River John - The ruts on the unpaved Gunn Road in Welsford threaten to shake your teeth loose but it is a passing inconvenience for Linda Little.
A writer and co-founder of River John’s Read By the Sea, Little is more focused on community and personal accomplishments this spring.
“We’ll be having our 15th Read by the Sea this summer. In the beginning there were only three of us with a big dream. Now we have a committee to share the work and a track record for attracting wonderful authors to our festival,” she said.
The impetus for the festival was born as three book-loving friends, Hazel Felderhof, Susan Sellers and Little, lamented, and not for the first time, why “Halifax gets everything.”
“We wondered if we could possibly have a festival of writers in River John.”
Alistair MacLeod, who had just published his internationally acclaimed novel “No Great Mischief,” topped their dream list of authors they would like to attract. They took their idea to Linda Arsenault, then a librarian with the Pictou Antigonish Regional Library.
“Linda taught us our first big lesson. If you want somebody, just ask and see what happens,” said Little.
Brushing away tears, Little remembered meeting MacLeod in the parking lot of the River John Legion on the morning of the festival.
“We were like a gaggle of school girls waiting when he and his wife, Anita, drove up in a big boat of a car. He was so generous in coming, he got our festival off the ground.”
MacLeod, who died earlier this week, was to be buried in Broad Cove today.
“None of us will forget that first festival. For four days we listened to the forecast and every day it was rain for Saturday. Then Saturday broke with a beautiful blue sky. It was a warm, clear, sunny day with 300 people in the field listening and, as Alistair read, the only sound was the sheep bleating in the next field.”
This spring also marks the publication of “Grist,” Little’s third novel. Like her previous novels, Strong Hollow and Scotch River, it is set on Nova Scotia’s rural north shore but in an earlier time. Teacher Penelope MacLaughlin becomes the wife of a taciturn miller who designs and builds a grist mill on the Gunn Brook. He turns out to be less than she’d hoped and it falls to her to operate the mill to keep her family going.
Penelope, as a character, existed for a while in the earlier novel, Scotch River, but most of her story was edited out.
“At the time I thought I was lucky to be left with her story. I actually thought I had a free book but somehow it took me eight years to write this novel.”
As a high school student in the Ottawa Valley, Little was considered a good composition writer but she never foresaw a future as a writer. Instead she went to Newfoundland to earn a degree in history but after five years she and her partner wanted to settle somewhere new.
“British Columbia was too expensive, the Prairies were too flat and I didn’t want to go back to Ontario. There was the language issue in Quebec, we didn’t know much about New Brunswick and P.E.I. was another island so that left Nova Scotia. I liked the sound of River John, we found a place we could afford and we started farming.”
The milk cows and small cream quota are gone now, 27 years later, as are the laying chickens, but they still raise a few turkeys and plant a big garden.
“The small mixed farm was already on the way out when we arrived but now it is a thing of the past, like chick day at the Co-op, and the Co-op is gone, too. We wonder what is happening to our rural communities but government, with its marketing boards and faux health concerns, has undermined the rural community.”
Despite those frustrations, the rural area remains Little’s greatest inspiration.
“I like the landscape and the people and the pace. I’ve learned one of the great things about a rural area is that you can have almost anything you want as long do it yourself.”
When she began writing, her goal was to produce a series of linked short stories.
“I never imagined writing novels. I couldn’t really see putting that much time and effort into something that might never be published. I was at least two-thirds of the way through my first novel before I realized it was a novel,” she said.
Struggling to tell her own stories makes Little all the more receptive to other writers.
“Read By the Sea has attracted such a variety of authors over the years that it constantly opens my mind to new ideas and styles. The festival is always changing and this year we’re going to have an East Meets West discussion with three great authors from the east and three great authors from western Canada. I can hardly wait for it.”
Read by the Sea takes place July 12 at Memorial Garden Royal Canadian Legion, River John.
Rosalie MacEachern is a Stellarton resident and freelance writer who seeks out people who work behind the scenes on hobbies or jobs that they love the most. If you have someone you think should she should profile in an upcoming article, she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org