Prabhu Guptara (essay date 1982)

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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...

(This entire section contains 3170 words.)

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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 North American Indians, the systematic destruction of their ways, and the extortion of their rights and possessions by the greatest civilization, and the greatest empire, that the world has seen.

Towards the beginning of Big Bear, that empire is represented by Governor Morris, who sees a vision of a broad road, all along which are Indians “gathering … gardens growing and houses building. I see them receiving money from the Queen's commissionaires, I see them enjoying their hunting and fishing as before, I see them living as they have always lived, but with the Queen's gift in addition” (p. 28). We are reminded of the magnificent visions of Abraham, and Isaiah and Martin Luther King. But Governer Morris's vision is a fabricated one. He knows that what he is saying is not true. He lies deliberately, that respectable man. For the Indian has already begun to cease enjoying his hunting and fishing and his way of life when the Governor speaks. This is not only because of the invasion of Indian land by new forces, but the erosion of the very basis of their existence: the buffalo is prevented from coming north by the Americans (who want to slaughter all that they can, as soon as they can, because it is all money in the pocket), and in Canada itself there are new “treaties” between the Whiteskins and the Indians. Big Bear protests: “I and my people have not [even] heard what the treaty says and already nothing of it can be changed. It is already done, though we never heard of it” (p. 31). Even worse, these treaties embody that exploitation. Big Bear realizes this very early, that he is being cheated (p. 196). When Governor Morris attempts to override Big Bear's deep-rooted objection to hanging, the Governor says: “Why do you keep talking about [what will happen to] bad men? The law is the same for red and white”. Big Bear answers, “That may be. But itself, it [the law] is only white” (p. 31). To this statement, worthy of a Marxist, the Governor can make no answer, though that does not prevent him from continuing his attempts to explain this beneficial white law to these stupid Indian savages. Later, Big Bear elaborates: “White law is the way it is because Whiteskins are liars” (p. 336). It proceeds from white assumptions and is meant to organize things in such a way as to work for the benefit of the white man.

In the inevitable conflict between these two groups that results, the Indians naturally lose, and Big Bear is framed, in a trial which is recreated in detail by Wiebe with deadpan affection. The legal proceedings are icily serious, long drawn out, unconsciously comic; they run together, in Big Bear's head, into a long snore (p. 356). “White men are very resourceful; once they have forced you to give up the land, there isn't very much they cannot legally arrange to do with you, one way or another” (Voice 145). He already knows that he is going to be killed. When his Indian interpreter asks him if he understands the charge against him, Big Bear says “‘I understand what he wants to tell me, and you understand, but we haven't been given words or signs for it, so just let him say his white things’”. Like a lamb going to the slaughter, he does not open his mouth. Big Bear's trial is the heart of the novel, his death the result of white duplicity and avarice.

That avarice is thoroughly and devastatingly demonstrated. For 50,000 square miles of excellent land, they pay just over a dollar a square mile. If a white man has many things “it is not because of the number of his friends, it's because he has grabbed more” (p. 204), and wants everything (p. 104). “They take too much that The Spirit has given, and return nothing” (p. 105). This offence against God leads to restlessness and rootlessness: “White men were only certain in changing … they kept on wanting something here or there and then another and wanting to change still another forever that kept them running forever and frantic.” Whites “quickly make a place sick” (pp. 101-2). “What happened when Whiteskins started ‘just looking’ at rocks, tapping them with iron hammers and drilling long thin poles out of them; suddenly white madmen poured in like sand and ripped and hacked and rooted the land until everything was dead, not even a worm could live there afterwards.” (p. 89). There is “no order in the white world … only a kind of inevitable devouring … pulling, pulling, an insatiable gigantic beast wanting without bottom.” (p. 62).

Wiebe is critical of missionaries and of their collaboration with the colonists, but he does see religious commitment as one means whereby the “White Sickness” (p. 342) can be escaped: a man called Shaw, who founded Alberta's ranching industry, offers John McDougall the chance of joining him and benefitting from a half-share in the progress that is going to take place. John not only declines the offer, but sees this as the only possible option for himself: “Who cannot know there was only one word I could say? That I had to feel a deep satisfaction when I had spoken it?”. Like Lot, John sets his face against Mammon, and is aware of how close his response is to that of the Indians; the answers of Sweetgrass and Big Bear “were different, but truly they were exactly the same” (p. 48). A religious white like John is close enough to the Indians to be considered by them as having an Indian heart (p. 44). On the other hand, Indians converted to Catholicism “usually showed only the best and rarely any of the worst qualities of that sad heresy.” (p. 43). Indians are of course naturally religious anyway (p. 42) and seem to practise a form of confession (p. 343). Wiebe's view is clearly that a “pagan” Indian is preferable to a pagan White.

