The Dartmouth Book Awards: 25 years and counting

Community advocate and arts supporter Paul Robinson got the ball rolling on the Dartmouth Book Awards 27 years ago
Community advocate and arts supporter Paul Robinson got the ball rolling on the Dartmouth Book Awards 27 years ago. Photo: Joseph Muise

The Dartmouth Book Awards honour the region’s best writers

“Toronto had one. Ottawa had one. Why not a book award in Dartmouth?”

That was the question Paul Robinson asked himself 27 years ago—and Robinson, an arts supporter and passionate community advocate, is not the type to let a good idea go unrealized. To that end, he set about to bring allies and sponsors on board, and in 1989, the Dartmouth Book Award was launched.

“You’ve got to understand the literary landscape at the time,” says Robinson over a cup of coffee in a shop on the Dartmouth waterfront. “This was a time when ‘from far away’ was thought of as better than ‘local.’ Canadian stories, Nova Scotian stories, weren’t as well-known or as well-regarded as they are today.”

Honouring the best

The first stop on his quest for support was the office of Dartmouth’s then-mayor John Savage. Robinson describes Savage as a man of few words, but plenty of action. “I basically just said, ‘Wouldn’t it be something if we honoured the best book about Nova Scotia every year?’” And to his everlasting credit, Mayor Savage thought about it for a split second and said, ‘I’ve got a staff person who can help you. You and he get together and I’ll see about raising the money.’ Just like that. Must have taken 10 minutes. What a day that was!”

The staff person was Dan Walsh, and together with another community-minded city employee, Andrew Cox, the three men created the blueprint for the award. Their meetings were informal, taking place in coffee shops, restaurants and pubs. “We weren’t the types to sit around a boardroom table with an agenda,” says Robinson with a chuckle.

The cash prize was set at $1,000 and there was only one category which included both fiction and non-fiction books about Nova Scotia and/or its people. School children were also given the opportunity to compete in the Dartmouth Student Writing Awards, a now-defunct program that Robinson says is still missed more than a dozen years after its demise.

That first year, at a sit-down lunch at the Holiday Inn in Dartmouth, journalist Harry Bruce took home the inaugural prize for a story that explored his Nova Scotia roots called Down Home: Notes of a Maritime Son (Key Porter).

Since then, the prize amount has climbed to $2,500, and fiction and non-fiction have been divided into separate categories. The fiction award is sponsored by law firm Boyne Clark and named in memory of Jim Connors, a local lawyer and long-time judge of the competition. The non-fiction award is given in memory of dedicated community volunteer Robbie Robertson and presented by the Kiwanis Club of Dartmouth.

Author Elaine McCluskey reads from her book The Watermelon Social at the Dartmouth Book Awards’ 25th anniversary celebration, held last December in Dartmouth.
Author Elaine McCluskey reads from her book The Watermelon Social at the Dartmouth Book Awards’ 25th anniversary celebration, held in December 2013. Photo: Joseph Muise

A love of books

In 1993, a third award was added. The award is named in honour of Margaret and John Savage and is given to an author from Atlantic Canada for his or her first book of fiction or non-fiction. It’s jointly sponsored by Collins Barrow Chartered Accountants, lawn-care company Weed Man, Heritage House Law Office and the Savage family. Winners of this award have included well-known local writers Alexander MacLeod, Stephanie Domet, Ian Colford and Shandi Mitchell.

Mike Savage, mayor of the Halifax Regional Municipality and the son of John and Margaret, recalls a day early in the history of the Book Awards when his father asked for support from Cunard Fuels, where Mike was general manager.

“He called me up and said, ‘There’s going to be an award for student writing in Dartmouth. You should sponsor it.’ I basically got volun-told,” he laughs.

Savage says his mother passed on a love of poetry, a love of books and a desire to do good within the community. “I think it’s important for any community to support writers,” he says. “We are all enriched and enlightened through good writing.”

Past Dartmouth Book Award winnering books including titles by Stephen Kimber, Lesley Choyce, Silver Donald Cameron and Ann-Marie MacDonald.
Past Dartmouth Book Award winnering books including titles by Stephen Kimber, Lesley Choyce and Ann-Marie MacDonald. Photo: Joseph Muise

Community involvement

For a number of years, the Dartmouth Book Awards have joined forces with the Atlantic Book Awards to become part of Atlantic Book Week celebrations. Heather MacKenzie, who is president of the Atlantic Book Awards Society and Dartmouth Book Awards jury and award submissions coordinator, says bringing more book prizes together under one umbrella gives them public prominence.

“The Nova Scotia home for the awards ceremony is the Alderney Landing Theatre in Dartmouth, but every second year, the ceremony travels to one of the other Atlantic Provinces,” she says. The 2014 ceremony will be held in Charlottetown. “It’s a great way to gain even more exposure for the books.”

Worth noting about the Dartmouth Book Awards is that each of the three-person juries is composed of community members who volunteer their time to read the many submissions. “We have the greatest juries,” enthuses MacKenzie. “There is a library representative on each one, and the other jurors range from young professionals to retired folks, all from Dartmouth. Some of them have been on board since the beginning.”

Adds Robinson, “From the outset, the support of the Alderney Gate Library has been absolutely essential. They have coordinated all of the judging. And that’s a big job.”

It’s the dedication and involvement from community members that Paul Robinson feels made it possible for the Dartmouth Book Awards to reach its milestone 25th birthday this year.

“I think anything that lets people know that we have quality writers here who tell important, entertaining stories is good for all of us, and the amount of support we get from the community shows that others think that, too. I have no doubt that the Dartmouth Book Awards have a bright future ahead.”

[Editor’s note: The 2014 Atlantic Book Awards Festival, at which the Dartmouth Book Award was presented, ran May 14 – 21, 2014 in Charlottetown PEI. Find the list of ABA winners here.]
Written By

Kate Watson is the theatre reviewer for The Coast, a freelance writer, and coordinator of the Hackmatack Children’s Choice Book Award. She has a keen interest in municipal politics, community-building and twitter. Follow her @DartmouthKate.

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