Susan Butlin's book will help Alma to heal

QMI Agency
Thursday, June 9, 2011

An award-winning art and Canadian cultural historian and a sublime subject -- that's a combination My London will always applaud.

The subject in this case is the late, lamented, tragic and beautiful Alma College. Teller of Alma's tale is London-born art historian and author Susan Butlin of St. Thomas. A celebration for Butlin's new book, All The Girls Have Gone: Alma College, the Latter Years, goes Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Elgin County Museum.

Butlin's brilliant and moving work has already received an important review from the critic I would trust most about Alma -- my mom. "This excellent book restores us from the hurt and anger we felt over what happened to Alma College," said mom aka London's greatest poet Colleen Thibaudeau.

Not an Alma student herself, mom grew up in St. Thomas and had many friends who were at the private school. She took swimming lessons at its pool and decades later read her poems at Alma along with my late father, Canadian poet and playwright James "Jamie" Reaney.

"I'm so happy to hear that -- I love what she said," Butlin said Wednesday as mom's words were relayed to her. All The Girls Have Gone is about healing, she said.

Alma's memories have needed healing. All The Girls Have Gone is the work to bring that healing.

Published by the Elgin County Archives, in partnership with the Alma College International Alumnae Association, Butlin's book tells of the international private girls' school in St. Thomas. It operated from 1877 to 1989, before enduring two bleak and confusing decades. The old school was destroyed by fire on May 28, 2008. (Two teenage boys, 15 and 16 at the time, were later of convicted of arson in Alma's destruction.) An earlier author's book, published in 1977, celebrated Alma's centennial.

Given "carte blanche" by the Alma grads for her work, Butlin found a way. "I didn't want this book to be like a little caboose that wasn't related to anything, just trailing along and picking up the last few years," Butlin said. All The Girls Have Gone is no caboose. Butlin is on track, full of purposeful fire, on a powerful and fascinating ride into Canadian women's history.

"I accepted the book commission because I felt that Alma College was a place where women could get education at a time when we were encouraged to lead very circumscribed lives," Butlin said. "Alma College offered a path to higher education for women."

A graduate of Banting secondary school, UWO and Carleton, she completed her PhD in Canadian studies at the Ottawa school in 2008. Her pre-Alma work, The Practice of Her Profession: Florence Carlyle, Canadian Painter in the Age of Impressionism (McGill-Queen's University Press, 2009), won the Ontario Historical Society's 2010 Alison Prentice Award for the best book on women's history published in the past three years.

It was a St. Thomas artist who provided her path to Alma. Butlin moved to St. Thomas about two years ago. Before taking on the archives and alumni commission, Butlin had been researching the life and art of St. Thomas art icon and Alma hero Lila (apparently pronounced "Lee-la") Caroline McGillivray Knowles (1886-1979). Born in Granton, Knowles had ties to Toronto's early 20th-century salon art scene through her guardian Farquhar McGillivray Knowles, a Canadian artist and her teacher. There was "a minor scandal" when the two eventually married in 1931 after the death of the artist's second wife.

Among the many magical images in All The Girls Have Gone is a photograph of Lila teaching outdoors at Alma. She returned to teaching there after Knowles' death in 1932. The photo is like something from Midsummer Night's Dream. "It's a beautiful photograph. She taught there from the mid-1920s," Butlin said.

In words and images, Butlin pays tribute to such Alma heroes as poet Margaret Avison, Canadian art icon Jean Sutherland Boggs, The Moon is Blue Broadway actor Simcoe-born Janet "Reddy" Riley and many others.

"I wanted to unite the history of its latter years to its wonderful early history," said Butlin, She has done this -- and so much more -- for Alma and its family.

Let the healing begin.