Alicia Woodman was born into a home that should have been filled with comfort and joy. Her mother Elizabeth was bright and vivacious, Humphrey Woodman was a prosperous businessman. But Alicia was not Humphrey’s child and he would have nothing to do with her. Before long Elizabeth, too, turned her back on her daughter.
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It was left to Polly Ford, widow of a dock labourer, to bring Alicia up, to teach her to say Yes, Mama’ and to give the child the love she so desperately needed. In a hypocritical society full of thin-lipped disapproval, Alicia would learn that the human spirit can soar over adversity and that, though blood may be thicker than water, love is the most powerful relationship of all.
Yes Mama is another of Helen’s books that draws on her experience and observation of two cultures and how people’s lives were influenced by events and economic and social pressures.
The idea for Yes Mama originated in Helen’s observations of an aspect of contemporary Canadian life. She noticed the prominence of women in many cultural and social institutions and traced the roots of this phenomenon to immigration patterns from England in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Here is how she explained it to a book critic.
“In the 19th-century, working class women were absorbed into work on farms, in the new factories and in the huge field of domestic service. They could face widowhood or life as a spinster more easily than the daughters of the privileged classes, and these were often destitute. Maria Rye founded the Female Middle-Class Immigration Society in 1861 – and she was by no means the first.
“The result of this mass emigration of cultivated women can be clearly seen even today in the prairie provinces of Canada. Women founded and still control all cultural pursuits, eg, theatre, ballet, music of all kinds, libraries, bookshops, etc. Granddaughters of these brave pioneers are far more cultured than their grandsons are! It is a very odd phenomenon.
“I found this little corner of Canadian history fascinating and determined to make use of it in Yes, Mama.“