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Book Drive: Alexis Kienlen

By Cailynn Klingbeil

Welcome to Book Drive, our new series about Alberta authors. There’s no better time to curl up with a good read.

Farming is a way of life for many Albertans, passed down from generation to generation.

As an agricultural reporter, Alexis Kienlen harvests their stories for Alberta Farmer, a biweekly newspaper, and her own novels.

Currently based in Edmonton, the AMA member grew up in Saskatoon and has lived in urban centres for much of her life—save for a brief stint in the town of Wainwright. But since she took a job in Grande Prairie reporting on farming early in her career, she’s been hooked.

“There’s a lot of passion in agriculture—for your work, for your family, for your land. As a writer and an artistic person, that passion really grabs me,” she says.

Alexis Kienlen author headshot
Alexis Kienlen
(photo: Andrea Beça)

Kienlen explores that passion in her latest novel, Mad Cow. Transported to small-town Alberta, readers meet Donna Klassen, a reluctant farm wife, and her daughter, Allyson, a teenager who longs to leave—alongside many other family members and townspeople.

The story focuses on both Klassen women, who each feel deeply lonely on the family farm. But unexpected events make it impossible for either character to go it alone; Donna and Allyson must come together to navigate the unexpected loss of a close relation, as well as the far-reaching effects of mad cow disease.

The subject of Kienlen’s new novel came to her organically. While reporting for Alberta Farmer, she heard again and again about a date that changed the provincial cattle industry: May 20, 2003. That’s when the Canadian Food Inspection Agency announced a cow from northern Alberta had tested positive for mad cow disease, a neurodegenerative condition also known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). The diagnosis prompted the United States to immediately close its border to Canadian beef and cattle. Many other countries soon followed suit.

“I got really interested in that and started researching it,” Kienlen says. “It eventually led me to create the novel, based on some of the information I learned and the stories I heard from people.

“A lot of farmers had their livelihoods crushed. It was really a turning point for the family beef farm. Many people don’t know the story, which is why I wanted to tell it.”

alexis kienlen mad cow novel bookSet in an unnamed Alberta town, Mad Cow is a work of fiction. But it was important to Kienlen for the novel to be accurate. “I really wanted to do justice to ranching people and get everything correct,” she notes.  To do that, she leaned on her previous agricultural reporting, while also completing research for the novel and undertaking a thorough fact-check of her work. That process included a number of coffee conversations with ranchers and farmers. “There was a lot of just talking to people one-on-one and saying, ‘If this happened in the book, would it make sense?’”

Bestselling author Lawrence Hill, who mentored Kienlen through the Sage Hill writing program in Saskatchewan, was also a source of wisdom. Kienlen says Hill’s encouraging feedback stuck with her long after the program ended. “I would hear his words in my head and just keep going,” she recalls. “Because writing a novel is really, really hard.”

Even so, she has already started research for her next book, another story of rural life—the kind of story that, Kienlen says, we aren’t hearing or reading enough of. “Prairie novels are underrepresented,” she says—but she’s working hard to change that.

Alexis Kienlen’s Mad Cow is available through Indigo. Members earn up to 5% in reward dollars on online Indigo purchases—including books, giftware, electronics and more—made through the AMARewards eStore.