Toronto writer Linda Spalding has joined husband Michael Ondaatje in the highest rank of the Canadian literary pantheon by winning the $25,000 Governor-General's Literary Award for her novel, The Purchase, bringing the total of G-G awards on the family mantelpiece to a record six.
Joining Spalding in the parade of winners yesterday was Saskatchewan-born, British-based writer Ross King, who earned his second non-fiction G-G award for Leonardo and the Last Supper, a widely praised look at the Renaissance artist and the fate of his most famous painting. Altogether, the awards honoured 14 writers and artists, evenly divided between French and English, in seven categories.
Born in Kansas and living in Hawaii when she met her Canadian husband and moved to Toronto in 1982, Spalding based The Purchase on the curious story of her own ancestors – Quakers who left Pennsylvania in the late 18th century and, against the tenets of their religion, became slave owners in western Virginia. The author's attempt to comprehend their transformation combines gritty details of pioneer life with universal themes of morality and faith.
"It addresses the question of what happens when you disregard your own beliefs and convictions and do something that you yourself can't bear," Spalding said in a recent interview with The Globe and Mail.
Although the novel has scant Canadian content, winning the award inspired an outburst of patriotism from the novelist. "Suddenly I feel very Canadian," Spalding said after accepting the award. "I've always felt half Canadian, but this is making me feel incredibly Canadian. It's like being touched by a wand. Probably tomorrow I'll be bilingual."
Montreal-born, San Franciso-based Julie Bruck won the award for poetry for Monkey Ranch, a book animated by an "offbeat, caring and companionable sensibility," according to the prize jury.
Nova Scotian playwright Catherine Banks won the drama category for It is Solved by Walking, a play based on poet Wallace Stevens's Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, which the jury described as "a singular and inspired love story that is also a meditation on the need to give full expression to the complexity of one's inner life."
Susin Nielsen won for children's literature for The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen, with the award for illustration of a children's book going to Isabelle Arsenault of Montreal for Virginia Wolf.
Finally, Nigel Spencer of Montreal won the translation award for his work on Marie-Claire Blais's Mai at the Predators' Ball.