Rudy Wiebe Wiebe, Rudy (Vol. 137) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Rudy Wiebe 1934-

(Full name Rudy Henry Wiebe) Canadian novelist, short story writer, and critic.

The following entry presents an overview of Wiebe's career through 1998. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 6, 11, and 14.

Wiebe has been hailed as among Canada's most visionary writers. His works typically explore his personal religious beliefs, aspects of modern society, and the traditional values and character of modern Canada. He is best known for his historical fiction, notably for his award-winning The Temptations of Big Bear (1973). Recognized for the forceful style employed in his novels and short stories, Wiebe has received both the Governor General's Award and the Lorne Piece Medal, both among the most prestigious literary awards in Canada.

Biographical Information

Wiebe was born to a Mennonite family in Speedwell, northern Saskatchewan in 1934. His parents had moved to Canada from the Soviet Union in 1930, and their story as well as that of other Mennonite immigrants in the area inspired Wiebe's novel The Blue Mountains of China (1970). Wiebe was raised speaking the Low German common to Mennonite families and did not learn English until he entered school. Wiebe attended a one-room schoolhouse typical of the Canadian prairie until his family moved to Alberta in 1947. Wiebe was educated at a Mennonite high school, then the University of Alberta and the University of Tuebingen in West Germany. He received his M.A. in creative writing in 1960 from the University of Alberta. In addition, Wiebe received a Th.B. from the Mennonite Brethren Bible College. For a time during the 1960s, he was editor of the Mennonite Brethren Herald. He has taught at Goshen College in Indiana and the University of Alberta. In 1973, Wiebe won the Governor General's award for The Temptations of Big Bear.

Major Works

Wiebe's early novels focus on his religious beliefs and on the Mennonite community. Peace Shall Destroy Many (1962) is set near the end of World War II in a fictional Mennonite community in Saskatchewan. The novel traces the conflicts within the group, which are mainly generational, and between the group and the outside world. The Blue Mountains of China is much broader in scope and surveys Mennonite history from 1863 to 1967. The novel recounts the story of the Mennonites' search for freedom to speak their own language and to preserve their minority beliefs. Wiebe later turned his attention to another Canadian minority group, the native Canadian Indians. The Temptations of Big Bear is set in the 19th century during the period of conflict between Indians and whites in Canada. The protagonist is the Chief of the Plains Cree, Big Bear, who resists white treaties and intrusion on Indian land until he is finally put to death. The Mad Trapper (1977) is based on the true story of the largest manhunt in Royal Canadian Mounted Police history. Since many of the facts from the historical record are unclear, Wiebe fills in the blanks with his imagination. Wiebe's first attempt at a contemporary setting was My Lovely Enemy (1983), which tells the story of history professor James Dyck and explores marriage, sexuality, and religion. Wiebe's A Discovery of Strangers (1994) is again based on historical fact. The novel recounts John Franklin's first expedition through the Canadian North in the 1820s. The narrative focuses on the group's interaction with the Yellowknife Indians and the relationship between an officer and a young Indian woman. Wiebe has also written several nonfiction works, including The Opening of American Society, which traces the development of America from the adoption of the Constitution to the Civil War, and A Stolen Life (1998) co-authored with the great-great-granddaughter of Big Bear, Yvonne Johnson. The book tells the story of Johnson's life and what led to her imprisonment for murder.

Critical Reception

Much of the critical commentary concerning Wiebe's work centers on his fictionalization of historical events. There is disagreement among reviewers over the revisionist nature of Wiebe's novels, some asserting that a twentieth-century perspective on the past can teach us, and others complaining that it distorts reality. Critics often single out Peace Shall Destroy Many and The Temptations of Big Bear as highlights in Wiebe's career. Many reviewers credit Wiebe's balanced portrayal of minority groups for his novels' success, including his often critical look at Mennonites. Prabhu Guptara asserts, “Wiebe believes, in fact, that Mennonites have no business criticising others, at least till they have first criticised themselves.” Critics also laud Wiebe for avoiding the common traps of glorifying the Indians as noble savages or denigrating them as savage beasts. Instead he focuses on their common humanity. Many reviewers find Wiebe's prose style challenging but ultimately rewarding. Brian Bergman stated, “his uncompromising style (the narrative voice is constantly shifting, and sentences sometimes swirl on for a page or more) can be challenging.” David Lyle Jeffrey describes Wiebe's career as “a writerly career marked by unswerving commitment to a prophetic and innovative vision, and with it, the achievement of a distinctive and prophetic voice.”

