Communal History

Grief, an unpopular, unwanted emotion, is central to Rough and Plenty: A Memorial, a book that marries life writing and environmental history, using concepts of “enclosure and dispersal,” to craft an alternate history of Canada. As brilliant, evocative, and narratively complex as a Stan Rogers song blended with the gritty, exacting realism of George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier, this book grabs you slowly, but then won’t let go, as it draws portraits of communities now lost in the “merciless and self-congratulating power of progress and improvement.”

Life writing is usually, as the author acknowledges, “individualized and reflective” but Rogers has chosen the difficult path of creating a narrative voice that is “collective and situated.” Names are not often given, characters are not usually drawn, and yet two communities emerge—Highland crofters made refugees by the “clearances” and inland fishers in the Nova Scotia that became home to so many of those refugees—to create “a submerged history made up of collective voices in the landscape.”

In the words of the displaced crofters, “Every good piece of land was taken from us and we were planted on every spot for which no other use could be found,” a fate so familiar that it begs the question as to whether those same Scottish Lairds also devised the systematic removal of Canada’s Indigenous people from “every good piece of land.” We learn that inland fishing is a communal pursuit, despite the apparent separateness of fishing boats, because the “potential for things to go wrong . . . can overwhelm you.” We learn that “kelping,” which involves wading into the freezing spring sea to scrape its bottom in a bleak parody of farming, “is a tyranny beyond all others.”

Those who watched CBC’s Canada: The Story of Us in 2017 and were alarmed by the portrayal of business interests as the ones “building” this country will feel a kinship with Rough and Plenty. As Rogers writes, “This history is not one of settlers taming . . . the wilderness. Rather, it is one of dispossessed and displaced souls flung about by powerful forces” where “humans and nature are reduced to playing the role of the passive material (human resources and natural resources) that serve the dominant market relationships.” Sir John Franklin, explorer of the Northwest Passage, for example, is not “hailed as a hero of Victorian culture,” but rather denounced as “the cause of a cascading storm of suffering for all who came across him.”

In this genre-bending book of life writing, Rogers challenges the “increasingly hardened self–other dichotomies based on an identity that is skin-encapsulated,” leading the reader to imagine a post-racial world where community is defined by the landscape, by the nature that we have been displaced from and may once again inhabit if we would only begin to see that we have all been exiled in some way—First Nations, settlers, new immigrants and refugees—by powerful forces that seek “the greatest good for the smallest number.”

This review “Communal History” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 19 Mar. 2021. Web.

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