Writing about the devils in the dust

The debut novel from Estevan’s Rhonda Stock looks at a time in Saskatchewan’s history that draws on the contrasts of the modern Prairie boom.

For Dust and Devils, the setting is important, like any take on historical fiction. With Stock launching the novel with a presentation at the Estevan Public Library on Sunday afternoon, she said she was drawn to the idea of people, mostly men, flocking west on the rails in the 1930s, not because of the vast opportunities for them, like today, but because of how lost and out of place they were in a tumultuous time for those looking for work.

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“If you think about the adventures these guys would have gone on throwing out everything and just going out on the rails, travelling. That’s what fascinates me the most,” she said.

“It’s such a unique period in Canadian history that you won’t ever see again. The amount of unemployment, the guys riding the rails and the fact that it was coupled with the drought in the Prairies and the challenges people had to face, I just find it such a unique time period. It was a crazy time. It was a sad time, but it was also a really, really, interesting time.”

Dust and Devils follows Jake Harrow as he rides the rails across Canada in the 1930s, wading through trouble left by the father he never knew and fighting his inner demons. Eventually he ends up in Leader, Sask., weaving a web of lies to gain the acceptance of the townspeople.

The first book in an expected series, Dust and Devils was published in October, while the follow up novel, Sin and Salvation, is planned for a release next year.

With a background in mechanical engineering, Stock has always seen writing as a passionate hobby more so than a career.

“I started writing as soon as I was old enough to write. My very first story was written when I was six years old. It was about a rabbit,” she laughed. “I’ve been writing my whole life.”

Stock’s mother read to her as soon as she was old enough to sit still on her lap. That began her fascination with the written word.

“I always wanted to be a writer, so I went through the years writing different stories. I wrote mysteries and all kinds of things, and then when I graduated high school, I realized there was no money in being a writer, so I went the other route that I was interested in, which was math and engineering.”

Common wisdom says an individual is prone to enjoying either math or writing, but for Stock, it seems she was bitten by both bugs.

She always kept writing in the background through her schooling and continued to write in her spare time. Like many writers, she worked on a novel in the spare moments, moonlighting as a writer while paying the bills with another career.

Though she has written in several genres, like mysteries, it’s historical fiction that she has been most drawn to and that is reflected in her first entry to the literary world.

“I love the 1930s and the immigration period,” she said, noting it was a family history her grandfather had done that lit the spark leading to the eventual wildfire of Dust and Devils.

“My grandpa was doing family history back when I was in high school, and he wrote down his life story, including growing up in the ’30s, and that’s what got me interested in it. I credit him with that.”

The main location in the story is Leader, where her grandpa grew up as the first generation in the family born in Canada, and he makes a cameo in the novel as well.

After his notes, she read a lot of books, histories recounting the lives and the times of those who lived in Saskatchewan through those Depression years.

“That time period just jumped out at me. I read old newspapers and anything I could find from that time, I like to get my hands on and read,” she said.

She credits her love of Canadian history to the works of Pierre Burton, whose historical recollections she read in university.

“I really love research. That’s one of my biggest passions, the research. When I’m researching I imagine characters in those scenes doing those events and that’s how it goes into the story.”

There are certain common real world events that happened to the drifters on the rail and Stock has woven those into the story.

“I tried to draw on that to flavour the story more than anything. The story itself is fictional, but I like to flavour it with actual history.”

She said she likes to draw on personal experience when writing her book, but the times in present-day Saskatchewan are rather different from the 1930s. It’s a prosperous province, dealing more with flooding than drought. She said she looks back to the 1980s for experience and inspiration.

“I think back to the ’80s when we had the dust storms and the hoppers. I try to think back to that because I go out there in the summer time and it’s not hot and dry. You’re trying to write about a hot and dry see but you’re sweating because it’s so humid. You have to go back and draw on other memories because things are so different now.”

To learn more about Stock or her novel visit http://www.rhondaleannestock.com/

© Copyright Estevan Mercury

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