Trillium Book Award Author Readings June 16

Five Things Literary: Thunder Bay, with Joan Baril

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Joan Baril

As part of our mapping of literary Ontario, we're highlighting five things about literary life in communities throughout the province. What do our cities, towns and villages have to offer writers, readers and the curious? Follow Five Things Literary to find out.

Today's feature on literary life in Thunder Bay was contributed by Thunder Bay writer and blogger Joan Baril.


1. Thunder Bay is a city of 100,000 people entirely surrounded by forest. We call this wilderness the bush. Uncounted trails, thousands of lakes and hundreds of rivers have inspired our poets, painters, writers and musicians. The city unfolds itself along the greatest and most beautiful lake in the world, Lake Superior. The bush: our home and inspiration.

2. Sometimes newcomers to the city understand the bush as if by osmosis. Sheila Burnford, who was born and raised in the UK but moved to Thunder Bay in 1945, fell in love with the landscape and wrote several books with northern themes. Her masterpiece The Incredible Journey, the tale of three family pets lost in the wilderness, has never gone out of print. The novel generated four movies, most notably Homeward Bound: the Incredible Journey. Both the book and DVD have become classics enjoyed by children the world over.

3. The Sleeping Giant Writers Festival has arrived every August for the past seven years. Where else could you meet Arthur Black or Miriam Toews, or try to impress Antansas Seleika with the first page of your novel, or listen to a story by Alistair McLeod or hang out with Terry Fallis, Jeanette Lyons and others? You’ll get plenty of opportunity to chat with the presenters after the workshops or at the wonderful meals. The festival, the largest in northern Ontario, has become an addiction not only for northern writers but many visitors as well.

4. Chapters dominates but a few independents remain. The Northern Women’s Bookstore hosts many readings and launches. Owner Margaret Philips, a walking fountain of Can Lit information, encourages local authors and stocks their books, including the works of many Aboriginal writers. Few Canadians realize the Finnish population of Thunder Bay is second in number only to that of Helsinki. The Finn Book Store, with a small but interesting collection, offers the great Finn classics translated into English, including Under the North Star, the trilogy by Väinö Linna, and The Kalevala, the Finish national epic. In the children‘s books section The Moomins — beloved trolls created by the Tove Jansson — gambol across the shelves. Step across the street for a Finnish meal or sign up for a Finnish sauna.

5. As I write this, Thunder Bay author Charles Wilkins is rowing across the Atlantic with his team, trying to beat the former record. Charlie dug graves for a living, traveled with the circus, walked to New York and attempted to survive in the bush with minimum resources. His adventures became best-selling books and articles. His bestseller In the Land of the Long Fingernails (Penguin Canada, 2008) describes his hilarious experiences as a grave digger. The Wild Ride (McNally Robinson, 2009), a beautifully illustrated book about the Northwest Mounted Police, lays out the history of the west in Charlie’s precise and impeccable prose.


Joan Baril is a Thunder Bay writer who has had short stories published in Room, Other Voices, Ten Stories High (as second prize winner of the Canadian Authors’ Association, Niagara Branch, 2009 contest), The Copperfield Review (an American magazine specializing in historical work), The Artery and The Story Teller. She has also been published in Herizons, Canadian Forum, Off Our Backs, Status of Women News, The Northern Woman’s Journal, Hot Flash and Canadian Stories, and in the anthologies Thunder on the Bay and Rivers Running Free. For ten years she wrote columns in two local newspapers on women’s and immigrant issues.

For the latest on literary life in Thunder Bay, visit her blog Literary Thunder Bay.
Would you like to contribute five things about literary life in your community? Send an email with your ideas to [email protected]

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