Rarely are Edmontonians, particularly children, given the opportunity to see themselves and their city reflected in the pages of a book, but with the publication of Rutherford the Time-Travelling Moose, all that has changed.
Rutherford the Time-Travelling Moose was initially conceived as a children’s picture book about Edmonton’s history in the context of Rutherford House, the home of the first Premier of Alberta, Alexander Rutherford. The Friends of Rutherford House Society issued a call for story proposals and English & Film Studies professor Thomas Wharton (’91 BA, ’93 MA) won the bid along with Amanda Schutz, a local illustrator.
Wharton, the award-winning author of the young adult trilogy Perilous Realm and the Alberta-centric novel Icefields, was commissioned to “animate” the bones of the story, taking it beyond its original confines to the places in Edmonton the premier and his family would have known.
Although the concept of time travel was already in place, Rutherford the moose was Wharton’s idea. “It’s a history book for little kids, and you can bore them quickly. It has to be fun,” he says. “My wife and I just moved out of town to the country and there’s a lot of moose, and I thought, it’s got to be one of these guys!”
The story begins with a question. A young girl named Robin wants to know what Edmonton was like before she was born. Enter Rutherford, who spirits the adventurous girl back to the ice-age, and then travels forward through various eras, visiting the First Nations people along the banks of the North Saskatchewan River, the traders at Fort Edmonton, an early 20th century legislature (where the Famous Five can be spotted in the foreground), and various other recognizable Edmonton landmarks and historical touchpoints.
The project took six months from beginning to end, which according to Wharton – author of seven novels – is the fastest he’s ever worked. “Writing the YA trilogy took every ounce of my skill and effort because I had to try and get myself into the head of a younger reader,” he says. “That was a good learning experience and in some ways it prepared me for Rutherford the Time-Travelling Moose. It made me realize I had to think about who I was writing for, and how they see the world.”
According to Wharton, we have a ways to go in telling our own story, but there is progress. “People writing about Alberta have a debt to some of the earlier writers in this province that broke the ground,” he says. “I’m thinking about Robert Kroetsch and Rudy Wiebe. They were both mentors of mine and they showed me that yeah, stories don’t have to take place in New York or London. You can write about the Badlands! To see that turned into fiction and art, for me – was really, really important.”
It is likely that children will feel the same way about Rutherford the Time-Travelling Moose. Schutz’s vibrant, beautiful illustrations compliment Wharton’s equally lively words, creating a book that is fun, informative, and leaves the reader hungry for more Edmonton-based stories.
“I think it’s important that people understand how things got to be the way they are,” says Wharton. “The book ends with the little girl asking her grandmother if she will make history, and the grandmother answers ‘I know you will’. Things have changed a lot in Alberta over the last few years, and I think it’s partly because we realized that the way things are now, it doesn’t have to stay that way. We can move on – we can do different things.”
Rutherford the Time-Travelling Moose may be purchased from Friends of Rutherford House Society
Meet the author
Thomas Wharton will be doing a Lunch Hour Lecture with the U of A Museums in the New Year (January 14), to coincide with Brain Storms.