Our Odysseus

Few places are lucky enough to harbour their own great scribe. In Robert Kroestsch, Alberta could not be luckier.

By Aritha van Herk

Robert Kroetsch has often recounted the story of the New York editor who took him out for a lavish lunch in 1970 to celebrate the success of The Studhorse Man. After a few libations, the editor leaned across the table and asked our Alberta writer, as if in search of confidential information, “Say, does this place called Alberta really exist, or did you make it up?”

There in a New York minute is the effect of Alberta on Robert Kroetsch, and the effect of Robert Kroetsch on Alberta. Although many fine writers live and work in this province, none have captured this mad, restless place as effectively as Kroetsch has, or with his particular combination of tenderness and perceptive irony.

Kroetsch embodies the Alberta zeitgeist in a way that few can claim. Born here, and now returned here to practice, he says, “being old,” he has, more than anyone, articulated the strange and irrepressible spirit of this province. His nine novels and fourteen books of poetry, along with seven works of non-fiction, focus on an Alberta that seems extraordinary, elusive, elementally distinctive, but that is profoundly recognizable to those who call it home. Over the summer I talked with him about his return, about growing old and about changeable Alberta.

Very few Albertans have lived through so many provincial incarnations. Perhaps what enables Kroetsch to look at Alberta so clearly is the fact he’s lived here not continuously but itinerantly, and in that respect too proves himself a model Albertan. He was born in Heisler in 1927, the heart of Battle River country, that central parkland of rich soil and poplar copses, so different from the arid south and the boreal forest to the north. He went to university in Edmonton and began a creative writing class at the University of Alberta with the distinguished F. M. Salter, only to find himself totally intimidated by the experience of returning veterans who had seen action—and death—all over Europe. He dropped out after one class and took philosophy instead.

Having completed his BA, at 20 he went to work as a labourer and purser on the barges of the Mackenzie River (1948–1950). This too is an Albertan habit, to go north to find fortune. One of Kroetsch’s essential essays is entitled “Why I Went up north and What I found When He Got There.” The shift in subject is telling. The person we are when we “go up north” is different from the one we become; going north changes us profoundly. During those years, Kroetsch became fascinated with the “men who moil for gold” (later portrayed in his historical novel about the gold rush, Man from the Creeks), lost his virginity, gathered useful information (“I asked him what to do about the mosquitoes. he told me to ignore them”) and, most important, came to understand that “the north makes possible a new story.”

After a short stint in Churchill, Manitoba, Kroetsch went to work for the US Air force as an information specialist at Goose Bay, Labrador. There he learned how to snowshoe, ran a small newspaper for the base and was interviewed by the FBI. “If you put three stories together that I had written—that I had written—you could figure out the disposition of the aircraft on our base,” he says. “They thought I was sending information to the Russians. We only had about five aircraft! The guy called me in and he was just kind of amused, but it was part of his job.”

Why go to Labrador? “Well, for one thing, you could save a lot of money,” he says. “There was no place to spend it. And I was going to save up my money and write. I was going to start writing. So when I got out of there in 1954 I went to Montreal to live in a garret.”

He took a course from Hugh MacLennan and made a serious effort to live in that garret, which was “right in downtown Montreal, very romantic. Except I was sitting there all day by myself, looking at a typewriter.” After 13 days he moved out of the garret and in with a family. “They gave me breakfast,” he remembers. “A wonderful lady. I had a book that tried teaching you French. The landlady read it backwards. In six weeks she had learned English and I hadn’t learned a word of French!” Kroetsch is still, like many Albertans, monolingual.

From Montreal he went to graduate schools at Middlebury College, Vermont (MA, 1956) and the University of Iowa (Phd, 1961), and then taught at the State University of New York at Binghamton (another Albertan tendency, to look south to the States for answers or jobs, or even culture). Then, at the height of one of Alberta’s booms, Kroetsch returned, serving as writer- in-residence at the universities of Lethbridge and Calgary (1975–1976), moving east to Winnipeg, where he taught at the University of Manitoba for a decade, then returning to Victoria, BC, before moving back to Winnipeg again. Along the way he married, had children, got divorced. It seems he could not resist the call of his past, though, and in 2009 he returned to Alberta. He now lives in a retirement community in Leduc, close to one of his sisters, and close to Heisler.

