A Brilliant Decade for the Books

It’s quite possible that the last decade will be remembered as the golden age of Alberta literature.

By Evan Osenton

The past decade has been the most prolific, illuminating and exhilarating for Alberta books yet. Consider that it saw more Albertans publish their stories, poems and non-fiction than any 10-year period prior. Consider the emergence of a new breed of local author, one who straddles our small-town past and breakneck future (i.e., Andrew Wedderburn). Consider the ongoing success and growth of LitFest and Wordfest. Consider the University of Calgary’s M-F Distinguished Writers Program and the Grant MacEwan Literary Awards, among the most prestigious of their kinds in Canada. Consider that the Edmonton Journal had the good sense to bring back serialization in the form of not just one but two brilliant Todd Babiak novels (The Garneau Block and The Book of Stanley). Consider the ongoing national acclaim for our writers (10 Governor General’s Awards from 1993 to 2003). Heck, if that’s not enough, consider these feats: the only book of note on the most critical pop-cultural phenomenon of the past 20 years (Chris Turner’s Planet Simpson), the only novel I know of that clocks in at nearly 1,400 pages and weighs 4.75 pounds—more than a chihuahua, noted The New York Times—(Paul Anderson’s Hunger’s Brides) and the world’s foremost collection of poetry narrated by robots (Jason Christie’s i-ROBOT). All are by Albertans.

It shouldn’t have been this way. The last decade should have been a Dark Age. In 1993, we Albertans elected a Premier who—how can I say this nicely—isn’t one for reading books. Over the next 14 years, artists of all sorts would flee the province for want of support. A climate of disdain for culture precipitated the sale of local publishers to out-of-province interests (among them Red Deer Press, Duval House and Brindle & Glass). Add the rise of Chapters/Indigo and the near-disappearance of independent bookstores (a net loss of shelf space for local authors and publishers), and it’s a minor miracle our writers survived the past decade at all, let alone thrived. (For a taste of how government might positively stimulate its citizens’ creative output, read Fil Fraser’s Alberta’s Camelot [Lone Pine, 2003], which tells of a more enlightened era—Peter Lougheed’s.)

It’s no coincidence that Alberta Views’ first 10 years coincide with this era. Alberta’s history of one-party, one-voice domin-ance had rendered political opposition essentially mute. Into the silence strode Alberta’s “unofficial” opposition: beleaguered authors. In 1997, a government employee named Kevin Taft published Shredding the Public Interest: Ralph Klein and 25 Years of One-Party Government (U of A Press/Parkland Institute, 1997). The book—which argued that Klein’s government had made a systematic effort to obscure the truth about the causes of Alberta’s debt and deficit; that our “fiscal crisis” was, essentially, manufactured—landed with all the subtlety of a bomb. Albertans snapped up the entire print run in a week (and the 10,000 reprints in another 10 days). So devastating was its critique, the book seemed heretical. “A person from Grande Prairie said that a bookstore there kept copies of my book tucked out of sight,” Taft recalls. “As if it was a dirty magazine, customers could only get it by discreetly asking at the counter.” Even The Economist lauded the book: “Taft may be right… maybe the whole ‘Klein revolution,’ as it is called, was unnecessary.” Mark Lisac’s Alberta Uncovered: Taking Back Our Province (NeWest, 2004) and Trevor Harrison and Gordon Laxer’s The Trojan Horse: Alberta and the Future of Canada (Black Rose, 1995) also contributed to the debate. And while these continued to expose Klein’s policies, Doreen Barrie’s The Other Alberta: Decoding a Political Enigma (Canadian Plains Research Centre, 2006) went after a bigger threat—Klein’s mythmaking department. She argued that our provincial identity, to an extent unseen elsewhere, is socially constructed by our government. “It’s almost disloyal not to fall behind [them],” she said, noting how Klein and Co. would have us forget our province’s long history of political innovation, especially representation by women, and economic interventionism.

