York alumnus Joseph Boyden wins 2008 Scotiabank Giller Prize

When York alumnus Joseph Boyden (BA Hons. ’91) was first starting out as a writer, he dreamed of one day becoming the next F. Scott Fitzgerald or Ernest Hemingway. Tuesday night confirmed Boyden’s rise to the top as he stepped up to accept the15th annual Scotiabank Giller Prize for his latest book of fiction – Through Black Spruce.

His gamble on writing fiction, as he called it in a piece he wrote for YorkU magazine in 2006 (see Back Talk), has paid off in more ways than one. His Giller Prize win comes with prestige, recognition and a $50,000 cash award.

Through Black Spruce (Viking Canada, 2008) follows the intertwining lives of Annie Bird and her bush pilot Cree uncle Will Bird in northern Ontario as they deal with the disappearance of Annie’s sister Suzanne, a New York model. Annie, a tomboy, a loner and a hunter, leaves her uncle Will behind to search for her sister. That search takes her to Toronto and New York to modelling studios and parties, while Will faces his own difficulties at home where he is beaten into a coma by drug dealers.

“In a gripping story filled with humour, suspense and remarkable insights into both nature and human nature, Joseph Boyden takes us on two journeys…. In spare prose that ranges from lyrical to brutal, the two journeys are brought together brilliantly. Joseph Boyden shows us unforgettable characters and a northern landscape in a way we have never seen them before,” say this year’s Giller Prize jury members – internationally known author Margaret Atwood, a former Giller Prize winner, Liberal MP and former Ontario premier Bob Rae and Colm Toíbín, a journalist and author.

Left: Joseph Boyden

Boyden, a Canadian with Irish, Scottish and Métis roots, and one of 11 children, studied creative writing at York and pursued an MFA at the University of New Orleans, where he has taught writing for the last 10 years. His wife Amanda Boyden, author of Pretty Little Dirty (Vintage/Random House, 2006), is also a member of the creative writing faculty at the University of New Orleans. Boyden divides his time between Louisiana and northern Ontario.

The aboriginal part of Boyden plays an important role in his life and in his work. So does the military history of his family. His father, a doctor who died when Boyden was just eight years old, was a decorated Second World War veteran.

In Boyden’s first novel, Three Day Road, inspired by the true story of legendary First World War Ojibwa sniper Francis Pegahmagabow and published in 10 languages, tells the tale of Cree soldier Xavier Bird’s experiences during the First World War with his best friend. His story is told to an Oji-Cree medicine woman as she paddles him home, wounded and addicted to morphine.

Three Day Road won the 2005 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, the Amazon.ca/Books in Canada First Novel Award and the 2005 McNally Robinson Aboriginal Book of the Year Award. It was long-listed for the 2006 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and nominated for the 2005 Governor General’s Literary Award. In addition, Boyden’s collection of short stories Born with a Tooth (Cormorant Books, 2003) was short-listed for the Upper Canada Brewing Company Writer’s Craft Award.

The Giller is Canada’s richest prize for fiction awarded annually to the best Canadian novel or collection of short stories published in English. Canada AM’s Seamus O’Regan hosted this year’s award ceremony.

Through Black Spruce beat out four other books on the 2008 Giller shortlist – Barnacle Love (Doubleday Canada) by Anthony De Sa, Good to A Fault (Freehand Books/Broadview Press) by Marina Endicott, Cockroach (House of Anansi Press) by Rawi Hage and The Boys in the Trees (Henry Holt/HB Fenn) by Mary Swan.

By Sandra McLean, YFile writer