Giving the West Its Due
- David Carpenter (Author)
Banjo Lessons. Coteau Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- David Carpenter (Author)
Courting Saskatchewan. Greystone Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Wayne Tefs (Editor), Geoffrey Ursell (Editor), and Anita Van Herk (Editor)
Due West: 30 Great Stories from Alberta Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Coteau Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Dennis Gruending (Editor)
The Middle of Nowhere. Fifth House Publishers (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Alison Calder
David Carpenter’s Courting Saskatchewanis a love story, to place and to people. Carpenter’s project is to describe the ways in which a place becomes a home, how it truly becomes where the heart is. This home-making process takes place, according to Carpenter, through the series of rituals one develops that make a particular place into a part of the family. Opening in a frosty Saskatoon November, Courting Saskatchewantakes the reader through a highly-fictionalized year in Carpenter’s life, from the frustrations of a car too cold to start in the winter and a bird-watching expedition in the spring, to a trip to the fairgrounds in the summer and a reflection on lost youth in the fall. And did I mention the fishing? This may not be so much a book as a creel, stuffed with the brookies, rainbows, and browns of fishing trips gone by. Yet while Courting Saskatchewan is chronologically structured, it is not episodic. Each event—getting a sundae at the Dairy Queen on the longest day of the year, hosting a potluck party at the winter solstice—recalls other events, resulting in a layered narrative that marks a kind of deep time, where each unique event participates in all that came before it. The effect is to produce a rich history of place, a vibrant answer to those skeptics who imagine life in Saskatchewan to be the spiritual equivalent of the dust bowl they think permanently covers the province. Underlying the book is a kind of ecological awareness, seen not only in the reverence Carpenter displays for nature, but also in his awareness of connections, to place and equally importantly to people. Unlike Sharon Butala’s The Perfection of the Morning, which locates the prairie sensibility in a romanticized isolation in capital N Nature, Carpenter situates it in community, in the shared experience of place. Most prairie books have rural settings—and those that don’t aren’t often granted the title "prairie book," but that’s another argument—but Courting Saskatchewancrosses the rural/urban split to become a record of life lived in nature, in the city, in a snow house, among friends.
Reading Carpenter’s Banjo Lessons immediately after reading Courting Saskatchewan inspired in me a strong sense of déjà vu, which is not surprising since some of the same incidents occur in each book. Carpenter’s reminiscences of Banff bush parties, given a first-person narration as creative non-fiction in Courting Saskatchewan, turn up in Banjo Lessons from the perspective of Tim Fisher, the novel’s protagonist. In fact, fans of the bottle of Crackling Rosé wine that Tim throws away, then later finds in the mud of a ruined lake, can revisit Carpenter’s own discovery ofthat same bottle in his collection of essays, Writing Home (Fifth House,1994), and also in his how-to book, Fishing in the West (Greystone, 1995). Banjo Lessons was written with one eye on James Joyce, the other on W.O. Mitchell, and with frequent glances out the window to see how the fish are biting. The novel tells the story of Tim growing up in and around Edmonton, trying to learn how to be a man and, along the way, how to be a writer. As the narrative follows Tim’s complicated maturation process, Carpenter’s style reflects the growing complexity of Tim’s language, moving from the "Onna donna tiner was a boy named Timmy" in the opening line, to the "Onna donna tine" as Tim himself finally pens it at the start of the book he begins to write. Along the way, we follow Tim through various personal crises, the most serious being a lengthy depression, a loss of faith, into which he plunges as a result of his inability to connect emotionally with those around him. Through it all, Tim wrestles with the relation of fiction to reality, eventually finding a literary model authentic to his experience. While some readers may find plot events overly coincidence-driven, Carpenter’s keen eye for details in this novel, which won the City of Edmonton Book Award, rewards reading.
