Sarah de Vries never had a chance to swim with her daughter after tragically disappearing from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside exactly 20 years ago last month, but a new book written by her sister for children describes what that special memory would have been like for them.
“The two of them both loved to swim but they never got to swim together so I wanted to write a story that changed that,” said local author Maggie de Vries, whose 11th book Swimming with Seals is published by Orca Book Publishers.
Her adopted sister Sarah was also a talented writer, penning letters, journals and poetry about life on the streets. After disappearing in 1998, the young woman’s DNA was eventually found on the farm of serial killer Robert Pickton.
De Vries drew from her sibling’s words in writing Missing Sarah: A Memoir of Loss, published in 2008 by Penguin Canada and later nominated for a Governor General’s Literary Award and the winner of several awards.
She followed that book up with Rabbit Ears, a teen fiction novel and winner of the Sheila A. Egoff Children’s Literature Prize in 2015. Now, de Vries’ latest writing which again draws on the experiences in her sister’s life is written for young children.
“Those three books are connected and yet they’re for three quite different audiences,” said de Vries of Missing Sarah, Rabbit Ears and Swimming with Seals.
The local author moved to Ladysmith from Vancouver last year with her husband Roland and recently held a book signing event at Salamander Books.
Vibrant colourful illustrations in the new book are provided by Janice Kun, a Toronto-based mixed media illustrator who blends photographic elements with watercolour paints.
Swimming with Seals tells the story of Ally, based on de Vries’ niece Jeanie, who lives far away from her mother on the other side of the country. One summer, the girl goes to live with her aunt and uncle in the “big city by the ocean” and in the process of learning more about her mother also discovers she loves swimming too.
“Sarah used to love to dive, and dive, and dive but because she disappeared when Jeanie was only seven they never had a chance to swim together,” said de Vries, who teaches creative writing at UBC.
”They would have loved it. I think it would have been very much like it is in the book and it worked well as a focal point for a story because it was a place to take a story to and away from.”
De Vries wrote the first draft of Swimming with Seals in 2015.
However, beyond the tragedy that is the basis for the book is the story of so many children who live apart from their biological families, the author noted.
“There’s a multitude of ways in which children are separated from their mothers and so I’m writing a specific story about a specific kind of separation and a way of overcoming it,” de Vries said, adding that she’s “hoping it speaks to children who feel that deep sense of loss and longing and need for connection that they can’t have and questions that can’t be answered,” she said.
“There’s so many different shapes of families and I think it’s important for all children to see that so they don’t think that only the traditional family is normal and everything else is weird or wrong in some way.”