Tag Archives: Katherine Govier

‘The Elf of Invention’ of the Rockies and the Human Condition | Review of “The Three Sisters Bar and Hotel” by Katherine Govier (2016) HarperAvenue

The Canadian Rockies have always been this incredible draw for people but for varied reasons. But why? Is there some monumental truth to be found between those peaks? Is there some economic gain hidden there? Is it just a place where people live and etch out a living? In those questions, there lies an essence to the motivation of the human condition. And in her book The Three Sisters Bar and Hotel, Katherine Govier has carved out a brilliant saga in which readers can reflect on the human condition.

Heading Out (Pages 1-2)

Gateway, June 1911

Isabel stood on the platform. The caboose disappeared around the curve; the mountains closed in. The tallyho driver had loaded their trunks and sat, reins poised. Maxwell handed her father up into the seat. Doctor Professor Charles Hodgson would go directly to the Sanatorium. Tomorrow they would depart by pack train for the backcountry; tonight he would take the waters, in preparation.

“Come along, dear.”

“I won’t ride with thee, Father,” said Isabel. “I believe I’ll walk through town and over the bridge.”

He returned her gaze, pointedly. “You won’t take the baths?”

Doctor Professor Hodgson was keen to indulge, claiming benefits to health: you could take the hot sulphur waters Turkish, Russian or tub style. There were trained nurses. There was also an apothecary attached where a Quaker like him could purchase whisky. For medicinal purposes.

“I am not ill, thank thee.”

“It is your last chance for the whole summer. We won’t be back this way.” The professor turned to his man for support.

Maxwell stood blank-faced with his hands clasped behind his waist. Humphrey was halfway between his father and sister, indecisive.

“I want to stretch my legs, Father, Walk in the fresh air.” Isabel was delicate but could be wilful.

“Well then, Maxwell, you’d better go with her. There are me her who can manage the bags.”

Humphrey followed her lead, so it was brother and sister and Maxwell the butler who walked down Main Street from the station on a perfect blue-sky day in the Rocky Mountains. Their legs loosened. The hair blew in the wind. The sun spared like electricity. Before they had gone far they came to a strange-shaped building, log on the bottom and hip roof on the top, with a big veranda and a rail to which small, patient horses were hitched. The sign read THE THREE SISTERS HOTEL. They climbed the steps and went in.

Govier has been crafting (note the word ‘crafting’ is in italics) this story for years,  which her fans have been eagerly waiting. And it a saga that has been worth waiting for. The plot covers about 100 years around the region of a town called Gateway. We are introduced to Herbie Wishart, a colourful individual who has reinvented himself as a trail guide for the area. He is about to lead an American scientist and his family into the wilds of the backcountry. It is Herbie and the events around that exploration that will confound and influence characters in the book for decades long afterwards.

Page 130-131

The light began to go not long after dinner; summer was ended. Half-heartedly they tried to dispatch the child to bed, but excited by the thought of seeing her family, Gwen would not go. There was a card table the doctor looked at out of the corner of his eye; he normally played poker at this time of day. Then came a knock on the door, and a man was led into the parlour, his hat twitching in his hands. But this was not Wishart either.

“This is Mr. Erwin,” instructed the doctor. “He’s one of our best packers. Excuse me a minute.” He pulled Erwin aside. “Any sign of the them? What am I to tell her? Why have you left this to me? Where the hell is Wishart?”

“He’s searching. I don’t need to tell you, he’s taken it to heart, Doctor.”

“Come and meet Miss Gwen Hodgson,” said the doctor.

Francis Erwin bowed to Gwen grandly and took her hand to his hips. He answered the doctor’s question while still smiling at the girl: “Wishart will be along in just a day or two.”

“What is he doing?” said Gwen

“Searching,” Erwin told her, straight on. “I was too.”

“For what?”

“For your father’s party.”


“They left their camp but did not arrive at the meeting spot. We think they may be lost.”

Gwen pulled in her chin abruptly. She looked like her father then. “They can’t be lost,” said Gwen. “They’re likely just dilly-dallying.”

“I’m sure you’re right,” said Erwin. “you know all about dilly-dallying don’t you? Do you know how to ride?”

“A little.”

Govier has crafted (again, note that word is in italics) brilliant fiction here. A perfect mix of research, imagination and personal reflection are what make this book a great read. Her descriptions are vivid yet simple and her characters are endearing and believable. Govier has been referred often as being a brilliant storyteller and this book proves that fact.

