Literary Pilgrimages: My Ottawa, by Julie Jacobson

I met Julie two years ago at the unveiling of the Bookmark for Elizabeth Hay’s Garbo Laughs. She told me loved the idea of Project Bookmark Canada and would love to transfer the concept to Chicago. Julie then attended the followup celebration for Liz and her friends. Later that night, I ran into her again, in the audience of the Ottawa International Writers’ Festival. Who was this person, I wondered, who loved books so much?

Well, Julie is a native of Iowa but has called Chicago home for almost 30 years.  She has worked as an attorney, an interior designer and at an independent bookstore. Julie is currently living in Ottawa where her husband David is serving as U.S. Ambassador to Canada.

Julie has been a committed volunteer for The Writers’ Trust of Canada’s Politics and the Pen gala, one of the capital’s most popular charity events. And all across the country I meet people who know her and love her enthusiasm for all things literary and her passion for discovering and appreciating Canada through the work of its writers. Today, I am very pleased to welcome Julie Jacobson to the Bookmark blog, and to have her tell us about her Literary Pilgrimage: Seeing Ottawa through the lens of Andre Alexis’s Asylum.

“It was such a joy to read a novel set in my temporary Northern home. Ottawa has been a surprise and delight from the first night that we arrived.”

My Ottawa

I say “my Ottawa” to distinguish my sentiments from the Ottawa inhabited exquisitely and entirely by novelist Andre Alexis. Over the past three years, I have developed an abiding affection and fascination for this northern capital. My sense is that Ottawans are feeling prouder and more enthusiastic about their city all the time, but still only willing to confess their pride in hushed whispers, accompanied by qualifiers and reservations.

I have travelled Canada, as they say, from coast to coast. In many of my journeys, I have had the opportunity to experience the literary landscapes described by writers from places such as Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, Kingston and Newfoundland.  But it was such a joy to read a novel set in my temporary Northern home. Ottawa has been a surprise and delight from the first night that we arrived. Our plane arrived after 10:00 pm and after a dizzying welcome from Embassy personnel and government protocol staff, we were whisked into a vehicle and driven home to Rockcliffe Park via the Rideau Canal. I was dazzled by the winding waterway interspersed with elegant lampposts and well-proportioned bridges. Of course I only came to love the canal more upon its annual winter metamorphosis into an ice rink and its springtime glory during the Tulip Festival.

After two years of living here, two years of exploration and enlightenment, I was assigned Alexis’s Asylum for my Canlit bookgroup. Written in 2008 but set in the Mulroney-led 1980’s, the book is populated by an entertaining cast of politicians, bureaucrats and cameo players. But I felt that one of the main characters was the city of Ottawa.

Much of the action took place in the neighborhoods between Parliament and the Glebe, with shout-outs to streets like Elgin, Somerset and Gladstone and to local landmarks like the National Arts Centre, the Chateau Laurier and the hills of the Gatineau. He even mentions my favorite magazine store, Mags & Fags on Elgin. Just like watching one of the many films shot in my home city of Chicago and recognizing the neighborhoods depicted, I wanted to shout out as I read, “I’ve been there! I know exactly what he means!”

One of my favorite such moments occurred when two characters were leaving a showing of The Gold Rush at the Towne Theatre in Vanier, and lamented about the poignancy of the Tramp eating his leather shoe. I recently joined a group of friends to see The Gold Rush at the ByTowne (successor to the Towne) and we left the theatre talking about Chaplin eating his shoes. Am I the only one who gets such a kick out of seeing my life reflected so precisely in the pages of a novel?

Reading Asylum did in fact encourage me to follow the footsteps of its characters and discover new and interesting haunts in Ottawa. But more importantly, it helped me think more deeply about the maturing of Ottawa in the past two decades and the relationship of its citizens to the city. In the fictional 1980’s of the book, Ottawa is described as a capital unlike Rome, Paris or St. Petersburg. Instead, it was an industry town that “drank itself, politely but determinedly, insensate every Friday…”

So many of the watering holes, public spaces and of course government offices are the same today as they were two decades ago, but things have changed.

I learned volumes about the political history from this intriguing riff: “With Mackenzie King, Ottawa was paranoid and grey; with Bennett, poor and resentful.  With St. Laurent, the city was optimistic; with Pearson, it would be fresh scrubbed and outward-looking, and with Trudeau, it would become its most splendid self: proud, flamboyant, willful, and secretive.”

Americans, to their shame, are largely ignorant of Canada’s social and political history, and I have made it a personal mission to fill that huge gap in my own knowledge base. Alexis’s brief summary of Ottawa from the 1920’s to the 1980’s spoke volumes to me about the changes in the capital.

My personal experience in Ottawa centers around Sussex Avenue, where the U.S. Embassy is situated. Opened in 1999, it wouldn’t have been part of the streetscape when Alexis’s characters watched the world pass by from Café Wim (now closed) or when they observed the Saudi Celebration Day parade towards the end of the novel.  Writing over a decade later, the book’s narrator looks back on his years in Ottawa and reflects on its changes over time. Ottawans and non-Ottawans alike are always assuring me that the city is way more lively and appealing than it used to be. I didn’t know the city before we arrived, but I have certainly found it to be bustling with creative energy and political intrigue, not to mention a paradise for sports enthusiasts along the many beautiful paths and waterways. Alexis’s character Walter may have contemplated suicide off the Alexandra Bridge; for me, it is the gateway to my favorite bike ride in the city. There is nothing like riding along the boardwalk path and looking east from the Museum of Civilization campus over at the spectacular Parliament buildings.

