Kathy Lowinger remembers Jan

Kathy Lowinger attended the University of Toronto to study anthropology in 1968. She began her PhD at the University of Cambridge, though she left and took a job at the Ontario Association for Community Living where she spent ten years. Her next move was to become the executive director at the Children’s Book Centre. In 1996, Kathy – an author in her own right – became the publisher of Tundra Books, a post she held until her retirement in 1999,the year she published Mr Dickens Hits Town, by her good friend Jan Mark – a story based on fact about Charles Dickens’ brief but eventful time with the amateur theatrical company of the British Garrison stationed in Montreal. Here’s a wonderful account of her friendship with Jan …

Kathy Lowinger Toronto ’90 – photo by Enid Stephenson

I have many, many memories of Jan. I met her when I was the executive director of the Canadian Children’s Book Centre. I arranged a book tour for Philippa Pearce, Jill and Tony Paton Walsh, and Jan in Canada, with the understanding that Canadian authors would tour England thanks to the British book centre. Jan was a wonderful speaker, hilarious, to the point, fascinating. She hated the endless receptions etc. and she was impatient with school librarians who spent too much time on a single book. She wanted kids to read broadly and without fetters.

When it was time for the British equivalent of the Book Centre to reciprocate, they did nothing. This infuriated Jan. She organized the tour for three Canadian writers, plus Katherine Paterson who came along. She had her ex-husband Neil drive us across the country to meet kids all over. It would have been a disaster if Jan had not done hours and hours of phoning, arm twisting, etc. 

From left to right: Kathy Stimson, Jean Little, Katherine Paterson, Monica Hughes, Camilla Gryski – photo by Enid Stephenson

For several winters I was privileged enough to stay with Jan over Christmas. The last time was when Alfred was an infant — I imagine he is a grown man now. Alfred, if you read this, there was never a more proud Gran. Jan was a superb cook. My visits centred around a Christmas dinner that had every possible delicious thing – I remember a roast goose fondly. I can still see Jan washing up with the cats swirling around her feet. Jan liked her solitude, but the season, with Alex and Isobel there, was special to her. She festooned every surface with the cards she had received. Most of the time, we sat by the fire with books, boxes of chocolate, wine, and just relaxed. It was bliss. She had renovated her bathroom, and it was a thing of beauty. Big bath tubs were a novelty for most Canadians in those days. A special treat for me was to lie in the tub and look out over the garden and the allotments behind her house. She was a wonderful, caring, non-hovering host to anyone lucky enough to visit her.

For some reason Jan liked to come to Canada in November. November is a truly unlovely month here, grey and cold. Nevertheless, she liked it. We would spend a lot of time with Janet Lunn, mostly talking and laughing. Janet had a house in the country in Prince Edward County. Prince Edward County is now very trendy, but in those days it was just odd. It more or less juts out into Lake Ontario and was settled by Loyalists during the Revolutionary War. Anybody whose family arrived after 1776 is a newcomer. Jan loved the eccentricity (not a surprising thing when the county shared so few ancestors). She loved the Bird House Museum. It stands in a field. The bird houses were made by one man. Each one represents a local municipal building. There is a plaque with a list of the buildings but they aren’t matched with the bird houses so it is quite useless. This struck all of us as hysterically funny. She also was taken with the museum in a tiny village named Hillier. Somebody had carved the Fathers of Confederation out of apple dolls, and flushed from that triumph, was about to do the Last Supper. 

I think that the Bird House museum was what inspired Jan to do her delightful book, Great Frog and Mighty Moose.

Kathy published Mr Dickens Hits Town (1999), while Mick Gowar – to whom the book is dedicated – published Jan’s travelogue of Canada, Great Frog and Mighty Moose (1992), in lieu of an autobiography for his ‘Teenage Memoir’ series at Walker Books.

In those days I worked for Lester Publishing, a terrific small press. I was the children’s book publisher. I was stuck trying to make a picture book out of a record for children about Tchaikovsky’s trip to Niagara Fall. It was called, not too subtly, Tchaikovsky Discovers America. It’s real purpose was to introduce kids to Tchaikovsky but the story the ‘writers’ provided was idiotic. In return for a bottle of good Canadian whiskey, Jan set down at my kitchen table and spent the weekend writing a terrific piece out of the bits I could provide her. It was published under a pseudonym, Esther Kalman. I was beyond grateful to her. 

Jan was very interested in Judaism. She came with me several times to synagogue. To her surprise, Rabbi Larry Pinsker, had read Zeno Was Here and was thrilled to meet the author. (A small aside, if you google Sarah Pinsker, Larry’s daughter, you will see that she is an award-winning science fiction writer.) 

Oh Jan, fan of cats, tolerant of dogs. Jan had bought two beautifully decorated gingerbread men for her children and packed them in her suitcase in the guestroom. My beagle/basset Gracie found the suitcase, managed to get it open, and without disturbing anything, delicately extracted every bit of cookie from the wrapping. Jan was really cross at her, and then at me, because I couldn’t stop laughing.

One year, Jan came in June, right after my mother died. It was a terrible time for me, and I could not eat. Jan knew what I needed. She brought me great big slabs of Cadbury Fruit and Nut, and for weeks, they were all I could keep down. 

I lost touch with Jan, thanks to my own sloth, for the last years of her life. I will always be ashamed of having let this precious friendship wither. Jan was difficult, and shy, funny, and simply the best writer I ever knew. One of my life’s greatest regrets is that we lost touch, and one of my life’s greatest gifts was knowing her.

Kathy Lowinger, April 2020

Read more about Mr Dickens Hits Town here.