The protagonist of Morgan Murray’s acclaimed debut novel, Dirty Birds, like Murray, has Saskatchewan roots.
Dirty Birdsis a satirical novel that tells the story of Milton Ontario and his pursuit of fame, fortune, love and the meaning of life as he moves from his parents’ basement the fictional small town of Bellybutton, Saskatchewan to vibrant and bohemian Montreal in the hopes of becoming a famous poet.
“Things don’t always go Milton’s way,” says Murray. “He’s not particularly talented, nor clever, nor motivated, so he sort of stumbles from one mishap and misadventure to the next, getting himself into all kinds of trouble.”
Murray, who now lives in Cape Breton with his wife, well-known cartoonist Kate Beaton, and their young daughter, grew up on his family’s farm in rural Alberta, but his mother’s side of the family hail from southern Saskatchewan, where Murray’s great-grandparents homesteaded near Riverhurst.
“Saskatchewan has always held a special place in my heart,” says Murray. “My grandparents moved to Alberta in the ‘60s so my grandpa could find work in construction, but we would go back to visit my great-grandmother each summer,” says Murray.
When Murray sat down to write his humorous semi-autobiographical novel, he says Saskatchewan was the obvious place to start.
“I wanted to look at how young people like me who grew up in small rural farming communities often end up having to move away for university or college and to find the sorts of work that higher education often leads to,” says Murray.
“I also wanted to look at the ways that a lot of Canadians, especially those of us descended from European settlers, are pretty oblivious to the colonial roots of our country and what that has meant. Saskatchewan is a pretty strong symbol of that, I mean, it’s literally a rectangle drawn by someone in Ottawa or London who probably had never been there, right smack-dab in the middle of a complicated continent. The satire pretty much writes itself,” he says.
Setting the early parts of the book in Saskatchewan also allowed Murray to include a number of Saskatchewan references.
Most of the secondary Saskatchewan characters are named after retired Saskatchewan hockey players, names like Jankowski, Angelstad and Federko; Milton’s one night out during his college days at the fictitious Polytechnic University of Saskatchewan Moose Jaw Campus is spent listening to has-been junior hockey players lament their days toiling in the “es-jay” (SJHL); the marshal of the annual Chafe Days Parade in Bellybutton gets the honour of driving John Deere’s latest combine courtesy of Central Butte Machine; and former prime minister John Diefebaker (and his eponymous lake) is often invoked by Milton as the “patron saint of Saskatchewan.”
These prairie roots seem to be paying off, as early reviews of the book have been strong.
Will Ferguson, winner of the Scotiabank Giller Prize and twice the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour, wrote of Murray’s novel, “Canadians rejoice. Our Vonnegut has finally arrived. Morgan Murray’s debut is a great, brawling, sprawling, muscular glory of a story. Funny, dark, and wholly original.”
While Lisa Moore, renowned Newfoundland author and winner of Canada Reads, has said, “Morgan Murray's Dirty Birds is a brilliant, antic, absurd and cut-to-the-quick satire of millennial life. There’s a laugh and beautifully conjured insight on every page of this joyful extravaganza. A very, very funny and boldly imagined novel.”
Dirty Birdswas also picked by The Globe and Mail as one of it’s Hot Summer Reads for 2020.