Upstairs Downstairs in a brash Winnipeg


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Welcome to Downton Abbey and Upstairs Downstairs with a Winnipeg twist.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 14/01/2012 (4084 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Welcome to Downton Abbey and Upstairs Downstairs with a Winnipeg twist.

Former Winnipeg journalist Sandi Krawchenko Altner has researched and written a wonderful Winnipeg-warts-and-all historical romance set mostly in the early 1900s. It’s a brash, two-faced Winnipeg, but still a recognizable one.

Reuben Volinsky, son of a Russian immigrant, has reinvented himself as Rupert Willows, Winnipeg construction magnate. He needs a residence that shouts power and position, and on the sudden death of its owner, he elbows his way to the front of the queue to buy Armstrong Point’s Ravenscraig, thanks to information gleaned (at a price) from Minnie Woods, the “Queen of the Harlots.”

Meanwhile, in the North End, Zev Zigman has disguised his Jewish roots to come to Winnipeg. Now two years later, in 1897, his wife and family have been able to join him. The newspapers refer to his neighbourhood as “the new Jerusalem,” although the residents, living in crowded shanties with unsanitary conditions, see it in a different light.

The two families stories intersect when Zev brings his niece Malka from London. Disguising her heritage, she is employed at Ravenscraig as Maisie, a housemaid. She is wise to reinvent herself, for Rupert’s strongly held opinion on immigration is, “What is the use of excluding the Chinaman when we freely admit the Russian Jew?”

Maisie shows herself to be clever, resilient and interested in medicine. She is aided in this pursuit when James, Rupert’s son, frustrated in his studies, throws his medical textbooks from an upstairs window and Maisie retrieves them. Romance follows.

Winnipeg at the start of the 20th century was a brawling, boisterous, booming place, and the challenges that went with that growth are studiously worked into the narrative. The battle (unsuccessful) to control prostitution, typhoid (Winnipeg once had the highest infant morality rate in North America), stock frauds, newspaper competition and city-threatening fires all put in an appearance and have their effect on the lives of the main characters.

Now living in Florida, Krawchenko Altner has done her homework and made good use of our lively history and reporting.

Unlike, say, Winnipegger Danny Schur’s musical Strike!, which concentrates on the workers, this story seems to devote more ink to the boorishly nouveau Willows family. But then they’re at the heart of the city’s changes and finance.

The Zigman family prospers, opening a successful restaurant, and we see the growing tensions as the secularism of the New World clashes with the traditions and values of the Old. And no novel set in the heart of the continent can avoid a weather reference. As Hannah, Zig’s wife, puts it. “Ha! Summer in Winnipeg. Then the air will be thick with mosquitoes and we’ll have mud up to our noses and people all around us will be dropping dead from typhoid, scarlet fever, consumption, and who knows what else. I can’t wait.”

Ravenscraig is a very accomplished debut effort. It splashes Winnipeg colours on a broader canvas than Allan Levine’s entertaining Sam Klein mysteries set around the same period, though it doesn’t have the literary ambitions of Margaret Sweatman’s debut novel Fox (set during the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919). Krawchenko Altner’s prose, lacking the introspection or literary flourishes found in Fox, is more pedestrian.

Naked self-interest seems to be the grounds for the anti-Semitism the novel describes, though why some in the same family seem to escape its caustic effects isn’t always clear.

And without giving the ending away — yes, the Titanic plays its part, just as it did in Winnipeg’s history — and there’s a suggestion of a possible volume 2 to continue the two family sagas into the Great War.

Winnipeg broadcaster Ron Robinson wishes he could have been a newsboy on Newspaper Row a century ago (but with today’s life expectancy).

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