#46 Maggie de Vries
January 19th, 2016
LOCATION: Princess Avenue & Hastings Street, Vancouver
Maggie de Vries‘s 28-year-old, adopted younger sister Sarah vanished from the corner of Princess and Hastings on April 14, 1998 in Vancouver. On August 6, 2002, Vancouver police met with de Vries and gave her the news that a sample of Sarah’s DNA (from a tooth) was found by police on the Port Coquitlam property of Robert Pickton, the accused serial killer of Vancouver prostitutes.
After hope was replaced by the grim certainty that her sister had been murdered, Maggie de Vries soon began searching for the answers as to how and why her sister had disappeared, leading her to write Missing Sarah: A Vancouver Woman Remembers Her Vanished Sister (Penguin 2003), a heart-rending memoir that won the first annual George Ryga Award for Social Awareness in B.C. Literature in 2004 as well as the 13th annual VanCity Book Prize for best book pertaining to women’s issues by a B.C. author.
Maggie de Vries wasn’t finished paying homage to her sister. While repeatedly watching a video of her sister Sarah being interviewed in 1993 for a television program in which Sarah warned about the dangers of being addicted to heroine, de Vries noticed her sister had a small insignia of a Playboy bunny tattooed on her chest. As she later explained to her audience at the B.C. Book Prizes gala in 2015, that tattoo gave rise to the title of Rabbit Ears (HarperCollins 2014), winner of the Sheila A. Egoff Prize for Children’s Literature.
Maggie de Vries and her adopted sister Sarah were raised by a UBC professor and one of the head nurses at Vancouver General Hospital. Her sister Sarah was black, one of four siblings who grew up in a privileged West Point Grey home that became divided by divorce. In 1991, de Vries’ mother received a telephone call from a hospital saying that Maggie de Vries’ 21-year-old daughter, Sarah, a prostitute in Vancouver Downtown Eastside, was in labour. Sarah went back to her world of drugs and prostitution almost immediately, leaving the child’s grandmother to take legal control of the child and oversee the infant’s withdrawal process due to Sarah’s addictions to heroine and cocaine. The father was last seen sleeping on benches.
Raped in 1996, Sarah gave birth to another child but intitially wouldn’t look at it for fear it would look like the rapist. The blood of the premature infant Ben contained strains of HIV and hepatitis C, but fortunately the child was afflicted only with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Both children are being raised in Ontario by Sarah’s mother and Sarah’s aunt, Jean Little, the famous children’s book author.
Missing Sarah incorporates excerpts from Sarah’s journals and recollections of people who knew Sarah during her 14 years downtown. It provides, according to publicity material, “a portrait of a bright, funny and sensitive woman who found herself trapped in a downward spiral of self-loathing, prostitution, drugs and violence.”
Holding an MA in English Literature, Maggie de Vries has taught children’s literature at the University of Guelph and UBC. She has taught ‘Writing for Young Readers’ at Langara College and has written the children’s books Once Upon a Golden Apple (Penguin, 1991), Chance and the Butterfly (Orca, 2001) and How Sleep Found Tabitha (Orca, 2002). She has worked with Orca Books as an editor and has coordinated a writers’ group with Vancouver prostitutes. For four months in the fall of 2005, she was the first Writer-in-Residence at the Vancouver Public Library.
For young readers she wrote about the threatened sturgeon along the Fraser River in Tale of a Great White Fish (Greystone, 2006), followed by Fraser Bear (Greystone, 2010). In the same year she published a novel for young adults, Hunger Journeys, set in World War Two in Amsterdam. According to promotional materials, “teenaged Lena leaves her starving family to travel by train with her friend, Sofie, to Almelo, a town close to the German border. It’s a risky plan. They have false papers and are quickly pulled off the train by German soldiers. Only by fluke do they get back on again — with the help of Albert, one of the other soldiers. After Lena discovers that the train had also been used to transport Jews to concentration camps, she fears her new friendship with the helpful Albert may lead her into more danger. Sofie, too, befriends a soldier, a relationship that quickly turns serious and has unforeseen consequences for both girls.”
