“A man often died alone”

“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? …we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.” (Franz Kafka, from a letter to Oskar Pollak, January 27, 1904)

It’s violent language to use about the experience of reading but I understand it. There are books, and then there are books, the ones that break you open and let all the elements batter your heart. Your mind. And I would extend this to the writing of books as well. I write to find out. I don’t work from outlines or templates. I can’t imagine a workshop that would teach me how to do the kind of writing I do. Which isn’t to say it’s particularly original or inventive or important. I don’t mean that. But I mean that it’s mine. When I go into the work, it’s my own strange journey; the baggage I carry is never quite enough or quite right but I couldn’t find a list telling me what else I might need.

The work I’m trying to find my way through right now keeps surprising me. (I’ve put my novella-in-progress aside because, well, I need to do something else at present. And the novella’s time will come.)

I remember asking my dad if his parents had brothers and sisters. “I never asked,” was his reply. I couldn’t imagine not knowing. My brothers were so important to me (still are) and I believe my children feel the same way. Their own children will know who their uncles and aunts are, as I knew my dad’s brothers and sisters. Not well, because they lived far from us and they were the progeny of a first marriage; my father was born late in my grandmother’s life and so his brothers and sisters were much older. (He was born in 1926 and the oldest of his brothers — twins — were born in 1905.)

In the research I’ve been doing after my brief trip to Drumheller the other week, I’ve found a man I believe was my grandmother’s brother. I first saw his name — Joseph (or Jozef) Klus — on a list describing the squatters on Section 11, Township 29, Range 20, west of the 4th Meridian (the land I thought my grandmother’s first husband was granted under the Dominion Homestead Act and instead discovered that no, he and his family were part of a squatters’ settlement on that land). Joseph Klus is listed as occupying Lot 6. (Shack 10 x 15 built into bank $25.00). My grandmother’s family occupied Lot 9. Hmm, I thought. Could he be related to my grandmother, whose maiden name was Klus? Searching for more information about him, I discovered he died in the Spanish flu epidemic on October 26, 1918. (My grandmother’s first husband died two days later.)

From the Drumheller Mail, November 29, 0001 (a mistake, I suspect, but don’t know if it should be 2001, so will simply leave it):

“Even as a man was dying, another was waiting to occupy his bed. A man often died alone, among strangers who could not understand him even when he was only begging for water. Terror of the Black Death kept family or friends from visiting him. Some victims never got to our hospital; they had been abandoned to die in a dugout or shack,” wrote nurse Gertrude Charters, a volunteer who dared to enter the quarantined Drumheller during the Spanish Influenza outbreak of 1918.


“Drumheller was hit worse than others, partly because the living conditions were terrible. This was an era where Drumheller was called Hell’s Hole because the living conditions were so terrible. Primitive shacks, latrines which were never cleaned and latrines which were too close to the water supply,” says the Atlas Coal Mine’s Linda Digby. “This was when the population explosion had just happened and the infrastructure just wasn’t there.”
The Drumheller Hospital wasn’t built until 1919, with the flu outbreak tapering off around that time.

Last night, talking to my son Forrest (a historian), I told him about Joseph Klus and wondered if I’d ever know if he was my grandmother’s brother. Forrest very quickly accessed the Canada Passenger Lists 1881-1922 online and found Joseph sailed from Rotterdam to Nova Scotia in December 1913 with the purpose of joining his married sister in Drumheller. So yes, almost certainly her brother. (She herself had sailed from Antwerp to Saint John in March of the same year, in steerage, with 5 small children, in order to join her husband who’d come the previous year.)

jozef klus

A kind woman in Horni Lomna, my grandmother’s village in what’s now the Czech Republic, searched the parish records last year and told me that my grandmother had two younger sisters. But nothing about a brother. The passenger list gives his occupation as “farm labourer”. I think of him traveling from the remote Beskydy Mountains, green and beautiful, to Rotterdam, across the ocean, then crossing the country by train, to join his sister in the squatters’ settlement where he built a shack into a bank and settled in to do, well, what? Did he marry? Was there anyone to care for him as he died? I imagine my grandmother was very busy trying to keep her children healthy — there were nine by then — as her own husband lay dying in their own shack. But surely she’d had offered what comfort she could.

I don’t know why I need to know all this and to try to make sense of it a hundred years later, my father dead, anyone else who might have been able to help me figure out this story dead, both Josephs buried near spruces in the Drumheller cemetery, their shacks obliterated from place and memory. In my extended family, no one knew about Joseph Klus. I don’t know why the thought of him makes me weep helplessly but it does. The thought of all of them, hardly remembered.

2 thoughts on ““A man often died alone””

  1. Bless you for your comment. It’s strange territory — the land of ghosts. Yet I go there almost willingly because the thought of the lives of those I’m connected to being forgotten is unthinkable right now.

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