A Tale of Two Divas — St. Catharine’s Standard Mar 23, 2017

New book by biography writer

A Port Dalhousie woman who has written several biographies has a new book.

A Tale of Two Divas, by author and retired Brock English teacher Elspeth Cameron, tells the story of two Canadian singers who begin as soloists in church choirs but move on to more spectacular careers.

She describes the novel as a hybrid of fiction and non-fiction, and is set in Canada’s Edwardian West.

The career paths of its two female characters — Jean Forsyth and Edith Miller — detail an era of great change in the Canadian pioneer Prairie West.

Cameron is perhaps best known for her biographies on writer Hugh MacLennan and poet Irving Layton. She has also published a hybrid biography and memoir, called Aunt Winnie.

Her latest book completes her coverage of Canada’s regions.

From 1970 to 2010 she taught Canadian literature and Canadian studies at several universities including Brock, McGill and University of Toronto.

Her latest book was written in collaboration with Gail Kreutzer of Manitoba.

Elspeth Cameron, A Tale of Two Divas featured in The Hamilton Spectator

The power of suggestion

Jean Forsyth and Edith J. Miller seemed doomed to obscurity but for a willing biographer and a tenacious champion of promoting women

By Tiffany Mayer

Elspeth Cameron is open to suggestions.

In fact, the career of one of Canada’s most prolific biographers can be credited largely to others planting seeds of ideas that compelled much of her work.

Take writing biographies as the genre of choice for becoming a published author. The decision to write about other people’s lives happened during an epiphanic moment at an academic conference in 1974.

Then a young professor at Concordia University, Cameron saw an opening in the literary category when poet and critic Frank Davey told the crowd gathered before him that biography was missing in Canadian critical literature.

“I took him at his word and I said, ‘I would like to do that,'” Cameron recalled. “It’s not my idea. I’m very open to suggestions.”

Five years later, Cameron published her first book, Hugh MacLennan: A Writer’s Life and was nominated for a Governor General’s Award for her work. But even choosing MacLennan as the subject for her literary debut happened by way of capitulation.

Cameron had her heart set on writing about Canada’s other ink-stained statesman, Robertson Davies.

Problem was, Davies was in Toronto. Cameron was teaching in Montreal and MacLennan was nearing the end of his career at McGill University. Getting access to him would be easier.

Soon after A Writer’s Life was published, Irving Layton contacted Cameron and suggested she write about him. So she did. It was a proposition he regretted, she recalled as she sat in the sunlit living room of her cottage-like home in Port Dalhousie.

In an effort to paint a fulsome portrait of the Canadian poet, Cameron interviewed Layton’s three ex-wives and partner at the time for her book.

“Irving Layton got crazy mad at me,” she said.

When she was challenged by readers at talks she gave mid-career for not having documented lives of any women, Cameron devoted her next five volumes to them. She even turned her biographer’s eye inward and penned her own story for No Previous Experience: A Memoir of Love and Change.

Her latest homage to important — and often overlooked — Canadians doesn’t stray from the common theme that threads her career. A Tale of Two Divas: The Curious Adventures of Jean Forsyth and Edith J. Miller in Canada’s Edwardian West landed on bookstore shelves in February thanks to someone suggesting Cameron write it.

The idea came by way of an email from a woman named Gail Kreutzer in Winnipeg. Kreutzer, whom Cameron had never met, sat on the board of the Winnipeg Humane Society and to honour the organizations history, she wanted a book written about its founder Jean Forsyth.

It turns out Cameron is just as welcoming of persistence as she is of suggestions, however. Two years later, she finally dug into Kreutzer’s emails piling up in her inbox and the envelopes filled with information about Forsyth stacked in her living room, and starting piecing together the story of a woman who would be her next book.

Cameron had something resembling a manuscript nine months later when she flew to Winnipeg to finally meet Kreutzer, by then a friend. But throughout her research, another name kept turning up alongside Forsyth’s. It was Edith J. Miller.

Forsyth was Miller’s voice teacher in Winnipeg in 1894.

Their paths would continue to cross throughout their incredible careers. Cameron tells how each achieved success. She also brings their stories to life through dialogue, some of it inferred based on her research.