The Elf of Invention Pages 272-273

On the Trail, August 3, 1928

Past Beguiling, over Bewitching Pass and onto a high meadow that unrolled toward farther peaks. It was strange to get up above one’s world and find another layer, another world laid out. There were hillocks and bubbles and the ground had a spongy texture. An eagle gliding over caught nothing because the ground squirrels were allied against it, sticking their heads out of their burrows and peeping to warn each other. Precarious on a bare rocky rise, a herd of mountain sheep paused to look back at them, and Herbie got out his gun. Gus scrambled after him, hiding behind boulders. The pack train stopped while Herbie and Gus got the kill. The artist took his time, arranging the ram’s head on his lap for a photograph first, and the taking out the folding easel. When the sketch was finished Herbie got his knife and eviscerated the creature. Snares took the carcass to pieces and boiled it.

“Now you’ll be able to say you’ve eaten goat soup,” said Long Lance.

“A day’s march and farther up another pass, through it, down again and beyond, toward the northwest. At night the packhorses were released from their loads and their halters. In the morning they came reluctantly to Herbie’s curses. One day when they were being roped into their load there was a loud cracking followed by rumbles: white thunder. An avalanche across the gap. The ponies bolted. One of them tried to leap over a clutch of stunted trees, caught his foot and fell; the pack loosened and the goods spilled. The pony cantered off, ropes trailing. Wishart unleashed a vocabulary that only began with Goddamned sons of bitches, get your sorry asses back here or I’ll have your testicles for a hat rack. Whore’s tits, hell’s bell’s Jesus wept, bollacks and balls.

The ponies recognized it was a crisis and trotted back for reloading.

The Three Sisters Bar and Hotel by Katherine Govier is one of my favourite reads of 2016. It is a well-crafted (again crafted is in italics for a reason.) that not just tells a story but reflects on the human condition. It sits proudly on my bookshelf. There will be copies given to friends far and wide. And I will be re-reading it again soon.


Link to Katherine Govier’s website

Link to HarperCollins Canada’s webpage for The Three Sisters Bar and Hotel

Link to Katherine Govier’s Q&A with me for The Three Sisters Bar and Hotel

“For years I’ve been fascinated by the characters who came to the Rockies in the early twentieth century . . .(t)hey never made it into the history books “| Q&A with author Katherine Govier on her novel “The Three Sisters Bar & Hotel”

Fans of Katherine Govier will easily tell you she is a sensitive storyteller. Her novels tell stories where the history books stop and imagination begins. Her latest novel –The Three Sisters Bar & Hotel  –  has been eagerly anticipated by those fans for years as Govier crafted out that tale set in the Rockies. Now, just before the release of the book (March 1, 2016), Govier answered a few questions for me here.


First off, could you give a bit of an outline of The Three Sisters Bar & Hotel.

The novel tells of 100 years in the life of the family of a packhorse outfitter in the Rocky Mountains. In 1911 Herbie Wishart guides a fossil-hunting expedition to a remote, mountain-side quarry, leaving the scientists and their party alone at their request. The expedition never returns. Herbie searches, nearly loses his livelihood, and then recovers to run the hotel of the title. But he and his “stubbornly female”- as the cover copy goes- descendants are drawn into this tragedy and its repercussions. The national park, meanwhile, grows and changes — the wild animals are diminished, and what are we to make of this idealized and sectioned off area of the landscape, where the creatures were meant to be free, and the people to be healed by nature?

 Where did the inspiration come from for “The Three Sisters Bar & Hotel?” Did you do much research for the novel?

For years I’ve been fascinated by the characters who came to the Rockies in the early twentieth century—runaway aristocrats, hunters from Europe, miners, cowboys, Quakers, artists, guides – and the society they created. I heard about these people growing up–some of them were still walking the streets of Banff, where I spent time as a child. They never made it into the history books.

Yes, I did research. I spent time in the fabulous Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies. I interviewed local people. I did the hikes, and went out in the storms. I visited the prison camp, and looked at all the national park documents.

In a Q&A you did for me a couple of years ago, you stated that:

It’s set in the Rocky Mountains, over about the past century. It has been fun to write- what a change from writing about Japan! I actually can read the language. The mountain parks in this country are a kind of black hole of human history.  There is just wonderful material there and it’s very close to home for me.

Many writers complain about the editing and re-writing process being dull and tedious. Did you find that with this book or did the thrill continue with the final process?


I wouldn’t say it was thrilling all the time! I had to fit all the pieces together. At one point I went to an art store in Banff and bought great big pieces of poster paper a meter long and 2 feet across, the kind you can erase, and scribbled all over them, with arrows moving things back and forward. It was just too hard to visualize on a computer. Then I did it again and again, to get the order right. I hope in the end it feels inevitable.

