Rudy Wiebe Essay - Wiebe, Rudy (Vol. 6)

Wiebe, Rudy (Vol. 6)

Wiebe, Rudy 1934–

A Canadian novelist, short story writer, and critic, Wiebe says he writes fiction from a "radical Jesus-oriented Christianity." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 37-40.)

The cunning thing about [The Temptations of Big Bear] is that it speaks from several points of view, not only Big Bear's but also from those of white traders, a missionary, an army volunteer, a Mounted Police inspector (Francis Dickens, son of Charles), a farming instructor and, what I consider a minor tour de force, that of Kitty McLean, an adolescent white girl held hostage in Big Bear's camp for two months, her indelicate, energetic and perspicacious female sensibility admiringly and exquisitely rendered.

They all hang together in a single story, chapters towards a definition of the process of imperialism, so that the attitudes and imagination of the whites murdered in the Frog Lake massacre are of as much interest and concern as those of the Indian desperadoes. The switch about of victim/victimizer defies all easy sloganeering. But it is the People's point of view, their version of events and their commentary on the experience—perhaps because we have never been instructed in it—which is the single most important accomplishment of the novel.

It is, first of all, their language. I don't suppose Wiebe speaks Cree, but his rendition of the speech, accurate or not, remains a peculiarly impressive variety of English…. It is, second, their way of looking at things. For the first time, I began to understand how it felt to grow homeless, to face the buffalo across the border of the CPR and know they were dying along with you, to watch Medicine Hat go up on the sacred hills, to live cramped and immobile, told to be a farmer on one, small, designated piece of land. Finally, Wiebe suggests what it was to go down with Big Bear to his surrender, in a ragged, stumbling band, hungry and hopeless; to sit in a wooden chair with leg irons, holding the black ball that weighs the soul down. (pp. 32-3)

Myrna Kostash, "A White Man's View of Big Bear," in Saturday Night (copyright © 1974 by Saturday Night), February, 1974, pp. 32-3.

Rudy Wiebe's first three novels were good, but Big Bear represents a quantum jump beyond their achievements. He has created in the Plains Cree chief, Big Bear, a character who is truly alien to most of his readers, and yet he has simultaneously built up such a complete and massive vision of this man's perceptions, we are drawn into full acceptance of his point of view. Wiebe's achievement here is to convince us that the white man's view of things is strange and somehow wrong, and that the Indian's perception is the truer one. (p. 82)

Big Bear is a true fiction, a literary creation; yet a "meditation upon the past" is the best definition of this work that could be given. Taking us with him, he enters, through his prose exploration of past events and experiences, the very texture of the lives of his characters, Indian and white. Moreover, he, the meditator, is always there, hovering over his creation/re-creation of a lost world, mediating between our world and it, occasionally offering philosophical insights concerning the few artifacts from it which have survived (a photograph of Big Bear, for example), and how they affect him, how he perceives and experiences them. Yet the level of meditation is but one of many layers in this richly textured palimpsest.

For this is an exciting and arresting narrative, gripping in its violence and passion. As we follow Big Bear in his attempts, first to preserve the freedom of his People, then just to preserve them in peace as the whites inevitably take over the land he loves, the land of which he says, "Who can receive land? From whom would he receive it?", and, finally, in his doomed attempts to prevent the young braves from going to useless war, we are brought to understand just how profound this "savage's" comprehension of human nature is. (pp. 82-3)

Slowly but surely Wiebe builds up a complex, kaleidoscopic vision of the whole period the novel covers, a completely felt and minutely registered version of the prairies at that period.

Big Bear talks occasionally of the power of words, and he speaks as a man of wisdom and power. Rudy Wiebe knows that power; and recognizes a correlative power as well, that of voice: on one level this novel is concerned with the relative human validity of different voices. This is why he makes us "listen" to so many characters "talking," each one with a different voice. (p. 83)

I don't think we can ask much more of a novel than that it create for us a world which is so achingly real it becomes our world while we read. Big Bear's voice always speaks that world, a world of difference elsewhere in which we may perhaps see ourselves anew even as we see, perhaps for the first time, the People as they must have been. The Temptations of Big Bear is a richly human, mythic, religious work. Those readers who pass it by will be the poorer for their act, for it is a book that will enlarge and enrich the imaginative lives of all who read it. (p. 84)

Douglas Barbour, in Canadian Literature, Summer, 1974.

Until I read The Temptations of Big Bear, I always looked forward to reading the work of Rudy Wiebe; not only did Peace Shall Destroy Many and his stories appeal to me, but also I liked his value judgments as reflected in his anthology of short stories from Western Canada. But Big Bear was not to my mind a success, so that when I came to Where Is The Voice Coming From? I did so with misgivings. My fears were groundless. This collection impressed me with the balance Wiebe shows as a writer of short fiction, and his ease in maintaining a consistent tone that neither frays nor bores the reader; its stories proved to me what I have always felt: that Wiebe is much better with the short story, as a form, than he is with the novel.

The stories which concern themselves with the Indians or the Eskimos create a sense of achieved intimacy with that part of Canada and its people that is alien to most Canadians…. This is a world sequestered from our world; a history remote from our history. Yet, Wiebe has gone into this microcosm of human experience and made it live by giving to the experiences he talks about the vividness of something half-seen. It is an isolation within isolation that he creates. Finely tuned to the sound of language, Wiebe participates with his creations as they attempt to outlive their existence. The mind of the reader meets no resistance in the texture of these tales even though it is an alien world. The habits of telling a tale are no different even though the milieu is different. There is no transparency here, and at the same time no attempt to cloud the reader's vision; instead, the language grips the reader, forcing him to assimilate the experience into his own, and in so doing remove the false preconceptions that we so often have about life among our native people.

Most stories written today, however good they may be, attempt to show us some vision of our own reality. Though Wiebe concentrates on the universal humanity of the people he sees, the Indian and Eskimo tales in this volume seem closer to the flow of dreams, where nothing is questioned or ever shall be. (p. 102)

Where Is The Voice Coming From? at first appears to be a classic example of what Margaret Atwood calls the "survival" theme in Canadian literature. It speaks of the harshness of winter, the violence of the North, the hardship of life on the prairies. But underneath that gloss is the greater will that makes this book: the will to grow, to discover, and to build that really is the essence of survival. The intensely simple stories where the fulness of life is realized through awareness of nature, of responses to the sad, joyful and the ironic that makes man recover his sense of self through those tiny, but meaningful distractions. The writing is active, alive, unassuming, and infinitely touched with a growing and well-grounded lyricism. (p. 103)

Donald Stephens, "A World Sequestered," in Canadian Literature, Winter, 1975, pp. 102-03.