Award winning Saskatchewan writer Trevor Herriot made a return to St. Peter’s College for a reading on Thursday night. The author and naturalist spent time with an audience of writing fans and students talking about process and his new work, the novel “The Economy of Sparrows,” released in the fall of 2023. 

Herriot has frequented the College and Abbey as a writer and instructor. It’s his first time back post-pandemic, and he expressed his pleasure at returning. We caught up with Herriot in a post-reading interview.  

The novel covers some familiar territory for Herriot, expressing both a reverence for the natural world and a fascination with local history. It’s his first published foray into fiction, but Herriot noted the change-up was not a tremendous stretch.  

“The transition is not that big because I always have people or characters in the non-fiction writing – I'm writing about people as well as well as nature,” Herriot explained, “And you do use some of the skills that are used in writing fiction.” 

The difference, he laughs is that you can “make stuff up.” He agrees that’s the part that’s a bit more daunting given the vast array of directions the writer can head with the narrative.  

“That’s what was difficult, reigning that in where I had to make choices and decisions. I had to choose how much I would use of the historical figure that is in the novel, William Spreadborough, and how much would be the contemporary main character, Nell Rowland, living on a prairie farm landscape having come back from living in Ottawa for most of her adult years. On balance, I had to cut a lot of the historical stuff just to make this work.” 

That contemporary struggle of reconnecting with a land and a history that’s been foreign to the central character drives much of the book. It’s an ongoing pursuit for Herriot, stemming from his own fascination with prairie history and his inquiries about valuing the land that nurtured us and all creatures in a rich and diverse habitat. 

“This novel connects that by having a bit of the historical stuff from the geological survey that was responsible for the way we settled the prairie. A couple of people in the book that are referred to, Spreadborough and John Macoun, were a big part of it. They were actual historical figures.” 

Herriot implants the famous naturalists not as central characters, but more as ghosts who inform Nell on her journey. A former custodian in the library at the National Museum of Nature in Ottawa, Nell’s obsession with the trailblazing cartographers leads to realizations about a family connection with one of them.  

Despite its historical bent, the novel is set in the modern world, on a prairie landscape that is both familiar but has undergone much change since European settlement. Those refrains, so familiar to Herriot’s readers, surface in the novel. 

“I just hear so much from rural people who are so concerned about what is happening to prairie environments. Some of them are actively farming, some are living on acreages or in small towns. They drive through the landscape and see the changes that have come to the place since they were children, The novel addresses that and some of the anxiety, fear and grief we’re feeling about some of the loss.” 

Those emotions are framed through Nell’s view, in her interaction with her neighbours who see the world a bit differently than she does. There is complexity around the view given that modern agricultural practices have evolved to supply a growing demand for food in an economic environment that has promoted this growth. It’s that struggle for balance and coming to terms with the evolution of the landscape in response to those farming imperatives that lies at the heart of the work. 

It’s been a drive throughout much of Herriot’s work in his career, and it’s a theme that’s engaged readers in important conversations – this time with a unique narrative backdrop.