From the beginning, we knew that Joan Bodger was a StorySave “must have.” For a while, it seemed as if the fates were against us, for Joan became sick with cancer before the recording could be begun.
StorySave is like everything else, however. It has its miracles. As you will see from her bio, Joan wished to die by the sea. On the day before she was to leave her Toronto home, a tape was discovered – a recording of a program which she had performed at the National Library of Canada in 1989.
The program is entitled Tales of the Winter Hag. Those of us who are familiar with her work know that this concert — with its elegant interweaving of the traditional, the personal and the contemporary — is wonderfully representative of Joan’s storytelling life.
On the StorySave CD we offer Tales of the Winter Hag in its entirety. The program includes the story of Sir Gawain and the loathly lady, which was one of Joan’s signature pieces. You will also find powerful stories about Joan’s life as an old woman.
Through the website, we bring you Figures in a Landscape – a conjuring of Joan’s vision of the sacredness made visible upon the earth through ancient ways.
Joan’s place in StorySave remains somewhat different from that of the other tellers, because we were not able to record a range of her stories or more of her thoughts. Of course, we regret this.
But, what we have we cherish. We are glad to ensure that Joan’s voice may still be heard.
Joan Bodger was born in California in 1923. Because her father was an officer in the U.S. Coast Guard and her mother came from England and returned there for protracted visits, the family moved around a great deal. It was books, stories and talk that became the constants in Joan’s life.
Joan attended Pomona College in Claremont, California ; she served as a cipher clerk in the army during World War II. In 1948, she took a course on storytelling at Columbia University. Her innate interests validated, she decided that a storyteller was what she really wanted to be.
By that time, she was married. During the years of her marriage, she had two children. Her daughter died from a brain tumour at the age of seven; her husband was diagnosed as schizophrenic. The marriage collapsed. Her son was confirmed as being schizophrenic also. As a teenager, he took to disappearing; he was eventually gone for years.
Throughout all of this, Joan maintained her conviction that stories and storytelling were important. She was also active, both politically and socially: participating in protest marches and rallies on social issues; opening a library for neighbourhood children.
In 1963, Joan began telling stories to Black children on the streets of Nyack, New York, in preparation for the founding of the first Head Start pre-school program in the United States. In 1965, she was hired to begin a similar program in an orphanage for severely disadvantaged children. Storytelling was crucial to both programs. Joan used revolutionary approaches; the children flourished under her care.
In 1968, she was invited to become Director of Children’s Services for the State Library of Missouri. She was fired from this job, as “a communist pornographer,” for writing a public letter in support of a censored student newspaper on State Library stationery. By then her knowledge of children’s literature was extensive and she was hired as an editor by Random House.
She re-married and moved to Toronto. At Christmas in 1974, she began telling stories at The Underground Railroad Soul Food Restaurant. She continued telling stories at the Underground Railroad every third Sunday morning of the month for the next nine years. In 1978, Dan Yashinsky came to meet her. He was in the process of becoming a storyteller and of undertaking to make storytelling a vital part of Canadian life. He began a regular weekly storytelling evening at Gaffers Café. Together Dan and Joan planned the first Toronto Festival of Storytelling.
Gaffers and the Festival drew other storytellers. A group of tellers was formed which would make history. The group included Dan and Joan, Rosemary Allison, Bob Barton, Lorne Brown, Alice Kane and Celia Lottridge. Together, they started what was to become the 1001 Friday Nights of Storytelling; they nurtured the Festival into becoming an annual event; they founded the Storytellers School of Toronto. All of these continue to this day; all have been crucial to Canadian storytelling’s rebirth.
Joan liked to initiate rather than to toil on endlessly, but she cared passionately about storytelling. There are those who remember the urgency with which she insisted that the first storytelling festival focus on telling to adults. And… it was Joan who joined with Lorne Brown in the conception of Appleseed Quarterly, The Canadian Journal Of Storytelling; Joan who designed the pilot project, which became the Parent-Child Mother Goose Program, whereby storytelling might be brought to families at risk.
In Toronto, Joan took training as a Gestalt therapist and used storytelling in her therapeutic work. The tragedies of her life were not over. In 1985, her second husband died of cancer. Her son was found but his mental illness, of course, remained with him.
Joan was also a writer. She published books and articles. (See Joan’s Books In Print link) As time went by, she became more and more concerned with telling the stories of her own life. They began to enter into her storytelling repertoire; they appeared as magazine articles. In 2000, The Crack In The Teacup. The Life Of An Old Woman Steeped In Stories — her autobiography on which she had struggled long and hard — was published. (See The Crack In The Teacup. Link)
Tragedies notwithstanding, Joan lived fiercely; she lived with wit, humour, candour and commitment. She continued to work and tell out of her fundamental concern with the interplay between the old, old stories and ritual, the old, old stories and landscape, the old, old stories and ordinary life.
In 1989, she started to lead an annual tour to King Arthur’s Britain. This was a tour of exploration and discovery. It was developed so that, through the visiting of ancient sites, others might find that fundamental concern within themselves. (See Figures In A Landscape Link)
Soon after the book’s publication, Joan was diagnosed as having colon cancer. She chose not to have chemotherapy. In November 2001, she appeared at 1001 Friday Nights for the last time. She told Tristan And Iseult, the story that seemed to speak to her most strongly of all the ancient tales.
A week later, she left for Tofino – a small town at the far end of Vancouver Island – to die by the sea. She thought perhaps to walk out into it but, in the final event, knew that this was not something that could be done. She died in a hospital. She watched the sea from her window. Always a one to do things in style, as an American by birth, she managed to take her leave on the Fourth of July.