In 2013, after filling the role for nine years, Sylvia Barnard retired as the president of Cambrian College. She has used some of the newfound spare time that came with retirement to devote to one of her passions — writing.
The result is Barnard’s debut, self-published, 400-page novel entitled “Rhubarb, Strawberries and Willows.”
She’s holding a couple of upcoming book-signings for the novel in the Greater Sudbury area. Those take place at 6 p.m. Oct. 3 at the Greater Sudbury Public Library Main Branch, 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. Oct. 4 at the South End library branch and at 1 p.m. Oct. 15 at the Valley East library branch. She also previously held a book signing in Espanola Sept. 29.
“Rhubarb, Strawberries and Willows” follows main character Kate Dumont Walker, who lives with her grandmother on the shores of the Spanish River in 1980. Unmarried, she is determined to keep her infant daughter.
One day, while snowshoeing along the river bank she is unexpectedly hurled a hundred years back in time. With no way to jump forward again, Kate eventually settles into a new life with single father, Claude Dumont, who is living in a log cabin on the same property as Kate’s present-day family home.
Kate’s journey back in time brings her into contact with true-life Northern Ontario characters such as William Cornelius Van Horne, who is surveying the route for the transcontinental railway, Abe Obey, the first settler in Espanola, and various historical families instrumental in the establishment of Nairn.
Kate struggles with her role as history unfolds around her, particularly in the face of the 1910 passenger train derailment on a bridge crossing the Spanish River near Nairn Centre.
Is her jump back in time connected to the crash? How would history change if she intervened and the 48 people killed in the accident didn’t die?
Barnard said she got the idea for the novel because she used to live on the Spanish River, and noticed old stone piers for a bridge while fishing. A neighbour told her that was the area where the deadly train derailment took place.
“This was considered to be the third worst train disaster in Canadian rail history until 1950, and nobody knows about it,” she said, adding that through her novel, for which she did exhaustive research, she wanted to bring that event to life.
Given it’s in the historical fiction and time travel romance genre, there are inevitable comparisons to the hit book and television series “Outlander.”
“I suppose, you know, that it can be seen,” Barnard said. “There are certainly some hints of it, as you say, being sort of a Canadian version of it. But it digresses very quickly from that whole ‘Outlander’ piece.”
Barnard, who left Sudbury following her retirement, eventually settling in the Georgian Bay community of Penetanguishine, said she used to write stories and poetry as a child and teen, and during her career, she had many articles of a professional nature published.
“When I had the opportunity when I retired to actually have the time to delve into the fictional side of writing, I was just really looking forward to it, and jumped right in,” she said.
Barnard said one of the things that has been helpful in her writing process has been connecting with other writers.
When she’d written the first few chapters of her novel, she let the members of a writing circle she’d joined read them, “and they tore it to shreds. It was the best thing they could have done for me.”
Fittingly for a retired college president, Barnard has also taken college courses to improve her craft, including a graduate certificate in creative writing from Humber College.
“I've had some short stories published in online magazines and in provincial anthologies, and so on,” she said. “So I've had some success with that. But all the time that I was writing the short stories, I was constantly working on the novel in its various forms.”
Barnard said she’s thrilled with how her novel turned out. She’s also written a second book (a creative non-fiction piece called “A Hyphenated Life” inspired by her parents’ experiences as German immigrants to Canada), and has started a third.
You can purchase copies of “Rhubarb, Strawberries and Willows” from Barnard for $25 at her upcoming book signings. If you can’t make it out to a signing, more information on purchasing physical or digital copies of the book is available through Barnard’s author website.
Heidi Ulrichsen in Sudbury.com's associate content editor. She also covers education and the arts scene.