IN THE SPRING OF 2001, Professor Emeritus David Carpenter received a call from the Department of English regarding a mysterious letter addressed to “the dean of the University of Saskatchewan.”
“Dear Sir,” it said. “I really don’t know where to begin or how to ask someone of your high position this rather odd request.”
Offering “the best fishing in all of Saskatchewan” as an inducement, the letter’s author, Joseph Auguste Merasty (also known as Augie) wanted help writing a memoir of his experiences in a residential school. Though Carpenter had retired from the English department in 1998 to pursue his own writing, his colleagues pegged him as the man for the job. In addition to his reputation as an author, he was also known as an avid fisherman.
When Carpenter first read the letter, he was hesitant to commit to Merasty’s project. “I just said, ‘Why are they trying to drag me away from my work?’”
But as the letters kept coming, he began to change his mind.
“The more I got from Augie, the less whining I did and the more I paid attention to Augie’s story,” says Carpenter. “It took me a while to realize that this was a real story and that I could serve this story. I could serve this man.”
It was the start of an unusual collaboration lasting more than a decade. The two communicated back and forth primarily through letters. At times, Carpenter would lose contact with Merasty, who struggled with alcoholism, for long periods. However, with each letter he saw a story coming together.
In 2015, The Education of Augie Merasty was published with Merasty as its author and Carpenter as something between editor and co-author.
The book became a surprise hit after the Globe and Mail covered Merasty’s story. A columnist from the Toronto Star named Carpenter one of the best people of 2015, and the book was chosen this spring for One Book, One Province—a province-wide reading initiative founded by the Saskatchewan Library Association. A provincial reading tour was planned for Merasty and Carpenter.
Merasty, 87, passed away in February, so Carpenter completed the reading tour on his own in March. Still, Carpenter is happy that he could help Merasty’s legacy live on through his stories.
“When you get somebody that urgently needs your help, you answer the call…. Two people from vastly different walks of life coming together and getting something done could be pretty special.”