About the Author

Katherine Govier

KATHERINE GOVIER’s most recent novel, The Ghost Brush, is about the daughter of the famous Japanese printmaker Hokusai. It was published in the United States as The Printmaker’s Daughter, and in translation in Romania, Spain, Quebec and Japan. Katherine’s novel Creation, about John James Audubon in Labrador, was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year in 2003. She won Canada's Marian Engel Award for a woman writer (1997) and the Toronto Book Award (1992). She has twice been shortlisted for Ontario’s Trillium prize. The author of twelve books, Katherine has been instrumental in establishing two innovative writing programs, Writers in Electronic Residence and The Shoe Project, which works to improve the written and spoken English of immigrant women. Katherine travels between Toronto and Canmore, Alberta, in the Rocky Mountains.

Web: www.govier.com

Facebook: KatherineGovierWrites

Twitter: @kmgovier

Books by this Author
Angel Walk

Chapter One

Christopher "Tyke" Ditchburn tiptoed past the piano draped with a Spanish shawl and over the spare handwoven rug, intending to switch on the lamp. Seated in the darkness in a Mission-style chair was his mother. Erect, she was just visible, staring fixedly into the winter garden. Corinne Ditchburn, the photographer. He saw her that way, as a woman with a name, a title even. He always had, even as a boy. At the sight of her, he was suffused with admiration, rage and the half-humorous in-dulgence that had replaced his long-ago hurt.

The lampshade, made of tiny gold glass beads, was from the island of Murano in the shallow sea basin off Venice. She had brought it home from the war; he didn't know the story. It hung over the long pine table, which had belonged to her mother, Eliza, and had been fashioned in Parry Sound by her grandfather. The carpenter grandfather, a fearsome bearded Irish Protestant, had also left a tool chest where Cory's papers and letters were jealously guarded against her son's intrusion. On the wall, framed and covered by glass, was a woman's kimono exquisitely patterned with lilies, another war me-mento the meaning of which he did not understand. The house, the garden, her few treasures would be his one day, although until now he'd had little hope she would divulge the private self they sheltered.

"Tyke?" Her voice was deep and dry. "I know you're there. No use trying to surprise me."

He reached the lamp and pulled the chain; a cone of amber light fell over her. Her hair waved back from her forehead thick and white, short as a man's; her long neck was lined and her hands lay motionless in her lap. Her eyes were grey and steady, though her sight was blurred now - old age had done that. Her sharp tongue, however, was unchecked.

"I wasn't." He'd never succeeded in putting anything past her, though she never stopped suspecting him.

Getting her agreement to have the Retrospective go ahead was a minor miracle. For years, she claimed that any summing up of her life's work would mean she'd never work again. "They'll think they've nailed me down." After she stopped saying it would kill her, after she admitted that in fact she wanted an exhibition, she began to cavil about who would do it. She had refused poor Professors Sullivan and Moore, though they had published critical essays about her work for the last decade, and were responsible, in part, for her current high standing. "None of those brown-nosing scoundrels," she said, including all academics and most art dealers, save her own ever-loyal Miss del Zotto.

Then a certain Maida Kirk, the Curator of Pho-tography at the Royal Ontario Museum of Art, put in a request and got lucky.

"She's agreed. I guess your timing is right," Tyke had said bemusedly over the telephone. "She keeps promising to die."

Maida Kirk had nipped her victory shout at its root. She was a gentle soul, Tyke knew, pot-bellied and un-pretty, but when she spoke he heard a new propri-
etorial tone. "Now that she's agreed, she can't go and die on us." Not on the Royal Ontario Museum of Art. He began to see his mother's point.

"The catch is..." said Tyke.

The catch was that Miss Ditchburn insisted on working with him, her son. "Oh. Well," said Maida Kirk, pondering.

"Perhaps she thinks I'll be easy to handle," he apologized. As he had proven to be for most of his fifty-five years.

"I wasn't trying to sneak up," he repeated, treading more noisily on the hardwood and putting out a hand. The old woman, lean and hard and forbidding in every way, even in the line of her arm as she reached for him, seemed to scour him with her unclouded grey eyes. He never knew if she really saw him.

