LITERARY LOCATION: Merville General Store, 6635 Island Hwy, at Sackville Road, Merville, B.C.

Raised on a "stump ranch"; at Merville, between Courtenay and Campbell River on Vancouver Island, Jack Hodgins has frequently recalled he felt "bush league"; even in relation to people who lived in the nearby towns. He nonetheless became one of the most respected novelists ever born in British Columbia, as well as a beloved teacher. He was elected to the Royal Society of Canada in 1999 and he received the Order of Canada in 2009. In 2011 Jack Hodgins was honoured with a plaque in front of the Laughing Oyster Bookstore, on the Comox Valley "Walk of Achievement" but it was the Merville General Store that was the focal point for encountering the outside world when he was growing up.

He recalls: "The postal address of the family farm on Nurmi Road was simply "Merville Post Office, British Columbia." Eli and Aili Nurmi (and son Bill) lived at the end of the road, and my parents bought the farm alongside it from the original owners. No one else lived on the road until much later -- after my parents built a new house out on the highway (other end of the property) and sold half the farm on Nurmi Road.

"We had to collect our mail from the Merville Store. I recall a hole in the wall, a bit of a shelf across the bottom of the hole, and a little room with a back wall made of small mail cubicles. The PO was run by whoever owned the Store at the time. When I was very young my mother's older sister and her husband were running the store and the PO, though I don't think for long. Actually, I think my grandfather Blakely owned it for that short while, but its ownership changed many times over the years of my growing up.

"For many years the Merville Store had one of the few telephones in the district. In an emergency you got there fast! I based a short story on the time my mother aimed a shotgun at the pheasant out in our field and it backfired, wounding her forehead, and I had to jump on my bike to ride down to the Store and phone for a doctor.

"My mother's parents raised six daughters and ran a dairy farm at the corner of the (old) Island Highway and the Kitty Coleman Road. It was never particularly good farming country, where so much clearing of forest was necessary, and then the picking of an endless supply of rocks that came to the surface every year. Our rock pile was eventually the size of a building. Most "farms" were "hobby farms" where logger families had milk cows and beef cattle, along with gardens and hay fields carved out of the bush.

"More recent arrivals in Merville have adopted and revived its early flavour with great enthusiasm. They have painted the never-before-painted Merville Hall, and moved the no-longer-used little Merville Anglican church up to beside the hall. Also, I think, with another historical shed of some kind. They throw big hall parties and advertise in a manner than emphasizes the "country quaintness" of the place."

Merville, B.C, was named after Merville France, familiar to returning Canadian World War I veterans who were invited to settle in the stump-ridden area. Their attempts at homesteading are the subject for Jack Hodgins' 1998 novel Broken Ground.

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Jack Hodgins is the eldest of the three children born to Stanley and Reta (Blakely) Hodgins. He was raised on the family farm on Nurmi Road in Merville and attended Tsolum School. His mother (1916-2004) wrote the local history, Merville: And Its Early Settlers 1919-1925 published in 1985 by the Merville Community Association. Jack Hodgins graduated with a B.Ed from the University of British Columbia and taught high school in Nanaimo between 1961 and 1981.

Encouraged by Earle Birney at UBC, Hodgins made a comet-like emergence with two audacious works of fiction, Spit Delaney's Island (1976), a light-hearted collection of stories that received the Eaton's Book Award, and The Invention of the World (1977), a magic realist novel that depicts the fictional Revelations Colony of Truth led by Donal Keneally, a religious leader inspired by the fraudulent occultist Edward Arthur Wilson, a.k.a. Brother XII.

"The Invention of the World ranks up there with The Diviners for me,"; says novelist Anne Cameron, who, along with Hodgins, was born in Nanaimo in 1938. "It made my personal reality visible and available to everyone. Somehow it no longer seemed quite the burden it had been to have been raised on this island, in Nanaimo, virtually cut off from the rest of the world.";

Hodgins then gained broad recognition on the Canadian literary map when he won the Governor General's Award for Fiction for his light-hearted novel, The Resurrection of Joseph Bourne (1979), celebrating a potpourri of characters in the coastal town of Port Alice. He later received the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize for Broken Ground (1998), a novelized tribute to the origins of Merville as a settlement for WWI soldiers and their families. Of his 14 books, his one non-fiction title is a A Passion for Narrative (1994).

