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Onoto Watanna

by Christine L Hayes - 0 Comment(s)

We were very lucky this week to have a visit from our new writer-in-residence, Gail Bowen. Logically, since she is a fiction writer from western Canada, we pointed out our pride and joy, the fiction collection in the Local History room. This got us to thinking, do people even know we have a fiction collection in the Local History Room? So we thought we would write a few blog entries on the novels that we have collected over the years. The collection is unique; the novels we house here reflect Calgary and Southern Alberta in some way (set in Calgary or southern Alberta, for example). There are many different and interesting authors represented. Our librarian’s fave is Onoto Watanna, also known as Winnifred Eaton Babcock Reeve and when she told me her story I knew I had to share it.

Winnifred Eaton was born either in 1875 or 1879 (she wasn’t always candid about that particular detail) in Montreal to a Chinese mother and an American Onoto Watanna book cover father. Her mother was either a missionary or a tightrope walker (again, kind of hazy on the details) but in any case Winnifred published a story at 13 (or 15 – again, hazy) and was bitten by the bug. She went to New York to pursue her writing career, but knew she needed a hook to get people to read her books. Her sister had already capitalized on her heritage by publishing stories about Chinese immigrants under the pen name Sui Sin Far. Winnifred, possibly wanting to avoid the prejudices directed against the Chinese at the time, reinvented herself as Japanese and embarked on a writing career that would lead her to Hollywood and, yes, Calgary Alberta.

Winnifred’s novel A Japanese Nightingale was very well received. Many editions were published and it was translated into a number of languages. She wrote at least a dozen Japanese themed novels and numerous short stories and became quite well known. Divorced from her first husband, she met and married Francis Reeve, a businessman, who persuaded Winnifred to start a new life with him in western Canada. They moved to BowView Ranch, near Morley. Winnifred loved the country but needed the buzz of “big city” life to enable her to write, so she took rooms in Calgary and, in 1923, turned her skills to writing about her new home. Her novel Cattle was not well received by her American readers, but was acclaimed in Canada as a great novel. When Frank’s farm started to fail, Winnifred headed to California to find work. She spent seven years in Hollywood as a screenwriter, specializing in adapting stories for the screen. Among her works was “Showboat”. Winnifred returned to Calgary in 1932 and moved into a home at 801 Royal Avenue in Mount Royal. She remained here until her death. Both she and her husband are buried in Queen’s Park Cemetery. Frank eventually regained his fortune and established a charitable foundation, the Francis F. Reeve Foundation, as a memorial to his wife. The Reeve Theatre at the University of Calgary is named in their honour. Winnifred’s papers are at the University of Calgary. The Local History Collection at the Calgary Public Library holds several of her novels, including a signed edition of Miss Nume of Japan. If you are interested in finding out more about this fascinating woman, her granddaughter has written a biography of her called a Onoto Watanna: The Story of Winnifred Eaton and we have a file of clippings both by and about her in the Local History room.

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