South Surrey historical fiction writer Tanya E. Williams says there’s nothing she loves more than helping readers ‘lose themselves in another time and place’.
In his poetic and psychologically profound “Smith” trilogy (Become Mrs. Smith, steal Mr. Smith and A man called Smith) the place was a small town in South Dakota, and the time from the 1930s.
In Everything that was the scene shifted to Seattle in 2015 – but to a story about an old church in which a character from the early 1900s remained a ghostly presence.
Now Williams is focusing on a place much closer to home – Vancouver – but recalled her time machine in the spring of 1927.
His latest novel, Welcome to Hamiltontells the story of the Wilson sisters – 17-year-old Clara and 18-year-old Louisa – doing their best, through a rigorous training program, to serve as house staff at Vancouver’s newest luxury hotel.
The book has already been named a finalist in the fiction category of the Canadian Book Club Awards, Canada’s top readers’ choice awards, with winners to be announced in December.
With a cover photographed by her husband, David – using a model from the Semiahmoo Peninsula and costumes on loan from the Earl Marriott Secondary Theater Department – the attractively designed book is a good Christmas gift bet for those intrigued by the history of Vancouver and the Downton Abbey time.
It’s the first in a series centered on the Hamilton, Williams said, in which the sisters will continue to feature – but other characters, including some introduced in the first novel, will in turn be in the spotlight.
Life has changed dramatically for Clara and Louisa since their mother died five years ago. Their father, once the head gardener of an estate that provided a comfortable life and a cozy cottage for the family, lapsed into alcoholism.
He and the sisters now share an apartment in Vancouver, as he earns a modest living with temp jobs for his former employer – much of which he spends in the liquor establishments, legal and illegal, that have dotted the city ever since. British Columbia’s experience with prohibition. ends in 1921.
By chance, Clara discovers a notice of demand for unpaid rent from the landlord of the building in her father’s coat, revealing how close the family is to homelessness.
Dramatic and vivacious Louisa, her head in the clouds dreaming of becoming a stage actress, seems completely out of touch with the grim realities of their situation.
But responsible and worry-prone Clara, who has taken on the burden of keeping the family together and grounded – just like her mother did – is the one who has to save money and plot to make ends meet.
A classified ad for the maids of the Hamilton Hotel about to open presents a potential solution to their problems, but Clara is dismayed when Louisa announces her plan and asks to become a maid there as well.
It’s only over time – and through Clara’s challenges to compete with ambitious and selfish hotel candidate Jane Morgan – that she not only discovers her own strength but also the true bonds of family. and, ultimately, renewed hope. for the future.
With her typically evocative and empathetic prose, Williams paints a compelling portrait not only of the sisters and their father – and the personalities they meet at the hotel – but also of Vancouver in milder times; transforming itself from a pioneer community into a bustling 20th century metropolis.
She successfully depicts a time without the skyscrapers and traffic jams endemic to the modern city, where horse-drawn carts are still as common as automobiles and jitney buses; where the North Shore mountains are a constant presence, and the uncluttered coastline of English Bay is only steps away from Newbury’s family apartments – modeled after actual Manhattan apartments in Robson and Thurlow.
Williams’ cinematic eye for detail – and penchant for research-based writing – is evident on every page.
“I spent hours at the Vancouver Public Library looking at copies of old newspapers and other materials,” she said.
“The staff there are fantastic – I probably had three or four of them every day, wondering ‘are you finding everything you need? “, recalls Williams.
She is also very happy to return home to recreate a historic environment, she said.
“I discovered, while writing Everything that wasthat I wasn’t very interested in contemporary life, or checking out the details of very recent history,” she said.
Although the hotel is fictional, Williams located the Hamilton at a site, at Robson and Howe, marked as “hotel” on a 1926 map of Vancouver (Williams has since discovered that this was actually the site of the York Hotel, demolished in the 1960s, which served primarily as accommodation for the staff of the Hotel Vancouver).
But the author has rendered his imaginary version with such attention to detail that it’s a believable adornment to the cityscape of yesteryear.
Indeed, she laughed, a friend and reader in the United States, who was planning a visit to Vancouver, was convinced that the Hamilton was a real historic hotel and recently tried to book a room online.
Williams’ quest for authenticity also extends to how she portrayed the sisters’ affectionate, yet strained, relationship.
“I actually asked my readers how Clara and Louisa should get along, because I only have my own experience with my sister.
“They all came up with the same thing – there’s always that bit of competition there.”
The overlooked details and background information Williams uncovered adds an extra dimension to his description of 1920s Vancouver.
She points out, for example, that there was a sense of shame attached to buying a bottle of milk from a grocery store, as it implied that the buyer did not have a regular delivery of milk from a dairy. – an indicator, at that time, of family solvency.
“The quality of life in Vancouver wasn’t exactly what we imagine when we talk about the Roaring Twenties,” Williams said.
“There were a lot of people who were outside – like Clara and her family. And it was a time when opportunities were very limited for women, when teenage girls were forced by necessity to take on adult responsibilities.
Clara’s rival, Jane, a daughter of a well-to-do family, is much closer to the era’s ‘flapper’ archetype, agrees Williams – and not entirely unsympathetic, in the final analysis.
“She was so much fun to write,” she laughed, “even though she’s a source of trouble.
“There’s one in every book, I guess. But I still like to know why they are the way they are.
Welcome to Hamilton (Rippling Effects, $18.95) is available at bookstores and also on Williams’ website, tanyaewilliams.com