Chance and the Butterfly, which was first published by Orca in 2001, was reprinted by Orca in 2011. The young adult novel is about a boy who struggles in school, until his class starts raising butterflies from caterpillars.
Once Upon a Golden Apple, co-authored with Jean Little (Puffin, 1993). Illustrated by Phoebe Gillman. 0140541640.
Chance and the Butterfly (Orca, 2001). 1551432080. Reprinted (Orca, 2011) 9781554698653 $7.95
How Sleep Found Tabitha (Orca, 2002) illustrated by Sheena Lott. 1551431939.
Missing Sarah: A Vancouver Woman Remembers Her Vanished Sister (Penguin, 2003) 0143013718
Tale of a Great White Fish (Greystone, 2006), illustrated by Renné Benoit. 1553651251
Fraser Bear (Greystone, 2010), illustrated by Renné Benoit. 9781553655213
Hunger Journeys (HarperCollins Canada, 2010)
Big City Bees (Greystone, 2012) Illustrated by Renn Benoit $19.95 978-1-55365-906-8
Rabbit Ears (HarperCollins 2014)
Missing Sarah – A Personal Essay.
[Maggie de Vries and Sarah de Vries were two of four siblings who grew up in a privileged West Point Grey home that became divided by divorce. Sarah was adopted; Maggie was not. Maggie became an author of children’s books and a teacher. Sarah turned to prostitution in her teens. The following personal essay by Maggie de Vries appeared in B.C. BookWorld in 2003]
When my book, Missing Sarah came out in early August, it hit me that people were going to read it, that there was no turning back. I felt as if I had peeled off all my skin and thrust myself out into the public eye. What could have possessed me to do such a thing? The decision to write the book did not come easily.
I began to consider writing something in the spring of 1999 after I had spent an exhausting year facing up to Sarah’s death. Along with many others, I organized a memorial for her and all the other missing women and pressured police to resource the case, to offer a reward and to admit publicly that there was a possibility of homicide in at least some of the cases. I had read Sarah’s journals and had read one of her poems on television several times and seen it printed in the Globe & Mail. Through the course of that year, I experienced the best and worst of the media. And I wrote a short piece that was printed as a Voices column in the Vancouver Sun. There were my thoughts in print exactly as I wished them expressed. Perhaps I should write more.
But by June 1999 I was exhausted. I was tired of talking to media. I was tired of focusing on my sister’s disappearance in a public way. I wanted to retreat into my own life and grieve my sister’s death. In the next three years, I took time for myself. I worked through Julia Cameron’s Artist’s Way. I wrote a children’s novel and two picture books. I became children’s book editor at Orca Book Publishers, a children’s book publisher in Victoria.
Then, in February of 2002, the search on the Pickton property in Port Coquitlam began and I was thrust back into considering what had happened to my sister and back into the public world of the investigation, the case against Robert Pickton and media response. I became reacquainted with family members of other missing women and I met many family members whom I had not known before. As murder charges began to be laid, I attended memorials. I was reminded that what had happened to Sarah and through her to me, my family and all who loved her, was in many ways not private. Her death was in part the result of a set of societal norms and attitudes. Change would only come about if people knew more about women like Sarah.
Rather than talk over and over again with those who wanted to wrest Sarah’s story out of me, sometimes with sensitivity and intelligence, other times without, why not tell her story, as best I could, myself?
I had had a rest. I thought that I was ready. And Sarah had something to say that was worth sharing. People could learn from her. I would write a book that would incorporate Sarah’s own writing. I had no idea, though, how much I was going to learn in the process. I found a collection of letters that Sarah wrote to me as a child. Women who knew her during her fourteen years downtown appeared in my life over and over again as I was writing, eager to share their stories. Then, at the very end of my last major rewrite, I came into possession of an audio-tape of Sarah giving an interview. The tape was seventeen years old. On it, my seventeen-year-old sister answers many of the questions that I had been collecting for months.
