Imagining the Land

Reviewed by Marinette Grimbeek

Trevor Herriot’s Towards a Prairie Atonement is a lyrical appeal for “a restored covenant with the land” based on Métis land-use practices. For all its lyricism and intimate descriptions of precarious prairie life, Herriot’s slim volume brims with anger. The author’s wrath stems not only from the Harper government’s lifting of federal protection for these endangered grasslands in 2012, but also from the irreparable damage done by colonialism and forced removals. Most of the prairie has been left in private or public ownership, and, consequently, Herriot envisages “a third way” that transcends this dichotomy, based on traditional First Nations and Métis land tenure. Herriot’s indictment of private ownership is not universal, however; he recognizes that at least some small freeholders have had a positive impact on grassland ecology and the local economies.

Some of the most poignant passages from Towards a Prairie Atonement are spent in conversation with Michif Elder Norman Fleury (who also penned the Afterword) in the graveyard at Ste. Madeleine, all that remains of the Métis community whose residents were forcibly removed by the federal government in the late 1930s. So if Herriot’s lament on the fate of the prairie seems nostalgic, his nostalgia is tempered by a consideration of the extermination of the buffalo, and of the way in which both human and nonhuman suffering can be traced back to colonial and corporate expansionism. Atonement is an essential component of Herriot’s envisaged prairie commonwealth: atonement should involve decolonization, expressed as a “restored covenant with the land and the peoples who have known it so long.”

Herriot’s volume is one of reconciliation and an appeal for renewed respect between human communities. Imagining the Supernatural North, on the other hand, focuses on the circumpolar North—and cardinal direction—as imagined Other. Although its editors express the hope that their volume may serve as a “staring point for a criticism of the discursive hegemony claimed by European-American observers over the North and its inhabitants,” not many of the contributions explicitly reflect on their own cultural bias.

The collection’s sixteen chapters are presented in four parts: “Ancient Roots: The Menace and the Divine”; “From the Middle Ages to the Early Modern Period: The Monstrous and the Demonic”; “The Nineteenth Century: The Scientific and the Spiritual”; and “Contemporary Perspectives: The Desire for a Supernatural North.” Individual chapters cover diverse topics, ranging from the North in Jewish lore and Ancient Greek proverbs to the role played by Northern imagery in contemporary subcultures, such as black metal and Otherkin communities (the latter comprising individuals who regard themselves as not just human), to readings of specific texts or biographies. Broadly speaking, most of the chapters take an anthropological or cultural studies approach, although many other disciplines are involved, including history, linguistics, literary studies, and folkloristics.

Nevertheless, precisely because of the variety of subjects and time periods it covers, my overall impression is of a slight lack of coherence within the collection, which might have been addressed with more explicit attention to one or more aspects of the “imaginatio borealis” in all of the chapters, such as the gendering or Othering of the North. While the volume certainly multiplies perspectives on associations of the supernatural with the North, a slightly narrower focus, and fewer very long quotations in the relatively short chapters, would perhaps have been more useful for a student of the gothic or the uncanny. As it is, however, Imagining the Supernatural North provides an accessible introduction to a vast subject by touching on such a variety of aspects related to the North and its hold on the Western imagination.

Both Towards a Prairie Atonement and Imagining the Supernatural North concern the ways in which we make sense of our planetary habitation. In their very different approaches, both of these volumes underscore that such conceptions are not static; some hope for changed relations lies in repeated re-imagination and the acknowledgement of marginalized perspectives.


This review “Imagining the Land” originally appeared in Literary History. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 233 (Summer 2017): 148-149.

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