In that same Q&A, I asked you if your writing had changed since your first novel. Your response was:

It has changed in that I have become more ambitious and at the same time, probably less intense and intimate.

Do you still think that is true with this novel and why or why not?

Yes I think it is true. It is a big sweeping novel. There are moments of intimacy, yes. And it’s more fun. The people have influenced me: it’s full of bravado and tall tales. But strangely, I have not regained a place in my life where I can be as candid as I was in my early stories. There has been so much to protect. But this is more personal than the last few, however. Something to look forward to as I grow older as a writer is that fearlessness you hear the old talk about.

You have started posting dates where you are going to be doing readings of The Three Sisters Bar & Hotel. Do you have an extensive tour planned for this book? If yes, where do you have planned to speak?

I am traveling quite a bit in the next few months. I’m at the Ottawa Writers Festival, the Kingston Writers Festival and the Grimsby writers’ festival. I am doing three events in Alberta in March and then going to Vancouver and Victoria and going back to Calgary in May.

One of the most talked-about questions I always ask on my blog is asking about somebody’s views on social media. You seem to be quite active on Facebook and Twitter. How do you feel about using those platforms in relation to your writing?

I’ve been on Facebook and twitter for years – I’m less active than I was once. I use twitter as a kind of index- finding and following links to news, reviews and blogs. I also like finding and meeting the younger generations of writers- there’s more than one now. Both really connect you to a community, if that’s what you want. And I keep in touch with people from Japan and India, and England- that part is great. I get very annoyed at Facebook for the usual reasons- pictures of pets and wedding anniversaries. But some people are great at it- Susan Musgrave is one I think of. She is always writing something outrageous or getting outraged herself. For the writer hanging around in front of this screen all the time it creates a break. But it is a test of your discipline, for sure.

Are you working on any new writing right now or are you taking a break from writing? (And if you are working on anything new, are there details you care to share?)

I’m not actually. I have just started to read many years of diaries into a digital transcription program so I can have a look and see what I was up to. I’m in 1972. So far, bad poetry.


Link to Katherine Govier’s website

Link to HarperCollins Canada website for The Three Sisters Bar and Hotel

Recalling the Images from Our Childhood | Review of “Half For You and Half For Me” by Katherine Govier/Illustrated by Sarah Clement (2014) Whitecap Books


We were exposed to some profound imagery in the stories we were told as children. A gifted storyteller would realize that and would be insightful in looking at some of those stories we were exposed too. Hence novelist Katherine Govier’s book Half For You and Half For Me is a wonderful read.

(Page 24)

Little Bo-Peep

Has lost her sheep

And can’t tell where to find them

Leave them alone

And they’ll come home

Wagging their tails behind them.

Description (excerpt) Page 25

“Bo-peep” meant “peek-a-boo.” In medival times if you were convicted of a crime you might have to “play bo pepe throwe a pillory”-be put in the pillory, or stocks, with your head and arms peeping out.

How the shepherdess got involved is anyone’s guess.

There is a certain grace that Govier adds to each of the nursery rhymes she looks at. Not only can one read the rhyme,  (and read the rhyme to someone special) but also get a new understanding of the of the well-known verse.

(Page 70)

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall

Humpty Dumpty had a great fall

All the King’s horses and all the King’s men

Could not put Humpty together again.


We imagine Humpty Dumpty as an egg, probably because his reassembly is hopeless. I other languages his a drunk or a dumpy person – Boule Boule in French and Humpelken Pumpelken in German

Likely he was not a person at all, but a cannon set on a wall around the castle town of Colchester by royalists to protect it during a siege. When the wall collapsed and the cannon fell down, the royalists – “all the King’s men” – could not put it back up. Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward amended the phrase to title their book All the President’s Men, about the Watergate scandal. Might does not always prevail. something delicate may be broken that no power can patch up.

Govier has gone beyond the Mother Goose rhymes and looked at lesser known works and added them to this collection. She has put a great deal of thought and research into this work.

(Page 14)

Twist me, and turn me, and show me

the elf;

I looked in the water, and saw [myself]


This is from The Brownies and Other Tales, by Juliana Horatia Ewing. She lived in New Brunswick for four years and so we count her as Canadian.

What is a Brownie? Before it was a junior Girl Guide. it was “a useful little fellow, something like a little man.” How do you find one? Go to the north side of the lake when the moon is shining and turn yourself round three times, saying this charm. When the child looks in the water, he either says his name, “Jimmie!” or “myself!”

