For as long as her children can remember, a lifelike sculpture of a boxer sat in the living room of writer Bonnie Burnard’s Regina home. Crafted out of clay and wood by the renowned Canadian artist Joe Fafard, it showed a prizefighter in white boots and blue Everlast trunks, collapsed on his stool, battered and exhausted. The family affectionately nicknamed the piece “George” after legendary pugilist George Chuvalo, who went the distance with Muhammad Ali on two occasions and was never once knocked down.
“I think of that often, especially the last few days,” recalled her friend and fellow writer Connie Gault this week. “That encapsulates my feelings about Bonnie. I think she really admired that kind of fighting spirit.” Like Mr. Chuvalo, “she wanted her stories to carry a punch. And they did. And they do, they still do. They have the ability to knock you out.”
It could be argued that Ms. Burnard’s slim body of work punched well above its weight, garnering some of the country’s highest literary honours and finding readers around the world. Her books – a pair of novels and two collections of short stories – were extolled for making even the simplest, everyday moments of a life seem profound.
Ms. Burnard died in a London, Ont., hospital on March 4 at the age of 72.
“Bonnie was one of those writers whose work enchanted me from the beginning,” wrote her former literary agent, Jan Whitford, in an e-mail this week. “There is so much to love about her writing, but for me, perhaps uppermost was the understated but utterly seductive calm and grace of her language. She was meticulous in her choice of every word, and it showed. She was also gifted at conveying universal truths in her descriptions of the endless mundane details of one character’s life, which I suspect is why so many reviewers and readers have commented on ‘recognizing’ those characters. Her affection and understanding and compassion for her fictional characters, and somehow for her readers as well, were palpable.”
Despite drawing a sizable readership over the course of 30 years, Ms. Burnard was intensely private. Friends and family variously described her as quiet, reticent and secretive. For much of her career, she refused even to divulge the name of the town where she was born, preferring that her work speak for itself.
“It’s not about the writer, it’s about the writing,” she said the last time I spoke to her, in October. “I find when I’m reading a book, I don’t want to know anything about the writer. I don’t want to think about the writer. If the writer has some agenda, I’m not interested. If they have a public persona, I don’t care. I want the lights to go down. And that means the writer disappears.”
Bonita Amelia Huctwith was born in Petrolia, Ont., twenty-odd kilometres southeast of Sarnia, on Jan. 15, 1945. She was the youngest of five, and the only girl in the family. Her father, Charles Huctwith, was a farmer and businessman who ran an egg and poultry concern; he dabbled in local politics too, serving as a councillor and reeve in the nearby town of Forest, Ont. “Her parents were incredibly conservative, and I think she was raised in a very strict household,” said her daughter, Melanie Mills. “That shaped who she was.”
After high school she attended the University of Western Ontario, graduating in 1967 with a BA in English. In 1973 she married Ronald Burnard, an insurance executive whose job, at London Life, took the newlyweds to Regina the following year. They had three children in fairly quick succession: Alexandra (known as D’Arcy) in September 1975; Melanie in February 1978; and David in March 1979.
It was during this time that she began to write seriously. While her brothers said she wrote stories as a child, Ms. Burnard’s origins as an author, as she told the late Val Ross in an interview with The Globe and Mail in 1995, involve Marian Engel, who had visited Regina to read from her Governor-General’s Literary Award-winning inter-species romance, Bear. It wasn’t so much the writing that impressed her, but that Ms. Engel “didn’t look exotic or expensive.
“She looked like a Canadian woman,” Ms. Burnard said, “and she was a writer.”
Ms. Burnard enrolled in the Saskatchewan Summer School for the Arts, known colloquially as Fort San for its past as a former sanatorium. Here she befriended other young writers, including Ven Begamudré, with whom she soon established the Bombay Bicycle Club, a Regina writers’ group. (“We wanted a name that wasn’t associated with the Prairies,” said Mr. Begamudré, who moved to Canada from India as a child.) They met dutifully 10 times a year, throughout the 1980s, to read and discuss each other’s work. “We were all ambitious,” said Dianne Warren, one of the group’s members, along with Ms. Gault. “We all wanted to be writers.”
“Growing up, I remember our house always being filled with what we’ve now come to understand are writers,” Ms. Mills recalled. “People like Connie Gault and Dianne Warren and Patrick Lane. These people were in our kitchen, or we were in their kitchen, growing up.”
