Dan Needles, beloved author and playwright, has for over 30 years shared the wit and wisdom of “Persephone Township” – an imaginary location, in the tradition of Stephen Leacock’s Mariposa.
Leacock’s inspiration was Orillia. Needles’ is Mono Township and Rosemont, where he spent six months of every year as a child, growing up with his siblings on the farm purchased by his mother. His play, Letter from Wingfield Farm, and books Wingfield’s World, With Axe and Flask, and True Confessions from the Ninth Concession, all chronicle life in a rural Ontario peopled with unforgettable characters.
On Tuesday night, Needles was in Newton Robinson – another community with a strong farming tradition – to share his inspiration, and the path that led him to Persephone Twp.
It was a laughter-filled evening, in front of a full house at the Newton Robinson Hall. From talk of an ancestor, whose business was “relieving settlers of their excess horses” and who died suddenly when, according to his widow, “the platform collapsed under him at a public ceremony,” to his current life on Larkspur Farm, Needles shared his stories.
His parents were married “two weeks short of 70 years,” Needles told the audience, although “they never actually lived in the same house.” His father, an actor, toured most of the year; his mother bought a farm near Rosemont where she and the five children spent six months every year.
“The only thing they agreed on was that kids need vast amounts of unsupervised play. I was basically raised by wolves,” Needles said – and by the farmers and ranchers who were his neighbours. Those farmers not only shared valuable advice, like “don’t turn your back on that ram,” they introduced him “to a whole new world of talkers and storytellers.”
“I wanted to be just like them,” Needles said. “The stories often didn’t have a punchline, or an end, but they did have a resting point.”
He spoke of the characters who inspired him, including sheep. “Sheep have appeared at several turning points in my life,” Needles said. There was the stint on a sheep farm in Australia, after high school, that persuaded him to go back to university – and the small flock of sheep, given to him by his father-in-law, that persuaded him to quit his job and become a playwright and farmer.
From sheep, to chickens, to the memorable stories and sayings of those storytellers – one of whom once told him, “Oh Danny, having you help is like having two good men not show up.” – Needles’ musings touched a chord in his audience.
There’s no false sentiment, no idealization of rural life in Needles’ works. “It was no paradise. I’ve been very careful in my writing to never say it was,” he said. Instead, he paints a picture of a rural community characterized by people who pull together and work together, especially in a crisis, “like a fire, or a death, or defeat of the Conservative party.”
Said Needles, “I just love that voice. It’s the voice of rural Canada…. Keep thinking like farmers and neighbours. That’s where the magic is.”
The evening, hosted by the Tec-We-Gwill Women’s Institute, was followed by refreshments and a book-signing, downstairs in the Women’s Institute hall.