Canaries in the Coalmine

Reviewed by David Leahy

Herb Wyile’s latest book, as its parodic title implies, “highlight[s] the disparity between outsiders’ expectations about life in the region and the more complicated and less idyllic lived realities of Atlantic Canadians.” It is a significant contribution to Canadian literary criticism and cultural studies for three major reasons. Firstly, its regionalist focus is thoroughly resistant to neoliberalism, using the theories of space à la Edward Soja and David Harvey. It problematizes, in the manner of Ian McKay and James Overton, nostalgia for “folk” culture and themes—often driven by tourist dollars and Central Canadian chauvinism. It astutely explores the multiple ways in which so much contemporary literature of Atlantic Canada imaginatively contests the negative dictates of globalized capital. All of these approaches simultaneously allow Wyile to foreground and focus upon what is culturally distinct about each of his selected literary examples. The book is divided into three thematic sections—to give just one example of how these sections work, Section One, “I’se the B’y That Leaves the Boats: The Changing World of Work,” contains three chapters: “Sucking the Mother Dry: The Fisheries,” “‘Acceptable Levels of Risk’: Mining and Offshore Oil,” and “Uncivil Servitude: The Service Sector.” This section cogently offers poignant readings of literary examples that retell the recent history of the evisceration of the Newfoundland fishery due to corporate and governmental mismanagement; that dramatize the often tragic human consequences of other primary industries, such as mining and oil in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland; that trouble the Disneyfication and commodification of local cultures; and that re-historicize and thereby reveal the deep historical roots of local forms of oppression. This said, literary works from Prince Edward Island are absent, presumably due to the province’s limited output, and works from New Brunswick get relatively short shrift—in part because Wyile chose to occult David Adams Richards as the “eminence grise” of the book, rather than to submit his writing to “political, social and economic considerations.”

Secondly, the book’s multidisciplinary introduction, like the framing political-economic, historical, and cultural material and analyses for each of the literary works under study, be they novels, poems, or plays, can serve as exemplary models for materialist, politically engaged critiques of other contemporary Canadian and postcolonial literatures. Wyile does an excellent job of creating a political sense of the individual texts and their relationships to major and quotidian events, as with the analyses of the novel February’s account of the Ocean Ranger disaster, of Leo McKay’s fictionalization of the Westray Mine tragedy in the novel Twenty-Six, of Alistair Macleod’s melancholic portraits of Cape Breton’s economic migrants, or of “the impact of neo-liberal policies on the lives of public servants and those they serve” in a work like Wendy Lill’s Corker, while simultaneously doing justice to these writers’ art and formal strategies. Only in a few minor instances do the explications fail to live up to the book’s central objective. For example, the analyses of George Elliott Clarke’s Execution Poems and George & Rue are not that successful at situating them in terms of today’s concerns about the impacts of neo-liberal political-economics, culture, and values.

Thirdly, while Wylie makes much throughout the book of other Canadians’ “patronizing acceptance [of] and growing impatience” with Atlantic Canada, and their often blindly predatory vision of the region as a site of “therapeutic sanctuary”—a bourgeois practice that holds true, it can be said, for most rural parts of the country vis-à-vis its larger, metropolitan centres—his conclusion suggests that “if the present condition of Atlantic Canada—its literature and beyond— is not in and of itself of interest to people outside the region, what might be of interest is the way in which the region’s economic, social, and cultural fortunes may provide an important cautionary tale.” Or, as he cites Michael Clow: “given the increasing light-footedness of capital and the political and economic readjustments ensuing from international agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, it is not unreasonable to speculate that it may be the ultimate fate of the rest of Canada to be ‘Maritimized’” in ways that “will undermine any internal democratic processes and make us helpless to set an alternative course.” Time will tell to what extent Anne of Tim Hortons is recognized as an indispensable canary in the coalmine for Atlantic Canadian and Canadian cultures.

This review “Canaries in the Coalmine” originally appeared in Canadian Literature 214 (Autumn 2012): 192-93.

Please note that works on the Canadian Literature website may not be the final versions as they appear in the journal, as additional editing may take place between the web and print versions. If you are quoting reviews, articles, and/or poems from the Canadian Literature website, please indicate the date of access.

Canadian Literature is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.