Since launching Arriving: 1909-1919, by far my readers’ most frequent question has been, “Where did you ever come up with these characters?” As David candidly expressed, “Your books have to be based on your family. These people are just too real to be imaginary!” Perhaps, many of you were not all that surprised when the media release of Choosing: 1940-1989 revealed my little-known secret.
Where did my story begin? I have been determined to write for as long as I can remember, and I believe my trilogy is the culmination of my life experiences that were indelibly etched into my mind, my heart, and my soul. Still, I held back until I had an eerie incident on a research trip in May 2001.
I had journeyed to the German Lutheran townships in Saskatchewan where the Neudorf town manager insisted that I meet with a man he suspected was my distant relative. Soon I found myself in Alfred’s truck, being transported to several of the original homestead sites. As I tried to cope with my feelings of déjà vu, we arrived at the gates of a small burial ground in a corner sheltered by a grove of towering poplars, now called the Redeemer Lutheran Cemetery.
Instantly I knew I had been at this place many times before, and it took me so long to get out of his vehicle that Alfred asked if I was OK. But, it was not until I was in front of a gravesite with two ancient, dilapidated headstones that I became rooted to the spot. I was suddenly overwhelmed with feelings of profound affirmation; finally, I was given the answer to an unsettling question that had prevented me from starting to pen my story.
Although I could rarely persuade my grandmother to sit down and express herself in her faltering English, I loved hearing her tell me about her family. Since I had no recording device, I began to commit her incredible tales to memory. Even then I knew it was my destiny to preserve her history and legacy, and my Understanding Ursula trilogy was born as a labour of love to my cherished grandparents for their lifelong gifts of stability and inspiration.
Nonetheless, my qualms about disclosing family secrets, and a vivid imagination over which I often cannot exercise control, compelled me to write a historical fiction rather than a biography. Shortly following the release of Arriving: 1909-1919, and with increased frequency after the launch of Thriving: 1920-1939, I was asked about the origin of the Werners. Finally one astute fan said, “I know what you did! You just changed the names and told your family’s story!”
My grandmother could not have read my trilogy, and my grandfather would have struggled with many of my words, and yet both would be humbled by the numbers of people now taking delight in their story. Before the launch of Choosing: 1940-1989, I was thrilled when a Regina bookstore manager, and then later others in Saskatoon and Yorkton, said, “You and Henry Ripplinger are our best-selling authors right now!”
I believe in miracles. I know that Rudolph and Mary Gares are smiling down at what their granddaughter has written.