There is one other thing that stops whites: “when they took an Indian woman and she dragged him to a stop [i.e. from their restless acquisitiveness] maybe the only way to hold them tight was by the penis?” (p. 101). However, whites have strange attitudes even to sex. In this passage, one Indian relates, to another's disbelief, the peculiar ways of white soldiers: “All summer they fight and in winter they have something like women in their camps. They have holes like women but they can't cook or have children. They just lie in their lodges and those soldiers stand in a line with presents to mount them. Then in summer they want to do the same with our real women.” (pp. 60–61). For these beautiful “real women”, white soldiers are prepared even to murder. (p. 216).

White attitudes contrast with Indian ones in every possible way. Indians treat their captives well (p. 271), while the treatment of prisoners by whites seems barbaric (pp. 283 and 366). Wiebe has stated how angry he was to discover that capitalist education had cheated him of a knowledge of Canadian history, of his roots (Voice, pp. 134, 136–7, 151, Peace p. 111); White education, in the novel, leaves us vastly impressed by its results in the Falstaffian figure of Major Steele (p. 319), who does not have the common decency to have the war dead buried (p. 321). Wiebe is equally critical of Western museums that hoard the cultural artefacts of other civilizations (Voice, p. 149). White men profess great love for Indians: “We are brothers, we will lift you up, we will teach you the cunning of the white man” (p. 28). In reality, however, all the ‘cunning’ the Indians learn is the art of lying (p. 337) and of drinking the whiteman's firewater, which saps their individual and communal strength more effectively than bow or gun had ever done (p. 37). No wonder everyone feels an “immovable sodden heaviness [when] facing whites … ‘Talking to them’, Big Bear says, ‘the medicine is always bad’” (p. 49).

In Big Bear, Wiebe's real concern is not to build up this incidental critique of white civilization, it is to build up the more effective critique of a full and rounded view of Red Indian civilization—so much more simple, natural, democratic, and yet complex and rich and satisfying. The Indians, like the other religious peoples in Wiebe's work, “didn't speak out of the smallness of man but out of the greatness of all that man can comprehend” (Voice, p. 155). In The Blue Mountains of China, similarly, Wiebe's concern is the historical experience of the Mennonites. But the resulting picture implicitly contrasts the hard-working prosperity of Mennonites with the dishonest acquisitiveness of the communists in Russia: there is little to choose between British exploitation of Indians and Bolshevik expropriation of Mennonites.

There is one final aspect of Wiebe's critique of the modern: its obsession with technology, order, control, dominion. In Big Bear this is present through two powerful symbols. The first of these is guns, which were “never anything but a curse to the prairie peoples”. They were useful for stalking, but when it came to a flat-out gallop in the hunt that really mattered (for the buffalo), a man “with a bow could put three arrows behind a running shoulder in the time one with a gun could perhaps get off a single shot”. The technology that Indians have developed is appropriate to their world. White technology, more advanced, can be dangerous rather than useful, for that single shot “might as easily blow off [one's] hand as knock over the beast”. The sophisticated Sharps rifle, which would have been useful on buffalo hunts (it could kill a buffalo one mile away, and so made running on horses obsolete) took the adventure, the pitting of man against beast, out of the hunt—moreover, its efficiency in white hands wiped out the buffalo: neither Indian nor white would ever hunt the buffalo again. So what was the remaining use of the gun? “They needed guns for nothing more than to conveniently kill each other … And of course, human nature being what it is, such convenience becomes very shortly the greatest necessity of all” (p. 41). The second symbol of technology in Big Bear is the train “which shuddered horribly, as if it would tear itself to pieces snorting black smoke into the air, shrieking as it scraped itself over the steel. There seemed some burning devil frothing in it” (p. 137). What is sinister about technology emerges most clearly, however, from the last chapter of The Blue Mountains of China, where motorcycle, car and airplane militate against the powerfully metaphoric level of the rest of the novel. Wiebe's message here seems to be that technology kills art. It is also part of a whole system that kills faith; technological means of transport stand in specific contrast to John Reimer's foot-wearying yet joyful trudging of the land carrying a cross.

Technology here is part of what Wiebe sees as man-centred and conscience-deadened (Voice, p. 30). It has usurped the place of God the Son, just as money has usurped the place of the Father, and the search for pleasure has usurped desire for the Holy Spirit. It is a terrifying vision of a new idolatry that pretends to be enlightened, liberal, tolerant, but whose reality is an embrace that suffocates and kills. It is a new Moloch to which humanness must be sacrificed. Wiebe's is an unusual and bleak view of empire with which one black person in Britain can profoundly sympathize.


  1. All references to the novels are from the paperback editions, Toronto: MacLelland and Stewart.


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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.”

Andrew Gurr (essay date 1982)

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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 maturity. That won't be quite right, since it has few of the orthodox properties of the novel, and has indeed a form unique to its own peculiar properties.

