Allan Levine Has a Lot to Celebrate
"Coming of Age: A History of the Jewish People of Manitoba" wins three awards.
It’s been a great year for historian and author Allan Levine. The Winnipeg-based writer has won three awards – including a Canadian Jewish book Award and the McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award – in less than three months for his latest book, Coming of Age: A History of the Jewish People of Manitoba.
No stranger to history writing, Levine is an award-winning author of both non-fiction books and historical fiction. His titles include The Blood Libel and Fugitives of the Forest, a book that’s connected to the Hollywood movie Defiance. Shalom Life caught up with Levine to talk about Coming of Age and his upcoming project.
What do you find interesting about Jewish-Canadian history?
The perseverance and dedication of the first generation of immigrants. We often forget that one of the defining characteristics of the first Jewish immigrants to Canada was their poverty. Nonetheless, in one or two generations, they had created in Winnipeg, Toronto, Montreal and elsewhere a strong religious, cultural and diverse infrastructure and did so in an environment which was not always welcoming or tolerant. Without their sacrifices, today’s Jewish communities, and certainly the one in Manitoba, would not be as enriched as it is.
What drew you to write Coming of Age?
The project was the brainchild of the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada, which sponsored the book and enlisted me to write it. The last book on the community was written by Rabbi Arthur Chiel and published in 1961, and that was more academic in nature and more selective. He really did not deal with Winnipeg’s vibrant Yiddish left-wing and working class Jewish history, for example. The community, which is, I believe, fairly unique, given its relatively small population (it reached about 19,000 in 1961 today it is about 15,000) deserved a book which examined the institutions as well as the people.
How has the book been received in your community?
Very positively inside and outside of the community (it also won the McNally Robinson Book of the Year at the Manitoba Book Awards at the end of April, which was a first for me). Invariably many individuals in the Winnipeg Jewish community have questioned my choices of which individuals and events to highlight. But as I have tried to point out, Coming of Age was not meant to be an encyclopedia, but rather a book people would want to read. Hence I had to find interesting people through which the stories of the community’s ups and downs and development could be told. As I like to point out, however, with Coming of Age, most people turn first to the index!
Do you prefer writing non-fiction or historical mysteries?
Different experience. In some ways, the mystery writing allowed me to be more creative with the history, but it is difficult work to get dialogue, plot and character just right. I would admit to be more in my depth with non-fiction writing, including the enormous amount of research, which I think accounts for my success.
You’ve worked with award-winning journalist and author Peter C. Newman. What was that experience like?
Peter, who just turned 81 this week, is a good friend and mentor who I have learned a lot from. When I first met and worked for him back in 1983 on his Hudson’s Bay Company books, he was about my age now and probably more demanding. He has mellowed with age, as I’m sure he would admit. He has a wonderfully wry sense of humour and being around him does inspire me to keep at it--although I’m not certain that when I’m 81, I will still be working every day like he does. Maybe that’s the secret to being a Canadian icon, which he definitely is. He is a great storyteller and I am certain that my own storytelling skills have improved with his help.
Sam Klein has been featured in three of your historical mystery novels, including The Blood Libel. How did you come up with the character?
His name is based on my maternal grandfather, Sam Kliman, who operated a country general store in the town of Holland, Manitoba. And I sort of imagined him as my grandfather looked in old photographs. Other than that, as I conceived him Sam Klein was definitely not your average Jewish immigrant, although he did experience some of those identity pangs—how much of the old world to retain and where he belonged in the new—as many immigrants did. I have always liked researching and writing about the early twentieth century in North America when industrialization, urbanization and immigration dramatically impacted on society. It seemed a natural time period to set a historical mystery series and to bring out that feeling of crisis that gripped many cities whose landscape was changing.
A new edition of Fugitives of the Forest is now available. What’s different compared to the first edition?
The second edition of Fugitives of the Forest that came out in October 2008, and will be out in trade paper this July, was directly connected to the release of the movie Defiance (about Tuvia Bielski and his brothers). Apart from corrections and clarifications which were needed, I wrote a new introduction to deal with the new research and some of the contentious issues raised about the book and partisans after it was first published. This was mainly criticism that the Jewish oral testimony I used was suspect and that the Jewish partisans were not the innocent victims I portrayed them as. Anything to do with the Holocaust, and with motivations and actions of perpetrators and victims, is complex and has to be considered carefully, as do, for example, official partisan documents, composed during the war under pressure, in compliance with established military and bureaucratic policies, and frequently with zealous political and nationalistic fervor. Survivors want to share their painful stories with the world--never an easy task. They are rarely governed by ulterior motives, as are some historians, particularly those with a nationalist agenda. In my extensive experience in interviewing them, they do not blatantly lie or distort the past. If one of them saw a member of their family murdered by a Nazi or a hostile Ukrainian or Lithuanian, then that is what they witnessed.
Have you started working on a new book?
Yes, something a bit different. I have been working for about a year and half on a new single volume biography of William Lyon Mackenzie King, titled By the Hand of Destiny: Canada’s Greatest and Most Peculiar Prime Minister. It will be published by Douglas & McIntyre in the fall of 2011. There have been many books on King, of course, although the last biographies were multi-volume academic studies published more than forty years ago. My biography will be accessible and integrates King’s long career with his bizarre private life, including his interest in spiritualism, zany dreams and visions, and his over-the-top relationship with his three Irish terriers. Because King left an amazing diary--which he kept for 57 years and which runs to 30,000 pages-- it is possible to determine his views on just about anything and anyone. I last wrote about him in my book Scrum Wars (1993) that chronicled the relationship between Canadian prime ministers and the media, so it was good to get back to the subject and revisit the archives in Ottawa.