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W(illiam) D(empsey) Valgardson (1939-) - Sidelights

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W. D. Valgardson's childhood in an Icelandic-Canadian fishing village has provided themes and settings for much of his fiction. He is especially interested in the effects of isolation on individuals in remote settings. Reviewing Valgardson's 1975 short story collection God Is Not a Fish Inspector, Adrian Vale of the Irish Times commented: "Mr. Valgardson is an authoritative writer; he leaves the reader with no inclination to gainsay him or the truth of the events he describes." Even when not literally exploring such isolated locations and people, Valgardson sticks to the theme of the outsider, as in his prize-winning 1999 short story collection The Divorced Kids Club and Other Stories.

Valgardson grew up in Gimli, a fishing village on Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba. Formerly known as Nya Island (New Iceland), Gimli retains a strong ethnic connection with Iceland, and Valgardson was always drawn to its sense of a collective Icelandic literary heritage. After graduating from college, he taught for a few years, then attended the Writer's Workshop at the University of Iowa. He received a master of fine arts degree in 1969, then returned to teaching, at Cottey College in Missouri.

After successfully entering a number of writing contests, Valgardson published Bloodflowers, a collection of ten short stories, in 1973. In the title story, a young teacher from mainland Canada comes to teach on an island off the coast of Newfoundland. Once there, he slowly begins to suspect that the villagers plan to make him the sacrificial victim in a ritual spring sacrifice. The sinister tone of this story is repeated in the others, which are pessimistic portrayals of life in northern Manitoba; the moments of optimism are brief and qualified. In "The Burning," for instance, a man takes satisfaction in burning his old home down before it can be burned by the local fire department for the purpose of civic renewal.

Critics praised Valgardson's second collection of short stories, God Is Not a Fish Inspector, for its coherence and attention to the hardships of rural life. Following this volume, Valgardson published a collection of poetry, In the Gutting Shed, which received mixed reviews but nonetheless went into a second edition during its first year, a rarity in Canadian poetry. Several of the poems in the book deal with personal issues not addressed in Valgardson's short stories, revealing a side of his personality generally not evident elsewhere in his work. In his third collection of short stories, Red Dust, Valgardson continues to examine the poverty and violence that exist in parts of rural Canada.

Valgardson's first novel, Gentle Sinners, was published in 1980 and won a Books in Canada award as the best first novel of the year. Somewhat different from his other work, Gentle Sinners suggests a limited form of redemption and happiness in its account of a boy who flees his authoritative parents and finds a sense of community and ethnic identity with his uncle. Despite the book's guarded optimism in some places, critics noted that Valgardson's typical themes of tragedy and isolation also surface in Gentle Sinners. Valgardson once commented: "I've spent a long time confronting my shadow, and I've accepted the fact that I'm capable of any crime. Every writer must take two journeys. The first journey is into the lives of others; the second is the most terrifying. It is the journey into the self. I think that any writer who writes beyond surface entertainment has to make that second journey."

Valgardson revisits the places of his early life in Thor, published in the United States as Winter Rescue, a children's book that culminates in the unlikely heroism Young Sarah is enslaved by the woman in Winnipeg who is supposed to care for her, so the girl decides to journey back to her father with the help of phantom Cree Indians and a mystical raven. (From Sarah and the People of Sand River, written by W. D. Valgardson and illustrated by Ian Wallace.) of a young boy named Thor. While visiting his grandparents in a small fishing village, Thor reluctantly abandons his favorite television programs to help his grandfather on Lake Winnipeg, where in a selfless act he discovers the courage to save a drowning man. Though the story is decidedly redemptive, Valgardson's evocative depiction of traditional Icelandic-Canadian culture and engaging dialogue is consistent with his many other works. Reviewing Thor in Quill and Quire, Kit Pearson maintained: "This quiet but compelling evocation of a particularly Canadian culture has all the markings of a classic."

