With her latest book of autobiographical poetry, author Jean Van Loon brings the horrors of the atomic age home to roost here in Ottawa.
Nuclear Family, her second book of poetry, tells a personal story of a suburban household that would have appeared perfectly average from the outside, but on the inside was irreversibly darkened by the looming presence of nuclear fallout.
Writing was always a job for Jean, who wrote reports, research grants and public policy for the federal government after graduating with a political science degree from Queen’s University. It wasn’t until retirement that she finally turned her attention toward creative writing and poetry.
“I really enjoyed that, but it never crossed my mind that you could actually write fiction or poetry for your life’s work,” Jean says. “So, I did other things and then, as I was approaching the time to retire, I just had this itch to do something creative and I was thinking about what things I could do.”
She participated in a creative writing workshop at Carleton University, and that led her to begin writing short fiction stories, which were eventually published in a variety of literary magazines. Her short story, “Stardust,” was long listed for a Journey Prize in 2007.
Jean’s first complete book of poetry was published in 2018. Building on River tells the story of J.R. Booth, the greatest lumber king in the Ottawa Valley, if not all of North America. From a working-class hero to one of the richest men in Canada, Booth’s lumber built much of the city of Ottawa that we know today.
With the 2022 release of Nuclear Family, Jean finally took the opportunity to tell her own story. Unbeknownst to her at the time, Jean’s childhood of the 1940’s and 50’s was permeated by the arms race and espionage of the cold war.
Jean remembers her father as a man of few words, a scientist consumed by rocks and geology, and the metals found within. His work as a metallurgist at a government lab in Ottawa would contribute to the success of the Manhattan Project that produced the first nuclear bombs. His team took uranium ore that was gathered from the shores of Great Bear Lake and processed those rocks into fuel for the most devastating weapons in human history.
In the poem, “Fission,” Jean writes, “Hiroshima. Nagasaki. Fallout / taints vast tracts / sea and land / and my father’s desk.”
His former office remains at 552 Booth Street — a coincidence, of course, as tends to happen in Ottawa. The building is preserved under heritage status, not for the historically significant work that took place within, but for the mid-century modern architecture of its exterior. The title above the door still reads, Department of Mines, Ore Dressing and Metallurgical Laboratories, carved into the stone.
The fallout from those early days remained with Jean’s father, even as his work moved on from nuclear bombs to atomic energy. The devastation never ceased, with nations pressing on to test bigger and more powerful iterations.
In “Fallout (iii),” Jean writes, “My father — a bit of a pacifist my mother explains — rises one morning and detonates his brain.”
Jean’s mother had her own part to play in the cold war. As far as anyone knew, her mother worked for the National Research Council, and she wrote reports. Only years later did the details trickle out that her mother had been working in a secret government office that intercepted encrypted telegrams from other countries. As part of a defensive strategy, the Canadian government built a series of monitoring stations across the country that were tasked with interpreting foreign signals.
The cold war was ever present in what would have otherwise appeared to be an idyllic suburban life.
There are also stories of hope and recovery in Jean’s writing, as the family emerges from the fallout of her father’s suicide. Her mother buys a ‘68 Firebird muscle car in goldenrod yellow. She trades in her tweed jackets for leather, her wool scarf for rippling silk.
For now, Jean doesn’t have a plan on what her next book might entail. When asked if she’s done talking about herself, she says, “Well I hope so, I think so, there are lots of very interesting things in the world.”
Find Jean’s books at Perfect Books, 258 Elgin St, and other independent bookstores, as well as Chapters/Indigo.