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The Nine Lives of Charlotte Taylor, Sally Armstrong

Sally Armstrong

Sally (Wishart) Armstrong is a multiple-award-winning human rights activist, journalist, documentary filmmaker, teacher, editor, and author who currently resides in Ontario. Born in 1943 in Montreal, Quebec, Armstrong received her Bachelor of Education from McGill University in 1966 and years later completed a Master’s thesis at the University of Toronto entitled “Missing in Access: A Feminist Critique of International Documents that Pertain to the Human Right of Adolescent Girls to Access Health Services and Their Impact on Young Women in Afghanistan and in Canada” (2001).

As a high school physical education teacher, Armstrong was involved in the inception of what would later become the magazine Canadian Living. In 1988, she became the editor-in-chief of Homemakers magazine, a position she held until 1999. She is currently a contributing editor for both Maclean’s magazine and Chatelaine. In addition to innumerable articles and public lectures, she has published four books to date: Mila (biography of Mila Mulroney, 1992), Veiled Threat: The Hidden Power of the Women of Afghanistan (nonfiction, 2002), The Nine Lives of Charlotte Taylor (fiction, 2007), and Bitter Roots, Tender Shoots: The Uncertain Fate of Afghanistan’s Women (nonfiction, 2008).

Armstrong is best known for her work as a journalist and human rights activist and has brought international attention to the political and cultural struggles of women and children in high conflict zones such as Bosnia, Somalia, and Rwanda. Her principal focus, however, has been on the lives of women and girls in Afghanistan during the extremist rule of the Taliban from 1996 to 2001 and during the country’s present efforts to rebuild itself. Her bestseller, Veiled Threat (2002), is illustrative of Armstrong’s belief in the power of individuals to work together to create change. In 1997, “Veiled Threat,” Armstrong’s Homemakers article on the lives of the women of Afghanistan, struck a chord with many readers, thousands of whom wrote letters expressing their concern and their outrage with Canada’s political paralysis. This article helped maintain public focus on a problem largely ignored by the international community. Veiled Threat documents the restricted and often horrific lives of women under the rule of the Taliban; it also chronicles the Taliban’s courageous opponents, such as renowned women’s advocate and later deputy prime minister, Dr. Sima Samar. In Bitter Roots, Tender Shoots (2008), Armstrong revisits Afghanistan to measure the progress that has been made since the withdrawal of the Taliban. This crusade on behalf of impoverished and uneducated women and girls has resulted in charges of cultural relativism leveled by Afghan fundamentalists, who accuse her of being a Western woman meddling in a country and a culture that is not her own. Armstrong’s continuing action has demonstrated her response: “everyone knows that silence is consent [...] If you cannot talk about it, you cannot change it” (“Afghanistan: The Way Forward” 61-2).

As an activist and journalist, Armstrong writes with a clear agenda: “I write about the women and girls who live with the consequences of military and political decisions” (Bitter Roots 3). This propensity to provide a narrative for those traditionally without a voice is also evident in her brief foray into fiction. To date, Armstrong has written only one novel. Well-received by the popular reading audience, The Nine Lives of Charlotte Taylor (2007) is a fascinating marriage of provincial history and fiction that depicts the life of Charlotte Taylor, one of the first settlers of New Brunswick. A direct descendent of Charlotte, Armstrong is forthright about her decision to supplement surviving archival fact with engaging and constructive narrative in order to properly create a complete story, and she concludes the novel with the conviction that her ancestor would have encouraged her “to take liberties” (Nine Lives 388). Just as the portrait of the charismatic and tireless Dr. Sima Samar in Veiled Threat represents the progressive and the hopeful, so too is Charlotte Taylor carefully created as an exemplary figure by a woman who is, undoubtedly, exemplary herself. Armstrong acknowledges the connections between what might otherwise seem to be unrelated writing projects, and writes, “I was drawn to Charlotte because her story resonates with the articles I have written for over two decades about women who dared to take on the culture and religion of their time and seek emancipation” (“More on Charlotte Taylor” 3).

