Winterset Award 2009 winner among a fine collection of work
Sandra Fraser Gwyn was a journalist, a keen observer of politics, the social scene and the arts, and, above all, writing. She was awarded both the Governor General’s Award for Literature and the Order of Canada.
Born in Newfoundland, she was for years the Ottawa editor of Saturday Night magazine. In its pages she revealed her keen powers of observation and methodical analysis. She had a wicked sense of humour and her wit was honed to a fine edge. She had a big heart. When it came to the arts in Newfoundland, she was a talent scout, an ally, an agent and a promoter. If she judged a person had what it took, she was a tireless booster.
Sandra was all those things and more, but most important to me, a dear friend.
That’s why I was so honoured when her husband Richard asked me to be one of the three jurors for the Winterset Award, the prize he established 10 years ago in Sandra’s memory.
I was honoured because it hadn’t yet sunk in what a weighty task I had agreed to. I was a judge. It’s true, we were three judges on the bench, sharing the load, but there were 32 entries. Thirty-two. If you pick them all up at the same time, you would be well advised to bend from the knees.
It wasn’t just the sheer number of the books, but the variety that made the task so difficult.
How do you compare a book costarring a philosophizing tortoise given to puns and wordplay to a story whose heart-wrenching examination of the grief from sudden loss makes the lump in your throat a permanent condition?
How do you weigh which is more deserving of recognition: a tale in which a never-ending chain of squid clinging to each other tentacles-to-tail is hauled from the sea to feed a village on the edge of starvation, or a mock-journalistic account of a war between Canada and USA (which Canada wins)?
Someone said the process was like comparing apples and oranges. No. Honestly, no, that would be child’s play. It’s more like comparing a glass of red wine with a bicycle.
How do you compare a beautifully illustrated children’s book with a collection of first person accounts dealing with the loss of the Ocean Ranger? How does a historical account of the TransAtlantic Cable Station at Heart’s Content stack up alongside a book in which a couple finds love in cannibalism? How do you compare a personal memoir to a book of poems? Fantasy to history? How? My personal technique as a judge is as follows. In the room at the top of our house with a view of the sea breaking on the headland across the bay, I run a hot bath. Lying back in the water, I pick up my book. Then, comes the most important part. I reach across to the chair beside the tub and pick up the powdered, white judge’s wig sitting there. I adjust it carefully on my head. Judging is an important task and it must be taken seriously. Appearances are important. Sandra would approve, I know.
Then I put my feet up on the end of the tub, either side of the taps, and begin to read. I read and read and, following that, I read some more. When the bath water begins to get cold I run some more hot, and continue reading.
I am the kind of reader who bails out of a book if the author doesn’t grab me in a gentle but masterful way within the first two-dozen pages. Fortunately, this was a problem that didn’t occur very often as I worked my way through the stack of 32 volumes. But when it did I persevered and, more often than not, was rewarded in the end.
And it paid off. The books in competition this year are a fine collection; the writers and publishers have done their work well. My fellow judges will agree, I’m sure. I know Sandra does. And I’m sure she joins me in congratulating the winner Jessica Grant for her book, Come Thou Tortoise, published by Knopf Canada.