Birdsell, Sandra 1942-
BIRDSELL, Sandra 1942-
PERSONAL: Born April 22, 1942, in Hamiota, Manitoba, Canada; daughter of Roger and Louise (Schroeder) Bartlette; married husband, 1959 (divorced); life partner of Jan Zarzycki; children: Roger, Angela, Darcie. Ethnicity: "French/Cree/Flemish." Education: Attended University of Winnipeg and University of Manitoba. Religion: Protestant. Hobbies and other interests: Tai chi, gardening, cycling.
ADDRESSES: Home—2744 Thornton Ave., Regina, Saskatchewan S4S 1J2, Canada. Agent—Bukowski Agency, 14 Prince Arthur Ave., Toronto, Ontario M5R 1A9, Canada. E-mail—[email protected]
CAREER: Writer; writer-in-residence at University of Waterloo, 1987, University of Alberta, 1991, University of Prince Edward Island, 1991, Saskatoon Public Library, 1995, Regina Public Library, 2000, and McMaster University; instructor, University of British Columbia; workshop leader at Red River Community College, University of Toronto Summer School of Writing, Banff Centre for the Arts, Maritime Writers Workshop, and Sage Hill Writing Experience.
MEMBER: PEN International, Writers Union of Canada, Saskatchewan Writers Guild, Manitoba Writers Guild (founding member and past president).
AWARDS, HONORS: Literary arts grant, 1979, and major arts grant, 1982, both from Manitoba Arts Council; Joseph S. Stauffer Prize, Canada Council; Gerald Lampert Award from League of Canadian Poets, 1984, for Night Travellers; National Magazine Award, 1984, for story "Falling in Love"; Maclean's named Agassiz Stories one of the ten best books of 1987; Smith/Books in Canada First Novel Award, 1989, for The Missing Child; Governor General nomination, 1992, for The Chrome Suite, 1997, for The Two-headed Calf; McNalley/Robinson Book of the Year Award, 1992, for The Chrome Suite; Marion Engel Award, 1993; Saskatchewan Book of the Year, 1997, for The Two-Headed Calf; Giller Prize nomination, 2001, for The Russländer; shortlisted for the Silver Birch Award and Red Cedar Award for The Town That Floated Away, 2000.
Night Travellers (short stories; also see below), Turnstone Press, 1982.
Ladies of the House (short stories; also see below), Turnstone Press, 1984.
Agassiz Stories (contains Night Travellers and Ladies of the House), Turnstone Press, 1987.
The Missing Child (novel), Lester & Orpen Dennys, 1990.
Agassiz: A Novel in Stories, Milkweed Editions (Minneapolis, MN), 1991.
The Chrome Suite (novel), McClelland & Stewart (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1992.
The Town That Floated Away, HarperCollins (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1997.
The Two-Headed Calf, McClelland & Stewart (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1997.
The Russländer (novel), McClelland & Stewart (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 2001.
Also author of scripts for television, including an episode of "Daughters of the Country," First Choice/Superchannel, 1987. Work represented in anthologies, including Manitoba Stories, 1981, West of Fiction, 1983, and Stories by Canadian Women, 1984. Contributor to periodicals, including Arts Manitoba, Canadian Fiction, and Grain. Fiction editor, Prairie Fire.
WORK IN PROGRESS: Children of the Day, a novel.
SIDELIGHTS: Canadian writer Sandra Birdsell, whom Maclean's critic Alberto Manguel called "one of the finest short story writers" in Canada, is known for her depictions of life in her native province of Manitoba. Her first two works, Night Travellers and Ladies of the House, are collections of short stories that share a common setting—the imaginary Manitoba town of Agassiz—and many of the same characters. Night Travellers revolves around the Lafrenieres, a large family in Agassiz. The landscape of the area—flat and remote and prone to damaging floods—plays an important role in the lives of these characters, who face boredom and lack of opportunity in rural Canada. In Ladies of the House, Birdsell features the women of the Lafreniere family. The characters are restless, emotionally unfulfilled, and longing to change their lives. In the title story, for instance, a woman reflecting on her youth regrets the pointless routine that her life has become. The figures in the story feel suffocated in the stagnant atmosphere of Agassiz. Reviewers of the two collections praised the author for her use of landscape as an integral part of the stories and for her sympathetic yet unflinchingly honest presentation of vulnerable, discontented characters. Writing in Maclean's, Manguel noted that "the author steps aside and offers no comment, no excuse and no justification for [her characters'] behavior. Because of that, her stories are masterpieces of understated drama."
