Wednesday, May 09, 2007

The Writings of Canadian author Grace Irwin

by Shirley W. Madany

The manuscript of "Compensation", Grace Irwin's latest published book, had lain forgotten in the attic for 75 years. When, in retirement, she had finished recording her six published novels for the Blind Mission she decided to take another look at it. "Compensation" had been her first attempt at writing a novel. It was rejected in 1927. Submitted again in 2002, it saw publication in 2003. This must be some kind of a record.

Prompted by the arrival of the film "Amazing Grace" to our neighborhood, I phoned Toronto to tell her about it. We hadn't heard from her for 2 years, so wondered if she was alive. To my great joy Grace answered the phone. We had delightful conversation and I learned that she was about to celebrate her 100th birthday at the Humberside Collegiate where she had taught for so many years.

Grace Irwin had a happy and fulfilling career as a High School English teacher. When she did start to write she gave us some very thoughtful novels. Two of them, written in the style of biographical fiction, were "Servant of Slaves", the life of John Newton, slave trader and hymn writer; and the life of Lord Shaftesbury in "The Seventh Earl". These were the fruit of months of research.

Years ago I discovered her then first novel "Least of All Saints" and reviewed it for the Winnipeg Free Press. It was to become a trilogy with "Andrew Connington" and "Contend with Horses", following after. Later I reviewed her "Three Lives in Mine", which was more of an autobiography.

Thus I read this latest unexpected book with the greatest pleasure. What a thrill to notice her youthful potential and to experience her skill again at portraying a place and time which you could almost feel and see. Most of Grace Irwin's books have this unusual quality of being so real you are sure they are true stories. Now, in "Compensation" we have some more historical fiction simply because of the time span between 1927 and 2003.

This delightful love story with an entrancing main character, Iris Dale, delivers a nostalgic memory picture of times gone by, when the lake district north of Toronto attracted the occasional tourist, while life in its tiny north wood villages was being left far behind the advances of the big city, Toronto. It was the era of road building and transition from horse and buggy to motor car. The era of early childhood deaths. That part of the story is all too real, remembering how my parents lost their first two baby girls. It adds an intense dimension to the simple name chosen for this book. As someone who owns all of her works I hope that this gem, which has come to us late in her life, will trigger a revival of all Grace Irwin books.

Borrowing from my review of "Three Lives in Mine" here is what I wrote:

In praise of "God's good men" Whether or not you have to relate to what you are reading is incidental. Grace Irwin's seventh book about three of God's good men is well worth reading.

Like a modern Jane Austen, she has captured almost a century of Torontonian social history. For the Christian, she has done even more. She has described a Christian environment which existed as living proof of the promise Paul made to the Galatians that the fruit of the Spirit would be "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. "Could this be how Toronto came to be known as "Toronto the Good"? Those attributes are to be found in abundance in Grace Irwin's description of her times.

As a devoted reader of her books it is impossible for me not to be prejudiced in her favour. Ever since I discovered her first book, Least of All Saints, and reviewed it for the Winnipeg Free Press, I have appreciated the skillful way in which she has recorded much of what is also my history. I refer to her Andrew Connington trilogy and her personal story, In Little Place.

I wonder how many Canadians are still required to memorize those lines from Tennyson's Ulysses: "I am a part of all that I have met; yet all experience is an arch wherethro' gleams that untravell'd world..." What a tonic to the imagination, I have been chanting that since High School days and find it popping up in more than one recent Canadian book like a trademark to an educational system of which we were justly proud.

Certainly, if you have read the vivid portrayal of the life and conversion of the slave trader/hymn writer John Newton in Miss Irwin's Servant of Slaves, and if you have been encouraged by what God can do for an entire country just by the faithfulness of one man like Lord Shaftesbury (The Seventh Earl), it will increase your interest in this new book. As usual, you will find your vocabulary enriched by a choice of words biased by a lifetime as a Latin and English teacher.

Grace Irwin's life has been full and rich. She takes issue with the prevailing wind of "self-fulfillment" for women. "I do not find my sense of personal worth in any or in the aggregate of my limited achievements. Rather it lies in the grateful realization that I have been privileged in varying degree to support, encourage, enable, cheer these men who have so immeasurably enriched me." She refers to her father, her brother John and her architect/preacher friend H.H.Kent.

There is no sign of weakness or wavering in this author. She writes with youthful vigour. We may not be able to turn the clock back, but our God has still the power to change individual lives and countries. One has to be careful when talking about "the good old days," or "when I was young", but surely in Three Lives in Mine, we catch a glimpse of Christian living which is historically accurate and refreshing to read.

With God's help and some ingenuity we ought to see if we can emulate the pattern of home life and standard of work ethic which is recorded in abundant detail in this book. Many of us can still relate to such a way of life and we're grateful to Grace Irwin for letting the world know that Christians did and do make a difference!