The Raddall Prize celebrates it’s 30th year as the only of its kind in the country
By Alexander MacLeod
In the fall of 1938, at 44 Park Street, in Liverpool, Nova Scotia, times were uncertain. Work was the main issue, of course, work and money, and how they fit together.
The worst of the depression had passed, but its bruising effects had sunk deep into the tissue of the community and a lingering pain was still being felt by everyone in town. Families were caught up in global forces beyond their control. People were living between the World Wars in a country that was changing rapidly. Nobody could predict what the future would hold politically, economically or culturally.
Then, as now, things felt precarious.
Thomas Head Raddall was 34 years old. He had served in the War, as a radio operator on Sable Island. Now he and his wife Edith were starting to raise a family.
Somehow, he had managed to land one of the rare, well-paying jobs in the province. He was a respected bookkeeper at the Mersey Paper Mill. Things looked pretty good, stable even. The path to one kind of a certain future was there to be followed.
But Raddall did not take it. He wanted to be a fiction writer.
That last sentence needs to be repeated:
In 1938, Thomas Head Raddall wanted to be a full-time writer. He wanted to make a proper living off of his stories. And he wanted to do all this while working from a house located in a small town in Nova Scotia and producing fiction that was mostly set in that same region.
The idea was so outlandish that at the time of his resignation, Raddall’s manager and fellow employees at the mill actually handed him a silver platter with their opinion engraved right into the precious metal. “Tom,” it said, “when you’re finished with this foolishness, there will be a job for you here.” Raddall accepted the gift – he saved it even – but he never returned to the office.
Though these facts are important – and that historic silver platter is still there in the exact recreation of Raddall’s study housed in the Queen’s county museum – this is not a story about Thomas Head Raddall. Or, more accurately, this is not a story only about Thomas Head Raddall … Sr.
There was another important character living at 44 Park Street in 1938. In fact, there was even another Thomas Raddall. This one was only four years old at the time, but even then he knew he was witnessing something dramatic.
“Nothing had to be said, but everyone knew,” he remembers now, at age 86. “Our house was changing.”
Raddall senior wrote mostly at night, so the entire routine of the family shifted to accommodate this new reality, the complicated existence that inevitably comes along when other people have to live with a working artist.
“When he was in a funk,” Raddall Jr. says, “the whole damn outfit shut down.”
Nothing was predictable. “We switched back and forth between Hot Streaks and Cold Spells,” he explains. When the typewriter was rolling and the keys were clacking, that meant Raddall Sr was on a hot streak and things were going to be okay.
But if there was nothing coming from that room – and sometimes there were weeks and months, even years, of nothing – then that was a very cold spell.
Raddall Jr. took it all in. “It was music for us, the sound of the keys hitting the paper,” he says. “If you heard it, you could go to sleep feeling good, but if you didn’t, you couldn’t help but worry.”
The value of the work that Raddall Sr. produced during those nights in his study was almost instantly recognized. In his career, he won three Governor General’s Awards and he was named to the Order of Canada in 1971. His stories and his novels and his non-fiction played no small role in the establishment of what we now recognize as Canadian Literature, and he was one of the first innovators to harness the power of the historical novel and use it to explore contemporary issues and challenges.
None of this was accomplished in isolation. Contrary to cliché, writers very often do not live alone, and their choices, the way they decide to spend their time, affect lots of other people. Again, Raddall Jr, was taking it all in.
“My mother never got the credit she deserved,” he wisely observes. “She was essential to everything.”
The four-year-old boy from 44 Park Street eventually went to university. He studied first to become an engineer and later, a dentist, and though he never entered artistic life as a practitioner, it could be argued that no single individual has done more to advance the Literature of Atlantic Canada than Dr. Tom Raddall Jr.
In 1991, as he neared his own retirement, Raddall made his first investment in a literary prize that he named after his father. Two years earlier, in 1989, he’d set up a similar fund at Acadia University to support the Raddall Symposium, a regular scholarly meeting devoted to the advanced study of Atlantic Canadian Literature.
