Originally published in the Winter 2016 issue of HOME Matters magazine (The Voice of the Alberta Home Education Association).
Back in 2001, The Report magazine noted that “Canada’s best-selling author” was Janette Oke. At that point nearly 20 million copies of her books had been sold. Recent figures put that amount at over 24 million copies. This is significant because Janette Oke is an evangelical Christian and the books she writes are explicitly Christian-themed novels.
Strangely, however, Janette Oke is virtually unknown to academics who study Canadian literature. An article in the 2014 book Regenerations: Canadian Women’s Writing states that “at a recent meeting of forty-odd literature professors, including ‘Canadianists,’ in Oke’s home province of Alberta, not one had heard of her, nor had the books-page editor of a major urban newspaper in the same province” (p. 194). This is rather remarkable because it is the job of literature professors and books-page editors to know the major writers of their own country. How could they be ignorant of Canada’s best-selling author?
Much to his credit, University of Calgary Canadian Studies professor George Melnyk includes Janette Oke in his two-volume work, The Literary History of Alberta (University of Alberta Press). In the second volume he notes that besides being a best-selling author, Mrs. Oke is a pioneer in the genre of the Christian or religious novel, which he says is the “newest and fastest-growing form of genre fiction in North America today” (p. 147). She helped to open the door for other Christian writers by demonstrating that there was an audience for novels that upheld traditional values.
Janette Oke has won so many awards for her writing that listing them all might seem tedious, but among them are the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association’s President’s Award, the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association’s Gold Medallion Book Award, and the Christian Booksellers Association Life Impact Award.
Janette Oke’s biography
In 2001 Janette Oke’s daughter, Laurel Oke Logan, wrote a biography of her mother entitled Janette Oke: A Heart for the Prairie (Bethany House Publishers) and it is the best source of information about her life.
She was born as Janette Steeves in Champion, Alberta in 1935. Her mother was an evangelical Christian but her father did not become a believer until he was quite old. Through her mother’s influence, Janette was brought up attending evangelical services. At age ten, she believed on Christ for salvation at a children’s Bible camp.
At the age of nineteen she began attending Mountain View Bible College in Didsbury, Alberta (which would combine with another Bible college in 1992 to form Rocky Mountain College in Calgary). There she met another student, Edward Oke, who she would marry. They subsequently moved to the US where Edward received seminary training.
After seminary, Edward became the pastor of a church in Calgary, and later one in Edmonton. Through these years Janette and Edward had a growing family, and she took care of the home and children.
After the Edmonton pastorate, Edward became president of Mountain View Bible College, so they moved back to Didsbury.
Once her children were getting older and required less of her time, Janette felt she could indulge her interest in writing. According to her daughter Laurel (in the book mentioned above), Janette was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the secular romance novels that were on the market. “She could not conscientiously read them since she did not like the messages they sent out, yet she knew that countless girls and women were doing so. She thought the Christian community should at least provide an alternative” (p. 207). She hoped she could serve the Lord through writing fiction.
Janette began writing the draft of her first book during the summer of 1977. Once completed, she sent about half a dozen queries off to publishers. Zondervan rejected the manuscript, but Bethany Fellowship accepted it. This first book, Love Comes Softly, came out in July 1979 and was on Bethany’s bestsellers list by December of that year. (Eventually it would sell over one million copies.) Due to that success, Bethany wanted a sequel. It was published as Love’s Enduring Promise in September 1980. From that point on Janette was continuously writing books, with dozens of titles now in print.
Edward was appointed to be the first academic dean at Rocky Mountain College which opened in 1992, so they moved to Calgary. A few years later they moved back to Didsbury.
Not everyone would enjoy the kinds of books Janette Oke writes, but obviously many people do. That is why she is Canada’s best-selling author. It’s nice to think that the country’s top writer is noted for writing “clean” books. Janette’s work is described this way by Professor Melnyk: “Her inspiring, romantic plots avoid violence, sex, and bad language, and her characters inhabit a world where morality, good manners, and old-fashioned virtue rule the universe” (p. 148).
For Christian schools and home schoolers, Janette Oke’s books could be used in the Canadian Literature component of high school English courses. She is, after all, Canada’s best-selling author. The literary establishment has failed to give her work proper recognition but Christians need not do so.
It’s unfortunate that the academic community has largely ignored Janette Oke. One can’t help wondering if she is being overlooked because of her conservative Christian perspective. The bulk of her readership is in the US, but being successful in the American market is no reason to neglect any writer’s significance. Janette Oke’s success demonstrates that Christians can still make significant cultural contributions without the endorsement of secular gatekeepers.