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Elinor Florence (Company name) Elinor Florence

Writing Retreat at the Wallace Stegner House

The historic Wallace Stegner House in Eastend, Saskatchewan is my home for the month of June, and this heritage home is just filled with charm and atmosphere.

The Wallace Stegner House is a traditional two-story house with four gables, enclosed front porch, covered with clapboard siding painted light green, surrounded by green grass

Welcome to Letters From Windermere, a monthly blog in which I write about:

  • HISTORY: mostly Western Canada history, plus anything else that interests me.
  • WRITING: behind-the-scenes info about my next historical novel.
  • BOOKS: I recommend a good book every month.

Imagine my delight when I was chosen as the 2024 recipient of the Wallace Stegner Grant for the Arts.

The award consists of a cash bursary and a free one-month stay at the Wallace Stegner House in Saskatchewan, administered by the Eastend Arts Council.

Since I was allowed to choose the month, naturally I chose June. That is the loveliest month on the prairies (or indeed, anywhere in Canada).

But who was Wallace Stegner? And why is this house named after him? He isn’t exactly a household name in Canada.

Stegner was an American Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, environmentalist and historian, often called “the dean of Western writers” because he wrote so glowingly about the West.

By all accounts, he was kind, intelligent and passionate.

Head and shoulders portrait of a distinguished-looking man with white hair and eyeglasses, wearing open-necked shirt and Fair Isle cardigan, looks off to one side with a kindly smile

* * * * *

Stegner’s Childhood

Wallace Stegner had a very strong connection to Eastend, Saskatchewan. Born in Iowa in 1909, Wallace spent what he later called his formative years here in Saskatchewan, from age five to eleven.

Wallace came here in 1914 with his parents George and Hilda and his older brother, Cecil. His parents homesteaded south of Eastend — the boundary of their homestead was the border between Montana and Canada. They spent their summers on the homestead and their winters in town, where George built this house, now called the Wallace Stegner House, in 1917.

This photograph of Wallace and his mother hangs upstairs on the landing.

Black and white photo of young, sweet-faced but solemn woman with fluffy chignon and high-collard dark dress holding little fair-haired boy on her lap, wearing a ribbed corduroy jacket with large buttons

Sadly, the homestead failed. Like so many others, the Stegners left to seek their fortune elsewhere.

Although Wallace’s years in Eastend were happy ones, he grew up in a troubled home. George Stegner was an abusive man given to bouts of violent rage. After leaving Eastend, he moved his wife and two sons more than fifteen times during the following years, sometimes abandoning them for long periods of time. In 1939, he killed a woman who was his mistress and then shot himself.

Wallace’s mother was gone by then, dead of breast cancer in 1933 at the age of fifty. His brother Cecil had succumbed to pneumonia two years earlier at the age of 24.

* * * * *

Stegner marries Mary Page

Fortunately for Wallace, he found the love of his life while they were attending the University of Iowa. A year after his mother’s death, he married Mary Stuart Page and their marriage lasted until his death 59 years later. This is the bride and groom on their wedding day.

Black and white photo of young couple, a tall man in a white suit, smiling at the camera, and a woman with shoulder-length dark hair and a simple knee-length white dress with long sleeves, looking rather solemnly at the ground

Mary deliberately chose to set aside her own ambitions and nurture Wallace’s talent.

Stegner once described Mary like this: “She has had no role in my life except to keep me sane, fed, housed, amused, and protected from unwanted telephone calls. Also to restrain me fairly frequently from making a horse’s ass of myself in public, to force me to attend to books and ideas from which she knows I will learn something; also to mend my wounds when I am misused by the world . . .”

They had one son, Page. Now deceased, Page was also a novelist and historian who wrote about the American West. He married another writer, Lynn Stegner, who carries on the Stegner legacy. They had three children.

* * * * *

Stegner Becomes Writer

In spite of his humble beginnings, Stegner graduated with a doctorate from the University of Iowa and went on to establish the Creative Writing Program at Stanford University in California, where he remained for 26 years until his retirement. He also wrote thirty books of fiction and non-fiction.

Angle of Repose, the novel for which he won the Pulitzer, is historical fiction, describing the long marriage between a Western mining engineer and his cultured Eastern-born wife. The title is a metaphor, referring to the steepest angle at which sand or rocks can be piled without slumping—much like a marriage eventually finds its own centre of balance.

There’s a first edition of the novel, along with copies of Stegner’s other books, in the bookshelf on the upstairs landing.

