The miracle of bluenose writers

Margaret Marshall Saunders of Halifax wrote Beautiful Joe in 1889. It was the first book by a Canadian to sell a million copies. It’s about a terrier’s rescue by an animal-loving family from a sadistic owner who cut off his ears. The book eventually sold seven million copies and Saunders published 23 more, but aside from a portrait that Just Us café recently installed, you won’t find public recognition of Saunders anywhere in the city, not even a plaque on her old home across Carleton Street from the café. A developer will soon demolish the building.

That’s what happened to Hugh MacLennan’s home opposite the Public Gardens on South Park Street. He won five Governor General’s Awards, still more than anyone else, and his Barometer Rising (1941) is the first authentically Canadian novel. Its key background is the Halifax Explosion and, while a schoolboy living in that house, MacLennan felt reverberations of the blast, and saw blood it spilled. Writers campaigned in 1993 for the preservation of the place, but failed. A developer tore it down.

Saunders and MacLennan were part of a Nova Scotian phenomenon that no one has ever properly acknowledged. For a small province, it’s been home to an amazing number of nationally and internationally recognized writers.

Judge and politician Thomas Chandler Haliburton of Windsor in 1836 published the first international bestseller in what would become Canada, The Clockmaker, or the Sayings and Doings of Samuel Slick of Slickville. Slick was a Yankee wiseguy. His mockery of colonial Nova Scotians and their relations with Britain and the U.S. was hugely popular in both countries. Before Dickens, Haliburton became the most popular writer of comic fiction in English, and a founder of North American humour.

Farley Mowat, winner of a Governor General’s Award, a dozen other prizes and nine honourary degrees, joked that he spent several months every year at his house in Cape Breton because the fog was so boring the place was perfect for writing. Maybe it’s not fog, but something in the air here inspires exceptional writers.

In 1952, Ernest Buckler, who breathed the air of the Annapolis Valley nearly his entire life, published The Mountain and the Valley, a first novel that moved U.S. critics to compare him to Hemingway, Steinbeck, D. H. Lawrence, and Willa Cather. It influenced the fiction of Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood, and remains a CanLit staple.

Atwood, by the way, learned to love reading during summer-long visits as a child from Ottawa to relatives at Clyde River in southwest Nova Scotia. Their house had no electricity and, she recalled, “If you grew up there, you read.”  For her, it was but a short step from loving reading to loving writing.  At six, she began writing poems and plays, setting her on her path to unparalleled success as a Canadian novelist.    

Thomas Raddall, best-selling author of books of history and historical fiction (three Governor General’s Awards), lived in Liverpool, and once told my father he got ideas for his novels from old men he met while ambling on local beaches. They told him what they’d heard as children about their ancestors’ adventures during the era of the American Revolution.

That, my father thought enviously, was the perfect life for a writer. He was born in Guysborough County, found himself stuck in Toronto with a full-time job as a newspaperman, and a yearning for “down home” so powerful it expressed itself in poetry that won a Governor General’s Award in 1951, and a novel that was runner-up for another in 1954.

Pictou-born Kenneth Leslie was not only a Christian Socialist, antifascist, and notoriously leftist political activist in the U.S. during the ’30s and ’40s, but a remarkable poet. Indeed, he was “God’s Red Poet.” The Times Literary Supplement in London called his poetry “burningly alive” and in 1938 he won a Governor General’s Award for it. 

Alden Nowlan grew up poor, near Windsor in a neigbourhood he would recall as “Desolation Creek.” His mother gave birth to him at 14, and promptly vanished, leaving him in the care of the mother of his father, a sometimes labourer. The Nowlans sneered at formal schooling. Alden finished only four grades, but devoured library books. “I wrote [as I read] in secret,” he remembered. “My father would have as soon seen me wear lipstick.” He escaped to New Brunswick at 19. Only 15 years later, in 1967, he was one of Canada’s most treasured poets and another Nova Scotia-born winner of the Governor General’s Award for poetry.

The only black Canadian ever to win that was George Elliott Clarke in 2001. He was born in Windsor Plains, raised in Halifax, and by 2016 was Canada’s Parliamentary Poet and the winner of a score of other prizes and honours. In 2007, Cape Breton-born Don Domanski won his Governor General’s Award for one of seven collections of poetry. His work has been translated into nine languages.

Poet Elizabeth Bishop was born in 1911 in Massachusetts but after her father died and her mother vanished inside a mental home, she was still only five, and lived for the next 2.5 years with her maternal grandparents in Great Village, Nova Scotia.  Her father’s family “kidnapped” her back to Massachusetts, but every summer until the 1930s she returned to Great Village.

She eventually won a Pulitzer Prize, U.S. National Book Award, and recognition as one of the great poets of the 20th century. Professional critics and lovers of her wise and beautiful work alike understood, that brief as her young life in Nova Scotia was, it was there that the seeds of her blossoming as a poet were planted. 

Alistair MacLeod, proclaimed by a Globe and Mail critic as “the greatest living Canadian writer,” was born in Saskatchewan and spent decades as a professor in Ontario, but always knew “home” was the old family farm on the west coast of Cape Breton. It was there he spent his long summertime escapes from teaching, retreating each morning to a shack overlooking the sea to write in longhand just one published novel, No Great Mischief (1999), and 16 short stories. Enough to win him reverence throughout the English-reading world, each was a masterpiece.

With Billy Bishop Goes to War, a huge hit that ran on Broadway and in London’s West End, ex-rock musician John Gray of Truro, along with actor Eric Peterson, won the Governor General’s Award (1982) for English-language drama. Catherine Banks of Sambro collected it in both 2008 and 2012, and Sydney-borne Dan MacIvor in 2006. Former NDP MP Wendy Lill of Dartmouth, short-listed for it four times, has seen her plays performed in Scotland, Denmark, Germany, and across Canada.

Evelyn Richardson won a Governor General’s Award (1945) for non-fiction for her memoirs about raising a family and helping her husband run a lighthouse off the South Shore.  Raddall’s and MacLennan’s Governor General’s Awards each included two for non-fiction. Haligonian Charles Ritchie, whose highly distinguished diplomatic career included service as Canada’s ambassador to the U.S., won one in 1974 for his diaries, The Siren Years, and in 1999 Marq de Villiers of Eagle Head near Port Medway, nailed yet another, for Water: Our Most Precious Resource.

I haven’t room here to list all the superior Nova Scotian authors whose books I wish I’d written, but I’m sure no other province can boast of such a lusty proliferation of fine writers per capita. They are an asset unique to us, like Bluenose II (but without the repair costs).

All around the province, we have museums and festivals that recognize the contributions to our history and culture by soldiers, country singers and highland dancers, pilots, pioneers and privateers, miners, mariners and manufacturers, farmers, fishermen and firefighters, etc. Halifax alone boasts a whole bunch of museums, plus the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia and Nova Scotia Sport Hall of Fame.

Fine, but where’s our Nova Scotia Writers’ Hall of Fame?   

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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