It is not easy on a family when one family member decides to write a memoir. When I decided to write Missing Sarah, I did think about the impact the book would have on my family, especially my parents and Sarah’s children, but I couldn’t know what that impact would be. Every member of my family was generous in sharing their own stories, in looking back through their own journals and notebooks, in digging Sarah’s childhood stories and artwork out of filing cabinets and basements. They answered my questions, gave me what they could, and then had to stand back while I wrote the book. I think that that must be hard to do, since each of them would have written a different book from mine. They have to deal with all the publicity the book generates, with many people in their circles reading it, and with the document itself.
I did not know when I began how painful the writing would be. If I had, I might not have done it. I thought that writing about my sister’s life and my own together would be healing. And perhaps it has been, or will be. But it hurt, a lot. I had found an agent, written a book proposal and signed a contract with Penguin before I began to write. I knew from experience that I needed someone standing over me with a big stick. My editor, Cynthia Good played that role beautifully and with kindness. So when the real pain began, I had no choice but to go forward. My deadline for a first draft was January 7, 2003. Sometime in November I discovered a stack of letters that Sarah wrote to me over seven years, beginning when she was seven years old. Working with those letters was the hardest thing I have ever done. I was writing at a friend’s empty house over Christmas. Every few minutes I had to retreat to the couch and sob loudly, full body crying, until I was able to return to the computer. Sarah is utterly alive in those letters and so full of energy and hope.
If I had not written the book, I would not have spent the time with Sarah’s words, those she wrote as a child, as a teenager and as an adult. I would not have met and talked in great depth with women who knew Sarah in their teens and twenties. I would not have rediscovered all that life, all that energy, that love, that pain, that rage that was my sister. And I would not have learned from others who she was in the life where, although I saw her regularly, I never truly entered. Ironically, the creation of a public document, a book, has been one of the most intensely private experiences I have had in my life. It brought my sister back to me and allowed her to rest at last, both.–By Maggie de Vries
First Annual George Ryga Award for Social Awareness in British Columbian Literature, June 2004: Adjudicator’s Summation by Craig McLuckie.
The Oriental Question: Consolidating a White Man’s Province, 1914-41 (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2003), a tightly written work of historiography by Patricia E. Roy; Field Day: Getting Society Out of School (Vancouver: New Star Books, 2003), a polemic on education by Matt Hern; Burning Vision (Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2003), a committed drama in four movements by Marie Clements; and, Missing Sarah (Toronto: Penguin, 2003), a non-fictional narrative of recuperation by Maggie de Vries, are the four finalists for the inaugural George Ryga Award. The difficulties for the shortlisting committee (John Lent, Ken Smedley, Mary Ellen Holland and Nancy Holmes) must have been immense, given the open-ended nature of theme and genre. These four works, covering racism in politics and society; ideology in education; racism and nuclear threat; and race, ideology, narcotics and the sex trade, all demonstrate social awareness and are worthy titles for the George Ryga Award.
Jerry Wasserman comments on Ryga’s Ballad of a Stone-picker (1966) thus: “Composed of fourteen anecdotal stories … the novel has the effect of a ballad as the narrator interweaves tales about the agricultural community he has never left with confessions of guilt and resentment concerning his dead brother and parents. [It is] both a plaint for and a celebration of the brutality of life.” Of the four shortlisted works, in terms of technique, social awareness and engagement, one work stands out, eloquently.
In Prometheus Bound , George Ryga presents the following:
Prometheus: In the fever of reshaping destiny
I ignored this time, this place,
And the possibility that I might occupy
The chains of others
Whose names and faces
Were unknown and of no concern
To me … so return to work, friends,
And think of troubled days to come.
Have compassion but not pity for me.