Woman's hand holds copy of hard cover book, aqua in colour with gold title reading Angle of Repose, rows of books on a shelf in background

* * * * *

Stegner Returns to Eastend

In 1955 Stegner made his way back to Eastend for the first time. Following that visit he wrote the book that Canadians are most familiar with: Wolf Willow.

He called it “A History, a Story, and a Memory of the Last Plains Frontier.” The history is that of the country around the Cypress Hills, the story is a fictional tale of cowboys and cattle in the terrible winter of 1906, and the memory is the author’s nostalgic account of his boyhood in the town he calls Whitemud. The book is dedicated to his mother.

Perhaps nobody has ever described this landscape so well.

“Over the segmented circle of earth is domed the biggest sky anywhere, which on days like this sheds down on range and wheat and summerfallow a light to set a painter wild, a light pure, glareless, and transparent.”

This stunning photograph appears on the Wallace Stegner House website.

Golden green grass fills the bottom third of this panorama, while huge white clouds tower against a brilliant blue sky in the upper two-thirds of the photograph taken near Eastend, Saskatchewan.

Stegner wrote that he recaptured his childhood memories with the scent of wolf willow. This pretty silver shrub grows everywhere on the prairies, and was a familiar sight where I grew up near Battleford, Saskatchewan.

Here it grows thickly along the banks of the Frenchman River, which winds through the town of Eastend.

Mass of shrubs with pointed silvery leaves stand in a meadow of green grass, on the banks of the Frenchman River

This is my copy of Wolf Willow, one of my favourite books. I own several copies.

Please consider Wolf Willow as my Book of the Month recommendation!

Wolf Willow by Wallace Stegner, paperback book cover is solid shamrock green, with illustration of wild horses streaming across the lower third of the cover below the title

* * * * *

Stegner Loved the Wilderness

As his fame as a writer grew, Wallace was willing, and able, to use his position to highlight environmental concerns.

In 1960, he wrote his famous Wilderness Letter on the importance of federal protection of wild places. This letter was used to introduce the Wilderness Act, which established the National Wilderness Preservation System in 1964.

Stegner wrote: “Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed; if we permit the last virgin forests to be turned into comic books and plastic cigarette cases; if we drive the few remaining members of the wild species into zoos or to extinction; if we pollute the last clear air and dirty the last clean streams and push our paved roads through the last of the silence . . . ”

Through his conservation efforts, he became acquainted with Robert Redford, who narrated a one-hour documentary made by PBS.

Watch it here: Wallace Stegner: A Writer’s Life.

* * * * *

Wallace Stegner House Saved

It wasn’t until 1989 that writer Sharon Butala spearheaded an effort to restore and renovate the old house.

Butala herself is an accomplished writer who has written 22 books of fiction and non-fiction. She moved with her husband Peter Butala to his ranch south of Eastend in 1976.

In 1996 they donated some of their land to the Nature Conservancy of Canada and it is now part of the 13,000-acre Old Man On His Back Prairie and Heritage Conservation Area.

Her husband died in 2007, and Sharon now lives and writes in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

The Wallace Stegner House was dedicated as a Heritage Site in 1990, and is operated by the volunteers of the Eastend Arts Council.

Thank you, Sharon, for saving this wonderful old house.

And thank you as well to the Eastend Arts Council volunteers who lovingly care for the Stegner House and make it available to people like me!

Attractive middle-aged woman with chin-length brunette hair and horn-rimmed glasses, wearing bright red lipstick and royal blue sweater, smiles at the camera while seated on an armchair holding a white mug in her right hand

* * * * *

Inside the Wallace Stegner House

The Wallace Stegner House is cozy and charming. The main floor has a living room, dining room, and small but modernized kitchen, with an extra tiny bedroom tucked in the lean-to on the back of the house.

Many of the home’s original features are here: the hardwood floors, the windows, the front door, the staircase, and the verandah.

The living room in the Wallace Stegner House is a spacious room with two purple sofas facing each other, a glass-topped wooden coffee table in the centre, an oval braided rug on the floor, a large window with a smaller leaded glass window running across the top, and in the background a door with an oval window covered with a sheer curtain, and the bannister of a wooden staircase

The dining room in the Wallace Stegner House is a bright sunny room with an oval wooden table bearing a red glass vase filled with flowers and four chairs standing on an oval braided rug, a wooden buffet against the wall with mirror above, two pictures hanging on either side, and two windows with wooden frames on the right hand side of the room

There’s also a small kitchen table overlooking the side yard where I ate my porridge with brown sugar and milk, probably in the exact place young Wallace used to sit, eating the same thing for breakfast!