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Peace Shall Destroy Many (novel) 1962

First and Vital Candle (novel) 1966

The Blue Mountains of China (novel) 1970

The Story-Makers: A Selection of Modern Short Stories [editor] (short stories) 1970

The Temptations of Big Bear (novel) 1973

Where Is the Voice Coming From? (short stories) 1974

Double Vision: An Anthology of Twentieth-Century Stories in English [editor] (short stories) 1976

The Mad Trapper (novel) 1977

The Scorched-Wood People (novel) 1977

The Angel of the Tar Sands and Other Stories (short stories) 1982

My Lovely Enemy (novel) 1983

Playing Dead: A Contemplation Concerning the Arctic (essays) 1989

Silence: The Word and the Sacred (essays) 1989

A Discovery of Strangers (novel) 1994

A Stolen Life (novel) 1998

Prabhu Guptara (essay date 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘Clutching a Feather in a Maelstrom’: Rudy Wiebe's Critique of the Contemporary West,” in Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Vol. XVII, No. 1, 1982, pp. 146-52.

[In the following essay, Guptara traces how Wiebe portrays modernity in his Peace Shall Destroy Many and The Temptations of Big Bear.]

The principal subjects of Wiebe's fiction have begun to be investigated only since 1977. The reason for this magic date in the development of interest in Wiebe's work is not clear, but this was the year in which appeared his fifth novel, The Scorched-Wood People, as well as Patricia Morley's The Comedians: Hugh Hood and Rudy Wiebe and, more popularly, John Moss's discussion of the subject of genocide in Wiebe's work published in Moss's Sex and Violence in the Canadian Novel. There was also a spate of articles in Quill and Quire, Canadian, Weekend Magazine, and so on. Wiebe criticism has now had a look at his religious or spiritual orientation, his language(s), view of history, and use of local records. Wiebe's work has been examined in the context of his own life and values, and of the Mennonite ethnic and religious community to which he so disturbingly belongs; it has been seen with an eye to Western Canada, to Canadian literature, to the Bible. (A Voice in the Land, edited by W. J. Keith, Edmonton: NeWest Press, 1981, is an excellent first collection of articles by and interviews with Wiebe [about his life and work], and of essays by Canadian critics, including David Jeffrey, Robert Kroetsch and Eli Mandel. All further references to this book are cited as Voice.). I propose in this essay to pay Wiebe's work the compliment of ferreting about in the undergrowth to see what this reveals about the stature of the “modern” in his world. It is a compliment because the “modern” world is not in the centre of Wiebe's novels, and the compliment is worth paying because that world is central to the concerns of the majority of readers, in a way that religion, language, and history are sadly not central at present.

This essay discusses only the first and the fourth of Wiebe's novels—that is, respectively, Peace Shall Destroy Many (1962) and The Temptations of Big Bear (1973).1 These show the author's artistic growth to the point where he began to be considered with Canada's foremost novelists. Peace Shall Destroy Many drew immediate attention to Wiebe and was widely reviewed; however, the consensus that Wiebe was a promising and serious writer, may have been at least partly due to Wiebe's critical view of his own Mennonite community. The old chestnut that great creative work must be critical of what it portrays, is not true: in Wiebe's own work, for example, The Temptations of Big Bear is not uncritical of Canadian Indians, but leaves us with a far more attractive picture of them than we have of Mennonites in Peace Shall Destroy Many. A work of literary quality can tell the unflattering truth in such a way that the reader thinks the subject both winsome and worthy of respect. Wiebe's second novel, First and Vital Candle (1966), though uneven, is boldly experimental, and presages his first mature achievement, his third novel, The Blue Mountains of China (1970); yet it received nothing like the attention paid to Peace. That third novel is a saga of Mennonite experience in the twentieth century, spanning the earth from China to Paraguay. It was the book's experimental technique and not the Mennonite theme, so close to Wiebe's heart, that endeared the book to critics—if anything Mennonitism was a problem (for example to Ina Ferris, Voice, 88–96). And it is only with The Temptations of Big Bear that Wiebe finally established his reputation.