The Blue Mountains has been called a saga and a chronicle, both of them terms which imply an episodic narrative.1 It is truly neither episodic nor a narrative, and can't be fitted into or even closely related to any existing category. Its form 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.2 Its essential method is not the discursiveness of narrative nor even the unifying subjective vision of the ‘experimental’ novelist, but the symbolist associationism of the modernist writers of short fiction.3

In setting down that proposition I am uncomfortably conscious that I am running against most of the substantial critics of the book, including such scrupulous and well-equipped Mennonite insiders as Magdalene Falk Redekop. While disputing the exactly right reading of the final chapter among themselves, Redekop, Ina Ferris and David L. Jeffrey all see the author as moving in it out of the existential mode which is native to the novel form, and which prevails in the isolated incidents of the earlier chapters, and transferring the materials of the book to the transcendental mode which we might all along have expected given the author's Mennonite background.4 The final chapter, says Ina Ferris, is “insistently structured as a conclusion absorbing the whole novel.” It makes deductions. “Through the decisive shift in method Wiebe signifies the inability of his existential mode to resolve the questions he raises.”5 She sees this withdrawal from the existential strengths characteristic of the novel form as a weakening, an “attenuation”. Jeffrey sees it on the contrary as a strengthening, an assertion made through a voice which is “authoritative because it is really that of a whole communal history.”6 Redekop, approaching through the many different ‘voices’ in the book, sees it as a conclusion which first insists on a ‘vote’ for the prophet-figure, and then insists that we reconsider the vote and question the limitations of the language of prophecy.7 The book addresses itself to the metaphysics of human vision, and its critics assume that the conclusion must therefore wind up the search with some kind of vision.

All three critics, starting from the old premise that novels should not tell but show, implicitly assume that Wiebe “shows” his position through the range of incidents and “tells” it by ultimately directing us, in the final chapter, to the superior language of the prophet John Riemer. They differ over the single-mindedness of the telling—whether we vote for John Riemer against the materialists and sceptics who visit him in his roadside ditch and eat with him sitting on his cross, or whether the telling emerges from the historical pattern through which the reader has been escorted, up to the time of reevaluation in Canada's centenary year, 1967, where the book ends.

The Blue Mountains is a book which almost aggressively invites pattern-making. It lays heavy demands on its reader. It insists for instance that the Jakob Friesen of Chapter 2 is properly linked to the Friesens of Chapter 4, that Liesel Driediger of Chapter 5 is recognised as Elizabeth Cereno in Chapter 13, that Frieda Friesen of the four “witness” chapters is seen as the “Muttchi” of Paraguay in Chapter 13, that the man Franz Epp calls “Balzer” in Chapter 4 is the father of the man he is talking to, and so on—the network is far too intricate for a single reading of the book. The impulse to identify patterns in the process of tracing these complex dynastic and thematic linkages is inescapable. And each pattern alters the appearance of the final chapter and makes identification of what Wiebe is “telling” more difficult to pin down. There are the journey patterns, for instance, which develop the central image of the book and imply that the title of the last chapter, “On the Way”, indicates a short halt on the journey, for assessment and evaluation. There are the patterns of dynastic and religious survival. And there are the religious categories of victims, survivors and witnesses. Every pattern leaves some components out, and in doing so diminishes the pattern's value as a means of access to Wiebe's metaphysics.

Readers always prefer big books, however epic or episodic their structure, to end conclusively. It is in the nature of large artefacts to round themselves off neatly, and the bigger the artefact the more emphatic the sense of an ending has to be. By contrast modernist short fiction is the form in which the ending is characteristically curtailed, an opening out instead of a closing down. The reader of Blue Mountains is impelled by the sheer scale of the book to look for a conclusion, whether artistic or metaphysical. If it is seen in the modernist terms of short fiction, as a sequence or “whole book”, with its characteristic structures of association and open-ended implication, that pressure recedes. Since the impulse to look for a conclusion works in both artistic and metaphysical terms, it is worth looking at the book's artistic cohesion to see how that affects the metaphysics.

Wiebe himself has acknowledged that The Blue Mountains began as “individual stories that I didn't at first think had any necessary connection.” Some chapters were in fact first published separately, as short stories.

