The true story of a 1947 Saskatchewan murder case inspired Helen Humphreys' latest novel
Helen Humphreys is a novelist and poet from Kingston, Ont. Her novels include The Evening Chorus, which was nominated for a Governor General's Literary Award, The Lost Garden, which was defended on Canada Reads in 2003 by Mag Ruffman, Afterimage, Leaving Earth and Machine Without Horses.
Her latest is the novel Rabbit Foot Bill, a novel that tells the true story of a Saskatchewan murder involving a 74-year-old William Young — also known as Rabbit Foot Bill. Hugh LaFave, a young boy at the time, actually witnessed the murder. It is LaFave's life story dramatized in Rabbit Foot Bill.
Humphreys spoke with Shelagh Rogers about writing Rabbit Foot Bill.
A real-life story
"About 18 years ago, I was approached at a reading I was giving in Perth, Ont., by a man named Hugh LaFave. LaFave wanted me to help him with his writing and asked if I would. And I did.
I was so intrigued by the character of Rabbit Foot Bill.
"One of the stories that he had that he wanted to write was the story of Robert Foot Bill, who was somebody he had known, when he was a child in Saskatchewan. I worked with him for a while and he wrote a version of it himself.
"At some point, we also decided that I might try and write a version of it. I was so intrigued by the character of Rabbit Foot Bill."
A man of the land
"Rabbit Foot Bill was a man who lived rough. He lived in a burrow that he had made himself. He sold rabbit feet for money and did odd jobs in the town. He had a kind of claustrophobia; he didn't like to be inside, but he could work outside.
Hugh's story of what had happened was much more appealing than the story that had actually happened. So I ran with his version of things.
"When Hugh was a boy, he befriended him. Rabbit Foot Bill then committed a murder and was sent to prison. That's roughly the story.
"Hugh went on to become a psychiatrist, he went and worked in a mental hospital in Weyburn, Sask. He said he had been reconnected with Bill at the hospital. But when I started doing the research, I found that Bill had died in prison."
"Hugh's story of what had happened was much more appealing than the story that had actually happened. So I ran with his version of things."
A particular bond
"Love is often partitioned off into particular relationships. It's partitioned off into a lover, or a parent and child. But I wanted to make the point that you can actually have a passionate feeling of love for someone that operates outside of those normative boundaries.
Leonard was sort of passionately in love with Bill, because he entered his life at a point where Leonard really needed what Bill provided.
"Leonard was sort of passionately in love with Bill, because he entered his life at a point where Leonard really needed what Bill provided. For Bill, Leonard — strangely, for the unstable character that he was — provided Leonard with emotional stability.
"Sometimes those things, those feelings, stick and stay with you forever."
Helen Humphreys' comments have been edited for length and clarity.