The large attendance at the recent showing of Homeward Bound, the Walt Disney movie based on The Incredible Journey by Sheila Burnford, indicates that there are still many people in Thunder Bay who remember Sheila and her work. And some of this work was on display at Trinity Church hall, including foreign editions of The Incredible Journey in many different languages. The good news is that the Sheila Burnford Collection – including her personal papers, typewriter and other artifacts - is going to be held by Thunder Bay Public Library. This will make a unique resource available to the local, provincial, national and international community. It will also enable programming and activities around the collection.
While The Incredible Journey – the story of two dogs and a cat who travel home through 200 miles of the NW Ontario landscape – is a Canadian Classic, some of Sheila Burnford’s other works are not so well known. There are plans to make a series of documentaries about Sheila – each based on one of her books – to raise their profile.
In The Fields of Noon Sheila Burnford turns to old and new animal friends in a sheaf of reminiscences. Her interests are far-ranging, although always grounded in nature. Among the creatures who sit for portraits are Tom, a cat that came with the snows and left with the spring and would never submit to human bondage; Claud, the canary whose catered summers are delightfully recorded; and William, the aged dog who had brought up the children and who was then patiently attended by them.
Without Reserve is the true account of two not-exactly-ordinary housewives – Sheila Burnford and her artist friend Susan Ross – and their lives with the Cree and Ojibwa people on their remote northern reserves. Sheila and Susan recorded the wild rice harvesters, Lake Nipigon, the people of the Big Trout Band, spring days at Sandy Lake, Fort Severn, Casabonika and Yelling Falls, and Ohnemoos: the Indian Dog. This connection with First Nations will be explored as an important aspect of the Sheila Burnford Collection at TBPL.
In her next book, One Woman’s Arctic, Sheila Burnford travelled even further afield, and spent two idyllic summers close to the North Pole in the Inuit community of Pond Inlet. She not only appreciated the people and scenery but archaeology; at a nearby dig she participated in the first planned recovery from the permafrost of wooden masks and other artifacts. She explored two strange graves, old traders’ buildings, and blubber cauldrons from whaling days. Everything was recorded in a narrative prose style that enables you to imagine what it was like to experience these adventurers first hand.
Sheila Burnford turned prophet in Mr Noah and the Second Flood when she predicted the outcomes of global warming and climate change. This modern fable tells the story of the original Noah’s great-great-many-times-great grandson’s building another ark when pollution causes a second Deluge.
In her final work, Bel Ria, Sheila Burnford offers the spellbinding tale of a small dog caught up in the Second World War, and of the extraordinary life-transforming attachments he forms with the people he meets in the course of a perilous passage from occupied France to besieged England.
If you have any memories of Sheila Burnford and her family, or any artifacts (such as photos of the world premier of The Incredible Journey in Port Arthur) which you would like to share, please bring them into any branch of Thunder Bay Public Library. We want the Sheila Burnford Collection to become a community-led and driven project which engages with as many local people as possible. By working in partnership with Lakehead University the collection will be available to both academic researchers and those who love the work of Sheila Burnford, Thunder Bay’s very own world class author.