The West and Its Genres

Reviewed by Joel Deshaye

In West/Border/Road, Katherine Ann Roberts demonstrates a comprehensive knowledge of North American cultural criticism, especially from Canada, that she describes as “critical nation theory . . . a practice that remains critical yet allows for the emotional appeal of national identity constructs.” She applies this practice to a manageably large set of close readings of Canadian and American literature, television, and film. The interpretations are diligently explanatory. Although Sitting Bull’s name appears incorrectly, I am otherwise impressed with West/Border/Road; my copy is almost uselessly dog-eared as I prepare to quote it liberally in my own related book on the genre of the Western. The contribution of West/Border/Road is that Roberts’ chosen texts are not merely representations of a trans/national situation; they are also examples of genres evolving transnationally from American models that are economically incentivized (thus inevitable) but also subject to critique.

These associated genres are the Western, the border fiction, and the road story—narratives moving toward frontiers or across borders. The book also draws the attention of border studies away from its typical focus on Mexico and the US toward Canada, which is often invisible and sometimes equated with Mexico in the American imagination. It then moves to Quebec to view on screen the province’s interplay of “the will to remember” and its emerging “citizen-of-the-worldness.” Helpfully broad, the scope is intra-provincial, interprovincial, international, and transnational in a North American context.

The book is also intermedial, including both “fiction and film, a practice common in the study of North American border narratives . . . [and] in keeping with one of the main concerns of this study: to reflect on the cross-pollination of genres as they travel [intermedially].” So, giving priority to Guy Vanderhaeghe’s Western trilogy and Aritha van Herk’s most Western novels and stories, Roberts then analyzes CBC TV’s Intelligence (2005-2007) and The Border (2008-2010). These post-9/11 dramas segue into recent border-fixated American literature and film, including Richard Ford’s 2012 novel Canada. In the final section, West/Border/Road examines a Quebec filmography of road movies, such as Louis Bélanger’s Route 132 (2010), which dwell on regional travel and spatial identifications. It concludes with the Canadian road movie generally, especially Michael McGowan’s One Week (2008) and Matthew Bissonnette’s Passenger Side (2009). In method and content, it is very contemporary.

Finishing this review as the City of Victoria removes a statue of John A. Macdonald that was deemed an impediment to Canadian-Indigenous reconciliation, I note that Roberts suggests that (or Vanderhaeghe suggests that) the little-known historical figure and Métis guide Jerry Potts can be understood as “the forgotten or unacknowledged father of the Canadian nation.” For Roberts, “the Canadian nation” depends on the diversity, mobility, and even the invisibility that Potts symbolizes. West/Border/Road is a welcome and significant addition to the scholarly body of work that Roberts synthesizes and expands.

This review “The West and Its Genres” originally appeared in Rescaling CanLit: Global Readings Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 238 (2019): 161-162.

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