Suddenly from behind her came a loud drumming noise. She turned: one of the swans was flying towards her, its huge wings beating, its passage shaking the air, its vast presence stunning, almost menacing, but at the same time gloriously free and exultant.
Swan Flying is set in Stratford, Ontario, and the swan in this passage is one of Stratford’s iconic birds. Marta de Witt, the central character, is standing on the arched bridge depicted on the book’s cover. The swan’s flying over her, barely six feet above her head, is a momentous experience because Stratford’s swans, who have their wings pinioned, rarely fly and never go high or far. The flying swan is one of the central images in this multifaceted book.
In September 2002, Marta has just retired from her position as an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Toronto. She has spent her adult life in the big city, but she grew up in Stratford and over the years she frequently visited her mother, Lillian (who died in the spring), and her Aunt Hilda, who still lives there.
Now, as Swan Flying begins, Marta receives a phone call from the Stratford hospital to say that Hilda has had a heart attack. Marta goes to be near her, and she stays in Hilda’s house, the home of this Dutch-Canadian family for more than seventy years. While there, the historian in her listens to what the house tells her, and she discovers much that she hadn’t known about her family and herself. In this difficult time of adjusting to retirement and to the imminent loss of her dearly loved aunt, these discoveries help Marta to move into the next phase of her life.
The outward story is low-key, but the inner one is full of the drama of wrestling with critical turning points and struggling to see beyond them. Marta faces issues of who she is, and of where and how she wants to spend the rest of her life – issues that can confront people at any stage but always occur on the threshold between middle age and old age, between an active career and retirement, and when dealing with the death of a close family member.
Stratford, Ontario, and the Shakespeare Festival are more than just a backdrop for this story.
One way in which readers take part in Marta’s inner drama is through excerpts from her journal. This is part of what she records on the evening of the day after her arrival in Stratford:
Tues. 10 Sept. 10:00 p.m. A full day: reconnecting to my Stratford life and past with a big, loud clang.
Being in the house. Being with Hilda and Lillian – being with them, in their atmosphere. Hilda hasn’t been gone long: yesterday morning she was still having breakfast here; and she was the last one to water the plants. I’m stepping into her life before it’s even begun to cool off.
Also stepping into my own earlier one, that of my teenaged self living here with Mother and Aunt Hilda, grieving over Father’s death. This morning in my bedroom, setting up my laptop on my high-school desk, for a second I had no idea how to turn the computer on. Wasn’t I supposed to be studying for a math test? … No, not beginning my adult life and career but ending it ….
No, not ending. Retired from teaching, but still researching, writing.
I’m between lives. On a threshold. In several ways.
I walked through the house again. The whole place is biography, social history. What am I going to do with it all? Is it all garbage – stuff for the dumpster – or is every item, every single little thing and the relations among them, a precious part of a life? If by some miracle this house were preserved exactly as it is now and were found again in two hundred years, it would be precious, much more authentic than any pioneer-village reconstruction. Historians (and tourists) would come flocking. Is it less precious now than it would be in two hundred years? And any less (or more) private? What is my role here – historian-curator, or soon-to-be executor of Hilda’s will, disposer-of-things? The thought of going through one room after the other filling green garbage bags with what was precious to other people – with their lives – is as appalling to me as it is to Hilda.
For all my love of history, though, do I want to be a curator or am I a person with my own life, what’s left of it?
Some of the roots of the book:
In its genesis and creation, Swan Flying - then titled Marta - was interwoven with Frontiers and Sanctuaries: A Woman’s Life in Holland and Canada, the biography that I wrote of my mother. Early stages of both projects took place in the summer of 1998. The main work on Frontiers and Sanctuaries was done from September 1999 to October 2002, and the writing of Swan Flying followed immediately afterwards, from October 2002 to May 2004. From then on, the further work on the two projects (revision of the manuscripts, and promotion of Frontiers and Sanctuaries) alternated until Frontiers and Sanctuaries was published in 2006 and Marta completed in 2007. (Swan Flying didn’t find a publisher at that time; I revised it from 2013 to 2016 and now it’s out under its new title.)
This interweaving means that the two books were in my mind together. At any given time one would be more prominent, but what I was doing and learning while working on one spilled over to the other.
This “doing and learning” involved many aspects. I was delving into issues of immigration, not only the actual move to another country but the way in which “being an immigrant” shaped the rest of a person’s life. Connected to that were questions of home: where “home” is, who a person is in relation to two very different past and present lifestyles, how people rebuild interrupted or damaged lives. (It’s not only immigrants, of course, who need to reinvent and rebuild their lives from time to time. Everyone does.) I was exploring the role played by creativity in my mother’s life and in Marta’s.
I was also learning how to use family archives – how to research, reconstruct, and write family history – and I found it fascinating. In Frontiers and Sanctuaries I presented the results, and in Swan Flying I wrote about the (fictionalized) process. As I worked with our family archives for the biography of my mother, I observed what I was doing and made notes for Swan Flying.
Stratford was part of Swan Flying from the beginning. It’s where I live now, and in my books I usually like to ground my characters’ lives in a particular place, which means using a setting that’s familiar to me. In the beginning it was only the physical location and appearance of the town that I used, but after many revisions and much mulling over the story’s motifs, themes, and characters, I came to realize that Stratford’s identity as a “theatre town” meshed with motifs such as role-playing and the constructing of masks.
Some aspects of Swan Flying are based on my own experience but there’s hardly any direct autobiography. What I did was construct a parallel story. Where I drew on actual experiences, I transposed them into a fictional space and then stirred them around and transformed them. This process requires a complete rethinking and re-visioning because the fictional story has to be self-contained and self-explanatory. Everything in it – characters, setting, plot, motivation, cause-and-effect connections – has to work on its terms without reference to real characters or events.
None of the characters are based on real people. In the book’s Afterword I quote a line from a poem by the American poet Marianne Moore about poetry creating “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” In Swan Flying, it is the garden (Stratford) that is real and the toads that are imaginary.
That said, one bit of the book is directly autobiographical, and that is the episode of the flying swan. One day, when I was standing on that bridge, as Marta is, a swan flew over, just above my head. I wouldn’t have dared to imagine such an unusual event had it not actually happened to me.
I’ve published Swan Flying myself, and the retail price is CAN$24.95 + $1.25 tax. To purchase a copy, please contact me using the link below. I’m happy to send books by mail. The cost of postage will depend on where you’re located: if you e-mail or phone me to give me your address and postal code, I’ll be able to tell you the cost of postage.