Landscapes of the Mind

Reviewed by Rachel Lallouz

“Here, among the unglaciated mountains unending as an ocean, the brain cannot truly comprehend what in every direction the open eye must see,” exalts Rudy Wiebe in the essay “On Being on the Top of the World,” from his collection of memoirs and speeches Where the Truth Lies. In this particular recollection, Wiebe draws from a deep well of memory, detailing his time spent as part of a 1999 Geological Survey of Canada team completing work on the northeast coast of Ellesmere Island.

“To stand in such a place on earth; the widest possible camera lens is basically a silly little thing . . . the mind drops, bottomless,” he says. It is this abyss—this incalculable immenseness of the writer’s potential to craft land and space—that we see reflected in each of the twenty-one works in Where the Truth Lies. Wiebe’s collection traverses a psychic, embodied geography of Canada as much as it does the physical land itself, from the remote and barren North to the windblown fields of the Prairies, down along the North Saskatchewan River snaking itself through the city of Edmonton and past the old office window of Professor Wiebe himself, emeritus professor of literature and creative writing at the University of Alberta. In a spirited and playful essay, “A Frontier Visit,” the ghost of his first writing professor visits him with sage advice and a sardonic smile. The advice imparted to the startled Wiebe? His ghostly professor reminds him to “not dare less than the farthest edges of [his] wildest, most improbable dream.” As fantastical as this instruction given by writing mentor Professor Frederick Miller Salter is, we see in this collection that Wiebe has turned his order inwards, and the sixty years’ worth of writing in Where the Truth Lies opens wide into inspiration and memories giving rise to his most influential books.

The sense of expansiveness imparted to the reader is drawn primarily from the utter vastness of Wiebe’s travels throughout Canada and into memories that are the genesis of his fiction and that have crafted his sense of identity. In “The Wind and the Caribou,” Wiebe details his attendance of a Dogrib Dene winter hunt for caribou (“through binoculars they seemed too immense to be believed”), while “On the Trail of Big Bear” pounds home the heartbeat of Wiebe’s writing: that “the stories we tell ourselves of our past are by no means merely words: they are meaning and life to us as people.” Always, however, Wiebe’s writing returns to the prairie, to his childhood growing up on the plains outside Lethbridge, and to the Mennonite faith that grounds and gives shape to his stories. For Wiebe, accessing the core “truth” of one’s identity and heritage lies in the deceptively simple, and weighty, act of writing. “Truly,” says Wiebe, “all I as a writer can do with truth is dig for it with words, dig into words for it, dig for it wherever it may lie.” Where it lies, suggests Wiebe, is in the rich matter of the self, the body, and the land.

Geographical breadth is also spanned in Ten Canadian Writers in Context through the compilation of excerpts of creative non-fiction, fiction, and poetry from the multilingual, multicultural Canadian Literature Centre/Centre de littérature canadienne’s ten-year archive of Brown Bag Lunch readings. Each of the ten featured works is preceded by a critic’s essay, giving sharp insight into this transcultural anthology and further contextualizing individual works for the reader.

The selections chosen by editors Marie Carrière, Curtis Gillespie, and Jason Purcell are as preoccupied as Wiebe with the relationship between spatiality, geography, and Canadian identity. Newfoundland-born Michael Crummey’s excerpt from Sweetland digs into grief, felt hard and fast by a Newfoundland fisherman soon to be displaced from his home village of Chance Cove by the Canadian government’s resettlement program that accompanied the 1992 moratorium on fishing. In the excerpt from Caterina Edwards’ Finding Rosa, we see her Italian protagonist, Bianca, who now calls Edmonton home, on a trip to Italy, where she stands in front of the house her mother was born in. She stares at the towering orange tree in the front yard, imagining “her grandmother, black hair soaked with sweat, her face twisted in pain” as sunlight illuminates the room while she gives birth to Bianca’s mother. “This is the place where my mother began,” she states.

Displacement and journeying—the impulse to search for the self—are most clearly seen in the anthology’s latter works. Lawrence Hill’s protagonist hitchhikes into the town of Gull Lake, Saskatchewan, in the excerpt from Meet You at the Door, where the nomadic young man works graveyard shifts as a railway operator connecting train dispatchers in the dark of the night. His search for self, however, reads more as an escape of past ghosts. He laments that “the dead [have] an unfair advantage. They could hector you all they wanted through the deepest, darkest Saskatchewan nights,” where, as he explains, there is “no movement but oil pumps bobbing in agreement.” We learn that he is trying in vain to outrun the shadow of a close friend who committed suicide. Like the concept of displacement, the idea of “home” is interrogated in this anthology. The excerpt from Eden Robinson’s The Sasquatch at Home traces her experience camping in the remote Kitlope Valley with a group of Indigenous youth—the kernel, she reveals, of what became Monkey Beach. Gregory Scofield’s selection of poems, weaving violence and sorrow with his deft musical tongue, demands that the reader listen to the sound of loss and displacement echoing over and through Canada’s landscape. Sings Scofield in “Prayers for the returning of names and sons”:

I am singing

to bring back
your stolen sons

whose sons and sons
and their missing bones

are unsung geese
lost in a country[.]

This review “Landscapes of the Mind” originally appeared in Literary History. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 233 (Summer 2017): 140-142.

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