December 7, 2019

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Winnipeg author Joan Thomas wins Governor General's fiction award

Winnipeg author Joan Thomas has been awarded the 2019 Governor General's English-language award for fiction for her fourth novel, Five Wives.

The winners of the Governor General's Literary Awards were announced Tuesday morning; each winner in the English and French categories receives $25,000, while each publisher receives $3,000. Five Wives was published in September by HarperCollins.

"It's incredible," Thomas said on the phone from HarperCollins' Toronto office, where she was doing media interviews following the announcement of the win.

"I woke up this morning to my phone going crazy. I know there are a lot of people in Winnipeg who were cheering for me, and who are very happy, and that just deepens my joy about the whole thing. I was calm at first, but when I walked into the offices here I started crying."

Five Wives is a fictionalized account of events leading up to the deaths of five Evangelical Christian missionaries in mid-1950s Ecuador, as well as the ways in which the missionaries’ widows and extended family coped and perservered.

The missionaries’ goal had been to connect with an Indigenous Amazonian community they called the "Auca" (from the Quichua term for "savages"), bringing the teachings of the Bible from the United States and converting them to Christianity.

"This book felt risky — it’s a sensitive subject, and I’m just so grateful people are reading it, that it’s starting conversations, and that people are responding so positively to it," Thomas said.

"This book felt risky — it’s a sensitive subject, and I’m just so grateful people are reading it, that it’s starting conversations, and that people are responding so positively to it." -Joan Thomas

"I'm thrilled that people want to read it, to understand it and talk about it. I’ve had incredible emails from readers already. What delights me is that people are saying 'this book is riveting — I couldn’t put it down.' Normally I get the response that my books are stylistically engaging, but not so propulsive, necessarily."

Other finalists in this year's fiction category were Michael Crummey’s The Innocents, Marianne Micros’ Eye, K.D. Miller’s Late Breaking and Cary Fagan’s The Student. "I’m so aware of all the wonderful writers to whom this award could have gone. There’s a certain element of the stars aligning, and the book working for this particular jury," said Thomas.

"I know there are a lot of people in Winnipeg who were cheering for me, and who are very happy, and that just deepens my joy about the whole thing," Joan Thomas said. (Ruth Bonneville / Free Press files)

"I know there are a lot of people in Winnipeg who were cheering for me, and who are very happy, and that just deepens my joy about the whole thing," Joan Thomas said. (Ruth Bonneville / Free Press files)

In 2014, Thomas was awarded the $25,000 Rogers Writers' Trust's Engel Findley Award for an author in mid-career "in recognition of a remarkable body of work, and in anticipation of future contributions to Canadian literature."

Her third novel, The Opening Sky, which came out in 2014, was a finalist in the Governor General’s English fiction category, and won the McNally Robinson Book of the Year prize at the Manitoba Book Awards.

Her debut novel, Reading by Lightning, published in 2008 by Goose Lane Editions, won the Commonwealth Prize for best first book as well as the Amazon.ca First Novel Award.

Winnipegger spent five years researching Operation Auca while writing fourth novel

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“I grew up in an evangelical household; I knew the story of the missionaries well as a child,” Joan Thomas says. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)						</p>
“I grew up in an evangelical household; I knew the story of the missionaries well as a child,” Joan Thomas says. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

Posted: 10/09/2019 3:00 AM

In early 1956, five American evangelical Christian missionaries set up camp along the Curaray River in Ecuador with the hopes of connecting with an indigenous Amazonian community they called the “Auca.” The goal was to convert the Auca (from the Quichua term for “savages”), bringing the teachings of the Bible from the United States to the northeastern Ecuadorian community.

On Jan. 8, the five men were speared to death in an event dubbed Operation Auca that became known throughout the western world thanks to a story (and photographs) in Life magazine.

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Thomas’s win is the first in the fiction category by a Manitoba author since 2004, when Miriam Toews won for her novel A Complicated Kindness. In 2017, Winnipeg writer David Alexander Robertson won the Governor General’s award in the young people’s literature — illustrated books category for the book When We Were Alone, illustrated by Julie Flett.

"I think one of the reasons this award means so much is that I so love the work of Manitoba writers who have been recognized before me — Miriam Toews, Sandra [Birdsell] being nominated numerous times, and Carol Shields. I remember how pleased I was for the recognition of their books. So it feels amazing to be in that camp."

The non-fiction prize winner also features a Winnipeg connection. Toronto’s Don Gillmor took the top prize for his book To the River: Losing My Brother, published by Penguin Random House Canada. In the book, Gillmor explores his brother David’s death by suicide in Yukon in 2006, along the way detailing his growing up in Winnipeg (his sister, Alison Gillmor, is a regular Free Press contributor).

Winnipeg author Catherine Hunter was also a Governor General’s Award finalist this year in the English poetry category for her book St. Boniface Elegies, published in April 2019 by Winnipeg's Signature Editions. The award in that category went to Gwen Benaway for her book Holy Wild.

The 2019 Governor Generals’ Literary Awards will be presented by Gov. Gen. Julie Payette at a ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Dec. 12.

books@freepress.mb.ca

— with files from The Canadian Press

Ben MacPhee-Sigurdson

Ben MacPhee-Sigurdson
Literary editor, drinks writer

Ben MacPhee-Sigurdson edits the Free Press books section, and also writes about wine, beer and spirits.

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