Sandra Birdsell, née Sandra Bartlett, short-story writer, novelist (b at Hamiota, Man 22 Apr 1942). Sandra Birdsell grew up in Morris, Man, the fifth of the 11 children of her Russian Mennonite mother and Métis father. Like most of her fictional characters, Birdsell has always lived on the prairies, settling first in Winnipeg and later Regina. Her fiction investigates the lives of small-town characters, especially women. In addition to fiction, Sandra Birdsell has written plays, radio dramas, and scripts for television and film. She has taught creative writing and served as writer-in-residence at universities across Canada.
Sandra Birdsell's first 2 short-story collections, Night Travellers (1982) and Ladies of the House (1984), explore the familial and psychological problems of characters in rural and urban settings. The members of the Lafreniere family, portrayed in many of the stories, seek a contentment that eludes them in the fictional town of Agassiz, Man. Birdsell's female characters often feel trapped in the domestic sphere and in their roles as daughters, wives and mothers. When asked in an interview to remark on the subject of her work, Birdsell responded: "The presence of absence in a person's life. And how they attempt to fill it, because you never can, I don't think." The stories in these 2 volumes were published together under the title Agassiz Stories (1987). Birdsell's third collection of stories, The Two-Headed Calf, won the Saskatchewan Book of the Year Award in 1997. Rather than a common setting, these stories share a theme, as they are all concerned with the concept of duality.
Sandra Birdsell's first novel, The Missing Child (1989), is also set in Agassiz, which is here on the verge of being flooded by a melting underground glacier. This resonant, multi-voiced novel, which combines a naturalistic narrative with moments of magic realism, was awarded the W.H. Smith/Books in Canada first novel award. In The Chrome Suite (1992), middle-aged scriptwriter Amy Barber reconstructs the events of her past in an effort to understand her feelings of dissatisfaction with her life, as she drives from Toronto back home to Manitoba. The Chrome Suite was shortlisted for a Governor General's Award and won the McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award.
In 1993 Sandra Birdsell was the recipient of the Marion Engel Award, a prize given to a Canadian woman writer in mid-career for her body of work. Birdsell has also been nominated for a Juno award, for her 1995 radio play The Town That Floated Away. Her children's book with the same title won the 1997 Saskatchewan Children's Literature Award.
Sandra Birdsell draws on her own Russian Mennonite heritage in The Russländer (2001). This epic family story is set in the chaotic and violent upheaval of early-20th-century Russia. The life-changing and devastating events are remembered from a child's perspective, that of Katya Vogt, an elderly woman now living in Winnipeg. The Russländer was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and was named the Saskatchewan Book of the Year. Birdsell continues the Vogt family saga in her 2005 Children of the Day. Sara Vogt lives in rural Manitoba, the wife of Métis Oliver Vandal and a mother of 10 children. The novel takes place during one day, in June 1953, a day when internal and external pressures build and threaten to destroy this family. As in her other works, it is Birdsell's careful attention to specific details and individual voices that once again allows readers to connect with and care about these characters in this particular place and time.