Writing Alberta: Building on a Literary Identity

Edited by George Melnyk and Donna Coates

By Merna Summers

University of Calgary Press
2017/$34.95/273 pp.

Imagine, if you will, that you are standing beside me in a bookstore. Then imagine me telling you that I am reading a collection of academic essays about Alberta writers. Is that you I see streaking away to the farthest bookshelf? Is that me you see streaking away beside you? Well, no, not this time. According to the poet John Ciardi, the best that any literary analysis can do is to prepare the reader to enter a work more perceptively. It’s a subtle gift, and the best of the 13 essays in Writing Alberta do just that.

Alberta literature owes much to George Melnyk, one of the book’s editors. For more than 40 years, Melnyk has been creating spaces where Alberta writers may be read and their work discussed—including Wild Words: Essays on Alberta Literature, a 2009 anthology also edited by Melnyk and co-editor Donna Coates. In this new volume, he also contributes a thought-provoking essay on the work of David Albahari, a writer better known in Europe than in Alberta, although he lived here for 18 years. The essay provoked, for me at least, thoughts about the importance of place—the right place—to some writers, and place in general is a concern throughout these essays.

In their introduction the editors cite the novels of Fred Stenson as the “prime example” of the ability of Alberta writers to uncover and reimagine episodes in Alberta history. Coates contributes an essay on Stenson’s novel The Great Karoo, which deals with the experiences of southern Alberta cowboys in the Boer War. This novel, Coates says, should be “required reading for all those contemplating how men in command should behave under the appalling stress of war.”

One of the most enjoyable pieces is not academic at all, but a personal essay by Katherine Govier, an accomplished novelist who grew up in Edmonton and lives part-time in Canmore. Govier discusses her formation as a writer, and the tides in her own personality and interests that have alternately pulled her away from and back to her home province in choosing writing projects.

Lesser-known gems are also revealed. I was glad to learn for the first time about the lively Reverend Nestor Dmytrow, whom Jars Balan describes as the father of Ukrainian fiction and non-fiction in Alberta. Dmytrow’s Ukrainian Easter, datelined Calgary and published in 1897, was, Balan tells us, the first piece of literary prose to be published by a Ukrainian in Canada.

From another perspective, Tasha Hubbard’s essay considers the work of three distinguished Indigenous writers: Beth Cuthand, Marilyn Dumont and Louise Halfe. Among many insights, the piece brings the reader to heightened awareness of such matters as the psychic shock that the loss of the buffalo caused among the prairies’ native peoples. She quotes moving lines from Cuthand: “They were our life the life / of the prairies / We loved them / And they loved us…”

In the realm of non-fiction, Geo Takach contrasts the styles of two environmental writers, Andrew Nikiforuk and Chris Turner, and decides that Nikiforuk writes with “biblical gloom,” while Turner is “a sunny cheerleader” for conservation.

As a whole, Writing Alberta will deepen understanding of Alberta literature. Essays on poet Alice Major, sensitive to her geological surroundings, and on novelist Sheila Watson are useful contributions. Valuably, the collection also re-beckons us to the work of writers such as Elsie Park Gowan and Gwen Pharis Ringwood, whose careers began in the 1930s. Moira Day’s essay on these two reminds us that early writers could be as full of hiss and vinegar as writers today—and as determined to find effective ways to write about this place we call Alberta.

—Merna Summers is an Edmonton writer.

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