Writers and Literature
Saskatchewan’s vibrant culture has long been a life-giving soil bringing forth memorable literature. Since 1948, that literature has been nurtured by visionary people who valued creativity. Our literary works reflect our regional character as much as our art, perhaps more. Brief lists of notable authors would be like selecting a few robust seeds from a generally bountiful crop. Instead we draw attention to some outstanding published works harvested from that crop of literary voices that have won national recognition. For a comprehensive examination of Saskatchewan writers and writing, read David Carpenter’s trilogy, The Literary History of Saskatchewan Writers.
Blazing a path for Saskatchewan writers
1948: T.C. Douglas’s government set up the visionary Saskatchewan Arts Board, the first in Canada. It triggered a blossoming of literature and the fine and performing arts here, and elevated our profile on Canada’s cultural map.
1951: The Saskatchewan Arts Board set up a summer arts program at Valley Centre, with W.O. Mitchell as writing instructor.
1961: Saskatchewan’s first literary quarterly, the Wascana Review, appeared.
1967: Fort San in the sublime Qu’Appelle Valley was the setting for a new educational and performing arts centre. Playwright Ken Mitchell called it “Woodstock on the Qu’Appelle.”
1969: The Saskatchewan Writers Guild (SWG) was born; the poetry magazine Salt was launched in Bob Currie’s basement.
1973: The SWG launched its literary journal, Grain. That year Maria Campbell gave a vigorous boost to Aboriginal writing with her stunning memoir Halfbreed.
1975: Thistledown Press was founded in Saskatoon, to “publish and promote the work of new and established writers.”
1978: The first writers’ colony and retreat took root at Fort San, later spreading like fertile vines to Muenster, Emma Lake and elsewhere.
1989: The Saskatchewan Publishers Group was formed.
1996: The Festival of Words in Moose Jaw, and Coteau Books, a literary press, were born. The publisher was named after the extraordinary ridge of hills that looks over much of southern Saskatchewan.
[From a chapter in David Carpenter’s anthology, The Literary History of Saskatchewan, vol 1]
Saskatchewan Writer’s Guild:
Author David Carpenter’s list of SWG leading lights
For many years Anne Szumigalski was the literary centre of Saskatoon and her wisdom and influence radiated out to the rest of the province. Her house was the place where writers came for encouragement and criticism, and she took in all comers, from hobby writers to published poets. She was also an organizing force within the Guild. No one could ever replace her as a poet or as a mentor. Her little house should be a heritage site.
Gary Hyland was probably the best cultural advocate and community builder in the Saskatchewan writing community in any era of our province’s history. He was a force within the Guild and a great presence in the creation of Sage Hill writing school. The city of Moose Jaw has venerated him like a saint. And he was a fine poet.
Ken Mitchell was probably the chief architect of the first provincial writers’ guild in Canada. He was also one of the leading voices in organizing our system of writers’ colonies from 1978 to the present day. Another first in Canada. Ken was a playwright, a short story writer, a scholar, a novelist and a poet, and he distinguished himself in every genre.
Geoff Ursell was one of the truly dynamic presidents of the SWG, a multi-tasking, multi-talented writer and community organizer. He increased the flow of funding from the Arts Board and other funding agencies for the Guild and its individual writers. Like fellow Moosejavian, Ken Mitchell, he wrote in all the genres. He is a songwriter, a guitarist, a poet, novelist, former scholar, short story writer, playwright and was a standout fielder for the Fort San Writers’ Ball team, circa 1977.
Bob Currie, yet another Moosejavian, was a pharmacist, a high school English teacher, a prolific poet (still), a novelist, a publisher and a constant Guild stalwart. He worked with Saint Hyland to create the Moose Jaw Festival of Words, a wonderful literary festival favoured by writers across the country. He seems to anchor this festival, year after year, in many ways. He is himself a very good reason to visit Moose Jaw.
Brenda Baker: The only gap in her résumé is that she doesn’t come from Moose Jaw. She began as a serious visual artist and switched to music. She is nationally known as a singer/songwriter/recording artist, but her literary dossier threatens to eclipse her musical reputation. As well as being a talented, engaging fiction writer, she has served the Guild executive and the writing community with great energy.
