South Surrey historical fiction author Tanya E. Williams confesses there’s nothing she loves more than helping readers “get lost in another time and place.”
In her poetic, psychologically-profound ‘Smith’ trilogy (Becoming Mrs. Smith, Stealing Mr. Smith and A Man Called Smith) the place was small-town South Dakota, and the time from the 1930s onward.
In All That Was the scene shifted to Seattle in 2015 – but in a story about an old church in which a character from the early 1900s remained a ghostly presence.
Now, Williams is focusing on a location much closer to home – Vancouver – but has dialed her time machine back to the spring of 1927.
Her latest novel, Welcome To The Hamilton, tells the story of the Wilson sisters – Clara, 17 and Louisa, 18 – trying their best, through a rigorous training program to become part of the household staff of Vancouver’s latest luxury hotel.
The book has already been named a finalist in the fiction category of the Canadian Book Club Awards, the largest readers’ choice awards in Canada, for which winners will be announced in December.
With a cover photographed by her husband, David – using a Semiahmoo Peninsula model and costuming loaned by the Earl Marriott Secondary theatre department – the attractively-designed book is a good Christmas gift bet for those intrigued by Vancouver history and the Downton Abbey era.
It’s the first of a series centred on the Hamilton, Williams said, in which the sisters will continue to figure – but other characters, some of them introduced in the first novel, will have their turn in the spotlight.
Life has changed drastically for Clara and Louisa since the death of their mother, five years before. Their father, once principal gardener for an estate that provided a comfortable living and cozy cottage for the family, has slipped into alcoholism.
He and the sisters now share an apartment in Vancouver, while he makes a modest living with temporary jobs for his former employer – much of which he spends in the liquor establishments, both legal and illegal, that have dotted the city since B.C.’s experiment with prohibition came to an end in 1921.
By chance, Clara discovers a final demand notice for unpaid rent from the building landlord in her father’s coat, revealing just how close the family is to being homeless.
Dramatic and vivacious Louisa, head in the clouds with dreams of becoming a stage actress, seems completely out of touch with the grim realities of their situation.
But responsible, worry-prone Clara, who has shouldered the burden of keeping the family together and grounded – just as her mother used to – is the one who must scrimp and scheme to make ends meet.
A want-ad for maids for the about-to-open Hotel Hamilton presents a potential solution to their troubles, but Clara is dismayed when Louisa horns in on her plan and applies to become a maid there, too.
It is only over time – and through Clara’s challenges of competing with Jane Morgan, an ambitious and self-serving fellow applicant at the hotel – that she discovers not only her own strength but also the true bonds of family, and, ultimately, renewed hope for the future.
With her typically evocative, empathetic prose, Williams draws a convincing portrait not only of the sisters and their father – and the personalities they encounter at the hotel – but also of Vancouver in a gentler time; in the process of morphing from a pioneer community to a bustling 20th century metropolis.
She successfully depicts an era minus the highrises and traffic snarls endemic to the modern city, where horse-drawn carts are still as common as automobiles and jitney buses; where the North Shore mountains are a consistent presence, and the uncluttered shoreline of English Bay is a only a gentle walk from the family’s Newbury Apartments – modelled on the real-life Manhattan Apartments at Robson and Thurlow.
Williams’ cinematic eye for detail – and fondness for research-based writing – is evident on every page.
“I spent hours at Vancouver Public Library, looking at copies of old newspapers and other materials,” she said.
“The staff there are fantastic – I probably had three or four them come by each day, asking ‘are you finding everything you need?’” Williams recalled.
She’s also very happy to back at home recreating a historical milieu, she said.
“I discovered, while writing All That Was, that I wasn’t much interested in contemporary life, or checking details of very recent history,” she said.
While the hotel is fictional, Williams has located The Hamilton at a site, at Robson and Howe, marked as ‘hotel’ in a 1926 map of Vancouver (Williams has since discovered it was actually the site of the Hotel York, demolished in the 1960s, which served primarily as staff quarters for the Hotel Vancouver).
But the author has rendered her imaginary version with such loving attention to detail that it is a believable ornament to the cityscape of old.
Indeed, she chuckled, a friend and reader in the U.S., planning a visit to Vancouver, was convinced The Hamilton was a genuine historic hotel, and recently tried to book a room there online.
Williams quest for authenticity also extends to the way she has depicted the affectionate, yet tense, relationship of the sisters.
“I actually polled my readers on how Clara and Louisa should relate to each other, as I only have my own experience with my sister to go from.
“They all came up with the same thing – there’s always that bit of competition there.”
Forgotten details and background information Williams has uncovered add further dimension to her depiction of ’20s Vancouver.
She points out, for instance, that there was a sense of shame attached to purchasing a bottle of milk at a grocery, as it implied that the the buyer didn’t have a regular milk delivery from a dairy – an indicator, in those times, of family solvency.
“The quality of life in Vancouver was not exactly what we picture when we talk of the Roaring 20s,” Williams said.
“There were a lot of people who were on the outside – like Clara and her family. And it was a time of very limited opportunities for women, when teenagers were forced by necessity to take on adult responsibilities.”
Clara’s rival Jane, daughter of a wealthy family, is much closer to the archetypal ‘flapper’ of the era, Williams agrees – and not entirely unsympathetic, in the final analysis.
“She was so much fun to write,” she laughed, “even though she is such a trouble-maker.
“There’s one in every book, I suppose. But I always like to know why they are the way they are.”
Welcome To The Hamilton (Rippling Effects, $18.95) is available from book stores and also through Williams’ website, tanyaewilliams.com