W. D. Valgardson
BORN: 1939, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
GENRE: Fiction, poetry
God Is Not a Fish Inspector (1975)
Gentle Sinners (1980)
W. D. Valgardson. Photograph by Jan Magnusson
During the 1970s, William Dempsey Valgardson established himself as one of Canada’s foremost writers of short fiction. His forceful presentation of lives shaped by isolation and the brutal effects of a northern environment, his careful control of narrative method, and his respect for his audience have won him both a wide readership and high praise from critics and reviewers.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Isolated Childhood. Born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, in 1939, Valgardson was the son of Dempsey Alfred Herbert and Rachel Iris Valgardson. His father was a fisherman of Icelandic descent. Valgardson grew up in Gimli, a fishing village on Lake Winnipeg which was originally known as New Iceland as it was settled in 1875 and 1876 by Icelandic settlers trying to get away from volcanic eruptions. Gimli retains a strong ethnic connection with Iceland and a sense of a collective Icelandic literary heritage. Valgardson says of the Gimli area: ‘‘In a sense, [it] was the Appalachia of Canada. The choices people had were incredibly restricted.... There was tragedy, poverty, foreignness, displacement and an idealization of the past.’’ The Icelandic settlers to Gimli brought books with them as well as a tradition of interest in writers and writing. Thus both the community and his ancestry strongly influenced Valgardson’s writing, providing him not only with settings and themes but also with a vision of human life.
Valgardson received his bachelor of arts degree from the University of Manitoba in 1960. He spent the next few years teaching English and art at various rural schools in Manitoba and earned a B.Ed. from the University of Manitoba in 1966. Valgardson then attended the Iowa Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa, receiving a master of fine arts degree in 1969. In the early 1970s, Valgardson taught English at Cottey College in Missouri, where he was head of the department from 1971 to 1974. His writing career began in this period, but as would become a hallmark of his career, he worked slowly and always had a limited output. While teaching there, he began establishing his reputation as a short-story writer at home in Canada.
Short-Story Success. After finding success in a number of writing contests, Valgardson published Bloodflowers (1971), a collection of ten short stories. The title story—which was originally published in a 1971 issue of Tamarack Review and won the President’s Medal from the University of Western Ontario for best short story in a Canadian publication—depicts a young teacher from mainland Canada who comes to teach on an island off the coast of Newfoundland. Once there, he slowly begins to suspect that he is to be made the sacrificial victim in a ritual spring sacrifice. The sinister tone of this story is repeated in the others, which are pessimistic portrayals of life in northern Manitoba; the moments of optimism that exist are brief and qualified.
While working on his second collection of stories, in 1974 Valgardson joined the faculty of the University of Victoria in British Columbia as a creative writing teacher. The following year, his second collection of short stories, God Is Not a Fish Inspector (1975), was published. Critics praised the book for its coherence and attention to the hardships of rural life. Following this volume, Valgardson published a collection of poetry that he had written in the late 1960s and early 1970s, In The Gutting Shed (1976). The collection received mixed reviews but nonetheless went into a second edition during its first year, a rarity in Canadian poetry. Returning to short stories, he published his third collection, Red Dust, in 1978. In this book, Valgardson continued to examine the poverty and violence that exists in portions of rural Canada, while showing newfound maturity and confidence as a writer. In ‘‘Red Dust,’’ for instance, a man permits his niece to be raped in exchange for a hunting dog.
Continued Literary Success. Valgardson’s first novel, Gentle Sinners, was published in 1980 and won the Books in Canada award as the best first novel of the year. Somewhat different from his other work, Gentle Sinners suggested a limited form of redemption and happiness in its account of a boy who flees his authoritarian parents and finds a sense of community and ethnic identity with his uncle Sigfus. Two years after his first novel came out, Valgardson began his first stint as chair of the University of Victoria’s Creative Writing Department. He held the post from 1982 to 1987. Also during this time, he served as the president of the Canadian Authors Association, from 1985 to 1986.
