Helen Humphreys first learned about a 1947 murder committed by a man called “Rabbit Foot Bill” after she was approached at a book reading over a decade ago.
Hugh Lafave, who knew the murderer, asked the Canadian author if she’d help him work on his writing. She agreed, a friendship developed, and they began researching the murder that rocked the area near Canwood, Sask., a half-century earlier.
Humphreys said she was intrigued by the story and decided that she would write a version, too. The 240-page result, Rabbit Foot Bill, is a gripping read about trauma, resilience and life at a Saskatchewan mental hospital.
“They’ve suffered something or they’ve gone through something and they are trying to heal themselves,” Humphreys said of the book’s characters. “Not perhaps in a way that is some kind of sanctioned way, but just a sort of intuitive way.”
The book is centred around Leonard Flint, a boy who befriends the older Bill in the farming town near Prince Albert. Conversation is minimal but Bill, considered the local tramp, allows the youngster to join him as he sets rabbit snares near his small outdoor dwelling.
Leonard, who is bullied at school and has a tough home life, treats the interactions as an escape. Like the rest of the community, Leonard is stunned when Bill commits a murder that sends him to prison.
They reunite 15 years later at the Weyburn Mental Hospital, at the time known for its experimental LSD trials. Leonard, a newly graduated doctor of psychiatry, again becomes fixated on Bill and what led him to kill.
With Lafave, a psychiatrist who became a superintendent at the facility, helping with memories from the time, Humphreys spent years researching court transcripts, newspaper clippings and other information about the case.
“It’s a work of fiction, not a work of non-fiction,” she said of the book.
However, she uses the 1947 Canwood murder as the “kernel of the story,” and “a lot of the stuff around the LSD experiments in Weyburn is also factually based,” she adds.
“They did those experiments and they had a thing called the LSD handbook; the doctors took the drugs with the patients; all of those things were true.”
As an adult, Leonard has to confront his past even though he’s at the hospital to help patients do the same. Some characters in the book take steps — as varied as they may be — to try to repair their issues, while others do not.
“That is the moving part of the book for me,” Humphreys said from Kingston, Ont. “Just the ways in which people try to fix themselves. We’re all trying to fix ourselves from our damage.
“Some we know are more or less successful at it. It’s moving that people try to fix themselves I think.”
Humphreys, who published her first novella Ethel on Fire in 1991, won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize in 2000 for Afterimage.
“The thing that was different for me in this (book) was that it was essentially someone else’s story,” she said. “So it was not a story that had come out of my own imagination, even though I attached my imagination to it … but I worked on it over the years for so long and in so many different incarnations that it became more and more mine, I suppose, in the process.”
Humphreys said the finished product was the result of the friendship, stories and conversations she has enjoyed with Lafave, who’s now in his early 90s. She gave him a copy of the book and he recently called her to say that he liked it.
“So that’s great,” she said. “That means everything to me.”
Rabbit Foot Bill, published by HarperCollins, is available now. It has a list price of $29.99.