This peripatetic list of addresses is not idle information. Like most Albertans, Kroetsch embodies a spirit of restlessness that’s more endemic to this province than any other. Where are we going, where have we gone? Kroetsch believes that “the notion of restlessness is a key word for our experience. We’re restless, but we’re resting. We like being at home, and yet we’re restless. We don’t feel at home the way a European might feel at home. Part of our being at home—our being ourselves—is being restless.”

Of course, many western settlers, both in the present and the past, were and are restless, searching for opportunity and prosperity, not to mention free land, wanting to go somewhere better, different.

And Kroetsch underlines that perspective. “We didn’t just move once, you know,” he says. “We enjoy moving. And movement like that is almost part of our genetic makeup. In fact, we might have been self-selecting, for example, in who would leave Europe. The restless ones came here.” This province does serve as a zone of transience. But many who were born here don’t seem eager to leave and Kroetsch believes that writers authenticate that conundrum.

But why would a man whose vision of the world is more closely aligned to Homer than to R.B. Bennett return, again and again, to this “home place”? he has, he says, a profound sense of Alberta as home, of Alberta as having shaped both his character and his imagination. “I think it’s partly imprinted in childhood. The landscape that I feel at home in is our landscape. The landscape is more important than any kind of idea, that sense of a physical landscape, I mean. for me, at least. And it gets more important as we get older. You feel at home living here.”

For all his leaving, Kroetsch couldn’t stay away. He says, “A woman said to me the other day at the lodge ‘Why are you here? You could be anywhere in the world.’ And I said ‘That’s right, I could be anywhere, and I want to be here. Because I like this landscape. I could be sitting on a beach in Florida with my daughter, or I could be in New Zealand. But I feel at home here.’ The physical landscape colours the way that people speak and behave. A lot of my attraction to Alberta is nature, but it’s also city and town, a distinctive flavour here.”

He enjoyed other places. “I liked Binghamton,” he says. “I liked Iowa city. I guess they’re both small cities and Leduc is a small city… I had some great times and years in Winnipeg.” But of European cities he says, “I feel kind of closed in there. maybe I have agoraphobia, I don’t know. But if you take space and place as opposites—like, space is freedom and place is security—it’s home here. And space is freedom. I don’t feel enough freedom in Europe. Everything’s been decided. The places where I’ve lived as an older person were intellectually interesting. But they never grabbed my imagination like the world of my childhood.”

“I could be anywhere and I want to be here.” That’s an astonishing statement, perhaps only credible when it comes from a man whose imagination is without peer.

Certainly, Robert Kroetsch, as a writer, has shaped the imagination of Alberta. His chronicles of a profoundly hyperbolic place have articulated this province in a way that can only be compared to Gabriel García Márquez’s portraits of Colombia. And yet, despite his long and venerable list of publications, Kroetsch, quiet and self-effacing, is not as celebrated as he should be. He is Alberta’s Faulkner, Alberta’s Dante.

You could read 100 history books about the rise of Social Credit and the election of William Aberhart in 1935, but none will evoke the spirit of those times so well as his The Words of My Roaring. In that novel, Kroetsch captures the terrible effect of drought and defeat, and how the politicians who promised the impossible offered the kind of hope that people needed so much they elected a chimera.

It is possible to drive across Edmonton’s High Level Bridge, but the experience changes completely if you’ve read about the famous traffic jam of horses in The Studhorse Man, which won Kroetsch the Governor General’s Award for fiction in 1969. Set at the end of the Second World War and just before the 1947 Leduc oil strike that made the horse truly obsolete, the novel helped (and helps) Albertans understand the extent to which we are governed by the dichotomy between horse and car, weather and oil. It combines the energy and madness that give this province so distinctive a character.

It is possible to discuss Alberta’s weather, which we do, interminably, as introduction and demarcation, as aphrodisiac and punctuation, with all the surprise and outrage and resignation that our uneasy climate provokes. But only Kroetsch’s novel What the Crow Said makes our unpredictable snow-in-July and chinook-in-January so extreme that the male characters take up arms in a war against the sky. The humour, the wild surmise of Kroetsch’s stories, reflects beautifully the tall tale that is so often Alberta’s undoing. But it is seductive too, how a hailstone can provoke love, how snow proposes marriage. “It’s snowing. Someone must take a wife,” declares a character in that novel. In the face of an Alberta winter, love is the only answer.

This year was the Royal Tyrrell museum’s 25th anniversary, but Drumheller’s august institution is much richer if one reads Kroetsch’s Badlands, a novel about the crazy excess of the bone collectors and how they fought and feuded in the bone beds in order to get their hands on those fossils. This story is nothing so dry as a squabble between paleontologists, but a fully articulated journey to the underworld, a past where dinosaurs ruled.

