Maritime voices: Alistair MacLeod

By Leah Rae

About 360 kilometres from downtown Halifax, on the west coast of Cape Breton Island, lies the tiny community of Dunvegan. Too small to be a town, Dunvegan is a fork in the road located between Inverness and Margaree Harbour. It was here, in a small, hand-built shed overlooking the Atlantic Ocean (with Prince Edward Island in the distance) that writer Alistair MacLeod spent his summer vacations. It was in this shed that he wrote some of the greatest short stories in the English language and his one and only novel No Great Mischief.

A handwritten first page of The Boat.

Front page of the manuscript for The Boat by Alistair MacLeod. © Estate of Alistair MacLeod.

Like many “Capers” before him, MacLeod spent his youth working as a miner and a logger. He used his income to pay for his education, earning both his undergraduate degree and teaching degree from St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. MacLeod spent his career as an English and creative writing professor at the University of Windsor in Ontario. Between the demands of being a full-time professor and a father to six children, he found it challenging to find time for his writing during the school year. However, during his summer vacations, he and his family returned to the family home in Dunvegan (named for Dun Bheagan on the Isle of Skye in Scotland) where he had the opportunity to focus on his writing. MacLeod’s work examines the daily struggles of the people of Cape Breton Island. What gives MacLeod’s writing its power and its majesty is its lyricism: MacLeod often read his work out loud as a way to perfect the cadence of each line. He was a slow and methodical writer, carefully considering every word. Although he produced a very small body of work in his lifetime, the quality of that work is outstanding.

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) is lucky to be the repository for the Alistair MacLeod fonds. In the early 2000s, LAC acquired about 4.5 metres of material (both textual and graphic) created by MacLeod in Ontario and in Nova Scotia. The material spans his career as both a writer and a teacher. The fonds includes manuscripts, correspondence, essays, thesis notes, clippings, photos of MacLeod and more.

A black-and-white photograph of a man sitting at a rough desk with paper and pen in hand.

Alistair MacLeod working in his writing shed in Dunvegan, Nova Scotia. © Chuk Clark.

Looking at MacLeod’s original manuscripts gives us a fascinating glimpse into his process as a writer. He was known in the Canadian literary community as a perfectionist, and you can see this is true in his manuscripts. The first draft of his short story The Boat is handwritten in an examination booklet from Notre Dame University (where MacLeod earned his PhD). If we look at the published version of the first paragraph of that story—perhaps one of the most beautiful paragraphs in English literature—it is nearly identical to the author’s draft version.

MacLeod continued the practice of handwriting his work throughout his career (a practice perhaps perceived by many writers today as very old fashioned!) He also wrote part of his manuscript for his novel No Great Mischief by hand. It is quite a special thing to see a work of this calibre written in long hand rather than as typewritten words on a page that we are so used to seeing nowadays. It gives you a very personal sense of MacLeod working diligently away during his few precious hours of free time, overlooking the beautiful cliffs of Cape Breton and the sea below.


Leah Rae is an archivist based in Halifax in the Regional Services and ATIP Division of Library and Archives Canada.

Word recognition: Governor General’s Literary Awards winners in LAC’s collection

By Sara Viinalass-Smith

The Governor General’s Literary Awards are one of Canada’s most prestigious suites of literary prizes, and the awards’ long history can shed light on the evolution of publishing, writing and reader tastes within Canada over the past eight decades. Created by the Canadian Authors Association and supported by prolific author and Governor General John Buchan, 1st Baron Tweedsmuir, the awards originated in 1937.  This year marks their 80th anniversary. At first honouring works of fiction and non-fiction, over the decades the awards have expanded to include, also, poetry, translation, drama and children’s literature in both French and English.

Since 1969 Library and Archives Canada (LAC) has been building a literary archives collection that includes the papers of many of the English- and French-language Governor General’s literary award winners, such as Robertson Davies, Marie-Claire Blais, Dionne Brand, Gabrielle Roy and Carol Shields. In examining their papers you can, for instance, track the life of an award-winning novel from the author’s original kernel of an idea, developed in notes and drafts, through heavily edited galley proofs and proposed cover art to review clippings and even the author’s invitation to the Governor General’s awards ceremony.

A yellowed black-and-white photograph of an officer in uniform.

