Author sticks to what she loves best
Steve Newman, Renfrew Mercury
Manotick author with deep Ottawa Valley roots.
Donella Dunlop, author of Decent People.
August 29, 2011
Like most books, the title requires a little explanation
… or a little reading.
The novel, Decent People, is written by Donella
Dunlop, a Manotick resident who was a teacher at Renfrew Collegiate Institute
and Pembroke resident more than 50 years ago.
There are strong links to herself and her family, but
the book is mostly about fictitious characters who bring life in the Ottawa Valley
to life from the 1930s through to the 1960s. Decent People is not about
superstars or celebrities, but, as the author puts it, ordinary people who lead
Valley people are a
special breed whose stories deserve to be recorded, to guarantee their place in
history, she says.
“I wanted them to know the Ottawa Valley.
I love it very much. I think everyone has a place where their heart is, and
mine is in the Ottawa
In the first chapter, entitled Raspberries, one of the
Dunkeld family children goes missing in the raspberry patch. That same day, the
book’s main character is born.
“The new baby, Anna, proved small and sickly and later
almost died of whooping cough, but she had intelligent blue eyes and curly
brown hair, and was the bonniest baby ever born in Dunkeld Village,”
says the final paragraph of Chapter 1.
“She was raised in a cocoon of love in a family that
cared for its own and everyone else’s too. And she emerged an innocent,
determined butterfly into the light.”
Several pages later, borrowing from her own “wonderful”
childhood growing up and attending a private school run by nuns in Pembroke,
Dunlop’s chapters visit many places. One is a cloakroom, at home, where
preschooler Anna often choses to play.
“Anna was playing
in the cloakroom,” Chapter 10 begins. “It was small, and there was a window,
and she liked to play there because she could pretend it was her house.”
Anna recalls lighting a candle, after making a cave from
chairs and a sheet, and closing her eyes really tight. She imagines seeing the
Blessed Virgin, only to have the candle set fire to the sheet.
Another chapter, entitled Growing Up, deals with
learning about one’s own private parts and growing up in other ways. Events
include Anna’s own sense of body awareness, hearing a friend recount how how
babies are made, and discovering a used condom while walking down the tracks.
“Everyone has to grow up, some bad, some good,” says
Dunlop. “I think it’s important to write down someone’s life, even if it’s
fictional, so that you don’t leave anything out.”
Finding material for the chapter wasn’t hard, she adds.
“Writing is difficult,” she says of the need to rewrite
and rewrite. “But the subject matter is easy for me.”
Other chapters, like The Sewing Box, Go in Peace, The
Picnic Basket or Mean People, take the reader back to an unnamed Ottawa Valley
village. Whether it’s the hungry ‘30s, the Second World War, the tentative ‘50s
or the early ‘60s, much of the focus is on a young Catholic girl – stubborn, open-hearted, curious and kind − who often casts herself as the
hero in her adventures, both big and small.
At the same time, Dunlop stresses that Anna’s stories
really are Anna’s own.
“She’s not me,” insists Dunlop.
Dunlop’s sisters were instrumental, as were dozens of
other Ottawa Valley residents, in the development of
the book. But her sisters are not characters in the book. Certainly, her own
mother and father are more closely aligned to Anna’s mother and father in
As several chapters show, Mumma was not a fierce
disciplinarian. But she might have an unhappy look if someone did something
dangerous, like walking home on the railway tracks. And that unhappy look was
often enough to make the children wonder what they’d done.
“She was so gentle and loving, we didn’t want to hurt
her,” explains Dunlop.
“She used love to discipline her children. She was a
very special person. We wanted to please her because she was special.”
As a young woman, Dunlop taught at Renfrew Collegiate
Institute in the late 1950s. She remembers being an innocent 20-year-old
“I was inexperienced and I went to a girls’ private
school,” she says, “so I wasn’t used to boys and their mischief. But I was very
fond of all of them (the boys and girls).”
She wasn’t an author yet, but wanted to be.
She had always wanted to tell stories. For example, in
Pembroke, at age seven, she started her own story-writing society.
“I was pretty precocious because I could print,” Dunlop
says, remembering she was the only one in the group to produce a story.
And so, she emerged to write several books, including Decent
“They have a decent life,” she says of Ottawa Valley
residents, “and I wanted to show that a decent life is just as interesting as
the story of a murderer or Napolean.”
After all, she adds, “Ordinary, decent people have
wonderful lives, and if you don’t write it down, it will be lost.”
Dunlop has written five other books. Decent People is
the fourth member of her Ottawa
Valley historical novel
series. The others are Menominee, The Wild River
People … about the Valley’s ancient people; Sagganosh, The Britisher
… about the Scots and Irish of the 1850s; and Mittigoush, The French …
about the French of the 17th century.
Dunlop’s books are available from the Arnprior Book
Shop, Coles Books, Chapters and other Ottawa Valley
bookstores. Decent People is published by Trafford Publishing. For more about her books, visit
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