I simply got ideas for stories which, at the time, I had no sense were going to be of any particular pattern put together. I thought of a cycle, may be a series, of stories about the Mennonites wherever they might be.8

In its origins The Blue Mountains belongs in the main stream of the short story as it has developed so massively in this century in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, southern Africa and all the enclaves which have had no reason to feel themselves essentially metropolitan. The short story cycle evolved by Katherine Mansfield in her “Karori” stories, which were to have grown into a “novel”, the “whole-book” cycles of Naipaul's Miguel Street, Margaret Laurence's A Bird in the House, in Malcolm Lowry's Hear Us O Lord, and Alice Munro's Who Do You Think You Are? all have their affinities with Wiebe's original design for The Blue Mountains of China. That Wiebe developed the associative discontinuities of the “Karori” stories into a “saga”, or “Christian Odyssey” as W. J. Keith calls it, is a measure of his stature as an artist. Certainly he has written since on the epic scale. Both Big Bear and The Scorched-Wood People follow the “great black steel lines” of the uniform plains where scale ranges from the ant and the louse to the ruled horizon.9 The scale of The Blue Mountains demanded epic—“you decide to try to write the entire history of a people, scattered over 80 years of their life and scattered over four different continents.”10 But what had to end with hyperopia began with the myopia of David Epp and his louse in Chapter 9 of The Blue Mountains. The question which dangles is how complete, how perfected, is the shift from the story cycle to the epic with its conclusive ending.

Apart from the intricate dynastic links, which are to some extent fortuitous, the stories are tied into a sequence chiefly by two characters. Frieda Friesen's account “My Life: That's As It Was”, is a concise autobiography occupying four short chapters, 1, 3, 6 and 10. In the final chapter, 13, she is an absent figure, the Paraguay matriarch. By contrast her cousin Jakob Friesen IV is a shadowy figure, the vanished father, in Chapter 2. His fugitive time in Moscow and his capture are described at second hand by a Paraguayan exile in Chapter 4. He appears directly for the first time in Chapter 8, and is not really a major presence until the final chapter. Frieda Friesen's autobiography spans the full timescale of the book, from her birth in 1883 to the Canadian centenary year, 1967, when Jakob Friesen arrives in Canada from Russia, though she does not tell of her life directly after 1959, when she returned to Paraguay from a last visit to Canada. The record of Jakob Friesen's survival begins in 1929, with the return of his son from a six-week interrogation to find his family fled and himself left with a Jacob-and-Esau struggle for possession of the family farm, a struggle which ends in young Jakob's death. The final appearance of Jakob Friesen IV, confronting John Riemer in Chapter 13, brings his guilt over the abandonment of his son, and his solitariness, into direct contrast with the matriarchal community of Frieda and her Canadian children. These two symmetrical figures, the one gradually receding into an absent matriarch, the other growing as a guilty, childless father, are the survivors.

Between them are the victims, the sacrifices. Young Jakob Friesen of Chapter 2 is followed by Liesel Driediger and her ingénue account of crossing the equator on the way to Paraguay in Chapter 5, Anna Friesen and her marriage in Chapter 7, David Epp's self-sacrifice in Chapter 9, and “The Vietnam Call of Samuel U. Reimer”, Chapter 12. Any of these stories could stand alone as short fiction, and several of them have been published separately. They do have linkages with the continuing narratives, of course. Young Jakob Friesen is the son of the Jakob Friesen IV of Chapters 4, 8 and 13. Liesel Driediger returns as Elizabeth Cereno in Chapter 13. Anna Friesen is a Paraguayan daughter of Frieda Friesen. David Epp is linked with the Moscow community of Chapter 4 and the Paraguayan settlers. Samuel U. Riemer is the older brother of John Riemer and the son of the “Balzer” of Chapter 4. But they are all beads on the thread created by the survivors.

The other continuing thread in the book is John Riemer. His role is that of witness, beginning in Chapter 4 as, in Paraguay, he listens to Franz Epp's account of the Moscow escapes in 1929, when Jakob Friesen was captured and sent to a Siberian labour camp soon after the treks to Paraguay and Canada began. In Chapter 11, another which could be taken separately, he is in Paraguay where, with young David Epp, he meets an injured Ayeroa Indian. After his brother's “call” in the next chapter he appears carrying his cross in Alberta, during the conjunctions of the final chapter.

Thus the sequence of the twelve chapters which precede the final chapter runs as follows: 1. Frieda Friesen's account of her life in the 1890s; 2. Jakob Friesen V in the Ukraine in 1929; 3. Frieda Friesen and her marriage in 1903; 4. Franz Epp telling John Riemer about Moscow in 1929; 5. Liesel Driediger sailing to Paraguay in 1927; 6. Frieda Friesen in Paraguay through 1927 and the following years as the Mennonite settlements were established; 7. Anna Friesen in Paraguay in the 1930s; 8. Jakob Friesen IV in Siberia in 1932; 9. David Epp crossing the Chinese border in the 1930s; 10. Frieda Friesen's life up to 1959; 11. John Riemer with young David Epp in Paraguay in the 1960s; 12. Samuel Riemer in Manitoba a year or so later. In the final chapter, entitled “On the Way”, three of these characters, Liesel Driediger, Jakob Friesen IV and John Riemer, come together on an Alberta roadside. Other characters are mentioned—Frieda Friesen, Jakob Friesen V, Franz Epp, David Epp, the husband of Anna Friesen, and Samuel Riemer. A daughter of Frieda Friesen also appears, and other relations and relationships are explicitly identified.