So here it is, Cory thought. At the end of her life her son had come to record her confession. And in cahoots with the Flounder. Amazing how that curator Maida whatsit looks like a flounder. Flounder: Now there's a fish for you. A bottom feeder, normal until it's adult and then all of a sudden it turns over and starts swimming on its side along the bottom. It goes flat as paper and one eye even migrates so both can look. She ate one alive in Yokohama. It was impaled on spikes at either end and the sides sliced. So tender with green mustard.

She smiled inadvertently. If she could stomach a live flounder, she could stomach anything. Now all she had to stomach was herself, since she'd decided to do this thing. She had refused for a long time. She said no whenever they were interested in her because of Albert Bloom. When all they wanted was pictures of war, she said no, because that was fifty years ago and it wasn't what she did now. But this time she said yes. Vanity wins out in the end. Vanity and the need to —

She sought the words. To justify herself. No. Words were not her medium. Not justify. Not explain. See. The need to see it all, one more time.

figure 1
Photographer unknown
Corinne Ditchburn
Parry Sound, Ontario, taken on the North Road
in front of the elementary school,
between 1935 and 1938
Collection of Christopher Ditchburn, Toronto

Corinne Ditchburn as a young woman teaching school is rendered here by a friend? colleague? relative? Only a narrow track, the square schoolhouse and a few clapboard houses form a background. Squinting in the sun, burdened with an armload of primers, she is less than willing to be captured on film. Nor does she appear to be one of those teachers on whose skirts the children hang; she has a cool, assessing eye, and a tilt of her head that indicates she is detained here for only the briefest of moments. She is speaking, her mouth in motion. Given her subsequent career, one might be tempted to interpret her words as cautionary: Is she telling the photographer how to compose the shot? Her hair is cropped and lifted by the wind, her face open and boyish, her expression ready.

close this panel

to Land
Just suppose.

That it is a bright, cold May morning in the year 1833, and two men alight from the stagecoach in a little town on the Maine seacoast.

They are father and son, judging by their flowing chestnut locks and aquiline features, by their matching one-handed swoop off the high step. The older man slings his gun over the shoulder of his fringed jacket; he must be a frontiersman, a hunter. But he has a certain vibrancy, as if his whole body were a violin freshly strung, and his deep, gentle eyes take everything in. The son, of more solid flesh, has a fine-looking pointer at his heels.

They send their luggage on and climb to a vantage point on the granite rocks of Eastport. There is birdsong: the Cardinal’s whistle, the low warble of the Snow Bunting, the trill of the Pine Warbler. Side by side they look over Passamaquoddy Bay. Chunks of ice still float in the harbour among the muffin-shaped islands. They seem to listen to the air, to the wind; they scan the hills with eagle eyes, as if they might coax the spirits of the place out of hiding. At last, the father gestures below. They set off walking toward the harbour.

The schooner Ripley out of Baltimore is not there, but it will arrive any day, says the dray man they accost on the wharf. A certain gentleman has hired it for the season. He plans to sail west and north, around the tip of Nova Scotia, through the Cape of Canso and up into the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and from there up the wild north shore of Labrador where only the fishing boats go. He is a famous gentleman. That is to say the dray man himself has not heard of him, but the newspapers write about him.

What do they say, these newspapers? asks the older man.

Ah, they say that he is a great American and that we ought to be proud. He is a painter of birds. He is making a giant book that will have in it every bird in our land.

But that gentleman is me! exclaims the newcomer, and the three slap their knees and laugh.

* * * * *

The travellers have come a month ahead of time. There is so much to do. The schooner, when it arrives, must be fitted with a wooden floor in the hold and a table nailed down for the artist to do his work. They find the captain.

Emery -- spry, greying, moustached -- invites them into his clapboard house at the edge of town. From the parlour he can look over the harbour. With the brass spyglass that sits on the mantle, he scans the port. He has been on the seas most of his life and was once captured by Spanish pirates off Puerto Rico. He eats tobacco as another man might eat a handful of nuts. He will hire the crew. There is a pilot from Newfoundland he knows, and a local boy, Coolidge, good on the water.

In the market, father and son and the three young gentlemen who have joined them from Boston buy oilskin jackets and trousers and white woollen toques with an oilskin awning that hangs down the back to keep the rain from sliding down their necks. They cavort in their outfits and flirt with the ladies who sell knitted goods. By the time a week has passed, they have charmed nearly everyone in town.

