British Columbia

Acclaimed author Lawrence Hill researching new novel about northeast B.C.'s Alaska Highway

One of Canada's most accomplished authors is touring northeast British Columbia to research a new novel about the African-American soldiers who built the Alaska Highway.

Road from Dawson Creek, B.C., to Alaska was built largely by African-American soldiers in World War II

Award-winning novelist Lawrence Hill is turning his attention to B.C.'s Alaska Highway for his latest project, exploring the connections between the African-American soldiers who built it and the small Canadian communities they impacted. (CBC Books)

One of Canada's most accomplished authors is touring northeast British Columbia to research a new novel about the African-American soldiers who built the Alaska Highway.

Lawrence Hill, author of The Book of Negroes and The Illegal, is planning his next novel to be set against the backdrop of the construction of the 2,232 kilometer highway connecting Dawson Creek, B.C., to the Delta Junction in Alaska.

These are complicated stories, [about] intersecting lives and intersecting love- Lawrence Hill

The road was built by 11,000 American soldiers during the Second World War, approximately one-third of whom were African-American.

The success of the black soldiers in Canada has been recognized as a key moment leading to the eventual desegregation of the U.S. Army and prompted the the U.S. Federal Highway Administration to dub the highway "the road to civil rights."

"It's an incredibly dynamic story and it's very little known to Canadians," Hill told CBC Daybreak North host Carolina de Ryk.

"I think it's one of those stories that's known by people in the community ... but other Canadians who live in Newfoundland, as I do in the summer, or in Ontario or Winnipeg or Vancouver, it's a story they just know nothing about."

The Alaska Highway, which stretches from Dawson Creek, B.C., to Fairbanks, Alaska is celebrating its 75th anniversary in 2017. ((Andy Clark/Reuters))

Hill has had the idea of writing a novel about the highway on his mind since 2012 but is now making it a primary project.

He's spending the month of May traveling from Dawson Creek north into Yukon to collect facts and stories to help shape his narrative.

"It's a story that is fascinating, because it speaks so much to the experience of African-Americans, of white settlers, of First Nations people," he said. 

"I have already met with one woman who descends from a romantic liaison between an Indigenous woman and an African-American soldier who was passing through."

"These are complicated stories, [about] intersecting lives and intersecting love."

Hill said he tries not to let other people's expectations of another "great novel" affect him while preparing his next story.

"I try not to think about that because all it does is make me anxious," he laughed.

"It's just my job to write the best stories I can."


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