None of the “bead” stories lacks connections with the other chapters. Even Chapter 12, the serio-comic call of Samuel Riemer to go as a peace missionary to Vietnam, is tied in not just by his kinship to John Riemer and the Mennonite communities but with John Riemer's encounters in Paraguay, and especially with the missionary efforts of young David Epp to work for the Paraguayan Indians. The self-sacrifice of the “victim” David Epp on the Chinese border is shown to have influenced his son, who in turn transmits his spiritual feeling through John Riemer to Samuel Riemer, as Samuel innocently reports to his psychiatrist. Anna Friesen's story in Chapter 7, which Wiebe himself has said could easily be singled out to be read on its own,11 is an illumination of life in Paraguay under Frieda Friesen's matriarchy. Anna's husband is mentioned in Chapter 13 but not Anna herself, a reminder perhaps of the safe choice and the suppressed life she was impelled into by the conditions of the Paraguayan settlement.

These are all essentially fortuitous linkages. The kinship relations serve as reminders of the common source for all the experiences, and indicate that the reader is being shown a full range of reactions within the common frame of the Mennonite journeying, from the conservative implicities of Frieda to the materialistic suffering of Jakob Friesen, and from the dumb sacrifice of Anna Friesen to the quixotic sacrifice of David Epp or the articulate but complacent suffering of Elizabeth Cereno Driediger. But they are parallels and contrasts which do not really depend on a Mennonite identity for their strength. Their cohesion ought to be metaphysical. What the pattern-making process omits when it traces the structures of kinship through the book is the transcendental element.

The Blue Mountains is of course infused with biblical images as well as biblical language, and most of the metaphysics can be seen in the biblical substructure. Jacob and Esau in Chapter 2, the lilies of the field in Chapter 8, the Book of Samuel in Chapter 12, the underlying concept of life as a journey and the iconology of the cross in Chapter 13 as a critical intersection in place and time, all make their contributions to the patterns which Wiebe makes in connecting the human experiences of the Mennonites to their biblical archetypes. But the biblical underlay does not provide continuity. Each chapter makes use of biblical language in its own way, and some of the situations have biblical analogues. They are not linked, though, in the kind of continuity which a consistent concern with metaphysics and a proper preparation for a concluding chapter which resolves metaphysical issues would require. The true unity of The Blue Mountains is through the associations and thematic parallels and contrasts characteristic of the modernist short story.

If we look at the sequence of the chapters we can see major disjunctions, leaps back as well as forward in the chronology, and jumps across three continents, besides all the shifts of character. Apart from Frieda Friesen's four short chapters of autobiography no two of the twelve chapters which precede the conclusion centre on the same character. And yet the linkages, the inherent continuities, are much more substantial than mere genealogy and cultural background. The central Paraguay chapters, for instance, make a sequence of exact contrasts. Liesel Driediger's excited adventures on the ship change to Frieda's curtly grim account of the first years breaking and being broken by the land, which transposes into Anna Friesen's cramped life. The next chapters set Jakob Friesen's determination merely to survive in Siberia against David Epp's sacrifice, and move on to Frieda's account of her community's survival in Paraguay alongside the Russlander survivors from David Epp's trek. Chapters 11 and 12 develop parallels, linking the Epp sacrifice first with young David Epp's Indian work and Samuel Riemer's “call”, and finally with John Riemer's cross in Chapter 13. What develops through the book though is not a concentration of attention on any “call” but an acknowledgement of diversification. It is inherently the same record of diversification which is to be found in Peace Shall Destroy Many. The final chapter of The Blue Mountains does not so much draw the separate threads together as lay them alongside each other, as parallels, not a single focal and conclusive point.

The book is structured by this diversification. It begins in the first person with Frieda Friesen. Between her first two narratives about Manitoba a single third-person chapter, in the Ukraine, is interposed. Between her second and third there are two chapters, John Riemer hearing about the background to the Ukraine chapter and Liesel's sea-voyage. Between Frieda's third and fourth, both in Paraguay, there are three chapters, one in Paraguay and two in Siberia. Her narrative is increasingly separated by parallel narratives, first one, then two, then three. By the final chapter she is in the background as a piece of living history, appearing only through her dispersed Canadian descendants. Hers is an expanding shape, like the whole book. She exists in the final chapter as the matriarchal emblem of one kind of survival, the exact opposite of Jakob Friesen. Where he began shadowily as a materialistic patriarch, he is sharply present in the end as an impoverished solitary. She, dutiful and godly at the outset, ends settled, secure and unseen in her community, her children and grandchildren divergent representatives of the new materialism of the Willms business world. She and Friesen exactly counterbalance each other.

