by Suzanne Evans
MANITOULIN – 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 for 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 my Ottawa neighbour, Kathy Bergquist, said she knew of Ethel Rogers Mulvany. Kathy had written about Ethel’s cousin, Keith Greenaway, 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 Bethlem Royal Hospital, better known 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 forwarded medical reports, photos and heart-rending 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’s 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 ‘The Taste of Longing’ will be available at The Expositor’s book shop, Print Shop Books, in the coming weeks. Ms. Rogers Mulvany’s original Prisoner of War Cookbook is also available at Print Shop Books.