In short, Kroetsch has written Alberta, taken its dust and DNA and made those elements into greater stories, words recreated in a mythic context. He’s been called Mr. Canadian Postmodernism, a daunting title. But Kroetsch is also a poet who can make a seed catalogue elegiac, who can turn screen doors into arias, who can, in a mother’s whisper, “Bring me the radish seeds,” encapsulate love. His latest book of poetry, Too Bad, features on the cover a cartoon of a man comically peering into his pants. Even growing old is for him a subject of profound laughter.

And yet, Kroetsch is not sentimental about Alberta’s greed or graft, Alberta’s wealth and deficiency. “Alberta is caught up in a kind of game—it plays hockey against the rest of the world,” he says. “It’s in a competition—partly because of oil and gas—but we love the excitement of the game, we love to participate, and while we talk about being individuals in Alberta, we love being part of a crowd. We vote as a crowd.

“It’s a competitive issue, too: we are really trying to win. And we’ll do anything. Having to win is a dangerous compulsion. That’s why we’re willing to destroy landscapes and natural habitats, in the name of winning.”

The wise talking crow in the novel What the Crow Said asks, “Win? Win? Somebody’s going to win?” It is obvious that all gamblers lose, and yet they go on gambling. “We love that. We love to gamble,” says Kroetsch, even if we end up a stinking, ragtag crew of ne’er-do-wells.

Worse, he believes, is that we ignore our past. “The Athabasca River has a wonderful history of fur trade and exploration, but now we see it as a place to make money—we don’t want to know about its history,” he says. “We want it to be present and not past. We’re not attuned to the mythos of a place. And Albertans seem susceptible to being controlled by corporations and their version of events. We start to buy their story: ‘Look how wealthy we are!’ We’re so proud of being rich. Wealth has even replaced sexuality in our culture. Instead of having a sexual imagination we have a profit imagination.”

As for our scenery, Kroetsch understands its lure and its danger. “It’s postcard beauty,” he says. “one of the interesting things about postcards is what you don’t see. In Alberta, you stop seeing most of the province. You expect to see Rocky mountains and grizzly bears and badlands, so you don’t see the highways and the buildings and the sprawl. The Rockies have been so central to our invented mythology that we’re stuck with too obvious a landscape. We’re busy looking at the scenery. We don’t know the depths—at least we haven’t acknowledged them—and so we look at surface. Having a scenic imagination is very dangerous because you can fool yourself.”

Kroetsch now lives near the exact spot where the first big gusher of our fortune and misfortune blew in. Is Leduc a beautiful place or is it ugly? It’s both, he says, and yet it still bears traces of essential generosity. “The other day I was sitting on a bench in the sun, in the hot sun,” he says. “A man came by and said ‘You shouldn’t be sitting in the sun without water!’ And he gave me a bottle of water. He cared. That’s Alberta, too.”

He remembers returning to Alberta after decades away and being amazed at how urban the province had become. “When you’re away, a place doesn’t change. It stays the way you remember it,” he says. “But one of the side effects of urbanization is homogeneity. Certain kinds of repetition erase place. I mean, look at Canadian Tire. There’s a Canadian Tire everywhere. Earlier you went to an individual store or gas station… now you don’t know what country you’re in, let alone what city.”

Kroetsch’s observations of our present are seasoned by his memories of growing up in the Alberta of the 1930s. “What I remember mostly is space,” he says. “I lived on quite a big farm and there were lots of big farms around. They weren’t big by today’s standards, but you could wander around for days exploring, being in nature, discovering yourself. There was immense freedom in that. Now, space has become place but it’s more contained. You know, space gives you freedom but it’s a little bit scary. Now, we have the security of the city. Which is great security—we have the fire department and the police department— but kind of a loss. Then, we knew we were a part of nature. Now, we think we’re in control.”

Nature, he claims, was respected, even if it brought devastation. “I can’t remember grasshopper plagues much, but I remember lizards one time. It was just the right conditions for them to hatch. I remember too, one year we had a bad hailstorm. ‘We got hailed out!’ I said to my father. He was distressed, but he wasn’t, not really. That was a part of nature. Once in a while in Alberta, you got hailed out. I couldn’t understand his tolerance. But he was an optimistic man. The first thing we did was make ice cream with the hail. That’s an Alberta reaction.”

