The Nellie McCliung Foundation is looking for female Manitoba trailblazers in advance of the province's 150 anniversary — and they want to hear from you. Nominate a trailblazer and share her story about show she made the province great at wfp.to/trailblazers
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This article was published 16/12/2019 (892 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
In the literary world, Adele Wiseman was a trailblazer for her ability to tell the stories of Jews in Winnipeg and Canada: their lives, their sacrifices, their humour and their tragedies.
She enjoyed great success and suffered great disappointment, but her commitment to be the storyteller for her community made her one of the most respected female writers to hail from the North End in the 20th century.
Wiseman was born in 1928, and grew up on Burrows Avenue. Her parents were Jewish immigrants from Ukraine and Poland. The Jewish Women’s Archive says in the multi-ethnic and deeply prejudiced Winnipeg of Wiseman’s youth, "the future author found that admitting to being Jewish turned her ‘into an instant monster’ in the eyes of other children," and so, for her, "solace was to be found in the family and in the world of books."
It was on Burrows Avenue that Wiseman met and formed a lifelong friendship with writer Margaret Laurence.
Laurence, a newlywed, had moved in across the street from Wiseman, and the two women, both in their early 20s, shared their literary hopes and dreams.
Wiseman’s parents came to Canada with little, but all of their children attended university; her brother, Morris; her sister, Miriam, who became a professor of chemistry; and her other brother, Harry, a professor of engineering. However, Wiseman always knew she would be a writer. She attended the University of Manitoba, graduating in 1949 with a bachelor of arts in psychology and English literature.
Laurence helped Wiseman secure employment in England as a social worker, and it was at that time her first novel, The Sacrifice (for which she won the Governor General’s Award for fiction), was published in 1956. The novel was remarkable in that it was one of the first written in English to deal with the Holocaust. Its themes expressed a harsh critique of Jewish theology.
Freda Zipursy’s master’s thesis on Wiseman’s work outlines the literary press’s response to her first novel: "How proud Miss Wiseman’s family must be of her and how grateful we should all be to this gifted and sensitive writer for having glorified our city and country with a really good book," was one of the reviews in the Winnipeg Free Press; the Winnipeg Tribune called The Sacrifice "the best novel ever written by a Canadian."
However, those looking for another novel to quickly follow were sorely disappointed. Wiseman left England and travelled, teaching in Rome, going to China to do research for a non-fiction book, returning to Winnipeg and then moving to Montreal in 1964, where she taught at MacDonald College and Sir George Williams University.
Eighteen years later, her second novel, Crackpot, came out — and landed with a thud.
Proving that trailblazers are important not just for their successes, but for those times when the world just doesn’t seem to be on their side, Crackpot was rejected close to 50 times before Laurence stepped in to push for its publication. The reviews were muted and, unlike The Sacrifice, it received limited international attention.
Wiseman was disappointed by the cold reception Crackpot received both within the literary and the Jewish community. She held hopes it would eventually be accepted, feeling it was avant-garde, written ahead of its time. (In 1984, writer Michael Greenstein wrote a reassessment of Crackpot, considering it a work that was both feminist and post-colonial.)
Wiseman went beyond the novel, writing two plays: The Lovebound and Testimonial Dinner. She also produced two children’s books: Kenji and the Cricket in 1988, and Puccini and the Prowlers in 1992. She had three works of non-fiction (Old Woman at Play, 1978, examined her mother’s life as a doll maker).
The friendship between Wiseman and Laurence is memorialized in Selected Letters of Margaret Laurence and Adele Wiseman (1997).
Wiseman died in 1992, but her voice remains forever etched in Winnipeg’s history — the voice of the North End Jew, with a message about the Holocaust for Canadians. A trailblazer slightly ahead of her time, who held friendships with other women who also told stories.
Shannon Sampert is a retired political scientist and runs the communications consulting company Media Diva. She is working with the Nellie McClung Foundation on the 150 Women Trailblazers Awards. Nominate a trailblazer at wfp.to/trailblazers.