Manitoba History: Book Review: Alison Calder and Robert Wardhaugh, eds. History, Literature, and the Writing of the Canadian Prairies

by Daniel S. Lenoski
University of Manitoba

Number 52, June 2006

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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The worst thing about this book is its title. How does a reviewer, who likes the book a lot speak about it, recommend it, praise it, and critique it? Do I call it History, Literature (too jerky), include the whole title (too long), use the subtitle printed in white on the cover underneath the main title, both covering the V produced by the imagery of mirrored railway tracks? The scholars in this anthology had no such problem with most of the titles behind their scholarship: Hutcheon’s The Canadian Postmodern, Kriesel’s The Prairie: A State of Mind, Kroetsch’s Unhiding the Hidden, Disunity as Unity, and For Play and Entrance (lovely titles), Ricou’s Vertical Man / Horizontal World, Francis’ Images of the West, White’s Tropics of Discourse, to name a few titles from this book’s useful appended bibliography of writing on, among other topics, the Canadian prairies, postmodernism, poststructuralism, feminism, and the new historicism.

The variety in the bibliography and the table of contents and in the Prairie itself reflects the difficulties the authors no doubt encountered in choosing a title. Is the prairie a state of mind? Are the cypress hills, the foothills, the boreal forest of Galloping Mountain/Wasagaming the prairie? Is it the Canadian shield or the city? Appropriately, the 22 page introduction begins with the question: “What does … ’When is the Prairie mean’?” This book highlights the variety and ambiguity in the time and space of the Prairie by including essays by an interdisciplinary and international roster of authors. The main focus, however, is literary and historical, reflecting the disciplines of the two editors: Alison Calder, poet and English professor at the University of Manitoba, and, Robert Wardhaugh, historian at the University of Western Ontario.

Their Introduction reveals that this book attempts to retrieve the Canadian prairie from its petrifiction as a historical fact beginning in 1850 and “permanently frozen” in literature and popular culture as a “rural agricultural scene” (p. 3) in which geography determined history. They have perhaps neglected the significance of Gerald Friesen’s book, The Canadian Prairies (that starts with prehistory). They have also omitted any reference to Lorna Crozier’s and Gary Hyland’s anthology of contemporary Saskatchewan poetry, A Sudden Radiance, that operates as they do, sympathetic to the manner in which history and culture are changing the face of prairie geography.

On the other hand, perhaps benefiting from the intellectual momentum provided by Friesen and Crozier in 1987 and also from Kroetsch’s (following Foucault) notion of an archeological paradigm for defining our past, they move the reader from a west in which art imitated life to a position(s) much closer to its other. Calder and Wardhaugh comment in reaction to the view in which the land spoke the people: “our collection asks … instead, how do the people speak the land? In what ways do we write ourselves onto the prairie space and what are the implications …?” (p. 4). The answers in this book are diverse and as much subject to profane time as the answer in the past approached sacred space.

Anthologized here are hitherto unpublished essays by ten current scholars that move inside and outside and up and down the prairie, similar to what Kroetsch, speaking in The Lovely Treachery of Words about frenetic travel in prairie literature, has called the true prairie intercourse, skirting the feminine margins as well as tempting us towards a postmodernizing of the few centres in the still largely unoccupied, unvoiced and male region. Several of these essays point out that such a play of definitions, of other voices, other views, is especially appropriate to an ex-centric space like contemporary western Canada.

Though displaying a range of analytical and writing styles, the book contains several essays that seem especially likely to be uninventing/reinventing. Less abstract and more accessible than Claire Omhovère’s analysis of Thomas Wharton’s Icefields as imagery for prairie history is Nina Van Gessel’s, clear, compelling treatment of Carol Shield’s The Stone Diaries in which limestone is proposed, with its accretions, its erosion and its impermanent permanence, as imagery for Prairie cultural and geological history. Heidi Slettedahl MacPherson in Coyote as Culprit: “Her-story” and the Feminine Fantastic and S. Leigh Mathews in The “Precarious Perch” of the “Decent Woman” reveal how the literature they discuss defers answers, questions reality and history, and makes precarious prairie where and when by introducing her-story to his-story (p. 100). Similarly, using critics like Peter Nichols and David Lodge and focusing on the images of the train and river in the Manawaka Novels, Debra Dudek reinvents Margaret Laurence as a revolutionary feminist modernist, challenging hegemonic narratives.

The best three essays, however, are those by Russell Brown, Dennis Cooley and Frances W. Kaye. Explaining McLuhan’s and Aberhart’s influence and providing analysis of The Words of My Roaring, Brown rationalizes Kroetch’s mythic postmodernism as indigenous to his west and significantly different from American postmodernism. Cooley, using Kroetsch’s Seed Catalogue and David Arnason’s Marsh Burning, suggests a reading and writing of the long poem that releases the local, the small and the informal from their original framing while at the same time acknowledging it, so that the poem sparkles with inventory.

Kaye’s discussion of Sharon Butala’s The Fourth Archangel moves further away from conventional scholarship. This essay’s view of the prairie is longer and more sacred and cosmic than that of the others. Kaye’s critical viewpoint and her language have gone beyond Cooley’s play to eccentricity. Her story of the prairie is parabolic, circuitous and poetic… like an English equivalent of native oral prose? Can we call this eco-history? Ecoliterature? The land itself says it is restless (p. 28).

As Wardhaugh and Calder point out in their Introduction, it is time that makes the space of their book restless. Still, despite the restless change, every essay in the book senses the prairie as larger and more enduring than the cultures that have tamed small parts of its space and time. Both the Canadian prairie and the process of writing about it are a valuable and varied archeological sight. Accordingly, despite a failure to acknowledge adequately the francophone tradition in the west, despite its neglect of those sacred symbols of community: the rink and the church, I dig this book and the reader will too.

Page revised: 16 June 2012