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Rugged Beauty, Stolen Horses and Tragic Circuses: Nick Tooke Takes a Trip to BC's Great Depression in his Debut Novel


Set in the ragged B.C. interior during the Great Depression, British-Canadian author Nick Tooke's debut novel The Ballad of Samuel Hewitt (Porcupine's Quill) tells the story of a teenage boy who, fueled by rage and abandon, hatches a plan with a friend to steal a valuable stallion and escape into the merciless wild of the Thompson River Valley. Once there, they are nearly victim to a tough, seedy underbelly of hobos, criminals, and other undesirables before coming across the path of a worn-down traveling circus. Enamored by its cast of sad-luck characters, the boys fall into its orbit, only to find even more violence and danger laying in wait.

A thrilling, immersive journey through the peaks and valleys of Depression-era British Columbia, The Ballad of Samuel Hewitt is also a meditation on complicated familial bonds and the challenges of finding one's place in the world. We're thrilled to have Nick at Open Book today to discuss his own harrowing experience while biking through the B.C. interior, the hidden psychedelic properties of his book, and how a change of ending brought a needed sense of closure.


Open Book:

Do you remember how your first started this novel or the very first bit of writing you did for it?

Nick Tooke:

I started with the notion of a circus in decline—the melancholy, shabby side of the marvellous—and also with an image borrowed from a true account of one man’s crack-up during the Great Depression, when the traveling circuses all but came to an end. The first scene I wrote was the one of Sam’s dad, out of his mind, surrounded by stamps he has obsessively torn out of hundreds of spent envelopes. Between that image and my imagined circus, I then had to connect the dots.


How did you choose the setting of your novel? What connection, if any, did you have to the setting when you began writing?


The sparsely populated, “desert” setting of this novel both engenders and reflects my hero’s journey. I am in awe of open spaces, and of BC’s rugged beauty. For this particular novel I rode a mountain bike for eight days along what became Samuel’s route, losing my tent to a hurricane and getting lost myself along the way. Great fun.


Did you find yourself having a "favourite" amongst your characters? If so, who was it and why?


Ballantyne, the ringmaster, became my favourite character. His journey is, in many ways, parallel to Samuel’s though at the opposite end of a life. If Samuel is becoming somebody, the ringmaster is busy divesting himself of all that he has been. His reckoning is both tragic and comic, and underpins the meaning of the novel. I am drawn to his abiding humanity and the mysticism with which his spirit flares in the days leading up to his death.


What was the strangest or most memorable moment or experience during the writing process for you?


After barely surviving a knife fight, Sam Hewitt barters for an old nag and crosses the Cascade Mountains trying to find his way home. During this crossing, half-starved and utterly alone, he confronts the menace of his recurring dream. In order to make it believable that Sam should experience a vision, or waking dream, the penultimate draft stressed his hunger and long isolation as the cause of his hallucinations—a phenomenon not uncommon to consciousness under duress and to explorers who travel for many days without seeing another soul. But then it occurred to me: Why not have him ingest, as well, and by accident, a species of psilocybin mushroom (of which there are many in that part of BC)? During the course of Samuel’s ‘trip’—and as invariably happens under the influence of an hallucinogen—his ego-defences dissolve, his heart opens, and instead of running away from his fears he yields to them, and by doing so loosens their grip. This decision on my part, and the resulting passage, was my most memorable moment while writing this book. It taught me to trust my own experience, to be playful, specific, and to keep it real. As one of my characters declares later on: “An audience will always know when a speaker has suffered for his story. Without the salt of authenticity, his story will fall short.”

I soon began to realize that the overall form of the novel resembles the psychedelic experience. And if the characters, the story, and the writing itself succeed in sweeping the reader along for the ride, then the reader will have surrendered to the same death, rebirth and return as Sam Hewitt: The novel as acid trip, but without the risk. 


Did the ending of your novel change at all through your drafts? If so, how?


The ending changed dramatically once I blasted my inhibitions, as indicated above. In the manuscript I first submitted to The Porcupine’s Quill, Samuel returns home to discover that his father has died, and while that version rendered his homecoming poignant, it nevertheless allowed me, the author, an easy way out of reckoning with the presence of Samuel’s shell-shocked father. It also robbed Samuel of his chance at atonement. So, armed with the conviction that I should confront, not evade, the harder questions, and encouraged by my editor, Stephanie Small, who possesses a well developed BS detector, I decided to abandon the original ending and resurrect Samuel’s dad. The numinous, fairy-tale like quality of the confession Robert Hewitt now makes to his son at the end of the book, breaking his silence about the horrors of his P.O.W. experience during WW1, not only captures the essence of Robert’s existential distress, but, by bearing witness to Robert’s story, Samuel becomes a catalyst to his father’s healing, and integrates this role into his burgeoning sense of self. By the new, definitive ending of the book, in other words, Samuel’s journey “lands”. His transformation is accomplished.


Who did you dedicate your novel to, and why?


This novel is dedicated to my father, Norman, who died shortly before The Porcupine’s Quill agreed to publish it. Norman never understood my decision to write and tried to dissuade me, but he came around in the end and would have been proud.


Nick Tooke was born in the UK, emigrated to Vancouver Island in 1982, and has since lived in Vancouver, Montreal, Tucson, Edmonton, Toronto and Niagara on the Lake—in that order. He now lives in Cayuga, Ontario, with his wife and daughter. The Ballad of Samuel Hewitt is his first novel.


Buy the Book

The Ballad of Samuel Hewitt

Set against the backdrop of the Great Depression, a young horse thief and his unlikely accomplice are pursued through the forbidding landscape of the BC interior. There they encounter villains, drifters and fiercely insular circus folk in a profound tale of friendship, forgiveness and finding home.

June 1934: the depths of the Great Depression. Reckless with anger and spoiling for a fight, seventeen-year-old Samuel Hewitt and his Shuswap friend Charleyboy conspire to steal a prize stallion and disappear into the blistered, unforgiving terrain of British Columbia’s Thompson River Valley.

The boys are looking for a fresh start—and for somewhere to belong. But what they find is a hardscrabble existence enlivened by ruthless criminals and boxcar bums ... until they come upon the denizens of a once-majestic travelling circus struggling to survive in an era in which even marvels have lost their capacity to charm. In this surreal, ramshackle environment, Samuel develops an unexpected kinship with the failing ringmaster and his enigmatic daughter. But violence and treachery are prevalent in the shadows of the Big Top, and Samuel may well find himself on the run once more.

In The Ballad of Samuel Hewitt, Nick Tooke presents an uncommon coming-of-age story as well as a thoughtful examination of the meaning of home and family.