Those Voices Speaking Now

Reviewed by Neil Querengesser

In what continues to be an oft-quoted passage from Rudy Wiebe’s “Speaking Saskatchewan,” a shy young boy during his first day in the rural schoolhouse is introduced by his teacher to shelves full of books that will lead him throughout his life to a blessed continuing epiphany, hearing “human voices speaking from everywhere and every age,” to which “[h]e will listen . . . now for as long as he lives.” Wiebe has of course not only listened to those voices over the years, but also augmented their number abundantly through his own many works of fiction and non-fiction, speaking as “himself ” and through a rich variety of narrators and narrative personae. His storytelling gifts are evident throughout this remarkable collection of one and fifty tales, which offers a substantially complete and satisfying retrospective of his published short fiction.

The collection is thematically organized into four sections that allow the reader to experience Wiebe’s development over a half century in his characteristic topics and themes. The first, “Face to Face, Looking Northwest,” includes the kind of writing for which Wiebe is perhaps best known, as he calls into life the people and events of Canada’s nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Northwest. Included are vivid evocations of such memorable First Nations figures as the Cree chief Maskepetoon, whose prescient and courageous gifts for peacemaking meet their ultimate challenge in his Blackfoot neighbours and adversaries; a non-Cree speaker, who attempts to relate the bitter ironies leading to the tragic death of Almighty Voice; and a poignant narration by Poundmaker, as he foresees the devastating effects of the treaty to which he is a reluctant signatory in “They Year We Gave Away the Land.” Artist Paul Kane, Colonel William Francis Butler, the “mad trapper” Albert Johnson, and a variety of named and unnamed European explorers, settlers, and descendants populate many of the other stories set in this time of encounter, conflict, and tragic subjugation. Underlying all is the omnipresent land, grounding, as always, Wiebe’s writings, always having the word last.

Stories of pioneer settlement make up most of the next section, “So Much to Remember.” They are often notable for their point of view, such as that of the middle-aged mother of six, who moves to central Alberta with her husband and three sons in “After Thirty Years of Marriage”; or of the young girl, who accompanies her father as he delivers Coca-Cola to businesses on his Crowsnest Pass route and is a terrified witness to the lingering psychological effects of the Hillcrest mining disaster a half century earlier; or of the young boy, whose later reminiscences evoke the spirit of southern yuletides past with poignant nostalgia in the much anthologized “Chinook Christmas.”

“Parallel Realities” includes several stories in contemporary settings at once realistic and strange. Wiebe’s remarkable range as a storyteller is evident as one moves from the wry and somehow believable allegorical tall tale, “The Angel of the Tar Sands,” to the horrifying inner mind of a psychopathic killer in “Did Jesus Ever Laugh?” Other stories in this section are equally notable for their deftly simultaneous combination of the familiar and the strange.

The stories in the final section, “Now and Wherever,” are set in contemporary times, many of them narrated by various authorial personae, who often trace and contemplate their position in a complex web of cultural and family history through a variety of locations ranging from European capitals to the Canadian prairies to the high Arctic, and elsewhere. Some of them, like others in this collection, are narrated by Adam Wiebe, whose resemblances to the author the reader may be tempted to allow at his or her own peril. Stories of embattled farmers standing up for their rights, accounts of liaisons between middle-aged men and younger married women, and tributes to Alberta’s two major cities are indicative of the wide range of subject matter to be found in this section.

While these fifty stories are arranged thematically, the textual apparatus also conveniently allows one to place them in bibliographical and chronological context to enrich subsequent readings. Almost half of the stories were written in the 1970s, the most productive period of Wiebe’s literary career, and it is interesting to explore the connections between these stories and those that precede and succeed them. And the bibliographical details of first publications comprise a story in itself. The collection concludes fittingly with one of the author’s first short stories, his high school prize-winner appropriately entitled “Predestination,” the “O. Henry twist ending” of which somehow just feels quintessentially Wiebe.

This review “Those Voices Speaking Now” originally appeared in Canadian Literature 214 (Autumn 2012): 191-92.

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