Bob Calder was elected to the presidency of the SWG during a crossroads in the organization, and he will be remembered as a president who really got things done. As a critic, biographer, historian, and memoirist, he is one of the few writers from this province to distinguished himself on an international scale. And yes, he too is from Moose Jaw.
When Brenda Niskala served on the executive of the SWG she was a burgeoning poet. During her years as a lawyer and her work with the Saskatchewan Publishers Group there was a sea change in her writing, because now we see her as a fiction writer. In all her work with the literary community and as a writer she is consistently gutsy and compassionate.
David Margoshes came to Saskatchewan, and to writing poetry and fiction, from an itinerant career in journalism in New York, New Jersey, Vancouver, Calgary and many other cultural centres. He served effectively on the Guild’s board, and he was sometimes brought in to help untie some serious knots where others had failed. Our community Solomon is a superb writer. He now lives on a farm a long way from New York City but very close to Saskatoon.
Gerry Hill is a poet’s poet, a teacher, and a force in the literary community as a builder. He stands tall in the Guild, on campus in Regina, and on the hockey rink. He has an over-the-top eccentric sense of humor and an excellent wrist shot.
Print to screen
Books made into dramatic films (including docu-drama)
Most Canadian movies are viewed here as television mini-series, due to the economic realities of film distribution.
The Englishman’s Boy by Guy Vanderheaghe became a TV mini-series, which won six Gemini awards.
The blockbuster movie Life of Pi by Yann Martel is based on his 2001 novel that won a Mann Booker Award. In 2013 the film won eight Oscars, plus seventy-nine other film awards.
Love and Hate: A Canadian Tragedy: The Story of Jo Ann and Colin Thatcher by Maggie Siggins became a CBC TV mini-series, starring Kate Nelligan and Kenneth Welsh. It was broadcast on NBC in the U.S. under the title Love and Hate: A Marriage Made in hell.
Never Cry Wolf by Farley Mowat, American docudrama, was produced by Walt Disney Pictures.
Revenge of the Land by Maggie Siggins was made into a 1999 dramatic TV mini-series. It stars Jennifer Dale and Kenneth Welsh.
The Temptations of Big Bear by Rudy Wiebe was dramatized as a TV mini-series.
Why Shoot the Teacher based on Max Braithwaite’s novel, was produced by Quartet Films in 1977. Filmed in Hanna, Alberta, it can now be seen on YouTube.
Who has Seen the Wind? by W.O. Mitchell was made into a successful comedy-drama by Cinema World Studios in 1977, and available on live streaming. Its stars included Jose Ferrer and Gor
The essence of Saskatchewan
A librarian’s list of memorable (non-academic) nonfiction books
All Saskies should read these. There are many, many, more. Some, now classics, came out before many literary awards, now awarded annually, were established.
Beyond Forget Mark Abley, a rambling tour through the prairies told in language verging on poetic.
Courting Saskatchewan is David Carpenter’s acclaimed book about the province he loves, laced with stories of life in the outdoors. Broadcaster Peter Gzowski reportedly said it was one of the three best books about Saskatchewan, along with As for Me and My House, and The Perfection of the Morning.
Garrett Wilson’s Frontier Farewell is a sweeping account of the 1870s, when the First Nations people were plagued by pestilence, fire and the famine caused by the demise of the buffalo, finally leading to the banishment of Indigenous people to reserves.
A Geography of Blood: Unearthing Memory from a Prairie Landscape is Candace Savage’s spirited account of her experiences in the southwest area around Eastend, and her explorations into the region’s unbridled social history.
Loyal till Death: Indians and the North-West Rebellion by Blair Stonechild and Bill Waiser, a shocking rebuttal of the misunderstanding that most First Nations bands supported Riel in the 1885 North-West Resistance, was a GG finalist. Waiser’s A World We Have Lost, did win a GG.
