‘Canadian trilogy’ draws upon author’s family history

Matt Gardner
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One of the hallmarks of Canadian history are the epic tales of immigrants who left their distant homelands to settle in the Great White North.

Author Corinne Jeffery will be appearing at Coles in Prince Albert on Saturday, Sept. 13 from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. to promote her 'Understanding Ursula' trilogy. Based on Jeffery’s own family history, the book series details the saga of the Werners, a German-Lutheran family that immigrates to Canada in the early 20th century.

Drawing upon the history of her own family, a bestselling Alberta author has sought to universalize that experience for modern readers through the saga of one German Lutheran family.

“I have people of every nationality relating to this family,” author Corinne Jeffery noted.

“They don’t care that it’s a German Lutheran family. I have Russians, I have Ukrainians, I have Norwegians, Hungarians, I have Asians and Muslim families who are relating to this family, because they’ve all arrived here. We’ve all arrived here from somewhere.”

On Saturday, Sept. 13, Jeffery will appear in Prince Albert at the Coles bookstore from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. to promote her Understanding Ursula trilogy.

Also known informally as the ‘Canadian trilogy,’ the series consists of three books detailing the story of the fictional Werner family -- who fled from Russia to Canada in the early 1900s -- and their subsequent lives over a period of seven decades and five generations.

One of Jeffery’s goals in writing the book was to depict the lives of ordinary people.

“When I started out, what I really wanted to do was to immortalize the real, ordinary Canadians,” Jeffery said.

“I think the majority of Canadians just don’t get enough good press. We focus on the politicians, we focus on the rich and the famous, we focus on the sports stars. But they’re not the real people who have settled this country.”

The first book in her series, Arriving: 1909-1919, details the initial experiences of the Werners after immigrating to the new country.

Much of the second book, Thriving: 1920-1939, takes place during the Great Depression.

While the title may strike some as a misnomer -- given the widespread misery in Western Canada during those years -- Jeffery had a very definite reason for giving the book that name.

“I wanted to convey how resilient Canadians were, and how they actually did thrive,” the author said.

“There was some question about naming that book,” she added, noting the skepticism of one reader who endorsed the book.

“I challenged him to read it, and then he came to me actually at a promotion and he said, ‘You know, you’re absolutely right in calling it Thriving, because there were so many wonderful ways that they did show their resiliency and did thrive’ -- and part of it was the spirit of co-operation amongst the pioneers.”

What I really wanted to do was to immortalize the real, ordinary Canadians. Corinne Jeffery

The “essentially autobiographical” final book in the trilogy, Choosing: 1940-1989, begins in the Second World War and draws gradually closer to the modern day.

While anxious to avoid spoilers, Jeffery described the theme of the book as emphasizing how the choices people make determine the outcome of their lives.

Signing copies of the book, she has often inscribed the message, “Become the master of your own destiny, not the victim of your history.”

“Once you read that last book, all of that becomes extremely clear,” she said.

Jeffery’s own life is a testament to following one’s dreams.

Born in Saskatchewan in 1945 and raised in Manitoba, she eventually obtained her bachelor of nursing degree from the Brandon General Hospital School of Nursing at the University of Manitoba and later became an educator.

Though her journey towards become a nursing educator was motivated by a desire to secure a practical career, deep down Jeffery always yearned to become a writer.

Her current work represents the fulfillment of a long-held wish.

“My Understanding Ursula trilogy was my dream,” Jeffery said. “By the age of seven, I was telling everybody I was going to write a book. It became three. I became a nurse educator because I had the good sense to realize that it was very difficult to make a living as an author.”

After years living in Edmonton and Winnipeg, Jeffery eventually moved to St. Albert, Alta., where she currently resides with her husband and family.

The Understanding Ursula trilogy represents her first published work.

“In so many ways, my trilogy is a labour of love for my grandparents, for their lifelong gifts of love and inspiration,” Jeffery said.

“They still inspire me, even though they have both passed on a long time ago. But they just had so many fascinating stories and I just thought, ‘This is a story that has to be told.’”

Organizations: Brandon General Hospital School of Nursing, University of Manitoba

Geographic location: Western Canada, Alberta, Prince Albert Russia Saskatchewan Manitoba Edmonton Winnipeg Albert

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