As a teenager, Stephanie Blondal wandered for hours through Montreal's Côtes des Neiges cemetery, searching for a grave dedicated to the luminous mother she lost when she was only five years old. She couldn't find it.
Then last year, under a bruised November sky, the fortysomething Toronto media professional located the red granite headstone of the woman she remembers as "Pat," a writer who had slipped into what novelist and academic Aritha van Herk calls "Canada's forgotten canon."
This discovery of Patricia Blondal's final resting place has coincided with a resurgence of interest in the Prairie writer whose premature death in 1959 pre-empted what many believe was a rare talent, a possible genius, among Canadian fiction writers. It's "thrilling" to van Herk, who's a fan, and long overdue, according to Lawrence Ricou, a University of British Columbia English professor who has had a long-standing academic interest in Blondal's work.
Standing beside Stephanie Blondal on the cold earth of Mont Royal last November was the man to whom much of this revival is credited: a 75-year-old rabbi from Malibu, Calif. Not forgetting Patricia Blondal has become Benjamin Herson's personal mission, fired by a half-century-old encounter with her incandescent beauty and a conviction that the would-be, could-be greats of Canadian literature should stake their claim on our remembrance.
As the sun waned on that crisp Montreal day, he read the last paragraph from A Candle to Light the Sun, Patricia Blondal's novel that was posthumously published with the praise of Hugh MacLennan, Margaret Laurence, Gabrielle Roy and Irving Layton adorning its dust jacket.
When Herson first encountered Patricia Jenkins in the halls of Winnipeg's United College (now the University of Winnipeg) in the mid-forties, he was a confused rabbinical student taking a break to study philosophy. She was the product of a loving family from Souris, a rural town in southern Manitoba's potato and grain country. She was also stunningly beautiful, ambitious and even a bit risqué. Her hair, wheat gold, tumbled around her shoulders in what he thought was a halo.
"There was a deep and electrifying communion, a wonderful magic moment of enchantment," he recalls. "I fell in love with that woman pure and simple and here I was the son of a rabbi, studying in a college sponsored by the United Church."
But it was a romance that didn't have a chance. Soon after, Herson was diagnosed with tuberculosis and sent off to a sanatorium in the rural town of Ninette, Man. He never saw her again. But their wordless meeting haunted him for the rest of his life.
Jenkins would go on studying, hanging out with friends such as Laurence, and decanting her impressions of small-town Manitoba into the tart, unsentimental observations that would inform her later writing. In 1946, she married Harold Blondal, an attractive, striving young doctor of Icelandic heritage.
By the early fifties, they had moved to Montreal, where he was given a promising position. In between caring for two young children, she feverishly produced poems, short stories and the manuscript of a mystery.
"They were a golden couple -- good looking and ambitious," says Stephanie Blondal.
But then, at the age of 30, Patricia Blondal was diagnosed with breast cancer. Over the next two years, she would have a radical mastectomy and her ovaries removed. She left behind prodigious handwritten accounts of the prodding, Demerol-soaked horrors of her 1950s cancer treatment.
In the last several months of her life, Blondal sent her young children away to stay with an aunt in British Columbia. She was dying and she wanted to write. She produced feverishly and pushed hard to get her work in front of readers. Chatelaine magazine accepted her novel, From Heaven With a Shout, for serialization. She wrote A Candle to Light the Sun in three months.
"It was almost an obsession with her," Pierre Berton wrote in a 1960 Toronto Star column describing how in the fall of 1959, Blondal negotiated a book contract with Canada's pre-eminent publisher, Jack McClelland, who didn't realize she was ill. "He could almost feel the sense of urgency, the desire to get going, the absolute determination to become a writer and let no obstacle stand in her way."
McClelland read her novel in one night and was impressed. "This writer is interested in the raw meat of people and what makes them tick," he told Berton.
They met for lunch at Toronto's Royal York Hotel, and Blondal told the publisher to watch out for a woman in a powder-blue dress.