Clement has done an excellent job with illustration the images of the book. There are filled with tiny details for both young and old minds to ponder while reading the excellent descriptions that Govier wrote about.

Scanned image of Page 30 "Curly Locks" by Sarah Clement.
Scanned image of Page 30 “Curly Locks” by Sarah Clement.

(Page 31)

Curly locks, curly locks, wilt thou be mine?

Thou shall’t not wash dishes, nor yet feed the swine,

But sit on a cushion and sew a fine seam

And feed upon strawberries, sugar and cream!


A wooing song that shows curly hair was something to be desired and admired. Until recently. This constituted a vision of marital bliss: to work sitting down, “sew a fine seam” and eat lady-like sweets as a woman of leisure.

But last but not least is the element of love and caring, that exists in this book. It was created with deep reverence that Govier explains in the introduction.

Page 2 Reading With Mum

Ninety-five years ago, when my mother was born, her parents bought a beautiful book: The Jessie Willcox Smith Mother Goose. They read it to her while she sat on their knees. When she was old enough for crayons and scissor, she expressed her affection all over the pages. She kept it until she grew up and became a mother. I have a picture of Mum reading to me; I am about two, and I am entranced. I remember how she laughed. I loved the fact that words on a page could make her laugh. 

Thirty years passed and I had two children of my own. When we visited their grandparents, the Mother Goose came out, and we read together. Now my kids are grown up. Soon I may have grandchildren. Any my beautiful young mother has become one of those bent old women we saw in the pictures.

Half For You and Half For Me by Katherine Govier and illustrated by Sarah Clement is a wonderful exploration of nursery rhymes through the ages. It is a well crafted book that will no doubt be a favourite on the shelves of many hearts both young and old.


Link to Whitecap Books page for Half For You and Half For Me

Link to Katherine Govier’s website

Link to Sarah Clement’s website

Link to a Q&A Katherine Govier did for my blog a few months back

“(Writing) is a great way to discover yourself and to appreciate the world.” | Q&A with author Katherine Govier

Katherine Govier is another novelist I enjoy very much because she explores some unique aspects of the human condition. Many of her novels have dealt with artists and ‘what exactly makes them tick.’ Her last novel The Ghost Brush (The Printmaker’s Daughter in the U.S.) explored the world of Japanese print making of 150 years ago



1. It has been a while since The Ghost Brush/The Print Maker’s Daughter has been published. How has it been received so far?

A: How many languages has it been translated into at this point? Let’s see… French, Spanish, Romanian, Latvian, and Japanese. I am most excited about the Japanese version, which comes out in June. I’m going to Japan to face the music. (smile) Hokusai is an icon and the role his daughter played in his work has not been well known, or well accepted there. Although I think Oei’s time has come.  

As for acceptance—the reviews in the United States were stellar.   Here’s a quote ; In  her lavishly researched and brilliant historical novel, Govier astonishes throughout in her ability to write epic themes intimately, particularly in the lyrical, absorbing, and intense final hundred pages.; -Publishers Weekly 

I had that on the signature of my email for a while. Always made me happy. I wish I could say the sales were equally thrilling. But I hope the book will last. It is getting in to places like gallery book clubs and art history curricula.  The interest in Edo period Japan has carried it a long way.

2. Am I correct that “Half for You, Half for Me”  is a bit of a departure from your usual writing? Could you provide a bit of a background on that book?

A: It is a departure in that I have never published a children’s book before.  But then it’s not strictly a children’s book. A year and a half ago at Christmas my 94 year old mother gave me her old Mother Goose, which she had read from as a child and from which she had read to my sisters and me. I rediscovered it reading with her: she can’t see now, and can not remember what she had for lunch, but she remembers the rhymes.  I was curious about the stories behind them, and off we went. I did some research (my favourite thing) in the Osborne Collection of the Toronto Public Library, and discovered these utterly gorgeous vintage illustrations by great artists like Arthur Rackham, for instance.  Whitecap Books designed it beautifully mixing the old with new full page illustrations by the illustrator Sarah Clement. It’s a hard thing to do, mixing old with new, (Half for You and Half for Me) but I think it worked very well

3. Who are your favourite writers? What are you reading right now?

A: I just finished AMERICANAH by Chimamanda Adiche. I enjoyed that, because of my interest in immigrants and their experience. Before that THE PURCHASE by Linda Spalding, STET by Diana Athill, went through a phase of Steven Heighton, Jim Craiche, Jim Harrison. I read for story, and forstyle. I read just about everything, but I give up quickly if I don’t like what I’m finding. Favourite writers? That’s hard, I have so many.  My favourite novel of all time is MIDDLEMARCH.

