Margaret Hanna has written a historical fiction book that is a part of her own history, entitled “Our Bull’s Loose in Town!”. This book hit with me as I am a sucker for nostalgia, I simply love tales of ‘how it was then’. This book delivered this and so much more that I was very interested in talking with its author to find out more about the book and how she came to write it. I highly recommend this read for anyone interested in yester-year tales. Instead of a review of the work, I decided to get the details straight from the source, Margaret Hanna. Follow along to find out something about this book and this marvelous, generous woman!
“I was a tomboy. Playing “house” was boring”
Randy: Margaret, it is wonderful to have you for this conversation about your book, “Our Bull’s Loose in Town”, which was published in 2018 and just over 300 pages. I looked over your bio information found at http://www.bookswelove.com/authors/hanna-margaret-g-historical-fiction-canada/, where I found you have very impressive array of interests. Before we talk about the book, please tell us something about your early life and growing up in SW Saskatchewan.
Margaret: I grew up on the farm that my paternal grandparents built, just north of the little village of Meyronne. I can’t think of a better place to grow up than on a farm. My brother and I roamed freely and did all sorts of wild and crazy things that would send today’s helicopter parents into hysterics. I was a tomboy. Playing “house” was boring; I much preferred being outside, playing rough and tumble games, climbing trees, riding calves (but only when Dad wasn’t around), and just generally getting into mischief while trying to avoid getting caught – not always successfully. However, Mom made sure I learned the feminine arts of sewing, embroidering, knitting and crocheting, things I still do, and enjoy, today.
It wasn’t all fun. We did our share of chores: fed the cattle, pigs and chickens; picked up eggs; shoveled manure out of the barn and hen house; worked in the garden; cut the “lawn” and helped with canning and freezing garden produce, and so on.
“… so I put the tractor in gear and harrowed that field”
Eventually, Dad decided we were old enough to drive farm machinery. I was maybe 12 when I had my first lesson – Dad drove the tractor and harrows once around the field showing me what to do, then I drove while he corrected me, and then he left saying he’d be back at dinnertime to get me. I was terrified to be on my own, but I was more terrified of what Dad would do if I did NOT finish the field (he was definitely of the “spare the rod and spoil the child” era) so I put the tractor in gear and harrowed that field. My brother was of a similar age when he started driving equipment. We discovered through that experience that we could learn to do almost anything even if it scared the pants off us at first. Two things I never did, though – milk cows and drive the combine.
Watching our father deal with the day-to-day business – and uncertainty – of running a farm, we learned the value of hard work, responsibility, independence, self-reliance and determination. (laughs) Oh, and stubbornness, something I learned from both of my parents. Dad also, unintentionally, taught me another valuable lesson – that being a girl should not prevent me doing whatever I set my mind to do. All of those lessons served me well over the years whenever I met setbacks, resistance and failure.
We lived a quarter-mile north of the village of Meyronne. Being that close to town was great. We knew everyone and everyone knew us. We’d go downtown to cash in the bottles we’d found in the ditch and use it to buy penny candy from Marcotte’s or Thuot’s store, visit Grandma Hanna, and play with our friends, all without parental chaperoning. My brother and I walked to school – a substantial two-story, three-room brick building with the motto “Work Will Win” embedded over the door. The school went to Grade 8; from thereon, we were bussed to the neighboring town for high school. I tell people the following: The good thing about a small town is that everyone knows your business. The bad thing about a small town is that everyone knows your business.
“Before I finished that grade, I had read my way through every book in the classroom”
Randy: Some of your bio mentions that you were a “voracious reader” early on. What sorts of things did you read back then?
Margaret: Blame my mother for getting me hooked on reading. She started reading to us when we were very young. I might have been able to read by the time I started Grade 1. Before I finished that grade, I had read my way through every book in the classroom, in other words up to Grade 3 level. By Grade 5, our school was part of a school book club. Once a month, the teacher received the catalogue, we picked out what books we wanted to buy, then waited for the package to arrive. I think I regularly ordered as many books as all the other students combined. The village 5 miles away had a lending library – I read my way through that, too.