Parallels are notoriously patterns of perspective, by definition endless, like the great black steel lines of fiction which Wiebe described in 1972 in “Passage of Land”. So it is, I feel, with the associative parallels in The Blue Mountains of China. Jakob Friesen's belief in Chapter 13 that prayer helps “exactly nothing” is given depth both by the history of his own survival and by the association with his cousin Frieda's survival. John Riemer's cross-bearing act of witness gets its depth from his older brother's call to witness in the previous chapter. The depth, the perspective, becomes obvious chiefly in these associations, which are the characteristic method of the modernist short story from which the book grew. Such a pattern of associations inhibits any positive conclusion either for the narrative subject or for the underlying metaphysical questions about the Mennonite pilgrims' progress which the biblical undercurrents invoke. It is wrong to insist too strongly in our reading of the book on our sense of an ending. The final chapter is properly entitled “On the Way”, not “On ‘The Way’”.


  1. Both terms are used by W. J. Keith, in the introduction to his New Canadian Library edition (No. 108) of The Blue Mountains (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1975).

  2. The term “whole-book” is used by Kent Thompson, reviewing Margaret Laurence's A Bird in the House for The Fiddlehead 84 (1970), pp. 108–11. I am grateful to Leslie Monkman for drawing this term to my attention.

  3. See, for instance, Clare Hanson, “Katherine Mansfield and Symbolism: the ‘artist's method’ in Prelude”, JCL XVI (1981), pp. 25–39.

  4. Magdalene Falk Redekop, “Translated into the past: Language in The Blue Mountains of China”, in A Voice in the Land, Essays By and About Rudy Wiebe, ed. W. J. Keith, Edmonton: NeWest Press, 1981, pp. 97–123. Ina Ferris, “Religious Vision and Fictional Form: Rudy Wiebe's The Blue Mountains of China”, ibid. pp. 88–96. David L. Jeffrey, “A Search for Peace: Prophecy and Parable in the Fiction of Rudy Wiebe”, ibid. pp. 179–201.

  5. Ina Ferris, op. cit. pp. 94–5.

  6. David L. Jeffrey, op. cit. p. 192.

  7. Redekop, op. cit. p. 115.

  8. Interview with Robert Kroetsch and Shirley Neuman (1980), A Voice in the Land, p. 228.

  9. The phrase is from “Passage by Land”, Journal of Canadian Fiction III (1974), p. 48. Patrick Holland developed the point in a paper, “‘Great Black Steel Lines of Fiction’: Culture, History and Myth in the Novels of Rudy Wiebe”, delivered at the fifth triennial ACLALS conference in Suva in January 1980. Wiebe made a further point about size and perspective for a resident of the plains in a seminar at the University of Reading in February 1980.

  10. Interview with Margaret Reimer and Sue Steiner (1973), A Voice in the Land, p. 128.

  11. Interview with Robert Kroetsch and Shirley Neuman, op. cit.

Principal Works

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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

Coral Ann Howells (essay date 1982)

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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 than the standard ones we have been given …

KROETSCH: One of the great things about Big Bear is the way you undo all the documents of the culture.

WIEBE: Yeah, but that doesn't mean that I don't discover a larger meaning which has perhaps escaped the untutored eye of a lot of people.1

In this conversation Wiebe signals his approach to historical fiction by suggesting that there are ‘different stories’ and ‘a larger meaning’ to be discovered behind the facts and fixed dates of recorded history. How Wiebe uses the narrative of The Temptations of Big Bear to reveal these other stories and this larger meaning which has escaped the untutored eye is the subject of my essay. In Big Bear Wiebe is writing about Canadian prairie history at the time of the land treaties a century ago, focusing on the career of Big Bear, chief of the Plains Cree, during the twelve years from his refusal to sign Land Treaty Number 6 up to his death in 1888. The novel documents the breakdown of Indian culture under the pressures of white imperialism backed by a military and industrial power; it uses the facts of history, while at the same time insistently points beyond these apparently determining facts towards a more comprehensive view, which is that of a metaphysical order centred on God. Arguably the epigraph from Acts at the beginning offers us the key to the whole system of signification in the novel.

History may be a nightmare from which Wiebe is trying to awake, but he is not naive enough to try to rewrite history in his fiction. He accepts the conditions of determinism for history is already written and irreversible. What he argues is that it is far from all-inclusive, being full of gaps and silences and moments out of sequence which open up world views not contained in official histories. Wiebe insists on asserting some of the other possibilities buried within prairie history, and this role of his is astutely observed by Robert Kroetsch in the interview referred to at the beginning, “I think you're not really an historian, you're more of an archaeologist—in fact the dedication to Big Bear is something about unearthing, isn't it?”2 Wiebe sets out not to deny history but to go “Beyond Determinism” by giving back to history some of its many other voices and so subvert the fictions of Canada's official past.3 There are other pasts too, Indian and Biblical for instance, and Wiebe argues through analogies between them that the history of man is determined, yes, but by a metaphysical power, the power of God. Such a reading which sees history from the different angle of Christian idealism offers a more expansive view, allowing for faith and vision and hope through history itself. It is towards this transcendent vision that Wiebe moves via his narrative strategies involving the manipulation of time, the visions of Big Bear, and the use of multiple voices in the narrative.

