Throughout my almost two decades of collecting Canadian literature, I’ve created numerous spreadsheets to track my various goals: historically relevant series – like the New Canadian Library, certain authors, and important Canadian literary awards. The assemblage I am most proud of is my collection of English language Governor General’s Literary Award winners. Over the years, I have managed to round up all but one winner of the fiction prize, all the poetry and drama winners when the award was split in the early 80s, and many of the winners from the non-fiction, poetry or drama, translation, and both children’s categories. In total, my GG collection is 187 books. But I’ll have more on this collection in a later post. What I’m interested in today is the author of the one book I’ve sought after that has been the bane of my book collecting journey: Laura Goodman Salverson. Ms. Salverson is perhaps the most overlooked author in the early development, and perhaps the entire history, of Canadian literature.
Laura Goodman was born in Winnipeg on December 9, 1890. Her parents were Icelandic immigrants, Lárus Guðmundsson and Ingibjörg Guðmundsdóttir. It has been recorded that throughout her youth, her parents explored western North America with their young daughter in tow; Laura did not even learn English until the age of ten. These explorations with her parents helped steep Laura in her family’s Icelandic heritage and the history of this ancient and proud culture. In 1913, Laura married George Salverson, a railwayman.
Laura Salverson’s writings were meant to supplement the family’s income. In the writing she produced in the first part of her career, she focused on the trials, adversities and drama of the early 20th century immigrant experience, particularly in Western Canada. She lamented the loss of culture of immigrant communities in the Canadian melting pot of the time and she was highly critical of the “American Dream.” Additionally, Salverson was a staunch pacifist and very outspoken against World War I.
So why is Laura Salverson such an important figure in Canadian literature that should never have been forgotten? Three reasons:
- In 1937 she won the Governor-General’s Award for Fiction for The Dark Weaver. Only the second year the award was given out, Salverson was the first woman to win the GG.
- In 1939 she won the Governor-General’s Award for Non-Fiction for Confessions of an Immigrant’s Daughter. The first woman to win in this category.
- Laura Salverson was the first person to win two Governor-General’s Awards and is still part of a very small group that has won GGs in multiple categories (a group that includes names like Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Atwood, Mordecai Richler, and Hugh MacLennan).
- Her first novel, The Viking Heart, was a longstanding title in the New Canadian Library (series number 116)
None of these books are still in print and they have not been in print for many years. The Viking Heart, the story of 1400 Icelandic immigrants to Manitoba and their experiences from 1876 to World War I, was taken out of print as of the third series of the New Canadian Library (late-1970s/early-1980s). The Dark Weaver, a pacifist novel about a group of Nordic immigrants to Canada who volunteer to fight for the British in WWI, seems to have only been published once in Canada, the original 1937 Ryerson Press edition, and once in Britain, the 1938 Sampson Low, Marston & Co. edition. Confessions of an Immigrant’s Daughter, Salverson’s autobiography which is a deeply personal record of the Nordic community’s conflict and assimilation within the English majority, was reprinted as recently as 1981 by University of Toronto Press as part of its Social History of Canada series.
Salverson’s early works can be read through a variety of lenses (her later works drifted towards traditional Nordic romances and adventures that got away from her earlier Canadian based books). She can be read to gather insight into the early 20th century immigrant experience, anti-war sentiments around the time of WWI, Western Canadian settlement, and more generally, Salverson is a woman’s voice at a time when there were few women writers making waves. That is, I should add, these works can be read that way if you are able to get your hands on the text to read.