So, what did I read? Adventure, mystery, science fiction, history, anything with action and excitement. Mom tried to interest me in “Little Women” and “Anne of Green Gables.” No thanks, they were boring. Grandma Hanna gave me a Nurse Cherry Ames book – boring. Before I was in high school, I had read my way through all the books on my parents’ shelves; I remember “Last of the Mohicans,” “The Scarlet Letter,” and “The Red Badge of Courage.” I had lots of time to read during harvest because my job was to drive the truck while Dad or my brother did the rounds on the combine – a job of interminable waiting punctuated by periods of mad scrambling to unload the grain and get back to the field to . . . wait!
“… travel to exotic places, find incredible civilizations, get rich and famous…”
Randy: Ah, we have something in common, I didn’t read Little Women or Anna of Green Gables either, but I did read the three you mentioned that you did. Your bio mentions that reading is how you became interested in archaeology. How did reading inspire you to that end?
Margaret: When I was about 10, my parents subscribed to a series called “All About Books.” Three books in particular caught my attention: “All about archaeology,” “All about prehistoric cavemen,” and “All about great scientific expeditions.” I decided that archaeology sounded like the most fun way to spend your life – travel to exotic places, find incredible civilizations, get rich and famous, etc.
My journey to becoming an archaeologist wasn’t quite so straightforward. I had forgotten about archaeology by the time I graduated from high school, so I went off to university intending to become a “world-famous” nuclear physicist (laughs). Fortunately, for all concerned, that didn’t happen. Thanks to a friend, I rediscovered archaeology and have never looked back. (Laughs) Mind you, I didn’t work in exotic places, discover golden treasure or become rich and famous. Still, I have absolutely no regrets about my choice of vocation.
“However, I opted for “Plan B”…”
Randy: Tell us something about that field of work, and how it ties you to your own history.
Margaret: I had originally intended to work in Egypt, or maybe Crete, to fulfill the “exotic” part of my dream career. However, I opted for “Plan B” when I heard an Egyptologist talk about all the bureaucratic obstacles he faced working in that country. Perhaps I should see what is in my own back yard, I thought. My adviser was also instrumental in encouraging me to work in Canadian archaeology.
For my honors thesis, I summarized what (little) was known about the archaeology of the Canadian prairies (this was in 1970). Then I got my first summer job, working on a crew with what was then called the Saskatchewan Museum of Natural History (SMNH) in Regina. That convinced me that a) Saskatchewan’s archaeology was really interesting, even if it wasn’t exotic, and b) museums are fascinating places in which to work.
First, though, I had to put in another eight years of university before finally getting a full-time position. I was hired as a curator at SMNH in 1984. In the 23 years I worked there, I was never bored. My position allowed me to travel almost from one end of the province to the other. I met and worked with farmers, avocational archaeologists, professional archaeologists and, eventually, Indigenous people, all of whom had interesting stories of their own.
“I worked with First Nations elders, musicians, artists, craftspeople, designers, and dancers…”
In 1986, the Museum started redoing all of its galleries, and thus we embarked on the development of the First Nations Gallery, a process that took seven years to complete. I worked with First Nations elders, musicians, artists, craftspeople, designers, and dancers, as well as numerous non-Indigenous artists and craftspeople. In the course of this development, we realized that the Museum’s name did not accurately reflect that it included human as well as natural history. After much discussion and even more governmental protocol, we received royal assent to rename it the Royal Saskatchewan Museum. The new name was announced when the First Nations Gallery opened in June of 1993.
