Written in his mother’s unique voice, John Leigh Walters pushes the boundaries of memoir in A Very Capable Life, the extraordinary journey of a seemingly ordinary woman.
Zarah Petri was a child when her family left Hungary to establish a new life in Canada in the 1920s. With courage and innovation, Zarah and her family survived the Depression―even if it meant breaking the law to do so. In celebrating Zarah Petri, A Very Capable Life pays homage to all “ordinary” women of the early twentieth century who challenged society’s conventions for the sake of survival.
There is nothing ordinary, here. arriving as a child from Europe in the 1920s, Zarah Petri marries at age sixteen, and is subsequently released from her job in a knitting mill. (“No married ladies, please.”) These are also the Prohibition years, so the young bride confined now to the kitchen, moves to replace the missing income by making and selling “grappa,” a homemade liquor, a sweet and satisfying distillate, a quick seller to area speakeasy patrons. Zarah’s grappa becomes unexpectedly popular. Zarah prospers, and her missing income is made bigger by twice. Later, during WWII, faced with a heavy mortgage on a farm she bought, between rows of field corn she grows rows of illegal poppies, the seeds of which she sells to the ethnic baking trade to be used in sweet goods. Historical: The federal government of the day forbade the growing of poppies believing it would lead to the manufacture of heroin as it had in China in the 1930s. And through the war when meat is rationed, Zarah markets freshly butchered hogs from the trunk of a car, in the dark of the night, to a thankful Italian and Portuguese public. All these things are punishable by jail time, but she does them anyway. Zarah has her own test for what is proper or improper, taken from the Good Book, Exodus 20: 1–17 saying, “If it is not forbidden here, it is forbidden nowhere.” Proof to her purpose, there is nothing in the Ten Commandments about distillates, poppies, or pork.
In the pages of this book I am the son mentioned. My birth occurred during the Depression; no money changed hands on that occasion; the attending physician, Dr. Leigh C. vanderburgh, was paid for his services by means of two imperial gallons of clear grappa. My middle given name is his.
I am also the writer of the text, carefully presented in the unique way Zarah Petri speaks. All events are true, but because of the character of some of those events the names of several family members have been changed.
The author, John Leigh Walters spent a lifetime writing, producing, and hosting television programs in both the United States and Canada.
A Very Capable Life won the Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-Fiction.