Hodgins received the Canada-Australia Prize in 1986. In 2006, he was named the twelfth recipient of the George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award for an outstanding literary career in British Columbia. In that same year he received the Lieutenant Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. In 2009, he became a member of the Order of Canada. As the author of The Master of Happy Endings, he was named the winner of the 8th annual City of Victoria Butler Book Prize in 2011.

FULL ENTRY:

Jack Hodgins is the 12th recipient of the George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award [formerly Terasen Award] for an outstanding literary career in British Columbia. In the same year he also received the Lieutenant Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. In 2009, he became a member of the Order of Canada.

Born on October 3, 1938 in the Comox Valley, Jack Hodgins was raised on a 'stump ranch' at Merville, a former soldier settlement located between Courtenay and Campbell River on Vancouver Island. In 1999, Hodgins received the Ethel Wilson for Broken Ground, his long-in-gestation novel about the homesteading tribulations of an enclave of returned war veterans and their families. Upon accepting the Ethel Wilson Prize, he said, "I would like to express my gratitude for having been born to parents who spoke freely and openly, and at length, about their lives before I came into the world. I feel as though my own personal memory goes back at least twenty years before I was born. This came in very handy when writing a novel set in 1922... I'm glad I won because those of us that have been around a long time need reassurance every bit as much as newcomers."

In interviews, Jack Hodgins has frequently recalled he was raised in what seemed to be like a cultural backwater. "Growing up in Merville, I felt 'bush league' even in relation to people who lived in the nearby smalltown of Courtenay," he says. In this environment, where any literary aspirations as a male would have been suspect, Hodgins was insecure about announcing his love for storytelling and books beyond his family. "It wasn't until grade ten that I had a male teacher whose enthusiasm for literature was contagious," he says. He was nonetheless encouraged by his mother whose stock answer whenever he ran out of reading material was, "Well, go write your own." Although Hodgins likes to recall that literature during his childhood mostly consisted of the weekend colour comics--in which the strip Dogpatch was 'the closest anything in literature came to reflecting the world I lived in'--his mother Reta Hodgins later edited and published an excellent local history of the Merville area after he had left home.

At the University of British Columbia, Jack Hodgins was chiefly encouraged by Earle Birney. He later recalled, "The passion for writing stories was so powerful in me, that if I didn't learn what I needed to learn I would be doomed to write bad stories for the rest of my life." He married his Vancouver-born wife Dianne (neé Child) in 1960 and began teaching high school in 1961 in Nanaimo, hometown of novelist Anne Cameron, also born in 1938. Cameron and Hodgins would evolve a lasting affinity and mutual respect for one another's work even though their manners are contrary.

Jack Hodgins first gained broad recognition on the Canadian literary map when he won the Governor General's Award for Fiction for his light-hearted novel, The Resurrection of Joseph Bourne, celebrating a pot pourri of characters in the coastal town of Port Alice, but Hodgins is just as likely to be celebrated, in the long run, for his first collection of mostly comic short stories, Spit Delaney's Island. It received the Eaton's Book Award to kick-start his career. His first editor for that debut book of fiction was Douglas Gibson who would remain loyal to Hodgins for decades. "I think I was one of his first authors--maybe the first new author--for him to edit at Macmillan of Canada. I remember later asking Doug how he had the nerve to take a chance on me. He said, 'I showed them the piece written by Margaret Laurence praising your work and they said 'Oh well, If Margaret Laurence likes him work, then .....'' Does all of our personal and professional history hinge on such moments?"

For his audacious and fanciful first novel, The Invention of the World, winner of the Gibson's First Novel Award, Hodgins was influenced by the 'magic realism' of Gabriel Garcia Marquez' One Hundred Years of Solitude and other Latin American authors such as Jorge Amado and Varga Llosa. He also travelled to Ireland to glean the rhythms of Irish speech. "Frankly I don't know how I did it," he told Rebecca Wigod in 1981. "The Invention of the World was written in my daughter's bedroom. I rented it from her by the day when she was at school." Also set on Vancouver Island, this novel depicts the fictional Revelations Colony of Truth led by Donal Keneally, a religious leader inspired by the fraudulent occultist Edward Arthur Wilson, aka Brother XII, who absconded with the funds from his notorious Aquarian Foundation sect near Nanaimo.

"Invention of the World ranks up there with The Diviners for me," Anne Cameron has remarked. "It made my personal reality visible and available to everyone. Somehow it no longer seemed quite the burden it had been to have been raised on this island, in Nanaimo, virtually cut off from the rest of the world."

