David Alexander Robertson

Finding the Stories in Tales from Big Spirit

At first glance, it might seem easier to write a graphic novel based on something that has happened rather than to create an original story. You don’t have to make up characters or incidents or create worlds. When writing nonfiction, the people and places and events are all laid out like a tantalizing Sunday brunch buffet. But, to strain a metaphor, all the food looks so good. What are you going to choose to eat? You want the scrambled eggs but you have overheard someone say the cheese omelet is delicious.

Okay, enough of that. Here’s the point: All writing has its challenges—especially a 30-page graphic novel. There’s only so much history a book that length can handle. The trick is to find the history that fits within a concise and dramatic story arc. With Pauline Johnson, her arc was a quest to publish her first book of poetry. With Thanadelthur, it was her perilous journey across the north to forge a peace a treaty between the Cree and the Dene. Within those arcs, you need to pick the historical events that lend themselves to the arc. Some things just don’t fit. It was no different when I wrote the story of John Ramsay. My main focus is to always tell the story that best lends itself to education. That’s how I make my decisions on what to cut and what to keep. I told a significant amount of Ramsay’s story in The Land of Os: John Ramsay, but there was a tragic piece of his story that I didn’t have the space for. I did write about the smallpox epidemic in the Lake Winnipeg area of 1876-1877 that claimed many lives, including Ramsay’s wife, Betsey, and his two sons. That loss left an indelible impact on Ramsay, and in the wake of that loss his compassion and kindness toward the Icelandic settlers is one of the things that makes his story remarkable. His daughter, Mary, also contracted smallpox (Bola, as they called it at that time) and managed to survive. However, Mary was left horribly disfigured by the disease. There is a lot more to say about Mary, of course. She remained with Ramsay as he moved up the Icelandic River, she hid her appearance from the public, when Ramsay had visitors they could hear her playing her musical instrument even though she stayed out of sight. These things are all fodder for creating some palpable drama, but in a story with a different focus. What I will say, in relation to the graphic novel’s focus, is this: what happened to John Ramsay’s family must have been nearly unbearable, and the tragedy of it never left him. What he did for the Icelandic settlers—despite his losses—says much about the man. Just as we can’t sample everything at a breakfast buffet in one visit, we can’t tell all the stories within a story in one book. In The Land of Os, as with the other stories I’ve written, there remains significant amounts of history to be told. My challenge to you is to seek out that history.

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