Rudy Wiebe’s new collection, Where the Truth Lies, is a volume of essays, newspaper articles and speeches, covering 40 years, that speaks with authority and feeling on a range of subjects, landscapes, cultures and concerns.
With a theology degree from Mennonite Brethren Bible College in Winnipeg and a BA and MA from the University of Alberta, where he taught from 1967 to 1992, Wiebe is one of this country’s great moralists, storytellers and fabulists. Born into a Low-German-speaking Mennonite community in northern Saskatchewan, on a bush homestead he knew as unstoried, Wiebe undertook a project of historical fiction that would become the most sustained and far-reaching of any Canadian writer. The Temptations of Big Bear (1973), which imagines the great Cree leader who refused to sign Treaty 6 until driven by starvation; The Scorched-Wood People (1977), which considers Louis Riel and the Métis from a Métis perspective; and A Discovery of Strangers (1994), about close encounters between the first Franklin expedition and the Yellowknife Dene, for which Wiebe won a second Governor General’s Award, are permanent achievements in this nation’s literature.
Wiebe didn’t speak English until age 6 and credits a trilingual childhood as a key to his writerly vocation. “Fiction,” as he defines it, is “that structure you form, that you make with words out of fact”; in his world “novels may go where ministers fear to tread.” Wiebe comes across here as a genuine writer, a graphomaniac engaged in a never-ending and necessary quest to make meaning of history, memory and experience. He begins this collection with an admission made in The Writers Guild of Alberta Newsletter that “I suffer from a terminal mental disease called writing,” a bad case of “Writeritis,” as if in self-identification.
Where the Truth Lies finds Wiebe with a livelier wit and a lighter touch than some of his novels might suggest; the quickness of the essay form seems to leave him less encumbered.
Wiebe’s fourth essay collection, and the first to span his entire career, Where the Truth Lies is split into three sections. The first, Writing a Lifetime, considers words and their power, and Wiebe’s willingness to do the research and imaginative work needed to pare the world down to “how little is essential.” There is recognition, even an exultation, in “Oh, Big Bear; a power in my life”; and an enduring fascination with the Bible, the Judeo-Christian tradition and the creative power, as in Genesis, of “the spoken word.” In “Hold Your Peace,” he recounts the schism his first novel, Peace Shall Destroy Many (1962), created in the Mennonite community.
The book’s second and longest section, Place is a Story, examines the relations between land and language in a variety of Canadian settings. We find Wiebe on a caribou hunt with Dogrib Dene north of Great Slave Lake, in his home territory “In the West” and at a geologist’s camp on northeastern Ellesmere Island, contemplating “unimaginable Stillness” and wild animals “so calm and exact in their movements, untroubled by anything within themselves.” The third section, Where I Live, further examines Wiebe’s values, taking up subjects such as pacifism, moralism, the body, soul and land, and the long-standing suppression of Indigenous voices and governments under colonial rule.
Wiebe’s essays show us what literature and the arts can be and can do; they treat their topics with a high seriousness and moral purpose. He is an essential writer, a citizen of the northern prairie, which he knows intimately and well, and required reading for any literate and engaged Albertan.
–Ian MacRae is associate professor in English and Society, Culture and Environment at Wilfrid Laurier University.