Despite rare blurbs from such literary luminaries as Alice Munro and Michael Ondaatje on the cover of Waiting for Joe, the latter calling author Sandra Birdsell "one of our best writers - no compromises, no hesitance," the writer in question couldn't be farther removed from the literary establishment. Living in suburban Regina "surrounded by strip malls," far from the launches and lunches that elevate some authors to stardom, Birdsell, 68, looks like any other friendly grandmother chit-chatting at a book club.
Between the jacket covers is another story. Short-listed for this month's Governor-General's Literary Awards (it's her third G-G nomination), Birdsell's Waiting for Joe is a sternly naturalistic account of utter desperation, the story of a financially ruined homeless couple stunned by the collapse of a life built on easy credit and the false promises of a hollow religion.
Set largely in the parking lot of a Regina Walmart, where Joe and Laurie Beaudry are stranded because the RV Joe stole from his own bankrupt dealership has run out of gas, the novel is a chilling critique of the heartland values the author knows so well.
So well that Birdsell hesitates to describe the "fit of anger" that drove her to start writing the novel - her reaction to an intolerant remark by a fundamentalist Christian and "dear friend" of hers. "There's the dilemma, you see," Birdsell says. "I do have people around me whose points of view I disagree with a great deal. But I love these people."
That's the way her writing works, the author adds. The anger mellowed into a sympathetic portrait of well-meaning people cruelly condemned by their own certainties. "When these people's houses go on the block, when they end up with absolutely nothing, even though they've had this great faith that everything should be fine for them because of their belief, what do they turn to? What happens to them?" Birdsell asks. "That was the journey I went on."
It is a bleak one, the unforgiving hardness of Joe and Laurie's circumstances reflected in the dun-and-grey prairie landscape and in the scruffy urban margins they inhabit. The natural lyricism of Birdsell's writing style, hammered flat to suit, is rigorously unsentimental yet full of feeling. "The landscape of the novel in a way mirrors the inner life of the characters and what they are travelling through at the time," Birdsell says. "And they're travelling through the night for the most part."
It's a landscape the author could navigate blindfolded. The Manitoba-born daughter of a Russian-speaking Mennonite immigrant mother and a French-speaking Métis father (her great-grandmother was caught up in both the Red River and the Northwest rebellions), Birdsell is as deeply rooted in those prairies as any person could be. Winnipeg is "where my heart is," she says, particularly a certain rock at the Forks where the Assiniboine River joins the Red. "That's my touchstone," she says. "That's my spiritual home. I don't know why. It always has been."
Birdsell says she was shocked to discover the comfort of life in Alice Munro country when she first visited Ontario back in the 1980s as writer in residence at the University of Waterloo, a comfort that was exemplified for her by the "huge and lush" red peppers she found in local markets. "Because on the Prairies they are these hard little knobby things, right?" she says. "Nothing is as big and lush as it grows in Ontario, and I used to be quite unhappy about that."
But the life held no appeal to her - it was too perfect, too genteel - and Birdsell continued to draw inspiration from her harsh native land, with corresponding results. "I suppose you could say my stories are not quite as round and lush as some, maybe a little bit hard-bitten and gnarly," she says, "especially in this latest book.
"I have this strange notion that I am writing about such an exotic place that of course people from other countries would be really interested," she adds, baffled by the oft-heard complaint that nobody cares about Regina. "The more I travel, the more inclined I am to write where I come from, because I have a different perspective on my place and it means something more to me. I'm glad to come back to it. I see it as a place people should want to read about."
Those who take up that challenge will find no more assured, even stylish guide than Sandra Birdsell. If nothing else, Waiting for Joe is 100-per-cent genuine, bone-chilling Canadiana.
The winners of the 2010 Governor-General's Literary Awards will be announced in Montreal on Tuesday.