Part exploration, part memoir, David Elias’s latest book answers the riddle of why barns are often red

Aside from being homes for animals, Elias finds barns to be ‘places of quiet refuge and even spiritual reflection’

Manitoba author David Elias has had plenty of barn time in his life. In his new book, The Truth About The Barn: A Voyage of Discovery and Contemplation, he tells how as a teen, he toiled one long summer with his grandfather, an older brother, and a hired man dismantling a turkey barn – a colossal structure, almost 300 feet long and wide as a football field – board by board, nail by nail.

Those nails were almost impossible to remove and each one had to be saved because the plan, and it was successful, was to haul the barn pieces to a new site on another farm and put it back together, board by board, nail by nail. Elias’s father, who created the plan, didn’t participate in the actual labour, Elias says. “That wasn’t his style. He was more of an idea man.”

So with that, and other less-than-cool barn experiences, the young Elias came to associate barns with menial and distasteful tasks. He never dreamed that one day he would seek out barns and think of them, as he now does, “as places of quiet refuge and even spiritual reflection.”

There were several incidents that probably pointed him in that direction, he says. One happened on a visit to the Mennonite village of Neubergthal in southern Manitoba, which has been designated a National Historic Site. There he toured a number of restored buildings including a housebarn.

He discovered that the barn portion of the dwelling had been moved there from another village many miles to the west, where it had originally stood. “When I made inquiries as to which particular village it had come from, I was told that it was Neuhorst – the village my mother grew up in! That experience stayed with me and kind of got things started,” he says.

David Elias
David Elias

When his short non-fiction piece “The Idea of the Barn” presented at a writers’ conference left listeners wanting more, Elias set to work.

The Truth About The Barn is an exploration and celebration of the barn: the parts of the barn (including the mangers, loft, cupola, and weather vane), barns in books and movies, animals that live in barns, barns that have been repurposed, the spiritual experience of barns.

It is also part memoir, providing insights into Elias’s family life as a child and stories of significant experiences that took place in, around, and behind the barn.

A section on the construction of the barn offers an explanation as to why barns are almost always red. Frugal farmers mixed their own paint from skim milk, lime, boiled linseed oil, salt, and ochre. The precise recipe is included.

Elias is primarily known as a fiction writer, with six books previously published. His most recent novel, Elizabeth of Bohemia, was shortlisted for the Margaret Laurence Award for Fiction and the Foreword INDIES Award – Historical (Adult Fiction).

These days he has been working on poetry, a children’s book, another historical novel about Elizabeth’s brother, Henry, and another non-fiction book.

“So I’m keeping busy.”