Following that, I began working with local historians and Cree Elders and communities in northern Saskatchewan, in the Lac La Ronge and Churchill River regions. (Laughs) Now, some people might think the north is an exotic location, being hard to get to and all that. I had fallen in love with the Boreal forest and its archaeology many years previously when I had worked on a project in northern Manitoba. (Laughs) This from a good prairie girl – I like the horizon to be at least 20 miles away, and here I was, working in “The Bush,” and loving it! I made some wonderful friends during those years in northern Saskatchewan and excavated some very interesting sites. (Smiles) No, there were no pyramids and temples; instead, we excavated everything from a 5000-year-old quartz quarry to a Cree village established in 1860 and abandoned about 1970. It was nothing that would make it into National Geographic, but it did significantly expand our knowledge of the ancient history of northern Saskatchewan, a history that goes back at least 8000 years.
“… the more I think about it, the more I realize how much influence it had.”
Randy: Do you consciously tie your working background to the type of story you have constructed within the pages of this book?
Margaret: Hmm, not my working background, but certainly my growing-up background. As a child, I heard countless stories about the Dirty Thirties. For those of my grandparents’ and parents’ generations, those were horrible, depressing years that seemed never to end. And when they did, the world was immediately thrown into another world war. I’m sure they wondered, would the good times ever come again?
However, since you asked, and the more I think about it, the more I realize how much influence it had. There’s a notion that archaeology is about finding “neat stuff.” Finding “stuff” is only the first step. Archaeology is really about recreating the past – who were those people, what were they doing there, where did they come from, where did they go, how did they relate to other people and places, what meaning did the landscape have for them, and so on. Ultimately, archaeologists are trying to understand these ancient people – how they lived and worked and loved and celebrated. And that’s what writing is all about – crawling inside the heads of our characters to see what makes them tick. Until you asked that question, I had never thought about the relationship between what I used to do and what I am attempting to do now. Thanks for giving me something to discover about myself.
“I once toyed with the idea of living in Cairo for a year…”
Randy: Too, your bio mentions you visited Egypt. For those of us who have never been, including me, tell us your general impressions of Egypt?
Margaret: If you can go to only one foreign country in your life, go to Egypt. The depth of history is amazing – “totally awesome” doesn’t begin to describe it. Most people equate Egypt with the Pharaonic era, which is indeed immense and overwhelmingly impressive, but the Jewish and Christian history is also fascinating.
Cairo itself is an amazing city, full of energy that never stops, with a complex history in its own right. At any one time, you will see expensive cars, beat-up black and white taxis, buses crammed with people, and donkey carts, all mixed up together, filling the entire width of the street. I once toyed with the idea of living in Cairo for a year; that didn’t come to pass. Even now, with all the turmoil you hear about in Egypt, I would still encourage people to take the plunge – guided tours are safe because Egypt relies heavily on tourists for its economy. You won’t regret it.
“However, the entry [of] one Sunday morning caught my eye”
Randy: So, after all of this, you decided to write a book titled, “Our Bull’s Loose in Town”. Is writing a book something that you always wanted to do, or, was it a desire that presented itself after retirement from your previous career?
Margaret: Like many turns of events in my life, it just happened. A few months after my father died, Mom presented me with two boxes of my paternal grandfather’s diaries, stacks of photographs, and piles of farm documents.
I had been vaguely aware of their existence, but this was the first time I had sat down with them. I hopscotched through the diaries which mostly recorded the day to day life of operating a farm. (Shrugs) Okay, fine. Whatever.
However, the entry [of] one Sunday morning caught my eye: “Had to round up the bull from the village in the am.” Aha, I thought, there’s a story there. I knew that cattle in general, and bulls in particular, can be rather contrary. Questions flooded my mind: who called Grandma and Grandpa? Whose yard was the bull in? How did the bull get out of the pasture? How much trouble was it to get the bull back home? Thus, began the first story. Then I got side-tracked with this little thing called “work,” and didn’t write any more.
A couple of years after I moved to Airdrie, I discovered a writers’ group met once a week at the library, so I joined. That meant, once a week I had to have something to read. One chapter at a time, the story slowly grew. Initially, I wrote it mostly for me and my cousins. At the time, I had no thought about publishing. But just as with starting the story, getting it published was just something that happened.