Because current critical engagement with this book does not yet exist in a significant sense, it may be difficult to gauge the extent to which the popularity of The Nine Lives of Charlotte Taylor is indicative of the novel’s enduring quality as opposed to Armstrong’s fame as a humanitarian. Nevertheless, it is noteworthy for its simultaneous presentation of Native, Loyalist, and Acadian historical roles and sentiment. Its publication as one of the first fictional treatments of the history of New Brunswick may help prepare the field for a future fictional reimagining—and consequently, a regional ownership—that is long overdue.

For her arresting journalism, Armstrong has twice been awarded Amnesty International’s Media Award, once in 2000 and again in 2002. Her journalistic efforts have not been limited to the printed word, however. She has produced and hosted several award-winning documentaries for CBC, including They Fell From the Sky (2001) and The Daughters of Afghanistan (2003). Amongst the vast array of her humanitarian involvements, Armstrong is one of the founders of Willow, a resource for breast cancer support in Canada, and she currently sits on the Council of Advisors for the Canadian Women’s Foundation, whose mandate is to improve the lives of women and girls.

In addition, Armstrong’s achievements have been recognized by several universities: in 2000 she received an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Royal Roads, and in 2002, an Honorary Doctor of Letters from McGill University. In 2004 she was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Letters from St. Thomas University, and in 2007 she received an Honorary Doctor of Laws from the University of Guelph and a Doctor of the University degree from the University of Ottawa. She has also received several awards that attest to her lifetime of humanitarian service. In 1998 Armstrong became a Member of the Order of Canada, an award which is bestowed in recognition of a nominee’s lifetime of work dedicated to the community, and in 2008 she received the Canadian Journalism Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

Dana Schwab, Spring 2009
University of New Brunswick

For more information on Sally Armstrong and her historical novel The Nine Lives of Charlotte Taylor, please visit her entry at the New Brunswick Literature Curriculum in English.

BIBLIOGRAPHY OF PRIMARY SOURCES

Armstrong, Sally. “Afghanistan: The Way Forward.” Rebuilding Societies in Crisis: The CIIA 2003 Lecture Series. Toronto: Canadian Institute of International Affairs, 2003. 53-67.

---. Bitter Roots, Tender Shoots: The Uncertain Fate of Afghanistan’s Women. Toronto: Viking, 2008.

---. Mila. Toronto: Macmillan, 1992.

---. “Missing in Access: A Feminist Critique of International Documents that Pertain to the Human Right of Adolescent Girls to Access Health Services and Their Impact on Young Women in Afghanistan and in Canada.” MSc thesis. U of Toronto, 2001.

---. The Nine Lives of Charlotte Taylor. 2007. Toronto: Vintage, 2008.

---. Veiled Threat: The Hidden Power of the Women of Afghanistan. Toronto: Viking, 2002.

---. “Vintage Special Features: More on Charlotte Taylor by Sally Armstrong.” The Nine Lives of Charlotte Taylor. 2007. Toronto: Vintage, 2008. 2-5.

BIBLIOGRAPHY OF SECONDARY SOURCES

Canadian Women’s Foundation. Toronto: Canadian Women’s Foundation. 14 Apr. 2009. <http://www.cdnwomen.
org/EN/index.html>.

de Groot, Debby. Rev. of Veiled Threat: The Women of Afghanistan, by Sally Armstrong. International Women’s Rights Project. 14 Apr. 2009. <http://www.iwrp.org/afghan/afghanwomen23.htm>.

Monroe, Dawn E. “Sally Armstrong.” On the Job: Canadian Women of Achievement by Profession or Avocation. 2008. Famous Canadian Women. 14 Apr. 2009. <http://www.
famouscanadianwomen.com/on%20the%20job/writers.htm#journalists>.

“Order of Canada: Sally Wishart Armstrong, C.M., M.Sc., LL.D.” Governor General of Canada. 8 Mar. 2009. The Office to the Secretary to the Governor General. 14 Apr. 2009. <http://www.gg.ca/honours/search-recherche/honours-desc.asp? lang=e&TypeID=orc&id=3978>.

“Taking on the Taliban.” McGill News Spring 2002. 3 Mar. 2006. McGill University, Montreal. 14 Apr. 2009. <http://www.mcgill.ca/news/2002/spring/armstrong/>.

Willow Breast Cancer Support Canada. 2008. Willow Breast Cancer Support Canada. 14 Apr. 2009. <http://www.willow.org/index.
asp>.