Reconceiving “West”

Reviewed by Emma Morgan-Thorp

The words “the West” are powerfully evocative in the North American context. Whether in the contemporary Canadian sense of the Pacific Coast, with its lush rainforests and storm-battered shores, or in the sense of the legendary American Wild West, with its cowboys and cattle ranges, the West is a fantastical concept, conjuring adventure and the human struggle to eke out an existence in extreme conditions. Given the predominance of masculinist narratives about such experiences, accounts by and about women are a welcome addition to the field, and 2016 saw the publication of two works of Canadian non-fiction about the words and worlds of women in the West: Victoria Lamont’s Westerns: A Women’s History, and Amber McMillan’s The Woods: A Year on Protection Island.

Lamont, who teaches at the University of Waterloo, has written a compelling page-turner of an academic text which provides a feminist counter-narrative about the development of the popular Western. This book—which moves deftly among such disparate topics as the suffrage movement’s reliance on violent narratives, the gender and class dimensions of the rustling of maverick calves, American feminism’s split from its abolitionist origins, and the repurposing of the pulp Western form for Indigenous literary projects—is likely to surprise a casual reader unprepared to be fascinated by detailed descriptions of cattle ranching. Lamont doesn’t shy away from referencing such intellectual figures as Butler, Bourdieu, Lacan, and Žižek, but manages to provide quick and comprehensible synopses of their relevant philosophies without compromising the pacing of her broader project. She takes more time, however, with close readings of a handful of Westerns by female authors and of the branding and marketing of pulp romances. Throughout, Lamont is keenly attentive to the gendered, classed, raced, and colonizing dimensions of the development of the Western literary form, and to the ramifications of these stories for the social movements of the day. Westerns is recommended reading not only for fans of classic Westerns and of feminist literary recovery, but indeed for all readers interested in the history of the American West and the origins of contemporary feminisms.

McMillan, meanwhile, has produced a memoir of her year on Protection Island, which lies off Nanaimo east of Vancouver Island. McMillan and her family moved to the island sight unseen from their home in Toronto, seeking a change and fantasizing about a lifestyle unlike their own. From page one, McMillan establishes her unhappiness with her situation in the big city, and though her circumstances and location change drastically, the tenor of overwhelmed exhaustion and disappointment lingers to the final page. Easily consumed in one avid sitting, The Woods reads like a long-distance phone call, full of emotion, gossip, self-realization, and complaint. The book is rigorously researched and peppered with fascinating tidbits of historical and geographical information; in one chapter, “The Curious Myth of Douglas Island,” the author muses on the nature of storytelling before moving on to a very thorough investigation of the history of the island’s name. This book can be taken as an antidote, for those who want one, to the many besotted love-of-the-land personal accounts of life on the West Coast which idealize the region. Also unlike other authors who take the West Coast as their subject (Christine Lowther and Anita Sinner’s Writing the West Coast: In Love with Place leaps to mind), McMillan eschews ecology and politics for a focus on the anecdotal and archival.

Both books under review provide provocative interventions into extant bodies of work about their respective mythical Wests. The Woods describes an experience of the West Coast with honesty and earnestness that counterbalances idealized odes to the region. Westerns offers up a genealogy of women’s Westerns which not only denies the genre’s supposedly masculine origins, but also critically examines the development of white American feminism. McMillan and Lamont have crafted interdisciplinary counter-narratives which bring necessary new perspectives to parochial regionalist discourses, and have done so with critical wit and humour which render the books enjoyable and accessible to academic and non-academic readers alike.

This review “Reconceiving “West”” originally appeared in Literary History. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 233 (Summer 2017): 154-155.

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