While I’m sure that most of you spent yesterday inside hiding from the rain, this Porcupette spent the afternoon in Port Colborne with the Inksters, Project Bookmark Canada, and Sheree-Lee Olson. It was a wonderful afternoon, and I’d like to tell you a little more about it here!
Sheree-Lee Olson, author of Sailor Girl was honoured yesterday with the installation of a Bookmark at Lock 8 on the Welland Canal in Port Colborne. A Bookmark is a ceramic plaque embossed with text from a story or poem that is then installed in the exact physical location where the scene in the excerpt takes place. Project Bookmark Canada is about intersections: intersections between fiction and reality and intersections between our lives and the stories we read. Miranda Hill started up Bookmark Canada only a few years ago with the hopes of creating a network of Bookmarks which would allow Canadians to literally read their way across the country. Sheree-Lee’s is Bookmark Canada’s tenth Bookmark.
I had been planning to attend the event—even though Port Colborne is quite the drive from my northern Toronto residence—for a few weeks now. I loved Sheree-Lee’s haunting coming of age tale so much that the thought of seeing the physical location of one of the novel’s most evocative scenes was too good to pass up. Olson began working on Sailor Girl in her 20s, finally finishing it in her 50s, and it was based on her real experience sailing on the Great Lakes freighters. Port Colborne would have been a port she came to know very well over the course of her time on the boats.
It was a dreary, overcast day when I arrived in Port Colborne. It didn’t take very long before I had seen most of the town. I missed the turn to the lock and came out the other side in only a few short blocks. I drove past a Tim Hortons and a few pubs, restaurants, and hasty marts. I passed an old fashioned Dairy Queen—the last in Canada with its original signing—and several small bars. I found myself wondering if Sailor Girl protagonist, Kate, had grabbed a drink in any of them.
When I finally turned into the parking lot at Lock 8 I saw that a tent had been set up just in front of the veiled Bookmark. The town had selected Lock 8 Park as the location for the Bookmark. Though the area looked very different from its description in the book (since writing Sailor Girl Lock 8 has been dressed up with a park, a large garden, and several tourist information signs), the area still evoked the barren loneliness Kate experiences in the excerpt. The Bookmark had been deliberately placed away from the lush garden and bright signs, on a small patch of grass overlooking the lock.
Port Colborne Mayor Vance Badawey arrived on the scene and we waited for Sheree-Lee to appear so that we could begin the ceremony. Tim and Elke Inkster chatted happily with Miranda Hill, executive director and founder of Bookmark Canada, while I fell into conversation with the mayor.
“You’re all smiles,” he said. I had to explain to the mayor that it was my first big event with the Quill.
Sheree-Lee arrived shortly after and we began to jostle into place, getting ready for the beginning of the ceremony. It turned out that Sheree-Lee hadn’t been late at all, but rather had been early. She had been on the freighter sitting in the lock, chatting up the chef and porters and exploring the galley.
“They’re hiring,” she said with a gleeful look in her eye, “and the benefits are much better than they used to be.”
The ceremony began with the mayor, who talked briefly about his own personal connection to the boats of Port Colborne. His family runs the company which supplies the boats with food, and has been doing so for generations. He spoke about the importance of Sheree-Lee’s book to the Port Colborne community, and their excitement about the Bookmark. He ended his speech, much to our excitement, by saying he was going to pack a copy of Sailor Girl into each of the boats’ food deliveries in the coming season.
Following the mayor, Miranda Hill spoke, outlining the objectives and goals of Bookmark Canada. She then introduced Sheree-Lee, who stepped forward to read the excerpted passage from her novel.
“It’s about being sad and lonely,” she said later in her interview with The Source reporter Mark Wikobrado. “It’s about the isolation of the boats … I wanted to convey that reality, the nitty gitty of those working lives.”
And I think we could all feel it, too. Standing there in Port Colborne, the small town with only one Tim Hortons, under the heavy grey October clouds, I think that we could all feel the sadness and isolation in Sheree-Lee’s work.
We laughed after, and smiled, congratulating each other on the success of the event. We went out for lunch in a restaurant in a quaint yellow house just across the street from the park. As we sat down Nancy Giles, executive assistant to the mayor, laughed, “Someone is already standing next to the plaque and reading it!”
As we sat there next to the Welland Canal a total of four boats passed through the locks. We paused from our meal each time to look back and observe their slow progress through the narrow cement walls, marvelling at the ease, the silence with which they traveled.
It had begun raining properly when we stepped out of the restaurant. We said our goodbyes and dashed back to our respective cars, getting ready to begin the long trips home. As I pulled out of the parking lot I saw a lone man standing at the new plaque, silently reading Sheree-Lee’s words. I smiled and pulled out onto the road.
Experience the Lock 8 event for yourself! Click here to watch Sheree-Lee Olson’s interview with The Source.