West Kildonan author wins national literary award


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This article was published 28/10/2022 (217 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.




Harriet Zaidman, 70, recently won the Geoffrey Bilson Award for Historical Fiction for Young People for her novel Second Chances.

A West Kildonan author has gained national attention for her recent novel that hopes to capture young readers’ imaginations while telling a story in which they can see themselves and their city.

Harriet Zaidman, 70, travelled to Toronto at the end of September to accept the Geoffrey Bilson Award for Historical Fiction for Young People for her novel Second Chances.

Zaidman said she is humbled and honoured to receive this accolade.

“I was up against four other very good books,” Zaidman said, adding that a couple of those authors were seasoned.

Though Zaidman’s career as a teacher librarian in the Louis Riel School Division surrounded her with children’s literature, it wasn’t until about two decades ago that she took her passion for writing in a new direction.

With several stories floating around her mind, half-written and waiting to be developed, Zaidman made her mission to bring them earthside. She got to work. She joined a writing group and took writing courses.

She released her first novel City on Strike in 2019 — 100 years after the Winnipeg general strike.

Like City on Strike, Zaidman’s most recent work uses a fictionalized narrative to tell a story that’s uniquely Winnipeg. Second Chances follows 13-year-old North End resident Dale Melnyk as he battles polio.

Zaidman drew inspiration to write about polio based on stories told to her by a friend whose father was Dr. Percy Barsky, a notable North End pediatrician who survived the disease.

In the novel, the young Dale becomes a patient in the King George Hospital, a facility that was demolished in 1999 to make way for a new Riverview Health Centre building. Dale’s hospitalization aligned with a 1953 polio outbreak in Manitoba — one of the most severe in Canadian history.

As Dale fights for survival, he meets a fellow patient named Charlene with whom he forms a deep bond. Charlene is a young Métis girl whose family lives in Rooster Town. On top of battling polio, Charlene is bearing the weight of her family’s looming eviction from their home.

“She’s also dealing with racism within the hospital community,” Zaidman said, adding that she dug up newspaper articles written at the time to learn about the prejudice against residents of Rooster Town.

The heart of the novel revolves around Dale as he’s forced to find out who he wants to be. He must find his way amid the attitudes of the time, be it racism or misinformation about the polio vaccine. The book’s parallels with the current pandemic are a coincidence, Zaidman said.

Though the characters are fictional, extensive research informed Zaidman’s writing. To build the narrative, the author poured through written historical accounts from the decade and drew from the memories of people who lived through the era.

“It all goes according to the way Winnipeg was in the 1950s,” Zaidman said, adding that she found out everything from the city’s streetcar map to the price of renting a home telephone. “I wanted to make (the novel) an accurate situation kids could identify with it intellectually and physically.”

Second Chances is available for purchase at McNally Robinson Booksellers and other local vendors, as well as online through Amazon.

Katlyn Streilein

Katlyn Streilein
Community Journalist

Katlyn Streilein was a reporter/photographer for the Free Press Community Review.

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