White Coal City: A Memoir of Place and Family. University of Regina Press
Robert Boschman’s new memoir, White Coal City, reads as part family exposé, part academic treaty, and part study notes for a future true crime podcast. As its subtitle suggests, however, Boschman is concerned not only with his own tumultuous upbringing, but also with the ways that his family history is intertwined with the settler-colonial violence of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, the hard-knocks town where he grew up. In the early twentieth century, the city adopted the nickname “White Coal City” to reflect its ambitions for a massive hydroelectric dam on the nearby North Saskatchewan River, a project that was abandoned half finished. Boschman’s title takes the irony of Prince Albert’s forgotten moniker as a symbol for the unfulfilled promise of both his family and the place itself.
The memoir begins with a collection of meaningful para-texts that serve well as an introduction to its concerns and its structure. This introductory material includes a pair of evocative epigraphs from well-known academic studies; a “kinship chart” that proves to be a streamlined family tree; a selection from a transcript of a 1940 coroner’s inquest into the death of a woman in an automobile accident; and a two-page prologue that reveals the woman to have been the author’s pregnant grandmother, whose death was witnessed by her horrified husband. Boschman closes the prologue with a remarkable claim: “This entire story was born in that instant” (xvi). In retrospect, “I’ve seen this ancestral history unfold and reveal itself again and again . . . without my even knowing a thing about it for the longest time.” It is a claim that the remainder of the memoir sets out to prove.
The remainder of the lengthy memoir is separated into ninety-two numbered chapters, the majority of which are less than five pages in length and leap sharply between events, places, times, and people. An early chapter recounting the survey and settlement of Saskatchewan, for example, is followed by a chapter offering a methodical description of what happens when a body is impacted by a moving vehicle, which is followed by a brief history of Prince Albert, and so on. A few chapters later, a discussion about Boschman’s Mennonite ancestors is followed by a chapter about a line of discontinued Plymouth automobiles. Boschman makes little effort to link these chapters into a coherent narrative, choosing instead to allow the difficult histories of his life and broader socio-historical forces—colonization, endemic poverty, sudden death, residential schools, religious fundamentalism, toxic masculinity—to shuffle into an archive of a most complicated present. The most prominent through line of the memoir is Boschman’s wry, self-deprecating humour, which aims to keep the book’s many staccato chapters in charged juxtaposition. “I wasn’t just scrawny; I was cross-eyed too,” begins one chapter (13); “In my first memory I am shitting my pants,” begins another (26).
The strongest sections of the memoir reflect Boschman’s painstaking efforts to rebuild the events surrounding his grandmother’s violent death. Here, the memoir’s fragmented structure reflects the ad hoc nature in which Boschman came to learn that his paternal grandmother was in fact his grandfather’s second wife; that his biological grandmother, Margaret, had been struck and killed decades earlier by a car driven by a travelling salesman from Toronto; and that her death had nearly driven his grandfather, John, mad with grief. Rather than summarize his research, Boschman quotes at length from the coroner’s inquest, from family letters and diaries, and from interviews and newspapers clippings. He tracks down the last living witness of the accident for an interview and reprints a photograph he finds of his grandmother’s open coffin at the funeral. Allowing the reader to encounter these voices and materials directly and with minimal commentary is highly effective, positioning the reader as a participant in Boschman’s efforts and offering a deeply intimate portrait of the trauma’s impact across generations.
At other times, however, the memoir’s structure results in an uneven reading experience and risks some questionable equivalences. The memoir’s two epigraphs, for example—from the trauma theorist Cathy Caruth and the anthropologist Tim Ingold—are effective as gestures to the memoir’s concerns, but I find the turn to academic rhetoric within the book to be considerably less successful, where it strains against the frank prose of a memoir otherwise committed to exploring rather than explaining. As someone who could offer a lengthy Mennonite “kinship chart” of my own, I think Boschman is surely right to link his ancestors’ active role as settler colonialists to the legacies of Indigenous displacement and cultural genocide—and I admire his open effort to wrestle with his family’s participation in the Sixties Scoop. Yet I am left with questions about his attempt to bring together what he presents as the intergenerational trauma of his grandmother’s violent death with the larger traumas of Canada’s colonial past, as well as some of the solutions implied by the closing sections—including that his loss of Low German, the language of his ancestors, can be “easily remedied” by eager assimilation into the country he otherwise interrogates throughout (267). But Boschman is thoroughly and strategically uninterested in assuaging readerly anxieties, and the episodic, fragmented text of the memoir suggests his efforts are very much an ongoing project.
How do the pains of our ancestral past inform, complicate, and compound our individual and collective presents? What will it mean for settlers to wrestle with their own historical traumas, not simply as individuals or family members but as Canadian citizens complicit in colonial violence? These are pressing questions, and White Coal City is well worth reading—both for the urgency with which Boschman asks such questions and for the openness with which he chases after answers.