Newcastle novelists write about real life

Robert Kerby signing his books at Chapters. (photo supplied)

Read any gripping novels by Newcastle authors lately? If you didn’t know that any existed, the recent efforts of two local writers are meant to change all that. While neither man’s books came by way of a big name publishing company, these authors can both attest that sometimes a story is too good to keep to yourself.

Just ask Robert Kerby. A graphic designer by trade (who is now “slipping into semi-retirement”), Kerby says that when he started, he “never intended to write a book.” He was instead doing genealogical research, looking for a few factual details about a mysterious ancestor.

“When I was young, I heard stories about a strange aunt,” he explains. “I grew up thinking she was an aunt, but she actually turned out to be my great-grandmother on my mother’s father’s side. As I got older, I started to get more and more curious about her. I tried to track her down to see if all the stories about her were true. I discovered that a lot of the things she was heavily criticized for, she had good reason to do.”

Kerby realized the family only knew half the story. “I wanted to set the record straight and see if I could redeem her reputation to some degree. I originally set out to write a small book about her life, strictly for the benefit of my children and family,” he says, adding with a laugh, “but my wife said it’s too good a story to waste on the kids.”

What resulted was a fictionalized version of his great-grandmother’s story that became The Regiment’s Woman. It follows the “true-life adventures of the beautiful, yet scandalous Janetta Rundel, who would stop at nothing to rise out of poverty and become a lady,” tracing her life from 1864 until 1902, when she mysteriously disappears.

Published by Olympia Publishers in the UK, and available from Amazon in the UK and the US, The Regiment’s Woman was a semi-finalist in the 2008 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, and a finalist in the ForeWord Review Book of the Year Award.

Kerby grew up in Essex, England, emigrating to Canada in 1968. He met his wife, Jenny, who is also British, and they lived in Scarborough for over 30 years, before moving to Newcastle six years ago. The couple used to perform in the Argentine tango dance troop Los Milongueros, and Kerby still teaches the Argentine tango and ballroom dancing in Oshawa.

“I have to admit I’ve always been a romantic,” says Kerby, but he calls The Regiment’s Woman a “gritty romance” because it’s about a woman using her love affairs to further her ambitions. “I didn’t set out to write a woman’s book, but 90 percent of the books I’ve sold have been to women.”

However, he says his new book, The Undermerchant’s Woman, is “more of a swashbuckling adventure” which may appeal more to men. The story is “100 percent factual,” says Kerby, an “epic true-life adventure,” which traces the journey of Lucretia, the young wife of Undermerchant Boudewijn van der Mijlen, as she sets sail in 1629 aboard a Dutch East India Company’s ship to join her husband in Java.

“Everyone has heard of the Titanic, and the Mutiny on the Bounty,” says Kerby, of other shipwreck tales. “This is ten times more horrific. It’s an absolutely heartrending story. It’s a true story about actual people. They say that fact is stranger than fiction, and it’s very, very true. One thing led to another that led to disaster. That’s what makes for a fascinating story. It is actual, recorded history. All I’ve done is written it as a novel; I’ve just written dialogue.”

The book will be officially released midway through this month, but it can already be purchased from the publisher’s website: www.publishamerica.com. Kerby will be at the Chapters store in Markham on Nov. 13, and the Kennedy Commons Chapters on Nov. 20, to sign copies of The Undermerchant’s Woman. Check his website www.robertkerbybooks.com for future signing dates closer to home, or to order either of his books.

Kerby says he hopes to find a Canadian publisher for his next novel, one of three he is working on. All are based on factual events: The Mafeking Woman, about the siege of Mafeking in South Africa during the Boer War; The Sea Wall, the true story of a 12-year-old boy who gets blood poisoning from a leg injury and spends his teenage years in a hospital; and a story focusing on a piece of local history.

Newcastle resident Andy Borger also wanted to use his writing to preserve some facts for posterity. He says he wanted to impart some of the experiences of Dutch Calvinist immigrants during the mid-20th Century to the younger generations. Like Kerby, Borger chose to fictionalize his account of a society long since gone. But unlike Kerby, Borger’s characters are not based on real people, at least not completely.

The Crooked Road follows the experiences of Gary and Ann Van denBerg, young Dutch immigrants working as farm labourers, saving money to one day buy a farm of their own. They form friendships, tackle language barriers, and grapple with cultural and religious differences, but it is the moral questions they face that prove the most challenging.

“I experienced a lot of the stuff, not in my own personal life, but as an elder in the Church for many, many years,” says Borger of the events that transpire in The Crooked Road, and then come to a head in its sequel, The Dam Breaks.

Borger emigrated to Canada from the Netherlands in 1957, with his wife Daly. He obtained his B.A. degree in 1964 from Calvin College, Grand Rapids, MI and began an 18-year career as a teacher and principal of Christian Elementary Schools, before he changed his occupation to become a Quality Assurance Manager, introducing the statistical method in several factories.

Borger says he was inspired in his writing by the work of Chris Irwin, a Christian author from St. Catharines. “He wrote a series about a minister, and to me that was really factual life,” he says. “In a lot of what they call Christian novels, the characters get in trouble and they pray and everything is hunky dory. Life is not that way. I tried to avoid that in my books.”

Borger admits he shares some personality traits with the main character, Gary Van denBerg. “My [second] wife Pat read it, and she said, ‘Definitely Gary’s like you: a penny-pincher.’ And some of those things that happened 50 years ago, I was mad about them, just like Gary,” he says. “They wouldn’t happen here today. Back then women couldn’t even vote in the Church, now they can be ministers.”

But unlike his main character, Borger did not struggle to be faithful in his marriage. “In that sense, I’m not like Gary. I was married 48 years to my first wife with no infidelity,” he says.

In fact it was his grief over the death of Daly in 2004 that prompted Borger to start writing again, a hobby he had given up years before.

“Some of the poems deal with her sickness and her death,” he explains of the faith-filled poems. “The first seven are about her illness. Most were written after she passed away.”

What resulted was Poetry from the Heart, a collection of poems he self-published in 2009. He says it was only after he received encouragement from friends, and especially from Pat, that he decided to publish the poems.

“I published them because I hope that somebody else may be strengthened by it in their faith. The books are somewhat like that too, in that they are Christian books.”

He says he does not measure his success by the number of books he sells, but rather the impact they have on his readers. The feedback he got from his poetry book was especially satisfying, he says, particularly a letter from one reader which told how the poems spoke to her “on a spiritual level.”

He is working on a third novel, about a family living on a farm on the Dutch/German border, and their son, who emigrates to Canada. Borger published The Crooked Road earlier this year, and just released The Dam Breaks this month. Both novels and his poetry book can be ordered by contacting the author at: aborger@rogers.com or phoning 905-419-2066.

While he thinks that his books will be of particular appeal to people with a Dutch Calvinist background, and those in the 60-plus age group, he says younger readers have enjoyed the stories too, as have those of different religious backgrounds. “I gave The Crooked Road to a Roman Catholic friend to read. He was born Canadian, with an Irish background, and he loved it. I was surprised,” says Borger, with a laugh.

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