The gentlemen roar with laughter over their dinners in the public house. The artist has forsworn grog and snuff, but it does nothing to diminish his fun. He pulls out his flute and plays an air; his son plays fiddle, and the young gentlemen all sing and pull the barmaids from behind the counter to waltz around the room. Sometimes the artist takes out a piece of paper from his waistcoat and scribbles figures: victualled for five months, $350 each month. He checks his multiplication. He writes, potatoes, rice, beans, beef, pork, butter, cheese. Other times he falls silent and gazes, abstracted, at a wall. He goes to the harbour, under the moonlight, and looks to see if the ice is all gone.

His name – the name the world knows, two centuries later -- is John James Audubon. He is here, with his great hopes and his desires and his premonitions of doom, preparing for his mid-life voyage. He is halfway through his masterpiece: a catalogue of every bird in North America, represented the same size as in life, and observed by him in nature. It has taken seven years thus far, and will take him six more to finish. He has done this without patrons, selling subscriptions to the book himself, collecting the dues, finding birds in the wild and sending his paintings across the sea to London to be engraved and printed, and then hand-painted.

The great man is as generous with his words as he is with his colours. He tells his stories in many places and in many different ways. He will leave, aside from his great book of pictures and the volumes of words that accompany it, his journals, and many letters.

In fact, in a life so well documented, these next few months form a rare gap. It is as if the dark cloud and fog he sails into transcends mere weather and becomes a state of mind. As if Labrador itself (or its weather) swallows the story. Strange.

Is it because he goes north and off the map?

Because he leaves the sacred ground of his own country and journeys to the least known part of the little-known continent?

Or is it because something happened there, an adventure so grisly the artist had no words to describe it? That he wrote about it and afterwards had second thoughts and destroyed his words?

Or -- here we get to the nub of it -- is there another reason, a reason to do with his human attachments? Those he loves and especially those who love him. With desire, possession, betrayal, the women and the children he leaves on shore? A reason rising out of old passions or new intimations? Has what happened on this voyage been ripped from the record because someone did not want history to know?

We do know, sitting as we do in their future, that the great man’s son, young Johnny, the one so quick to learn the masts and ropes from the Yankee sailors, will have a wife a few years hence and that this wife will have a child. And that eventually, when the artist and his wife, and all their children are dead, this granddaughter, Maria, will come into possession of his letters and diaries. She will appoint herself keeper of secrets and protector of reputations. And what she reads about her famous grandfather’s life, and particularly this summer of 1833, will displease her. She will excise huge portions of the journals. She will publish the bowdlerized version and destroy the original. Letters will be lost, burned, turned into dust.

close this panel
Half for You and Half for Me

Half for You and Half for Me

Best-loved Nursery Rhymes and the Stories Behind Them
More Info
Hearts of Flame

Hearts of Flame

tagged :
More Info

Katherine Govier Three-Book Bundle

Fables of Brunswick Ave., Three Views of Crystal Water, and The Ghost Brush -
tagged :
More Info
Random Descent

Chapter One

The photograph in its oval frame lies with the old albums in the years-long darkness of an old wooden trunk in the basement. When Jennifer lifts the curved and creaking lid, the face of the old woman under glass takes the light like a yellowed, all-seeing eye. You could tell me, Jennifer says to the eye.

Her great-great-great-grandmother is called Sub-mitta. In her mind it is 1877 and she is starting her task, needlepointing the davenport that would be her monument. Today she would be one hundred and sixty-nine years old. She was the beginning, the rock. She gave away nothing: she knew it all before there were any secrets. Now and then she is tempted to answer the call, to step out and shake off her dust. Her cap lifts with the vines so the hard skull of earth is exposed in the winds preceding winter, her breast rises in the circles of light thrown by the lamp shade, or her needle catches the sun from a park bench in the late afternoon. But what would be the use? she thinks, and minds her own business. Jennifer closes the lid. In the privacy of her trunk, Submitta broods.

