Merilyn Simonds’ new book didn’t exactly fall into her lap; she had to go climbing into her attic to find it. For most of the summer of 1987, Simonds, a journalist who’s written 10 books, had been meaning to close the open attic hatch in the ceiling of the house she’d recently occupied in Kingston, Ontario; finally, she’d found a stepladder to do the job. Once up the ladder, she couldn’t help raising her head through the hatch – and into the company of a convict, a village girl, and the book she’d be writing over the course of the next eight years.
In April, the story that Simonds mined from her discovery under the rafters surfaces in The Convict Lover: A True Story, a book that publisher Macfarlane Walter & Ross expects will attract considerable attention because of its intriguing blend of fact and fiction.
In that low attic, Simonds found the floor adrift with the abandoned paperwork – bills, letters, pamphlets – of an anonymous life. One set of letters, written on coarse rectangles of toilet paper, particularly interested her. It soon became clear they represented half of a clandestine correspondence that, in 1919, a 17-year-old Kingston girl who once lived in Simonds’ home had struck up with a convict. Sitting on her kitchen floor that afternoon in 1987, Simonds began to realize that these letters – they were all from the convict to the girl – constituted a remarkable record, both of an unorthodox relationship and of Canadian prison life at the beginning of the century.
“It was like overhearing a telephone conversation,” Simonds says of reading the 79 letters for the first time. “I just became completely intrigued.” While it wasn’t clear immediately that there was cause for a book, Simonds soon set about trying to organize the correspondence. It took some doing: some of the letters ran to 25 pages, and only four of the 79 showed dates, ranging from late 1919 through to the spring of 1921.
Gradually, the story pieced itself together this way: in 1919, a small-time thief called Joseph David Cleroux was serving two years and a day for having escaped the northern Ontario work camp he’d been sentenced to for stealing a car. Time at Kingston Penitentiary was hard time, and hard time meant working in the limestone quarries to the north of the prison. Phyllis Halliday’s family lived in a house bordering the quarry, and one day – after who knows what illicit sign or smile – Cleroux tossed a note into a ditch. Phyllis duly retrieved it and, later, must have replied; a correspondence began.
And bloomed. Signing themselves with pseudonyms – Phyllis was “Peggy,” Joe was “Josie” or “Daddy Long Legs” – they began to exchange not only words but gifts. Phyllis bought tobacco and newspapers and left them with her letters in a hiding place they’d agreed on; her new friend kindly lent her books from the penitentiary library. Joe’s letters were full of stories from inside, chatty bits of news, and accounts of himself that may or may not have been entirely truthful (he told the prison, for example, that he was born in 1893; he told Phyllis 1895). “The writing,” says Simonds, “is very charming. He was a very romantic, sentimental character.” As far as she could follow, the relationship … well, the relationship progressed. “I don’t want to give too much away,” she says.
For about two years Simonds sifted the mail to see what it told of Joe and Phyllis. Her initial research took her back through Kingston newspapers as she tried to date the letters. “In one letter he said, ‘This is the third Friday in a row that it’s rained.’ Well, I watched for the third Friday in a row that there was rain and I was able to peg that letter.”
Prison life, uncensored
The more she read and researched, the more she realized that what she had in these letters was more than a fascinating personal narrative. “What makes them so unique,” she says, “is that they’re completely uncensored accounts written in the prison. As far as I know, there’s no other correspondence like this, certainly not in Canada, probably not in North America. The kind of record that we have of prison life is either written in prison and mailed out, which has to go through the censor, or recalled afterwards, which is quite a different process.”
To fill out what the convict had to tell of Kingston Pen, Simonds dug into prison records, memoirs, histories, reports. Although there were disheartening holes in the public record – during renovations at the penitentiary over the past decade, much official paper has been arbitrarily dispensed with – Simonds soon found that she was able to piece together a compelling secondary narrative detailing prison life and conditions at the beginning of the century.
“The more I read, the more I realized it was also the nine months leading up to the first riot in Kingston Penitentiary, a riot that doesn’t really appear in the history books. It was the first time there was protest in the prison to try to improve conditions.”
Likewise, Simonds found that her story was also about Portsmouth, the village on Kingston’s western outskirt that sprouted around Kingston Penitentiary to house prison staff and their families. “As it happened, Phyllis’s family was one of those old penitentiary families. Her great-grandfather had emigrated from England and gone to work there in 1847. So I was able to use her family as a kind of template for the relationship between the village and the penitentiary.”
Over and above background materials, there was also the matter of tracking down the correspondents – apart from anything else, Simonds understood that she needed the Cleroux family’s permission to quote from the letters. But finding them wasn’t easy. “I had a few clues,” she laughs. “He went under four different names and he said he was born in either Renfrew, Ontario, Ogdensburg, New York, or Detroit, Michigan.”
The last fix she had on him was in December 1921; over five years, at considerable expense, she tried to find where he’d gone from there. “I searched all four names in those three birthplaces in the census records and the property records, from 1921 to the present. You’re charged by the year, so it was enormously expensive. I searched the death records of the provinces and states bordering the Great Lakes. I ran ads in all the major newspapers in the places he was reported to have been.” She followed the trail to Windsor, Ontario and Detroit, the last cities in which he’d had an address. “Not a damn thing showed up.” Her only good luck was to find Cleroux’s mug shot in Ottawa’s National Archives.
On Phyllis’s side, the trail wasn’t so faint. She had died in 1986, a year before Simonds went into the attic. She had never married, but a niece lived with her family in Kingston. “I didn’t contact them until this past fall,” Simonds says. “The book is limited just to the 10 months of the story, and I really wanted to concentrate on Phyllis as a 17-year-old girl, and I was very wary of having my perception of her as I’d gleaned it from what she left tainted by memories of people who knew her as an old woman.”
At the back of her mind, she was also slightly wary of the family’s reaction. “I wasn’t sure how they would respond to finding out that dear old Aunt Phyll had been consorting with criminals.” In the end, they were fascinated and were able to answer some of Simonds’ outstanding questions and provide photographs.
With its mixture of meticulously re-created fact and fiction, Simonds’ book could attract a good deal of attention. The first-run printing will be “in the 5,000-area,” according to Jan Walter, who’s also Simonds’ editor. As to just how you market such a hybrid as this – in the MW&R catalogue, The Convict Lover is deemed to be “History/Canadiana/Biography” – Walter doesn’t foresee confusion among readers. “It’s what David Macfarlane’s The Danger Tree was,” she says, “it’s what Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family was. We are calling it non-fiction and will let people object if they wish, but it’s a genre that’s now fairly familiar to people.”
Simonds doesn’t concern herself too much with categories. “I’ve come around to calling it ‘narrative non-fiction,’” she offers. “I hate ‘creative non-fiction;’ I hate assuming there’s such a thing as non-creative non-fiction.
“It’s called a true story and I think that says it all. The characters are true; the events are all true. What I’ve done is put in place all of what really happened, the grounded facts of history and person, and then laced them together with my own speculation. I think I’ve been faithful, as faithful as anyone can be. What you have is the footprint of history; what I’ve tried to do is re-create the shoe.” –Stephen Smith