Homeward Bound

Lakehead University professor to bring personal papers and belongings of Sheila Burnford to Thunder Bay Public Library

By: Sam Mathers, News Editor

For some it is a cherished literary classic, for others, a favourite childhood film. Either way, the beloved tale of three brave animals is deeply rooted in the city of Thunder Bay. Lakehead University professor and Acting-Chair of the Department of History Dr. Ronald Harpelle and his team have spent the last two years sifting through and cataloguing the personal papers of author Sheila Burnford.

Burnford settled in Port Arthur in 1948 where she wrote her most well known novel, The Incredible Journey.

Harpelle told The Argus that he is “fortunate to be the right person in the right place at the right time.”  He acquired the papers and other belongings from Burnford’s family, as “one of Sheila’s daughters had them and the family was reluctant to divide it all up because they knew that they would have little value compared to everything being in one place.” He calls the collection a “major acquisition that will generate many research results in the future.” One member of his team, Katie Green, will be the first to use these papers to write about Sheila, as she is using the files to write her Major Research Paper for her MA in History. Harpelle hopes the collection will eventually end up in the Thunder Bay Public Library, “where they will be accessible to all.”

Burnford was born in Scotland in 1918. She got her pilot’s license in 1935, at age 17. She loved the outdoors, and went for a walk nearly every day of her life.

In the summer of 1939, Burnford and her friend Jill decided to walk on the High Pyrenees, taking a bet they would not be able to cross into Spain. Madrid had fallen in the weeks previous, and foreigners were unwelcome. They managed to secure visas, though in her book Fields of Noon, she notes that the “issued numbers on them were so low that we must have been lucky to get them at all.” The two women began at the inn on the summit of the Col d’Abisque (at an altitude of 5600 feet) and decided they would cross from Gavarnie down into Spanish Bujaruelo – a four or five-hour hike with an ascent of 3000 feet, not to mention the mountain weather that can “suddenly produce a blizzard or a dense mist out of a clear blue sky.” When Sheila and Jill finally crossed into Bujaruelo, two barefoot guards jumped out from a hut pointing rifles at the women. The guards spoke no English, the girls hardly any Spanish. They tried to convey that they simply wished to continue on to Torin, but the guards told them they must return from where they came, back over the thousands of feet they had just climbed. Before leaving, Burnford had the guards sign her map, as evidence they won the bet.

During World War II, Burnford worked as a volunteer ambulance driver for the Royal Naval Hospitals Voluntary Aid Detachment. During this time, she would survive the London Blitz and would meet and marry her husband, Dr. David Burnford, a surgeon with the British Royal Navy.

Dr. Burnford was offered a position as a pediatrician in Port Arthur in 1948 (who consequently would become the doctor to my father and aunt several years later) and so he, Sheila and their bull terrier Bodger immigrated to Canada. It was here Burnford would write The Incredible Journey.

Based on her real-life animal companions, The Incredible Journey follows two dogs and a cat as they try to find their way home after their family goes on vacation. To keep her company while her husband was at war, Burnford got a bull terrier named Bodger, whom she often read to. She adopted a cat, Simon, in Port Arthur, after her three daughters were all of school age. The cat and bull terrier had a very unusual camaraderie – Burnford noted they began taking on each other’s characteristics and participating in mischievous activities. In fact, Simon the cat was able to open doors and the two would often enter the kitchen to steal whatever food was left on the counters. Some years later, Dr. Burnford got a Labrador named Raimie to go hunting with. Though much more obedient than Bodger and Simon, Raimie fit in well with the other two animals.

The Incredible Journey experienced some immediate success, but became a bestseller after being adapted into a film by Walt Disney in 1963. The film was remade in 1993, titled Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey and starred Sally Field and Michael J. Fox. It was named the Canadian Book of the Year for Children in 1963, and has been translated into more than twenty languages.

While Burnford is most known for this beloved tale, she penned six books and many articles.

In 1963, Burnford assisted her friend Hugh Cummins, along with other local residents in an archeological excavation along the north shore of Lake Superior. Cummins had been searching for such a site for years, convinced one must exist. When he found it, he invited Burnford to be a part of the small group that would complete the dig. The site was found to be an early quarry workshop and habitation of the Plano period, circa 7000 BCE. According to Burnford in Fields of Noon, the group was sworn to secrecy, and could not even tell their families where the site was located. The group picked up exposed artifacts, numbered them by code with chalk, and marked their location on a survey map. Over just a few weeks, Burnford picked up 200-300 artifacts. This dig would contribute to the beginnings of the Anthropology Department at Lakehead University.

Harpelle also has some personal belongings of Susan Ross, a Port Arthur born artist and good friend to Burnford, the two often travelling to remote communities together.

According to Harpelle, “the collection includes thousands of pages of documents, over 1000 photos, all of Susan’s sketch books, some of Sheila’s personal items, war diaries, some 8mm and 16mm film and a bunch of other things…The idea is to bring these two women back together in a permanent location and make it all public. Sheila wrote and Susan sketched.”

While the Thunder Bay Public Library is a partner in this project, and that is where Harpelle hopes the collection will end up, he says they must “do their part,” which includes budget allocations and a suitable area for researchers, among other things.

The collection may not be available for public viewing for some time. Harpelle notes that “it is not as easy as making everything available for people to dig through. There are many considerations, not the least of them is intellectual property rights. So, before anyone starts asking for access, the answer is no, not at this time. These are personal papers and we are going through them to catalogue what we have and then it will be up to the families to decide what is public at this time. There are some sensitive things that I have been entrusted with and this means I have a professional responsibility to guard against any misuse or abuse of the materials.”

One thing Dr. Harpelle likes to tell people is that “Susan’s uncle was Robert Flaherty and Sheila’s was Scotty Philip. Flaherty made Nanook of the North and I am working with his descendants in Nunavut on this project as well. Philip is the man who ‘saved the buffalo.’ He was married to Crazy Horse’s sister-in-law.” Furthermore, Sheila’s “cousin was Donald Maclean, a Soviet spy and one of the notorious Cambridge Five.”

He adds: “And, of course, there is more but people will just have to wait.”

Sheila Burnford died of cancer in England in 1984, but not before living an amazing life – one might say, an incredible journey of her own.

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