An Alberta Tall Tale: The Studhorse Man

Studhorse-Man3Robert Kroetsch stands out as one of Canada’s most unique and talented story-tellers. Canadian literary culture lost something when he died two years ago. Kroetsch is one of those strange beasts that is both a great poet and a great novelist. Normally, you are good at one thing and not so hot at the other, but Kroetsch belies this trend. There is a great website that catalogues his work and makes a number of interviews and media clips available to the public.

Anyways, I picked up a lovely copy of The Studhorse Man when I was in Alberta a year ago and I finally pulled it off of the shelves. This is a raucous, rowdy and raunchy tale of a studhorse man who is trying to keep his rare breed of blue horse alive by impregnating any good mares he can find as makes his way across Alberta in the last days of World War I. Hazard Lepage, said studhorse man, is a larger-than-life character who becomes a hero of sorts in the novel even as he becomes increasingly desperate in his attempts to breed Poseidon, the blue stallion. As with Kroetsch’s other novels, there is an element of the ridiculous in this novel as Lepage ends up travelling to Edmonton in a train-car full of bones, starts a stampede of horses through Edmonton’s streets in a blizzard, loses his clothes in a schoolhouse fire but somehow manages not to freeze to death, and then ends up sleeping with almost every woman he meets. I wouldn’t call Kroetsch’s writing magic realism because that term has a specific cultural history just like Kroetsch’s writing draws on the frontier tradition of tall tales. Because that is what The Studhorse Man reads like at times: a rambling, alcohol fuelled narrative told at a grungy bar under dim lights.

Yet what made The Studhorse Man most interesting for me wa s the narrative structure that Kroetsch employs. Lepage doesn’t narrate the story nor does an impersonal third-person. Instead, we have Demeter Proudfoot, a cousin of Lepage’s fiancee Martha, who tells the story from an empty bathtub in an insane asylum. Demeter’s relation to Lepage slowly becomes apparent over the course of the novel and it provided intrigue to no end for me. It’s almost like a mystery novel where the writer dangles something intangible in front of you without really showing his hand. What it also does is leave readers constantly questioning how much of the story we are told actually happened (Demeter is unreliable to say the least) and how much is fabrication. Yet this kind of shifting narrative fits perfectly with Alberta’s wild west climate in the early part of the 20th century. And, given the ludicrous and slap-dash politics currently animating the province, it continues to fit as a kind of provincial narrative/allegory.

I highly recommend this book for Alberta readers, but be warned that there is plenty of reproduction in this novel.

Kroetsch, Robert. The Studhorse Man. 1969. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2004. Print.


Postcolonial Tragedy: Can You Hear the Nightbird Call?

can-you-hear-the-nightbird-call-by-anita-rau-badamiI read Anita Rau Badami’s Can You Hear the Nightbird Call? for a course that I am TAing. I was not sure what to expect, but found myself blown away by Badami’s writing. The material is very explosive and she nimbly moves across three different characters and narratives to weave together an amazing story about violence, displacement, immigration, and trauma. The novel, set in India after partition and Vancouver, deals with the fallout from the British carving up of the subcontinent into a Muslim majority Pakistan and a Hindu majority India. The problem with these rather arbitrary lines is that they left Sikhs, Muslims, and Hindus in many areas without a home and massive amounts of violence ensued. Badami’s novel is particularly interested in the plight of Punjab, a rich fertile region that had a strong sense of identity before conquest by British imperial forces in the mid 19th century. It has since been divided up between various countries and turned into a bloody battleground. The novel also takes up the Sikh fight for a homeland against Indira Ghandi’s India, culminating in the Air India bombing of 1985.

Part of my amazement stems from Badami’s ability to keep the narrative engaging despite the heaviness of the material that she is dealing with. It can be easy to be overwhelmed by historical atrocity, yet Badami does not allow this happen even as she gives a few shocking moments that are quite hard to read.There is a humanity to the novel that is enjoyable yet also extremely plausible. The three main characters – Bibi-ji, a Sikh woman who stole her sister’s husband, Leela, an educated Hindu woman who escapes Bangalore by marrying Balu, a chemistry professor who is working in Canada, and Nimmo, a Sikh woman who may or may not be Bibi-ji’s niece – are textured and complicated. I felt myself completely drawn into their world and the tensions they experience.

