When I turned eighteen, my father gave me a bottle of whiskey in a velvet pouch that he bought the day I was born. He said, “I have a secret to tell you.” He told me my grandfather didn’t die of the flu.
But, when I tried to verify the facts of my father’s story, personal and recorded history contradicted his childhood memory. I almost gave up on the search. And then I found a newspaper article.
In that first moment I was ecstatic, I had found the truth. In the next, I was devastated. I had unearthed a tragic family secret, erased by time and buried in shame. I wondered how a man who had survived a WW1 POW camp, Lenin, and a trans-Atlantic crossing in steerage had finally been broken in Canada—the land of dreams. My grandfather’s death would become the catalyst for a fictional journey into the lives of two families consumed by the land they yearned to possess.
Over the course of a year I completed the manuscript. Some days I worked for ten hour stretches, my fingers barely able to catch the words. Tell our story they whispered. I dreamed them. I woke with them. They walked with me in rain and snow, through wheat fields, and under starry skies. Listen, taste, smell, feel…they chattered in my head. I had written a hundred and fifty pages before I could admit it was a novel.
I set the story in a realistic framework anchored in historical fact. I liked the idea of ordinary paper artifacts being the only evidence of lives lived. I incorporated recipes, newspaper articles, receipts and letters to add authenticity to the fictional world. As a filmmaker, images have always been a great inspiration. So as I wrote, I collected photographs: Plowing, Dust Storm 1936, Man with Horse, Immigrant Family 1, Immigrant Family 2, Moving Stones, Three Women Winnowing, and a collection of Posters proclaiming “Free Farms for the Millions.”
When I needed to remember details, I went back to the Prairies and stood in endless fields. Breathed in the sky. Hung out with cows and horses. Walked barefoot in the dust. Memorized the smell. Tried to remember the light and color. Listened for coyotes. Learned the names of wild plants and grasses. Rubbed the heads of wheat between my palms and blew chaff to the wind. I went to a graveyard and read the tombstones of those who had died from the flu. I found a granary built by my grandfather that still stands. Hand hewn marks on the beams.
As I wrote, I realized the story was about life, in all its beauty and savagery. It was about the moral lines that divide and join us. What is remembered and what is forgotten. And the fine line between those who break and those who don’t.
The novel is fictional, the characters and events fabricated, and yet there are chapters like the feeding of the mice to the cats that my father read and said, “That’s exactly how it happened. I remember that.” Yet I drew that scene from my own childhood experience. I gave a reading and afterwards someone excitedly approached me, “It’s real isn’t it?” I hesitated, considering how to answer. He finished his sentence. “It’s exactly what could have happened.” I realized that real and fictional were interchangeable, so long as they were true.
Archival Photographs used in Video courtesy of the National Archives of Canada