W. J. Keith and Wiebe himself have given us the details of his exhaustive historical research for Big Bear.4 Two things that emerge most plainly from these accounts are Wiebe's anger that so much of authentic prairie history should have been lost, and his desire to retell Big Bear's story so that the true significance of his resistance to the imposition of white rule might be understood a hundred years later. The characters in Big Bear are historical personages and the events had a real existence in time and place, as the Section headings in Big Bear indicate. In writing this novel Wiebe became he said, “almost psychotic about dates; I had to know whether something happened on Monday or Tuesday!”5 The creative effort begins at exactly the point where the facts end, and Wiebe seems as fascinated with the problems and the necessity of his story-telling as he is with his subject matter:

Fiction is always truer than fact in this sense: it is never possible to know all the facts about anything, even the very smallest act. The things done vanish with their doing; they can live only in a living memory, and the true story-teller has the unstoppable longing to capture these acts forever beyond memory. I cannot let this act die … There are any number of origins for that passionate emotion that seizes a story-teller and will not let him rest until he has made something out of facts.6

The most striking feature of Wiebe's making something out of the facts in Big Bear is his treatment of narrative time, for the novel operates on an elaborate counterpoint between the chronological order of history and transgressions of this order by every story-teller within the narrative.7 Though the time markers following the sequential pattern of history are explicit at the beginning of every section, the narrative is discontinuous with its multiple voices, its internal timeshifts, its changes in rhythm; the relationship between these two temporal orders of history and experimental time is basic to the text. A temporal analysis of Big Bear would look something like this:8

I. Fort Pitt, September 13, 1876. The Indians' signing of Treaty Number 6 and Big Bear's refusal to sign is the main focus of this section; but this event (or non-event) is counter-pointed by various ‘anachronies’ (time shifts): Rev. John McDougall's retrospective narrative of events in 1874 and ’75, also by Big Bear's prophetic vision of doom and the omniscient narrator's hints of future events.

II. Between the Forks and the Missouri, 1878–1882. Section begins back in 1877 with more treaty negotiations, deals with the winter of 1878–9, the buffalo hunt, Big Bear's prophetic vision of blood, the coming of the CPR railway, and ends with Big Bear's signing of the Land Treaty, 8 December, 1882.

III. The Battle and the North Saskatchewan, June, August, 1884. Section begins with the omniscient narrator's retrospective view of the ten-year history of the North West Mounted Police, plus premonitions of future events; Big Bear's Thirst Dance, his dark vision, his attempts to form an Indian Confederation in the summer 1884 as the only way towards future resistance of white domination; section ends with another of Big Bear's prophetic visions and his final urging towards confederation.

IV. Frog Lake, April 1 and 2, 1885. Section opens back in 1884; Frog Lake crisis April 1 signalled by the narrator, but the date dissolves in the next Indian chapter; then the Indian attack and massacre of the white and Big Bear powerless to stop it, Maundy Thursday April 2; section ends night of April 2 as Big Bear begins to see his prophetic visions confirmed by the present disaster.

V. From Fort Pitt to Fort Carlton, May and June, 1885. Section opens back in April, with the journal of Inspector Dickens (N.W.M.P.) and Kitty McLean's diary which records events of the whites' captivity by the Indians from April onwards; battle at Frenchman's Butte in May and the attack on the Indian camp at Loon Lake on June 3 recorded by the omniscient narrator and Kitty McLean; an account by a Canadian Volunteer records details up to the soldiers' retreat to Fort Pitt June 11; June 20 is the date when the Indians' white prisoners walk in to Fort Pitt; last date is July 1 when Big Bear accompanied by his youngest son Horsechild goes to give himself up at Fort Carlton.

VI. The Trail to the Sand Hills, September 1885; January 17, 1888. Section opens September 3 with charges against Big Bear referring back to April; September 11 and 12, Big Bear's trial and conviction for treason-felony; newspaper reports on Big Bear in Stony Mountain prison 1885 and 1886; Big Bear's release from prison and his death January 17, 1888, when time is exploded in Big Bear's cosmic vision.