The Perfection of the Morning, by Sharon Butala, one of several of her nonfiction works about the prairie, exploring its character, history and landscape. Others are Lilac Moon, Coyote’s Morning Cry, Wild Stone Heart, and Old Man on His Back.
New and Naked Land by Ron Rees, identifies adaptations required of newcomers from regions rich in land, forests, lakes and rivers, to one short of wood and water. His Land of Earth and Sky illustrates how these adaptations are reflected in prairie landscape painting over the decades.
Revenge of the Land won a GG for Maggie Siggins. It explores the lives of successive owners of a tract of land near Moose Jaw, caught in the grip of political and natural forces that shaped their existence. It and A Canadian Tragedy: Jo Ann and Colin Thatcher inspired a CBC Television mini-series.
River in a Dry Land: A Prairie Passage, by Trevor Herriot is a paean to the Qu’Appelle River and surrounding region, from a naturalist’s point of view.
Saskatchewan by Edward McCourt is a witty English professor’s quite literary account of his motor trip around the province, including excursions along dirt roads to out-of-the-way spots.
Slava Bohu, about the Doukhobors, was written by firebrand journalist J.F.C. (Jim) Wright, winning him a GG in 1940. He was one of the early Saskies to win the award. He also penned one the first official histories of Saskatchewan, and several other books.
Voices of the Plains Cree, is a posthumous book but important book by Edward Ahenakew, one part based on interviews with Chief Thunderchild, another part semi-fictional. From Ahtahkakoop First Nation, early in the 20th century he became an Anglican minister. He was one of the early indigenous authors who recorded on paper (with help) some of the history of his people.
The lionized Wolf Willow by Wallace Stegner – is part memoir, part history, part novel — about his boyhood life in the southwest. An acclaimed American author, he received many prestigious awards. His former home in Eastend is now a writers’ retreat.
Saskatchewan-based plays by our own playwrights
Canadian Gothic, by Saskatoon-born playwright Joanna Glass, who forged her career in New York. The play centres on a Saskatchewan family, and a bi-racial love affair. Shown widely on stage, it was adapted for radio by the CBC and BBC.
Cruel Tears by Ken Mitchell – a musical play based on Shakespeare’s Othello – toured the country. Master of many genres, and a playwriting giant, he wrote many memorable Saskatchewan-based plays, and three plays about the Far East.
Excavations by Eugene Stickland, set in southwest Saskatchewan’s badlands. It won the Alberta Playwriting Award and was produced by Theatre Network, Edmonton. He grew up in Regina.
Lanc by Don Kerr – about pilots (including Saskies) who flew Lancasters in World War II — performed at Saskatoon’s Greystone Theatre, and The Great War, about four local war heroes, performed at Twenty-fifth Street Theatre.
The Heart as it is Lived by Mansell Robinson touches on the Regina Riot of 1935. (Anything by Robinson is probably worth seeing.)
A House on Temperance Street, by Ronald Mavor, performed at Persephone Theatre. There rea;;y is a Temperance Street in Saskatoon, the city founded by the Temperance colonization society.
If You’re So Good, Why are You in Saskatoon?, a collaborative retort to the dismissive attitude outside this province toward prairie-grown theatre.
Jacob Kepp by Andras Tahn: a family fights the government over taxes.
Jessica, based on Maria Campbell’s Halfbreed, script written by Campbell and Linda Griffiths. It won a Dora Mavor Moore award in Toronto.
La Trahison/Betrayal by Laurier Garneau, a play about Gabriel Dumont.
Medicare! and Black Powder by Rex Deverell bring to life key events in Saskatchewan political history.
Paper Wheat, a collaboration by 25th Street Theatre, was a smash hit and a quintessential prairie play enriched with music straight from the ecollective heart of its creators.
Spirit Wrestler, by Greg Nelson, explores the lives of Doukhobor immigrants.
Winning the Prairie Gamble by Geoffrey Ursell: farmers organizing and adapting to the prairie environment.
[Brenna, Our Kind of Work; Ian Nelson (email) and other sources]
Collections shortlisted for, or winners of, major national awards for poetry
Most of these poets were showered with other awards too.