Thomas Findley, the source of inspiration for Timothy Findley’s The Wars. (MIKAN 4933177)

The long path a work can take from idea to publication to recognition is well illustrated by Timothy Findley’s The Wars. Findley won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction in 1977 for his novel, which tells the story of a young Canadian soldier who enlists in the First World War. The protagonist of the novel was inspired in part by Findley’s uncle, Thomas Irving Findley. Contained within Findley’s archives is a family album of letters from the front written by Thomas Irving Findley to his relatives in Canada. The album also includes one of the few known photographs of Findley’s uncle, dressed in uniform. Findley used these records as source material for the development of the characters in The Wars. From the letters, you can trace how Findley used the thoughts, feelings and actions of his uncle to create the character of Robert Ross and his fictional, wartime experience. Findley’s research, notes, outlines and drafts show the evolution of the text, and a mock-up of the final cover art shows how the book was physically presented to its original audience. Reviews from the year of publication reveal the book’s initial reception by critics. Finally, scripts Findley wrote for radio and film adaptations of The Wars speak to the overwhelming success of the novel and show how he carried his beautifully crafted prose through to different genres.

To honour this milestone anniversary of the awards, the Canada Council for the Arts, which administers the awards, is hosting an exhibition in Ottawa entitled People – Places – Things: Reading GG Books. The exhibition celebrates the more than 700 winning titles from the awards’ history, the people who write them and the places where we read them. Archival records from LAC’s literary archives collection make up part of the exhibition. These include the photograph of Thomas Irving Findley, the first page of Gabrielle Roy’s handwritten manuscript of Ces enfants de ma vie (1977), and notes and a manuscript for the children’s book Pien (1996) by Michel Noël. The exhibition is on until February 24th.

Related resources


Sara Viinalass-Smith is a literary archivist (English language) in the Private Archives Branch at Library and Archives Canada.

Paws and reflect: the legacy of Margaret Marshall Saunders’s Beautiful Joe

By Alyssa Currie

The Story

Beautiful Joe is a bestselling children’s story written by Margaret Marshall Saunders. The novel describes the life of a mistreated dog who finds happiness when he is adopted by a kind family. It gives a voice to domestic animals by presenting the story from Joe’s perspective and stressing animal cruelty. Using the name Marshall Saunders, the author originally entered her story into a contest by the American Humane Society in 1893 and won first place. The text was published a year later and quickly became a bestseller, reportedly the first Canadian book to sell over a million copies.

Our collections include two photographs and two autographed postcards related to Beautiful Joe. These records are remarkable because they document the real-life inspiration for the story and its connection to Saunders’s animal advocacy efforts. The preface to Beautiful Joe reads:

BEAUTIFUL JOE is a real dog, and “Beautiful Joe” is his real name. He belonged during the first part of his life to a cruel master, who mutilated him in the manner described in the story. He was rescued from him, and is now living in a happy home with pleasant surroundings, and enjoys a wide local celebrity.

The character of Laura is drawn from life, and to the smallest detail is truthfully depicted. The Morris family has its counterparts in real life, and nearly all of the incidents of the story are founded on fact.

Margaret Marshall Saunders, Preface to Beautiful Joe

The Photographs

Margaret Marshall Saunders first encountered “Beautiful Joe” during a visit to her brother and his fiancé, Louise Moore, in Meaford, Ontario. Upon returning to her family home in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Saunders began writing, determined to share Joe’s story. Though Saunders based her novel on reality, she adapted elements of the story to suit her fictional setting. For example, the location was changed to an American town to suit the rules of the contest and appeal to American readers. Saunders also renamed the Moore family, who originally adopted “Beautiful Joe,” as the Morris family and introduced elements of her own family into their narrative.

Black-and-white photograph featuring Dr. Edward M. Saunders, standing on the front staircase of a three-story Victorian style house. Dr. Saunders is wearing a black clerical suit and a black hat. The photograph was taken from across a residential street.

The Saunders family residence in Halifax, Nova Scotia where Beautiful Joe was written (MIKAN 3305717)

Throughout the narrative, Saunders appears to model the Morris family after her own. This likeness is supported by a photograph of Dr. Edward M. Saunders donated by the author. A handwritten note, possibly from Margaret herself, on the reverse of the photograph reads:

Dr. Saunders original of Mr. Morris in “Beautiful Joe”

Black-and-white photograph of a middle-aged man sitting in an ornate chair with a small dog, possibly a Russell terrier, laying at his feet. The man is wearing a black clerical suit. Dark drapery and a potted plant appear in the right of the portrait. The back of the photograph includes a stamp from Gauvin & Gentzel Studio.

