Writing Regions

Reviewed by Joel Martineau

In the 1992/93 academic year I participated in a 400-level course about Canadian novels. The professor had an avid following, the course was over-subscribed, and visitors to campus often sat in. Most meetings were standing room only. Terms such as “metafiction,” “postmodernism,” “self-reflexivity,” and “histories” peppered our discussions. Only one author appeared on the fall and the spring reading lists: George Bowering. Burning Water had earned the Governor General’s Award for Fiction in 1980, and it provoked the most heated responses among the twelve works we read. Caprice had appeared in 1988 to less acclaim, but when we read the novel that spring it became, for me, an all-time favourite.

Writing the Okanagan encourages such reminiscing. The volume collects pieces from thirty-nine Bowering works written throughout his illustrious career, beginning with his first novel, Delsing (1961, unpublished), and ending with a speech he presented at Ryerson University then published in 2015. He introduces each of the thirty-nine selections with a page or two contextualizing his career to that point and describing the impetus that motivated the particular work. As always, Bowering positions himself prominently in his writing, so the current introductions connect the long-ago pieces into a writerly autobiography. Personal photos add to the sense of continuity and progress, illustrating the overlap of individual, academic, and writer.

The pieces selected from Bowering’s prodigious oeuvre all pertain to some degree to the Okanagan Valley, a fascinating micro climate situated inland from the British Columbia coast. Bowering was raised in the Okanagan when the valley featured small orchards, some operated by Italian and later Portuguese Canadians encouraged to settle there by federal immigration policies, and when communities took pride in their baseball teams. Bowering’s parents—his father of English and German Canadian heritage, his mother born in rural Alberta—took to the region in colourful ways, and their influences imbue the early writing. Bowering’s fondness for the region (and baseball) never wanes. As academia leads him to urban centres he returns to the Okanagan with his family for annual visits and special events, such as a high school reunion. While the selections ooze nostalgia they also construct a compelling history that honours the simpler ethos that followed World War II, even as the Okanagan region now reinvents itself into a magnet for international capital that transforms the family-run orchards into “boutique” and “estate” wineries specializing in tourism. Bowering is no curmudgeon regretting change; he is wistful for the place and period that launched his lifetime path.

Soon after that 1992/93 academic year I found myself standing in front of large classes of first-year students who were taking some required 100-level English course. Many resented being there; they would have preferred another science, or perhaps computer science, course. My goal became to win them over quickly by illustrating that they need not fear literature, that they could “relate” to texts, that they could make sense of (some) poetry, and especially that they could write about their responses. Tom Wayman became an ally. At the time he wrote “work poetry” about everyday people performing everyday jobs—nimble poems that typically argued for workers’ rights and gender equality. I found his poems in chapbooks and odd little anthologies, included a few in my course packs, and had great success delivering them to students who gained enough confidence to tackle the next text.

The Shadows We Mistake for Love reveals another side of Tom Wayman. It collects fourteen short stories, most previously published in literary journals, into a hefty volume focusing on the West Kootenay region in southern British Columbia. The Kootenay lakes and valleys run north to south, paralleling the Okanagan Valley but a mountain range or two farther east, more distanced from the province’s urban centres, and traditionally inclined towards more marginalized social and economic spheres. Wayman’s attention to everyman morphs into study of a particular subculture: the hippie or back-to-earth movement galvanized by antiwar sentiment in the Vietnam decades. Late in the 1960s and in the 1970s, youths flocked to the Kootenays, often adopting communal or alternative living arrangements. Wayman’s linked stories limn a fascinating history as this generation matures and their initial zeal yields to ensuing responsibilities—providing for progeny, for example.

The stories burst with details that coalesce into a study worthy of a major novel. Characters we come to know in one story provide context in another; places that we picture from one angle reappear from another; buildings and businesses become foci for comparisons; and, crucially, issues raised are revisited. Wayman appreciates the beliefs and dreams that bring his cast to the Kootenays, but concentrates on the ways that time conditions their hopes. In the novella-length title story, a University of British Columbia graduate student travels to the region to visit a friend, and becomes intrigued by environmental issues and the dashing spokesperson for these matters; she disregards warnings about his history as a serial seducer, has their child, and finds herself a single parent and sole provider for her son, her unfinished Masters thesis long forgotten. In the magnificent “Three Jimmys,” three like-named friends build and operate the first motel in the region, an incipient enterprise that becomes a local icon and treasured platform for their friendship—until a jealous spouse undermines their partnership. After a chain buys and mismanages the motel, changing its name, the story ends with a promising turn as new owners buy the business and restore its original name. In “Many Rivers,” a Vietnam veteran immigrates and starts a war surplus and agricultural supply outlet that seems to clandestinely service the region’s thriving marijuana economy. He attracts local youths with dark tales of his glory days as a warrior, but remains shadowy and furtive. The thrust of the story isn’t the mystery man, but the effect he will have on the impressionable (or not) locals.

Don Gillmor undertakes an epic project in Long Change: the 351-page novel sketches a history of exploration and deal making in the oil industry, beginning with wildcatting in Texas in 1951, ranging to Alberta and the Beaufort Sea in the ensuing decades, and becoming increasingly global at the turn of the century, with forays to equatorial Africa, Azerbaijan, and the Barents Sea. He channels this saga through protagonist Ritt Devlin, who begins working as a roughneck at age fifteen in Texas and soon migrates—with a posse in hot pursuit—to Alberta, his locus of operations as he becomes an increasingly significant player in the increasingly crucial and global industry. The novel portrays the pursuit of oil as a twentieth-century enactment of man attacking nature with greed as the driving force, politicians and international capital the devil’s dealmakers.

Devlin—note the anagrammatic connotations—represents oil, a manifestation of capital, always restless, always willing to meet the devil down at the crossroads, always willing to sell its soul. Remarkably, Devlin is also synecdochic for Alberta. The province functions as a stage for the potential and ascendance of the resource; it also complies with the lies, arrogance, and bluster typical of rapacious resource extraction. When fracking coal seams becomes the latest lucrative technology and consequently rampant, an eleven-year-old boy living on a ranch in the foothills south of Calgary finds dead frogs in a pool on the property. A few weeks later, the family’s drinking water becomes effervescent; the boy develops a rash; his mother takes him to the hospital (the father died when the boy was three) where initial tests are inconclusive. She contacts the Environment Ministry and the oil company drilling wells nearby. Both stonewall, so that she has to enlist media to air her concerns.

Gillmor turns punchy phrases, such as, “That is oil’s great gift. It makes men dream”; or, “The North was the future, the tense every politician is happiest in.” Occasionally, technique slides towards cliché: “there were two detectives in the room, wearing cheap suits and hard expressions.” However, Long Change works with a large canvas that admirably represents the vicissitudes of the industry. When an interrogator addresses Devlin, “You’re oil, is that right,” and Devlin replies, “We’re all oil,” the novel reminds us that we are all complicit. I strive to be energy efficient but that is a culturally relevant concept. I recognize that North Americans use vastly more than our share of the world’s resources, and that our consumption of fossil fuels remains particularly reprehensible.


*Erratum: The originally published version of this review stated that George Bowering’s father was of “English stock” (though his father’s mother was German Canadian) and that Bowering’s mother was a “learned Bostonian” (she was born in Alberta and has no immediate familial connection to Boston). We apologize for the error.

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