Presentation to the Calgary Women’s Literary Club, March 21, 2018
By Sandra Ens
Jane Urquhart was born in northern Ontario, in Little Longlac, and grew up in Northumberland County and Toronto. She has received ten honorary doctorates from Canadian universities, has been writer-in-residence at four Canadian universities, and is a Banff Distinguished Writer. Urquhart has received many national and international prizes and has served on several international prize juries. In 2005, she was named an Officer of the Order of Canada. Throughout her books, Jane Urquhart revisits the same themes: the role of landscape in shaping character; people who are absent, who have gone “away”; the struggles and obsessions of the artist; the fragility of human relationships; and the importance of remembering and celebrating both our national history and our personal histories.
Jane Urquhart says, in the prologue to her most recent book A Number of Things (2017), “My fiction has sometimes been associated with Canadian history.” In The Whirlpool (1986), David McDougall is researching the War of 1812, and in Away (1993), the Irish potato famine and subsequent migration brings Brian and Mary O’Malley family to Canada, and their daughter Eileen becomes involved in the assassination of D’Arcy McGee. Many of her characters are the keepers of family or personal history, and the plot of the novels retells that story. Some characters seem never to reach peace: Liz Crane in Sanctuary Line (2010) and Austin Fraser in The Underpainter (1997) remain unsettled at the end of these books. Their re-telling is a re-living, and tinged with bereavement and regret, but they achieve no peace. Other characters, however, reconcile their pasts and reach conclusions. Tam, in The Night Stages (2015), comes to a decision about her relationship with Niall. In The Map of Glass (2005), Sylvia and Jerome, connected when Jerome finds the body of Sylvia’s lover, tell each other about aspects of their lives that no one else knows. As a result, Jerome remembers his father reading to him, a rare good memory of his parents, and Sylvia can return to her home and lay her memories to rest. Klara Becker, in The Stone Carvers (2001), carves Eamon’s name into the Vimy Monument; by doing so, she both ensures that he will be remembered, and she is able to calm her restlessness.
We are reminded of artists who have captured and memorialized our history: Walter Allward, the architect of the Vimy memorial in The Stone Carvers (2001), and Kenneth Lochhead, the artist who created the mural in Gander airport in The Night Stages (2015). In the series Extraordinary Canadians: Lucy Maud Montgomery (2009), she explores the life of Lucy Maud Montgomery.
In her most recent book, A Number of Things: Stories of Canada told through Fifty Objects (2017), Jane Urquhart chooses 50 Canadian objects and connects her narrative to our collective experience as a nation. Each object is illustrated by artist Scott McKowen. She says “Canada is always under revision…[and] has never developed an official history, or an official cultural standpoint…. [There’s] a lack of certainty about identity. [It] has allowed for multiple points of view and a greater-than-average adaptability.” If we have a cultural standpoint, it is one of inclusiveness and tolerance. As a country, it’s an identity we can be proud of.