In The Missing Child, her first novel, Birdsell again uses the setting of Agassiz and places heavy emphasis on natural imagery. Water, a motif, which serves as a threatening, ominous indication of future events, is especially important. Throughout the story, water mysteriously collects in the town's streets, silently hinting at disaster. The group of eccentric neighbors whose lives are the focus of the book, though, are too numbed by boredom and unhappiness to notice the threat. Faced with disease, destruction, insanity, and loneliness, the characters must find ways to endure. Some fill their lives with calming rituals, such as the character of Minnie, who tries in vain to stave off madness by constantly reminding herself what day of the week it is. Others seek companionship in casual affairs, such as the character of June, a lonely single mother. Critics again complimented the author for her sensitive treatment of her characters and her use of natural imagery to advance the story. Toronto Globe and Mail contributor Bonnie Burnard praised the originality of Birdsell's language and plot and noted that "Birdsell has brought enormous energy" to the book.
The narrator of Birdsell's second novel, The Chrome Suite, is Amy, a Canadian screenwriter who embarks on a personal journey of childhood memory and personal discovery after breaking up with her lover, Piotr, a filmmaker. The chrome suite of the title is a modernistic kitchen set that Amy remembers vividly from her childhood, a troubled time when the girl seemed an outcast in her own family. Amy, whose story is juxtaposed from her adult life in the 1990s to her youth in the 1950s, has autobiographical elements relating to Birdsell's life, but the character is based on a woman acquaintance of the author. "I actually met Amy in her mid-years, aged forty or so," the author explained in a Quill & Quire interview with Stephen Smith. "[The novel] begins with this grand love affair ending—the man says, 'I'm leaving you'—and then we go into the story," which starts with Amy at age nine. Depicting her narrator as a child posed a particular challenge for Birdsell: "I struggled [with writing a nine-year-old's] point of view without being precocious or cute. It's extremely difficult." Birdsell solved the problem by interposing the child Amy with her adult incarnation. Switching this way, she said, helped layer the novel "in a way that connected short stories might work."
Critic Helen Dunmore of the Observer responded to Birdsell's work in The Chrome Suite. The author, she noted, "lays bare Amy's inner world in a way which is moving and completely unsentimental." While Dunmore had praise for what she called the author's "strengths"—the depiction of place and time—the reviewer also found the overall structure of the novel "less satisfying," saying that the attempt to juxtapose the adult Amy's relationship with the character's childhood experience "is too shadowy to bear the weight placed upon it." A Kirkus Reviews contributor likewise deemed the novel's "larger design" as "sometimes blurry," but concluded that The Chrome Suite, with its evocation of "adolescent lust, adult carelessness, and the permanent sadness inflicted by tragedy" makes for "absorbing fiction." To Quill & Quire critic Pauline Carey, "the writing is always a joy, the kind that slows the reader down to savour every vivid moment." And in the opinion of Larry Scanlan of Books in Canada, The Chrome Suite "seems to have been written from some deep, dark well of inspiration. My interest in the older Amy is not always sustained, but this child, her mother and siblings and their curious turns, their town—all seem numbingly real."
Birdsell drew upon her spiritual and cultural heritage for her 2001 novel, The Russländer. Half-Mennonite on her mother's side, Birdsell said in a Maclean's article that she resisted following that faith, and that her Russian immigrant mother beat the teenager for refusing to attend church. "The hard part" of that punishment, she remarked to Brian Bergman, "was being sent out in the yard to find a stick for her to do it with. If you didn't find a good strong one, someone else got it for you." Subsequently, Birdsell resisted writing about Mennonites for many years, until The Russländer. The book is set during the Russian Revolution, when the pacifist Mennonites were easy targets for "roving armies of bandits, murderers and rapists," according to Bergman. The main character, Katya Vogt, is a teenage refugee, much as Birdsell's mother was during that period in history; she witnesses the slaying of her family and sees her world dissolve in chaos. The Maclean's writer pointed to the publication of The Russländer following the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001. Set against that context, the novel "contains heartrending depictions of what happens when innocent civilians are caught in the crosshairs of armed conflict." Birdsell's "unsparing" description of the suffering of Mennonites, Bergman added, did not bring the author closer to her mother's religion. "She describes herself as a 'person of faith,'" he wrote, "but incapable of belonging to a church. But she has come to appreciate the contributions recent generations of Mennonites have made to medicine, science and the arts."