No apologies or compromises (129-130 emphasis added)
These lines speak equally from the voices of Sarah de Vries and her adoptive sister Maggie. They also speak to the oftentimes unwittingly callous nature of society as we participate in the treadmill of existence. Compassion, though, is the goal here, from Maggie de Vries for her sister Sarah specifically, for Women more generally, and for those commemorated throughout the text with a simple eloquence as “last seen” or “identified by DNA”. As the cases mount, “Missing Persons” become “Missing Sex Workers” (104) become, in Sarah’s ironic echo of military terminology, “Missing in Action” (159), and belatedly “Missing Women” (192)—terminological shifts that reflect the glacial pace of social response and judgment to the fate of human beings. The individual story of Maggie de Vries and the connected story (recuperated from notebooks, journals, letters, memories and conversations) of Sarah de Vries are important, but more significant to social awareness is Maggie de Vries’ empathy throughout for human beings (outside the petty and insidious labels we use that permit compartmentalization, separation, distance, apathy). We can and do “occupy the chains of others”, whose names are known here, whose fate must be our concern. For, if they (Dedication: “sex workers everywhere”) are missing, then the social fabric is threadbare, an ongoing state of loss is emphasized. We are missing something.
The end of Maggie de Vries’ book, “In my heart, she [Sarah] rests already” (267), is a testament to the fact that in the face of the human madness of the Pickton Pig Farm, through an empathetic act of our own, we can better society: initially by opening our hearts. Maggie de Vries’ book offers further means to agency for us. The process toward its (agency) attainment is clarified in a comment: “‘… What matters isn’t the effect it has on you, but what you do with the effect it has on you. … ’” One act is to ensure, as Maggie de Vries is careful to, that we “remain an organic part of an ongoing experience in society: of the poor, the disadvantaged, the voiceless, the unrepresented, the powerless. These are equally concrete and ongoing; they cannot survive being transformed and then frozen into creeds, religious declarations, professional methods.”
Maggie De Vries’ aim in Missing Sarah is clearly set on provoking compassion for and passion about others; Sarah de Vries is not a black, an adopted child, a runaway, a prostitute, a drug addict; rather, she is “a young woman of great beauty and with enormous potential for love and caring for others” (64). Missing Sarah is an act of recuperation and an example of empathetic social beings.
It is this year’s George Ryga Award winner.
Tale of a Great White Fish by Maggie de Vries (Greystone $19.95) Review
Rick Hansen remembers being on the banks of the Fraser River as a boy and witnessing the spectacular sight of an enormous fish leaping free of the muddy water. Today, he’s chairman of the Fraser River Sturgeon Conservation Society and working to safeguard these “precious” fish—sturgeon—and their beleaguered aquatic ecosystem. Maggie de Vries evokes the precarious existence of the giant white sturgeon in Tale of a Great White Fish (Greystone $19.95). The heroine, Little Fish, is spawned in the late spring of 1828. Thirty years later she is Fish and, ripe now with thousands of eggs, begins the arduous journey upstream to release her eggs on the rocky river bottom where she was hatched. Eighty-five years later, over twelve feet long and weighing 800 pounds, Big Fish, the giant white sturgeon, is ready to spawn for the sixth time. This time “the riverbed shakes, water tumbles” and “other fish, alive and dead, fly past.” The construction of a railway has caused the Hells Gate Slide and the falling rock changes the water flow. Big Fish searches for a new spawning ground. By 2005, at twenty feet long and close to 1700 pounds, Big Fish still miraculously endures despite pollution, scarcity of food and removal of vital sand and gravel from the river bottom. Renné Benoit, who illustrated Goodbye to Griffith Street, captures the two-century adventure of Big Fish and the epic struggle for survival of an ancient and magnificent creature. Maggie de Vries is also the author of Missing Sarah, shortlisted for a Governor General’s Award and winner of the George Ryga Award for Social Awareness in BC Literature. 1-55365-125-1
–Review by Louise Donnelly
[INFORMATION POSTED JANUARY 19, 2016]