If there’s another topic as disproportionately covered by Albertans as politics, it’s the environment: resplen-dent collections of photos of the Rockies, thick geological tomes published for the oil patch, children’s books about the dinosaurs hiding under our feet, etc. But we’re not always so celebratory. Recently two very different Albertans reached the same conclusion: that we must resolve our oil addiction or embrace catastrophe. Calgary oilman Peter Tertzakian’s AThousand Barrels a Second (McGraw-Hill, 2006) discusses the coming energy “break-point” and earned him a global audience (including a seat on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show), while writer/historian Ronald Wright’s Massey Lectures were distilled into A Short History of Progress (Anansi, 2004). Wild Country: The Best of Andy Russell (McClelland & Stewart, 2004) manages to celebrate our province’s breathtaking wealth and beauty and warn of the consequences of squandering them. Russell, of course, is best known for his film and book Grizzly Country (Knopf, 1967), the film capturing some of the first footage of grizzlies, the book dispelling the worst myths about bears. In Wild Country is Russell’s collected environmental writing, including his 1946 essay “Can Animals Think?” which Alberta Views reviewer Jeff Gailus noted was criticized at the time by academics. “What Russell has over most academics is a lifetime of experience,” wrote Gailus. “While the idea that animals can think seems self-evident now, it wasn’t always. Russell was a maverick.” Russell’s son Charlie continues his dad’s legacy. Grizzly Heart (Random House, 2003) and Grizzly Seasons (the latter a photo collection with Maureen Enns, also Random House, 2003) are equal parts inspiring and heart-wrenching in their depiction of grizzlies. Patricia van Tighem’s The Bear’s Embrace (Douglas & McIntyre, 2000) evokes similar emotions through the relaying of a very different experience with a grizzly—an attack that left the author physically and emotionally disfigured. Karsten Heuer’s Walking the Big Wild (M&S, 2002) and Being Caribou (M&S, 2006) are stirring accounts of his two greatest treks thus far: along the Continental Divide to advocate for wildlife corridors, and across the Arctic with a Porcupine caribou herd whose calving grounds are threatened by our society’s desperate thirst for oil. Both are sensational reads. Said a reviewer in the Canmore Leader, “It’s not often you close the pages of a book with a resolve to live your life differently. But such is the effect of Being Caribou.”

“Of all the writers working in Canada today, Robert Kroetsch is perhaps the one who exerts more quiet influence than any other,” writes Aritha van Herk. Indeed, the artist and mentor’s influence spans four decades to the present day; witness the echoes of schmier reverberating from William Neil Scott’s debut Wonderfull (NeWest, 2007). Through the nineties, Kroetsch continued to publish influential poetry, including The Hornbooks of Rita K (U of A Press, 2001) and The Snowbird Poems (U of A Press, 2004). Reviewers railed against the retirement alluded to by the title. “The lovely thing about Kroetsch’s ‘lifetime achievement’ is that it’s nowhere near finished,” insisted Chris Wiebe in VUE Weekly. “His masterful new book of poetry… resonates within and extends his earlier writing.” Van Herk allowed that it is “as brilliant a collection as any ever written,” but noted that the poems “document the world-weary tenderness of a man who has seen everything and been everywhere and who sincerely desires the relief and escape of a long sleep, a rest beyond the concept of rest.”

Writing in The Danforth Review in 2001, Lethbridge poet Richard Stevenson broke news of a new publisher promising to publish “risky, edgy work in any aesthetic”; four years later, Frontenac House’s Quartet series had so bloomed in prestige that Stevenson concluded it “must offer four of the most-sought-after slots in the poetry biz in Canada.” Publisher Rose Scollard’s bold mandate has borne such instant classics as Weyman Chan’s Before a Blue Sky Moon (2002), Sheri-D Wilson’s Re:Zoom (2005) and Nancy Jo Cullen’s Pearl (2006). Alberta continues to be on poetry’s cutting edge—Calgary boasts twin enfants terribles derek beaulieu and Christian Bök, the former a mad scientist of visual poetry, the latter only the author of the bestselling (and most maddening) book of poetry in Canada’s history—Eunoia (Coach House, 2001) is a univocalic (or lipogram) of such audacity as to render the genre completed. On the other end of the spectrum, cowboy poetry—a genre Albertans practically invented—is enjoying a renaissance, due in no small part to the lifetime work of “the grandfather of cowboy poetry,” Cochrane’s Lloyd Dolen, who passed away in 2004. Rhyming Wranglers (Frontenac, 2007) offers a wonderful entry point into the world of cowboy verse.