With three children, Hodgins remained teaching high school until 1979 when The Resurrection of Joseph Bourne won the nation's top fiction prize. His next collection of short stories, The Barclay Family Theatre, features a wide array of family-related characters, many of whom reappear in a later book, The Macken Charm. The latter title includes a gangling, Hodgins-like youth named Barclay Desmond who enters a talent contest and loses. Whereas the whimsical Barclay Family Theatre stories are mainly about a family that includes seven roguish girls, the more realistic Macken Charm is a novel about an ornery family that includes ten Macken brothers and one sister. The Barclays and Mackens are Vancouver Island families that intermarry.

After his fourth book, Hodgins turned his hand to a more conventional narrative for The Honorary Patron, a novel that follows the misadventures of a Vancouver Island-born art critic, Jeffrey Crane, as he is invited 'home' from his dignified retirement in Zurich to serve as an honorary patron for a Vancouver Island arts festival. It received a Commonwealth Writers Prize.

Ten new stories were presented in Damage Done by the Storm. In 'Balance,' the opening story, Monte works at Stanford Orthotics, restoring people's balance, but his own life is a little unstable. He's fallen in love with Donna Rossini-or rather, with a mold of her feet. "I raised the foot to my lips, and kissed, one after the other, all of her toes... I heard--so help me--the youthful sound of her laugh." Monte's foot fetish turns into an unlikely correspondence. It is a typical Hodgins' story, charmingly respectful of his characters' private and often insecure feelings.

After Hodgins received the Canada-Australia Prize in 1986 and visited Down Under, he set part of his next novel, Innocent Cities, in Australia. He subsequently returned to Australia and undertook a journey through the outback with Australian novelist Roger McDonald. They drove from Sydney to Canberra, west to Broken Hill, then north and west through Queensland, ending in Brisbane. Their visits to towns with names such as Gundagai, Cunnamulla and Booligal resulted in his spirited and highly praised travelogue about visits to sheepshearing stations, etc., entitled Over Forty in Broken Hill. Australia reappears in Hodgins novel Distance, the story of a successful Ottawa businessman, Sonny Aalto, who flies home to Vancouver Island to see his estranged, ailing father who has six months to live. The reluctant duo travel to the Australian outback to confront Sonny's long-lost mother, then it's back to Vancouver Island, where Sonny's father coaxes him on a final journey to Cape Scott at the north end of the island. In June of 2000, Jack Hodgins was keynote speaker at a conference of Australian teachers of writing, hosted by Griffiths University in Surfers Paradise, Queensland.

Having had a stint as Writer in Residence at Simon Fraser University in 1977, Hodgins took a similar position at University of Ottawa in the wake of his Governor General's Award. Hodgins later became a popular fixture in the Writing Department faculty at the University of Victoria, publishing a 'how-to' book at the urging of his longtime editor Douglas Gibson, and also travelling extensively as a writer on junkets to Australia, New Zealand, Japan, United States, Belgium, France, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Austria and Germany. He retired from teaching at the University of Victoria in 2002 but continued to conduct an annual writing workshop in Mallorca, Spain. He has also occasionally been a faculty member in the writing program at the Banff Centre for the Arts.

In June of 1995, the University of B.C. awarded him an honorary D.Litt for - according to the UBC Chronicle - bringing "renown to the university and the province as one of Canada's finest fiction writers and as an innovative stylist and distinguished academic." Always polite and affable, he has also received honorary degrees (D.Litt) from Malaspina University-College (1998) and University of Victoria (2004). He remains close friends with the critic W.H. (Bill) New, an ardent booster of his career, and his editor Douglas Gibson has remained involved in all of his books with the possible exception of Hodgins' one title for younger readers, Left Behind in Squabble Bay.

Jack Hodgins lives in Cadboro Bay, Victoria; his children and grandchildren reside in Victoria and Vancouver. He has been the subject of a National Film Board film, Jack Hodgins' Island, and a book, Jack Hodgins and His Work, by David Jeffrey. In 1996, Oolichan Press published a collection of essays on his work, titled On Coasts of Eternity, edited by J. R. (Tim) Struthers. Annika Hannan has edited a book of essays on Hodgins's work for Guernica Press in Toronto. In 1990, as part of its 75th anniversary celebration, the University of British Columbia's Alumni Society included him amongst the "75 most distinguished graduates" to be honoured with a plaque. In 1996 Hodgins was one of ten Canadian writers invited by the French Minister of Culture to be honoured at Les Belles Etrangers festival in Paris. In June of 1997 he taught a fiction workshop in Marburg, Germany. He has been a guest at an academic conference on Literatures of the Islands at the University of Strasbourg, France, and a guest of the Nordic Association of Canadian Studies in Turku, Finland. In 1999 he was elected to the Royal Society of Canada. Hodgins received the City of Victoria Butler Book Prize in 2011 for The Master of Happy Endings.

