This story was first published in The Atlantic Advocate, in 1966. The roots of it go back a very long way into my childhood. The ways in which memories and “created” events intertwine in this story probably illustrate a few things about the nature of fiction. When I was about eleven or twelve, I got to know a young Métis girl who was several years younger than I. The Matron of Neepawa Hospital was a close friend of our family, and the Métis child was in her care because the girl had tuberculosis of the bone in one leg. When the girl was well enough to walk (first with a cast, then with an awkward leg brace), she used to visit our house often. She was, not surprisingly, very shy and withdrawn, and I was puzzled by her at the time. Only many years later did I realize how unhappy she must have been. I learned something about her when we were both grown up – she did indeed marry an English-Canadian, and the marriage turned out quite badly. I never heard anything more. She became the basis of the character of Piquette Tonnerre.
The character of Vanessa is based on myself as a child, and the MacLeod family is based on my own childhood family, but here is where the process of fiction becomes interesting. When I knew the Métis girl, my father had died several years previously. He was in fact a lawyer, not a doctor. We did indeed have a cottage at Clear Lake, Riding Mountain, and this is the very beloved place I am describing in the fictional Diamond Lake, Galloping Mountain. The loons used to be there, nesting on the shore, when I was a child, and we used to hear their eerie unforgettable cry. The loons did move away when the cottages increased in number and more and more people came in. All these things somehow wove themselves into the story. Other things surfaced, part of the mental baggage which one carries inside one’s head always. When I was young, fires in winter among the collection of destitute shacks at the foot of the hill, in the valley below town, were tragically common. Years later, when I lived in Vancouver, I used to read in the newspapers about fires destroying the flimsy shanties of native peoples. All these various things combined in my mind with a sense of outrage at the treatment of Indian and Métis people in this country throughout our history. History for me, as with social issues, is personalized – these events happen to real people; people with names, families and places of belonging. The loons seemed to symbolize in some way the despair, the uprootedness, the loss of the land that many Indians and Métis must feel. And so, by some mysterious process which I don’t claim to understand, the story gradually grew in my mind until it found its own shape and form.
I never knew a family exactly like the Tonnerre family, but the fictional family first appeared in my writing in The Stone Angel. Next came the writing of the short story, “The Loons”. Something about that fire, and the terrible and unnecessary waste of lives, must have almost obsessed me, for that event came into my fiction twice more after that short story – a relatively brief reference in my novel The Fire-Dwellers, and a long scene and many other references in my novel The Diviners.
Although certain details are taken from one’s own life, and from memories of places and people, I think that the fiction comes to have its own special reality. In fact, the fictional town of Manawaka often seems real to me as my own town of Neepawa, and its people seem very real in my mind. Of course, the odd thing about fiction is that even when the characters are based to some extent on actual people, they cease to be those people and become themselves. Ultimately, Vanessa is herself and not me at all, just as Piquette is herself.
And the process of fiction remains, thank God, mysterious.