Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Humor of “Sarah Binks”

Manitoba author Paul Hiebert’s “Sarah Binks” (the immortal Sweet Songstress of Saskatchewan) was published in 1947 by the Oxford University Press at Toronto and quickly became a Canadian bestseller running to four editions. The faux biography and anthology of the poetry of Sarah Binks was awarded the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humor and went on to become a CBC radio show and a perennial favorite on the Canadian stage. Hiebert took off on a six city speaking tour of the “western cocktail circuit.”

One reviewer wrote:

“The whole delightful story is unashamedly Canadian. The books one fault is its brevity. If Professor Hiebert permits Sarah to stay dead he is guilty of criminal waste of a first-rate literary character.”

This may have prompted the author to recall Sarah to sing once again in Willows Revisited in 1967.

Not all readers were swept away by Sarah Binks. In the opinion of a Saskatoon Star-Phoenix reviewer, Sarah Binks was “a silly and a dull book. Its humor is second-rate, derived from foolish names and tricky turns of thought and expression rather than drawn from character and situation.” The peach-fuzzed reviewer ended with the juvenile rhyme

There’s little to say for “Sarah Binks”
Except to state it rhymes with stinks.

Paul Hiebert was born on a Manitoba farm in 1892 where he spent most of his childhood. He worked on a farm and in a general store, taught in a rural school north of Maple Creek, Saskatchewan in 1916, and rolled his own cigarettes. One of his students was humorist W.O. Mitchell.

He graduated from the University of Manitoba with honors in philosophy, held an M.A. degree from the University of Toronto in gothic and teutonic philogy and received a Ph.D. from McGill University in physics and chemistry. He wrote Sarah Binks while a chemistry professor at the University of Manitoba. He admitted to a “slightly cock-eyed perspective on life” and once gave a lecture on “the cow as leitmotif in Saskatchewan literature.” Sarah Binks was written, he once said, “to amuse the children.”

The origin of his humor was described in The Comic Spirit at Forty Below, from Mosaic, the University of Manitoba literary quarterly:

“Forty below is a western expression like ‘crop failure’ to represent something of the hardship and the frustration and the disappointments which the dweller, particularly the farmer, must experience: and because he cannot escape them he takes refuge in a kind of wry humor which also is a mark of his fortitude and resignation as well as his hopes.”

The poems of Sarah Binks preceded the ‘critical biography.’ In his Introduction to the second edition A. Lloyd Wheeler described how Hiebert’s recital of Sarah’s poems spread throughout the campus and the city of Winnipeg. “For Hiebert’s colleagues, singly or in small groups, Sarah relieved the tedium of a long ride to the Fort Garry site of the university in a lurching Winnipeg streetcar.”  Thus was the work tested and revised before “she was born into print.” Hiebert wrote:

“There is an age in Western Canada which is fast disappearing before our very eyes; an age which began with the turn of the century and lasted at its best thirty years. Sarah’s dates, 1906 to 1929, practically define it. They were the halcyon days of Western Canada, the golden days of the dirt farmer.”

Sarah’s poems were odes to pigs, ducks, cows, beans and pails full of potato bugs. Her work was influenced by her environment and the characters that inhabited it, Ole the hired man (‘The Hired Man on Saturday Night’), Rover the dog, and her grandfather Thadeus T. Thurnow. “I can write the prose standing on my head,” said Hiebert, “but I can spend two or three days on one four-line poem.”

In a little nook, a nooklet,
There beside a babbling brooklet,
Sits a little bug, a beetle,
Browsing in a little volume,
Reading in a brand new booklet,
Studying the spinal column,
Learning where to put his needle,
Get me with his little hooklet.

In addition to Sarah Binks Hiebert wrote philosophical and religious dissertations. “I have always felt my works of humor are a bit contrived but that is a good book,” he said of Tower in Siloam (1965) a treatise on the relationship between God and science. “I sometimes think that Canada must be the literary backwater of the world. This book would have received a lot of attention if it had been published in the United States.” Siloam was followed by Doubting Castle. “These religious books aren’t too popular with the publishers because they don’t have a steep enough sales curve.”

Sarah Binks was not well served by her illustrators. The first edition with a tilted grain silo against an orange background was probably the best. The pocket-books, like all of the McClelland and Stewart pocket-books, used an indecipherable abstract blotch for the cover illustration.

Paul Gerhardt Hiebert died September 7, 1987, at Carman, Manitoba.


  1. The second series design for New Canadian Library was not only unattractive, but wore so badly. I've speculated elsewhere that it had everything to do with economy and adaptability. Title and cover copy aside, any design worked on any book... except, of course, that they really didn't work at all.

  2. Yesterday in a used bookstore I saw the same illustration used on a different New Canadian Library title. A point which bolsters your speculation.