Skip To Content

Athabasca University

Martha Ostenso

Best known for her novel Wild Geese (1925), Martha Ostenso was a critically acclaimed best-selling author in the 1930s and 1940s. She won the Dodd, Mead and Company Best Novel of the Year Award in 1925 and the first novel-prize offered by the Pictorial Review, both for Wild Geese. Her novel O River, Remember (1943) won a Literary Guild Choice Award. She is known as the founder of “prairie realism” in literature due to her writing which was influenced by her growing up on Manitoba and Minnesota farmlands.

Born in Norway in 1900, Ostenso migrated to the United States and Canada in the early twentieth century with her parents Sigurd and Olina Ostenso. Spending her childhood in small towns throughout Minnesota and South Dakota, Martha and her family moved to Brandon, Manitoba where she attended Brandon Collegiate School and in 1918 enrolled in the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. While attending the University of Manitoba, Martha met English Professor Douglas Durkin, with whom she became romantically involved and eventually married in 1945. During the 1920’s, Durkin accepted a teaching position at Columbia University. There he taught a course entitled “The Technique of the Novel” which Martha herself also enrolled in. While in New York, Martha took a social work job in Brooklyn before returning back to Minnesota with Durkin. Her first publication was a book of poems called A Far Land (1924) and a year later she published her most successful work Wild Geese which earned her a couple of awards and $13,500 in prize money. The book was originally titled The Passionate Flight and was later turned into a film. Some critics think that Ostenso collaborated on many of her novels with Douglas Durkin, who became aware of Martha's writing ability during her early years in Manitoba. Most critics consider, however, that Martha single handedly wrote Wild Geese.

Ostenso's work tends to focus on common themes about the relationship between human beings and the land they work. Much of her work is set in Manitoba or Minnesota on farm land and touches upon elements of love and melodrama. In A Man Had Tall Sons (1958) the happiness of the story’s main family is willingly sacrificed by the father for the success of the family farm; a similar theme also found in Wild Geese. In O River, Remember (1945) the lives of two immigrant families are outlined over multiple generations in Minnesota's Red River Valley and it won a Literary Guild Choice Award in 1943. O River, Remember is the next biggest success of Martha's work next to Wild Geese. Many of her other works have been reprinted and translated multiple times, including the biography And They Shall Walk (1943) which was co written with Sister Elizabeth Kenny. Ostenso and Durkin were to finally marry after the death of Durkin's first wife whom he had been separated from for many years and they took up two residences; one at Gull Lake, Minnesota and the other in Hollywood, California. Together the couple brought in about $30,000-$40,000 per year in royalties and continued to write throughout their lives. They owned a number of luxury cars, boats and homes and befriended many famous people such as Douglas Fairbanks, John Barrymore, Henry Fonda and Mary Pickford. Later in the couple's lives, the quality of their writing took a negative turn due to their decadent lifestyle. In 1963, they moved to Seattle, Washington to be closer to Durkin’s children and that is where Martha died on November 24th of that year. Her death was caused by cirrhosis of the liver. (J.Mckay)


1925 - Won the Dodd, Mead and Company first novel award for Wild Geese

1925 - Won the first novel prize for Wild Geese from the Pictorial Review

1943 - O River, Remember won a Literary Guild Choice Award

Updated February 12 2015 by Student & Academic Services

AU, CANADA'S OPEN UNIVERSITY, is an internationally recognized leader in online and distance learning.