This account draws attention to the woven, inextricably linked nature of these works: they may focus on different points, the artist paints his pictures better in the later works, but it is impossible to consider any of these texts in isolation from each other. As is shown by the reference to other books in each of them (Peace, for example, refers to Big Bear, p. 111), all the novels arise from the same impulse of creativity, and from a continuity of concern. It is not surprising, then, that they should share a common attitude to the “modern”. And in all these books, Wiebe's critique of it is implicit, indirect, needing to be ferreted out.

Wiebe believes, in fact, that Mennonites have no business criticising others, at least till they have first criticised themselves; they have no call to pick motes out of the eyes of those who do not believe till they have plucked the beams from the eyes of those who say they believe. Peace was written primarily for Mennonites—as should be clear from his defence of it (“An Author Speaks About His Novel”, Canadian Mennonite, 11 April 1963, p. 8.). So far as I know, Wiebe has never attempted to defend any of his novels to a non-Mennonite audience—except incidentally, for example when asked a direct question during interviews.

However, even in Peace, the “modern” world does not escape entirely without censure. It is present here specifically through two people. Razia, a school-teacher with book learning but little understanding, sparks off the climactic crisis in the novel, which results in the novel's protagonist, Thom Wiens, having to face up to the violence of his own nature. The other party in this collision is Hank Unger, who has thrown over his Mennonite tradition of non-violence and joined the air force. To the worldly Razia, he cuts a dashing, handsome figure as a pilot. To the Mennonites, however, the planes represent death: we remember that the novel opens to air force planes flying overhead, and to Thom thinking, ‘Fly, you heathen … Fly low, practise your dips and turns to terrify playing children and grandmothers gaunt in their rocking chairs. Practise your hawk-swoops, so you can gun down some equally godless German or bury a cowering family under the rubble of their home’. And it is a direct result of the disturbance caused by the noise of these planes that a calf is aborted (that the “modern” is anti-nature and against life is leitmotiv in all of Wiebe's novels.) ‘Godless heathen,’ Thom thinks, ‘with all the sky to fly in, to come messing here twice on one day!’. In the “day” of the novel, this statement applies equally to Hank's second appearance in the novel which parallels the two appearances of the air force planes in the first chapter. In any case, the hard work of the Mennonites on the ground is hardly helped by these flashy planes; on the world of the novel they leave a permanent shadow.

It is not only through Razia and Hank that the “modern” world is present. In Peace, as in other novels, the “modern” is in fact ever-present. It has a pervasive appeal that seduces young people like Hank from their community, it has a power which Deacon Block so heroically if incorrectly attempts to resist by putting up barricades against every inconsequential manifestation of it. In the analysis of corruption in First and Vital Candle, and in the wholesale and unthinking capitulation to the spirit of the age that has been completed by the late Sixties in the Canada of The Blue Mountains of China, we see the progress of the massive juggernaut of the modern.

The effects of that juggernaut are most telling assembled from The Temptations of Big Bear. Even if they are in the penumbra of the novel, it documents the decimation of...

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Andrew Gurr (essay date 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Blue Mountains and Strange Forms,” in Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Vol. XVII, No. 1, 1982, pp. 153-60.

[In the following essay, Gurr asserts that the essential form of Wiebe's The Blue Mountains of China “is unique, with some elements of the short story and some elements of the ‘whole-book’ story sequence, together with an architectonic structure which offers no more than a minimal justification for its being presented to the struggling reader as a novel.”]

