Graphic novels by Sarah Leavitt and Jamie Michaels explore Canadian history from different perspectives
It was a provocative act, and what it provoked was a pushback that turned into a riot. At Toronto’s Christie Pits park on August 16, 1933, during a baseball game that included a team made up predominantly of Jewish and Italian players, some members of the so-called Pit Gang displayed a large blanket with a swastika on it. Just six months after Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, and with anti-Semitic rumblings growing louder, the neighbourhood was a tinderbox, and this raising of a homemade Nazi flag was enough of a spark to ignite a brawl that lasted some six hours.
Winnipeg writer Jamie Michaels chronicles this brief but symbolically significant chapter of Canadian history in his graphic novel Christie Pits, created in collaboration with artist Doug Fedrau. “The Christie Pits riot was not on my radar for most of my life,” Michaels admits in a telephone interview with the Georgia Straight. “I’m a Jewish Canadian, and I’ve got a background in history and politics, so you’d think that would have crossed my path at some point. I actually heard it referenced anecdotally at a pub, and like many millennials, I pretended to know what it was and then googled it in the washroom. And I was really shocked, because it seems like this history has a lot of relevance for the contemporary age we live in now. It seems like there are a lot of takeaways that are very applicable to the age we live in, and yet this history was so unknown to me. From discussions I’ve had since pursuing the project, even amongst people who grew up in Toronto, there’s mixed levels of knowledge about this event.”
Michaels did his research, delving into archival materials and contemporaneous newspaper articles on the riot. To put the event in perspective, though, he created an array of fictional characters, including young Jewish boxers Sammy and Areyeh—who idolize Max Baer and aren’t averse to fisticuffs—and Areyeh’s pacifist brother, Yiddel, who is more inclined to reason his way out of a fight.
“It’s an amazing time in history where there’s so much uncertainty, and so few definitive answers as to what’s happening in this global climate, so my hope was to capture that uncertainty, but with a human lens,” Michaels says. “These are still people that are living their lives—they’re chasing education, and they’re chasing jobs, and they’re chasing good times. You can’t really reduce these things to archetypes.”
Sarah Leavitt, who is slated to appear alongside Michaels at an upcoming Jewish Book Festival event, has also written a graphic novel—Agnes, Murderess—that takes a page out of Canadian history. In her case, however, that page is almost entirely fictional.
During the Cariboo Gold Rush, a woman named Agnes McVee (or “Agnus MacVee”, according to some sources), operated a roadhouse in 108 Mile House. With her husband and son-in-law as accomplices, McVee robbed and murdered itinerant miners, and kidnapped women to sell them into sexual slavery.
It’s a tale as sensationally scandalous as it is tragic, and Leavitt was understandably struck by it when she first encountered it about a decade ago. She soon discovered, however, that there’s no evidence that McVee ever existed.
“I saw the story and thought about it a lot,” says Leavitt, a lecturer in UBC’s creative-writing program. “It just haunted me, and I originally thought, ‘Well, I’ll fictionalize the parts we don’t know about this story.’ And then the more I read, the more I realized that it was actually all fiction. So I ended up imagining a back story for her.”
Like Michaels, Leavitt had to strike a balance between weaving a story about fictional characters and getting the period details right. The selected bibliography at the back of Agnes, Murderess includes almost three-dozen titles that attest to the sprawling historical narrative, from Susanna Moodie’s Roughing It in the Bush to books about folk superstitions in 19th-century Scotland.
The latter topic is relevant because, in Leavitt’s telling, McVee carried trauma from her childhood in the Inner Hebrides, where she was raised in isolation by her grandmother, Gormul—a woman whose few neighbours believed her to be a witch. Gormul continues to taunt her granddaughter from beyond the grave, and Leavitt leaves each reader to decide whether this torment is real or not.
“I think it’s really real to Agnes,” she says. “I didn’t want the answer to stuff to be ‘Well, Agnes is just crazy.’ She’s not crazy; she is haunted. And also it’s kind of related to this whole idea that she thinks she can escape her past, and she can’t. I am intentionally ambiguous about whether it’s actually true or not, and in a way it doesn’t matter. I’m prepared to believe that there are ghosts and that people are haunted, for sure.”
Agnes, Murderess is haunting in its own right, as is Christie Pits. Each is a vivid reminder that, whether it’s Toronto in 1933 or the Cariboo Wagon Road in 1885, the past has much to tell us about the world as it is today.
Jamie Michaels and Sarah Leavitt appear at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver next Wednesday (February 12) as part of the Cherie Smith JCC Jewish Book Festival.