The Willer with a Giller (groan)

TLDR: Will Ferguson writes really, really, really good books – fiction and non-fiction. Check out the full list of titles on goodreads here: https://www.goodreads.com/author/list/21042.Will_Ferguson and find out more about the man, the myth, the press schedule here: https://www.willferguson.ca/

Somewhere around 1998 I was browsing through the downtown Edmonton library and came across a title that grabbed me: I Was a Teenage Katima-victim. As only Canadians of a certain age would have a clue what this referred to, I felt like this little trade paperback was the ultimate “had to be there” in book form. By the end of the day I had read it cover to cover, truly laughing out loud and thrilled by that sense of familiarity. Until that moment, when I read books or watched movies I always felt the urge to pull out my atlas afterwards to see where the events took place. (Before Google Maps we had these picture books called atlases where you would have to use a letter/number combo to find the general vicinity of what you were looking for and then stare at the square for awhile to find it. And then it was just a dot or a line on the page).

But this book talked about places and things I had actually seen. It talked about southern BC and Alberta. And although I had not yet been to Quebec, at least I knew something about it. It knew about Canadian government bureaucracy and well-meaning, if not always well-executed, social programs. It knew the world in which I grew up. Katimavik was a youth work program in the 1980s that would send you to all parts of Canada to work in return for room and board, experience, and the thrill of travel. I was a bit too young to participate, but I remember the commercials on TV for it and it being discussed in my home at a time when my recently graduated brother wore a trucker hat with “UIC Ski Team” embroidered on it. Work in rural communities was scarce in the early 80s, especially those reliant on resource extraction (which is pretty much all of them).

Although not his first book, this was my first acquaintance with the words of Canadian author Will Ferguson, and it was love at first sight. My exposure to Canadian Lit at that point in my life was limited to the Anne of Green Gables series and Pierre Burton’s The Secret World of Og. I had just about the only Grade 12 English teacher that did not assign The Handmaid’s Tale. This was one of my first experiences with an author that was of my generation, of my country, and even of the 10% of Canadians that did not grow up within 100 miles of the US border. He was Gen X of the North, just like me.

It took me over 20 years to get my very own copy of that first book – I looked for it online, in used book stores, at garage sales, nothing. Finally, in 2020, I was able to find a copy on an out of print book site, and although I am dying to read it again I haven’t yet dared to remove the plastic wrapping on it. My precious…

I had the opportunity to meet Mr. Ferguson at a book signing of his novel The Shoe on the Roof here in Calgary a few years ago, and in a tumble of gushing babble that I’m sure mortified the Hub I told him about Katimavik being my favourite of his books. He was astonished – not because it is not his best work, admittedly, but because of it being relatively unknown. Thus the inscription:

If this post should somehow become known to you, I finally found a copy. Yay! indeed, Will!

Mr. Ferguson has an interesting and broad variety of writings, ranging from travel memoir to Canadian history to his novels. His non-fiction reads like the best of fiction – with humour, poignancy, and humanity. His fiction works are full of history and specific details that make them feel as true to life as the non-fiction. His Giller prize winning novel 419 starts with a man driving on a Calgary road that was instantly recognizable to me, having driven it hundreds of times myself. And from that moment, understanding exactly the curves and hills he was driving, I was all in on this story.

While it is incredibly difficult to choose amongst things you love, here are my top 5 favourites of Will’s books, along with a brief description. I’ve purposely excluded “my precious” as although I can intellectually acknowledge it’s not as well written as his later books (we do all get better with practice), I can’t actually bring myself to rank it anywhere but the top.