The book, which entertains as much as it informs, also provides insight into the lives of Western Canadian women at the time and their roles in society. Cameron describes it as a book of women’s history, social history and cultural history.

Special to the Hamilton Spectator.

View the article here : The Power of Suggestion, May 11, 2017


The Weekly Express News – A Tale of Two Divas

Unrelenting researcher: ESD employee sparks book idea

by Patricia Barrett

Evergreen School Division’s career development consultant turned a passion for research into an idea for a book about two Canadian singers who carved out major musical careers in the Canadian West at the turn of the 20th century.

Gail Kreutzer, who has been with the division for over 30 years, was a member of the Winnipeg Humane Society board when she came across a brief citation to the animal shelter’s founder in a book called Aunt Winnie, written by famed Canadian biographer Elspeth Cameron.

That sliver of information led Kreutzer down a three-year research path that ended in A Tale of Two Divas: the curious Adventures of Jean Forsyth and Edith J. Miller in Canada’s Edwardian West, which was released earlier this year with Cameron as writer and Kreutzer as primary researcher.

Although she works full time, Kreutzer spent countless evenings, weekends and holidays deeply immersed in the silent world of archives and libraries. She also purchased online subscriptions to historic newspaper and magazine collections.

She said she was unable to stop researching because the story she began to uncover — that the shelter’s founder was a celebrated singer — was “so intriguing.”

“I’d come home [from work] and I could’t stop doing it,” said Kreutzer, who does some teaching at Riverton Collegiate. “Then I’d go to bed and think, ‘I wish I could have found a lead on that,’ and your mind is going like crazy, and you think, ‘I never thought of this angle. Tomorrow I’m going to go and do that.’ It’s funny how you find these different angles … and it opens up a whole new path.”

Covering the period 1893 to about 1933, the book details the musical training and careers of Jean Forsyth, soprano and founder of the Winnipeg Humane Society, and Edith Miller, contralto and international singing star, both of whom started their careers in Manitoba church choirs.

The book takes the reader through the burgeoning music scene in Winnipeg and Edmonton and the fashionable entertainments – teas, musicales and balls – in which ladies of high society partook. The two singers began working together in 1894 when they were hired as vocal teachers for the newly established Winnipeg Conservatory of Music.

In some chapters, Cameron creates a compelling fictional narrative (based on factual documents Kreutzer obtained) of significant events in the singers’ lives. Her novelistic ingenuity brings the characters, their manners and their thoughts to life.

“It really gives you a picture of cultural life during that time,” said Kreutzer. “A lot of things have been written about Western Canada during that period of tim in the early years, but nothing has focused on the cultural day-t0-day life.”

Given Cameron’s extensive writing experience (biographies on Canadian literary and cultural icons), Kreutzer tasked her with the job of writing the book.

“I had said to her, ‘I think you should write another book,'” said Kreutzer. “I was trying to convince her to write this book. I kept sending her packages and packages of material because I just couldn’t believe all this stuff I was finding. I thought this woman’s [Forsyth] story deserves to be told.”

Cameron initially resisted. In the Acknowledgements at the back of the book, she reveals her reluctance to pursue the story. She wrote: “I emailed back a lukewarm response because I thought of Aunt Winnie as my last book.”

Kreutzer was undeterred.

“I kept sending her stuff because I thought if anybody could write this, it was her.”

Kreutzer herself is no stranger to the written word but had not tackled a book.

“I’ve done articles in local magazines like H2O and the Winnipeg Humane Society’s newsletter, and I did a tribute to Jean Forsyth on their website,” she said. “I also co-hosted a radio show on CJOB called All About Animals.”

In the face of Kreutzer’s persistence, and stacks of documents about Jean Forsyth that would arrive at her St. Catharine’s (Ont.) home, Cameron finally relented.

The two women developed a working relationship almost exclusively by email. As the documents continued to flow in, Cameron found a number of references to contralto Edith Miller and tasked Kreutzer with additional research. The way Cameron structured the book was impressive, said Kreutzer.

“She would take these snippets … put them in dated order and get a story out of it. How she put them together just blew me away; it gave me a better appreciation for her as a talented author.”

