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guy vanderhaeghe

by Dave Yanko

Guy Vanderhaeghe
- credit Adrian Ewins
Guy Vanderhaeghe

Saskatchewan writer Guy Vanderhaeghe recalls as a teen growing up in Esterhazy seeing a 1960s movie called "The Devil's Brigade".

A wartime flick in the rag-tag-group-of-misfits-turned- heroes genre, the largely unremarkable film included a scene in which Canadian and American soldiers competed against each other in a foot race.

Sprinkled throughout the audience in the small-town movie theatre were American kids, whose parents moved to Esterhazy in the late 1950s to work as managers and engineers at the nearby potash mine.

"The theatre actually broke up into the American kids cheering the Americans and the Canadian kids cheering the Canadians.

"Of course, the Americans won. It was an American movie," Vanderhaeghe said during an interview in the sunny living room of his Saskatoon bungalow.

Growing up with this small group of Americans generated "my first awakenings" of Canadian nationalism, he said.

"And that doesn't mean to say that I was anti-American. . . . But it did reinforce a sense of "otherness" of some kind - of distinction."

The Englishman's Boy
The Englishman's Boy: Power and personal agenda alter history.

Three decades later, this distinctive voice of Saskatchewan is the toast of the Canadian literary scene and a hit with readers who simply enjoy good tales well told. His new novel, "The Englishman's Boy", has earned him his second Governor General's Award - Canada's highest literary honor. Mordecai Richler calls it a "stunning performance", and Timothy Findlay says it's a "magnificent novel" written by a man "who has plundered the language for all its treasures".

Vanderhaeghe, born in 1951, splashed onto the Canadian literary scene in 1982, garnering a Governor General's Award for Fiction for his first published book - a collection of short stories entitled "Man Descending". His new award winner, "The Englishman's Boy", uses dual narratives to connect 1920s Hollywood to the 1873 massacre of Assiniboia Indians at Cypress Hills, in what is now southwestern Saskatchewan.

His success, international in scope, is particularly noteworthy because he achieved it while remaining in Saskatchewan and writing stories mainly set in Saskatchewan. Vanderhaeghe paraphrased a long-deceased pope when asked about the broad appeal of his work.

"The universal grows out the particular," he said, adding: "Anything that's not particular has little chance of becoming universal."

Russian literature is local in setting, he continued, his example perhaps spurred by a copy of "War and Peace" sitting on the coffee table atop John Ralston Saul's "The Unconscious Civilization". It's only in relatively recent times that Russian literature came to be universal, he said.

How does the transition occur?

"The region in which the writer writes, and writes about, has to value the work the writer does."

He says that's happened in Saskatchewan.

The popular culture of Saskatchewan, and Canada, is American culture, he says. But in the last 20 years, Saskatchewan people have bought Saskatchewan books. To some degree, that's because locally-written books are now included in school curricula and on library acquisition lists. Readers are being introduced to their own writers, and they like what they see.

"It's largely a question of quality."

If the people of Saskatchewan see value and quality in Vanderhaeghe's writing, perhaps it's because his stories ring true to them. He knows who they are, and what sets them apart from those with whom they share the continent.

"We have a sense of making a difference," he says.

"Saskatchewan people have a tradition of being progressive, both socially and politically. There may have been charismatic leaders, but their approach to problems was actively considered by individuals. In a sense, the people were not led.

"There's also a strong spirit of cooperation here - of egalitarianism. It's not that there aren't class distinctions, but they account for far less than in older, more settled areas."

Vanderhaeghe won't discuss his next project - he says he's not far enough into anything to say. It appears everything's in place for a major motion picture based on "The Englishman's Boy", to be created by a Saskatchewan film company.

Should the film be done locally, it will reduce Vanderhaeghe's concern about preserving the integrity of his tale.

"Scriptwriters are the hired guns of producers."

For Vanderhaeghe, this notion holds particular significance. Whether or not it stems from a lesson learned in a small-town movie theatre, it's a theme of "The Englishman's Boy."

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