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Refuge by Merilyn Simonds


Merilyn Simonds will be one of four authors taking part in the Parry Sound Festival of Authors at the Charles W. Stockey Centre the evening of Wednesday 24 October 2018. Merilyn will be reading from her most recent book, Refuge.

Refuge is a story that takes place in Canada, the United States and Mexico, a landscape that Merilyn knows well as she divides her time between Kingston, Ontario and San Miquel de Allende, Mexico.

The novel begins with Cassandra MacCallum, now an elderly woman living in the countryside in Ontario, on an island in a lake, on what was once her family’s farm. Cassandra has received an email from a young woman who claims to be the granddaughter of Cassandra’s son, Charlie O’Brien. But, is she or is she not. Cassandra believed her son to be long dead and had not expected that he would have fathered a child. Is this girl correct in her belief, or is she simply a clever fraud, escaping from Burma, to a refugee camp in Thailand, and then to Canada. Cassandra is not about to believe the girl, but with the encouragement of a young neighbour she is drawn into an attempt to help her.

With each day that passes we are also drawn into the past, and read about Cassandra’s story beginning with her birth on the farm, one of many sisters. After her mother’s death, shortly after giving birth, Cassandra becomes the son her father never had, his constant companion, and student of his scientific experiments.

Much later Cassandra leaves the farm, becoming a nurse, a career that takes her to Mexico, the United States and finally back to Canada. Along the way there are friendships and a love affair resulting in a son who was raised by his mother in New York City, but spent summers with his aunt on the family farm in Ontario.

Born near the beginning of the last century, Cassandra, in her long life lived through the First World War and it’s aftermath, the Great Depression, the Second World War, the polio epidemic and much more. During her time in Mexico City she worked as a nurse caring for Frieda Kahlo before becoming pregnant and fleeing to New York City, where she became Sandra O’Brien and the mother of her son, Charlie.

Cassandra was also a photographer, passionate and inquisitive. An observer who chronicled her discoveries just as her father had when she was a girl. Her photographs and her papers are now with her on the island in Canada. They are part of her past, and now part of her present as she seeks answers to the questions she must now ask about her son, and of this young woman who may, or may not, be her great-grand-daughter.


I have to say I loved everything about this book. Cassandra’s thoughts as she looks back at her life, recalling comments her father made, thinking about her family and her place in it. Her observations about the time in which she lived, the regret at unkindness and her acknowledgement of the needs of others that she did not see at the time. And, the grief she holds as close as the memories of her son.

Cassandra often thinks of the father she loved so much and the things he said, “Change one thing and the whole world shifts” and “The future can belong to anyone, but the past is ours” are among the many gems of wisdom he shared with his daughter, always remembered.

Merilyn Simonds will be joined by Katherine Ashenburg, James FitzGerald and Wayne Grady at the Charles W. Stockey Centre the evening of 24 October 2018.

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