Gus walks into writer’s heart
One day about 20 years ago, Gus the tortoise saw a small hand reach out to touch the top of his shell.
Whether Gus remembers that one pat out of the many he got that day, and the thousands he’s got over his 90 years of life, only he would know for sure.
And only Gus knows if he recognized that same hand about a month ago, adult size now, stretching toward him, holding a book with his name and picture on the cover.
Gus the Tortoise Takes a Walk.
It was Canada Day weekend and newly published author Erin Arsenault wanted to show the Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History’s storied resident the picture book she’d written about him.
The museum was really crowded and talking to a tortoise, even a famous one, isn’t something you’d want everyone to see.
“I popped the book out and said, ‘Look, Gus! Thank you. Look. Thank you so much,’ ” Arsenault recalls, the excitement still fresh in her voice.
She’d bought blueberries for Gus, too, for the museum staff to feed to him. And last Sunday she did a reading there as part of Gus’s 90th birthday celebrations.
“I can’t believe he turned 90 this year. What a life,” Arsenault says. “All the people he’s seen and met. He’s had so many adventures.”
Arsenault still can recall meeting Gus when she was about seven, and the ‘magical’ visits her family made to the museum about once a week until they moved to P.E.I. about four years later. “He’s one of my fondest memories of Halifax,” she says.
She even remembers the first time they met. “I was so amazed, so taken back by that first glimpse of Gus — it stayed with me all of these years,” Arsenault says. “I still remember feeling special, being able to touch and see a creature so unlike any other I’d ever seen in real life before!”
So naturally, when she moved back here six years ago, the first place she took her daughter, Sophie, who’s now seven, was to the museum. “As a kid, that was such a cool, adventurous place to go.”
Arsenault has also taken her to many of the places that she herself remembered from when she was a little girl.
“When we moved back to the city, I saw so many wonderful, so many inspiring stories about Halifax and Nova Scotia. And I just love it here and wanted to find something to contribute to that and express my love for the city and something that would be fun to read and to write about.”
Inspiration hit one day when Sophie noticed a tortoise on a nature documentary they were watching. “She said, ‘Look, Mama, just like Gus!’ and a light bulb went off.”
Arsensault drew her inspiration from the famous tale of Gus’s escape from the museum in the 1980s (he was eventually found a couple of blocks away).
In Gus the Tortoise Takes a Walk, he goes for a longer jaunt, encountering many of the people and things that kids would enjoy and which also make the area near the museum so special.
He sees the horses at the Bengal Lancers stables, is scared into his shell by the noon gun booming from Citadel Hill and gets pecked by pigeons that think he’s a lumpy pie.
He wanders down Spring Garden Road, past street musicians and along the street until he gets tired and retreats to the Public Gardens for a snooze.
There, he’s eventually found by Elliott, the staffer in charge of the museum while the curator is away.
Arsenault considers herself very lucky to have the book’s illustrations done by award-winning illustrator Richard Rudnicki (A Christmas Dollhouse, and he illustrated Gracie, The Public Gardens Duck, I Spy a Bunny, Viola Desmond Won’t be Moved and the just-released Tecumseh).
Rudnicki perfectly captures Gus’s charm and personality, and his illustrations of the area near the museum — including the Public Gardens and Spring Garden Road — seem to express the same affection that Arsenault feels.
For now, Arsenault is enjoying the thrill of seeing her book published. “It’s very, very exciting,” says Arsenault, who describes herself as a “full-time mama” to Sophie but who writes “whenever I can. I absolutely live and breathe for writing.”
Sophie, Arsenault says, is an “amazing sounding board” for ideas and sentences. “She’s very honest.”
So it was not without a bit of apprehension that Arsenault read her Gus book to her daughter just after it was published.
But that fear vanished with Sophie’s reaction: “Oh, mama, I like it. I really like it.”
Arsenault is also grateful for the help she got from staff of the museum, who answered her questions and who invited her to launch the book as part of Gus’s 90th birthday party.
Now, Arsenault says she’s scribbling down ideas for Gus’s next exploits. “I’m hoping when the timing is right, there will be many more books out there for happy readers and Gus fans.”
Pam Sword is a web editor for The Chronicle Herald.