WINNER  2013 RED MAPLE Non-fiction Ontario Library Association
Even more Gobsmacked over Norma Fleck September 15, 2013 Earlier this month, I received word that my book on the Steven Truscott case has been nominated for the Norma Fleck Children’s Non-fiction Award. In wake of the Red Maple Award of last spring, this was both surprising (and welcome) — and definitely exciting. To see your name listed on the same page as some of your heroes! Wow! Most of the time we writers spend chained to a desk staring at a computer screen and typing, typing, typing. Okay, correction: typing is done on a typewriter, an ancient mechanism with sticky keys. On a computer one ‘keyboards’. Nominations tell the lonely writer that someone out there is reading, and noticing — besides, of course, the editor, whose only comments are “suggestions” and is never lavish with praise. My thanks to editor Pam Hickman at Lorimer for her work on both of my REAL JUSTICE books.Editors help save writers from themselves and embarrassment. While the work is being created, neither writer nor editor have any idea of how the finished product will look, read, feel and be received. Awards and good reviews are ‘nice’, but even better rewards come from readers who buy the book. No author is really excited to hear that someone just can’t wait until the local library has a copy so they can read it. Be bold: remember that when you buy a copy (authorgraphs are free) you are buying the writer a cup of coffee to fuel even more writing. The best feedback on the Truscott book has been from Grade 7 and 8 classes when I do school presentations. The Truscott story is a story of children, six students from the same Grade 7 class in a rural area in Ontario at a time (we told ourselves) that was simpler, kinder, and more bucolic. Think of that: six: the victim, Lynn Harper; Steven Truscott, the wrongly accused; two witnesses for the defence; and two witnesses for the prosecution. At least two other witnesses were even younger. It’s hard to think now of such a world being ‘simple’. Gobsmacked over Red Maple It is October 15 as I write this, and I am still gobsmacked over the nomination of REAL JUSTICE: Fourteen and Sentenced to Death in the Red Maple non-fiction category. The number of books now available in the schools of Ontario, written about Canada, by Canadian authors, is a treasure. Being nominated in such company is, well, an honour. The gobsmacking didn’t all come this morning. I did receive a call from the nominating committee a couple of weeks ago, and have been living with such a state secret since then. (Full disclosure: I did share the news with a few selected family members and two special friends, one of whom prepares my web page.) Any younger readers should appreciate the value of having books born out of the world around them. It was not always so. In 1959, the year that the miscarriage of Canadian justice was inflicted on Steven Truscott, Canadian books in schools was a rarity. Ten years earlier, in my school days, it was even more so. Oh, we did have Anne of Green Gables, a favourite of my mother. And Glengarry School Days (the author, Ralph Connor, having spent his teen years 12 miles up the road west of Hickson). Library time in one and two-room schools of my childhood amounted to a box of books called a Travelling Library. The box would be filled by the County library, one for each school. Then every week (or was it every two weeks?) the book would move on to another school and a new box would arrive. It was a great idea to treat a shameful impoverishment. But truth be told, I never did read a book from that 12-book library. I knew I would return it late, and then I’d be in deep trouble. In the first grade (Kindergarten had not yet been invented), I learned to read from that infamous series Dick and Jane. I grew up in the village of Bright, population then 247. (Verified many nights when I couldn’t sleep.) In that Dick and Jane reader was a section I still remember. Dick (or was it Jane) passed messages to a friend in the next apartment on a clothesline. This was mysterious. I recognized a clothesline – everyone used them. But I had never seen an apartment building, and at the age of six could not imagine people living in such a structure. Just as mysterious was the great machine that lifted the family car up for service, trapping poor little Sally and her Teddy Bear in the back seat, six feet (two metres) off the floor of the garage. Today that would be a safety violation and would spark law suits. But that didn’t bother me. What did, at the time, was comparing that super- modern car hoist with the greasy pit at Lem Cassidy’s garage in the village. No hoist: just an open pit that the car was driven over. Lem then climbed down the steps into the pit and hung his portable light on the underthings of the car to drain the oil and grease the joints. (Once every thousand miles or 1600 kilometres.) I only hope today’s young readers grow to appreciate the richness of choice provided by Canadian writers and editors and publishers; that today’s politicians realize that Support Your Local Library means more than mouthed words. And they recognize that the books children read today will be with them a life time. Even Dick and Jane did that. REAL JUSTICE: The story of Donald Marshall, Jr. Those who