During the 1920’s and 1930’s, a common metaphor for this process of discovering history recurred in novels about the Great Plains and the Western interior. Unlike the American frontier novel—where white pioneer-cowboys contend against American Indians, villains, and the forces of industry to settle the continent—Canadian Western novels deal with settlers coming to terms with the “vast absence” around them. If violent contests did occur in the Canadian West, they more often took the shape of humans versus the landscape or versus their own demons than a contest against those external forces struggling to prevent the advance of “civilization.” Thus, while most American Westerns resolve themselves quite neatly—the defeat of the “savage” cleared the way for the nation’s progress—Canadian Westerns were troubled both by the absolute moral oppositions of the American system and by the way that system failed to address Canada’s own historical experience.
Implicitly aware of the multiple viewpoints shaping their past, Canadians struggled with the concept of how to build “history” out of many voices—or, more to the point, how to articulate Canadian identity when no one cultural voice told the nation’s full story and history became a kind of “surrounding silence” incapable of revealing itself. Canadian experiences with both the prairie and the Western interior served as apt metaphors for this struggle, though for different reasons. The prairie—flat, empty, even desolate—offered a vacant site where the task of self-creation seemed simultaneously imminent and impossible, a blank slate on which to inscribe both personal and national identity that contained no external signposts to suggest exactly what that identity should be. The Western interior, by contrast, offered a mountainous landscape filled with spectacular topography and various cultures, a place full of external stimuli yet also filled with different people who encountered those stimuli through vastly divergent historical, economic, and personal contexts.
Of the prairie novels, the most notable are Frederick Philip Grove’s Settlers of the Marsh (1925), Martha Ostenso’s Wild Geese (1925), Robert J. C. Stead’s Grain (1926), and Sinclair Ross’s As for Me and My House (1941). While all have been called works of realism, depicting the harsh nature of prairie life, later critics recognized them as psychological quests for self-understanding. Grain follows the attempts of a slow-witted man, Gander Stake, to come to terms with his own social and sexual identity even as the farm life to which he is accustomed slowly gives way to a post-World War I industrial economy. Settlers of the Marsh and Wild Geese explore the worlds of egomaniacal patriarchs trying to found personal dynasties on the plains, as well as the oppressed characters (often female) attempting to break free from their single-minded imperatives. As for Me and My House analyzes the process by which characters construct their identities away from civilization, isolated in a small prairie town.
Of these works, As for Me and My House is the most interesting because of the way it explores identity construction as more than a reaction to another’s demagoguery; Ross’s work excludes dominant, if detestable, central figures (such as Grove’s Neils Lindstedt or Ostenso’s Caleb Gare) in order to avoid amoral touchstones through which the actions of others can be measured and understood. Instead, he offers only the town of Horizon—a mere spot on the Saskatchewan map—during the Great Depression, where characters come to understand themselves through interactions with the community. The novel is rendered in journal format by the wife of Philip Bentley, Horizon’s minister. Mrs. Bentley is a proud and stand-offish woman, a former musician who claims to detest everything about the small, isolated place to which her husband has been sent. Philip Bentley is an agnostic and a failed artist who has assumed his religious post more out of his sense of duty than out of belief or desire.
Together the Bentleys struggle to understand themselves against the backdrop of the desolate prairie, Philip’s extramarital affair, an illegitimate child, and constant rancor. Despite her desperate need to be loved, Mrs. Bentley refuses to turn to Philip because of the many betrayals which she believes he has heaped upon her. Despite his desperate need for artistic stimulation and his overwhelming self-doubt, Philip refuses to leave Horizon, motivated by the same pride that motivates his wife. In both cases, the prairie becomes a symbol of the isolation and emptiness that both characters feel. Even the one person who seems capable of escaping the oppressive psychological weight of Horizon—Philip’s lover...