All at once, through the generosity of one person, the key elements of the region’s literary infrastructure improved dramatically. It was like an old house finally getting the power and the water and the heating and the plumbing and the insulation all updated at the same time.
“I just didn’t want my dad to be forgotten,” Raddall Jr says now.
Unique for its generosity ($25,000), its openness and its amazing transparency, the Thomas Head Raddall Atlantic Fiction prize can be presented to any writer in the Atlantic Region.
“At the time we started it,” Raddall Jr, says, “It seemed like the entire publishing world began and ended in Toronto, so I wanted to do something that began and ended in Atlantic Canada.”
The prize does not draw a cent of its funding from government sources or from corporate sponsorship. Instead, it is the purest kind of philanthropy, a fund that has been nurtured and cared for over the years by one writer’s family in order to support another writer and their family, in whatever form that family takes. In its citation, the Raddall prize memorably offers its winner, not just money, but more importantly “the gift of time and peace of mind.”
The lessons a person learns when they are little never really fade.
The results have been astounding. There is nothing else like the Raddall Prize anywhere else in this country and there are no other private citizens who have supported a whole generation of regional literature in such a quiet but consistent and substantial way. Though the family do not like to draw attention to themselves, sometimes the things that go without saying, simply need to be said. These are just basic facts: Atlantic Canadian Writing would not be where it is today without the support of the Raddalls.
The list of past winners reads like an all-star cast of our literature. These writers come from Newfoundland, and New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia (no Prince Edward Islander have won it yet), but they all share a common appreciation for what the Raddalls have achieved, this gift they have given to the culture as a whole.
“I am so grateful to the Raddall family and this award,” writes Shandi Mitchell, the 2010 winner, ”I don’t know if they are truly aware how deeply it affects writers’ lives and their art.”
David Adams Richards won the prize in 1994 and 2012. He says: “The Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award means a very great deal to Atlantic writers and my two meant the world to me. And not just because of the generous largesse, but because of the name attached to it and the feeling you are among your own.”
Russell Wangersky (2013) observes: “Writing is so much a roll of the financial dice: the Raddall let me breathe,” and Oisin Curran (2018) lays it out with perfect clarity: “My wife and I are both writers with two young children and trying to provide for our family while also writing novels is a challenge. The award was a significant boost which truly eased our financial situation.”
Kathleen Winter (2011) remembers the way the award “gave me a sense of being valued as an artist in the very place that had fed my work” and Carol Bruneau (2001) praises the way it “helped sustain me through the ups and downs of the writing life. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the Raddall Family for their generosity.”
“We are all together in this thing,” says Thomas Raddall III, the son of Thomas Raddall Jr, and the grandson of Thomas Head Raddall. “It’s innate for us. We have an innate respect for the art.”
In recent years, Tom III has taken over many of the administrative duties for the prize, but his passion and his care is obvious and instantly recognizable.
“We all share in the success of the prize,” he says “and we think the future is bright. There are givers and there are takers in this world, but believe me: it is much more rewarding to be a giver.”
“Raddall is not a common name,” says Thomas Jr. “My dad used to hate it when people made a mistake about us. If a stranger called the house, he’d slam the phone down and say: “No, there are no Randalls living here.”
He was right. These Raddalls are decidedly uncommon people and that is a very good thing. They have made an unprecedented contribution to the culture of Atlantic Canada and we as a reading public have been the collective beneficiary of their kindness. Through generations of hard work, their family name has become a mark of excellence.
So if you are a slightly crazy fiction writer – if you are the kind of person who might turn down a life that has been served up on a silver platter – then you should know that you are not alone. The Raddalls understand exactly where you are coming from. They know that the cold spell cannot last forever and that the next hot streak is coming soon. So tune up your typewriters and be ready. There is music to be made.