Poet Neil Aitkens once shared with me the concept of our childhood homes as “nests,” our need to return to them, at least in a literary sense. The idea for my first manuscript emerged from visits that took place at my childhood home: my grandmother’s visits to our farm home, and those of my father’s friend, Walter Gordon. The questions I had following those visits were my inspiration. Rubbing the facts together, driven by questions that began with those long-ago visits and the answers I found in the process, a novel unfolded: The Will came into being.
I recall Walter and my dad sitting in the kitchen well into the night, discussing, debating, pushing on well after four-year-old me had gone to bed. I was too young to understand what their conversations were about. I was more interested in playing with the hand-rolled cigarettes in Walter’s shirt pocket. But this much I knew—they were deliberations. Intense, passionate even, but amiable. A profound mutual respect, evident. As echoed in the words of the eulogy my dad gave for Walter when he passed, two eagles circling over throughout his burial on Pasqua First Nation: “Many times I have watched Walter walk up to our house in his usual, unhurried, rather casual way, and come in for not just one but several hours of conversation, stimulating conversation.
I know of no replacement for it. That will be the measure of my loss.” I remember Walter, sitting in the kitchen chair, his head sometimes bent in thought, his rollie burning between his fingers as the discussion may have become more heated. Memories of those visits stayed strong in my mind, together with my questions about those discussions in the kitchen. What were they about?
It was in the midst of a conversation with my grandmother, during one of her visits, that she mentioned that Walter’s father, Andrew, had been one of the very best farmers in the area. I was about nine then and I think it was the first time I’d ever heard any mention of Walter’s father. That added another question to my list: What would it have been like for Andrew to have farmed out on the reserve in his time? I tried to fathom it. What kind of will had it required, compared to that of my grandfather, Alfie, neither of whom I’d ever met, my grandfather having died before I was born. I began to speculate as to the relationship that Andrew and Alfie may have had. Was it a similar relationship to that of my dad and Walter?
I began to probe and explore to uncover the possible answers to these questions. I sifted through the contents of a chest of drawers, a virtual time capsule in oak containing details of Alfie’s existence after his passing.
At the same time, I was compelled to look closer, deeper at what it would have been like to farm on the reserve then at the same time. What would it have been like for Andrew? How did it compare to what it might have been like for my grandfather? I became hungry for answers. I sifted through research and documentation on government policy, information on the existence of residential schools and compulsory attendance amidst the tuberculosis epidemic and discovered the horrors and the measure of will that it would have taken to succeed while others stood by. Oblivious? Indifferent or just helpless to do more? The roaring twenties on the Canadian prairies, WWI having ended, was an era of prosperity, booming with opportunity, but for whom?
As the answers emerged, so did the idea to make it known to the world how it might actually have felt for both Alfie and Andrew to have lived then. It became a pursuit to portray what their realities looked like. I was leaning toward describing their stories as creative non-fiction, but a writer’s retreat at St. Peter’s College with author Gail Anderson-Dargatz was a turning point in deciding to present Alfie and Andrew’s worlds and the dynamics of living side by side through a fictional lens. Gail laid down the foundation on which I began to write a story that evolved organically, one scene at a time, and in no particular order. It was like pulling them from the air. It was my year-long mentorship with author Barbara Langhorst where the dam really broke and the words gushed onto the page. Not necessarily with any great form, either, but later, with Barbara’s steadfast encouragement and guidance, I took those words like a piece of clay and reshaped and refined them.
Katepwa is the name of a lake in the Qu’Appelle Valley near the farm where I grew up. In the Cree language, it means “river that calls.” I began to wonder if perhaps The Will was a way for me to return to my original nest. Was I being called back, invited to step back through the gate to the Stewart farm, retrace the trips I’d once taken out to Pasqua Reservation to stand at the top of the Qu’Appelle Valley looking down and out at Asham’s Point. Writing the story was a return visit, with Alfie and Andrew, Addie and Kate as my muses, pulling me forward.