“In some ways, it’s your classic boy-meets-girl story”
Randy: What genera is that book written?
Margaret: Technically, it is historical fiction. I often call it semi-fictionalized family history because it is mostly about my grandparents, and because it is based on my grandfather’s diaries plus what I remember of the townspeople, almost everything in it – the dates, events, people (with a couple of exceptions) and names – are factual. The “fiction” part comes from filling in the details.
Randy: Can you give us a short synopsis of what the book is about?
Margaret: In some ways, it’s your classic boy-meets-girl story except it begins in the late 1880s. My grandparents, Abraham Hanna and Addie Wright grew up north of Toronto, they were married in 1910 (in Winnipeg) and then took up residence on the homestead in SW Saskatchewan. It follows their joys and troubles of raising a family and building up a successful farm.
“They were both Victorian-era Presbyterians with staunch ideas about alcohol (they were “agin” it)…”
It is also the story of the origins of the village of Meyronne. The story ends at the beginning of 1940 when Abe died and thus the diaries ceased to be written. Much of the book is chronological but several chapters are more theme-based. Several describe the depressing years of the 1930s, something that had a significant impact not only on my grandparents’ generation but also on my parents’ generation.
However, their story is set within the context of the history and the worldview of the region, the province and the times (the first half of the 20th century). They were both Victorian-era Presbyterians with staunch ideas about alcohol (they were “agin” it), proper behavior, and the supremacy of British culture and language over all others. Today, they would probably be called “politically incorrect” (if one were kind) or outright racist and sexist. How times have changed.
“… as if you are sitting down at the kitchen table with her, sharing a pot of tea and some cookies…”
Randy: Who, besides the bull, is/are the main character(s) in that book?
Margaret: The main characters are my grandparents, Abe and Addie Hanna. Addie tells the story as if you are sitting down at the kitchen table with her, sharing a pot of tea and some cookies or maybe spice cake, while she regales you with her memories. The village of Meyronne and the prairies are also important characters, because the book is as much about the people and the place as it is about my grandparents.
Randy: Why did you choose Addie’s character’s point of view to tell this story?
Margaret: Hmm, that’s a good question. (pause to think) I don’t ever recall making a conscious decision to use my grandmother’s voice. It just seemed the logical way to tell the story. Perhaps it was because all my life I had heard her tell these stories. See, my grandfather died long before I was born so I didn’t know him except through his diary entries and the occasional letter, but that wasn’t enough for me to really know his character. However, I knew my grandmother very well because we were always visiting her.
“It was your classic small-town gossip rag – who’s visiting whom, who has a new calf, who just got married…”
Randy: I have to wonder if you became closer with the characters, or, in general, what was it like doing the research for this book?
Margaret: I learned a lot about my grandfather, the farm and the village that I never knew. For example, I discovered very early on in the research that Grandpa Hanna was a very ambitious man. In 1909, he took out papers on not only a homestead quarter (160 acres) and a pre-emption quarter (another 160 acres) BUT he also acquired another 320 acres through what was called the Volunteer Bounty Land Grant. Thus, within the space of one year, he was responsible for 640 acres when most other farmers had only 160 or maybe 320 acres at the most. And remember, farming was all done with horses – no power equipment back then. He continued that no-half-way-measure approach when he built the big barn and the new house. He even electrified the house in 1917 by installing a Delco generating plant in the basement.
It was a blast, as the saying goes, reading through the Meyronne Independent. It was your classic small-town gossip rag – who’s visiting whom, who has a new calf, who just got married or had a baby, who was found drunk and disorderly last Saturday night, which sports team won which tournament where, and so on. In addition to what was happening in town, it provided insight into the standards, opinions and prejudices of the times.
“She also had a wicked sense of humor.”
