Plot twist

Joan Bodger has been rediscovered — at 76. And it happened live on radio.

Joan is a Toronto children’s author and storyteller (who has also taught writing in Kelso, in southeast B.C.). But for years, you wouldn’t have known that. Her life has been turbulent and, sometimes, troubled — there were long dry periods when few of her stories appeared in print.

Then, a few months ago, Michael Enright, of CBC Radio’s This Morning, interviewed Joan for his Aging Dangerously feature. He caught her at a low point. She had just been to the post office to pick up a package.

“I thought it was socks I had ordered from Land’s End,” she told me, as we sat recently in her cozy 11th floor downtown apartment. Instead, it was the manuscript for her autobiography, which a publisher had been toying with for two years before returning it to her with a rejection slip.

Joan was outraged. And she spoke plainly. “I know I’m a damned good writer,” she told Enright.

“I know you are,” he replied. As editor of Quest magazine in the 1980s, he recalled, he had published a prize-winning article she had written.

<IMG align="left&qot; src="htt://”>A writer rediscovered

In the next couple of weeks, no fewer than five publishers who had heard, or heard about, the radio interview contacted Joan about her autobiography. Now it’s all happening.

McClelland & Stewart has just reissued Joan’s long-out-of-print classic, How the Heather Looks, the story of a 1950s journey she made to Britain with her husband and two children to find the scenes and sources of famous children’s stories; Tundra, an M & S label, has published The Forest Family, a children’s story with fairytale themes, and this year will finally publish Joan’s autobiography, A Crack in the Teacup. And what a story it will be!

The title, a line from a poem by W.H. Auden, refers to the great divide in Joan’s life when a crack opened that has never really closed.

In 1958 she and her librarian husband, living in New Jersey, came into a modest windfall. They decided to spend the money taking their two children, Ian, almost nine, and Lucy, two-and-a-half, to England to see how closely they could pinpoint the scenes and sources of children’s books like Swallows and Amazons, The Wind in the Willows and Winnie the Pooh.

It makes a wonderful story of delight and discovery, and many readers of How the Heather Looks, which was published in 1965, have told her how they wished their families were as idyllic as hers’. The truth, however, was somewhat darker.

The crack

When the family returned to the U.S. after three months in England, Joan’s husband displayed symptoms of schizophrenia, a condition now known to be the result of chemical imbalances. Then when he came home from a mental institution, Lucy went into hospital with a brain tumour. For several years, as Joan struggled to write the book, one or the other was in hospital. Lucy died at seven, and in 1966, Joan and her husband divorced.

“The crack,” Joan told me, “was the death of my daughter. My life divides into life before and after Lucy died.”

The “before” period encompassed a loving childhood, her father an explorer in Alaska, her mother forever taking down the big red book of fairy tales within whose covers lay enchantment.

Her marriage seemed ideal — “We were well matched,” says Joan — and two lovely children followed.

Lucy was one of those special children. “Is Lucy famous?” Joan’s son asked one day.

“No, why?”

“Because when we go into a restaurant everyone stops eating to look at her.”

“She was like a bright summer’s day,” said Joan, the tears not far away. “We would call days like that ‘Lucy days’.”

Then, she said, ever the writer, “the plot took a sudden turn, and those hidden depths rose up to overwhelm us.”

Her life remained productive. She wrote children’s stories and reviewed children’s books for The New York Times.

Love requited

Then, on a trip to Toronto to see the famous Osborne Collection of children’s books, she was standing one night outside the Westbury Hotel in the rain when she got talking to a stranger. He was Alan Mercer, a copy editor with Maclean-Hunter; within two months they were married, and Joan moved to Toronto — into Alan’s apartment, where she still lives.

After 15 years together Alan, dying, told her one day that, “by dying I am putting you back to where you were (when we met).”

“You don’t understand,” she told him. “It was healing to be with you. You restored me.”

The Toronto years were anything but idle. She co-founded the famous Storytellers School of Toronto, became a Gestalt therapist, using fairy stories to plumb the subconscious and, for 10 years, led fascinating mid-winter tours in search of King Arthur’s Britain (a treat she has had to curtail because of a wonky knee).

Not surprisingly, Joan sees her life in terms of a story — a story she has lived. “It’s been my strength,” she told me. “Like my religion. I can pick myself up and keep going because of my sense of being in the cosmic story.”

She finds, perhaps as many of us do, that she can look back on “the arch of time” that was the 20th century — through her mother’s stories of her life before the First World War, to her mother’s comment one day on the elevated railway in New York as she pointed out a Depression-era soup kitchen saying, “Look at this, this is history.”

I caught up with Joan one day telling a story to an enthralled audience of adults and children at the Children’s Book Store in Toronto. With the wind howling outside the windows that gusty day, she transported us to a magic forest where a knight all in green challenged King Arthur to tell him what it is that women really want. The answer, arrived at after many adventures, was that what women want is to be whatever they choose to be.

Joan Bodger has arrived at that spot. “Three books out in a period of two years!” she exclaimed afterwards, still hardly believing her good luck. “It’s love requited.”