Candace Savage admits an award was the farthest thing from her mind during the years she worked on her latest book, published by Greystone Books and the David Suzuki Foundation, but on Nov. 12 in Toronto, the Writers Trust of Canada announced that A Geography of Blood: Unearthing Memory from a Prairie Landscape, was the winner of the 2012 Hilary Weston Writers Trust prize for Nonfiction in Canada.
The $60,000 Hilary Weston prize is the richest annual literary award for a book of nonfiction published in this country. “I knew I’d been shortlisted … so I was one of five for the last six weeks,” said Savage. “They do the Academy Award moment, so only a very, very few people knew before the announcement was made.”
Savage remains objective about the award. “If this award had been $200 instead of $60,000, or if there had been no award at all, the book would still be exactly what it is, so I’m really grateful to the Writer’s Trust and to Mrs. Weston for all the glitter, for magnifying things in this way, that’s really amazing.”
She added, “Of course, when I was working on it, what I was trying to do was tell the story and I was trying to do justice to the story and to the people who had helped me figure out how to tell it, and awards were the farthest thing from my mind.”
Savage was drawn to Eastend and the Cypress Hills while completing an earlier book about the vast North American prairie ecosystem. “It began while I was working on Prairie: A Natural History, and we went there first with no intention that this was going to become the creative centre of another project, much less such a deep investigation that would be so fruitful.”
A two-week vacation developed into an unexpected reverence for the region and its first people that has spanned more than 10 years and continues to grow.
“At the beginning of the book it’s all very la-dee-da, here we are on vacation, stumbling over Eastend. Everything about it, around the little town of Eastend, you look out your window and the land is very strange. It’s been sculpted into all kinds of odd shapes and it’s striated with layers, and so it speaks of the past … it speaks of a lot of time.
“It’s a place that … even on the surface, it seems to be asking questions. It just stimulates your curiosity. I was just thinking that you know something has happened there, and it makes you curious to know what it was.”
Savage notes that her book “starts out very innocently and it leads you into a heart of darkness, but I do try to bring you back out again. I don’t just leave you there.”
In excavating the unsettling truths of prairie history, Savage said, “I think it’s a story that belongs to everyone who calls this place home, but it’s a story obviously about the relationship between two peoples who have different histories – the people who have been here, whose ancestors have been here, for dozens and hundreds of generations, and the people who have come much more recently.”
The boundaries between politics, priorities and ethics often became blurred during the early years of Canada’s confederacy, and through many of the crises encountered as the western prairies were settled.
“Circumstances were very, very difficult, and what the Canadian Government chose to do was to simplify things. They used the means that were at their hand to accomplish what they wanted to accomplish, and if people suffered, well, that was only to be expected.”
She says her book is “really just telling the story that’s part of our foundational experience, collectively, in Western Canada. This is an origins story for our present society, and we’d like to tell it as if it began with Grandma in her poke bonnet on the seat of a covered wagon, but it starts earlier.”
Acclaim for Geography of Blood has been widespread. “I’ve written a lot of books, as you know, and I have never written anything that has elicited this kind of response. If there had been no awards at all, to have people writing to me who really get it would be reward enough.”
She cherished the journey, the writing process itself, and especially the people who embraced her efforts. “I signed the contract to produce the book sort of on a handshake, two or three years before I understood what it really needed to be about. So just finding the focus for the book was quite a process, and then making the contact with the people at Nekaneet First Nation and having just amazing opportunities.
“Being welcomed with such generosity and just taken at face value was such a gift, and many things have happened that I haven’t written about and can’t write about. Being able to participate in cultural events, things like that.”
While acknowledging and appreciating the significance of the award from a literary and career perspective, Savage remains unpretentious.
“The last thing that you can do, if you want to create things, is get impressed with your own magnificence. You just can’t. You have to stay always teetering on the edge of complete incompetence. You have to be curious; you have to not know quite how to do it.”
Geography of Blood is available through Amazon, Chapters/Indigo and at Loblaws stores across Canada. It is also available for download as an eBook.