Here I am, so old and no one to take care of me. That man Prior took me and rubbed his whiskers all over me and then he died, the fool. It has been so long she can't remember what he was like, except for the facial hair. Submitta jabs her needle into the frame on her knees and purses her lips. Black ribbons like a dog's ears hang down from the tips of her black tulle bonnet and lie flat on the slab of her bosom. Her mouth has disapproved of so much in its time it has retreated into the parentheses of her cheeks. I'll tell you something, she an-nounces to her daughter who is never there to hear, you can have your stock dealer and his big house. It'll come to no good. I remember how he began. He was a huckster. He went from town to town and sold things from two sides of a wagon.

Submitta had lived to see the bad stock of Randall Oliver become part of her family. She had lived to see her daughter in her coffin, an artillery of buttons up her breast. There had been lace against her throat and the tiny curls of fur from baby lambs on the yoke of her dress and a cross on a chain right under her chin. There were alabaster hollows under her cheek bones where she'd sucked in air at her premature death. Poor Submitta had begun to fear that she would outlive her entire family. It was at the age of seventy that she undertook to cover with needlepoint the four-seater davenport in the parlour. It was ambitious, but God never loved an idle woman. If the truth were known, she'd never felt better. She dared Him to take her in the middle of a rose.

The roses were her own idea. Her eyes grew sharper after the first five years of the work, and she became daring. Innovative. She gave up the slender vine, where one rose lay pale behind the next; now blooms grew on a thick, knotted tree. They were large as cabbages and crowded against one another. They turned into the faces of babies, capped in petals. Submitta's remaining children thought she'd gone foolish.

But it wasn't madness. This is age, thought Sub-mitta, this is power. Was it like this for everyone who lived long enough? She was inventing people. She needlepointed the faces of her descendants. First a someday-to-be-born great-granddaughter, Constance. Beside her a boy with blond curls and after him another blond boy, smaller, with an adult's face. At the top of the tree, where a branch forked, she made the twins. And there were others, scattered in the leaves, whose lineage she didn't even try to track.

It took twelve years. By the time she'd finished, Submitta had lost interest in her descendants. But she was proud of her work. She bequeathed the davenport to succeeding generations, the whole lot of silly women the likes of which her grandsons married. She imagined them coveting the thing and keeping it, cleaning and dusting it, airing it, sending it by rail, carting it forever from parlour to attic, afraid to throw it out. Submitta threw back her big head in its scratchy cap with the doleful ribbons and let loose a horse laugh. It hurt of course, because she was a little stiff, but that didn't matter. When she stopped laughing she wiped her eyes with a lace handkerchief. A family is like a fistful of water. The more you try to hold, the less you have, she thought. And yet, without my hand and his, clutching, without the stream running between our fingers back into the sea, what would life become?

When the twins were nine years old their father Oliver woke them in the middle of the night, wrapped the blankets around them, and took them out on the sun-porch roof. Even this far north, at Edmonton, it would pass over, that autumn, 1957.

See it? He leaned over Jennifer's head and held up her chin. See that light moving back, look, straight over the slanted roof, over the tree, right...there. And his finger would obliterate worlds as it pointed.

Jennifer's head was full of dreams, dreams where the house was burning down and she had to get her ballet pictures out, dreams where she was in an army and had to hide from the enemy, dreams where she had gone to school with her apron on and everyone was laughing at her. She could not see Sputnik. She could see a blackness curving over her, like the inside of an umbrella. She looked up and it was like staring into a snowstorm, but the snow was falling upward into nowhere, away from here. Jason said he could see Sputnik, but she knew he was lying.

close this panel
The Ghost Brush

The Ghost Brush

also available: eBook
tagged : literary
More Info
The Immaculate Conception Photography Gallery

The Immaculate Conception Baby Shower

When Sarah Stafford’s engagement to Chip Cunningham was called off, Sarah showed unnatural spunk and announced that she was going to Dawson City to work as a can-can dancer at Diamond Tooth Gertie’s.

Pearl Stafford was aghast.

“You can't possibly. Way up there? In a place like that the only reason they even have women is to serve men’s pleasure.” Her voice was gravelly and her throat tendons twitched.

“You've never even been there, Mother.”

Sarah hadn't either, not yet, but she was in a hurry to go. She was packing her dance leotards and the large rubber boots that had been recommended, because spring came late and the snow was still melting in mid-May. Sarah’s was one of those Calgary families with a ranch south of town where the Royal Family made stop offs whenever any of them were in the vicinity, a seat on the Stampede Board, and a barn full of cutting horses. Sarah was not horsy. Furthermore, on June 21 her older sister Janet would marry Norm Grisdale. With her own wedding no longer in the offing, Sarah did not wish to attend. Not that she was jealous: Norm was a man of no particular distinction; in fact, the Judge had asked him in jest if he wanted to change his last name to Stafford.