At the same time, I am not quite sure what to do with the novel as Canada appears in a far from illustrious light. I have my own conflicted relationship with the country, but the history that Badami narrates puts paid to the sense that multiculturalism is anything but a kind of benign racist indifference. The Air India bombing of 1985 in which all 329 people on board the plane were killed, including 268 Canadians, making it, in the words of Stephen Harper, the worst mass murder in Canadian history. Of course, Harper`s words came in 2010, 25 after the bombing. This is the problem. It took nearly 20 years for Canadian officials to recognize the bombing as a Canadian tragedy! Brian Mulrooney, Prime Minister in 1985, actually called the Indian prime minister to send his condolences despite the fact that the people on the plane were primarily Canadian citizens. For reasons that are highly suspect, Mulrooney and his aides saw the victims as Indian despite their Canadian passport. And here`s where multiculturalism loses much of its lustre: for although it recognizes other (non-white) cultures as valuable, they are always only other cultures, or not Canadian. Although it is easy to condemn the Sikh bombers of Air India Flight 182, Can You Hear the Nightbird Call? makes an easy condemnation much more difficult as it details the long and complicated history of violence between Sikhs, Muslims, and Hindus in India. This violence also traveled into Canada as the bombers were Canadian, asking questions about how CSIS, the RCMP, and the Canadian government were caught so unaware.

I highly recommend this book for fans of Canadian literature because it asks difficult questions of Canada.

Badami, Anita Rau. Can You Hear the Nightbird Call? Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2007. Print.


Returning to a Master (Again): The View from Castle Rock

view-from-castle-rock_1Last year I had the pleasure of reading Alice Munro’s debut collection, Dance of the Happy Shades, and thoroughly enjoyed it. After finishing it, I vowed to spend more time reading Munro, so I picked up a used copy of The View from Castle Rock. While I think this is an exceptionally strong collection of short stories, for some reason I don’t think it as polished or accomplished as some of her other books. This might stem from the fact that these are “autobiographical” stories of some kind. In the Foreword, she talks about how she became interested in her family history and that the stories in this collection “were not memoirs but they were closer to my own life than the other stories I had written, even in the first person” (xiv). I know I’m not supposed to read these stories as autobiographical, yet for some reason I can’t help but do it anyways. And in doing it, it makes them something less than what they could be. Now, I’m not suggesting that autobiography is somehow less meaningful or artful than fiction, or that fiction is more powerful than truth. But I think that temptation to ask myself if this is really what Munro went through became an annoying sidethought that pestered me.

The first part of the book has stories about Munro’s ancestors and I’m not entirely sold on the strength of these parts. The title story is very strong, possibly the best in the book, but I found “No Advantages” somewhat ho-hum as Munro goes through her biography and explores the Ettrick Valley in Scotland. “Illinois” is strong in the sense that Munro shows her usual sense of ending that comes as a surprise yet wraps the whole story back in on itself. “The Wilds of Morris Township,” on the other hand, takes a step back and becomes a weird fable-like story of an in-bred family in Morris Township in rural Ontario. “Working for a Living” deals with Munro’s father’s fox farm and, in some ways, is like “Boys and Girls” from Dance of the Happy Shades, but in other ways is quite different. Maybe this first section felt too much like a formulaic CanLit novel: it deals with historical immigration to Canada, it shows how rough it was, and also how far along Canadians have come, all dosed in a kind of warm nostalgia that doesn’t demand too much of the reader. (This is probably a completely unfair assessment of this part of Munro’s book as she is far more nuanced than this caricature I’ve written suggests)

I felt that the second part of the collection which deals with Munro’s “childhood” works much better. “Lying Under the Apple Tree” is worth the price of the book alone. Seriously, this story is so good. It’s classic Munro in the sense that it deals with a young girl growing up in rural Ontario, dealing with her emerging sexuality and the complicated if constrained gender roles available to her. Here again, Munro pulls out a narrative swirl (it’s not a trick because it’s not meant to be duplicitous, yet there’s something showman-like about it) near the end of the story with Munro’s summer boyfriend and his employer Miriam McAlpin. I’m almost certain I’ve read “Hired Girl” before, a story which is set in the Muskokas where Munro worked as a hired girl at a summer cottage. This story has got all kinds of layers at work in it, and shows Munro’s many talents in character and setting. “Home” is heart-breaking as Munro’s father’s health declines and she is forced to bear witness to it.

