06/03/2015
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Far Away Hills - author interview with Jean Debney

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We talk to author Jean Debney about how her ancestors journeyed from a poverty-stricken life in Glasgow to make a new life in rural Canada.

Jean is the author of 'Far Away Hills', a book which tells the story of her family's struggle to establish themselves as Scottish emigrants to Canada at the turn of the twentieth century. We talked to Jean about the story behind the book.

HOW DID YOU COME TO LEARN OF THESE FAMILY STORIES?

My mother never kept a diary as such. She came from the Irish/Scottish tradition of keeping the stories alive, by handing them down mother to daughter, generation to generation.  She relayed stories to me that had been passed down as many as five generations. As such, her own story she treated in exactly the same way, and I was told this story again and again throughout my childhood into my teens.

The narrative tradition of telling stories is dying out with the advent of social media and technology.  Everyone expects instant information at the click of a button and this has led to the inability to sit and listen patiently, and those who could tell the stories are passing never having handed down their tales.

WHAT WOULD YOUR MOTHER'S CHILDHOOD HAVE BEEN LIKE?

I know a great deal about my mother’s childhood in Scotland, again as a result of her diligence to re-tell her tale. This will form the second book of the trilogy after 'Far Away Hills'. I have many stories of Dunoon and her high Catholic grandparents, of attending St Muns and the local church.  She would tell me of Miss O’Grady her school mistress, who was so well paid she was able to take three cruises a year, and of agonizing over the subject of her next confession, not sure what heinous crime would merit making a confession. 

My mother adored her uncle James and aunt Mary, who would tell her how beautiful her own mother had been. She found her grandfather Peter McBride very austere and intimidating and her grandmother Bridge, although small, very strong and dictatorial.  After that time, her education continued at a convent in Glasgow until finding herself orphaned for the second time at the age of 14 in 1933.

WHY DID THE FAMILY DECIDE TO EMIGRATE?

In the book, my grandfather had very little choice but to take passage. Work was scarce and he wanted better for his family, who had only known struggle since he had married Sarah (Sal). He had no experience farming and no knowledge of Canada, to have taken his wife and two small children into that fierce wilderness would have been unthinkable.  I do not think he ever believed that they would be apart for so many years, but fate and World War One intervened, no commercial shipping could cross the Atlantic. Until the war ended the forced parting was inevitable.

For me when these stories were re-told to me as a young adult I began to doubt some of the fantastical claims made; tales the Sioux Indians and the moccasins, her existence in a small wooden shack in the middle of nowhere.  Even the local historian in Canada that I worked with via email, doubted much until we found everything that my mother had claimed was indeed true.  That is the most astounding thing, especially when you realise that my grandmother had left ‘under a cloud’ and had very little contact with her family.

When my mother returned to Scotland she was kept apart from her father’s family, she had no access to any of this information other than that she had remembered. She was four on the boat that brought her from Canada; for one so young to remember so much, must have been because her young life had been filled with so much deep tragedy.

Far Away Hills by Jean Debney is published by Authoright.

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