Rock of Ages

Reviewed by Shoshannah Ganz

This thin book of forty-three pages is the print version of a talk delivered by Margaret Atwood at the University of Alberta’s Canadian Literature Centre as part of the annual Kreisel Lecture series. In The Burgess Shale: The Canadian Writing Landscape of the 1960s, Atwood discusses the era in which she came of age as a Canadian writer, scholar, and public intellectual. Marie Carrière, director of the Centre, provides a short foreword and introduction, giving a brief history of the lecture series and of Atwood’s life and works.

Atwood’s long fascination with geology informs the title and central metaphor of The Burgess Shale, which is defined as

a geological formation discovered in the Canadian Rocky Mountains that contains the fossils of many weird and strange early life forms, different from but not unrelated to later and existing forms.

Extending this metaphor in a variety of directions, Atwood uses it as a launching point for her discussion of the cultural climate of the 1950s through the 1970s, likewise drawing attention to the “blank spaces” of the times under discussion. Employing her trademark irony, Atwood takes the reader from undergarments and private comments made to her by professors, and back to the major historical events and literary works of the time. Take the following, for example: “In 1960, 50s undergarments were still de rigueur: the steel-plated bra, the impermeable rubber panty girdle that made it appear as if you had a unitary bum.” Later Atwood writes of the same time in a more serious and literary vein:

The Canadian obscenity trial of D. H. Laurence’s [sic] Lady Chatterley’s Lover was yet to take place: that would happen in 1962, argued before the Supreme Court by poet-lawyer F. R. Scott, who later wrote a comic poem beginning, ‘I went to bat for the Lady Chat,’ and even later was instrumental in forming the League of Canadian Poets.

While seasoned Atwood readers will hardly be surprised at her ability to subtly comment on literary culture alongside the hilariously mundane, she also manages to insert surprising nuggets of information that will delight even the most well-versed scholar of Canadian literature. Covering amazing geographical, literary, and temporal sweeps in single witty comments, this work allows the reader a brief glimpse into the mind of a great writer and her perspective and experience living through what would now seem to many the Stone Age of the Canadian writing scene.

All this and more make The Burgess Shale an enjoyable read. For any Canadian literature professor attempting to quickly move through a summary of the literary and historical culture of the period, this could be an invaluable and very readable assignment for students. I equally recommend this short work for a person looking for a light literary frolic through times past in Canada. I look forward to returning to this work as a literary refresher and to reading it alongside my students in future Canadian literature courses.

This review “Rock of Ages” originally appeared in House, Home, Hospitality Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 237 (2019): 127-128.

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