The Wallace Stegner House kitchen has a small wooden table underneath a window bearing a red printed placemat, a white bowl of porridge with milk and sugar, a red glass vase filled with yellow and pink flowers, and a copy of a book shows a sepia photograph of a white-haired man and the title "Wallace Stegner: His Life and Work"

Up a very narrow, steep staircase is a bedroom, a study, and a bathroom.

Here’s the front bedroom where I sleep, overlooking the street.

The Wallace Stegner House has a small bedroom with bed covered with red and white flowered quilt, a dresser with mirror against the wall bearing a clear glass vase filled with lilacs, and a wooden chair, with a white-framed window on another wall

On the landing is a narrow bookcase filled with Stegner’s books, plus many other interesting volumes. Some of them have been left behind by previous writers who stayed in the house.

I will donate a copy of Bird’s Eye View, since my book’s heroine is from Saskatchewan.

I wish I were on a Reading Retreat instead of a Writing Retreat!

The Wallace Stegner House has a small landing at the top of the stairs with hardwood floor illuminated with patch of sunshine, braided rug, white wall with built-in ceiling-height bookshelf filled with books, and an open door showing a portion of a double bed covered with red and white flowered quilt

Across the landing is the second bedroom, which has been turned into a study where I am currently spending most of my time.

This was the bedroom where Wallace and his brother slept.

Wallace Stegner House study has a wall of shelves holding piles of magazines, books, and a photograph of Wallace Stegner, above a long desk where a large desktop computer sits beside a brass lamp with a beige shade; on the floor is a brightly-patterned red and blue carpet, and a gold and brown print armchair with wooden arms and a matching covered footstool. On the far wall are two windows overlooking green grass and leafy green branches.

* * * * *

Does Wallace still visit?

The house is very creaky and as I was lying in bed one night, I heard a curious intermittent thumping from the study.

I immediately recalled an interview Wallace gave to the Washington Post, in which he told the reporter that he intended to haunt his childhood home, “just to keep track of what’s going on.”

In the morning I discovered that the window was slightly open and the breeze (it is often windy here) caused the blind to rattle against the window frame!

Honestly, I would not mind staying in a home being haunted by Wallace Stegner.

I sometimes feel his presence, in the way that all old homes carry something of their previous inhabitants.

* * * * *

Wallace Stegner House Residency

Since 1990, more than 300 writers and artists have stayed here, finding inspiration inside these walls while gazing out onto the last remaining grasslands in North America.

They have come not only from Canada but from international locations. Next month, an artist from Rhode Island in the United States will take my place here.

The guest book is filled with rave reviews from visitors who fell in love both with this part of the world. A few of them have even bought houses here in Eastend!

In my case, the house is giving me exactly what I need: time and space to think, surrounded by the comforts of the home and the sweeping vistas all around me.

I’m working on a variety of projects including my manuscript, my new website, and of course, Letters From Windermere.

If you are a writer or an artist, and you would like to spend a month in quiet reflection, applications are due September 1, 2024 for the following year.

Read more and apply online here: Wallace Stegner House Residency Program.

Each writer or artist is expected to do one public event. I am giving my Bird’s Eye View talk at the Eastend Public Library tomorrow at 7 p.m., Thursday, June 20.

And I’m giving the same talk at the museum in Shaunavon, Saskatchewan at 1 p.m. on June 26, 2024.

If you can attend either (or both) of these events, I would love to see you there!

* * * * *

Thank You, Osborn Howes

Last month, I sailed on the Queen Mary 2 as part of a writing voyage, where I met a lovely woman, fellow writer Andrea Eschen, who is working on a historical novel based on her grandfather’s life in Chicago. When she heard about my wartime novel Bird’s Eye View, she bought a copy for her old friend — to be exact, he turned 101 years old on June 1, 2024!

She shared this photo of Osborn Howes, who lives in San Rafael, California. Ozzie said it was one of the best books he’s ever read and that it was clear that I had invested a lot of time into the research. He said: “I’ve been sleepless for three nights.”

That is high praise coming from a Second World War veteran who flew a Mustang in the Royal Air Force. Thank you so much, Osborn Howes.

And most importantly, thank you for your contribution to the Allied victory!

Very elderly white-haired man named Osborn Howes wearing blue shirt, a pipe between his teeth, reading a book with a blue and red cover, Bird's Eye View

* * * * *

Friends, because there is so much to see and do in this part of the world, next month I will tell you about the town of Eastend and the beautiful environment of southwestern Saskatchewan. Please watch for my next Letter From Windermere on the third Wednesday of the month, which will be July 17, 2024.

Until then, go outside and enjoy the warm summer sunshine.

With deepest affection, Elinor

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