Dr. Edward M. Saunders, father of Margaret Marshall Saunders and inspiration for the character Mr. Morris in Beautiful Joe. Handwritten notes on the back of the photograph document its connection to Beautiful Joe (MIKAN 3220890)

The Postcards

Two recently described postcards from our literary archives further emphasize the story’s connection to reality and the enduring legacy; both postcards were printed years after the book’s original publication and signed by the author. The first postcard features a picture of the original “Beautiful Joe” and provides a visual counterpart for the story’s protagonist.

Black-and-white postcard featuring a photograph of a dark dog with no ears in a sitting position. The postcard is captioned “BEAUTIFUL JOE” and autographed in black ink, “Marshall Saunders, 1930.” The back of the postcard features a small picture of Margaret Marshall Saunders with the caption, “Marshall Saunders, author of the world famous book, ‘Beautiful Joe.’” The postcard has not been mailed.

Autographed postcard featuring the original “Beautiful Joe” who inspired the story (MIKAN 4921901)

As Beautiful Joe gained national and then international recognition, Saunders used its popularity to promote animal welfare. She collaborated with animal advocacy groups on campaigns, which in turn promoted the sale of her own literary works. A postcard issued by the Canadian Antivivisection Society demonstrates this reciprocal relationship; it features Saunders, with the caption, “Author of the world-famous book ‘BEAUTIFUL JOE.’” The author autographed the front of the postcard and signed the back:

“Please do not vivisect our dear dogs, Marshall Saunders.”

Black-and-white postcard featuring a photograph of a middle-aged woman wearing a lab coat and holding a small dog on her lap. The postcard is captioned, “Author of the world-famous book, ‘BEAUTIFUL JOE’” and autographed in black ink, “Yours truly, Marshall Saunders.” The back of the postcard reads “ISSUED BY THE CANADIAN ANTIVIVISECTION SOCIETY, 445A YONGE ST., TORONTO” and is signed by the author. The postcard has not been mailed.

Autographed postcard featuring Margaret Marshall Saunders, “Author of the world-famous book, ‘BEAUTIFUL JOE’” (MIKAN 4921902)

The Legacy

Saunders was a bestselling author by the time of her death on February 15, 1947. Later that year, the Government of Canada recognized her accomplishments by naming her a “Person of National Historical Significance.” Over a century has passed since Margaret Marshall Saunders wrote Beautiful Joe, but still her legacy remains.

Related resources:


Alyssa Currie is a master’s student from the University of Victoria working in the Literature, Music, and Performing Arts Archives Section at Library and Archives Canada.

Library and Archives Canada releases its latest podcast episode, “Guardians of the North: Comic Books in Canada”

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) is releasing its latest podcast episode, Guardians of the North: Comic Books in Canada.

You don’t have to go far to see the influence that comic books have had on contemporary culture, but you might be surprised to learn that LAC holds an extensive collection of comic books and related material within its vaults. In this episode, we speak with comic book historians Hope Nicholson and Rachel Richey about their work and LAC’s role in it. We also talk to special collections librarian Meaghan Scanlon who takes us deep into the comic book collection, and tells us what can be found there and online.

Subscribe to our podcast episodes using RSS or iTunes, or just tune in at Podcast–Discover Library and Archives Canada: Your History, Your Documentary Heritage.

For more information, please contact us at podcasts@bac-lac.gc.ca.

PS 8000 collection of early 20th-century digitized Canadiana

To mark Canada Book Day, we take a closer look at the PS 8000 collection of early 20th-century Canadian publications available in the Electronic Collection of Library and Archives Canada. PS 8000 is the standard classification for Canadian literature, one of the core strengths of our holdings.

To browse this collection

• Click “Search the Electronic Collection” on the left side of the screen
• Choose “Any keyword” from the drop-down menu in the first search box
• Enter “PS 8000” in the second field as the search term

This search produces a list of pre-1926 Canadian publications that have been digitized and are accessible online. Other key terms can be used to further refine the search (e.g. world war and poetry).

Figure 1: Search screen for Electronic Collection

Figure 1: Search screen for Electronic Collection

For other online resources, consult our blog articles on how to find digitized publications Part I and Part II.

Also, explore our Flickr album for a selection of cover images of these publications.