Swan inspired by historic hometown

Setting for author’s novel ‘The Western Light’ based on Midland

MIDLAND – It’s been said that you can never go home again, but internationally acclaimed writer Susan Swan is doing just that.

Swan, who was born and raised in Midland, is putting the final details on her next book, titled “The Western Light,” which uses her hometown as inspiration for the setting.

The story, a prequel to her 1993 bestselling novel “The Wives of Bath,” was inspired by several events she learned about as a child – including one involving her physician father.

“(He was) reputed to have saved the son of a lightkeeper out in the Western (Islands) whose boy got an attack of appendicitis,” she told The Mirrorfrom her home in Toronto. “The lightkeeper and his family couldn’t get to town because a storm had trapped them there, so my father told the lightkeeper he would walk him through the operation step-by-step over the ship-to-shore phone.”

Swan said she was always inspired by the story because she couldn’t imagine how someone could operate on his own son; she was also awed by her father’s unflappable nature.

Although the town in her novel is called Maddox Landing, Swan said Midland is the inspiration because she felt this area’s landscape is historically important.

“It’s laden with history and was a demanding and, one might say, harsh physical landscape in the days when my father was young that seemed to call for physical giants like my father. Brébeuf and Jesus even would fit right in to Simcoe County because it was a very challenging environment,” she said. “I was fascinated by the way it was tamed by the pioneers and men like my father.”

The story’s protagonist is Mary (Mouse) Bradford, who is seeking to find out more about her dad. Swan said the tale is also, in a way, about her own quest to understand her father, who died when she was 18.

John Pilkie, the ex-NHL character in the novel, was inspired by two real-life individuals: Johnny Gallagher, who helped the Detroit Red Wings win the Stanley Cup in 1937, but was admitted to the psychiatric hospital in Penetanguishene after suffering multiple head injuries; and Mel Wilkie, a mental patient who had murdered his wife and baby daughter.
“Wilkie was always escaping to draw attention to his case. In those days, there was no review board for mental patients the way there was for convicts. Once you were put in a psychiatric hospital, you pretty well stayed there until you died,” she said, adding her father looked after some of the patients and used to play tennis with one of them. “My father was a very compassionate man, but his job kept him from spending much time with our family when I was growing up.”

The story follows Mouse’s friendship with the man dubbed the Hockey Killer. “I am returning, in a way, to one of my favourite narrators,” she said, adding it is Mouse’s vulnerability that draws her back to the character. “She’d had polio as a kid and felt physically weak. John Pilkie, who she becomes friends with, is a marvellous athlete and skates across the ice in great swooping strides that Mouse wishes she could do. He inspires her, but he’s a dangerous man because he’s had this concussion and this troubled history.”

Swan, who returned to Midland in November as part of the International Festival of Authors, said she promised Huronia Museum curator Jamie Hunter that she will come back for a reading next year when the book is released. She said returning to Midland in the fall after so many years was both a haunting and moving experience. “It felt like I had one foot in the 1950s and one foot in the 21st century,” she said. “It’s like being in your imagination and in the real world at the same time.… It’s a slightly schizophrenic feeling, but it’s exciting.”

Swan began her writing career working summers as a reporter at The Midland Free Press. “The Western Light” will be published by Cormorant Press in the spring of 2013.

Article courtesy of simcoe.com


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