Wild West, or Most of It
Thursday night at the Waterfront Theatre. I’m twenty minutes early but the place is already nearly full. You encounter very few people who have any interest in literature but that’s not going to be a problem tonight or this week on Granville Island. I overhear someone say, “One of my daughter’s friends, she’s fifteen. She’s going to five events.” I think, good for you, daughter’s friend. I overhear someone else. “Wayne Johnston. Wayne Johnston. I love him!” And someone else: “I’m not a mystery reader, but I was intrigued!”
So it’s out there. It’s here. An usher comes by my seat on the aisle and points to someone down my row. “Excuse me, there’s a single seat down there. Perhaps you could take it and these two people can take these.”
“Okay. I’ll do as I’m told,” says the patron.
“You’re getting a better seat,” says the usher.
The enthusiasm and commitment of those who are interested in Literature is always–very interesting!
Enter the writers followed by Andreas Schroeder, tonight’s moderator. I like Andreas. I kind of wish I knew him. Seems like a good guy. I’ve only read one of his works but it certainly answered my question as to whether this guy was worth reading. “Dustship Glory” is a very good novel. I still remember bits from it more than a decade after reading it.
Andreas introduces Rudy Wiebe. Rudy Wiebe has published fifteen books but I haven’t read any of them. He’s one reason I’m here tonight, to learn more about him and see him in action. The one book of his I’ve been planning to read for a long time is “The Temptations of Big Bear”. Great title. I love great titles. Andreas offers an interesting biographical detail about Rudy, that he started out as a tenor and even taught singing for a time. But as Rudy himself explains, he found he preferred a quiet study to perpetually going on stage, so moved into writing.
He reads from his newly published book “Collected Stories 1955-2010” He dedicates the reading to Robert Kroetsch, an excellent writer who died this year and was his friend for forty-four years. I’ve read a couple of Robert Kroetsch’s works, “What the Crow Said”, a novel, and “The Lovely Treachery of Words: Essays New and Selected”. He’d been writing a long time before I “discovered” him and I was sad to hear of his passing, as were many others. There’s an “In Memoriam” to Robert Kroetsch on page 13 of this year’s festival guide. Rudy read the first story in the collection, a story of revenge in the old west but with a twist.
Next to the mic was Pauline Holdstock. Novelist, short story writer and essayist, Pauline’s published eight books. Ack. I haven’t ready any of them. But I’ve heard of Pauline Holdstock. And what’s a Writers and Readers Festival for, right? To learn new things and maybe fill in some gaps. Pauline was born in England but has lived in Canada thirty years. She read from her new novel, “Into the Heart of the Country”, a story set in nineteenth century Manitoba.
Marina Endicott drew a blank for me in the program guide, but no worries (see above). She was born in B.C., started her creative career in theatre, and also plays the harp. Andreas Schroeder kidded her about playing tonight. She agreed to come back and play for whoever wants to listen “when the Conservatives are defeated”. The crowd liked the sound of that.
Marina read from her new novel, “The Little Shadows”. The story is about three sisters who are part of a vaudeville troupe in Alberta and Saskatchewan circa 1913. It was a lively reading, reflecting her theatrical training. She had members of the audience ooing and awing and laughing out loud.
Everybody knows who Guy Vanderhaeghe is. I certainly remember “Man Descending”, a impressive story collection, and the novel “Homesick”. As Andreas Schroeder pointed out, Guy is all Saskatchewan. Born there. Raised there. Still lives there. Works there. “Mr. Saskatchewan”.
Guy read from his new novel “A Good Man” which completes his western trilogy that began with “The Englishman’s Boy” followed by “The Last Crossing”. The audience loved his reading but for the life of me I could not make out what precisely was going on in the scene he related. I know what this means, a trip to the festival bookstore to get a copy of “A Good Man” to find out.
So. The old or historical “west”. Why? For Rudy Wiebe, the west is a subject he’s repeatedly returned to because it’s where he was born. He was raised on a homestead and the prevailing wisdom growing up was that no one had ever lived here before. Eventually he learned how untrue that was. At least five hundred generations of people had lived around the area of his parent’s homestead before whites showed up. Just because the settlers were ignorant of local history didn’t make it unimportant.
Guy Vanderhaeghe’s original career goal was to be an academic historian and researcher but he realized “I didn’t have the chops for it”. His 1973 reading of Rudy Wiebe’s “The Temptations of Big Bear” made a big impression on him. He realized he wanted to at least attempt to write historical fiction and the rest, you might say, is history. Aside from the made-up characters in his novels the psychological aspects of historical figures interests him. They are in the midst of history and don’t know what eventually happens. He sticks to the record when using an historical figure but gives himself room to speculate. There’s a sense of responsibility to history.
Pauline Holdstock followed her creative instincts. She wanted a pristine setting and spare landscapes “with very little cultural texture” after completing her previous novel set in renaissance Italy. She found what she was looking for in northern Manitoba. The concept of historical fiction with real characters keeps her up at night though. “All those dead people are looking over your shoulder.” There’s a responsibility in getting things right.
Marina Endicott chose the Canadian west as the setting for her novel because she was interested in the history of vaudeville. American archives document the stories of over seven thousand vaudevillians but vaudeville featured in “our” land too. She spent a lot of time in the Glenbow archives getting background for her story.
So the west is the west of the prairies for these writers, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba. At the end of the evening an audience member asked Guy Vanderhaeghe if he’d ever considered using B.C. as a setting. “I know nothing about B.C.,” was the reply. “I’d have to live here at least five years.”
The only thing missing from “Wild West” was maybe George Bowering. He’s done the historical Canadian west, B.C. style, really well.