My personal collection, with the exception of Happiness which was upstairs and I was too lazy to go fetch for the photo.
  1. Road Trip Rwanda – Non-Fiction. I had read Shake Hands with the Devil by General Romeo Dallaire a few years before this book came out. Dallaire’s account of the Rwandan genocide is agonizing and infuriating, as it well should be; helplessness in the face of evil and the global indifference that gave it free reign weeps from every page. Road Trip Rwanda manages to re-examine the events through the softer lens of time, and with the added balm of friendship and yes, even humour. Will recounts his travels around Rwanda with his friend, Jean-Claude Munyezamu, a Rwandan immigrant to Canada who escaped just before the genocide and whom Will met as a fellow soccer dad. (See what I mean about relatability). It is poignant and painful without pathos, amusing yet respectful to the subject matter, and emerges somehow with both optimism and realism in tact.
  2. The Shoe On the Roof – Fiction. Although 419 won Ferguson the Giller Prize for Canadian Fiction (and deservedly so) my favourite of his novels is this one – and not just because the man himself signed it for me. His novels are not remotely similar in terms of subject matter, but thematically they’re related by unusual premises. I think all of his book jacket synopses could start with the question, “What would happen if…” followed by a premise that appears a bit far fetched at first glance but upon further exploration really isn’t so far from reality. Example: What would happen if you took 3 mentally ill individuals that all suffered the same delusion – that they are Jesus Christ – removed them from the controlled clinical environment and brought them face to face. Shouldn’t this make them question their delusion, as there can’t be 3 Christs in the same place? Or can there be?
  3. Beyond Belfast – Non-Fiction. I didn’t know much about Northern Ireland beyond “The Troubles” – and not much about that either. A vague idea of Catholics versus Protestants and somehow being part of the UK instead of Ireland. Lots of headlines in the late 70s and 80s about the IRA. A couple of so-so movies, and a couple of good ones. In this travel/memoir/historical account, Will sets out to walk the entire Ulster Way, a 560 mile trail that circles almost the entirety of Northern Ireland. The setting serves as backdrop to his own ancestral history, the history of the region, and the present trials and tribulations of walking 560 miles around a country. I’m repeating myself, but Ferguson has a way of maintaining perfect equilibrium between sad histories and hilarious anecdotes. All of his books should come with a subtitle that simply says: Laugh, Cry, Learn, Relate.
  4. 419 – Fiction. What would you do if you were able to track down a scam artist that destroyed someone you loved? What would that even look like? In the past few weeks I’ve had a couple of conversations with strangers – one who received a scam call that was disguised with my phone number, and one where it was their number that was used and I was the potential scam-ee. Somehow they manage to use real cell numbers now to appear on a call display and mask a call that would be “unknown” or have an actual number. Infuriating, even when all they manage to get from you is a few minutes of your time. What if they took your life savings? What if they took someone you loved? 419 asks and answers these questions – but the answers are not as simple as you may think. 419 adds an element of intrigue and “thriller” to his usual recipe, and it’s very, very good.
  5. Tie – Canadian Pie and Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw – Non-Fiction – Both books are anthologies of anecdotes and stories bringing the history/memoir/present day combo back home to Canada. Moose Jaw is the older of the two and has a slight edge on title alone.
Will Ferguson & Jean-Claude Munyezamu discussing Road Trip Rwanda – watch this and you’ll get an inkling of why this is my favourite in the Ferguson collection

Honourable Mention: Hokkaido Highway Blues also published as Hitching Rides with Buddha – Non-Fiction. This may have ranked higher but it’s been a long time since I read it. Another walking quest, Will sets out to hitchhike from one end of Japan to the other. A snapshot of the beauty and culture of Japan along with his reminiscences of living there, teaching English, and meeting his wife.

Honourable Mention 2: Happiness – Fiction. A hilariously quirky novel that poses the question – what would happen if someone wrote a self help book that actually worked? This isn’t a sinister apocalyptic tale of progress run amok; but it has depth and insight into the human mind and condition just the same. You don’t have to scare the crap out of people to make them think.

I guess what I love most about Mr. Ferguson’s writing is that regardless of genre or subject, there is an underlying sense of wit, empathy, and pragmatism that I identify as the underlying essence of the Canadian cultural psyche, if such a thing exists.

It might seem odd that a blogger who proudly proclaims “I Frickin Love Canada” would admire so deeply the writer responsible for Why I Hate Canadians (which I loved, btw) – until you read the book and realize that we’re actually saying the same thing.

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