After publishing a second collection of poetry—The Carpenter of Dreams (1986)—Valgardson returned to short fiction with the collection What Can’t Be Changed Shouldn’t Be Mourned (1990) and the novel The Girlwith the Botticelli Face (1992). Beginning in the mid-1990s, Valgardson began writing books for children. Valgardson revisits the setting of his early life in Thor (1994), a children’s book that culminates in the unlikely heroism of a young boy named Thor. While visiting his grandparents in a small fishing village, Thor reluctantly abandons his favorite television programs to help his grandfather on Lake Winnipeg, where he discovers the selflessness and courage to save a drowning man. Though decidedly redemptive, Valgardson’s evocative depiction of traditional Icelandic Canadian culture and engaging dialogue are consistent with his many other works. Valgardson published a number of other books for children, including the fairy tale-inspired Sarah and the People of Sand River (1995), the short-story collections Garbage Creek, and Other Stories (1997) and The Divorced Kids Club, and Other Stories (1999), and the young-adult novel Frances (2000). He continued to emphasize rural settings at a time when Canada’s rural economy—agriculture, fishing, and natural resources—were continuing to take a back seat to mechanization and an urban-based economy.
Valgardson remained with the faculty at the University of Victoria until 2004. Before his retirement, he also served his second stint as the chair of the Creative Writing Department, from 1999 until 2004. Valgardson continued to make his home in Victoria in retirement, though it was unclear if he could continue to write.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Valgardson's famous contemporaries include:
Farley Mowat (1921—): Conservationist and author, Mowat was already well known in his native Canada when he shot to international fame with his documentary film about his work with wolf packs titled Never Cry Wolf (1983).
Queen Elizabeth II (1926—): Queen of the United Kingdom and other Commonwealth realms (including Canada, Australia, and New Zealand), Elizabeth is one of Britain's longest-reigning monarchs. Despite widespread personal support, her reign has seen an increasing dissolution of the respect and privacy normally afforded the royal family.
Richard Nixon (1913-1994): An American politician, Nixon made a name for himself as a staunch anti-Communist senator and vice president to Dwight Eisenhower. He was narrowly elected president in 1968, then reelected to a second term amidst a deep cultural war over America's involvement in Vietnam. Shortly after his reelection, stories began to surface of criminal activities during his campaign, eventually turning into the Watergate scandal. Rather than face certain impeachment, Nixon resigned in 1974.
Russell Means (1939-): A Lakota Sioux Indian, Means is one of the most recognizable activists for Native American rights. He rose to prominence as a leader of the American Indian Movement (AIM) and that group's nineteen-month occupation of Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay in 1969.
Leonid Brezhnev (1906-1982): Political leader of the Soviet Union from 1964 to 1982, Brezhnev reversed many of the domestic political reforms of his predecessor, Nikita Khrushchev, and pursued the policy of ''detente'' with U.S. presidents Nixon and Ford, seeking to end the Cold War arms race.
Works in Literary Context
As a writer, Valgardson found inspiration in his Icelandic ancestry as well as the rural Canadian landscapes where he grew up and taught. Thus, many of his books are set in harsh northern environments. In addition to being influenced by Icelandic storytelling traditions, Valgardson is often compared with Russian writers, and he admitted that Anton Chekhov was an influence on his work. While others have detected the impact of Thomas Hardy and William Faulkner on his writing, Valgardson also found inspiration in the stories of Ernest Hemingway and Somerset Maugham, the novels of Jane Austen, and the poetry of Al Purdy, James Dickey, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and Wallace Stevens. The author believes that his strong Lutheran, conservative background gave rise to an authoritative tone of voice in his writings.
Thematic Constancy. Critics have noted that the themes of tragedy and isolation are typical of many of Valgardson’s works, especially in books targeted at adults. While Gentle Sinners features some guarded optimism, the author’s preferred themes dominate, and he also admitted that as a writer, theme is more important than plot to him. Even most of the poetry found in In the Gutting Shed is parallel, in setting and theme, to Valgardson’s fiction. Many of his books for children focus on his dominant theme in a slightly different way. Books like The Divorced Kids Club, and Other Stories focus on the theme of the outsider.
When Red Dust was published, some reviewers of the book took Valgardson to task for not striking out in new directions stylistically and for not attempting to deal with new and different themes. Yet, as Margaret Atwood states in her discussion of this book for Essays on Canadian Writing, the author has deliberately chosen to develop his characteristic voice: ‘‘If you look at what most writers actually do, it resembles a theme with variations more than it does the popular motion of growth. Writers’ universes may become more elaborate, but they do not necessarily become essentially different. Popular culture, based on the marketing of novelties, teaches us that change is desirable in and for itself. Valgardson is its antithesis.’’