are interested in my book on the Steven Truscott case (REAL JUSTICE: Fourteen and Sentenced to Death) will likely also be interested in my next book: REAL JUSTICE: The Donald Marshall story. (working title). It is due out in March 2013. Donald Marshall, Jr. was a Mi’kmaq from Sydney, Nova Scotia. In 1971, then 17, he was tried and convicted of the murder of Sandy Seale, also 17. The story is about Donald’s ten years in prison; his struggle to have his conviction overturned; and his struggle in his years after prison. A week after his conviction a witness came forward to tell police that Donald did not stab his friend, and told the police who did it. Despite a court appeal and reviews by the RCMP, Donald’s conviction stood until the RCMP for the third time reviewed the case – and found three of the Crown witnesses who admitted to lying in the original court case. Even in the final appeal that won his freedom, Donald was blamed for his own difficulties. Not until a Royal Commission looked at every aspect of the case was the extent of the injustice revealed. Donald’s story, told from the viewpoint of the young people involved, shows the racism that existed in Nova Scotia at the time, and how Donald eventually Donald’s case changed the legal system in Canada, the rights of aboriginals across the country – and what his battle cost Donald before his untimely death at the age of 55. The story of the unjust convictions of Steven Truscott and Donald Marshall, Jr. may seem unusual. Unfortunately, such miscarriages are not so rare as we would like to think. My publisher has created a whole series of books for teen readers on unjust convictions. Check out the rest of the series published by James Lorimer and Company, Publishers. Steven Truscott took 47 years to clear his name In 1959, a 14-year-old seventh grade student in rural Ontario was convicted of rape and murder of a classmate and sentenced to death by hanging. It’s not a nice thought for most Canadians, and the harsh reality changed forever much of Canadian law.  The most sobering part of the whole saga is this: Steven Truscott was not guilty. Even so, it took him 47 years to clear his name. How could such an injustice happen? The outlines of the story are available on Wikipedia.  Steven gave his classmate, Lynne Harper, a mile-long ride on his bike from a school on the Clinton air base to Highway #8. He let her off at the highway, returned to the bridge by the swimming hole, and turned to see her get into a car. Police and the prosecution contended that Steven had given Lynne a bike ride, but had turned off half-way to the highway into the woods adjacent to the road. There, he raped and strangled her, covering her body with branches from trees. Those two versions of an innocent June bike ride have created a few million words of legal wrangling. It was a different time. In 1959 in Ontario, people did not lock their doors. In my own days in high school in the fifties, both my parents worked. The milkman came in the back door, checked our fridge for supplies and left what he figured we needed. Once a week my mother left cash on the kitchen table from which the milkman took what was needed for the bill. As I said, a different time. One-and two-room schools outnumbered all other kinds. People trusted doctors, police, judges. Even lawyers were respected. Were they not officers of the court? In my book REAL JUSTICE: Fourteen and Sentenced to Death I have tried to show how to this injustice to Steven took place. Rather than fill the reader’s head with my thoughts, I’ve constructed a narrative of the case, step by step. To do so,  reviewed every scrap of testimony available. From the CBC website I was able to find transcripts of the preliminary hearing, the original trial, the Ontario Court of Appeal 1966 and the Ontario Court of Appeal 2006. The latter includes many original statements from the time. The book is written for teen readers of today, most of whose parents were not born when Steven Truscott was in the seventh grade. This is a story about children, and hunts for turtles, and swimming holes, and bike rides. Ordinary kid stuff. Only this story turned vicious when police took the story of kids teasing for what it surely was not, and twisted innocent tales into fodder for a conviction. And as one of the witnesses (Douglas Oates) says in the introduction, Steven was the main child affected by this injustice. All of the children involved were affected whether they knew it or not. In narrating this story I have freely used original statements and testimony, using the precise words of the participants, and constructing dialogue only when really needed for narrative flow. Most of the times I needed to add little. In the trial scenes which dominate the book I have stuck simply to the transcript, editing only for length and ease of reading. In other words, I left out the parts that readers would normally skip simply because it was boring legal matters that did not matter to the main story. The lessons learned from the Steven Truscott case must be passed on and understood by young adults so we can avoid any repetition of such injustice. I hope readers find the book informative and I invite teachers and interested groups to join in the discussions on this case.
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