Questioning the Past

Reviewed by Gordon Bölling

In recent years Herb Wyile has made a name for himself as a leading scholar of Canadian historical fiction through several articles and a co-edited special issue of Studies in Canadian Literature. His monograph Speculative Fictions: Contemporary Canadian Novelists and the Writing of History (McGill-Queen’s UP, 2002) is probably the most comprehensive study of a genre that is very much at the heart of contemporary Canadian literature. Wyile’s latest publication in this area is a collection of interviews with eleven writers of historical fiction. Speaking in the Past Tense offers a healthy mixture of conversations with long-time practitioners of the genre, well-known authors who have only recently turned to the historical novel, and younger Canadian writers. Thus the reader encounters the views of such diverse novelists as Rudy Wiebe, Guy Vanderhaeghe, Heather Robertson, Jane Urquhart, Wayne Johnston, Margaret Sweatman, Fred Stenson, Thomas Wharton, George Elliott Clarke, Michael Crummey, and Joseph Boyden. Only two of these interviews, those with Wharton and Urquhart, have previously appeared elsewhere. In a perfect world Speaking in the Past Tense would also contain interviews with authors like Margaret Atwood, George Bowering, Michael Ondaatje, and others who have decisively shaped the development of Canadian historical fiction in the last few decades. But, of course, this world is far from perfect and the present collection is very likely as close as you can get to representing the astonishing breadth of the contemporary English-Canadian historical novel.

Speaking in the Past Tense opens with a longer essay in which Wyile competently charts the current preoccupation with history in Canadian literature: “Canadian readers are increasingly eager to delve into the country’s past, and Canadian writers have played a huge role in cultivating and feeding that interest.” Wyile goes on to outline the changes the genre has undergone since the publication of such influential books as Rudy Wiebe’s The Temptations of Big Bear and Timothy Findley’s The Wars in the 1970s and places special emphasis on the revisionist and post-colonial sensibilities of most historical novels. Much of what Wyile writes here is but a shortened version of the findings he put forth in his previous publications. The introductory essay, however, fulfills its purpose of providing the readers of Speaking in the Past Tense with a succinct overview of the recent history as well as the current state of Canadian historical fiction. In addition to this more general introduction, Speaking in the Past Tense includes brief headnotes on the work of each author interviewed. The book also comes with thirty-three archive photographs of such historical figures as Gabriel Dumont, George and Rufus Hamilton, Francis Pegahmagabow, Joseph Smallwood, and others. A selected bibliography for each writer rounds off the volume.

All of the eleven interviews circle around a set of recurring issues. For example, Wyile is especially interested in matters of historical accuracy. Thus, he repeatedly asks writers to elucidate their treatment of the historical record. In addition, a number of the conversations touch upon the narrative strategies employed. Joseph Boyden, for instance, points out that his début novel, Three Day Road, only very gradually reached its final circular shape. Wyile is also much interested in the understanding of history that informs the work of a given writer. Fred Stenson, author of the highly-acclaimed The Trade, provides him with a particularly innovative conception of history. Conceiving of the past as a kind of matrix, Stenson maintains that there “are all sorts of things causing all sorts of other things to occur, until what you get is this incredibly dense, interconnected kind of matrix. I am very superstitious about changing any facts that are well corroborated, because I feel that if you were to mess with anything that is actually in its place in that matrix, that was well substantiated, you may feel that you are only changing something at that point, but in fact you are changing everything at every point.” Despite this pattern of recurring themes the conversations in Speaking in the Past Tense are never rigidly structured. Instead, Wyile does well in each single instance to adapt his line of questioning to the works under discussion. A good example of this is the interview with George Elliott Clarke in which questions of class and race are given ample room.

Speaking in the Past Tense is much more than a mere supplement to Herb Wyile’s previous publications. Coming straight from the horse’s mouth, the collection provides valuable insights into the works of Canadian historical novelists and their abiding interest in things past. Reading these conversations makes you want to return to the novels at hand. And what more can possibly be said for the merits of a work of literary criticism.

This review “Questioning the Past” originally appeared in Predators and Gardens. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 197 (Summer 2008): 197-198.

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