The Power of Resilience - Lori Knowles

Article by Bronwyn Boyer / Photography by Andy Zeltkalns

 Lori Knowles’ debut novel, Summers with Miss Elizabeth, has all the ingredients of an instant classic. Drawing on the dreamy, cinematic elements of summertime on the Muskoka lakes, the lighthearted summer read plunges to the darkest depths of the human condition.

As a native resident of Muskoka, Knowles was immersed in both worlds her characters were born from. Growing up as a year-round resident who spent her summers enjoying the cottage lifestyle, this is a story she was meant to tell.

“I’ve always wanted to be a novelist, but I was pragmatic and wanted to have a career,” says Knowles. “So, I went to Carleton University for journalism and then started writing for newspapers and magazines. But in the back in my mind I kept saying, ‘Lori, you need to write a novel.’ I had a lot of starts and very few finishes, but for some reason I was able to keep going with this one.”

Knowles is best known as a former Toronto Sun columnist and current co-editor of Ski Canada Magazine. However, creative writing has always been her passion.

“I was always writing and telling stories as a kid,” she says. “I would exhaust people, because everything was an anecdote to me.”

In high school, Knowles entered a short story contest put on by the local paper, The Herald-Gazette. “One of my teachers at BMLSS encouraged me to enter,” she recalls. “But I was too shy, so he suggested I use a pseudonym. But then I won, and it took a long time for them to find me to award me the prize, because they didn’t know my real name. Then when I told a friend I won, she didn’t believe me.”

Set from the 1970s to the 1990s, Summers with Miss Elizabeth is the coming-of-age story of four youth growing up under the wings of Elizabeth Wynward, a Pittsburgh steel company heiress with a century-old cottage in Muskoka. Like a female version of the Great Gatsby, Miss Elizabeth’s wealth and charisma make her irresistible. But beneath her glossy joie-de-vivre, she’s struggling to raise her two grandchildren, while trying to correct the mistakes she made with her daughter, who was not equipped to be a parent. Miss Elizabeth is also a powerful figure because she’s based on an archetype typically portrayed by men.

“The cottage industry in Muskoka was founded on wealthy business moguls who built big, beautiful cottages and brought their staff there for lavish summer celebrations,” explains Knowles. “I thought it would be interesting to feature a woman at that time period who’s successful in a world that was largely male dominated.”

The protagonist, Colin Montgomery, orphaned as a small child, is taken in by Miss Elizabeth because she was best friend and employer to his grandmother. Colin enjoys all the benefits of being born into wealth and privilege. He has access to an idyllic cottage lifestyle alongside the Wynward grandchildren, Josie and Tim, and their best friend Alex. But when tragedy strikes, the family is torn apart. Fifteen years later, with Miss Elizabeth’s health failing, she pulls the puppet strings on Colin to make him bring her family back to her. Embroiled in the Wynward’s problems because of his undying love for them, Colin is part of the family when it’s convenient for them. The rest of the time, he’s an outsider. But despite being free of that difficult dynamic, the Wynward children are the ones who succumb to the pressures of a broken home.

“Colin is a shy, gay kid in the ‘70s who was born with nothing but he has a better emotional foundation than the Wynwards,” says Knowles. “Because of that, he invests so much into fixing the Wynwards that he loses himself and his other relationships. He’s knocked down quite a few times but, in the end, he gains the strength to stand his ground. Being an outsider can be a lonely feeling but it can also be empowering.”

The darker flavours in Summers with Miss Elizabeth are wrapped in layers of sunshine, humour, romance and frivolity.

“I hope readers immerse themselves in the waterskiing, sailing and fireworks in the book and feel the wind in their hair when the characters are racing across the bay in a boat,” says Knowles.

If there is a lesson in Knowles’ writing, it’s about the strength of the underdog. “What I hope people take away from the book is that power is not about money and position,” Knowles explains. “It’s not easy but Colin eventually stands up to the figures that he’s been afraid of his whole life. You have to dig deep, but you can do it.”