An old newspaper clipping about a mysterious historical event in the Peace River area of Alberta became the starting point for a Swift Current author’s debut novel.
Bonnie Dunlop’s historical novel Raft Baby was published in mid-September and the virtual book launch was hosted on the Lyric Theatre’s Write Out Loud digital stage, Nov. 6.
The novel is based on a true event that occurred over a century ago, when a trapper found a lone and frail infant drifting down the Peace River on a raft.
Dunlop’s uncle, who moved from Saskatchewan to the Peace River area in the 1930s, kept a newspaper clipping about this historical incident until his death.
“My cousin was going through his stuff and he sent it to me and said here's a story that maybe you should write,” she recalled. “I just tucked it away and I thought I don't know if I can do that or even if I want to, but it just stuck in my mind. So then I started reading about the Peace River country in the 1800 and 1900s, because that's about the time when that raft baby story actually happened.”
Ironically, one of her main challenges in writing this book was that she was basing it on a real event that sounded almost as if it could be fiction.
“The actual facts of it are so unbelievable that was the hardest part about writing this story, because it's so unbelievable,” she said. “And especially if you've seen the Peace River. That's a big, wide river, and it's a powerful river too. So to think a baby actually was in a raft and lived to have a story for the rest of her life is crazy.”
She did a lot of additional research before starting to write the novel. She looked for additional information about actual historical figures, but her book is not simply a mere telling of an actual event.
“I couldn't really stick to just the small amount of information I had about who was who there,” she said. “So then I just started to imagine people. Then once the other people started coming in, it was much easier to get writing the story. It kind of gave it life.”
Her novel is layered with multiple narrators and interwoven stories that moves the true facts towards a mystical story of a young girl straddling two worlds.
“There's all kinds of things in the book that are pure fiction,” she said. “I found that when I was trying to write the true facts, it was more like I was a reporter and not so much writing a story. So I went to fiction and thought, this raft baby story is real, but I’ll just use the bones of that and then put my own interpretation on it or if other people wanted to come into the story that I just imagine up, then let them in and see what happens.”
The fun part of writing the book was that characters started to take the story in interesting directions after she decided to let the story take its own course. She still felt something was missing after completing the main body of the book, and therefore decided to put it aside for a while.
“Then I wrote the first chapter of the book and the last chapter quite a long time after I had written the main body of the book,” she said. “The first chapter and the last chapter is the raft baby's voice, and she's telling her interpretation of her story. So I realized she had to have her voice. That was kind of an interesting thing, just to think you've finished a novel and then to get the first chapter and the last.”
She included an afterword in the book to indicate to curious readers what part of the book is factual and what part is just fiction.
Dunlop is comfortable writing in different genres. Her debut publication, The Beauty Box, was a collection of short stories. It won the 2004 Saskatchewan Book Awards prize for first book. It motivated her to write another collection of short stories, titled Carnival Glass. It was shortlisted for the 2008 Saskatchewan Book Award for fiction.
“I like short stories and I enjoy writing them and reading them too, but I thought maybe it's time for me to try something totally new,” she said. “I just wanted some variety. So before I started to write Raft Baby, I also wrote some poetry and some memoir pieces just to get myself into a different genre, and then I just started reading a lot of historical fiction and basically not just reading it, but studying it so I could figure out how to actually write a historical novel.”
She enjoyed writing a full-length novel, because there is more time in a novel to enlarge a character compared to a short story.
“In a short story that's only 10 to 13 pages, every word has to move the story forward and it's a very compact kind of writing,” she said. “With a novel you have a little bit more time to study the characters and get to know them better and just see how they interact with other people.”
She would like to write another novel in the future and she is still writing short stories. At the moment she is working on a poetry project, but she has not yet given any thought to publishing it. Dunlop uses all her writing as a way to think about the world.
“I use writing to interpret the world,” she said. “I'm not one of those people who comes up with a quick answer to anything. I have to ponder over things and questions, and so I think that writing allows me to translate the world to myself. That's why I write.”
It has been a challenge to release a new book during a pandemic, because normal activities such as an in-person book launch or a book tour cannot take place.
She did a micro reading at the Swift Current Branch Library in early October after her book was selected as a featured publication during SaskBook’s annual book week. This event had an attendance limit of 15 people, but it was also live streamed on SaskBook’s Facebook page.
In late October she did a socially distanced book reading in Hazlet at The Bethany, a former church building that is now used for social events. The Lyric Theatre hosted her virtual book launch on Nov. 6, and this event can be viewed on YouTube (search for Lyric Digital Stage Write Out Loud #8).
She appreciates the virtual opportunities to present her new book, but she is looking forward to times when she can again stand in front of a real audience.
“Then you get a lot more feedback, and that's the part I enjoy,” she said. “I enjoy talking to people about my book after they've been to a reading.”
Copies of her new book can be purchased through Amazon.ca and it is also available in Swift Current at Bre’s Boutique and Pharmasave. Copies can also be purchased directly from Dunlop by sending an e-mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org