Novels by Dorris Heffron
A Shark in the House
Rain and I
A Nice Fire and Some Moonpennies
A moving historical tale and remarkable literary achievement, City Wolves is the story of Canada’s first woman veterinarian, Meg Wilkinson. Born in 1870 on a farm near Halifax, Meg’s childhood experience with wolves makes her determined to become a veterinarian. Supported by the seemingly eccentric Randolph Oliphant and inspired by ancient Inuit who first turned wolves into sled dogs, Meg surpasses the horse doctors at vet college and becomes the notorious ‘Dog Doctor of Halifax’ in the 1890s. After her unusual marriage ends abruptly in Boston, Meg travels to Vancouver and up to the Yukon, seeking the legendary sled dogs. Arriving at the beginning of the Klondike gold rush, she makes her way amidst Mounties, dance hall girls, Klondike Kings, mushers, priests and swindlers…all the mangy and magnificent people, dogs and spirits that populated raucous Dawson City.
Observed through the restless spirit of Inuit Ike, this is lively, insightful, historical fiction, subtly revealing the wolf-like nature of humans and the human nature of wolves. Both earthy and reflective, City Wolves is an important story told with compassion, humour and unflinching realism. In this her fifth novel, Dorris Heffron has created a wide range of unforgettable characters and achieved a breadth of vision exploring the deep conflicts and interconnection of social beings in a way that is uniquely Canadian and profoundly universal.
McNally Robinson added Heffron's book to its top five best selling fiction hardcovers at the Winnipeg store. City Wolves is on the bestseller list among other titles by Margaret Atwood, Nicholas Sparks and Alice Munro.
Now in paperback
Acclaim for City Wolves
“Historical romance, pioneering feminism, Inuit spirit guides, wolves, dogs, real people mingling with fictional ones, a fresh take on the Klondike gold rush...this is entertainment. An indomitable heroine takes city wolves into the wilderness and makes them howl. I for one could not stop listening.”
Ken McGoogan, Pierre Berton History Prize winner, author of Fatal Passage and Race to the Polar Sea
“Dorris Heffron has illuminated a fascinating and little-known aspect of human behaviour – the degree to which humans have modeled their social structure on that of wolves – and turned it into story. City Wolves is a wonderful blend of fiction and history, natural and unnatural: high art indeed!”
Wayne Grady, Naturalist, author of The Nature of Coyotes
“City Wolves takes the truth of good biography and runs with it imaginatively into a gripping narrative. Meticulous research leads Heffron to give life to a neglected theory about who really first discovered the gold that started the Klondike gold rush. With its compelling portrayals of historical characters like Kate Carmack, Belinda Mulroney and their cohorts in Dawson City, this novel opens up a new vista in historical fiction.”
Jennifer Duncan, author of Frontier Spirit, biographies of women of the Klondike.
“An insightful exploration of the profound and mysterious relationship between people and wolf-dogs…archetypal tensions spurring the plot along… A marvelous work! I look forward to it becoming a Canadian classic.”
Rosemary Gosselin BJ, MSW, NCPsyA, Jungian Psychoanalyst
“An engrossing work of historical fiction…filled with strong voices and thrilling moments, the novel hearkens back to the glory days of historical writing and is comparable to some of Canada's finest literary voices such as Margaret Laurence and Margaret Atwood…a warm and wonderful tale…mixes fact with fiction and creates a most memorable volume.”
Paul Suttner, Shelf Life
“Wolves, gold, pioneers, prospectors, pickaxes, romance, dog sleds, log cabins, Mounties, mountains and Malamutes come together to make an authentic and riveting Canadian adventure….The read is easy, but the digestion lasts long after the pages are turned. The real-life aspect of the story makes it a compelling and authentic tale.”
Erika Engel, The Courier-Herald
“A great big fat historical novel….City Wolves is a sparkling good read.”
Andrew Armitage, The Owen Sound Sun Times
“At its core, Dorris Heffron's latest novel is about the secret lives of wolves and how they relate to humans. Fascinating stuff. There's more to this novel, of course…Heffron delivers a story of ideas and heart.”
