Prairie Past, Prairie Present
- Sean Johnston (Author)
All This Town Remembers. Gaspereau Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- R. Douglas Francis (Author) and Chris Kitzan (Author)
The Prairie West as Promised Land. University of Calgary Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
With a stated editorial focus “on the tension revealed by those in the past who have reflected on the concept of the Prairie West as Promised Land,” this volume offers a comprehensive analysis of the conceptual Prairie West as a place of hope, promise, disappointment, and exclusion. Its eighteen essays, roughly ordered according the subjects’ chronology, trace the often contradictory and shifting conceptions of the Prairie West as wasteland, agricultural Xanadu, utopianist laboratory, and finally as a post-second world war balance of the urban and the agrarian.
This comprehensive text (462 pgs) may be of chief interest for its individual chapters on the seemingly endless cast of eccentrics, blowhards, and activists drawn to the Prairies. These include a disheartening but fine exploration of Bishop Lloyd’s Anglo-extremism and generally successful anti-immigration crusade of the 1920s; a look at Nellie McClung’s clumsy and prescriptive literary output and steadily darkening social vision, which adds shades of ash and charcoal to her already complex reputation; and, a study of Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) founder J.S. Woodsworth’s early flirtation with Promised Land rhetoric and gradual advocacy of multiculturalism, which helped shaped his later commitment to social reform.
Despite the varied subject matter, the writers and editors strive to keep this volume focused on what becomes a repetitive phrase: “Promised Land.” But it is not until Chapter nine that a writer provides a working definition of “Promised Land”; in this case, the writer prefaces her analysis with an interpretation of the Exodus story and various narratives of American exceptionalism. These efforts at thematic contextualization highlight where the other essayists fall short, since the frame of reference for many resembles the open Prairie they discuss. In some cases, “Promised Land” becomes restrictive, cumbersome, even extraneous as the discussed privation and adversity experienced by settlers would suggest they had arrived in the desert, and their Promised Land lies elsewhere.
However, the phrase only serves as an organizing theme, and the many excellent essays chart a loose narrative of the conceptual, physical, and literary visions of the Prairie, while revealing the tension between inflated rhetoric and harsh reality; the attention given to individual experience often makes for compelling reading. The initial three overlapping sections focus on the Prairie’s nascent and developing agrarian reputation, the problems of settlement agriculture, and the increasing appeal of unorthodox or novel social theories within a Prairie society whose lack of (white European) historical texture offered a sort of social tabula rasa. Section four, “A Promised Land for the ‘Chosen People,’” marks a dark volta as the racialized exclusion alluded to in earlier sections becomes the central focus, and the absurdity of this exclusion is tragically obvious in a discussion of the Plains Cree’s thwarted attempts at agriculture. In the post-settlement Prairie society of the early twentieth century, conceptions of racial and gender dominance contrasted with an existing egalitarian impetus; the former helped solidify a cultural, economic, and political prohibition enforced by the Government and RCMP, and often advocated by the dominant Anglo culture.
Section five evaluates the “readjustment” of Promised Land rhetoric in the post-second world war prairie landscape. The chapter on the differing prairie modernist and post-modernist artistic visions demonstrates the breadth of this volume. The editors choose to conclude with an essay on the development of prairie co-operatives, suggesting their interpretation of Promised Land rhetoric moves away from the individualistic towards the far more humane conceptual and physical landscape responsible for the CCF.
What is particularly fine about this volume is its transcendence of a species of reflexive rural veneration associated with discussions of rural heritage. Modern sentiments expressed about a post-war rural decline range between the elegiac and celebratory. To some, generational debt can never be paid off, while to others, the past offers no ideal: both perspectives are studied here.
The Prairie West as Promised Land is a testament to the weight of the prairie past, a weight that proves burdensome to many of the characters of Sean Johnston’s novel, All this Town Remembers. Memory condemns the inhabitants of the fading town of Asquith SK to an annual Sisyphean fate of reliving the death of the suitably-named rising hockey star Joey Fallow, the “unseeded” field of Asquith’s future hopes. Twenty years later, best friend Adam must come to terms with his own memory problems and cope with the CBC, which is in town to make a movie about his friend.
Johnston ascribes to the coarse language and chain-smoking school of small-town malaise. Particularly tricky is the subtext concerning rural “authenticity” (stated right on the back cover) and urban insincerity, confusingly represented by the CBC and its attendant “money.” And while discussion of Adam’s memory problems bookend the narrative, it is never clear just how they affect the reliability of his voice, which constantly pokes through the third-person narration by way of free indirect discourse. His inability to remember the absent signified, the pivotal accident, does explain the rift between him and Asquith, a town he has come to see as obsessed with death. But is his “brain damage” responsible for his loose lips, or do those result from his beer intake?
Johnston excels at depicting moments of masculine posturing to leads to explosive confrontation, and there are a few rather gripping scenes. But the main interest lies in
Johnston’s depiction of a man in conflict with a town’s repetition compulsion; Adam’s lack of memory liberates him from a heavy past. This theme, though, remains shrouded by a haze of cigarette smoke. The novel does offer a disquieting vision of small-town Prairie life in an age when capital flees to the oil patch or the city, a vision in which the death knell of rural Prairie promise sounded long ago. And while weighty memories remain of what could’ve and might’ve been, it is Adam’s absence of memory that provides the real promise.
- Small-Town Innocence by Bryan N. S. Gooch
Books reviewed: Great Expectations by Grant C. Robinson and Not in my Backyard by Bryan R. Meadows
- Ontario Novels by Ian Dennis
Books reviewed: Losing It by Alan Cumyn and Pack up the Moon by Richard Teleky
- Staying Power by Jennifer Bowering Delisle
Books reviewed: The March Hare Anthology by Adrian Fowler and A Little Distillery in Nowgong by Ashok Mathur
- Salt Sprayed Memories by Greg Doran
Books reviewed: Saltsea: A Novel by David Helwig
- Time Travels Convincing by Lois Donovan
Books reviewed: Winds of L'Acadie by Lois Donovan and Leaving Simplicity by Claire Carmichael
MLA: Francis, R. Douglas, Johnston, Sean, Kitzan, Chris, Porter, Ryan, and Porter, Ryan. Prairie Past, Prairie Present. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 22 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #198 (Autumn 2008), Canada and Its Discontents. (pg. 127 - 129)
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