Biographical treatment of POW cookbook author and Island entrepreneur Ethel Rogers Mulvany wins Creighton Award

OTTAWA—Author Suzanne Evans’ book on Manitoulin Island resident the late Ethel Rogers Mulvany, ‘The Taste of Longing: Ethel Mulvany and her Starving Prisoners of War Cookbook,’ has received the Donald Grant Creighton Award from the Ontario Historical Society (OHS).

“I am so honoured to have this book recognized,” said Ms. Evans on receiving the award. “Ethel would have loved to have her life story told, even though it told the horrors of war. I loved writing this book, and the research, going through the archives, especially the ones from the Pioneer Museum in Mindemoya.”

“The OHS is pleased to present the 2021-2022 Donald Grant Creighton Award to Suzanne Evans for her book, ‘The Taste of Longing: Ethel Mulvany and her Starving Prisoners of War Cookbook,’ published by Between the Lines. The Donald Grant Creighton Award honours the best book of biography or autobiography highlighting life in Ontario, past or present, published in the past three years.”

“In the ‘Taste of Longing: Ethel Mulvany and her Starving Prisoners of War Cookbook,’ Suzanne Evans sheds light on the little-known story of Ethel Mulvany and her experiences during the Second World War. Original and well-executed, it traces Ms. Mulvany’s life from her home on Manitoulin Island, her imprisonment in 1942 and survival as a prisoner of war in Singapore’s infamous Changi Prison, and her life following the war while battling trauma and mental illness.” 

“As Ms. Evans writes, Ms. Mulvany and many of the hundreds of women held at Changi beat back pangs of hunger by playing decadents games of make-believe and writing down recipes filled with cream, raisins, chocolate, butter, cinnamon, ripe fruit-the unattainable ingredients of peacetime, of home, of memory,” a press release on the award states. “Food, and the longing for it, is central to the story, with the recipes taking on vital significance as instruments of individual and collective resistance. The Honours and Awards Committee proudly presents the Donald Grant Creighton Award to Suzanne Evans.”

“I am not from the Island, I worked at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa and was doing research on women in the war and on occupational therapy,” Ms. Evans told The Expositor. “Ethel’s name came up for her starving prisoners of war cookbook. Luckily, two of Ethel’s nieces live in town (Ottawa), Marion King was an Islander as is Brenda Serne. They were both wonderful help as well in providing information about their wonderful, creative and energetic aunt. I got a lot of information from them. I also found a lot of information in the National Archives, and through the Pioneer Museum in Mindemoya and museums in London, England and Singapore.”

Asked how long it took to write the book Ms. Evans said, “about forever. I first came across Ethel’s story in 2010 and the book was published in 2020. Of course, I didn’t spend all my time writing the book, it required travel, and I had to find grants to do the book and was fortunate enough to receive a Canada Council grant, two provincial grants as well as one from the city of Ottawa.”

“What really made the difference was the recording that her nieces had of a 15 hour interview a MacLean’s Magazine reporter had done over time for an article on her time as a prisoner of war for the magazine,” said Ms. Evans. “That was the first time I had actually heard Ethel’s voice.”

In September 16, 2020, Ms. Evans had a story published in The Expositor of her book. It is reprinted below with the author’s permission. 

“Trapped in a Singapore prison during World War II, Manitoulin Islander Ethel Rogers Mulvany was so desperately hungry, she fed herself on dreams of food.

“She and the other women imprisoned by the Japanese in Changi jail gathered daily, sharing recipes of the dishes they longed to eat. After liberation, Ethel brought a collection of those recipes back to Canada. From that collection she made a cookbook and in 1946 had 20,000 copies printed, using the money she raised from their sale to send food to POWs still hospitalized in England.

“Ethel was a teacher at heart from her early days on Manitoulin and wanted others to learn from her wartime experiences. The cookbook marked the first telling of her story.

“I found a copy in the Canadian War Museum where I was working as a research fellow. By the time I finished reading it, I was compelled to discover all I could about Ethel. Ultimately nearly a decade of investigation followed that impulse and led to the publication of ‘The Taste of Longing.’

“The research began with a lucky break when Ottawa neighbour Kathy Bergqist, said she knew of Ethel Rogers Mulvany. Kathy had written about Ethel’s cousin, Keith Greenway, an arctic navigation expert.

“‘Would you like to meet her relatives?’ Kathy asked. ‘They live in town!’

“Keith’s daughter, Brenda Serne, and Ethel’s niece, Marion King, originally from Manitoulin, welcomed me with grand stories and poignant memorabilia about their larger-than-life aunt.

“Amongst all their papers and photos was a poor-quality recording that turned out to be invaluable. In 1961 Maclean’s journalist Sidney Katz had interviewed Ethel for an article on her time as a prisoner. Their conversations, over 15 hours of them, ranging far beyond what Katz could include in his article, gave me insight into the wild intensity of the woman who had survived such horrors.

“Unfortunately, missing from the nieces’ personal archives was the handwritten manuscript of recipes. On a hunch I called the Central Manitoulin Historical Society. They hadn’t heard of Ethel but promised to check at Mindemoya’s Pioneer Museum. I heard nothing back but still hopeful, my husband and I drove to Manitoulin the next summer. As I walked in the museum I saw the original recipe books and many other artifacts, all recently unearthed and presented in a new exhibit. It was thrilling to see and touch those things that had meant so much to Ethel.

“When I consider the boxes of unmarked photos from my own family, I am so impressed and grateful that Ethel had the foresight to label and date her pictures and keep track of her writing. She had wanted her story told. But, like anyone presenting their face to the world, had left out some parts. The more I dug, the more complexities appeared. 

“With the help of arts grants I flew to Singapore to visit archives and museums and listen to recordings of those who had lived with Ethel in prison camp. Puzzlingly, she was loved by some and thought of as the heart of generosity, while others considered her a liar and a thief. Months later, I headed to London where I delved into the Imperial War Museum’s archives and those of Bethlehem Royal Hospital, better knows as Bedlam psychiatric hospital. 

“In April 1946, Ethel’s then husband, Major Denis Mulvany, committed her to the hospital for treatment. Ethel was diagnosed with manic-depression, now called bi-polar disorder, and given electric shock therapy. More clarification came via the Cheltenham Historical Society in England. Through them I found Denis Mulvany’s daughter from his second marriage. Dr. Sally Praulitis generously forward medical reports, photos and heart-rendering letters which her late father, Denis, had saved long after his marriage to Ethel had ended.

“One final bit of luck came when I found the Japanese couple Ethel had befriended in Toronto back in 1961. Now in their eighties and living in Osaka, Japan, the Endos’ memories of the Canadian woman who had given them money and shelter are still vivid. For her part, bringing the Endos into her life allowed Ethel to overcome the poisonous hatred she had harboured towards the Japanese since the war.

“In 1992, just months before Ethel died, The Manitoulin Expositor printed a front-page story on Ethel. Shigeko Endo made a pilgrimage to visit the feisty but frail old woman to thank her one last time for all that she had done for her and her husband Isami, over 30 years before. The title, ‘A forgiving spirit draws two worlds together,’ captures what Ethel wanted to achieve most: Peace.”

Copies of the ‘Taste of Longing’ are available at the Expositor’s book shop, Print Shop Books.