Janet Kellough on how local history and community inspired a career in performance storytelling.
I live in a very peculiar little corner of the world, on an island that dangles from the north shore of Lake Ontario. Officially its name is Prince Edward County, but everybody calls it “The County”. Capital “T”. Capital “C”. As if there aren’t any other counties in Canada.
The first European settlers here fetched up as flotsam in the wake of the American Revolution. Some of them actively fought on the British side, some of them simply thought the revolution was a really bad idea and they were run out of the colonies for their opinions. When the war ended they were handed little more than some land, a hatchet and a few seeds and told to go get on with their lives. What became The County was at that time utter wilderness, a far cry from the settled places they had left behind.
They were not a very homogeneous bunch – they were people of German, English, Dutch, Scottish, Irish and French ethnicity, some disbanded British troops and soldiers from the Hessian regiments, Quakers, Methodists – all the odds and sods who didn’t fit in anywhere else seemed to end up in The County. In spite of differences in background, and in some cases language, they quickly figured out that the only way they were going to survive was by helping each other. They nearly starved to death in 1787, but they stuck together and became a community. After the first hard years they began building infrastructure, industry and institutions. And for the next two hundred years their progeny intermarried with stunning enthusiasm.
This is where I grew up, surrounded by a tangled web of kinship and communal experience. I was also surrounded by stories. I heard them in bits and pieces. Buried treasure at the local beach; the man who single-handedly wrestled a bear to the ground; the logging village that was so dissolute that it was known for years as “Sodom”. (There’s still a Gomorrah Road nearby.) Every Sunday drive was punctuated with remarks about haunted houses, banshees in the Big Swamp, a hotel that was swallowed up by sand. Often the narrator would be unable to recall when exactly something had happened, or who precisely had been involved, or even what the consequences were, but the essence of each story had made such an impression that it was still remembered many years after it happened.
As an adult I began tracking stories down and filling in the details. And what a treasure trove I found! Lots of tragic shipwrecks and drownings; a hanging that went awry when the rope slipped; the derring-do of rumrunners during Prohibition; tidal waves and lake monsters. And all the time that I was collecting, I was aware that The County was changing. “Ontario’s best-kept secret” had been discovered. The city was coming at us in a wave and we were about to become ever so genteel.
A community is defined in a large part by the stories it tells about itself, and it seemed important to me that the essence of our unique character be somehow preserved, not in dry local histories deposited at the library, but in the minds and hearts of the current crop of County folks. I had no resources for conventional theatrical production, so after some fits and starts, I started telling stories in much the same way they had been told to me – straight-up spoken word renditions. I started getting invitations to storytell at local concerts, which most often featured performers of the folk music ilk, and together we discovered that the stories and the music were a natural fit – the music could augment the story and the story could inform the music. We ended up with a fusion that became like a live version of a movie soundtrack.
I expanded the repertoire from the historical into the realm of the more apocryphal. (Some call it gossip). People started coming forward with stories, and I realised that the lore of The County was not only alive and well, but a living, growing entity that now includes stories like the hijacking of the Glenora Ferry (a prank); the guys who drove around with a dead body in the back of their car for twelve hours while they tried to cash the deceased’s welfare cheque; and marvellous speculation about The Marysburgh Vortex, an area along the eastern shore of The County that is sort of like the Bermuda Triangle, but more fun because you can use it as an excuse for nearly any shortcoming. (“I meant to come to work on time, but I got lost in the Vortex”, etc.)
And a magical thing happened – the local audience loved hearing tales about themselves, but newcomers liked hearing them too. They felt like they were being invited to the party, and rather than being lost by assimilation, County history became something that was vital to know if you intended to live here. The County ain’t quaint, it’s cool.
Listen to Janet perform “Maggie Howie” from “Fowke Tales”, recorded live at Lang Pioneer Village with Al Kirby, Zeke Mazurek, Jim Yates and Aengus Finnan:
Still, there were some tales that didn’t fit the stage format very well. There wasn’t enough information, or there was too much information, or the events in the story required too much explanation. So I began writing historical fiction to take care of those. I expanded geographically and almost by accident, The Thaddeus Lewis Mysteries began telling not only local history, but the story of how Canada became a nation.
As the series moves forward, I can only hope that a recognition of the importance of community memory moves forward with it. This is such a new country that sometimes we forget that we have any history at all. But one thing I’ve learned is that the storyscape can stretch to incorporate whoever happens to show up and whatever they happen to do. I think my ancestors would have liked that.
Janet Kellough is an author and storyteller who has written and performed in many stage works that feature a fusion of music and spoken word. She published two contemporary novels before she launched into the popular Thaddeus Lewis historical mystery series with Dundurn Press. She lives in rural Ontario, Canada with her husband Rob, two dogs and thousands of red cedar trees.
- The Glenora Ferry
- Janet Kellough, from “Fiddle ‘n Frostbite” by Rick Conroy, The Wellington Times.