Randy: I remember when I was about 30, I saw a picture of my grandmother and her friends when she was 17 (in 1918) and was shocked, as I had only known her as my grandmother, not a young vibrant woman. Considering the personal closeness to the characters, I have to wonder, did you learn things that surprised you, or shocked you to learn, that you didn’t know before the work on the book began?
Margaret: I remember looking at the photographs of Grandma Hanna as a young woman and thinking, she was really good-looking. No wonder Abe fell for her. But I already knew, or at least suspected, what her character was like – stubborn, opinionated, determined, loyal and proud. At the same time, she was kind, generous, and loving. She also had a wicked sense of humor.
In 1967, Meyronne published a book about the village’s history that included stories from the homesteaders. One line in Grandma Hanna’s contribution defines her character to a T: “I never did leave the homestead while my husband was away, as some of the others did.”
One of the things I found hard to deal with and to write about was the prejudices of the times. For example, it was painful writing about the 1929 provincial election which became a nasty anti-Catholic, anti-French campaign spurred on by the Ku Klux Klan which was very strong in the prairie provinces in the late 1920s to 1930s. Those prejudices were still prevalent there even when I was growing up.
“… but she knew how to spin a tale.”
Randy: I can see how that might come up in doing a historical piece, I never really thought about that, the times do change, don’t they? Too, I wonder what it was like to write the book as the main character/teller of the story, seeing as it is your grandmother. What can you tell me about that experience?
Margaret: It was fun. My grandmother had a great sense of humor, at times biting, at times ironic, but she knew how to spin a tale. She also had very definite opinions about everything and was not at all shy about letting you know what those opinions were. I have always admired strong women, so it was a joy to “be” one.
However, she also endured several sad events, primarily the death of her older son and her husband, both while they were still young. I think she carried that pain with her for the rest of her life. It wasn’t easy finding the words to express that sorrow and pain, but I remember what it was like watching my own father die of cancer, so that helped me plumb those depths.
“I also remember some of the archaic expressions Grandma Hanna used…”
Randy: The telling of the story is very consistent with the times of the story itself, rather than a modern telling of historical information. What can you tell me about how you achieved that so successfully?
Margaret: I think it is because I grew up with those old men and women sitting around, sharing pots of tea, reminiscing about the old days. Their voices and cadences resonated in my mind. I also remember some of the archaic expressions Grandma Hanna used, the primary one being the old meaning of “to mind” as in “to remember.” In fact, the working title for the manuscript was “D’You Mind the Time . . . ?”, a phrase she always used to start a story about the old days.
I also had a few letters between Grandma Hanna and her sisters which gave me insight into their level of education (quite good for the 1890s). The Saskatchewan Archives Board had many copies of The Meyronne Independent, the local newspaper, which also provided me with clues as to not only the use of language but also the temperament of the times. And, as I said before, the prejudices of the early 20th century were still strong in the latter half of the century, and I heard my grandmother’s contemporaries express them quite plainly.
“… and suggested I should publish it. That was a truly scary thought.”
Randy: HA! I bet you did, indeed. As to the book, from idea to publication, how long did you work on this project?
Margaret: It was almost 20 years in the making. After writing the story that eventually became the chapter “The Bull and Mrs. Robinson,” I set it aside for almost 10 years. As I said earlier, I was involved with work that took pretty much all my energy. I didn’t start again until about eight years ago, and I finished it, the first draft that is, about four years later. I didn’t do anything much with it then because I had written it more for myself and my cousins than for outside consumption. My cousins loved it and suggested I should publish it. That was a truly scary thought.
A few months later, I sent the draft manuscript to three friends – one, a well-known Canadian author; the other two, historians – for their opinions. They were very supportive and encouraged me to take the next step. I then discovered that the Writers’ Guild of Alberta offers an anonymous review service; I joined the Guild and sent the manuscript off for review.
That was in 2017. I was terrified when the package returned. What if the reviewer thought it was crap? Even worse, what it the reviewer thought it was good? Then what do I do?
The reviewer’s comments were very supportive and very insightful. For the next several months, I reworked the manuscript. Then I discovered Books We Love and the rest, as they say, is history.
