Fiction from Saskatchewan

  • Larry Warwaruk
    Bone Coulee. Coteau Books
  • Darcie Friesen Hossack
    Mennonites Don’t Dance. Thistledown Press
  • Byrna Barclay
    The Forest Horses. Coteau Books
Reviewed by Paul Denham

In Bone Coulee, Larry Warwaruk gives us Mac, a retired Ukrainian Canadian farmer from Central Saskatchewan, who fifty-seven years ago participated in a drunken fight after a ball game—a fight in which Thomas, a young First Nations man, lost his life. Mac is ready to consider that his family’s ownership of Bone Coulee, the site of an ancient buffalo jump, may be merely provisional. His recognition that “one scoundrel has no right to beat on another” is reached as he delivers the eulogy at a memorial for Cameron, a local boy who died of AIDS in Vancouver. Conventional prejudice is no guide to action.

Personal grievances nursed for a lifetime are fruitful material, as are historical wrongs against a people—just ask Alice Munro or Guy Vanderhaeghe. Warwaruk does not fully realize his material’s potential, however, perhaps because he sticks too closely to a plain, realistic mode of narration. Except when Mac is quoting Taras Shevchenko, the characters all sound pretty much alike: the New Democrat sounds like the Saskatchewan Party candidate, and Roseanna is barely distinguishable from the local farmers. Saskatchewan speech is quirkier than this.

Most of Hossack’s stories are set in an agricultural community of Mennonites near Swift Current, with some characters turning up in more than one story. They are focused on the generations—on how parents, children, and grandchildren interact and shape each other’s existence. The title, Mennonites Don’t Dance, implies a traditional suspicion of the pleasures of the flesh. But in fact many of these Mennonites do take delight in food, in music, in “a family that laughed together often,” and, we are invited to surmise, in sex as well. Those who refuse these delights cast an oppressive shadow over the others, but the reasons are not primarily theological or even cultural. After we have met a couple of mothers who are clearly suffering from depression, we may be more inclined to recognize the role of mental illness in these stories. The pinched, mean-spirited father in “Luna” and the emotionally abusive stepfather in “Ice House” exhibit pathological symptoms, and their families suffer for them. Nevertheless, the book celebrates some hard-won triumphs over grim situations, moments in which joy and love outlast pain and darkness.

Barclay’s Forest Horses is the most ambitious of the three, reaching from the present century back to the early years of the Russian Revolution and the harrowing siege of Leningrad by the Nazis during the Second World War. Signe, the central figure, “born on the ice” of Lake Ladoga during a desperate expedition to bring supplies to the starving city, is returning in 2004 from her comfortable life in contemporary Saskatchewan to investigate her origins. Her father was Russian, her mother Swedish; they escaped from the Soviet Union just after the war when Signe was five and took up residence on a remote Saskatchewan farm. Signe acquired an education and became a teacher of Russian literature in Regina—somewhat unbelievably in view of her uncertain grasp of the Russian language. The story of the forest horses is at the heart of the novel—how her bandit father Pyotr kidnapped her mother Lena and rustled her much loved horses from the Swedish island of Gotland to Leningrad; how the two fell in love; and how the horses became instrumental in bringing food into Leningrad and enabling some people to escape across the ice.

Signe returns to the city, now again named St. Petersburg, in a quest to discover her parents’ story, which she knows is remarkable but only dimly apprehends. Her narrative, which is interleaved with those of Lena, Pyotr, and Pyotr’s sister, is, perhaps inevitably, less compelling than theirs. Their accounts of a Soviet orphanage in the 1920s, of the rus- tling of the horses by boat, of a city besieged, and of a daring mission across a frozen lake are credible, stunning, and unforgettable. Signe’s story provides a frame for them, but lacks their urgency.

This review “Fiction from Saskatchewan” originally appeared in Indigenous Focus. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 215 (Winter 2012): 148-49.

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.