Discover more from Art / Life: Scribblings by Michael Bryson
Two reviews and some epic thoughts
I recently reviewed Rudy Wiebe: Essays on His Works (2023) for the Miramichi Reader.
In September 2010, I reviewed Wiebe's Collected Stories, 1955–2010 for Quill & Quire [review pasted below].
I have ambivalence about Wiebe's writing. There are things I can find admirable, but his work isn't generally something I turn to for advice: how to do it, what to do it about. And yet … Wiebe and his work occupy a part of my mind, apparently permanently.
As a child, I read Wiebe's adventure novel The Mad Trapper (1980).
When it began, he was just another stranger without a name. When it ended, he was the most notorious criminal in North America, the object of the largest manhunt in RCMP history. This is the story of Albert Johnson, the Mad Trapper, a silent man of superhuman strength and endurance, who defied capture for fifty days in the bitter cold of winter, north of the Arctic Circle. He was a man who crossed hundreds of miles of frozen tundra on foot, who survived dynamite blasts and the pursuit of police, trappers and the army, and who became the first man to cross the Richardson Mountains in a blizzard.
As I note in both of my reviews, when Wiebe writes fiction it tends to be fact-based, and The Map Trapper is based on a real person and true tale in the 1930s Canadian north, the era of Wiebe's childhood. (It was also a TV movie, 1972.)
Wiebe's imagination is tuned to epic tales and large canvasses, to historical epochs and culture clashes. He is committed in his storytelling to the geography of his youth. Many of these things strike me as limiting and uninteresting, and yet ... Wiebe is relentless in his obsessions and moral rectitude, which is probably what has locked my brain on his work. The history he seeks to tell is the history that doesn't get told, or at least the history that goes against the dominant trends. Or at least, many of them.
As Aritha van Herk said in an interview included in Essays on His Works:
Wiebe is very much shaped by patriarchy, and he tended to be dismissive of women's fight for equality.
She also said:
Wiebe was less aware of contemporary writers, women writers, writers who were not canonical or mainstream. And he was a reader and person always in search of the heroic.
Asked what message she would have for Wiebe today, she said:
Keep reading. Writer shorter sentences. And stop trying to change history.
van Herk is my kind of reader. The phrase "search for the heroic" is telling. It easily describes the sweep of the storytelling in The Temptations of Big Bear (1973), Wiebe's novel about Cree Chief Big Bear, who defied the British/Canadian Crown's treaty making process, refusing to lead his people into a reduced reservation life, choosing instead their disbursement.
Big Bear is heroic and tragic, and the novel is a must read. Little else I’ve read has so sharply captured the consequences of Canada. But …
As I noted in my review of Essays on His Works, however, it is 50 years since it was written, well past the time when Indigenous voices should be prioritized in telling, analyzing, and sharing these stories. Wiebe clearly has deep empathy for Big Bear and his people. Still, the conversation on these matters needs to be led by other voices — voices more directly involved and impacted.
Wiebe confronted one element of these impacts when a descendent of Big Bear wrote to him from prison in the 1990s, asking how he knew so much about her ancestor. Serving a sentence for murder, Yvonne Johnson would later collaborate with Wiebe on Stolen Life: The Journey of a Cree Woman (1999), her life story.
Many levels of complication here. Levels of complication for generations of readers.
Epic levels, levels of epicness.
Though I confess, I haven't gotten to it yet.
Before I read Essays on His Works, I also didn't know about Wiebe's own memoirs or his 2014 novel Come Back about an aging writer's attempt to come to terms with the suicide of his 24-year-old son years earlier. I also didn't know that Wiebe had a son who ended his own life. When I said earlier that Wiebe is relentless in his obsessions and moral rectitude, it is this sort of project that confirm me in this belief. Wiebe is a born writer, as only a born writer would pursue a project of this intensity and introspection. It is also the source of one of the more curious comments in Essays on His Works. One of his former students remarks how Wiebe wondered if an avant garde movie hadn't played a role in his son's decision to end his life. This remark is left hanging. What movie, one wonders? And is Wiebe the writer as anti-art as that?
I've had my own journey's with Mennonites and have spent too much time contemplating the comparative effects of the Reformation and the Enlightenment, Mennonites having arisen from the former and (many) having seemed to skip the latter. A rough and unfair conclusion?
In any case, from The Mad Trapper until now Wiebe and I have been travelling in rough parallel. Strangely. I can't quit him, it seems, even as his work shakes me with frustration.
So, I advise to read with an open heart. In mysteries one finds unexpected insights.
Some are epic.
[First published in Quill & Quire, September 2010]
Rudy Wiebe: Collected Stories, 1955–2010
University of Alberta Press
Rudy Wiebe’s reputation is based on his novels and non-fiction, which have focused on Aboriginal themes and his Mennonite heritage. Though he is not widely known as a short story writer, a half-century’s worth of his efforts in this genre have now been collected in a single volume.
Divided into four sections, the 51 entries in Collected Stories showcase Wiebe’s diverse concerns. The first section, which is the most lively, includes tales of warriors, Chiefs, and the First Nations’ experiences prior to the imposition of restrictions on their land and freedom by the Crown. The other sections include stories on Mennonite history, Western Canada, and more personal character sketches. In one story, a writer discusses poetry with a potential mistress. In another, set in 1980, the voice of long-dead Alberta Premier William Aberhart castigates contemporary citizens of Rose Country for wasting their wealth. There’s even a fictional interview with Wiebe in which the Saskatchewan-born writer claims to be English.
Aesthetic critics (notably John Metcalf) have long claimed that Wiebe’s fiction betrays a wooden ear and strained earnestness, and these stories show that this claim has a certain validity. Wiebe’s parents spoke Low German, which has no word for “fiction”; the only categories for stories were “truth” and “lies.” One cannot help but notice how much of his fiction is based in fact, and wonder if the Mennonite binary view of literature hasn’t remained foundational. Elsewhere, Goethe’s German Romanticism is clearly a dominant influence, one that aligns with an interest in pre-contact Aboriginal cultures and a clearly evident sensitivity to the marginal, the weak, and the natural world.
Wiebe is one of Canada’s powerful myth makers and storytellers of the past half-century. He has not, however, been an innovator of the short story genre. His best work is full of action and adventure and grounded in historical context. Psychological or linguistic complexity is not his forte. He is a great storyteller, but not a writer of great short stories.