"Jack thought of her as a rather dumpy, middle-aged woman (it's surprising how many lady authors are)," Berton wrote, "and so he was taken aback when he realized the ravishing blonde stepping off the elevator was Patricia Blondal herself. Miss Blondal, quite obviously, had everything."
McClelland accepted her work for publication. A month later, Blondal was dead at age 32. Five years ago, a student of Herson's handed him a copy of A Candle to Light the Sun, convinced he was mentioned. Herson didn't know that Blondal had become a writer, or that she had died so young.
He had spent the previous 40 years becoming a respected religious leader in California, as rabbi of the Malibu Jewish Community Center and Synagogue and founder of the Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Ethics. He was retired, in his 70s, and taking care of his own beautiful wife who was stricken with Alzheimer's disease, when the book landed on his desk.
Three pages into the novel, he discovered the character of Jacob Herson, the Jewish storekeeper. It struck him that Blondal was calling out to him. He lapped up the character, his high ethics, his anger and his drifting estrangement from the town -- all of it rich in subtext for the unfulfilled potential of his hallway encounter with the author long ago.
"It was a validation that my feelings for her were true and that her feelings for me were true. It filled a hole in my heart," he says. "And I asked myself, what is my obligation to her memory?"
That question brought Herson back to Manitoba where he and Blondal had grown up in separate worlds. He bought a simple farmhouse outside Gimli, Man., a 10-minute walk from the shores of Lake Winnipeg, and in 2001 he worked with the Manitoba Writers Guild to inaugurate it as the Patricia Blondal Memorial Writers' Retreat. It contains Blondal's two posthumously published books, photos, a poem and a display about her, a modern kitchen, woodstove and guest rooms. Three established Manitoba writers have already sat down at its expansive desk for a quiet month each of wordsmithing.
This fall, her writing and her roots were celebrated at the Winnipeg International Writers Festival. And suddenly, after years of being forgotten, Blondal is inspiring other artists with a life that mixed that most compelling of elements: talent, youth, beauty and tragedy. Stephanie Blondal has fielded calls from screenwriters looking for information and permission to use her mother's books. And Manitoba poet Robyn Maharaj, who helped Herson set up the retreat, has begun work on a collection of poems about this Canadian writer who was gone at 32.
"I was happy that her name was being revived in the writerly community," says Lawrence Ricou, himself a native of Manitoba, who discovered Patricia Blondal in the seventies and wrote about her academically. "It's very evocative writing about the prairie and the social and cultural complexities of a small town, almost a baroque sense of the prairie setting versus the austere. I would love to see more attention to it than it has been given."
Van Herk has written that Blondal's writing is ironic, sensual and surprisingly contemporary in its examination of frustrated desires and social hypocrisy. There's a winking humour too. A Candle to Light the Sun, the fictional setting of Mouse Bluffs, clearly based on Souris, has a woman who keeps the water flowing to her squatter family by performing topless struts in pumps and French stockings for the town's gnarly old waterworks administrator on Sunday mornings. Then she cooks him breakfast and goes home to her husband, who set up the arrangement.
Determined not to have this would-be great writer's legacy plowed under like ungerminated wheat, Herson is pushing forward. Now that the Patricia Blondal retreat is established, he is lobbying to have her books rereleased. He wants university-level Canadian literature courses to feature her work. He has personally photocopied the entire contents of the UBC special collection on Blondal for himself and for the University of Winnipeg.
And one moody November afternoon, he helped Stephanie Blondal find her mother's grave. Now, a year later, it's as though the discovery of that headstone in Montreal has stirred up memories that long ago settled like dust on the prairies.
"I'll be dead within a year," Patricia Blondal apparently told McClelland during a Montreal cocktail party in the fall of 1959 when he considered her his would-be literary star.
No one had taken her seriously, Berton later wrote, because "to all who knew her, she seemed too completely and thoroughly alive."