Imagine, if you can envision such a thing, a crowded dinner party—the table strewn with brightly coloured dishes brimming with foods from around the world. The host is pounding on the table mid-song as the glasses shake and threaten to tip. She is demonstrating a melody she learned from African villagers shortly after they rescued her from near death on a lonely highway and fixed her car with an old pair of nylons. Guests sit forward, shocked and amused. That dinner party is this book. That host is Albertan filmmaker Anne Wheeler.
Wheeler was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1995. She’s best known for her films, including Genie Award-winning Cowboys Don’t Cry(1988) and Bye Bye Blues (1989). However, her debut book, Taken by the Muse, spends little time on this later work, instead focusing on her choices and mischiefs and the raucous decade—the 1970s—that created the artist.
Wheeler is spunky and unapologetic, and Taken By the Muse reads like the wild and wacky scrapbook of a prairie girl trying to eat the world whole. She travels around Africa in a broken down VW bug named “Dudu,” hangs out of a plane in a homemade harness made of belts on the Saddle Lake Reserve in northern Alberta, and crosses paths with the controversial Indian guru Rajneesh (recently featured in the Netflix documentary Wild Wild Country), briefly changing her name to Ma Deva Mugdha. But the book is not simply a string of increasingly outrageous cocktail party tales. Instead, Wheeler is in all her colourful exploits trying to reveal the power of stories—especially the stories of people often ignored. This idea is best expressed not by Wheeler but by Hasani, one of the men who fix her car on her ill-planned late-night road trip to Tanzania, who, at the end of an evening of storytelling, hands back her broken camera with the wise comment, “We will have to remember each other by the stories we have told.”
That said, having grown up white in the 1950s and 1960s, Wheeler writes from a position of privilege. She does her part to acknowledge it right from the start, admitting that some of the language in the book is uncomfortably out of date, and she is sensitive to the fact that there were many stories in Alberta and beyond that she was blind to—most notably the residential school near her hometown and the absence of Indigenous people and culture. Still, her endless series of “serendipitous encounters” reveal an open-minded, empathetic and freewheeling artist always in search of the next great story. Taken by the Muse is quick-paced and far-flung, but you are in the hands of a master storyteller who will somehow manage to keep your glass filled and table upright all the way to the end.
—Writer and public librarian Megan Clark is from Lethbridge.