Being at Home
- Harold Rhenisch (Author)
The Wolves at Evelyn: Journeys Through a Dark Century. Brindle & Glass (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Lisa S. Szabo
In The Wolves at Evelyn: Journeys Through a Dark Century, Harold Rhenisch continues his recollection of relations among regional affiliations, family memories and the land that he began in Out of the Interior: the Lost Country (1993). A conflation of family memoir, autobiography, history, and oral storytelling, Rhenisch’s “dark journey” moves through conflicting ideas of land, and the colonial/immigrant experiences of twentieth-century rural British Columbia and Germany. He contemplates diverse ideas of homeland that grow out of these associations and tensions in regional stories that variously challenge and conform to perceptions of a unified national identity. Rhenisch claims in Out of the Interior and intimates in The Wolves of Evelyn that these are histories that he “would not have chosen, but they are his.” These may be his histories, but as Rhenisch illustrates, these are also universal stories built out of poverty, war, and personal sacrifice and struggle; these are memories both sweet and bitter, perhaps more so the latter.
The ironic and gentle humour found frequently throughout Out of the Interior and Rhenisch’s recent Winging Home: A Palette of Birds (2006) is rare here, as the shadow of the English immigrants—the “flock of crows” as Rhenisch describes them—darkens the narrative’s tone. What stands out in Out of the Interior is Rhenisch’s deftness at expressing stories “that should be loved” through a balance of sensitivity and humour. The Wolves at Evelyn, by contrast, seeks lightness but labours under the weight of so many memories that seldom sit comfortably. His attempts to convey so many moments from the past, however, are what make this text less successful than Out of the Interior at maintaining coherence. The brevity and control of language that heighten the emotion and imagery of Out of the Interior elude The Wolves at Evelyn. Rhenisch sacrifices linguistic precision for a fragmented, dense format. Subsequently, the intermittent lightness amid the darkness that should illuminate only flickers. Digressions, colloquialisms, seemingly random connections, and non-linear narratives are characteristic markers of oral storytelling, and Rhenisch employs these strategies. However, effective oral storytelling sustains listeners’ focus by keeping the story simple (by simple I do not mean a lack of complexity, for this is a complex text). But, just as it is when hiking through the bush, a clearly marked trail makes the effort much more manageable and rewarding.
Highlights include moments when Rhenisch the naturalist-poet emerges, when he enters his “own land made out of aspen trees and black spruce, rust-red pines riddled with beetles and woodpeckers hammering insatiably through the Month of May,” a land he professes he is “looking for a way in to” but has “no words” to access. These frequent images of the landscape belie such claims of wordlessness. Rhenisch’s poetic imagery crafts new perceptions of home and land by shucking off proprietary colonial interpretations of settling in place. Indeed, his title The Wolves at Evelyn intimates a resistance to Anglo-European relations to place. The unusual choice of at rather than of seems at first an odd choice of preposition. Of suggests location, belonging and ownership, whereas at, though implying geographic location, acknowledges transitory presence and unfixed boundaries: the wolves do not belong to a region—at resists possession of land. Similarly, the wolves, which accompany his mother on her early-morning two-mile treks both to and from the school taxi, linger for only six weeks (a passage recounted in Out of the Interior, also called “The Wolves at Evelyn”). Wolves, as Irene Klaver has observed, “[roam] through the land, through the seasons.” And “lingering in the journey”, she adds, “implies porous conceptual borders, which dissolve in the complexity of different modes of participation in the landscape.” Rhenisch’s oral storytellings illustrate that histories are made from commonplaces and the contributions of shared lives. Rhenisch contends that the history of British Columbia’s Interior is not the story of politics; instead, history is “a hundred thousand stories, of people living on this land and making a living here.” Regional histories are
the taste of bear meat on Bruno’s table,
the way a river moves through grass in flood, the way
you can thread a hook through a grasshopper and pull
trout out of that grass as wood ticks hang off the end of
the grass stems at your back.
Through these stories Rhenisch moves through the land, lingers, participates, and continues on with his journeys, and so finds his way back to the land. I just wish he’d planned out a clearer itinerary for his fellow travellers.
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MLA: Szabo, Lisa S. Being at Home. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 9 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #194 (Autumn 2007), Visual/Textual Intersections. (pg. 167 - 168)
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