I do realize that ours is not the typical Ottawa experience, but we have come to feel so integrated into the life of this city. I remember when we lived in Los Angeles for two years, a friend told me that was long enough to “have it in my pocket”. Ottawa will remain in our pocket and in our hearts. With a slight adjustment to the prose, the author captured my feelings about Ottawa perfectly:

“It is lovely to feel that one belongs, that one is necessary to the errant and erratic creations of this city, Ottawa, Ontario…to feel, however briefly, that one would not live anywhere else”.

“He permitted himself to walk in the city.  He went wherever he liked.  There was the walk along the canal:  always along the east side along Colonel By, on the city’s crooked spine, by the houses looking down from Echo Drive, to the Pretoria Bridge, with the university in the distance and Hull beyond.  Or through the experimental farm: along Prince of Wales, past the arboretum, to the pavilion at Dow’s Lake.  Really, it hardly mattered where he went.  The city had its own tone, rhythm, and reason that conflicted or accorded with his own.  It was beautiful or wretched from step to step, moment to moment, and he was part of its conversions.”


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12 Responses to Literary Pilgrimages: My Ottawa, by Julie Jacobson

  1. Sarah Jennings says:

    This is a delightful piece of writing and observation by Julie Jacobson, heart-felt and warm, and forces one to see one’s own city anew and not through one’s usual jaded eye. It is such a clever idea to see the actual city through the work of a writer….in this case Andre Alexis’ finely-written story, “Asylum”, and Julie does it in a way that not only highlight the writer’s own acute perceptions but interweaves her own delight and pleasure in the city throughput the piece.
    Ottawa Tourism should seize on this short article …..and sign up Alexis and his book immediately as a marvellous way to promote interest in Ottawa!

  2. Julie — You have captured and captivated Ottawa. Thank you for exploring our city and literature with such enthusiasm. This piece whets my appetite for more of your insights and reflections on Canada. You are the best reader a writer ever had!

  3. adrian burns says:

    Oh Julie..this is so wonderful and causes me to look again at my adopted city with moist eyes along with a glad heart….you are a wonderful descriptive writer and I will read Asylum with you in mind…..

  4. Wendy Cohen says:

    Julie’s “my Ottawa” piece should be available to Canadian diplomats in the U.S. and abroad. She brings life to the city we all love, from the years of Mackenzie King’s paranoia to Trudeau’s flamboyance. People generally don’t speak about our town in such glowing terms. We should all take a page from her notebook and make it our mission to expand our knowledge base of this truly charming city.

  5. Maureen Boyd says:

    As always, that newcomer’s acute sense of observation makes us think about the city that we think we know. You are terrific!

  6. Evelyn Greenberg says:

    Julie- this will be brief as I am rushing out to buy “Asylum”. Your articulate and enchanting insight into the Andre Alexis book has brought joy to the heart of this proud Ottawan. You show enormous love and respect for “my” city and I am beyond proud of what you have done. Consider yourself an honorary lifetime citizen of Canada’s capital. Evelyn Greenberg.

  7. Jayne Watson says:

    Julie – be careful or my brother will offer you a job as Ambassador – for our wonderful capital city! I am heading out at lunch to buy Asylum based on your review!

  8. Arlene Perly Rae says:

    Hey, Julie, –What a wonderful piece. Ottawa, I would agree, is a beautiful and fascinating city to walk through, explore and enjoy. You have captured the sense of it so well in your warm and evocative article. Such a pleasure to read your observations. Thanks so much. Arlene Perly Rae

  9. Wendy Bryans says:

    Julie – I love the idea of knowing a city well enough to put it in your pocket. Thanks for a great expression. Your stimulating review is contributing to a great program and I look forward to more literary signs around Ottawa.

  10. Barbara Uteck says:

    You have had an eclectic career and are a wonderful writer. Maybe that’s your next career move….a novel or a memoir. I appreciate your love of our capital and like the way you connected with Andre Alexis’ perspectives on Ottawa. You’ve inspired us with your interest in Canadian literature and your affection for our city.
    Barbara Uteck

  11. Sue Willis says:

    Your article is beautifully and insightfully written. Thank you for being such a wonderful ambassador to our city and for allowing us to see our capital through fresh eyes with such an affectionate and open viewpoint. Ottawa is everything you and Alexis describe and feel about our city and we are indebted to you for reminding us of what is near and dear to us in this gem of a city.

    Sue Willis

  12. Whitney Fox says:


    What a beautifully written piece — among your many gifts, the gift of prose. I too have come to love this city as my home and regard it as an undiscovered treasure. There could be no better Ambassador for Ottawa and I am so glad you will make it your mission to enlighten more Americans in this regard. Thanks so much for always being such a contributing and active member of this wonderful community.

    Whitney Fox

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