Blue Marrow by poet Bernice Louise Halfe, on the lives of Cree women, was shortlisted for a GG. Halfe was Saskatchewan’s poet laureate in 2005-6.
Footnotes to the Book of Job by Elizabeth Brewster (OC), English professor at the U of S, was shortlisted for a GG. She was a founding member of the literary magazine The Fiddlehead.
Inventing the Hawk earned a GG for Lorna Crozier (FRSC, OC), formerly of Saskatoon.She was also nominated for What the Soul Doesn’t Want; Angels of Flesh, Angels of Silence, and The Garden Going on Without Us, and has received many other poetry awards.
Poems New and Selected by Patrick Lane (OC) — a long-time resident of Saskatoon – was awarded the GG. His books Washita and Winter were also nominated. Other honours include an honorary doctorate.
Kill-site and other books won the GG for Tim Lilburn, originally of Regina. He was the first Canadian to win the European Medal of Poetry and Art, “Homer.”
An Idiot Joy won a GG for Eli Mandel of Estevan, whose other awards include a Centennial medal and a Silver Jubilee medal. He served in World War II.
Nerve Squall by Sylvia Legris of Saskatoon garnered a Griffin Poetry Prize and the Pat Lowther Award. Author David Carpenter calls her “the most highly acclaimed poet ever to live in Saskatchewan.”
John Newlove, born in Regina, won the 1972 GG for Lies, and was shortlisted for The Night the Dog Smiled.
Voice won a GG for Anne Szumigalski of Saskatoon, also nominated for Doctrine of Signatures. She is highly revered not only for her own poetry, but as mentor of many gifted poets.
Fred Wah (OC) received his GG for Waiting for Saskatchewan. Born in Swift Current, he is a former Parliamentary poet laureate.
Nationally-recognized fiction by Saskie authors – a sample
Some won, or were short–listed for, Governor-General’s or Giller awards, and some are classics that became movies and help to define us. Legions more, not listed here, were honoured with Saskatchewan Book Awards
As for Me and My House by Sinclair Ross is his best-known work, a Canadian classic. An unforgettable short story, “The Painted Door” about depression-era life and marital miscommunication, is in the anthology The Lamp at Noon.
Cool Water by Dianne Warren is set in a fictional southwestern town, peopled by droll characters. The novel received the GG in 2010.
The Englishman’s Boy by Guy Vanderheaghe won the GG in 1996 and was made into a television mini-series. It deals with the Cypress Hills massacre, a pivotal event in the province’s history. His short story collection Man Descending garnered another GG.
The Factory Voice by Jeanette Lynes was listed on the Globe & Mail’s Top 100 books of 2009. (and was long-listed for a Giller). Lynes teaches at the U of S.
A Good House, by Bonnie Burnard, won the Giller award. She lived in Regina in the 1970s.
Good to a Fault by Marina Endicott won the 2009 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Canada and the Caribbean, three of her novels were contenders for the Giller, and Close to Hugh was named one of CBC’s Best Books in 2015.
Life of Pi by Yann Martel won Britain’s prestigious Man Booker Award. It was made into a film that won four Academy Awards.
Lost in the Barrens earned Farley Mowat a coveted GG. (In the 1930s, his father Angus was chief librarian at Saskatoon Public Library.) Farley garnered a host of prestigious writing awards for his books, often a blend of genres.
Temptations of Big Bear, by Rudy Wiebe, a historical novel portraying the indomitable spirit of a people facing annihilation, was made into a movie. It and A Discovery of Strangers won GG awards. Wiebe was born near Fairholme.
Who has Seen the Wind, a Canadian classic by W.O. Mitchell (“Canada’s Mark Twain”), sold 750,000 copies across Canada, and was made into a movie. Mitchell also scripted the popular Jake and the Kid CBC radio series.
Wild Rose, a bestseller by Sharon Butala tells the story of a single woman who carves a successful life on the prairies in homesteading days. Winner of the Marian Engel Award in 1998.
Why Shoot the Teacher by Max Braithwaite shape-shifted into a popular film that topped box office revenues the year it came out.