Carpenter has a short story in Due West, the next book I’m reviewing, but to be honest I didn’t read it—I was too afraid of seeing that Crackling Rosé bottle again. The collection’s subtitle, "30 Great Stories from Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba," may be overly optimistic, but there are some fine stories in this collection. The anthology, brought out to celebrate twenty years of publishing for Winnipeg’s Turnstone Press, Moose Jaw’s Coteau Books, and Alberta’s NeWest Press, showcases the variety of short fiction coming out of the prairie provinces. It includes stories from well-known writers like Rudy Wiebe, Sandra Birdsell, and Sharon Butala, as well as work from relative newcomers to the writing scene. Readers expecting page after page of dust and rural angst will be surprised at the range of topics these writers explore. Pamela Banting and Barbara Scott in particular examine gender politics; Sheila Stevenson, Ven Begamudré, and Hiromi Goto remind the reader of often overlooked racial tensions. Sadru Jetha’s story "Nuri Does Not Exist" is a sharply intelligent and genuinely moving exploration of identity and displacement. Norm Sacuta’s beautifully written exploration of sexual persecution, "Orizaba, North of Havana," impressed me intellectually and emotionally. While the collection suffers from the inclusion of some badly written stories that are, frankly, boring, it also sparkles with imaginative and original offerings from Méira Cook, David Arnason, Warren Cariou, and Cliff Lobe. Dave Margoshes’s story "A Book of Great Worth" especially deserves acclaim for its beautiful writing. That I have so much difficulty generalizing about the writing in Due Westis, I think, the measure of the collection’s success.
Like Due West, The Middle of Nowhere emphasizes the diversity and richness of the prairies. Editor Dennis Gruending describes the collection as his attempt "to delve and to dig, and to probe for the heart and soul of Saskatchewan." To this end, he has assembled an anthology of non-fiction prose selections covering the province’s history from explorer accounts to extracts from Maggie Siggins and Sharon Butala. Most of the excerpts are only three or four pages long, a decision that allows Gruending to include a large number of sources. The collection’s strength is the variety of perspectives it presents: we see the act of homesteading, for example, presented from a number of writers from different ethnic and social groups. Unlike prairie books that valorize the moment of white settlement as the dominant event in the region’s history, The Middle of Nowhere puts that settlement in a broader historical context, demonstrating through the inclusion of Native accounts of life on the prairies that prairie culture predates immigration. While Gruending offers no explicit comment on the morality of settlement practices, the juxtaposition of some extracts is provocative: an account of the damage inflicted upon Native culture by white missionaries is followed by an account of the visit of a Methodist missionary to a Cree camp. Reading these accounts in sequence causes reinterpretation of each, as the supposed "truth" of the non-fiction document is destabilized. The collection may thus work against its own project is some ways: instead of identifying some essential "heart and soul" of the province, the extracts can instead point to fragmentation and tension. If there is a "heart and soul" to be revealed, it is likely located in these shifting borders. In his introduction, Gruending writes that he has organized the selections according to the mythologies in which he sees them participating. The extracts are grouped under the headings "The River" (explorer and First Nations accounts), "The Promised Land" (homestead narratives), "The Dry Land" (the dust bowl and the Depression) and "The New Jerusalem?" (largely sports and politics). Though much of the province’s population has shifted to the cities, writings about the urban prairie are underrepresented in this collection. Gruending writes that he cannot identify any particular urban mythology. But I wonder if identifying mythologies is the way to go. Might it not be more useful to celebrate the particulars, the unique concrete experiences that make prairie culture the dynamic, troubled, and powerful entity that it is? Unless the new mythology can be one of diversity, we risk reifying the same old stereotypes that Gruending wanted to write against in the first place. And as these four books show, the middle of nowhere is somewhere important.
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Books reviewed: In Search of April Raintree. Critical Edition. by Beatrice Culleton Mosionier and Cheryl Suzack
- Visions of Love by Janet Melo-Thaiss
Books reviewed: Ladykiller by Charlotte Gill
- Regeneration on Broken Ground by Waldemar Zacharasiewicz
Books reviewed: Broken Ground by Jack Hodgins
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Books reviewed: Toronto, je t'aime by Didier Leclair and Valium by Christian Mistral
MLA: Calder, Alison. Giving the West Its Due. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 21 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #170-171 (Autumn/Winter 2001), Nature / Culture. (pg. 195 - 197)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.