In Dawson Sarah met a placer miner named Pete Gilhooley. His family had its stake up in the hills half
an hour’s drive east. He was brown-skinned and muscular with a sharp nose, high cheekbones and level, peat-brown eyes. Diagonally across his forehead fell a lock of straight hair, which he threw off by tossing his head. Pete had grown up riding bareback over the moss and rocks, and did school by correspondence until he was fifteen, when he was sent out to Vancouver. But he never liked the south, and when his dad died he came back to take over the mine. It was still a one-man operation. Pete dug and sifted for gold all summer and in fall he flew out with the nuggets. It gave him enough money to spend the darkest part of the winter in Hawaii.

The ice had just broken up when Sarah arrived. No one slept – they'd slept through the darkness of October through May – least of all the lovers. Sarah and Pete made love in the sunlit midnights all summer long; by August Chip Cunningham was nothing but a blip on the screen. The tourists decamped Dawson and in September Sarah brought Pete down to Priddis. Janet, who'd made a swift journey from bride to matron, and Norm came for Sunday brunch to meet Sarah’s boyfriend. Pearl Stafford made a steak and kidney pie.

The pastry steaming on her plate, Pearl pushed her elbows out of their silk swathing and up on the table. “So, Peter, tell me, who are your people?”

Sarah had taken Pete out the day before to get him a pale blue button-down shirt and a pair of grey flannels; he balked at the blazer and had rolled up his shirt-sleeves.

“They've been in Dawson since the nineties,” said Pete in his soft voice. “I don't think you'd know them. My mother was Milly –”

“I can't hear what he is saying, can you?” trumpeted the Judge, who suffered a selective deafness. Pearl smiled in a glacial way at Pete. Perhaps she was thinking of his pleasure, to which she imagined the entire female population of Dawson was dedicated.

“Now exactly where is the Yukon? I could never quite make out. West of here, or straight overhead, what do they say in Peter Pan? ‘Straight on ’till morning?’ Do you know the Woodwards? The Siftons? Dear Effie is so sweet. The last time I was in Palm Springs she leant me her car and driver – Ernest, isn't that his name? – for the entire day.”

“You can't take mother seriously,” Sarah whispered when she sneaked into the guest room to visit Pete. She advised him to make a joke of it. “I don't know the Siftons but Ernest is a good guy,” would have done, for in-stance. But Pete was not to be patronized. Love lost its sweetness in the longer dark of southern Alberta. Two more days and they had a violent quarrel under Pearl’s smiling eyes. “You're somebody else down here,” said Pete. “It’s like I don't even know you.” The visit was a failure. Pete withdrew to the north alone and Sarah betrayed not a whisper of pain.

“Sarah is such a wit,” her brother Michael said after. “She went out and found herself an actual gold digger.” It was a good line, and so often repeated that eventually Sarah herself began to use it.


When Sarah Stafford was approaching forty, and still unmarried, Pearl fretted. A husband was no longer the issue. The issue was issue. At this point marriage was too long and too unreliable a route. In the sitting room Pearl laid down her copy of Woman’s Journal, airmailed from England.

“You know you don't have to forgo the greatest of life’s joys, just because You're not married,” she said to her daughter’s sturdy profile.

Sarah continued to look out the window. She was a lawyer in the family firm. She was heavier, her can-can days long over. Her profile sat well at a board table. Her hair was twisted into an elegant but tight knot at the nape of her neck. Her cheek reflected the cool spring light on melting snow. Men had dared to woo her but none had succeeded. From time to time people brought up that dreadful Pete Gilhooley. Something in that incident troubled Pearl. She tumbled it in her mind, as if she could unlock it, learn a secret about Sarah. But it produced nothing and she tossed it aside.

close this panel
The Printmaker's Daughter

The Printmaker's Daughter

A Novel
also available: eBook
tagged :
More Info
The Truth Teller


"Ladies and gentlemen. We have inherited a vision.”

