In the spring of 2017, Budge Wilson’s friends threw a party. It was not only a celebration of her 90th birthday but also a surprise launch for After Swissair, her 34th book and her first collection of poetry.
“How many people do you know who can celebrate their 90th birthday with a book launch?” says long-time friend, author and reading advocate Carol McDougall.
Budge Wilson, who died on March 19 in Halifax at the age of 93 after complications from a fall, embarked on her writing career only in her 50s, enjoying four decades of creativity and busy years of travel in Canada and abroad meeting young readers and old. Approaching her work with curiosity and fierce discipline, she was also an extraordinary friend and mentor.
Previous to After Swissair, Ms. Wilson had published 33 picture books, novels and award-winning short-story collections, mostly but not exclusively for young readers, with 30 foreign editions in 15 languages. Her writing has been compared to that of Alice Munro, and her short stories, such as The Metaphor, have been anthologized many times.
Most notable among her works was the challenging but successful Before Green Gables, published in 2008, a prequel to L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables. When Penguin Canada proposed the book, she took two months to think about it. Her decision was made, she told a 2008 interviewer, by Ms. Montgomery’s chapter describing Anne’s pre-Green Gables life. “There’s almost nothing that tells you that anything good happened in those 11 years. So you’re saying to yourself, ‘How did this kid, who was 11, get off that train and get in that buggy with Matthew articulate, interesting, full of joy, fun, feisty – all those things. How did she get that way?’ So I thought, if I write this book, that’s my job: to say how she got that way. And that did intrigue me.”
After much reading and research, she wrote the book’s 71 chapters in 71 days, finishing on her 80th birthday. The book was translated into eight languages and developed into a Japanese animated series.
Born on May 2, 1927, in Halifax, Marjorie MacGregor Archibald was the daughter of Judge Maynard Brown Archibald and Helen MacGregor Archibald. For reasons that were never clear, she acquired the name Budge at an early age and eventually legally changed her name. Studying philosophy and psychology at Dalhousie University, she met her Dartmouth-born husband Alan Wilson, who would go on to become the founding chair of the History Department and Canadian Studies Department at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont.
Between her teens and her late 40s, Budge Wilson held a number of jobs: war-time farmerette, teacher of English and art, commercial artist, professional photographer, fitness instructor and sometime journalist. A sensitivity to darkroom chemicals and a sense that her eyesight was slightly deteriorating prompted her to turn her talents to writing. She won the CBC Literary Competition in 1981 with her short story The Leaving and published her first children’s book in 1984 at the age of 56.
From early in their marriage, the Wilsons summered at their house in Northwest Cove, N.S., and they moved there when Alan retired. Always working in longhand, Ms. Wilson did much of her writing in the one-room cabin her husband built on the property as an anniversary present to her.
Being intrigued by Anne’s history was typical of Ms. Wilson’s intense curiosity. “She was incapable of not people watching,” her daughter Andrea says. “She loved malls, she loved hospitals and crowded spaces.”
It was impossible for her to have a short conversation. In a book compiled for Ms. Wilson’s 88th birthday, friends and colleagues talked about the attention she paid to each person, whether a colleague, a student, a B&B owner or someone she was consulting for research. She encouraged young writers, prodded colleagues into submitting work, always listened and never betrayed a confidence.
“You got her full attention. She took the time to listen, to ask questions and then ask that one extra question. You felt seen, heard and valued.” Ms. McDougall recalls, adding, “Everything interested her.”
Ms. Wilson combined a great sense of fun with an intense commitment to her craft. In the compilation book, friend and author Jill MacLean wrote, “She’s the last person to leave a party, yet she craves the solitude of her Northwest Cove writing studio.”
Ms. MacLean, Ms. McDougall and Ms. Wilson were among a group of women who took part in an annual 10-day writing retreat at the Notre-Dame de L’Assomption Abbey in Rogersville, N.B. “She was the most disciplined writer I’ve ever seen,” Ms. McDougall says. “She always had the corner room at the Abbey. She would make her bed, collect pillows, prop herself up in bed and write in longhand. She worked and worked and worked and worked and worked – and looked so comfy while she did it.”
Ms. Wilson showed both friends and family that it was possible to change careers in midlife, something both her daughters did as well. Andrea Wilson says her mother taught her that “with enough resolve and tenacity and self discipline” it was possible to change one’s career path. “And age was not a factor. And talent was not enough.”
Glynis Wilson Boultbee says, “She was hugely inspirational for me because she had this belief that is was possible to regularly reinvent yourself and she did it in such an interesting way. Whatever she turned her mind to she seemed to get such huge pleasure from it.”
After Swissair was a new literary venture for Ms. Wilson, one which she worked on over 16 years. The Swissair Flight 111 disaster of 1998 happened only a few kilometres from their home in Northwest Cove and deeply affected her and the community. Drawing on the stories of emergency responders, local fishermen who helped with recovery, the families of the 229 people lost, and community members who helped in so many ways, Ms. Wilson distilled their suffering and their generosity of spirit into poetry.
“I wanted to sing their praises and somehow a poem seemed as close as I could get to a song,” she told Atlantic Books Today in 2016. “So even though I had written very little poetry in my life I decided to go that route.”
Ms. Wilson was named a member of the Order of Canada in 2004 and the Order of Nova Scotia in 2011. She was working on a new project before her death and hoped to publish another book before she reached 100. Ms. Wilson leaves her husband, daughters and two grandsons.