Prince Edward County’s Newspaper of Record
April 24, 2024
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News
September 14, 2023

Playwright Suzanne Pasternak a community treasure

<p>Suzanne Pasternak<br />
February 14 1951 &#8211; September 3, 2023</p>
Suzanne Pasternak February 14 1951 – September 3, 2023

JASON PARKS

IN MEMORIAM

EDITOR

A devoted Prince Edward County historian, playwright, author and storyteller has died.

Suzanne Pasternak, of Minerva fame, had been battling significant health issues for much of the past year and more recently, was diagnosed with interstitial lung disease. Suzanne was in Kingston General Hospital with her family when she died Sept. 3.

A native of another Bloomfield, in New Jersey, Suzanne came to know Prince Edward County in the usual way. She and her husband spent a weekend here in the early 1980’s and fell in love with the place. From that point, this island community and its rich history was never too far from her heart.

Ms. Pasternak lived in Waupoos and Black Creek before settling on property near Little Bluff, close to the hub of the County’s commercial fishing industry. Her inspired connection to those who made a living on the water led to over three decades of creative work. Through interspersed song, dance, and writing, Ms. Pasternak brought a series of dusty Prince Edward County tales to glorious life.

“Growing up near New York city, she was always near a very lush folk music scene, and in the ’60’s and ’70’s, that music was a form of story telling,” her daughter, Natasha Pasternak, told the Gazette. “She was really drawn to that. Living out on Long Point, she was drawn to the commercial fishermen and their stories and they would share tales of their life on the water with her.”

One tale was a poem by an unknown author about Minerva McCrimmon, a 17-year-old cook aboard the David Andrews. One foggy April evening in 1880, Minerva managed to save 21 panic-stricken crew members off the shoals of Oswego, NY.

“She came across this poem ‘Nerva of the Delaware and that was the start,” said Natasha. “She unearthed this whole world of stories and that stoked the fire.”

That creativity manifested itself into the Minerva folk opera, which was optioned to Mirvish Productions. It also served as the catalyst to a host of live performances and literary pieces, most of which focused on County tales of yore. Sometimes, research on one story would spawn another.

While working on a live performance of the tale of Robert Clarence Thompson, a County teenager from Hillier who, at the age of 13, managed to enlist to fight in WWI by falsifying his age, Suzanne discovered the story of the catastrophic explosion of the munition ship SS Mont-Blanc in the Halifax Harbour. Massachusetts Governor Samuel McCall and Boston businessman and philanthropist Abraham Ratshesky co-ordinated a massive humanitarian rescue effort. Doctors, nurses, and the Red Cross came from Massachusetts to Halifax. In return, a large Christmas tree from the woods of Nova Scotia was sent to the Boston Commons. 

Haligonians still say thank you to the City of Boston and its people every Christmas, and that tradition resulted in Pasternak’s The Story of the 1917 Halifax Explosion & The Boston Tree.

“I was just so struck by the humanitarian response to the explosion,” Suzanne Pasternak told the Gazette in 2017. “I just really thought it was a story that needed to be told.”

News of Suzanne’s passing made the rounds of social media this weekend, and Natasha noted how moving the notes and posts of how her mother inspired so many people in Prince Edward County through her work were to read.

“A woman of immense talent, ideas, and spirit, [Suzanne] brought to life, through her songs and writing, characters who shaped our local and shared Canadian history, and brought awareness of great tragedy, courage and determination through her sensitive and insightful interviews and stories. I was honoured to have worked with her on several projects,” said performer Lenni Stewart.

Suzanne’s contributions to local marine history and her efforts to keep those tales current will be honoured at this year’s annual Mariners’ Service, on Sept. 24 at South Bay United Church.

In a story about the centennial celebration of the service appearing in the Aug. 31 edition of the Picton Gazette, County Museums curator Jessica Chase noted that the Mariners’ Service will include performances of some of Ms. Pasternak’s music, as well as tributes to her contributions to local history.

I always admired her tireless efforts to document the maritime history of this special place through her broad portfolio of songs, books, concerts, articles, and plays. Her play Minerva is an outstanding piece of historical storytelling,” said fellow Prince Edward County historian Peter Lockyer.  “I am very grateful to her for both her artistry and her dedication throughout her life to capture a disappearing history despite many health challenges in recent years. Suzanne remains a community treasure.”

Natasha explained her mother really never looked back at the totality of her work. Even as her health waned, Suzanne was giving directions on the commercial fishing documentary she was working on.

“She really wanted to keep looking and moving forward to the next story. She also wanted to make sure everyone who did work on the productions got paid, even if it meant she didn’t. That was so important to her, that the performers and stage people and everyone connected to the performances knew their work was valued,” Natasha added.

A Gofundme account launched during Suzanne’s stay at KGH to support her has transitioned to cover costs related to her funeral, celebration of life and memorial.

Natasha confirmed to the Gazette a celebration sometime in the spring of 2024 that will  honour the depth and breadth of her mother’s work is being planned. Details will be announced closer to the date.

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