4. How much of your writing is based on personal experience? Do you include other people’s personal stories in your novels or do you rely on your imagination to come up with some of the situations in your books?

A: When I started writing fiction, it was very personal—not only the novels but especially the short stories.  But as the years went by—I first published thirty-five years ago, in 1979– I began to reach farther. Partly it was for the challenge of going into unknown territory, bigger worlds, a bigger canvas. Partly it was because the urgent need to sort myself out and understand my nearest and dearest through fiction went underground. It creates certain difficulties, as you might imagine.  I still deal with issues that are central to my being, but I may set a story in nineteenth century Labrador or Japan, which creates a useful disguise.  Also, indirection is fruitful, I find. It is nicer now to come upon the heartbeat of my writing by surprise.

5. Are you working on any new novels right now?

A: Right now I am doing a big edit on a new novel that will come out about a year from now. It’s set in the Rocky Mountains, over about the past century. It has been fun to write- what a change from writing about Japan! I actually can read the language. The mountain parks in this country are a kind of black hole of human history.  There is just wonderful material there and it’s very close to home for me.

6. Has your writing changed much since your first novel? If yes, how so?

A: It has changed in that I have become more ambitious and at the same time, probably less intense and intimate.  I look back at early stories, for instance, and am struck by their candor. We develop protective layers throughout life, and – form, anyway- these show up in writing. I am waiting for the big moment that you read about when suddenly you are old enough to not give a fig what you say or who is bothered by it.  Longevity is my family’s middle name, which is a joyful thing. What it means, however, is that part of me is still a daughter. I think the world will look very different when the older generation has gone off stage.

7. You seem to spend a lot of time traveling. (I know your Facebook profile seems to mention Toronto, Alberta and Arizona as places you have “hung your hat” recently) Does traveling help you with your writing at all?

A: I do go back and forth between Toronto where my husband and kids are, and Canmore, Alberta, where I have a vacation house and can be near my parents and sisters. Arizona was a one week holiday, and I loved it.  But I have done a lot of traveling in the past, and wrote travel articles, did research in many countries, and sat scribbling in foreign hotels. I’ve always found that from the moment I sit down on a plane I can empty my mind of the many details and responsibilities that clutter it, at home. I step into a strange city all alert and sponge-like, ready to feel and absorb and collect. Unfortunately travel has become more exhausting and less rewarding in the last decade or so. Is it just me?  It’s harder and harder to get that feeling of foreignness, to be really “away from home”. At the same time the trip itself has become more of an ordeal. Nonetheless I’ll keep doing it; it’s a bit of an addiction.

8. There are a lot of people who seem to be writing fiction right now just for their own personal enjoyment. Do you have any advice for people who are doing that task right now?

A: Yes, I have noticed that.  More power to them. I think it is a great way to discover yourself and to appreciate the world.  But the question of audience is really vexing. Speaking of Facebook, I was rebuked recently when I referred to Vivian Maier’s work as “unfulfilled”.  She is the woman who lived as a nanny, took millions of photographs, and showed no one her work. People thought I meant she was unfulfilled. Well, I don’t know if she herself was or wasn’t.  What I meant was that the art was unfulfilled, in the sense that it seemed to beg an audience and never found one.  I am not sure if I could write “just for personal enjoyment”; to me there is always a lurking idea of the readers to come. But perhaps if I were starting out today I would feel differently; probably I would. Those readers are increasingly hard to find!


Link to Katherine Govier’s website

Link to HarperCollins Canada page for “The Ghost Brush”

Link to Whitecap Books page for “Half for You and Half for Me”


Here we go!

So here we are at 2014! And so begins my little blog here. I hope you find it interesting as much as I do writing it.

I consider this more of a reading journal than a blog. I have always enjoyed literature and in the past couple of years, more and more people have been asking me what exactly I am reading. This forum allows me not only to tell people what I am reading (and why) but gives me the opportunity to review what I have read.

I have a media background but as the world becomes faster and meaner, I am truly convinced that there has to be a better  and more serious means to document the human condition. A few hours a day to review “what we are” and “why we do what we do”  would make the world a better place. But we can’t do that with quick sound bits or pithy phrases.

This year should be a great years for books in general. I have heard in the grape vine that writers such as Angie Abdou, Katherine Govier,  and  Mark Lavorato  have great novels waiting in the winds.

And yes, I am building a personal library. If you follow me on some of the social media fronts, you will see that I collect books and bookmarks. I believe that books are a time-honored craft that is in danger of dying, and if it does die, humanity will loose it’s soul.

But enough of that. Let’s go see what is out there to be read.