Kreutzer continued to dig up letters, concert reviews and photographs, all of which form the backbone of the book’s 52 chapters.

“I didn’t know what it’s like when you write a novel, but I know with this, it was an eye-opener as to how long – and I don’t mean long, painful – but it was three years of research and back and forth. Three solid years. One of those years was myself doing research even before she decided to take on the project.”

Kreutzer even braved endless reels of microfilm in the Legislative Library. If anyone has ever taken that on, he/she knows it’s almost like running a marathon.

“I would sit there for eight hours sometimes and I’d get nauseous after a while,” laughed Kreutzer.

Through her research, Kreutzer discovered a distinct evolution in the places where musical entertainment was traditionally offered.

“When Jean first moved to Winnipeg, she was recruited here by Grace Methodist church, and all the serious  music that was offered at that time was through a church. And you’ll see a transformation: it moved from church to hall eventually.”

Forsyth and Miller eventually tour together across Western Canada, and formed a company with two male singers. Forsyth then moved to Edmonton, where she founded a popular tea room. Miller found success as an opera singer at Covent Garden in London (England) and sang at a series of celebratory concerts marking the Coronation of George V in 1910. She eventually married a baronet and retired from singing.

If it hadn’t been for Kreutzer’s research zeal, the story of two remarkable, independent women establishing a musical niche in Canada’s West may not have been told.

In the Acknowledgements, Cameron wrote: “This book owes its existence to Gail Kreutzer.”

The Interlake Spectator

Gimli Woman Special Part in Historical Novel

What started off as a chance correspondents with one of her favourite authors, turned into a captivating non-fiction novel for one Gimli woman.

Evergreen School Division teacher Gail Kreutzer, and Elspeth Cameron, well-known Canadian historical biography recently published the book A Tale of Two Divas: The Curious Adventures of Jean Forsyth and Edith J. Miller in Canada’s Edwardian West. The book chronicles the life of two Canadian singers, their philanthropic activity and for one, her famous performance for the King of England.

“In my lifetime, I never thought i would be part of a published book, never mind doing a book with Elspeth. I’ve been a great admirer of her writing for many years,” Kreutzer said to the Interlake Spectator, Feb. 8.

Her journey started when she read Cameron’s book Aunt Winnie. In the book, she read a section that featured Forsyth, stating she could have been the founder of the Winnipeg Humane Society in 1893. Kreutzer, who had spent many years working with the organization, even serving on its board, was impressed by Forsyth and wanted to learn more about her.

“So I started doing some digging, and the more I dug, the more I found on Forsyth,” she said.

She wrote an email to Cameron, asking her to write a book on Forsyth, to which Cameron was initially hesitant.

Kreutzer researched about Forsyth anyway, amassing heaps of information on the little-known singer, then sending it to Cameron. Cameron slowly made her way to reading the material and was hooked.

“She had said she was not planning to do anymore book writing, but she was prepared to do this project,” Kreutzer explained. The pair spent months corresponding via email, with Kreutzer doing the research and Cameron piecing together a cohesive narrative.

“It was one of these things, that once I got into it, I was so fascinated by it. I was just so obsessed with it that I couldn’t quit researching,” she said. The two later added the story of Miller into the book, after finding just as much on her, as they did on Forsyth.

Cameron and Kreutzer met for the first time in 2015, after years of sharing their correspondents.

“It’s been three solid years of work for me doing research on this, but I have to say, I loved every minute of it,” Kreutzer said.

She said the story was special, because it was an accidental discovery.

“Nobody would have ever thought about doing this story, because you would never think to dig up all of these connections, but their story really deserves to be told and it would have never been told otherwise. They lived quite a fascinating life,” she said.

In the book’s acknowledgements, Cameron thanks Kreutzer for bringing the book to fruition.

“This book owes its existence to Gail Kreutzer,” it read, adding they remained friends after the book’s publication.

For Kreutzer, the entire experience was rewarding.

“To finally get a hard copy and to see it, it’s indescribable, I am just thrilled that I can see all my hardwork come to fruition,” she said.

View the full article here.