Talking Points – Writers' Houses
In 1989 I visited Boris Pasternak's dacha at the writers' colony of Peredelkino, an hour's drive from Moscow. It is a simple pine house stripped of all but the essentials- there was a desk, and a chair, a window looking out on a similarly bare but beautiful landscape: flat fields, skeletal trees, a road stretching away. There was a worn staircase to a bed upstairs. Its plainness was the sort that offered a vision of simplicity that cries out to any writer. Would that life could be that way, when you sat down to work each day!
I seem to remember a hat and stick on a rack, for his walks. There was a tense air of past politics being glossed: a guide talking rapidly: this colony for state-sanctioned writers, built in the thirties, had just been opened as a memorial. No doubt it had its ugly stories. But- that's not what remained. What remained was an amazing echo. I burst into tears. I found it so moving that out of these painfully unassuming tools a man I never knew --but knew his words so intimately- a man who was caught in the turmoil of his country but managed to transform it into art – the novel Dr Zhivago.
Canadian writers, like those from other countries, have a knack for being born in, or at the very least repairing to, beautiful places which, once abandoned, continue to speak of them. One such place is Wallace Stegner House in Eastend, Saskatchewan. It is an unassuming little house in a corner of the province where, aside from old ranches turning into Monsanto farms, nothing much happens.
I was shown it by Saskatchewan novelist Sharon Butala, who lives nearby and who personally roused the community of Eastend to restore and open “Stegner House” to visitors. Stegner didn't write there, but he lived there, as a small boy, until his restless father moved the family across the border to the United States, where they continued to seek “the big rock candy mountain”. This turned out to be the making of young Wallace, who went on to become one of the great voices of the written West. He never forgot his Saskatchewan boyhood, which he memorialized in Wolf Willow .
A town came together to preserve this bit of history. The house on its little flat lawn under big trees near the creek, with its wood trim and floors, glows in its 1920's original state. All the work was done by volunteers. With the exception of a small grant from the Writers' Development Trust, and a little money from the Saskatchewan government, costs were born by the community. They also worked out a clever little deal where the town forgives the taxes, so what little money does exist in the coffers of Stegner House goes back to pay the heat. Writers and artists keep it filled: they apply for a residency and, at a cost of $200 per month, are granted the space to live and work, winter and summer. The house is nearly always occupied.
There are other such houses in Canada: Berton House in Dawson City, which Pierre Berton himself bought and donated to the Yukon Arts Council, was renovated by the Klondike Visitor's Association and is now a retreat for writers --who receive a stipend of $2,000 a month. The former home of Roderick Haig-Brown, writer, fly fisher and conservationist, is a heritage property in Campbell River, B.C. and also offers a paid residency to writers. Maison Gabrielle Roy in St. Joseph de la Rive is open to visitors, as in Margaret Laurence' early home in Neepawa, Manitoba. There is a Thomas Haliburton house in Nova Scotia.
On the lists goes: we don't know how long it is. Some of these houses operate as museums, some offer short-term residencies, and some combine the two purposes. Probably the most luxurious of Canadian writers' houses is Stephen Leacock's former home on the lakeshore at Orillia: it hosts a summer literary festival and features readings in Leacock's parlour. In Quebec, I'm told, the home of Emile Nelligan, iconic poet who blazed in youth and then went mad, is owned by the composer Andre Gagnon and is probably not open to visitors. Word even has it that a certain living writer, hard up for cash, is charging visitors come in and watch him in the act of writing. There are few takers: there is small romance in a living writer scratching his head and going for coffee.
The newest house to be preserved is Joy Kogawa's childhood home in Marpole, South Vancouver . The author of Obasan did not live there long: the bungalow was confiscated by the federal government in 1941 with the internment of Japanese-Canadians. But she dreamt about it for over fifty years. After a long campaign, the Land Conservancy of British Columbia raised the purchase price, with one anonymous corporate gift of $500 thousand dollars, and many individual gifts. It too needs restoration. But when it opens, it will serve as a refuge for writers of conscience, at Kogawa's request.
Stegner's street in Eastend begins at one side of town and ends on the other in open prairie, but is still only three blocks long. Eyeing the horizon, Sharon and I say: Let's start a registry of historic Canadian writers' houses, a website, a map. These houses should be more accessible to visitors. And more writers should breathe a little of this haunted air.