Critical Reception


Sarah Binks

Paul Hiebert's Sarah Binks met with generally favourable reviews as a witty and sharp parody of both bad poetry, and academia. Reynold Siemens notes that 20 of 22 reviews were "enthusiastic in their commendation" (111). Indeed many can be called much more than enthusiastic, such as "The Observer" of the Family Herald and Weekly Star who claimed "it is equal to anything Stephen Leacock wrote, with the exception of two or three of his best works" (quoted in Siemens 112). Canonical Canadian author Earle Birney described Sarah as

the first funny book about Canadian poetry ... recommended reading for anyone with a sense of humour, and required reading for all English professors, reviewers and members of the Canadian Authors' Association.

Mavis Gallant of the Montreal Standard and Roy Daniells of the Winnipeg Free Press both wrote favourable reviews as well, with Daniells calling Hiebert's book one of the few "humourous books produced in Canada ... that is, books intentionally humourous." Noted critic B.K. Sandwell, editor of Saturday Night also reviews Binks quite favourably, noting that it "maintains a high level of parody" with poems "imbedded in a prose text written in an exact and merciless imitation of the style of the portentously serious literary critic and biographer." It was an almost unanimous reception that Sarah Binks was one of the best works of Canadian humour ever written, and so it remains today.

In 1946 Hiebert learned that Sarah Binks had not received the Oxford-Crowell Award, though Hiebert thought the book "may rate the Leacock Medal" (quoted in Panofsky 81), which turned to be prophetic, for Sarah was awarded the medal in 1948.

The Leacock Medal and the Wheat Pool Medal

The Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour was established in 1946 with Packet Editor, C. H. Hale and was initially made up of committee members from Orillia, but it spread through America and England. The medal is awarded annually for the best book of humour written in the previous year by a Canadian, with its first recipient being Harry L. Symons for his book Ojibway Melody and the most recent one being Will Ferguson for his book Beyond Belfast. Hiebert was the second winner in 1948 for Sarah Binks; other notable winners include Earle Birney, Eric Nicol, Robertson Davies, Pierre Berton, W.O. Mitchell, Farley Mowat, Max Braithwaite, Ernest Buckler, and Mordecai Richler.

Adapted from The Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal.

The Wheat Pool medal was "one of the highest awards which has ever been bestowed upon one of Saskatchewan's Daughters" (80) and that "highest award in the bestowal of Saskatchewan people" (vii). Sarah was awarded such an high honour by the Hon. A.E. Windheaver because of her masterwork Up From the Magma and Back Again; she received it based primarily on the merit of production (152) and was the only poet to receive it. "Once is enough" said Windheaver (151). Pages 151-153 suggest many ironies surrounding the award and it is unclear whether or not Hiebert satirizes awards like the Leacock Medal when devising the Wheat Pool Medal.
Hugo McPherson, in "Fiction 1940-1960" in A Literary History of Canada, writes

apart from Robertson Davies, the record of humourous writers is much less encouraging - so unpromising, indeed, that the prematurely established Stephen Leacock Medal for humour was in the fifties an annual embarrassment. (232)

This assessment of the scene may have been shared by Hiebert and the Wheat Pool Medal might have been a manifestation of the meaninglessness of such awards. Frye, in his "Conclusion" to the same work, suggests that

there are so many medals offered for literary achievement that a modern-day Canadian Dryden might well be moved to write a satire on medals, except that if he did he would promptly be awarded the medal for satire and humour." (823)

Essentially, this is more or less, what Paul Hiebert did. Regardless, one thing is clear:
as Sarah is the Sweet Songstress of Saskatchewan, Paul is the Premier Parodist of the Prairies.

Willows Revisited

Willows Revisted, the sequel to Sarah Binks, never quite achieved the prominence of its predecessor. Published in 1967 by McClelland and Stewart, it was never republished. It was not a complete flop, however, as Hiebert says, "some of that stuff is pretty darned good poetry" (Siemans 72).

Some early reviewers agreed, as J.M. Robson writes that he "welcomes back" Sarah in the second installment of her saga, and that Hiebert "deftly analyzes the abiding strengths of the prairie songsters" (502). Len Gasparini is almost reverential in his review when he writes, "Canadian intellectuals should read this book on their knees. It's the new Bible of the Cultural Conscience."

As with Sarah, people warmly received Willows, but it never achieved the academic success of the first book, it was never included in the New Canadian Library as Sarah was, and it engendered even less critical response than Sarah did. But Willows Revisited is still a very good book; it is very funny, and it allows one of the Prairies greatest fictional figures in Sarah Binks live on.

Works Cited

Birney, Earle. "Canadian Bards Cleverly Burlesqued." Vancouver Sun, 24 January 1948.

Daniells, Roy. "Sarah Binks." Winnipeg Free Press, 13 January 1948.

Frye, Northrop. "Conclusion" to A Literary History of Canada. Edited by Carl F. Klinck. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1965. 821-835.

Gallant, Mavis. "Sarah of Saskatchewan." Montreal Standard, 17 Apr. 1948: 7, 14, 17.

Gasparini, Len. "Canadian Literary Satire." Queen's Quarterly. 74 (Autumn 1967): ?.

Hiebert, Paul. Sarah Binks. New Canadian Library. Toronto: McCelland & Stewart, 2010.

McPherson, Hugo. "Fiction 1940-1960." A Literary History of Canada. Edited by Carl F. Klinck. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1965.

Robson, J.M. "Humanities" University of Toronto Quarterly 37 (July 1968): ?

Sandwell, B.K. "Cultural Must." Saturday Night, 20 March 1948.

Siemens, Reynold. "Reactions to Sarah." Canadian Literature 75 (Winter 1977): 111-115.

Siema[e]ns, Reynold. "Sarah Binks in Retrospect: A Conversation with Paul Hiebert." Journal of Canadian Fiction. 19 (1977): 65-76.

The Stephen Leacock Association. The Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour. 4 October 2010. http://www.leacock.ca/


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