In 1980 Ms. Burnard received an honourable mention in a short fiction contest judged by Timothy Findley, a writer she would meet under different circumstances later in life, and in 1983 her work was included in the anthology Coming Attractions, which annually spotlights the best new voices in Canadian literature. Reviewing the book in The Globe and Mail, the late Judith Fitzgerald wrote that “of the three writers, only Bonnie Burnard’s work is truly first rank.”
It took five more years, however, before her first book, Women of Influence, arrived in bookstores. The slim collection of 14 stories, published by Coteau Books, a local press, merged her small-town Ontario upbringing with the vastness of the Prairie landscape that had been her home for the past two decades. The book went on to win the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book the following year.
A few years later, Phyllis Bruce launched an eponymous imprint with HarperCollins Canada, and was seeking new talent. One day, as she recently recalled, she received a phone call from the Argentine-Canadian writer Alberto Manguel, who told her, “If there’s one writer you should publish it’s Bonnie Burnard.” As luck would have it, the manuscript for Ms. Burnard’s second collection of stories landed on Ms. Bruce’s desk a short time later.
“One of the things I’ve always liked about Bonnie’s writing is that while she appears to write about conventional topics she’s quite a subversive writer,” Ms. Bruce said. “There’s a darkness underneath the more serene surface of the writing. I was attracted to the fact that she was taking the conventional short-story form and, to some extent, turning it on its head.”
Casino & Other Stories was published in the spring of 1994 to positive reviews (writing in The Globe and Mail, Sandra Martin, who’d included her in Coming Attractions years earlier, described Ms. Burnard as “a literary cousin to Alice Munro” whose stories “are commonplace only in their universality.”) She was 49 years old, and had just returned to Ontario (her marriage had dissolved a few years prior) and was living with her family in Strathroy, Ont., west of London. (She moved to London in 1997.) That fall, it was nominated for a newly created award that had the literary world buzzing: The Giller Prize. She lost to M.G. Vassanji’s The Book of Secrets, but, five years later, she found herself on the shortlist once again on the strength of her first novel, A Good House.
Published by HarperCollins in the summer of 1999, A Good House investigates the meaning of family and explores the bonds that hold people together and, sometimes, break. A novel that plays with time – it takes place between 1949 and 1997, with years elapsing between chapters – it tells the story of the Chambers family, who live in the small town of Stonebrook, Ont., near the waters of Lake Huron, and the births, deaths, marriages, divorces and related drama that is a part of every family’s existence.
“Her first novel proves she is a master,” wrote Amy Friedman Fraser, reviewing the novel for The Globe and Mail. “Anyone who loves history, legends, architecture, comedies, psychological studies and rambling, delicious novels will love [A] Good House and will never again look at any family in quite the same way.”
The other finalists for the Giller Prize included heavyweights such as Anne Hébert and Ms. Burnard’s former judge, Timothy Findley. But, unlike 1994, this year’s jury – which included Alberto Manguel – awarded Ms. Burnard the prize, which by this time had become the country’s top literary honour.
“I found winning just a shock,” she told me last year. “I wasn’t prepared at all. My assumption was I would not win. People always say that but, truly, I had like 99.99 per cent assured myself of not winning it.”
“I wasn’t prepared, even slightly,” she added. “And I wish I maybe had that moment to live over.”
The book went on to sell approximately 150,000 copies in Canada, and rights were sold around the world.
It was, Ms. Burnard said, a “wonderful surprise, because most writers just slog away. They don’t get the break. Better writers than me have not got a break.”
During the last two decades of her life, Ms. Burnard published one final novel, Suddenly, in 2009. The novel, about a woman dying of cancer and her two long-time friends, was well-received – writing in The Globe and Mail, Donna Bailey Nurse called it “another unassuming masterpiece” – but it didn’t reach the heights of her previous books. After the novel’s publication, she informed her children that she was done with writing.
“She said, ‘Writers don’t retire, but I’m telling you I’m retiring,’” Ms. Mills said. “I think that was her signal that she wanted to head off some of the questions that constantly come once you’ve reached a certain notoriety as a writer. People would always be asking her, ‘What are you writing? When’s your next book?’ I think she was ready to be done.”
Her family has declined to reveal the cause of death, but said that Ms. Burnard had been “not well for some time” and died, unexpectedly, from complications related to her illness.
“Bonnie Burnard was one of the writers that most impressed me when I started reading what I was told was Canadian literature,” Mr. Manguel wrote in an e-mail this week. “As a reader, I hope we will grant her the place she deserves in the library of our great classics.”
Ms. Burnard leaves her three children; four grandchildren, Emma Perkovic, Alexander Perkovic, Brandon Mills and Daniel Mills; and brothers, Robert and Melford Huctwith.
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