Sometimes artists cut a little too close to the bone.
That was the case for some when Ottawa-born author Joan Finnigan wrote the screenplay for the award-winning 1968 film The Best Damn Fiddler from Calabogie to Kaladar. Featuring the late Margot Kidder, the National Film Board movie is about a stubbornly proud bush worker living an impoverished life in the Valley, where the film ignited anger.
“People responded to it quite negatively,” says Ish Theilheimer, producer of the new musical I Come from the Valley! Tales and Times of Joan Finnigan, which plays the Bronson Centre Nov. 18.
“There were town meetings about it. People felt it portrayed the Valley and its people as backward and drunken and that they were being portrayed stereotypically.”
“It’s hard living in the city to understand the sense that rural people have of not being taken seriously, not being respected,” adds Theilheimer, who co-wrote the musical with Johanna Zomers.
That sometimes difficult relationship between an artist and her community is a key theme in the musical. So is the love and admiration many felt for Finnigan, who wrote more than 30 books as well as poetry, newspaper stories, radio scripts and more. She died in 2007 at 81.
Many of Finnigan’s books were oral histories rooted in the Valley, including Some of the stories I told you were true and Life Along the Opeongo Line. Her 1981 Giants of Canada’s Ottawa Valley blends fact and legend in stories about outsized characters like logger Joseph Montferrand (Big Joe Mufferaw) and Laird Archibald McNab, the tyrannical founder of McNab Township (now McNab/Braeside) near Arnprior.
Calling her an iconoclast and a prominent voice in Canadian literature — she won a Genie award for that screenplay, was short listed for the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour and other honours, and won multiple regional awards — Theilheimer says Finnigan’s writing was locally focused but also reflects rural life across Canada.
The new musical is based largely on her works and words, including stories, poetry and personal interviews. It embodies the tradition of storytelling as well as the close communities and strong character in the face of hardship that helped define Valley life and that Finnigan so valued.
The music, performed by the Donohue Family of Douglas, Ont., is Celtic and Irish, reflecting Finnigan’s own family background and the heritage of the Valley.
The show is the latest for 15-year-old Stone Fence Theatre, which operates out of Killaloe, Ont. and spotlights the Ottawa Valley in its work.
Theilheimer, who knew Finnigan, believes a musical with its “grand scale” is the right vehicle to tell the story of this writer who lived through many of the last century’s upheavals as well as her own struggles. The latter included the suicide of her husband, Grant Mackenzie, in 1965 and her subsequent years as a single mother raising three children by writing.
Fran Pinkerton plays Finnigan in the musical.
“I felt a pull toward playing a real person who’d actually been in the area,” says Pinkerton.
She says she shares Finnigan’s determination to earn a living by doing what’s fulfilling instead of being pushed into something just for the sake of money.
Finnigan also had no fear of clashing with others, and her obituary reads, “She was gleeful that most feminists did not consider her one of them.” Pinkerton says that non-acceptance came because the writer believed a woman had the right to choose to stay home with her children, a stance that led to skirmishes with Margaret Atwood.
Although born and raised in Ottawa (her father was Frank Finnigan, an Ottawa Senators legend), Finnigan spent a lot of time as a youngster at her grandparents’ farm in Shawville, Que. That experience helped ignite the writer’s fondness for the Ottawa Valley, according to Pinkerton.
“Her grandfather loved the lie of the land, the way it played with the sky … and I think that’s something she inherited.”
Pinkerton believes that Finnigan’s own storytelling was connected to tales she’d heard when young. As an adult, “She realized all the old people were dying off and if she didn’t write down their stories, they’d be lost.”
Gathering those stories involved more than just a notepad and a pen, according to Pinkerton.
“From what I can gather, she’d befriend people, especially older people who were housebound. She’d take little treats, a bit of booze. She’d get them talking and start writing things down. These people were happy to have her go in because she’d become a friend.”
And maybe real friendship sometimes means cutting close to the bone.
I Come from the Valley! Tales and Times of Joan Finnigan is at the Bronson Centre Nov. 18. Tickets and information: 613-628-6600, 1-866-310-1004, stonefence.ca