Influence. As an author, Valgardson stated once that his goal was to write stories that influence people and make them think. His short stories are so highly regarded that he is regarded as a master of the form in Canada, an inspiration to others who write such stories in both his native country as well as in other English-speaking countries. Many of the stories have been translated into other languages, including Icelandic, Russian, Ukrainian, Danish, Dutch, Spanish, German, and French, ensuring Valgardson’s influence abroad as well.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Valgardson's repeated meditations on tragedy and isolation have strongly resonant analogs in some of the world's all-time literary classics, including:.
Frankenstein (1818), a novel by Mary Shelley. The Monster of Shelly's novel is not the semi-intelligent brute of film fame, but a thinking, rational creature, only too bitterly aware of his outcast status and consumed with both love and hatred for his creator.
Richard III (1591), a play by William Shakespeare. Essentially a work of propaganda, Shakespeare's take on the English monarch casts him as one of the all-time great villainous antiheroes—bitter, alone, and doomed.
Ethan Frome (1911), a novel by Edith Wharton. The story of a tragic love triangle, partly based on Wharton's own life, that ends with a cruel twist of fate for the title character and his would-be mistress.
Works in Critical Context
Critical opinion of Valgardson has generally been positive, with some reviewers calling his work ‘‘prairie gothic’’ because of its unflinching depiction of the brutal aspects of rural life. Critics praise his works for their craftsmanship, dedication, deep understanding of human motivation, and attention to detail in writing about such areas. While some critics, such as Sam Solecki, believe that Valgardson overwrites, relies too extensively on similes, and overrelies on a monotone style, they also praise his ability to movingly write about ordinary lives with respect.
God Is Not a Fish Inspector. Critics generally praised his second collection of short stories, God Is Not a Fish Inspector. Especially lauded was the collection’s coherence and careful consideration of the hardships of life in a rural environment. Reviewing the collection, Adrian Vale of the Irish Times comments that Valgardson’s ‘‘Manitoba countryside has close affinities with Egdon Heath. There is death and suicide and isolation. These elementals, however, are not dragged in to inflate a final paragraph; they come as hammer-blows, falling inevitably and with complete artistic rightness. Mr. Valgardson is an authoritative writer; he leaves the reader with no inclination to gainsay him or the truth of the events he describes.’’
Sarah and the People of Sand River. Valgardson’s books for children are as highly regarded as his short- story collections targeted at adults. Critics regarded the novel he wrote for young readers, Sarah and the People of Sand River, as a tightly woven fairy tale with depth and meaning. Anne Louise Mahoney, writing for Quill & Quire, called the book a ‘‘haunting tale, skillfully written, and with a powerful ending.’’ Booklist’s Carolyn Phelan believed that Valgardson’s ‘‘taut narrative ... transcends time.’’ Publishers Weekly found the book poetic, writing that ‘‘Wallace’s ... delicate, somber watercolors underscore the plaintive tone. Working in a subdued, pale palette, he diffuses the harshness of the heroine’s experiences in a rush of gentle light.’’
Responses to Literature
1. Use the following questions as a basis for a small group discussion. Provide a definition, in your own words, for what you think the term ‘‘prairie gothic’’ means. Why do you think some critics have labeled Valgardson’s work as such?
2. Valgardson’s Icelandic heritage comes through in several of his stories. In an essay, examine the following questions: What role does his ancestral culture play in his narratives? How does it interact with Canadian culture?
3. Write a paper that addresses the following concerns: What major themes does Valgardson return to in his work? How effectively does he address these themes, in your opinion?
4. Valgardson hails from one of the ‘‘prairie provinces’’ of Canada. In a paper, compare his work with that of other Canadian writers from the central part of the country—Manitoba, Alberta, and Saskatchewan— and discuss common themes in the authors' works.
Mahoney, Anne Louise. Review of Sarah and the People of Sand River. Quill & Quire, September 1994: 43.
Phelan, Carolyn. Review of Sarah and the People of Sand River. Booklist, November 1, 1996: 496.
Review of Sarah and the People of Sand River. Publishers Weekly 243, no. 39 (September 23, 1996): 76.
Vale, Adrian. Review of God Is Not a Fish Inspector. Irish Times, July 10, 1976.