Prairie allegories

Island Falls explores labour and dispossession in a Manitoban town

Supplied photo - Owen Toews’ first novel, Island Falls, brings the author’s previous historical and political obsessions into fiction for the first time.

Local author and researcher Owen Toews’ debut novel, Island Falls, follows an unnamed narrator who recalls their time as a student in a small, Marxist program in New York and their friendship with another student, Jan, who writes inquiries into the history of his hometown, Island Falls.

The fictional town in Manitoba predominantly serves a local paper mill, which acts as the central organizing body. Workers are divided into strict hierarchies, imposed to ensure the atomization of each group and the continuity of power.

Island Falls is about a young person trying to piece together a geography of their past and where they come from,” Toews says in an email to The Uniter.

Throughout the novel, Toews connects the historical establishment of economic powers in Manitoba, the strategic dispossession of Indigenous communities, labour exploitation and carceral capitalism.

Toews is a geographer who trained at CUNY Graduate Center in New York City. In 2018, he published Stolen City: Racial Capitalism and the Making of Winnipeg, a nonfiction history of settler-colonialism in Winnipeg. Island Falls, which launched on Oct. 25 at an event hosted by McNally Robinson Booksellers, is Toews’ first novel.

Discussing his decision to write fiction, Toews explains:

“There were elements of several real-life places combined into one and some elements that were just coming out of my imagination that needed to be there because they summed up the truth of what I was trying to describe.”

While discussing his process, he notes that the novel originated from extensive research across the province.

“From 2018 to 2023, I travelled from town to town in Manitoba, talking to people about the ways life had been set up in their towns in the 20th century ... I asked people to talk about two things: racism and the economy,” he says.

The community of Island Falls stands as a microcosm of the forces that have shaped Canadian towns and cities. As Jan reflects on the town’s history, the novel also hints at the future.

“Jan is tuned in to how his hometown is in motion, how it is in flux, how the people who are dispossessed and exploited to make it function are nudging it toward a totally different future, and how others are trying to recreate the old ways anew,” Toews says.

Amid the pervasive inequalities, Toews weaves a thread of hope throughout the novel, emphasizing the potential of solidarity to undermine deeply entrenched systems of racial capitalism.

“Partitions and hierarchies never work perfectly,” Toews says. “We meet each other. We become fond of one another. We start questioning why we’ve been kept apart.”

Island Falls is the story of a town that could be many towns in the Prairies, but it also reflects a common experience for many young people. Jan, a student, is driven to unpack his personal history and where he comes from through the lens of his studies and developing political consciousness.

“And he’s reading (W.E.B.) Du Bois,” Toews adds.

Island Falls is available for purchase at McNally Robinson Booksellers or at

Published in Volume 78, Number 07 of The Uniter (October 26, 2023)

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