Women and Children

Hooked on reading

Sex-trade workers in the Downtown Eastside get their own book club thanks to a bookseller and an author

By Deborah Jones
Special to the Globe and Mail
Thursday, May 20, 2004

VANCOUVER -- Bookseller Mary Trentadue belongs to a book club, recommends and sells books to clubs, hosts book clubs in her book store and even teaches a college course about book clubs. Perhaps it's logical, then, that when Trentadue decided to do something for the prostitutes living in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, she lit upon the idea of a book club for sex-trade workers.

The club, Beyond Words, was sparked by last year's publication of Missing Sarah, a sometimes charming, sometimes raw remembrance of a Downtown Eastside woman by her sister Maggie de Vries. "When I read it, I thought, 'Oh, wow, everybody needs to read this book,' " said Trentadue. But she reckoned those who would most like to read the book, the prostitutes who were Sarah's friends and neighbours, would not be able to afford it.

Trentadue, who owns 32 Books in North Vancouver, broached her idea of donating books and forming a Downtown Eastside book club with de Vries, who has become an advocate for prostitutes and drug addicts since her sister went missing in 1998. "It's always been frustrating to me that the people most interested in reading the book, and to whom it's most relevant, don't have access to it," said de Vries. "I've given copies, but I can't supply the whole Downtown Eastside with books." De Vries brought in Raven Bowen of Vancouver's Prostitution Alternatives Counseling and Education Society, which is run by and for sex-trade workers.

Together, the three women decided to start a club by handing out 100 hard cover copies of Missing Sarah to women working on the streets. Simon Fraser University chipped in $2,600 in seed money from a program for community education, and publisher Penguin Canada sold them hardcover copies of Missing Sarah at the paperback price of $15 wholesale. Trentadue convinced four other independent book stores, Hager Books, People's Co-op, Women in Print and Duthie Books, to promote the club by asking their customers to buy copies of it to give to the women.

"The book club is a wonderful idea," said Susan, a friend of Sarah de Vries who was fixing coke and doing arts and crafts with her in a hotel room just before Sarah vanished off the streets in April, 1998. "The book is great. Lots of Maggie's heart is in there and all Sarah's spirit is in there. It portrays Sarah and the other girls and myself as people, not just street scum. "I read an awful lot - I read a book in a couple of nights - and this took me two months because everything I read was so close to the heart," said Susan, who quit drugs and left Vancouver and its notorious Downtown Eastside strolls and open drug markets five years ago. "I found it hard to read."

"Hard to read" is one description of almost all stories about the Downtown Eastside. Mostly they involve rampant drug addiction and the controversial government-supervised heroin-injection site, constant fatality reports of drug overdoses and violent murder and, prominently, the tales of more than 60 women who vanished over a 25-year period and their alleged murders, which are so sensational they've come to define the area around the world.

And the stories will only get worse. Next month, accused serial killer Robert Pickton will appear in court to have a date set for his trial on 15 charges of first-degree murder in the deaths of women from the Downtown Eastside. Police and prosecutors have said they plan to lay seven more murder charges. Early this year police announced that they found the DNA from nine other women on Pickton's pig farm in the suburb of Port Coquitlam, for a total of 31 women. Recently, health authorities warned the public that pig meat from Pickton's farm could be contaminated by human DNA.

Against this gruesome public backdrop, Missing Sarah is a personal and intimate portrait of one of the women whose DNA has been found on the Pickton farm. Sarah appears in police reports as a dry statistic and in media reports as a hooker and drug addict, but she comes alive in her sister's book as a warm, feisty and sometimes obnoxious flesh-and-blood human being. The book seems a natural choice of a first book for a club of the women living Sarah's life.

It's the story of how an 11-month-old black baby was adopted into a white, middle-class Vancouver family of two parents and four children; how she was loved at home; taunted about her race at school; grappled with being abandoned by her birth parents; blamed herself for the divorce of her adoptive parents; and as a troubled young adolescent was drawn into the restless, exciting, dangerous world of Vancouver's street sex scene. There, she had rollicking and poignant adventures with friends, horrific experiences with abusive customers, birthed and gave up two babies - and vanished.

Throughout Maggie de Vries's sisterly remembrances and observations are poems, letters and journal entries written by Sarah. Some recount childhood memories of dressing up a dog, getting "A" in math and learning to swim.

Sarah also writes of prostitution and drug addiction: "Inside I feel dirty, slutty and cheap. I know I'm worth more, but I'm a whore and that's not all, but a junkie as well." Elsewhere, she describes coming off drugs cold turkey in jail.

Trentadue hopes the women leading lives like Sarah's will find value in sharing her words and Maggie's sisterly memories. "A book club gives people an opportunity to read something and then share it, . . . they say, I didn't like this, or I understand this. It changes the way you read."

Missing Sarah was handed out to 100 women this month from a van that roams prostitute strolls in Vancouver and is staffed by outreach workers who are former prostitutes. Some of the recipients have already gathered to craft book covers for their copies, and next Tuesday about 30 are expected to attend the club's first formal meeting at a local social-service agency. They'll be treated to a catered lunch, readings by Maggie de Vries and a discussion led by Trentadue about the next book they'd like to read.

De Vries and Trentadue have a few other books in mind, which they hope will be supplied through donations. The titles include: Monkey Beach, by Eden Robinson; Going Down Swinging, by Billie Livingston; and To All Appearances a Lady, by Marilyn Bowering. The choice, they say, will be up to the women. "Ideally, we're going to set up the first book club meeting, and what we'd like is for the women to take ownership," Trentadue said. The next scheduled meetings are Sept. 28 and Nov. 30.

"There hasn't been a lot of good things coming out of the Downtown Eastside," says Trentadue. "It's been in the news and it's very sad and tragic. This is not sad and tragic."

Trentadue, De Vries and Bowen

Women's Rights