In 2002 when Rudy Wiebe is 68 and gets Canada its first Nobel Prize for Literature, The Blue Mountains of China will probably be hailed as the first major novel of his early...

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Coral Ann Howells (essay date 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “History from a Different Angle: Narrative Strategies in The Temptations of Big Bear,” in Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Vol. XVII, No. 1, 1982, pp. 161-71.

[In the following essay, Howells asserts that Wiebe presents a God-centered view of history in his The Temptations of Big Bear which “transcends any regional history and allows us to accept all events as part of a divine plan beyond our limited human comprehension and which can only be asserted through faith in God.”]

WIEBE: When you start looking at the actual stuff from history from a slightly different angle you start seeing so many different stories there...

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John Thieme (essay date 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Scheherazade as Historian: Rudy Wiebe's ‘Where is the Voice Coming From?’” in Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Vol. XVII, No. 1, 1982, pp. 172-81.

[In the following essay, Thieme traces how Wiebe's roles as historian and fiction writer come together in “Where is the Voice Coming From?”]

… a historical fact is what really took place, but where did anything take place? Each episode in a revolution or war resolves itself into a multitude of individual psychic movements. … Consequently, historical facts are no more given than any other. It is the historian, or the agent of history, who constitutes them by abstraction....

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David Lyle Jeffrey (review date Winter 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Lost Voice?” in Canadian Literature, No. 99, Winter, 1983, pp. 111-14.

[In the following review, Jeffrey concludes that “My Lovely Enemy seems, indeed, to be as unfriendly as any book could be to its author's hard-earned reputation.”]

Even after a second reading and considerable reflection, Rudy Wiebe's My Lovely Enemy seems, indeed, to be as unfriendly as any book could be to its author's hard-earned reputation. That reputation, only recently celebrated by W. J. Keith and others, is for a writerly career marked by unswerving commitment to a prophetic and innovative vision, and with it, the achievement of a distinctive and prophetic...

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Rudy Wiebe (essay date 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “One-Stringed Lutes,” in Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Vol. XIX, No. 1, 1984, pp. 142-43.

[In the following essay, Wiebe discusses the use of dialect in his work.]

The finest teacher I ever worked with once said to me, “Use Standard English; dialect is a one-stringed lute.” The implication of Standard English as full-scale orchestra has intrigued and puzzled me ever since; certainly there are times when, forced to read bad writing (as all teachers must), I would amend his statement to “Dialect is a one-stringed lute played by a one-handed player”; at best it seems capable of two notes, pathos and farce, at worst one: bathos. One...

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Rudy Wiebe (essay date Spring 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “On Death and Writing,” in Canadian Literature, No. 100, Spring, 1984, pp. 354-60.

[In the following essay, Wiebe ruminates on death and his impulse to write fiction.]

“The twentieth century shall be the century of Canada!” So declaimed Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Prime Minister of Canada, in 1904. He may have gotten the idea from the speech made in Boston two years earlier by the Attorney General of Nova Scotia, James Longley, who said, “The nineteenth century was the century of the United States. The twentieth century is Canada's century,” but whatever the source, Laurier laid claim to this century again and again for over a year. Eighty-three years into...

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Sherrill E. Grace (essay date Spring 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Structuring Violence: ‘The Ethics of Linguistics’ in The Temptations of Big Bear,” in Canadian Literature, No. 104, Spring, 1985, pp. 7-22.

[In the following essay, Grace asserts, “In Temptations Wiebe portrays the physical annihilation and the degradation of one race by another as, in large part, the direct result of the dominant group's inability to understand the language of the other.”]

Murder, death, and unchanging society represent precisely the inability to hear and understand the signifier as such—as ciphering, as rhythm, as a presence that precedes the signification of object or emotion. The poet...

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Nancy Bailey (essay date Summer 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Imaginative and Historical Truth in Wiebe's The Mad Trapper,” in Journal of Canadian Studies, Vol. 20, No. 2, Summer, 1985, pp. 70-9.

