Candace Savage is exploring the history of Western Canada.
2 min. read
Candace Savage’s recent writing is firmly rooted in Saskatchewan’s history. She is drawn to literary non-fiction because “the world that we actually inhabit is so full of interest and mystery and surprises that I’ve never been able to persuade myself to imagine something different. It’s endlessly fascinating for me. And non-fiction is a huge genre full of possibilities for experimentation. I always feel like a beginner, which is wonderful and terrifying at the same time.”
Her latest book, Strangers in the House: A Story of Bigotry and Belonging, was inspired by a pencilled name on a list of all of the inhabitants of her Saskatoon home. The first was Napoléon S. Blondin, 1928. The Francophone name struck Savage because the neighbourhood was historically Anglophone. And 1928 was also the year when the Ku Klux Klan signed up tens of thousands of members in Saskatchewan, who embraced an anti-“foreign”, anti-French, anti-Catholic platform.
The Blondins, like many French-Canadians, had Métis cousins, who struggled with the homestead and relief systems. There are echoes of French-English violence as well as violence between Canada and the Métis in the story.
“I started to wonder if this house might be a portal into the history of Western Canada. The story was different than the one that I thought I might find. This family is utterly unique but also typified the process of settlement in Western Canada. They have a story to tell about the history of the country,” Savage says. “This is a big story with the warm heart of one family and one house at the centre of it.”
With the focus on a fascinating but “absolutely ordinary” family, research was challenging, given the lack of comprehensive documentation. Savage pored through homestead records and collections of newspapers at the Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan. She combed genealogical websites and put in a request for more information, leading to a connection with the living family of the Blondins, who generously shared their personal history.
The story also sweeps readers off to France in the 1600 and 1700s and crosses the North American continent from Francophone settlements on the St. Lawrence and Great Lakes to Saskatchewan. Savage masterfully weaves these big narratives in with those of the family living in the unassuming Saskatoon house.
Savage says the two Independent Artists grants she received gave her the necessary time to sort out the story’s complexities. “We all live our lives in the context of history and big events. I would never have been able to figure out how to keep the story moving and tell the many back stories that set the context for this family without the grants.”
Strangers in the House will be published by Greystone Books in September 2019.
Photo of Candace Savage by Keith Bell