Win­ter­set Award 2009 win­ner among a fine col­lec­tion of work

The Compass - - NEWS -

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.

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