Friday, February 15, 2013

Calling My Characters Home

By Kim

All of us here at What Women Write have been thinking a lot about “home” lately, thanks to the release of our own Julie Kibler’s debut novel, Calling Me Home. We’ve weighed in on what we consider home to be and what it is about that place that calls us.

I wrote my post about a place I’ve never actually lived, but with which I feel a primal connection. I was in the midst of a major revision of The Oak Lovers at the time, and it struck me that my great-grandfather and I both had spiritual homes far away from where we lived. (He pined for the far north of Ontario and I long for Georgian Bay.) We’ve also both had many physical homes.

While I fictionalized portions of Carl and Madonna’s lives in order to make a compelling narrative, their various “homes” in the novel are real places, many of which still stand today. I thought it might be fun to share a few of these.

One of Carl and Madonna’s first homes was this Eli farm wagon. Carl had been commissioned to paint the old California missions in the summer of 1906. Motor cars weren’t allowed on mountain roads, and so this served both as their mode of travel and their residence. This photo was taken near the mission at San Diego. Madonna, then about four months pregnant, is doing the laundry. Carl almost certainly held the camera.


This photo was taken at Carl and Madonna’s Toronto residence (1909-1911), likely by Carl, in the summer of 1910. All people in the photograph are characters in The Oak Lovers. The adults, from left to right are, Sarah Wainwright (Madonna’s mother), Madonna Ahrens, Isabella Hynds (Carl’s mother) and Richard Hynds (Carl’s step-father). The children are Dickadee Wainwright (Madonna’s half-sister), Penelope Ahrens and Laird Ahrens. This house still stands.


This is Carl and Madonna’s house in Lambton Mills (1911-1919). That’s Carl on the porch along with one of his daughters, probably my grandmother Chloris, who was born in the house. Lambton Mills is now part of Etobicoke, just west of Toronto. The house still stands today, though the porch is gone, as is the building Carl used as his studio.

During the summers of 1913 and 1914, Carl and Madonna called this cottage home. It was located on the beach at Leith, a small village near Owen Sound on Georgian Bay. The baby is my grandmother, Chloris, and judging by her age, this photo was taken in 1913. Also in the photo are Madonna Ahrens and Sigrid Ahrens. The house has been torn down, but there are still summer cottages along this beach today.

This photo features the house closest to Carl and Madonna’s heart, their Galt, Ontario, residence called Big Trees. They lived here from 1923-1935. That’s Carl and Madonna in rockers out front. Carl’s studio was in the small wing on the right. At the time, the house was a half mile from their nearest neighbors, but now the neighborhood is completely developed. Miraculously, the house still stands and has been beautifully taken care of. I visited the first time when I was eight and have been back three times since.

Have any of you used real houses as inspiration for your settings, even if your characters are fictional?


  1. Cool photos, Kim! I particularly love the bottom one in Galt. Very 'en plein air,' if you know what I mean. I feel that heart yearning for the northern Great Lakes, as well. But I think I'd have to stay on one of my 'pleasant peninsulas.' ;-)

  2. I'd love to see the "far north" Carl longed for, but during the summer! Georgian Bay I think I could handle even in the winter. Unfortunately, my husband gets cold easily and my children are native Texans, so I don't think they would survive.

  3. Kim, I am currently working on a "song cycle" in collaboration with composers Charlene Nafziger and Mike Erb. Our first was called "The River Rolls" and you can hear it at The new one, "Across the Senses", will celebrate the work of artists who have a connection with Waterloo Region. I know a few works by Carl Ahrens, and plan to include him in our musical melange.

    1. Paul, that is wonderful! I hope you contact me again when it is done, as I would love to hear it. You can reach me directly through my Carl Ahrens website.

  4. Kim . Big Trees looks like my childhood home from age 4 to 11. Was it located off hwy 97 . Some called the dirt lane going toit "boomers lane " close to south cambridge centre

  5. Joe, it is a bit north of there, in the old Galt district.


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