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Different Contexts

By Jan Hansen


I love writing. Characters sometimes take on a life of their own. It makes my heart go thump-a-thump when they do something I wasn’t expecting.


I once wrote a story which was set during the American invasion of Niagara during the War of 1812. One character, a teenager named Mary, was embarrassed by her mother who disappeared when Mary brought an injured American soldier to the farm house, only to re-appear out of the fields, armed and disheveled. I couldn’t figure out why the mother had done this, until Mary’s father explained that as a former slave, her mother had fled the newly independent United States as a refugee, and the invasion made her fear that her children would be enslaved.


Later in life, Mary became part of one of the powerful families that ran the colony – I later realized it was a way of dealing with her family’s natural insecurity – only to have her son get tangled up in the rebellions of 1837. Her son wasn’t interested in his family’s position on the rebellion. He was trying to earn the love of the daughter of one of the rebels.


Writing multi-generational stories helped me understand both how the lives of one generation can affect another, and how we experience the same events differently. Mary’s mother had experiences that triggered behaviour that Mary could not understand, but they ended up shaping the course of Mary’s life. When it came to the rebellions, Mary’s reaction was shaped by her past just as much as her son’s was shaped by his present.


I wonder if the younger we are, the more we see events in the present, whereas age gives us perspective that demands that we see things in the light of what has gone before. Each generation thinks that their parents behave oddly at times, and part of that may be because even though they are living through the same moment in time, they are living in different contexts.


Now consider two people the same age, in the same time and location, but from different families. There is a good chance that they are living in wildly different contexts. The wonder isn’t that we have different world views. The wonder is that we are able to find common ground.

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