Birdsell told CA: "I have always written, but never thought of myself as a writer. Even following the publication of my first book, I was reluctant to call myself a writer in the same way I'm reluctant to call myself a gardner although I spend as much time as possible outdoors coaxing plants to grow in this Saskatchewan wind and the deep shade of my yard.
"The most profound influence on my work is likely what I was born into—the mix of different cultures and religious beliefs of my parents. They came from what are considered marginal groups, Métis and Mennonite. My perception of the world as viewed through the eyes of these vastly different ways of being seems to have put me on the edge of things. And not being of one or the other culture, I'm sitting between both worlds. Consequently, I have the notion that I'm really at the center. The center of the edge. Because I believe I'm writing from the center, I'm often dismayed or startled by a critic's misunderstanding or ignorance of the people and things I write about.
"Being on the outside of both my parents'cultures has made me a watcher as much as being born female and the fifth child of ten children has. I'm also from a generation where sexual discrimination, discrimination against minorities—my mother's family was viewed with suspicion for speaking German during and following both world wars; my father's family found it necessary to deny their native ancestry—was more overt and didn't require a lot of skill to deal with, except to fight against it, fume over the injustice. Ultimately, I was driven to write in order to understand a world that wishes to exclude certain people.
"Being at the center of the edge is kind of like living in the cracks in the floorboards. Which, I suppose is a good place for a writer to come from.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Books in Canada, September, 1992, Larry Scanlan, "Channel Crossings," pp. 24-25.
Canadian Book Review Annual, 1997, review of The Two-Headed Calf, p. 205, review of The Town That Floated Away, p. 502.
Canadian Literature, autumn, 1981, Diane Watson, review of The Missing Child, p. 136; autumn, 1991, review of The Missing Child, p. 136; fall-winter, 1994, Coral Ann Howells, review of The Chrome Suite, p. 221; autumn, 1996, Beth Janzen, review of Agassiz: A Novel in Stories, p. 153; spring, 2000, Suzanne James, review of The Two-Headed Calf, p. 138; summer, 2001, Isla Duncan, "The Profound Poverty of Knowledge," p. 85.
Chatelaine, November, 2001, Bonnie Schiedel, "Three Books People Are Talking About," p. 26.
Choice, October, 1991, review of Agassiz, p. 276.
CM, January, 1990, review of The Missing Child, p. 25.
Essays on Canadian Writing, winter, 1992, review of Night Travellers, Ladies of the House, and The Missing Child, p. 170; spring, 1995, Dallas Harrison, review of The Chrome Suite, p. 214.
Globe and Mail (Toronto), January 12, 1985, May 16, 1987, September 23, 1989, Bonnie Burnard, review of The Missing Child. Hungry Mind Review, March, 1990, review of The Missing Child, p. 31.
Kirkus Reviews, February 15, 1991, review of Agassiz, p. 192; February 15, 1995, review of The Chrome Suite, p. 165.
Library Journal, September 1, 1991, Marnie Webb, review of Agassiz, p. 227; March 15, 1992, review of Agassiz, p. 160.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 14, 1991, review of Agassiz, p. 6.
Maclean's, September 21, 1987, Alberto Manguel, review of Ladies of the House; June 23, 1997, review of The Two-Headed Calf, p. 53; October 22, 2001, Brian Bergman, "Pacifist and Doomed,"p. 68.
New York Times Book Review, May 5, 1991, Sharon Oard Warner, review of Agassiz, p. 25; April 30, 1995, Meghan Daum, review of The Chrome Suite, p. 22.
Observer (London, England), March, 1994, Helen Dunmore, "Whomp in the Chest," p. 22.
Publishers Weekly, March 1, 1991, Sybil Steinberg, review of Agassiz, p. 57.
Quill & Quire, July, 1992, Stephen Smith, "Suite Science," p. 39; August, 1992, Pauline Carey, review of The Chrome Suite, p. 19; May, 1997, review of The Two-Headed Calf, p. 37.
Resource Links, June, 1998, review of The Town That Floated Away, p. 6.
University of Toronto Quarterly, fall, 1990, Michael Thorpe, review of The Missing Child, p. 2.
Utne Reader, January, 1992, review of Agassiz, p. 120.
Women's Review of Books, July, 1991, review of Agassiz, p. 40.
Women Writers,http://women.writers.about.com/ (June 10, 2002), review of The Russländer.