January Magazine Editor's Pick
“This is a truly wonderful read! City Wolves – a work of Historical Fiction, Wilderness Culture- unforgettable characters. I loved it!”
Deena Dolan Findlay, Escarpment Magazine
“Found it so compelling…read all 450 pages in one day.”
Ken Chisholm, The Cape Breton Post
A Shark in the House
Spanning three generations and five decades of changing times and mores, A Shark In The House is a contemporary story of love and ambition, death and survival, and the strangeness that lurks in ordinary lives. Told by Holly Kowalski, a Toronto dentist, it has the authentic style and complex reality of the book within everyone.
Critics’ Acclaim for A Shark In The House
“A carefully crafted novel, rich in characterization and descriptive images… a briskly paced read… refreshing, believable, deep. A realism that readers will find interesting… meshes fictional with real characters and places, incorporating numerous historical events, like the standoff at Oka whose peaceful resolution reaffirmed our patient, collective Canadian character. At its heart, A Shark In The House is a Canadian story, a host of ingredients and anomalies from our multicultural melting pot that is uniquely ours and one which Heffron so uniquely brings to life.”
Rolf Sturm, The Villager
“A triumph of characterization… and scope. A history of not only one deeply troubled marriage and its aftermath, but of a generation of women who came of age in the 60s. All the characters have depth and the interplay between them is convincing. Solidly crafted…Wins the reader’s empathy.”
Barbara Carey, The Toronto Star
“Has a buoyancy that’s infectious… plenty of wry irony… fun and spice. A delicious account of a party at Barry Callaghan’s house. Pleasure in reading loving descriptions of growing up Polish on Roncesvalles Avenue, moving to a big house on Riverside Drive, living in the condos on Harbourfront and drinking at the Bellair Café in Yorkville. Life in Toronto… life in Oxford… have the sparkle of a great smile.”
John Doyle, The Globe and Mail
“A humourous yet penetrating look at upward mobility as practiced in contemporary Canada and at the emotional wreckage it can leave in its wake… About the pressures of modern life as lived in the midst of suburban respectability, about a broken marriage and about alternatives and the possibility of change… trenchant tale… interesting and exacting… the conventional and the unconventional collide with surprising results… brisk, sparkling and full of current interest… observant in its depiction of the anguish of childhood and the solace of female friendship… alive and memorable.”
Nancy Schiefer, The London Free Press
“Rich and weighty… Accurate and colourful scenes of Toronto, Oxford and college life, interesting insights into the suburbs, the condos, the BMW’s and the literary scene. Real authors are portrayed… Brilliantly portrays relationships… Not since Margaret Laurence has there been such sympathy in depicting the complexities that exist between the young of today and their adult mentors.”
Enid Delgatty Rutland, The Ottawa Citizen
Young Adult Novels
A Nice Fire and Some Moonpennies
A Nice Fire and Some Moonpennies was published in 1971 by the venerable Macmillan, London, the first publisher I submitted my first novel to. Double good fortune was finding there a renowned editor who wanted to launch novels about teenagers in England.
It tells the story of a 16-year-old Mohawk girl who hitch hikes from her home in Kingston to Yorkville in Toronto, in the sixties to try some ‘pot’, away from the judgemental eyes of others who would regard her as a rep of all young Mohawks. It was shocking subject matter for the young adult readers of 1970 and it provoked controversy in England between those who condemned ‘realistic novels about teenagers coming from North America’ and those who argued ‘this is just the kind of novel that will keep our young people reading’.
Moonpennies was eventually translated and put on high school literature courses in Europe, Japan and North America. Forty years later, it is still a popular, relevant book.
Crusty Crossed is based on the true story of the last evacuation of youngsters from Oxford, England in the Second World War. Tanis, a talented young pianist, gets called Crusty because of her ‘attitude’ after the death of Vivaldi, the pet canary she had secreted aboard ship. She and her two older sisters wind up in a small community on Cape Breton Island where Tanis falls in love with a new culture and a boy shorter than she is.
My working title had been The Atlantic Between because it is deeply about how the heart gets divided when one grows up in one culture and learns to adapt in another. But compromises had to be made in pioneering a new genre and so the title and the book’s cover were designed to catch younger readers. Don’t be misled by a book’s cover!