In Sarah and the People of Sand River, Valgardson crafts a tightly woven fairy tale. Twelve-year-old Sarah, raised by her Icelandic father on Lake Winnipeg, sadly leaves home to be educated in the city. Unknowingly, her father places her in the care of a cruel woman who enslaves Sarah and never sends her to school. When she runs away, she is guided and cared for by the spirits of a Cree man and woman, who intervene on her behalf because her grandparents, now deceased, took care of the couple during a smallpox epidemic. Quill and Quire contributor Anne Louise Mahoney described Sarah and the People of Sand River as a "haunting tale, skillfully written, and with a powerful ending." Carolyn Phelan, reviewing the book for Booklist, claimed that Valgardson's "taut narrative … transcends time."

Turning to the short story again, Valgardson published Garbage Creek and Other Stories in 1997 and The Divorced Kids Club and Other Stories two years later. In the first title, Valgardson deals with themes from absent fathers to protecting nature in what Booklist's Lauren Peterson describes as an "offbeat collection of eight short stories." Though the stories are independent, the linking of themes in the collection "will help youngsters relate to the characters," Peterson thought.

In his popular collection The Divorced Kids Club, Valgardson presents an unusual group of young protagonists, from a computer genius and budding entrepreneur to a girl who wants to be a trucker. Contrary to the implication of the title, not all the kids are from divorced families, though all of the stories in this "appealing collection [are] loosely based on the theme of the outsider," according to Booklist's Debbie Carton. "This solid collection will be enjoyed by young teens," wrote Erin Pierce in a School Library Journal review, while in Quill and Quire, Janet McNaughton praised Valgardson's stories, in which "redemption often comes through work."

Valgardson returned to novel-length fiction with Frances, published in 2000. Set in modern-day Manitoba, Frances explores three generations of strong females. The book focuses primarily on young Frances Sigurdson, who is curious about her family's past, especially about her father's mysterious disappearance. "What will hold readers," thought Booklist's Hazel Rochman, "is the lure of family secrets, past and A different protagonist graces each of Valgardson's seven stories of young people who learn to be self-reliant and to appreciate themselves and others. (Cover art by Fiona Smythe.) present, as well as the strong characterizations across generations and the sense of the wild, beautiful place." Helen Foster James, reviewing Frances in School Library Journal, found it to be "an enjoyable, quick-paced contemporary novel with a setting and culture rarely presented."

Valgardson accepts comparisons to authors such as Anton Chekhov. "My writing has been compared to many Russian writers, and I think that's fair," Valgardson once related to David Jackel in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. "The Interlake area is probably similar to some parts of Russia, with people of a similar background, especially Slavs, facing the cold, the poverty, the isolation, and so on. I speak out of that environment."

Writing does not come easily for Valgardson. He goes through multiple rewrites and uses "every device available," as he told Jackel. One device he avoids, however, Frances is intrigued by an old journal she finds in a trunk and, despite her grandmother's admonition, she attempts to translate the Icelandic text and uncover the story of her family's past. (Cover art by Julia Bell.) is first-person narrative. "I mistrust the first person very much. The first person gives the writer the temptation to fall into writing a summary rather than a story that needs to be dramatized. Also, my stories are set in a very small locale which most readers haven't experienced. That requires a very authoritative tone. I also have a strong Lutheran, and conservative, background that needs to make the statement of belief that the omniscient voice has."

Valgardson once commented: "When I was a child, I was an avid reader. The rumor was that I'd read every book in town. When I went to university, I discovered a writing club. Two of the English professors, Dr. Walter Swayze and Prof. Bob Hallstead, acted as our workshop leaders. They taught us how to analyze our writing and the writing of other workshop members. I discovered, as I wrote, that I had a lot of things I cared about and wanted to tell people. I just needed to learn the craft of doing that: how to develop character, write a scene, create a theme, tell the difference between text and subtext.

"Because I come from an Icelandic Lutheran background, I'm influenced by things like the sagas and eddas and the Bible. Naturally, there are lots of other influences. Comic books were a big part of my life when I was growing up. I particularly loved Classic Comics. However, I also read stories in the Books of Knowledge and any books I could buy or borrow. I still believe it is essential for someone who wants to be a good writer to be a good reader.

"My writing has been called both prairie gothic and social realism. Because of my ethnic, religious, and family background, I want to write stories that influence people, that make them think. I don't want to preach but I do want to raise questions that will cause readers to search for answers. Many, if not all, of my stories deal with ethical or moral issues. Part of that is because I see my audience as made up or ordinary people, not some literary elite. That's partly to do with my Icelandic background. Icelanders wrote about ordinary people and for ordinary people rather than about kings and queens.

