Candace Savage         Home Geography of Blood Books Up Close Reviews Essays Audio & Video

A Conversation with Candace Savage, winner of the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction

A Geography of Blood: Unearthing Memory from a Prairie Landscape

You have written many bestselling natural history books but few are as personal or as political as A Geography of

Blood. What compelled you to tell this particular story? 

The “geography” in question is the Cypress Hills, a broken rise of land that straddles the Alberta/Saskatchewan

border, just north of Havre, Montana.  The country is a complete knockout for anyone who enjoys the romance of

the Earth’s history or who is susceptible to the wild, windblown beauty of natural prairie.  I was head over heels in

an instant and knew I’d have a story to tell.

So that explains why this book is more intimate than in your earlier work?

Right. I like to think that my other books are personal or political in their own way.  But this is the first time I’ve

written myself into the story as a character and a first-person presence. I really enjoyed it.

Your exploration centered on a little town called Eastend, right?  I like the way you described it –“a speck in the Big

Empty of the North American outback.”

Yes, Eastend, Saskatchewan, is nestled in a beautiful valley at the southeastern tip of the Cypress Hills.  Speck

though it is – population 600 and slowly declining – it has earned a place on the cultural map of North America as

the boyhood home of the late, great American writer Wallace Stegner. The Stegners left town in the early 1920s,

but their home is still there, managed by the local Arts Council as an artists’ residence.  That’s what brought us to

town in the first place, me and my partner, Keith.  At the time, I certainly didn’t anticipate that Wallace Stegner

would be a companion through the early stages of my explorations or that I would end up daring to spar with him.

So that’s what brought you to Eastend in the first place—the Stegner House?

It all began as a kind of busman’s holiday.  We dropped into the Stegner House on a reconnaissance trip for a

book I was working on at the time, Prairie: a Natural History. That was back in 2000. We were just hanging out –

sightseeing -- taking in the mysterious, sculpted landforms of the Frenchman Valley and getting caught in eddies of

silence and nostalgia. We didn’t realize at the time that the place had hooked us, though we did know that

something odd was going on.  From the beginning, we had a weird sense that we were there for a reason, though

what reason could there be?  We ended up coming back the following year, by accident it seemed, noticing a For

Sale sign and buying a house.  And so it all began.

You said that you ended up sparring with Wallace Stegner.

Well, I have to admit that it was a rather one-sided conversation, since Mr. Stegner has been dead now for more

than twenty years! What I found in his writings was a classic--you could even say canonical--account of western

settlement. Nobody from Stegner’s generation recounted that history with more passion or grace than he did in

Wolf Willow, his reflection on his own Eastend years. I’m the descendant of generations of prairie “pioneers”

myself, so I have a very personal stake in that history. In the end, the standard framing of the settlement story, as

presented by Stegner and others, left me feeling troubled.  Actually, make that mad.

So A Geography of Blood is an answer to Stegner’s Wolf Willow?

No, I wouldn’t say that.  When Stegner returned to Eastend, or Whitemud as he called it, to reflect on his own

youth, he ended up reconsidering the entire process of western settlement.  To my surprise, that is also what I

found myself required to do.  But the impetus didn’t come from Stegner.  As much as anything, it seemed to come

from the land. It was as if the land itself was my teacher.

I know that probably sounds hokey, but that’s how it felt. The geologists tell us that the Cypress Hills are an

“erosional remnant” of a landscape that once covered the entire plains.  That landscape is gone from the rest of

the country, eroded away. This means that the Cypress Hills are a repository of memory.  Both literally and

figuratively, they remember ancient life forms and long-buried events that have been forgotten everywhere else.

The land has a lot to teach us if we listen to it.

I noticed that the landscape reveals some secrets to you through several profound experiences. How did these

experiences affect you and your search for more answers?

When people ask me about this book, I often say that it’s about what I was required to learn by going back to the

Cypress Hills over and over again. Although I spent a lot of time in the library and pouring over old documents, that

research merely served to fill in the gaps.  I tried to tell the story as I had learned it, rooted in the land, with every

chapter situated very clearly in a precise location.

In the Frenchman Valley, you discover a physical unconformity between the centuries-old layers of sediment. How

is this symbolic of our historical understanding?

An “unconformity” is a disjunction in the geological record. It is a place where sediments representing hundreds or

thousands of years have been swept away by erosion, so that ancient deposits are overlain by much more recent

ones.  To an unschooled eye, the deposits appear to tell a continuous story, but experts can tell that there is an

invisible gap—long periods of time that have been forgotten.  As I was gazing at the steep, eroded hillsides along

the Ravenscrag Road, it occurred to me that there are similar unconformities in the way we choose to remember –

and selectively choose to forget -- more recent, human events.

Most Canadian history textbooks gloss over the plains history you’ve uncovered. Why is this? And in your opinion,

should Canadian teachers convey these tough histories to their students?

As a kid growing up on the prairies in the 1950s and 1960s, I was raised on stories of the “pioneers,” a human

flood that included several generations of my own ancestors. Oxen, covered wagons, poke bonnets. The march of


There was scarcely a word about the natural productivity of the buffalo prairie –an entire ecosystem reduced to

ruins -- or about the civilizations that had flourished here for thousands of years before the settlement era, which

were sidelined and displaced.  The hills forced me to accept that these losses were part and parcel of the

settlement story, part of my heritage as a prairie person.

What are we to think of Canadian authorities who, in the 1880s, deliberately withheld food from starving people in

order to force them across the border (in the case of the Sitting Bull refugees) or onto reserves (as happened to

signatories of Treaties)?  What are we to think of ourselves if we refuse to own and honour the painful aspects of

our own collective experience?

Were you emotionally affected by the historical quagmire you uncovered?

First, I need to say that I am not the first person to tell this story.  First Nations and Métis people have always

known and remembered what happened, and scholars have been studying and documenting these events since

the 1970s. Still, the nastier bits of settlement history haven’t exactly become household knowledge! These

memories make us ashamed, angry, bewildered, regretful, curious, eager to understand. I know I felt all those


In the end, even though you delve into some dark territory, this isn’t a depressing book.  In fact, in a curious way,

it’s surprisingly heartening.

I’m very happy to hear you say that! Obviously, the story doesn’t end in the nineteenth century. Even though many

things were broken in the still-quite-recent past—even though we continue to lose species and to suffer the effects

of social trauma – the grasslands still inspire us with their beauty and the First Nations people to whom I turned for

help were deeply connected with their ancestors and generous to a newcomer in their midst.  As I say in the book,

this is a story that has to be marked To Be Continued.

How many years did you spend researching and writing this book?

I’m almost embarrassed to tell you.  It’s been on my mind since that first visit to Eastend – that’s eleven or twelve

years ago.  Since 2006, I’ve worked on it pretty much full time.  It’s not a long or complex book but it took a lot of

time and effort to get the facts straight and to figure out what I needed to say.  I’ve loved every minute of it – it’s

been immensely rewarding.


Winner of Canada's

Largest Literary Award