In his comic novel, Cadillac Cathedral (Ronsdale 2014), Jack Hodgins returns to the fictional town of Portuguese Creek, based on his upbringing in the small town of Merville. It's the charming story of a Finnish bachelor, a retired mechanic, who gets his hands dirty and his heart a 'flutter when he pulls an abandoned hearse out the woods, restores it and goes in search of his childhood love, Myrtle Birdsong. [See review below]

In 2014, Jack Hodgins recalled the origins for Cadillac Cathedral for the Nanaimo Daily News, as well as the day he received the news that his first story had been accepted for publication by the Northwest Review, a literary journal out of Portland:

"My father's father ran a farm where I grew up in Merville, and as a sideline he was a butcher. People would bring him their cows they wanted butchered for winter supply and he bought an ancient hearse to deliver the meat," he said with a chuckle. "People used to call them meat wagons, but his was, quite literally."

"... Our daughter remembers my getting that first acceptance letter. I had to drive down to the bottom of the hill to get our mail and she came with me, and she swears that when I opened that envelope, I did a cartwheel on the side of the road," he said with a chuckle. "Now, I know I've never done a cartwheel in my life, but I must have done something that made her think it was the equivalent, I was so excited. So that was the beginning, and that was just enough to make me think, 'OK, I'm not being a total fool here, I'm not wasting my life trying.'"

Theatre Inconnu in Victoria on Fernwood Street, across from the Belfry Theatre, produced Charles Tidler's adaptation of a short story by Jack Hodgins for Spit Delaney's Island in 2015, directed by Karen Lee Pickett. Spit Delaney is a steam locomotive operator at a pulp mill. After decades of rising at 4 am to fire up his beloved steam engine, Spit finds himself without this job when the pulp mill replaces "Old Number One"; with a modern diesel engine. Spit declares that he is: "Not sure of where or how I belong."; Spit's relationship with his family and the world around him is thrown in turmoil as he doggedly tries to hang onto an identity that is no longer relevant. This is the stuff of comedy, and yet it is also the stuff of the human condition. As we laugh at Spit's misguided struggle to stay the same, we empathize with his loneliness at being left behind while others move on - more readily adapting to a changing world. But there are magical forces at work here, guiding Spit - kicking and screaming - towards a deeper understanding of himself and an unexpected outcome.

BOOKS:

Cadillac Cathedral (Ronsdale 2014) $18.95 978-1-55380-298-3

The Master of Happy Endings. (Thomas Allen & Son, 2010). 978-0-88762-523-7 : $32.95

Damage Done by the Storm. (McClelland & Stewart, 2004). 0-7710-4152-7 : $32.99

Distance. (McClelland & Stewart, 2003). 0771041993 : $37.99

Broken Ground. (McClelland & Stewart, 1998).

The Macken Charm. (McClelland & Stewart, 1995).

A Passion for Narrative. (McClelland & Stewart, 1994).

Over Forty in Broken Hill. (McClelland & Stewart, 1992).

Innocent Cities. (McClelland & Stewart), 1990.

Left Behind in Squabble Bay. (McClelland & Stewart, 1988).

The Honorary Patron. (McClelland & Stewart, 1987).

The Barclay Family Theatre. (Macmillan, 1981). The Barclay Family Theatre (Ronsdale Press 2012) $18.95 ISBN 978-1-55380-144-3

The Resurrection of Joseph Bourne. (Macmillan, 1979).

The Invention of the World. (Macmillan, 1977); The Invention of the World (Ronsdale, 2010). 978-1-55380-099-6 $18.95.

Spit Delaney's Island. (Macmillan, 1976).

ALSO:

Jack Hodgins: Essays on his Work, edited by Annika Hannan (Guernica 2010)

On Coasts of Eternity: Jack Hodgins' Fictional Universe (Oolichan Books 1996). Edited by J.R. (Tim) Struthers.

[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2014] "Eaton's"