"In Sarah and the People of Sand River I wanted to tell people about a time in the lives of Icelandic immigrants to Canada. The immigrants fled volcanic eruptions in Iceland that killed animals and destroyed so much of the environment that people were starving. After they came to Canada, there was an outbreak of smallpox. Many of them died. The disease spread to the native Cree population. They, too, suffered terribly. Although the story is fiction, I wanted to capture the spirit of stories I heard from my great grandmother who was a child during the early settlement days. What she often spoke about was the kindness of the native people. I also wanted to say something about how we need to look to the history of the native people in Canada for lessons in how to live well in our environment.

"Early on I was influenced by individual books like Robin Hood, The Count of Monte Cristo, Little Women, later by the stories of Ernest Hemingway and Somerset Maugham, the novels of Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy. The poetry of Al Purdy, James Dickey, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Wallace Stevens, all affected me. I admire the writing of Flannery O'Conner so much that some day I hope to make it to Georgia to put flowers on her grave. No contemporary writers have had any particular influence. My interests and style are set and unlikely to change.

"As someone who has taught aspiring writers for thirty-two years, my advice would fill volumes. Write what you know about. If you don't know about it, get busy and research it. Write what you care about. Don't waste your time writing about things you don't care about. Learn your craft. Set goals for yourself as a writer.… Learn the difference between criticism of yourself and your writing. Observe and learn your own creative process so that you can make the most of your time and effort. Your two best hours of the day, for example, will produce more than six other hours. Remember that writing is always about people and you should practice observing and understanding people at every opportunity.

"My stories come from everywhere: people I've observed, dreams, items I've read in the newspaper. Characters often turn up unbidden. My … YA novel called Frances was supposed to be about a young boy. Instead, as I wrote, a girl kept turning up. Finally, I listened to the story she had to tell me and the novel became hers. In Garbage Creek, I wrote about two lonely kids who decide to restore a creek in hope that the salmon will return. That came from overhearing a conversation at the Salmon House in Goldstream Park. The Sand Artist was written because I went to a craft fair in Sooke, British Columbia, [Canada]. There was a girl in a long, fancy dress. She had her hair elaborately arranged. And she was wearing rubber boots. I just knew I had to write a story about a character like her. I stole a name for her, Rainbow, from one of my students."

Biographical and Critical Sources

BOOKS

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 60: Canadian Writers since 1960, 2nd series, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1987, pp. 355-358.

PERIODICALS

Booklist, November 1, 1996, Carolyn Phelan, review of Sarah and the People of Sand River, p. 496; January 1, 1998, Lauren Peterson, review of Garbage Creek and Other Stories, p. 817; December 15, 1999, Debbie Carton, review of The Divorced Kids Club and Other Stories, p. 779; September 1, 2000, Hazel Rochman, review of Frances, p. 109.

Canadian Children's Literature, fall, 2001, review of Divorced Kids Club and Other Stories, pp. 66-68.

Canadian Literature, spring, 2003, Wilhelm Emilsson, review of Frances, p. 194.

Canadian Materials, November 6, 2001, Alison Mews, review of Garbage Creek.

Irish Times, July 10, 1976, Adrian Vale, a review of God Is Not a Fish Inspector.

Maclean's, May 5, 1980, David Weinberger, review of Gentle Sinners, p. 62; November 30, 1992, John Bemrose, review of The Girl with the Botticelli Face, p. A6; December 19, 1994, Diane Turbide, review of Thor, p. 58.

Quill and Quire, September, 1994, Kit Pearson, review of Thor, p. 73; October, 1996, Anne Louise Mahoney, review of Sarah and the People of Sand River, p. 43; December, 1999, Janet McNaughton, review of The Divorced Kids Club, p. 36.

Resource Links, October, 2000, review of Frances, pp. 30-31.

School Library Journal, November, 1995, Marsha McGrath, review of Winter Rescue, p. 82; December, 1996, Sally R. Dow, review of Sarah and the People of Sand River, p. 108; July, 2000, Erin Pierce, review of The Divorced Kids Club, p. 111; September, 2000, Helen Foster James, review of Frances, p. 239.

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