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In the Catbird Seat/Joe Kirkish

A?novel is born

September 27, 2012
The Daily Mining Gazette

Was it a coincidence or serendipity?

After weighing the idea for a decade, Alta V. Walters, daughter of Keith and Patricia Walters of Copper Harbor, decided that she would become a writer. Having been immersed in a life that included art of all kinds, she turned to that subject for her first novel, "The Emma Cates Way." In it, her lead character, Fiona, delves into the life of a fictitious painter, Emma Caites. It becomes a search that reveals the artist's education and career from California to Paris and back, followed by modest success as a painter and teacher. The result became a fascinating mystery story. The book, published in 2011, was the winner of a book award for "Best Literary Fiction" in 2012.

Walters works with locomotive energy. Even before the writing of "Emma Cates," she was already researching material for her next novel about another fictional artist, "The Gift of Guylaine Claire." It was completed just recently and published through Two Rock Press. Already she is bounding ahead on a third novel, "The Trial of Trudy Castor."

"The Gift of Guylaine Claire" is a kind of historical mystery story - similar in the layout of "Emma Cates" - of a French-Canadian sculptor (Guylaine Claire) with Native roots, whose life ended tragically when killed trying to intercede in a '90s siege between native factions and the Mounties.

Inspired by the history, Walters (who was Canadian-born) pondered the impact of the unresolved tensions between the English, French and First Nation people of Canada; she wanted to learn more about the history that created those tensions, which extended back to the 18th century when land was granted to the Mohawks and when a later dispute resulted in the tragic confrontations at Oka, Quebec, in 1990. A fictional story began to form.

In her research, Walters discovered the real life Kateri Tekakwitha, a half-Algonquin, half Mohawk Native who had been beatified by the Catholic Church. When young Kateri converted to Christianity, she was put out by the tribe and walked hundreds of miles to find a native village that was Christian. Weakened by illness, Kateri died young. On her deathbed witnesses watched as in death the scars of her ills miraculously disappeared from her face.

That dramatic story inspired the story of Claire, one of the pivotal characters in Walters' outline, and informed how the story would be told. As well, "Saint" Kateri has a cameo appearance in the story as the subject of one of Guylaine Claire's sculptures. Most importantly for Walters, Kateri also inspired the book's underlying themes of forgiveness and service.

The fictional story is set in Red Wing, Ontario, in 1993. Guylaine Claire's French-Native background becomes the focus of action; she is killed early in the book when she dashes into the fray at yet another native/police standoff. From there, in flashback, the book rehashes her life through her family's activities and stories told during the week between her murder and when her body is finally released for a funeral. We meet her family, her Parish priest (very much a part of their family), and take a tour of her life, largely, through her sculptures. Again, as with "Caites," a mystery is finally solved as to what had happened to Claire.

Where does serendipity come into the story? Just by coincidence, and unknown to Walters, the real Indian Kateri, is indeed finally about to become canonized a Saint, the first indigenous person to be recognized by the Catholic Church. Walters discovered the coincidence the very day that the book went to print. The date set for the canonization: October 21, 2012! The real and the fictional coincide - almost to the day.

For Walters, the treatment of fact into fiction was actually the most fun - thinking up sculptural treatments and then describing them, and then leading to the momentous events of the book. Walters said, "I was looking for someone that had real historical roots that spoke to the themes in the book, and then I discovered Kateri. It was uncanny."

Coincidence or serendipity?

Note: The annual Michigan Technological University progressive dinner (free) begins at St. Al's at 4:30 p.m. Sunday.

Rotten Tomatoes averages: "Trouble With the Curve," B+; "House at the End of the Street," D+



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