[In the following essay, Bailey analyzes the historical facts Wiebe changes in The Mad Trapper and the artistic reasons behind them.]

The publication of The Mad Trapper by Rudy Wiebe in 1980 evoked a range of responses. Most of them expressed disappointment despite the admitted engagement with the by then well known details of the largest RCMP manhunt in history, which was also an historical first for its use of radio and airplanes in the North to track a criminal. The man pursued, whose identity has...

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Marie Vautier (essay date Fall 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Fiction, Historiography, and Myth: Jacques Godbout's Les Têtes à Papineau and Rudy Wiebe's The Scorched-Wood People,” in Canadian Literature, No. 110, Fall, 1986, pp. 61-78.

[In the following essay, Vautier compares how Wiebe's The Scorched-Wood People and Jacques Godbout's Les Têtes à Papineau both attack accepted notions of fictional and historical reality.]

Jacques Godbout and Rudy Wiebe address the basic question of the nature of literary and historical reality in Les têtes à Papineau and The Scorched-Wood People. Both texts explode the concept of a “commonly experienced, objectively existing world of...

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Laura H. Weaver (essay date Fall-Winter 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Mennonites' Minority Vision and the Outsider: Rudy Wiebe's Peace Shall Destroy Many and The Blue Mountains of China,” in Melus, Vol. 13, Nos. 3 and 4, Fall-Winter, 1986, pp. 15-26.

[In the following essay, Weaver discusses how in Peace Shall Destroy Many and The Blue Mountains of China, Wiebe portrays the tension between the comfort of the Mennonites's close-knit community and the exclusion of outsiders which this close-knit nature ultimately causes.]

“… Why must we … love only Mennonites?” That question, asked by Thom Wiens, the young Mennonite protagonist of Rudy Wiebe's novel Peace Shall Destroy Many (215),...

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Kenneth Hoeppner (essay date December 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Politics and Religion in Rudy Wiebe's The Scorched-Wood People,” in English Studies in Canada, Vol. XII, No. 4, December, 1986, pp. 440-50.

[In the following essay, Hoeppner proposes a political aim to the religious thrust of Wiebe's The Scorched-Wood People.]

Commentators on Rudy Wiebe's The Scorched-Wood People generally agree with Wiebe that his purpose in recreating the history of the Metis from the Metis point-of-view is to question the “white mythology one grows up with and never really questions.”1 W. J. Keith notes that “the white historian has given the white perspective often enough, but a resurrected Pierre Falcon...

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Carla Visser (essay date 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Historicity in Historical Fiction: Burning Water and The Temptations of Big Bear,” in Studies in Canadian Literature, Vol. 12, No. 1, 1987, pp. 90-111.

[In the following essay, Visser asserts, “The historical fiction of The Temptations of Big Bearand [George Bowering's] Burning Water not only brings the past to life, but it succeeds in changing our interpretation of it.”]

About the strange fancy that history is given and the strange fact that history is taken. …

—George Bowering, Burning Water


In the...

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Brian Bergman (review date 30 May 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “North by Northwest,” in Maclean's Vol. 107, No. 22, May 30, 1994, pp. 45-7.

[In the following review, Bergman lauds Wiebe's A Discovery of Strangers.]

Paddling on the Yellowknife River in the summer of 1988, where sparse boreal forest dissolves into the tundra, novelist Rudy Wiebe discovered his future. He was travelling as part of a six-member canoe party intent on retracing a portion of John Franklin's first expedition to the Arctic (1819–1922). And Wiebe carried with him a pocket-sized edition of the English explorer's journals. But Franklin's dry observations on the land he had passed through in pursuit of the elusive Northwest Passage could not...

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John Moss (review date October 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Wiebe's Dreamvision,” in Canadian Forum, Vol. 73, No. 833, October, 1994, pp. 43-4.

[Moss teaches English at the University of Ottawa and is the author of Enduring Dreams: An Exploration of Arctic Landscapes. In the following review, he calls Wiebe's A Discovery of Strangers “a confessional exposition, a confabulation of private dreams.”]

