Sheelagh Whittaker

Sheelagh Whittaker

Author finds answers in family’s ancestry

Sheelagh Whittaker used her family’s history – and her journey to uncover it – for her first full-length novel

Creative writing schools often teach students to write what they know – and what does a writer know more about than their own family?

While researching her family’s geneology, Sheelagh Whittaker came across a story that was both shocking and intriguing – her great-grandfather’s second wife, along with her sister, were charged with the murder of the former’s illegitimate toddler.

She and her sister uncovered the family history after finding testimony of her grandmother, who was just nine at the time of the trial.

The story was just the sort that Whittaker was looking for.

“I thought, here’s my book,” she said.

The Slaidburn Angel traces Whittaker’s family history in Britain, along with a first-person account of the genealogical search, interspersed with modern history.

Whittaker said she didn’t shy away from the personal nature of the story, despite some of its negative aspects, because she always strove for honesty about herself.

Whittaker, who owns a home in Nanaimo and visits regularly, earned a master’s degree in business administration and climbed the corporate ladder to currently sit on the board of directors for Imperial Oil. She is also a director for Standard Life.

She was featured in the Women of Influence lecture series and named “The Pioneer” in the Globe and Mail’s Women in Power series. She is also a member of Maclean’s Honour Roll.

“I’m still a working woman,” Whittaker said.

She considers herself a feminist and a fighter for women’s rights, which leads her to always be honest with other women about her own struggles and consequences of her choices.

“That has been characteristic of my style,” she said.

The Slaidburn Angel was researched and written over a 12-year period, which saw her live in Australia and Canada, while maintaining a family and full-time job.

It’s her first full-length novel, aside from contributions to books like Memos to the Prime Minister, but she started writing as a child. She was first published in the Alberta Poetry Yearbook in 1960 and while her poem Oil! didn’t win, it was printed on the very last page of the anthology.

For her next book, she draws on her experiences and feminist ideals once again for a series of stories, inspired by the Canterbury Tales.

Whittaker presents her book for reading and discussion at Harbourfront library on July 22, 1-3 p.m. The event is free and open to the public.

For more information on the reading, please call 250-753-1154, ext. 238.

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