Joan Finnigan and The Dog Who Wouldn't be Left Behind.
By Linda Badowich
Volume 17 Number 5
The inspiration for The Dog Who Wouldn't be Left Behind came from a variety of sources. "It was like everything creative, you take bits and pieces from everywhere," says Finnigan.
Joan Finnigan is a poet, a social historian, a play-wright, a children's author, an Ottawa Valley native, a mother and a grandmother but, most of all, she is a storyteller. Writing is her labour of love.
The Dog Who Wouldn't Be Left Behind, published this spring, is her second children's book. "It was an easy birth," says Finnigan during an interview at the Canadian Library Association on July 17. "Some books are harder to write than others." The Dog Who Wouldn't Be Left Behind follows a long list of creative endeavours. Her first book came out in 1965 and now Finnigan has twenty-one books to her credit. Most of these are collections of poetry and oral histories.
Joan Finnigan readily admits her interest in writing children's books is peripheral to what she really does. Her focus is her role as a social historian, collecting oral histories of the Ottawa Valley. She balks at the suggestion that she is a local historian. "The Ottawa Valley isn't local!" To her, it's a huge area, a goldmine for any historian. Finnigan has recorded much of the area's history in interviews with more than three hundred Ottawa Valley oldtimers.
Finnigan agrees that the poet in her helps her to write well. The Dog Who Wouldn't Be Left Behind is a joy to read aloud with funny, touching phrases such as "warm-and-snugglies galore," and "groaned with pleasure beside the fire," as only a happy dog can do. "Poetry has made inroads into everything I write," says the author. Look! The Land is Growing Giants, her first children's book, was originally written as a poem.
The Dog Who Wouldn't Be Left Behind is the story of a dog named Clementine who follows her owners all over the world and on wilderness trips in Canada. She even becomes active in their work, installing herself in the storefront of her owners' wilderness outfitting store. Then one day her owners have a child. Clementine becomes angry at the attention her owners lavish on "the little intruder" and runs away, only to be later found and discover at last that she enjoys her home.
Finnigan wrote the story in a matter of hours, she says. But it was five years before the book was published. There were delays in finding an illustrator for the book, and the first artist commissioned to do the book did not complete the work. Finnigan's publisher found a second artist, Steve Beinicke. "I think the artist caught the spirit of the book," says Finnigan. Her publisher went as far as Japan to have the book printed. "Color-separation is done so well there," explains the author.
The inspiration for The Dog Who Wouldn't Be Left Behind came from a variety of sources. "It was like everything creative, you take bits and pieces from everywhere," says Finnigan. At the time the book was written, the author's daughter Martha attended the University of Ottawa and worked part-time at Trailhead, an outfitting store. "Clementine became a store fixture," says Finnigan. She went along on canoe trips with Martha. The book is also a product of Finnigan's Ottawa Valley research. It is rich with details that those from the valley would recognize: Clementine, the book's heroine, may have been sired by a "doberman pinscher on a spring junket up the Ottawa Valley or a handsome police dog that used to visit from Pakenham." She takes canoe trips with her owners down white-water rivers such as the Petawawa, the Dumoine, and the Gatineau. She joins ranks with Charlie Harris of Ottawa (the Oldest Man Who Has Ever Come Down the Nahanni River) becoming the First Dog Who Ever Came Down the Nahanni.
Of course it wasn't Clementine the dog who wanted to travel the world, but Finnigan herself. "I always wanted to see the seven wonders of the world," she says. "And when I discovered that all that was left of the Colossus of Rhodes was two big toes, I was devastatingly disappointed." So it is with Clementine in her book.
Finnigan also knows children well. The book has universal appeal, she says. "Every kid either has a dog or wants one, and many children have had their place usurped by a new sibling. What child has not been left behind at some time or other?" Finnigan understands these things about children. It's all in her book, in that one painful phrase when Clementine cries, "Nobody loves me anymore!"
Finnigan's three children are grown now, and she's a grandmother with a six-year-old grandson and a two-year-old granddaughter. She loves to read to children, and took great pleasure in doing a reading tour, visiting small towns like Timmins, Kirkland Lake, and Val D'Or. "I was astounded by how hungry children in remote areas are for these things."
Does Finnigan's relatively recent status as a grandmother have anything to do with her writing for children at this stage in her career? "I think it stirs something," she answers. "I see a lot of older women writers doing children's stories now." Finnigan can't promise, however, that she'll continue to produce children's books.
Several books are in the works for the author. She's working on a book called "Ghost Stories from you-know where....(fill in the blank with the Ottawa Valley)." That's not necessarily a children's book. "It's for everybody," says Finnigan. Then there's a fifth oral history of the Ottawa Valley in progress, a collection of short stories, another poetry book called Wintering Over, and a collection of Finnigan's plays. All of these are due out next year.
One of Finnigan's plays is currently showing at Ottawa's Museum of Science and Technology. The author's been too busy writing and promoting her newest book to see it. Keeping pace with her creative inspirations isn't that easy. "I can't keep up with all the ideas I have anymore," says Finnigan. "I wish I was Pierre Berton and had researchers and an army of workers."Finnigan, Joan. The Dog Who Wouldn't Be Left Behind, Groundwood,1989.
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