While our poets explore new literary territory, our fiction writers obsess over the past’s mysteries and secrets. For such a young province, we sure have a long memory. Witness Fred Stenson’s The Trade (Douglas & McIntyre, 2000), a lyrical tale of the 19th-century Canadian fur trade based loosely on what scraps of first-person accounts remain. Written “between the lines” of these accounts, the book brings an entire era roaring to life; if the goal of the historical fiction writer is to animate, amplify and give three-dimensionality to historical characters, The Trade is deserving of its many accolades (including the Giller Prize shortlist and the very first Grant MacEwan award). Stenson followed The Trade with Lightning (D&M, 2003), another historical novel, this one about the gruelling cattle drives from the US to Alberta in the 1880s. Grande Prairie native Thomas Wharton burst onto the Canadian writing scene with Icefields (NeWest, 1995); set during the first years of European settlement near Jasper, the widely acclaimed novel flows with a power and sublime beauty equal to that of the glaciers at its heart. Wharton did one better with his follow-up, Salamander (M&S, 2001). This story of an 18th-century London printer commissioned to create the “infinite book” is a dizzying tribute to the magic act of reading. While Wharton has few peers in ambition, even he must have stood in his local bookstore, mouth agape, upon first laying eyes on Calgarian Paul Anderson’s Hunger’s Brides (Random House, 2004). Twelve years in the making and 1,376 pages in length, the novel is a hugely ambitious attempt to resolve the enigma that is 17th-century poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. Wrote Alberta Views book columnist Alex Rettie: “Anderson gives us Baroque Mexico in all its splendour and squalor… Hunger’s Brides is a pageant for the mind.” Anderson dismissed a reviewer’s comparison to Gabriel García Márquez, saying, “To some degree, it was my failure to turn life into a novel that finally brought me to sit down to write.” The history in David Albahari’s Snow Man (D&M, 2005) is much darker. Albahari, a U of C Distinguished Visiting Writer in 1994, elected to stay in Calgary (his novel would be translated from its original Serbo-Croatian). The present-day narrator of Snow Man is an academic who flees a horrific, unspeakable past, only to continue to endure it as a form of torture; he barely copes with his mental and physical displacement. Stephen Osborne, in Geist: “One rarely finds a Canadian book, a North American book, that seems to belong to the literature of the world in the way that books by Sebald, Saramago, Borges and García Márquez seem to belong… [Snow Man] belongs precisely to such a narrative of the world.”