The Viking Heart and Confessions of an Immigrant’s Daughter are still relatively easy to find on used book sites. Abebooks has 25 listings for Confessions ranging from $4.00 for an 80s reprint to $250.00 for a signed original copy and The Viking Heart has 15 listings ranging from $10 for a New Canadian Library edition to $80 for a signed first edition. The Dark Weaver though has gained a reputation of being the unicorn for CanLit collectors. This book is notoriously hard to find – there are no listings anywhere on the internet for a used copy and libraries will typically not lend it out due to its rarity and age of the volumes on hand. Even finding a photograph of the book is challenging. The Dark Weaver is the only GG Fiction winner I do not have on my bookshelf. Since Salverson died in 1970, her work is not in the public domain, so it is also not on any ebook sites like Project Gutenberg Canada. The only available version of the text anywhere is on the Peel’s Prairie Provinces project page of the University of Alberta’s library website; the text available is a scanned image of each page of the 1937 edition. If you are hardcore enough, like me, you can go through and download the individual TIFF image file of all 416 pages (I believe this took me about three hours). So, you can read this book, but you must put some work in for it.
Ultimately, I think Salverson is just one symptom of a greater problem in Canadian literature of important titles going out of print, but this is an article for another day. In three years, Salverson’s work will enter the public domain, so it is likely that availability will increase then. This, however, is a copout. I find the fact that some university press or academic publisher has not re-issued her most important works, in an edited ebook form at the very least, a great cultural shame. Salverson needs to take her place among the important Canadian writers of the 1930s and be held high with names like Stephen Leacock and Gwethalyn Graham.
References and Resources:
If you were to ask many people for some examples of Canadian literary “classics”, typical responses would likely include Roughing It in the Bush, Barometer Rising, As for Me and My House, Duddy Kravitz, or The Stone Angel. Very few people would think of Tay John, the 1939 novel by Alberta writer Howard O’Hagan. Outside of the academic community this novel is relatively unknown. In 2003 I took my first course in Canadian literature, it was a full year survey course taught by the brilliant academic Renee Hulan. I was already developing an interest in CanLit and had a good sized collection, especially of New Canadian Library books. Of all of the novels on the reading list this was the only book I didn’t already own and the only one I wasn’t at least somewhat familiar with. When I read it for the course 8 years ago, honestly, I did not really get it and did not really enjoy it very much. I don’t know why but as I was looking at my NCL shelves last week I felt like I had to reread this book. My opinion is completely different now that I have had time to read it closely and absorb what the story is all about. This is not the type of book where a character goes from point-A to point-B with all of the interesting stuff happening in between. Tay John is a puzzle. You receive bits and pieces of the story of this enigmatic protagonist that will have you flipping back between chapters and keeping you guessing right to the end and after you ultimately close the covers.
Tay John is the story of a mythical Messianic halfbreed from the Albertan Rockies. The name Tay John comes from the name the English visitors gave the protagonist in his youth, Tete Jaune, meaning Yellow Head, because of his golden yellow hair. The bulk of the story takes place around Yellowhead Lake and Yellowhead Flats. The story examines idea of what makes a legend or a myth and how the story of an ordinary man can be altered or perverted as it grows and passes from person to person. On a more topical level it is an allegory on the idea of the Christian Messiah. Throughout the book there are multiple narrators and multiple points-of-view. The first section is told as a Native oral tale while the second and third sections are told by men who are relatively minor characters in the narrative. The cast is small and the dynamic of the story is fascinating.
The character of Tay John is a bit of a contradiction. The book always revolves around his world but there are times when you might read 30 pages without even a mention of his name, yet he is catalyst of all of all of the forward momentum. As a character he is intentionally not overly developed. How the readers perception of him is shaped is by the interpretation and knowledge of his life and the mythical status that he occupies in the minds of the supporting characters, who are all very well developed.
There are so many vivid images that will stick with the reader: Tay John’s “birth”, how he reacts to losing a game of cards, his battle with a grizzly bear, and his ultimate fate in the last scene. This is one of the great classics of our national literature and a forerunner to many other Western writers like Rudy Wiebe and Robert Kroestsch in terms of both style, settings, and themes. Tay John is a book that will have you flipping back and forth to various chapters to connect some of the subtle dots in your head. It is a very fulfilling read and a book that is very under-appreciated by the reading public.