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OBITUARY Winter 2003

Monica Hughes
By Paula Johanson
 


 
Monica Hughes
Photo by Glenn Anderson

Monica Hughes has been called "Canada's finest writer of science fiction for children" by critic Sarah Ellis in The Horn Book magazine. Ellis goes on to say: "There is a gentleness to her books that is rare... The hairsbreadth escapes, the exotic flora and fauna,... the villains and the heroes all are enclosed in one overriding concern, subtle but ever present: the value of kindness. This theme seems rather a nonrobust one... But Monica Hughes manages to clothe the homey quality in flesh and blood ... to give it strength and resilience."

Monica Hughes was born Monica Ince in Liverpool, England, on November 3, 1925. Her parents then both worked at the University of Liverpool, her father (E.L. Ince, a Welshman) in mathematics and her mother (Phyllis Ince, an Englishwoman) in biology. A few months after young Monica's birth, her parents left Liverpool so that her father could take up a new position as head of the department of mathematics at the new University of Cairo in Egypt.

Young Monica's first memories are of Egypt: their first house in Heliopolis, walks in the desert with the nanny for Monica and her younger sister, and seeing mirages of palm trees and buildings floating in the sky. Later they lived in an apartment in Cairo, with a spectacular view of the pyramids, which they visited on weekends. Her parents climbed the Great Pyramid for the view, while the girls played with bottle caps littered in the sand at its base. "So much for history," sighed Hughes in the Something about the Author Autobiography Series, Volume II. She still remembers little lizards, birds of prey and the wind-blown sand; these and other memories became elements in her novels Sandwriter and The Promise.

The Ince family returned to England in 1931 so the girls could attend school in a suburb of London, England. Young Monica was pleased and excited by the exposure to music and a wider range of books, particularly Norse mythology and the works of E.O. Nesbit. For a while she wanted to be an archaeologist and Egyptologist, but seeing Boris Karloff in the film The Mummy gave her nightmares for weeks and put an end to that ambition.

When the Ince family moved to Edinburgh in 1936, young Monica found refuge from the plain, cold city and boring school in the nearby Carnegie library. Young Monica plunged into the dramas of 19th century writers, and the works of Jules Verne. All her small allowance went on hardcover blank books in which she would write exciting titles and "Chapter One." Then she would sit and dream of being a famous writer. That and a journal kept when she went on vacations was all the writing she did at that time.

When the war began in 1939, Monica and her sister were sent away to school, first to an isolated hunting lodge in Scotland. Her experiences her were later to become the core of her 1996 novel The Seven Magpies, in which several girls are sent away to school in an isolated hunting lodge in Scotland. Later the Ince girls were sent to a boarding school in Harrogate, not far from the Yorkshire moors where the Bronte sisters had lived. There she was encouraged to write fiction, as well as essays and compositions.

After her father died, Monica could no longer plan to go to Oxford; Edinburgh University was the best the family could afford. At age sixteen she began an honours mathematics degree, though the English lecturers were far more interesting to her. At eighteen, she volunteered for service in the Royal Navy, was sent down to London, and spent two years working with thousands of other WRENs on the secret project of breaking of the German code.  Her experiences were later put to good use in The Seven Magpies, where the mother of the central character goes to London as a WREN working on a secret project in the War Effort. In London, young Monica spent every free moment she had in the gallery of the New Theatre watching ballet.

After the war, Monica transferred into meteorology, first in Scotland and then Belfast, where she was delighted to find food rationing a thing of the past. When she left the WRNS in 1946,she lived in Chelsea (London) with her mother and sister. For a few years she worked freelance as a dress designer, before taking a friend's advice and travelling to visit South Africa and Rhodesia (now called Zimbabwe). She lived and worked with that friend's sister and husband for two years, making first-run dresses for a local factory, and later working in a bank. Her journey to Africa and back stayed long in her memory, and her experiences filtered into many of the books she was later to write.

Living once again with her mother and sister in an unheated London apartment got her thinking about the sun. Australia seemed to be the place to emigrate, but the waiting list was three years long. Monica left for Canada instead, in April of 1952, intending to work her way across to the west coast and pick up a ship across the Pacific to Australia. Working in Ottawa, Ontario in the National Research Council, she began writing stories to combat the loneliness she felt. At a writing class at the YMCA she met a woman who became her best friend in Canada, and who introduced Monica to Glen Hughes, who became her husband in 1957.

The Hughes lived in Ontario, moving from Cornwall, to Toronto and London with Glen's work. Monica began writing again in the late evening and early morning, as well as caring for their four children. When their youngest was a week old in 1964, they moved to Edmonton, Alberta, driving on the new TransCanada Highway across the seemingly endless prairies -- a trip that she remembered twelve years later when writing her novel Earthdark. This began a furiously creative time for Monica Hughes: she painted in oils, embroidered wall hangings, wove tapestries and wrote, but never sold a single short story, article or novel.

With the death of her mother and sister, and as her children grew older, Monica Hughes had few touchstones to her past memories. In 1971 she resolved to spend a year writing for four hours each day. She read armloads of books by the best writers for young people. After some unfruitful efforts, she was inspired by a Jacques Cousteau movie The Silent World to begin her novel Crisis on Conshelf Ten. In 1974 it was accepted by a British publisher, who asked for another story about the lead character.

Hughes had a natural writing style, which sustains all her novels. When writing her book The Tomorrow City, Hughes developed an awareness of two halves of her mind: the right brain (imaginative, holistic, in touch with one's dreams and subconscious) and the left brain (linear, logical, from which comes language, without which stories cannot be written). From this understanding came Hughes' ability to construct a story which would be of interest, make sense and mean something important to the reader.

Monica Hughes found story ideas everywhere. In 1974, she read a newspaper article about a boy condemned to an isolated life because of a faulty immune system. She kept the clipping in her IDEAS file for five years, read it at least ten times, and from her thoughts about isolation and loneliness came her novel The Keeper of the Isis Light, and two sequels. These were her most popular and celebrated works.

Along with her IDEAS file, Hughes kept copies of a series of personal essays written on the origin of most of her books. Many readers wrote to Hughes through her publisher or website, asking "Where do you get your ideas for your stories?" On her website, www.ecn.ab.ca/mhughes/ , Hughes posted these essays describing the ideas, thoughts and analysis that were the origins of many of her novels. She was also generous with printed copies of these essays for readers, teachers and librarians with questions.

Monica Hughes wrote over thirty books for young people. Her works have been translated into over a dozen languages. Though she did eventually tour Australia and New Zealand in 1990 with her husband, she was firmly settled in Canada with her husband, grown children and grandchildren. In the early years of the new century, with new projects in hand, she fully intended to write as long as she possibly could; she did so until her death from a stroke on March 7, 2003 at age 77.



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Posted March 17, 2003