The Play

The Thirteenth One
A prairie Family's Adventures in Early 20th Century Canada

The Book, written after the play spanning 50 years is a collection of new short stories about the family.

The four-year-old girl called out through her tears, “Maman!”

“I’ll be back for you, soon,” said her mother. “I promise.” But, they didn’t see each other until years later when the child was a mother herself. That child was the author’s mother.

London Ontario Author Denyse Gervais Regan was born the thirteenth child in a French Canadian family of fourteen children in Elie, Manitoba. Their mother would often tell the children about being left in an orphanage as a child. She would end her absorbing tales by saying, “My life story would make a good book. I hope some day one of you children writes it.” Many years later the 13th one, Denyse, pens her mother’s story and her own, weaving an extraordinary tapestry with the multiple threads of family and community against the formidable background of early 20th Century Canada.

Back Row: Telesphore, Adrien, Louis, Laurent, Marcel, Henri. Middle Row: Marie, Majella, Freddi, Charles, Marie Louise, Therese, Estelle. Front Row: Denyse, Hubert/Lucien, Celine, 1946.
Maman and Papa surrounded by their 14 children in 1973.

The Thirteenth One: A Prairie Family’s Adventures in Early 20th Century Canada
covers fifty years ending around a VE day celebration in 1945 and the six day trek in an old chugging-along car through the states to south western Ontario. We learn about their adventures through photos, documents, drawings, letters, diaries, post cards and stories - a true Canadian odyssey!
This gem of a book offers readers a rare glimpse into life on the unsettled prairies at the turn of the 20th Century. True stories of the Gervais family as they forge a living for themselves filled with adventure, drama, humour and love. A collection of stories individually satisfying yet part of a larger arc marking the continual striving towards a better life.
The book began as a play titled ‘The Thirteenth One’ and had its world première at the renowned Blyth Festival in Blyth, Ontario in 2005. Artistic Director, Eric Coates. “The Thirteenth One, in particular, struck a powerful chord as a heartfelt tribute to a farm family. It was our largest play and biggest hit of the season. It drew huge attendance, almost selling-out.”

A family photo with the five brothers and Majella wearing a matching pink crouched dress and tam, the one that blew away in the wind from the back of the truck.

Excerpts from the book:

The Thirteenth One: A Prairie Family’s Adventures in Early 20th Century Canada

In Big Bend Boom an explosion finds the six youngest children, trapped in a smokehouse, covered in soot and burning embers. “Au secours! HELP! Bon Dieu, aidez-nous!””

In Dat Darn Diphtheria Nurse dipped the stick in Iodine, then went way down Adrien’s throat with the stick. “Well, you have to scrape his throat like this.” He moaned and as Nurse pulled the stick from his mouth, up came a clump of yucky white guck. “If you don’t scrape this out he will choke on it and die.”

In The Body Movers two teenaged boys must perform a frightful task on Halloween night: Finally, like two wooden soldiers, we jerked into action. Lift body, exit church, put body down, put latch into hook, pick up body and go, Go, GO! We were racing at a galloping speed. Dog/wolves howled. One came snapping at our heels. “Slow down,” I shouted to Eugene. “He’s bouncing. Don’t drop him.”  

Ti-coq taking the five oldest children to school.

The following is a letter Marie Louise writes to her mother, grand-maman.

Big Bend, Man. July 12, 1942

Chère maman:

The school children are home and I know there is no way that I could send them off to the convent again. They would run away, I’m sure of it, and that little Estelle would be the leader.

I am determined to get out of this bush. The children heard us ‘discussing’ Freddi’s idea of me as the teacher for them next year. “Maman,” asked Charles the next morning. “Why were you and papa fighting last night?” I tried to explain that I want to move but papa doesn’t. I told Freddi, “ I’m NOT going to be the teacher! I’m going to that Gypsumville town and I’m finding a house for us.”

But a few days before I was to go, my knees got very swollen and they hurt so badly I had trouble walking. I didn’t want to say too much so I set out with Adrien and we walked, rode a boat, then portaged the 42 miles to Gypsumville. We slept under the stars. It took us two days and one night.

AND, I found a big house--$10.00 a month, short walk to the two schools and a church with mass once a month. We haven’t been to mass for a year unless you count the mass by the kids last Sunday where a ‘devil’ snake dropped in on them, scared them out of their wits. We are getting out of here. The one problem is, that house is full of bed bugs. But, I have a plan.

This is a week later. Maman, have you been praying 24 hours a day? There has been some kind of cure. We got a ride back from Gyp in the mailman’s boat but the swelling in my knees is gone and so is the pain! Miracle? Merci beaucoup, maman! And keep up with the prayers.

Avec amour, ta fille,
Marie Louise

The little 'devil' Estelle by Sarah Parsons, 7 years old.
(Granddaughter of Denyse)


Off to see the King and Queen - 1939.
Sisters in red, white and blue dresses.

Les p'tits with Laurent and Rex pulling the sleigh in front of our log cabin home.

Fifteen-year-old Marie Ange describes he daily adventures of their six day road trip to Ontario.

Duluth Minnesota, U.S.A., Thursday, November 21, 1945.

Dear Diary:

“Bonne Fête, maman,”
that’s how we woke maman up this morning singing Happy Birthday to her. She is 46 years old today. She was born in November of 1899 so we know that when she turns a hundred years old and six weeks, she will have lived in three centuries. She can do anything so I’m sure she’ll do that for us. She has long black hair, worn in a bun, but right in the front of her head is a streak of pure white hair. Years ago she fell from a buggy and hit her head there. She was knocked out and that night Marcel was born with bumps on his head too. She is a little bit plump but soft and cuddly. I can see Hubert snuggling on her lap in the front seat. He is four years old and maman only stopped nursing him last year.

The car was purring this morning as we left Duluth following a snowplow, thank God, in a big snow storm. We arrived at a winter wonderland. We stayed in the Seven Dwarfs cabin which had dollops of snow over-hanging the roof but we never found Snow White. We were surrounded by snow-covered Christmas trees and I felt like I was stepping into a Christmas card. We heard Christmas music on the radio in the restaurant. We sang White Christmas, of course, and Il est né le divin Enfant, and every other carol we knew. We were in Ironwood, Wisconsin.

Marie (Ange) Gervais

Family with the Bishop after confirmation and first communion 1944.

The Big Bend Band: Majella on Hawaiin guitar, Adrien on drums and Ted at right holding a fiddle.

Celine, Estelle, ?, Denyse, Marie, ?, Laurent at the table.

click for larger view

Family reunion in 2004. Photo by Victor Aziz of London.
(click on the picture above for a larger version)
Taken in 1948 in Gypsumville. Elwood Dey, Therese Gervais and Ivan Lounsbury



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