Maybe I’m demanding too much of Munro. Maybe she can’t fill a book with solid gold, but instead needs to have some less than magnificent stories in between. And let’s be clear that those lesser stories would easily be the highlight of a lesser writer’s collection. Overall, The View from Castle Rock has some magnificent stories in it. It also has a kind of thematic unity in that it deals with one family’s history.

If you are already a Munro fan, then this book is for you. If not, I think I might look elsewhere first.

Munro, Alice. The View from Castle Rock. Toronto: Penguin, 2006. Print.

An Ode to the Industrial City: Singing the City

0001.jp2.sI am not quite sure how I came across Laurie Graham’s Singing the City, but I am quite happy to have read it. Graham’s memoir/creative non-fiction is a both an elegy and a hymn to Pittsburgh’s fast-disappearing industrial past. Pittsburgh was once at the center of the American steel industry, so there are some close parallels between it and Hamilton, Ontario (the city I live in). However, what really made Singing the City come alive for me was Graham’s willingness to take the working class life on its own terms. At times she might run the risk of romanticizing it, but her interviews with current or former steel workers continually remind her that their steel mill careers were far from perfect. Graham’s book, then, works both as an intimate portrait of Pittsburgh, but also as an example to the many former industrial cities in North America that face the difficult transition from heavy industry towards a more diversified, white-collar economy.

Maybe part of the reason that I liked Singing the City so much is that the steel mills here in Hamilton have always been on the near horizon of my imagination. I grew up travelling past them on the way to my grandparents’ house, and they became a kind of mythical landscape. Their size and other-worldliness is truly something to behold. For someone who now works a desk job in a university, that world is nearly as far from my own day-to-day life as you can get. Yet, these places are slowly disappearing in North America as industry is outsourced in a globalized economy. Graham summarizes it best when she writes:

“The work of this place helped set the course of the nation. People have died here winning our wars, creating and building the world we know. The evidence of their existence remains, if only anonymously, in the buildings and bridges built with their steel. But the immediate evidence of their existence, the locus of their work, is gone. Looking out over an empty mill site, I can only wonder why it is that as a nation we are not more ready to recognize these places as hallowed ground.” (130-31)

The Calvinist upbringing in me resists the temptation to call factories and steel mills hallowed ground, yet I’m deeply attracted by Graham’s forthrightness. Entire lives, even generations of lives, have been lived within the shadow of steel mills. There is a wealth of stories in these places, yet these stories often go untold and unheard.Graham explains this: “The devaluation of working people is a commonplace in human history. It is also too easy, a failure of imagination maintained, I think, by a willful blindness to certain kinds of ability, a desire to discount what one cannot or does not want to do” (135). I think she hits the mark here because, if I am truly honest with myself, I would rather be at my desk reading a book or marking a paper than wearing the heavy fire-proof coveralls while handling hot metal with tongs for the rest of my life. I do take a deep pleasure in physical labour, but this is more from the lack of physical labor in my everyday life than from a deep connection to it. I worked on a potato farm throughout high school and university in the summers, and I know that these experiences easily dispel any romantic notion I have of seeing myself as a farmer.

Finally, what I think Graham’s book also offers is a model of a memoir of place. In its relatively short 166 pages, readers get a real sense of Pittsburgh as a place. It is a living place with a deep history and a textured surface that makes it unique from other industrial cities. I firmly believe that every city, town, or village is unique in its own way, and the best writing on place helps to bring this out. Near the end of her book, Graham writes: “I have come to realize that as I move through Pittsburgh, mentally and physically, I am carrying, living in, a story. The city is multilayered for me, so that in any view of the present I see adumbrations of what has gone before” (160-61).

I think this is summarizes her book in a poetic way. We as readers encounter Pittsburgh through her eyes, and we come to a budding relationship to the place even if we have never been there. Such writing can help us understand that globalization and consumer capitalism do not have the final say in turning every city into a carbon copy of every other one. Instead, we need to see the places we live as part of a much bigger story, a story that we need only hear to see that the places we live are multi-layered.

I would recommend this book for people who have lived in industrial cities and for fans of place-writing.

Graham, Laurie. Singing the City: The Bonds of Home in an Industrial Landscape. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1998. Print.