final manuscript is as perfect as possible.

Famelton Writing Services

What are your top tips for writers?
It may sound like a cliché but my very top tip for writers is to read as much as possible in the genre/type of novel/non-fiction work you feel drawn to write.  You’d be amazed at how much you can absorb that way in terms of good writing.

Do you seek outside input on your own writing? Is there one piece of advice that you feel has improved your work?

I think it’s so important to get a few different pairs of eyes on your writing. It’s amazing what you can’t see in your own work that you can see in others'.  But it can also assure you that you are on the right track too.   As for one piece of advice— other than repeat read, read, read—is to write, write, write.    Long ago I was told that ensuring there is a clear goal in the work—whether it is non fiction or fiction, is key to a successful narrative.  Your main character should have a clear goal in a novel and the non-fiction book should as well. 

You have two traditional publishers at the moment, Fireship Press for ‘Anahareo’ and Knox Robinson Publishing for ‘Selkie Dreams’; what are your views on traditional v self-publishing?

I think there is room for both in the market, though it’s changing so rapidly it’s difficult to make a reading.   Self publishing is becoming more difficult for those good writers who want to rise and become noticed.  I don’t think the cream rises to the top that easily.  There are just too many indies out there all trying to market their books, good or not.  Traditional publishing is fighting its own battles against Amazon and others who undercut the market with heavy discounts so that whether you are traditionally published or self published the author must promote virtually on their own.  That takes a lot of time.

Thanks, Kristin!

Thanks for such considered reading of the biography on ‘Anahareo’.  I feel sometimes like it doesn't get the attention it deserves.

Like Anahareo herself!

Contact Kristin here


When I was a little girl, crazy about animals, I had a Puffin edition of Grey Owl's book 'Pilgrims of the Wild' and I loved the story of wilderness, beavers and conservation. Later, I found out that Grey Owl was really Archie from England and his story became even more interesting. Knowing a fair bit about Grey Owl, I was curious about another aspect to his story as represented by this biography of Anahareo. I think this was the wrong attitude and I'll read it again - as Anahareo's story.

This is one of the dilemmas, not just in the book but in Anahareo's life; her husband was famous. Kristin Gleeson judges well how much to indulge our curiosity about Grey Owl while always focusing on Anahareo as the main character. The tempestuous marriage in log-cabin isolation through bleak Canadian winters was the backdrop to a revolution in thinking about animal welfare. Both Anahareo and Grey Owl were trappers, and the detail of trapping turned my stomach - as happened to Anahareo herself. She influenced her husband, and he influenced the world, to seriously consider the scarcity of animals such as beavers and start conservation projects. From prey to pets, the couple's beloved beavers became a symbol of changed attitudes. It’s one of the paradoxes about books on conservation that they inevitably detail animal cruelty/environmental disasters – horrible reading. That transition from trapper to animal lover is tough on the reader’s imagination, if you love animals, but it is real history.

Ironically, I never quite invested in Anahareo as a character in her own right, because I started with too much knowledge of Grey Owl and lost a little interest when he died - my fault, not the author's. I would have liked to know more about what exactly she did that won her the praise and medal towards the end of her life. The hardest thing about the book for me was that I found Anahareo’s life deeply depressing. I was expecting a pioneering spirit – and there was some of that (the rebel, bucking stereotypes) – but what came over to me was the poverty, loneliness, prejudice, alcoholism, loss of her children – and I was cut up by her and Grey Owl’s ignorance about animals (realistic, I know) and loss of the animals too, as they learned animal care by painful trial and error. Anahareo's life was hard.

I have had to rethink my naive, sentimental view of what 'pioneering spirit' actually means, especially for a woman who fought racial as well as gender prejudice in the early 20th century. I am in awe of Anahareo's physical endurance and survival skills. She was a beautiful young woman who dressed and worked like a man. She was capable of travelling alone for months by canoe and trek (carrying her canoe)to look for work - and she found it. Her father nicknamed her 'Pony' because she always needed to run free. 

A thought-provoking book; reading it will make your own life look different.

amazon book link