Where Was Here?

Reviewed by Alison Calder

While The Melting Queen, a first novel about Edmonton as it never/always was, and You Can’t Get There From Here, a scholarly study of representations of small Ontario towns in the works of four Canadian authors, are different in almost every way, they are both about memory: the ways in which the past is continually recreated in service of the present. Edmonton, in The Melting Queen, is a city defined by and dependent on its Melting Queen festival, in thrall to the legend of May Winter, the first woman to fill the role of “a daughter of the city, the mother of its people,” who “shall embody the spirit of the city.” This tradition, uninterrupted for 114 years, is challenged when the novel’s protagonist, River Runson, is named to the role. River is also undergoing a spring breakup: their old identity, Adam Truman, no longer fits them, and River’s new genderfluid identity confounds and splits the city into pro-River and anti-River camps. River’s cautious negotiation of their new self contrasts with the actions of their sometimes friend Odessa Steps, who adds and discards personae for personal and artistic profit. As the conflict between progressive pro-River and conservative anti-River camps intensifies and reveals ugly schisms in the city’s purported unity, River comes to understand that the troubling visions that they have been receiving are rooted in the horrifying truth of May Winter’s real life. Only by confronting the terrible roots of the Melting Queen myth can the city begin to work towards a genuinely meaningful cohesion.

In The Melting Queen, satire works both to poke fun at the boosterism of civic officials and to expose ways in which punitive insistence on the rigidity of gendered, raced, and classed hierarchies is bolstered in the present by a view that sees the past as inherently innocent, as a time of wholesomeness and goodness at odds with the confusing complexity of the present. The Melting Queen festival becomes a chance for gendered roles to be reinforced in the guise of tradition. Though overwritten at times, the novel points to the painful roots of colonial Canada, and argues for the need to confront the difficult reality underlying celebrations of pioneer heritage and civic identity.

You Can’t Get There From Here works with a culturally conservative canon of Canadian literature, finding its focus on ways in which the past is remembered and used. Chapters treat works by Stephen Leacock, Robertson Davies, Alice Munro, and Jane Urquhart, and concentrate on how each author represents the workings of memory in constructing an image of place. “The small town is a pliable cultural trope,” writes Porter, and this pliability allows the trope to function variously as a safe retreat from modernity, as a stultifying cultural backwater, as a source of nostalgic longing, as a repository of authentic cultural values. Porter’s starting point is that in their representations of small towns, each of these authors, with varying degrees of self-consciousness, “examine[s] the operations of memory that produce that past.” The importance here is not only in what is remembered, but also in how each text shows memory functioning to construct, to challenge, or to accept versions of the past. While both Leacock and Davies employ outsider narrators able to maintain an ironic, nostalgic distance from events, Munro’s narrators are immersed in place and, with little distance between past and present, come to question the possibilities of memory and the dangers of nostalgia. Meanwhile, Urquhart’s characters long for vanished pasts and seek to commemorate this longing in the present.

These constructions of the local are not isolated, but are responses to larger social change, and are subject to the same forces as urban environments; these remembered small towns are not disconnected refuges, but are produced by the same forces that also work to reject them. Porter makes the point that these fictional small towns are located in southern Ontario, and therefore different from the more isolated, resource-based towns further north. If the focus is on how memory is shown to represent these towns, though, rather than on the towns themselves, it’s not entirely clear what difference the local makes: are these towns shown to be remembered in different ways than those on the prairies, in British Columbia, or on the east coast? Are small towns always to be located in the past, or is it equally possible for them to exist in the present? Is there more pastness in small towns than in other places? Such questions are provoked, I think, by the intensive focus on these four authors, to the exclusion of more contemporary and diverse writers.

This review “Where Was Here?” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 19 Feb. 2020. Web.

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