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August in winter


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Guy Vanderhaeghe

McClelland and Stewart

When it came to the last lap of his powerful new novel, August Into Winter, Guy Vanderhaeghe thought he knew all there was to know about the predatory monster that stalks its 472 pages.

But then his editor at McClelland & Stewart told him that this nightmare creation reminded him of Donald Trump. “And he had to agree,” Vanderhaeghe says now.

Among other things, this best-selling writer’s first novel in a decade is an explosive thriller set in a bleak time in history, beginning in the last days of peace before the outbreak of war in 1939 and ending weeks later, the Day of Remembrance, with near biblical confrontation amid a devastating snowstorm in Saskatchewan. This is a novel in which the elements of nature run rampant both at the beginning and at the end.

There is also a love story here, as well as meditations on war, resilience, and the fragility of truth in a society fueled by lies. “But I always wanted the book to have momentum because I was quickly discovering that this would be the longest novel I’ve ever written,” Vanderhaeghe acknowledges with a smile.

This impulse would come from the book’s fascinating account of the search for a vicious young sociopath named Ernie Sickert, whose murder of an RCMP officer in storm-bathed rural Saskatchewan unleashes gruesome violence. Ernie is a narcissistic, self-absorbed fantasist, enraged against a system that always misunderstands and misrepresents him, and is obsessed with the impressionable 12-year-old who is enshrined in his mind as the love of his life. In the novel, Ernie sometimes seems like a grotesque cosmic joke cruelly imposed on a society struggling to emerge from a depression even when faced with the reality of another war.


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“In fact, I believe that evil is a presence in the world,” Vanderhaeghe says bluntly. “And there is often a buffoon about really horrible and dangerous people. There may be some laughter and almost pathetic in them. So we have those elements in Ernie, but that doesn’t make him any less dangerous. In a way, his narcissism, his vanity, and his fantasies make him terribly dangerous, so he’s kind of like Trump. “

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Vanderhaeghe, now 70, has won three Governor General’s Awards for walking his own distinctive fictional path. “To some extent, I have a history of using shapes that are considered ‘gender’ and then twisting them a bit,” she says from her home in Saskatoon. “It may seem pretentious of me to say this, but I think there is something about genre fiction that I think literary fiction sometimes ignores at its own peril, and that is a sense of advancement.”

But this would also provide the basis for the examination of other concerns. “At least in my opinion, you can still ask questions about how all sorts of things are negotiated: political issues, political changes, how an individual acts in broader social and historical circumstances.”

The novel also reminds us of the fragile veneer of civilization, beginning and ending with fierce weather assaults that tear apart a world whose modern safeguards we can foolishly take for granted. Vanderhaeghe has dedicated the book to his parents, “who weathered fifteen years of drought, depression and war without giving in to despair or losing sight of what really matters.”


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Such themes feature in the effect that Ernie Sickert’s deadly strip has on three main characters. Vidalia Taggart is a disgraced Winnipeg teacher who seeks to rebuild her life in a foreign rural culture, her only consolation being the diaries of a lover who died fighting for the left in the Spanish Civil War. Oliver and Jack Dill are two brothers, both emotionally scarred from World War I, who lead a manhunt in the middle of a world that has been essentially closed due to bad weather conditions.

The novel’s seed was planted 60 years ago when 10-year-old Guy and his mother visited the RCMP Museum in Regina. “I remember seeing this creepy display – a Stetson RCMP with a big dent and a hammer next to it.” These objects were memorabilia from the murder of an RCMP officer in Vanderhaeghe’s hometown around the outbreak of the war. At that time, there was only one RCMP officer serving the community “so when she was killed, according to my father, a group of World War I veterans formed to hunt down the murderer.”

Vanderhaeghe, whose career began spectacularly with the publication of Man Descending in 1982, remained haunted for decades by this story of World War I veterans in search of a murderer. But it wasn’t until the 1960s that he decided to use it as inspiration for a novel.

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“I used to say to my creative writing students: if they have an idea that is bothering them, maybe I want them to write it down. So I guess that was my impetus to start this book (but) things can leak for a long time. “


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So he finally found himself tapping into the royal past with August Into Winter. But unlike the troubled real-life killer from the story, Ernie Sickert is far scarier. As for Donald Trump, well, Vanderhaeghe now realizes that he was dealing with “a kind of Trump obsession” when he was working on the later stages of the novel.

At the time, he didn’t think he was consciously modeling Ernie on Trump, “but now that he’s been pointed out to me, he at least looks like Trump. Ernie feels sorry for himself. Anything that happens to him is someone else’s fault, and he projects his fantasies the way Trump does, just thinking that if something is true for him, it really makes it true, so yeah, there are very strong similarities. ” .

This veteran author likes to be surprised when a new story begins.

“I never want things to be too solid because if they are planned, I lose what I call the adventure of writing,” he explains. “I am less prone to happy accidents.”

Still, you can be ruthless if you think you’ve started off wrong. You can have 250 pages in a book only to find yourself so unhappy with the way it goes that you start over. “Writing for me in some way is always learning to write again,” he says simply. “That’s because every book I write demands something different.”

– Jamie Portman



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