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William Bell’s relaxed and gentle approach to teaching English made him popular with the adult students at the Foreign Affairs College in Beijing during the mid-1980’s. (Brendan Bell)
William Bell’s relaxed and gentle approach to teaching English made him popular with the adult students at the Foreign Affairs College in Beijing during the mid-1980’s. (Brendan Bell)

OBITUARY

Acclaimed novelist William Edwin Bell wrote of teen angst Add to ...

The life of author William Bell illustrates that love has the power to sweep away obstacles – cultural, political, geographic – standing in its way.

In the mid-1980s, while teaching English at the Foreign Affairs College in Beijing, cradle of Chinese diplomats, he fell in love with Ting-Xing Ye, a translator from Shanghai stuck in a loveless marriage, who was one of his students. This was highly dangerous; at the time, Chinese people who formed relationships with foreigners were jailed as spies.

Ms. Ye, whose father had owned a small factory in Shanghai until it was taken from him, had been cruelly hounded by Red Guards during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. After she was finally released from the prison farm, where she had wasted years, and allowed to go to university, she married a man who had been kind to her at the farm. Their baby daughter – the only one they were allowed to have – arrived not long after. From the beginning of their marriage, her husband invited a close friend into their Shanghai home, an effeminate man whom people called Lamb. Lamb cooked most of their meals, did their laundry and gradually usurped her place. (Ms. Ye was so young and naive at the time that she knew nothing about homosexuality or bisexuality.)

She and her handsome English teacher confessed their mutual love just as the course he taught was ending and he was about to return to Canada. Their feelings, Ms. Ye wrote in her remarkable 1997 memoir A Leaf in the Bitter Wind, were twice forbidden since they were not only of different nationalities but both were married. She believed they would never see each other again. They continued to correspond, however, with Mr. Bell sending his letters to different addresses in Shanghai.

At the time, Chinese citizens could not travel. If they had official business abroad, they could get a passport but it was taken from them as soon as they returned to China. One day, Mr. Bell sent Ms. Ye an application form for a scholarship – the “Ontario Educators’ Scholarship for Studies in the Humanities” – to York University, where she could perfect her English. It was for someone with exactly her qualifications and offered travel and living expenses as well as tuition.

She filled out the form, sent it off and a few weeks later received a formal letter telling her that she had won the scholarship. The letter meant she could get permission to take time off from her work unit at the Foreign Affairs Department of the Shanghai municipal government, where she translated for visiting dignitaries and showed them around the city. She could obtain a passport.

The Chinese embassy in Ottawa, when asked to verify the scholarship offer, had written back to China that there were hundreds of scholarships in Canada and its staff didn’t have time to investigate them all.

It was not until Ms. Ye arrived at Pearson Airport in 1987 that Mr. Bell, whose first marriage was by then over, told her that the scholarship had been a ruse. Though he wrote 19 books, the Ontario Educators’ Scholarship was his most significant fiction.

Ms. Ye was forced to leave her then six-year-old daughter Qi-Meng behind and she was not able to find her again until 2005.

The couple enjoyed a happy common-law partnership for 29 years until Mr. Bell was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia in September, 2015. He died on July 30 in Orillia, Ont.

William Edwin Bell was born in Toronto on Oct. 27, 1945, the second child and only son of William Bell, a tool and die machinist, and homemaker Irene (née Spowart) Bell. He attended New Toronto Secondary School (now Lakeshore Collegiate Institute), graduating as valedictorian. According to his sister Carole Lashbrook, everyone in the family was a reader. “Bill had friends but he liked solitary activities; he did not have a tortured teenage time.” Teen angst, however, was to feature in his popular young adult (YA) novels.

He took a BA and MA in English at Trinity College, University of Toronto, and later also obtained a Master of Education. After university, he met and married Susan Arnup with whom he had three children. The family went to China for the first time in 1982, when Mr. Bell had been asked to teach at Harbin University of Science and Technology. They went again in the mid-80s, when Mr. Bell’s relaxed and gentle approach to teaching English made him popular with the adult students at the Foreign Affairs College in Beijing. Ms. Ye recounts in her memoir that each class began with his asking, “What’s new?” He encouraged his students to use their English in a short freewheeling conversation – a novelty in that strictly controlled academic setting.

After China, he taught a summer course for teachers at the University of British Columbia before returning to his teaching job in Ontario. He taught English over the years at four different schools within the Simcoe County District School Board, and was by all accounts beloved by students. He coached track and field and took them camping. “He genuinely liked and respected teenagers and was very good at recognizing and bringing out talents that were not obvious,” his sister recalled. “He was not the kind of teacher to impose [his views].”

He retired as head of English at Orillia District Collegiate and Vocational Institute in 2000, at the age of 55 because he was discouraged, Ms. Ye said, by the cutbacks to education in Ontario under the Mike Harris government. Having published his first novel, Crabbe, in 1986, he was by then a well-known writer, his books translated into nine languages. He won the Ruth Schwartz Award in 1991, the Mr. Christie’s Book Award (1999), the Belgium Prize. The Canadian Library Association chose his book Stones as book of the year for children in 2002. With his encouragement, Ms. Ye, too, became a YA author. They even wrote a book together, Throwaway Daughter (2003), about an adopted Canadian girl coming to terms with her Chinese origins.

Mr. Bell liked to write his first draft in longhand using a 50-year-old Parker fountain pen; the many drafts that followed went into the computer. “I can write anywhere but prefer my study in Orillia, Ont., or my cabin in Fortune, PEI.” An excellent woodworker, he built all the furniture at the cabin.

His books were generally coming-of-age stories with adolescent protagonists but he liked the fact that adults read them, too.

“My stories are about younger people because the characters are at a formative stage in their lives, struggling to discover who they are and where they fit into the world of people and events around them” he wrote in some notes for the Canadian Children’s Book Centre from his hospital bed. “I find them more interesting … than older, more established personalities.”

Mr. Bell leaves his wife, Ting-Xing Ye; sister, Carole Lashbrook; sons, Dylan and Brendan; daughter, Megan; step-daughter Qi-Meng; and three grandchildren.

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