Taming the West
- Andrew C. Isenberg (Author)
The Destruction of the Bison: An Environmental History, 1750-1920. Cambridge University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Fred Stenson (Author)
The Trade. Douglas & McIntyre (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Albert Braz
It has become commonplace to assert that representations of the past reveal considerably more about a writer’s time than they do about the periods these texts ostensibly examine. As Robertson Davies writes in his essay "Fiction of the Future," "Whatever we write will be contemporary, even if we attempt a novel set in a past age, and put on fancy dress, so to speak." Assuming that to be true, one cannot help but wonder why the two rather dissimilar works under review—a historical novel by a Canadian novelist and an environmental history by a U.S. academic—present such critical portraits of the First Nations.
The Trade (nominated for Giller Prize), which is Fred Stenson’s third novel and his fifth work of fiction, explores that most Canadian of staple industries: the business of harvesting, buying, and selling furs. Set mainly in what is now Alberta in the first half of the nineteenth century, it deals specifically with the impact of the merger of the Hudson’s Bay and North West companies in 1821. As much as Stenson’s panoramic novel has a central character, it is Ted Harriot, a humane and scholarly clerk. However, Harriot’s life—like virtually everyone else’s in the vast territory from Lake Winnipeg to Vancouver Island, and down to the mouth of the Missouri River—is controlled by the ubiquitous and monopolistic Company. So dominant is the Company that Harriot invests it with human powers. As he is shown reflecting at one point, "If the Company is a body, he thought, and the rivers are its blood, he must try to take his family somewhere, across some divide of continents, or across an ocean, where the tainted blood did not reach." In fact, the Company is nothing less than an industrial cannibal; or, to use a term more germane to the novel, a windigo.
The Company’s perhaps inevitable abuses of power are exacerbated by the personality of its first post-amalgamation Governor. Although only thirty-years-old, the anonymous Governor is hired precisely because he is new to the country and has few friends there, making him the ideal person "to cleanse these rivers and forts of their human debris." He is not merely a technocrat whose only concern is profit but a sadist, a Grand Inquisitor who revels in humiliating people. The Governor renders scores of workers redundant without showing any concern for their welfare. Later, after he has become involved in a long-term relationship with a Métis woman, he callously abandons her in order to marry a "proper" English wife, a decision which calls into question the legitimacy of the relationships that many fur traders have with First Nations or Métis women. Moreover, even then, he never ceases to pursue any female resident of his domain, regardless of her marital status. One of those women is Harriot’s Métis wife, the beautiful but tragic Margaret Prüden who eventually escapes her ordeal by disappearing into a blizzard.
Stenson’s novel is undoubtedly a significant addition to Canadian literature. It is not only beautifully written but also intellectually sophisticated. For example, at a time when many individuals and groups are striving to empower themselves by entering history, Stenson suggests that sometimes power resides in the fact that one manages to stay outside history. As the Governor states when he believes no one will ever know about a major detour he makes with his men for romantic reasons: "What an adventure, thought the Governor. Greater than anything he had attempted before, and greater for the fact that it would never be found in anyone’s journal, letter or history."
Nevertheless, there is something disappointing about The Trade, notably its pervasive gloominess. Stenson’s novel would appear to be an allegory about Canadian diffidence, the fact that Canadians are supposedly incapable of rebelling even against the most inhumane authority. Yet it is difficult to imagine how the Company’s employees could gather the courage to challenge it, since all natural and cultural forces seem to have conspired against them. Nature is particularly cruel. To quote the narrator, "Death was common in this country. It did not pay to mourn for long." Likewise, neither religion nor art offers much solace, especially the latter. As the painter Paul Kane explains to his bride, in order to make his book "palatable" to readers, he will have to produce not "lies so much as omissions. Leaving out the more bloodthirsty and immoral details." Finally, the First Nations provide no moral example that anyone could emulate. They not only engage in the most brutish behaviour with little provocation but even their stories appear morally wanting. This is evident in the fact that Margaret Pruden’s relatives early in her life inculcate into her the belief that she is doomed, since "the beautiful ones in their family were often destroyed by evil." Indeed, the unmistakable impression conveyed by Stenson’s novel is not only that life is Hobbesian but has always been so.
Nature plays a more dynamic role in Andrew Isenberg’s The Destruction of the Bison. Isenberg, who devotes his study almost exclusively to the U.S. Great Plains, contends that a combination of cultural and environmental factors led to the near-extermination of the North American bison, notably the arrival of the horse in the New World. Earlier writers, such as the much maligned Charles Mair, have attributed the decimation of the bison to "that great enemy of wild nature, the white man." Isenberg sees the horse as the great culprit, however, since it enabled the First Nations to transform themselves from foot hunters into "equestrian nomads." As he states, "Indians in the plains initiated the decline of the bison when they adopted that most useful of Old World domesticated species, the horse."
There is no question that the introduction of the horse had a tremendous impact on the bison hunt, by making the hunters much more mobile and thus more destructive. However, there is something troubling about the way in which Isenberg fails to differentiate between subsistence hunting and trophy hunting. Even if hunting by the First Nations and the Métis became increasingly wasteful, it seems somehow different from the work of Euroamerican hunters who slaughtered "millions of bison" because they "anticipated the extinction of the species." I do not mean to be overly critical of The Destruction of the Bison, which provides an excellent synthesis on the subject and is lucidly written. That being said, with its general reliance on white sources, Isenberg’s book also underscores how unbalanced remain the investigations of relations between Natives and Newcomers in North America.
- Narratives of Community by Brad Neufeldt
Books reviewed: kwayask ê-kî-pê-kiskinowâpahtihicik / Their Example Showed Me the Way: A Cree Woman's Life Shaped by Two Cultures, told by Emma Minde by Freda Ahenakew and H. C. Wolfart, Voices From Hudson Bay: Cree Stories From York Factory by Flora Beardy and Robert Coutts, and Winisk: A Cree Indian Settlement on Hudson Bay by Vita Rordam
- Censure au Québec by Maurice Lemire
Books reviewed: Censure et littérature au Québec. Le Livre crucifié 1625-1919 by Pierre Hebert and Patrick Nicol
- A Human Wilderness by I. MacLaren
Books reviewed: Culturing Wilderness in Jasper National Park: Studies in Two Centuries of Human History in the Upper Athabasca River Watershed by I. MacLaren
- Charlie's Choice by Lawrence Mathews
Books reviewed: Baltimore's Mansion by Wayne Johnston
- Recovering Early Canada by Thomas Hodd
Books reviewed: Collected Short Stories of Isabella Valancy Crawford by Len Early and Michael Peterman and The Writings of David Thompson, Volume 1: The Travels, 1850 Version by William E. Moreau and David Thompson
MLA: Braz, Albert. Taming the West. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 19 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #170-171 (Autumn/Winter 2001), Nature / Culture. (pg. 238 - 240)
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