What you have to realize when you read Rudy Wiebe's novel, A Discovery of Strangers, is that this is the author's dreamvision. It is not an authentic rendering of Indian reality or of nineteenth century exploration, or even of the Barren Lands as an austere and prophetic context for the...

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Prema Kumari Marshal (essay date January 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Global Village in Rudy Wiebe's Peace Shall Destroy Many and Bhabani Bhattacharya's A Dream in Hawaii,” in Literary Half-Yearly, Vol. 36, No. 1, January, 1995, pp. 80-93.

[In the following essay, Marshal discusses the universality of the religious messages in Wiebe's Peace Shall Destroy Many and Bhabani Bhattacharya's A Dream in Hawaii.]

In the realm of ethics and values,
Materialism is naked egoism
directed to the love of abstract
power and animal enjoyments as such. …

(p. 27, RPCP

Any comprehensive, and analytical study of the literature of a particular nation would often necessitate...

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Penny van Toorn (review date Spring/Summer 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Performing Selves,” in Canadian Literature, Nos. 152 and 153, Spring/Summer, 1997, pp. 249-50.

[In the following excerpt, van Toorn discusses the short pieces anthologized in Wiebe's River of Stone.]

Rudy Wiebe's River of Stone and Louis Dudek's Notebooks make available a selection of “minor” writings by two of Canada's major contemporary literary figures. But while Wiebe's strength in short narrative forms calls into question their “minor” ranking in the hierarchy of genres, Dudek's pompous banality causes us to question only the wisdom of whoever decided to bring these selections from his notebooks into print.


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Tony Tremblay (essay date June 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Piracy, Penance, and Other Penal Codes: A Morphology of Postcolonial Revision in Three Recent Texts by Rudy Wiebe, John Steffler, and Joan Clark,” in English Studies in Canada, Vol. 23, No. 2, June, 1997, pp. 159-73.

[In the following essay, Tremblay questions the implications of rewriting history in postcolonial fiction by such authors as Rudy Wiebe, John Steffler, and Joan Clark.]

If to imagine is to misinterpret, which makes all poems antithetical to their precursors, then to imagine after a poet is to learn his own metaphors for his acts of reading. Criticism then necessarily becomes antithetical also, a series of swerves after...

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T. W. Smyth (essay date Spring 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “My Lovely Enemy Revisited,” in Essays on Canadian Writing, Vol. 63, Spring, 1998, pp. 113-33.

[In the following essay, Smyth provides a detailed look at Wiebe's My Lovely Enemy and asserts that the novel is a greater achievement than previously recognized.]

Since its appearance in 1983, Rudy Wiebe's My Lovely Enemy has been the subject of much confusion and controversy, provoking bafflement, disenchantment, and even shock. For Wiebe, the scathing comments by David Lyle Jeffrey in a literary journal late in 1983 would have been particularly disappointing, because Jeffrey himself was among those who “only recently celebrated” Wiebe's...

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Maureen Harris (review date September 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “A Gift of Understanding,” in Books in Canada, Vol. 27, No. 6, September, 1998, p. 6.

[In the following review, Harris praises A Stolen Life, by Wiebe and Yvonne Johnson for what it teaches about humanity.]

On November 18th, 1992, the novelist Rudy Wiebe received a letter from Yvonne Johnson. Johnson identified herself as a prisoner in Kingston's Prison for Women (P4W) and a great-great-granddaughter of the legendary Cree leader Big Bear. She wrote because she had read Wiebe's novel The Temptations of Big Bear. She asked him:

Please help me share what it is you know, and how you got it. How is it you...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Brydon, Diana. “Troppo Agitato: Writing and Reading Cultures.” Ariel 19, No. I (January 1988): 13–32.

Discusses novels by Rudy Wiebe and Australian Randolph Stow.

Additional coverage of Wiebe's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 37-40R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 42, 67; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 60; DISCovering Authors: Canadian; and DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-Studied Authors.

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