Dr. Laird’s voice resounded like the clapper of a bell, like the first chords of a hymn. Hearts rose to its beat. Backs straightened, chins lifted. Everyone knew what was to come. He always began that way. And his audience always sat on folding chairs, no less rapt for the discomfort or the repetition, which was anticipated, and annual. It was a glorious fall day. When was it not a glorious day for the Manor’s commencement exercises?

October was perhaps a strange time for a commencement. School had been over for months; results were in; these students seated on stage were already history, off at universities across the country. But Commencement had always been on the third of October. To “commence” was not only to graduate, but to begin, and all beginnings at the Manor led back to the day Dr. Dugald Laird met Miss Francesca Morrow, his wife, Vice-Principal and Headmistress. Fifty years ago today fate caused their paths to cross right here on Taddle Creek Drive; they fell both in love and into eudaimonía, the state of being happy following their demons, in running the Manor School for Classical Studies in an unsuspecting Toronto.

As if to catch the glory, the giant Norway maple dominating the terraced lawn had leaves of gold worthy of Byzantium. So thought Amelia, general factotum of the school, seated in the second row. Weeks ago, its big, waxy, five-point paws had begun to dazzle and twist in the light winds of early autumn; now one by one the thin red stems snapped from the branches, each leaf taking a zigzag, fitful journey to the ground. The palm-sized gilt was piled up around the tree’s enormous base. Gold above, gold below: it was as if, somewhere between sky and ground, there was the still, mirroring surface of an invisible lake.

Yes, as Amelia knew, a glimmer of prehistoric water did lie at the foot of the lawn, for the Manor sat atop the Escarpment, that ragged, ten-metre cliff marking the shore of the once-great Lake Iroquois. Many millennia ago the lake shrank southward leaving the sloping flatlands, which had been its bottom, traversed with lush, deep ravines and shallow creeks. The natives grew rice on the shore, and dried their fish. When the British sailed up they decided to build a fort at the mouth of a creek, the one with a bend in its path. This creek came by the name of Taddle, some say, from the Tattle family, which homesteaded nearby. Others claim the name referred to the tadpoles inhabiting the water, still others that the name was an imitation of the sound of water running over rocks. Or it could have been a variant of “tattle,” a reference to the gossip exchanged on its banks.

No matter: at its mouth were the beginnings of a great city.

The sloping expanse between water and high ground began to fill with farms and wagons, with people and taverns. Amelia liked to picture it: the fields first ploughed and then paved; two hundred years passing until the people numbered two million, two and a half, plying trades from stock-trading to carpet-cleaning; the space clogged with factories, homes, a gothic pink-stone parliament, a glassed-in shopping mall and a streaming network of roads to carry those people back and forth. There were bank towers forty storeys high and ugly parking lots, but still there could be found gardens chock with roses and, in the deep ravines, vestiges of wilderness, foxes and even coyote. The city spread uphill unchecked, and along the banks of Taddle Creek were hospitals and museums and a university. The Taddle was buried as the clutter of untidy streets climbed to the escarpment, that old lake’s lip. But there, here, thought Amelia, above the cliff, at the headwaters of the creek, the city stopped. Was forced by both landscape and human foresight to turn aside. That seemingly unstoppable growth made a detour, leaving untouched this quiet enclave with its circle of homes, its huge old trees and its atmosphere of genteel withdrawal. Within that circle the Manor was the prettiest house, its stuccoed walls overgrown with creepers, its dormers snug with casement windows and the sloping roof rising in two levels to flow elegantly into the contours of the hill.

Proud that the onrush of time might be slowed for even a breath, Amelia straightened her spine. Under the metallic slant of the October sun, students and parents listened with hands folded. Copies of Renaissance paintings flapped in the light breeze on the divider where they were displayed. Skirted martial artists with medieval bows bobbed on their toes on the side stairs, warming their tendons. Miranda and Prospero yawned and rolled their necks to prepare for their scene. And the old man waxed on. It hardly mattered what he said. He had said it last year and the year before and he would say it again next year. Though rapt, his audience was not listening to his words. It was listening instead to his heart; it was basking in his fervour, magnified as usual by the reverence of his wife, who gazed steadily at her husband, a small smile playing on her lips.

close this panel
Show editions
close this panel

User Activity

more >
Contacting facebook
Please wait...