Kroetsch celebrates a rural spirit that might be vanishing but that still textures this province. We’re careless about that part of our past, think it’s irrelevant to our urbanized culture. But behind our flash and sophistication, it lingers: kids wading in ditches full of muskrats and birds and ducks, an incredible sense of bounty, a garden full of vegetables, a sky full of blue.

As a child who grew up in that time, Kroetsch felt privileged. “My parents thought it was a good life, for sure,” he says. “And you know, when I was a kid, most of the population lived on farms. Not any more. One effect that oil has on an economy is to hurt agriculture. The young men leave the farm and go get a better job, an economic switchover. The family farm is gone.”

But the spirit of rural Alberta seems to percolate through our dreams and memories. Kroetsch has returned, he says, for the landscape and for the community. “One of the interesting things about where I live now, with people who are in their 80s, is how much experience we share. Living on the prairies. Stories about the weather, what you ate, a sense of democracy—we are democratic here in a way fundamentally different from everywhere else, even though living in Alberta has meant a level of prosperity that is quite extraordinary.”

And what about this vigorous, perceptive writer living in a retirement community? Is this a deliberate Kroetschian choice, to move into an almost-nunnery of Albertans at the end of life? “It’s a nice mixture of solitude and company,” he says. “I’m not very good at being alone. To put it another way, I can’t stand to be alone and I can’t stand to be with people. Which puts me in kind of a bind. I don’t know if it’s the human condition or the Alberta condition or what.”

He exemplifies, he says, a person torn between rural and urban. “The movement into cities [which in Canada are quite new] is a big transition. We’ve had to learn how to be urban. I see that in these women I live with in the lodge. They lived much of their adult lives in cities, but they talk with each other about those early years when they were in small towns or on farms. It’s a more reassuring world. You can sit down at the dinner table and just say the word ‘potato’ and they start talking about potatoes. All the different experiences they had. You wouldn’t know they’d lived in cities.”

But time is fluid and Kroetsch can easily shift to a world of party lines and well water. “I remember the phone—our ring was four shorts and a long,” he says. “When our main well was drilled, I was mystified to think there was water flowing in streams underneath us. Isn’t that amazing? I’m still amazed by it. Water, I think, is one of the biggest mysteries. On the surface we were so short of water. And then underneath, here’s all this water. Strange. But it was work, too. I hated wash day because I did nothing but carry water!”

I teach the novels and poetry of Robert Kroetsch to young Alberta students. Every year they read his writing and express outrage and disbelief. “This is a crazy book,” they say. “It’s not realistic.” If we are reading What the Crow Said, I just point out the window. In November the temperature is often balmy. In April there might be a horrific spring snowstorm. The weather in Kroetsch’s writing, I tell them, is only hyperbolic on the page. Translated to Alberta, it becomes commonplace.

That is the hallmark of this astonishing writer. He makes lucid the madness that is our Alberta. he makes realistic our tall tales. He makes hyperbolic our ordinariness. he makes comic our despair. He is the one writer who has truly managed to capture our oxymoronic character, our greed and generosity, our penchant for self-deception, our eagerness to repeat our mistakes. Few places are lucky enough to harbour their greatest scribe. Alberta could not be luckier.

Nobody comes back to Alberta to die. That’s a fact. They return to recapture the dream that Alberta was and to see how that dream continues. Kroetsch has always, he confesses, been interested in places on the edge. This is the edge. #

Aritha van Herk is the author of five novels and four works of nonfiction, including Mavericks: An Incorrigible History of Alberta.


Johnny Chinook

Johnny Chinook was hunting in the foothills when he ran out of provisions. Weak from hunger, his pants hanging loosely from their suspenders, Johnny spotted a tree where a flock of partridges were perched all on one limb. He took careful aim with his rifle, loaded with his last remaining bullet… ...

Deep in the Furrows

I’ve gone around and around fields for a week cutting winter rye and winter wheat. Divining my thoughts are earth’s invisible coils about my head. From “Swather As Threshold” in Afternoon Starlight Charles Noble, poet, in these lines is speaking about being part of a farming family. His lineage goes back 115 years to his grandfather ...

A Field Guide to Alberta Poets

It is the last night of the Nature Writing and Wilderness Thought Colloquium, a ten day writers’ retreat at a Benedictine monastery near the farming village of Muenster, Saskatchewan, and a group of 14 writers has motored from there in convoy to the lakeside village of Manitou Springs, home of ...