” – it’s up to the readers to decide if it is an accurate reflection…”
Randy: After publication, what were your thoughts on the work? I mean did you feel it hit its mark of the original idea, or did it morph into something else entirely?
Margaret: That sounds like a question I was asked when the First Nations Gallery opened. My response then was ‘it wasn’t up to me to decide whether or not it was a success, it was up to the people who came to decide.’ I think the same way about “Our Bull’s Loose in Town!” – it’s up to the readers to decide if it is an accurate reflection of the people and times.
The comments I’ve received so far suggest I did do my grandparents proud. One woman who lived through those desperate years said it was the most accurate depiction of the times and temperament that she had ever read. Others have said that they could hear my grandmother’s voice come through loud and clear, that they felt as if they actually knew her even though they had never met her. Even some of the people who grew up in Meyronne said I did a good job of depicting the people and the village. When an author receives comments like that, (shrugs) then I guess that means you’ve done a good job.
“I didn’t have a clue as to what I was getting into.”
Randy: How would you characterize the actual publication process, could you give some highs and lows of the process?
Margaret: I didn’t have a clue as to what I was getting into. However, both the editor (Nancy Bell) [ed. see my interview with Nancy HERE] and publisher (Judith Pittman) were very kind, patient and helpful in guiding me through. My one disappointment was learning that they would not include photographs, although they finally relented and placed my grandparents’ wedding photo at the back.
Also, Michele Lee, who designed the cover, worked three photographs into both the front and back cover extremely well – I think she did a marvelous job with the cover (that’s one of my highs). Once they explained the reason – including photographs would make formatting the book in its various e-formats extremely difficult – I understood and accepted their decision. The photographs are the main reason I started the blog – to share some of that treasure and continue with more vignettes about my grandparents’ lives.
I was unprepared for was the amount of publicizing I have to do. I thought I just handed the manuscript off to the publisher and sat back and let the royalties roll in (laughs). Not so, I found out. I’m starting to get the hang of it – I have a lot to learn – but I’m still shy about putting myself out there in public. I can do it, I know that, but it doesn’t come easily to me.
“I may have created one perfect sentence in my life, who knows…”
Randy: Do you have plans for more books, or was this just a work you had the need to do and that was the goal?
Margaret: I felt rather at loose ends when I finished “Our Bull’s Loose in Town!” but then I realized I had another set of grandparents, my mother’s, who also have a very interesting history. Alas, there are no diaries and very little other written documentation of their lives.
Fortunately, two uncles still survive (one is almost 90, the other 99), and I have been peppering them with questions – they must be getting sick of e-mails from me (laughs). I have no deadline other than trying to finish it before my uncles pass away.
I have a few other story ideas kicking around, nothing to do with family, though. One’s a crime story about a serial killer on the loose in a medium-size city, one’s a parody on small-town life, and the third is, well, another stab at historical fiction – what happened in a small town during that contentious 1929 election. Every now and then, I grab one off the shelf and think a bit more about plot and character. (Laughs) I might even get them written before I die – who knows?
But, you know, whether or not I finish these stories, whether or not they ever get published is almost beside the point. I write for the sheer joy of writing. There is something immensely satisfying about crafting the perfect sentence – capturing the essence of the place or time or conversation or character – that is reward in and of itself. (Shrugs) I may have created one perfect sentence in my life, who knows. But that’s the goal I aim for.
Randy: Margaret, it has been a sheer pleasure speaking with you about your life and your book. If I get a vote on your next book, I really like the idea of a parody of life in a small town. Your perspectives have been very enjoyable to hear, and I hope you do write more. I have had the pleasure of meeting with several Books We Love authors and I have yet to be disappointed. Thank you so much for your time here.
Margaret: Thank you, Randy. This was fun!
Here are links for Margaret:
https://bwlauthors.blogspot.com/ (My blog is posted here on the 30th of every month)
Other links for Randy