Rain And I
Rain and I is partly my Canadian reaction to having to study James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in high school. I wanted to write about growing up with the myths and legends that influence us in North America. It is my most autobiographical novel, but I shy away from self focus.
Rain was adopted as a baby by the parents who had looked after Tanis and her sisters. They have moved to Ontario and soon, surprisingly, naturally, their daughter Apple is born. Opposite in personality, there’s sibling rivalry and much striving on the part of Apple as they go through high school. It’s the early sixties when they both become princesses at their high school Prom. Only one will be crowned Queen.
How I Came to Pioneering Young Adult Novels
Somehow at age 7, I knew I wanted to be a writer and began keeping journals recording the life I could see and know about. My first journal recorded such things as “Jenny hen laid another egg today.” “Canada beat Russia in world hockey.” “Common expression- ‘goober’ You’re a real goober!”
It was clear from the start that my focus would not be on myself or fantasy or horror stories. I was interested in others, in Canada, our place in the world, how people really do speak and think. The stuff of realistic fiction. At age ten I won a copy of Anne of Green Gables in a bicycle decorating contest. Like most everyone, I loved that book and got all of L.M. Montgomery’s books from the library. There was no money in my family to buy books. We carried a big debt load after my Dad’s store went bankrupt when I was 5 and we moved from the village of Blyth to Toronto to farmland and finally to the town of Woodbridge where my parents got permanent jobs. Though poor in money, it was a childhood rich in adventure and experience.
When I searched the libraries for more Canadian novels about young people and could find none, I thought…aha! Here is a need to be fulfilled. Do some good was another incorrigible instinct in me. So I quietly planned to write realistic novels about teenagers. In highschool, my English teacher detected my ambition and gave me J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye to read. That novel set the modern standard for me. With student loans I went to Queen’s University and did Honours English and Philosophy because I was, and still am, interested in the big questions. What is truth, goodness, beauty, time?
In 1968, when I was doing my M.A. thesis (on the philosophy and novels of Iris Murdoch), I went to Oxford to marry another Queen’s grad, Bill Newton-Smith, doing his D.Phil. at Balliol College. After finishing my thesis, it was agreed, I would write my first novel and then get a job. So I did that. Completed the first draft over four months, set it aside for a month , revised it and sent it off to the biggest English publisher I knew of with a branch plant in Canada, the venerable Macmillan, London.
From the start, that’s what was important to me, that my books be published in Canada. And this was 1970, at a time when Canadian writers such as Margaret Laurence and Mordecai Richler felt they had to ‘make it’ abroad before, or more than, at home. At the same time, and this was more of my ignorance of what to do or where to go as a writer…I sent the manuscript to a big agency that was suggested to me.
The astounding thing is that both Macmillan and the Higham agency wanted my manuscript. It happened to land on the desk of the renowned children’s book editor, Marni Hodgkins who wanted to launch realistic novels about teenagers in England. And it landed on the desk of Sheila Watson, the agent who had recently handled Leonard Cohen’s novel, Beautiful Losers.
My first novel is about a sixteen year old Mohawk girl who hitch hikes from her home in Kingston to Yorkville, Toronto in the sixties to try some ‘pot’, away from the judgemental eyes of others who would regard her a rep of all young Mohawks. A Nice Fire And Some Moonpennies is the benign title I gave this novel.
It was shocking subject matter for the young adult readers of England in 1970. Not to mention the publishers and parents who thought their young reading genius should move from The Secret Garden to War and Peace. That was the argument against “these vulgar novels about teenagers coming from North America”. For sure, a thirteen year old can read War and Peace , but what do they get out of it?
Marni, my editor was prepared to fight for A Nice Fire And Some Moonpennies. She knew the first battle would be with Sir Harold Macmillan presiding at the board meeting in which the editors had to tell him about the books they wanted to do that season. Marni had sent my manuscript to three eminent London librarians to report their opinion on it. So, when Marni had to tell Sir Harold that Moonpennies involved a young teenager and marijuana and he raised his finger wagging, “Ah wicked, we cannot…”, Marni presented him with the librarians’ reports that the novel conveys good values, is insightful, warmhearted, talented new writing etc., Sir Harold concluded, “Then we must publish it.”