Albertan historians are interested in a staggering range of subject matter, and—in keeping with a provincial birthright—tend to add generous dollops of creativity to the tale-telling. It should not be surprising, then, that the most significant work of history published in Alberta in the last 10 years, or arguably the last century, was by a fiction writer. With characteristic modesty, Aritha van Herk wrote in her introduction to Mavericks: An Incorrigible History of Alberta (Viking, 2001): “I knew in advance that I would fail to provide any historical perspective sufficiently rigorous or knowledgeable to compete with the brilliant historians who have worked and continue to work on Alberta”; she resigns herself to her own “idiosyncratic and biased point of view.” Once its work is done, Mavericks will have completely reshaped how other Canadians see Albertans, and how we see ourselves. A very different set of myths is advocated by Ted Byfield, for decades the publisher of Alberta Report. Byfield’s passion lives on in his monumental “Alberta in the 20th Century” history series (United Western Communications, 1991–2005). Reminiscent of Time/Life hist-ory books, and invaluable to students and the public alike, the series is thorough and gorgeously designed (and has reportedly sold in excess of 225,000 copies). Another exhaustive work is George Melnyk’s The Literary History of Alberta, Vols. I and II (U of A Press, 1997/98). Melnyk—founder of NeWest Press, first executive director of the Alberta Foundation for the Literary Arts, and Alberta book-lover without peer—has done a service to the province’s literature. His counterpart in the field of visual arts is Mary-Beth Laviolette, whose An Alberta Art Chronicle (Altitude, 2006) and Alberta Art and Artists: An Overview (Fifth House, 2007; co-written with Patricia Ainslie) are the result of a lifetime of study and advocacy. Of course, from a literary standpoint, history doesn’t get any better than Rudy Wiebe’s Of This Earth: A Mennonite Boyhood in the Boreal Forest (Knopf Canada, 2006). With spare, stunning eloquence, Wiebe’s memoir evokes his humble beginnings, his connection to the natural world, and his love of words and reading. Wiebe’s Governor General’s Award-winning The Temptations of Big Bear (1973) and A Discovery of Strangers (1994) have worked their way into the very fabric of the prairie and the hearts of its residents.

While we’re hardly ones to seek outside approval, we cer-tainly don’t mind when Alberta’s contribution to the national conversation is recognized. After all, we’re most of us, like Andy Russell, “a Canadian first and an Albertan by choice.” If, one day, people look back on 1997–2007 as a Golden Age of Alberta Books, then November 12, 2002—the night of the 66th annual Governor General’s Literary Awards—should be remembered as its defining moment. To the surprise of the Establishment, which had its money riding on Carol Shields, Edmonton’s Gloria Sawai—still no doubt basking in the afterglow of the publication of her very first book at the age of 70—won the GG for fiction. It wasn’t as surprising to prairie-dwellers: many of the stories in A Song for Nettie Johnson (Coteau, 2001) had been previously published; some—like “The Day I Sat with Jesus on the Sundeck and a Wind Came Up and Blew My Kimono Open and He Saw My Breasts”—were widely anthologized. Sawai’s stories are honest and hilarious and shocking, often all at the same time. Her images stay with you for years: Jesus himself glancing over at Gloria Johnson as her kimono billows open—“a Saskatchewan wind comes up in a hurry, let me tell you”—and pronouncing her breasts “very nice.” Sawai has not published another collection and has no plans to publish a novel. In many respects, A Song for Nettie Johnson is all the more special because it so singularly encapsulates Sawai’s wisdom and magical voice.

Before the literati could pick their canapés up off the floor, another Albertan took the Governor General’s Award for non-fiction. Andrew Nikiforuk’s Saboteurs: Wiebo Ludwig’s War against Big Oil (McFarlane, Walter & Ross 2001) is more than a gripping tale of eco-terrorism and fanaticism, or even of a defensible struggle for justice on a Biblical scale (complete with Biblical characters). It starts and ends, of course, with Wiebo Ludwig; a more fascinating, sympathetic and infuriating character could not be invented. What could have been a simple tale—about the link between sour gas emissions and miscarriages in livestock and humans on a Trickle Creek farm—exploded into a crime story (industrial sabotage by Ludwig and others; the RCMP’s manufacturing of evidence), mystery (the unresolved shooting of Karman Willis), Shakespearean drama (the Canadian trial of the century, pitting individual rights against corporations), and tragi-comedy (Nikiforuk notes in his epilogue that more sour gas is flared in Alberta than ever). This book doesn’t just document events, it transcends them; the author is an investigative journalist of the first order and a storyteller in the tradition of W.O. Mitchell himself. Saboteurs stands as the beautiful and infuriating story of Alberta, writ large.

Evan Osenton has been the books editor of Alberta Views since 2004. He has lived in Calgary since before he could read. Originally published in the Jan/Feb 2008 print edition of Alberta Views.

 

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