Moonpennies came out in England at the same time as the American S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders which is about teenage gangs in New York. The two major reviewers, the Times and The Guardian were divided. The Guardian said our realistic novels about teenagers were just what young readers needed, The Times said young people did not need our kind of books. Of course the controversy aroused more interest and Macmillan had the clout and connections to have Moonpennies ordered by the stores and libraries and it got far more favourable reviews than not.
Thanks to the good work of my agent, Sheila Watson, Moonpennies was eventually translated and put on high school literature courses in Europe, North America and Japan. It was the first Canadian novel to be published in Japan after Anne of Green Gables, though very soon after that with the flourishing of Canadian literature, many Canadian books have come out in Japan.
Another controversy was: are these novels ‘for’ or ‘about’ teenagers? And what should they be called? Let me just say, my focus was always writing ‘about’ teenagers and so I was most pleased when Penguin books launched a new series of paperback novels which they called their Peacock series (Puffins were for children). The Peacock series was novels and short stories about young people by established authors, such as Chekov and Margaret Drabble. A Nice Fire And Some Moonpennies was included in that series. Too bad the series didn’t last.
But forty years later, Moonpennies and my other two ‘young adult novels’ as the new genre has become called, are still circulating in the libraries. In my opinion, ‘young adult novels’ is a lot better than some of the names suggested, such as ‘juvenile fiction’! But novels about teenagers remains the most accurate and least restricting of readership.
Pioneering a new genre is not easy for writers or their publishers. Like starting any new business, it can take a long time for it to become profitable. I was lucky to have the strength of Macmillan behind my books and the determination of Marni Hodgkins. But I couldn’t agree with the strategy they and others adopted to try to sell more books. They thought that by making novels about teenagers also appeal to the established children’s novel market they would gain more sales. I think this just drove away the intended market, since teenagers won’t go near ‘children’s’ anything. But I was not in command.
My sequel to Moonpennies was rejected on the grounds that it was ‘too adult’. I was more willing to negotiate with my second novel. It is based on the true story of the last evacuation of children from England in the Second World War. The then Master of Balliol College, organized that the children, including some of his own four kids, be sent to Canada. Then he took off with the college secretary who then died in the Blitz and he ended his days banished in Coventry. In my novel the young teenagers are taken to Cape Breton Island where the main character, Tanis, who gets nicknamed Crusty, falls in love with a schoolmate shorter than she is. The novel is about growing up in one culture and learning to adapt to another, the division of the heart. My title was The Atlantic Between.
Marni argued this title is ‘too adult’ that it should be called Crusty Crossed and the jacket portrays Tanis/Crusty looking about ten years old.
My third novel I titled The Miracle Workers. Influenced by James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, I wrote about two sisters, Apple and Rain, growing up with the myths and symbols we have in Canada. Opposite in personality, and Rain having been adopted as a baby, there’s sibling rivalry and much striving on the part of Apple as they go through high school. In the second half of the novel they go to Thailand and become involved in the student protest of 1973 when the Thai students succeeded in ousting the dictator.
Marni had retired and there was a new young editor at Macmillan but the policy of trying to expand the market by making the books also appeal to pre-teenagers was still in force. ‘The first half of your book, no problem,’ the new editor said. ‘But the second half with the girls age 16 and 18 with the student revolution… Let’s make two books of it. We’ll publish the first half as a separate book and then see about the second as a sequel.’
And so my third novel about teenagers is about Rain and Apple before they go to Thailand and is titled Rain and I. It is an interesting book on its own and continues to flourish.
It was 1980 when I signed that contract. I had been in England for twelve years, writing and teaching part time for Oxford University and The Open University. It was a good life but I wanted to come home with my two little daughters and write adult fiction. I felt I had done enough pioneering work and I wanted to have the full spectrum to write about. My husband didn’t want to leave Oxford. We divorced and I came home with my children to write adult realistic fiction.
It’s great to see that young adult literature has become a thriving, profitable, well established genre.