Examining this analysis of the internal evolution of the narrative, we see historical chronology exposed as a bizarre fiction; we are plunged instead into the ‘now’ of every one of the characters who are experiencing events. By drawing attention to the different narrators, Wiebe deliberately separates the events as lived facts from history as recorded facts, and by his frequent use of flashbacks and flashes forward he dissolves any sense of time progression in a kaleidoscopic presentation of a variety of intensely realised subjective experience. There is no continuity of rhythm in the novel, for its patterns are frequently interrupted and dislocated. Arguably dislocation and discontinuity are what the novel is about, and we might see Wiebe adopting here a strategy as in The Blue Mountains of China, making the reader undergo a similar experience of chaos to that experienced by the characters in the fiction.9 (There is also a wider perspective on events and time in Big Bear than anything in The Blue Mountains but I shall discuss that later.) Certainly the novel registers the interference with the prairie Indians' life by Ottawa's policy of expansion westwards via the Indian Land Treaties and the CPR railway. Indeed, in the clash between white and Indian cultures one of the fundamental differences is their perception of time: where the white men consult watches and diaries, the Indians consult the sun and the seasons and so have a concept of duration rather than of the significance of any specific moment. Kipling's ‘unforgiving minute’ is totally alien to their organic sense of time, and throughout the novel we see the dimensions of irritation and incomprehension that arise from these differences. In Chapter 1 the Hon. Alexander Morris is irritated when the Indians keep him waiting at the treaty signing:

“The Bear isn't rushed.”

“It's only the third month on this one, who's rushing?” Morris heard the tiredness in his own voice.10

As a counterpoint to this we see Big Bear's failure to understand the restlessness of the whites:

They kept on wanting some thing here or there and then another and wanting to change still another forever that kept them running forever and frantic. They never had rest.

(p. 101)

The novel registers dramatically that concepts of time, like concepts of history and of language, are not universal but culturally conditioned.

The Indian world is governed in its rhythms by the prairie itself and by the seasons, and the constancy of these rhythms testify to the bond between the Indians and the land, which integrates their physical and spiritual worlds. Big Bear as “heart and soul of the Cree”, their spiritual leader and tribal chief, is the one character in the novel who retains a sense of continuous relationship between man, the land and the Only One, the All Powerful Spirit. When Indian customs and rhythms of life are interrupted, Big Bear's urge is to preserve the sense of ritualistic continuity in the face of pressures towards its dislocation. It is his refusal to compromise his beliefs about land inheritance and his own spiritual authority signified in his Power Bundle given him by the Great Parent of Bear, the most powerful spirit known to his people under the Creator himself, that Big Bear's authenticity lies. He insists on the Indians' inheritance of the land, from the time of his refusal to sign the treaty—“Who can receive the land? From whom would he receive it?” (p. 29)—till his trial at the end:

This land belonged to me … I was free, and the smallest Person in my band was as free as I because the Master of Life had given us our place on the earth and that was enough for us. But you have taken our inheritance and our strength.

(p. 398)

Big Bear's power derives from his relationship with the land which he sees as the Indians' spiritual inheritance and their living space: his language filled with images of the earth is the verbalisation of this relationship. Big Bear speaks at the time of the treaty not only about the land, but for the land itself; when he urges his people to form a Confederation to negotiate with the whites over the treaty conditions, the acuteness of his perception combines with the strenuousness of the hunt:

Who stirs in his sleep when a single buffalo runs? But when a herd moves, ahhh—we too must shake the ground, we must speak with one thundering voice, we must have one huge reserve for us all, for our hunting, for our life where we will live as the treaty says we can: as we always have but also with grain and food growing as the Government will help us. Then when we move every Whiteskin will lay his ear to the ground so he won't get trampled.

(p. 203)

Even at the time of his trial, when his political influence over his people has passed, his spiritual authority and the sources of his power are still there in his voice, “When it came at last, the sound of his voice seemed to growl up from the earth itself” (p. 400). The image of Big Bear at the time of his death is that of “everlasting, unchanging, rock”.

It is not that Big Bear is a reactionary because he cannot imagine changes in the Indian way of life with the coming of the whites; indeed, he foresees those changes more completely than any other character, white or Indian. As the spiritual son of the Great Bear he has strong visionary powers inherited with his Power Bundle, and he is able to foresee the consequences of breaking the Covenant with the Great Spirit by giving the land away:

But when he contemplated what he found here, though the land appeared the same, something was wrong with it. As if just under the edge of his vision a giant blade was slicing through the earth, cutting off everything with roots, warping everything into something Whiteskin clean and straight though when he tried to stare down, get under it to see, it looked as it always had, seemingly. When chiefs had given the land away, why should the round sun shine or the chinook blow?

(p. 91)

As Wiebe remarked to Eli Mandel, there's a great deal in common between Biblical prophets and Big Bear: they are both crying out against breaking of covenants and betraying inheritances.11 Big Bear's visions of the doom of his people flash across the narrative as a kind of hidden subtext decipherable only to him and to the reader, subverting any sense of present security and indeed any sense of a future which connects with the Indians' past. Big Bear retells his visions to his people but, like parables, they cannot necessarily be read by those they are designed to warn or help.

His first terrible vision of the Little Man in the hard black hat who pays Big Bear back for beating him in a wrestling match by taking him into a dark cave which “stank like the White Sickness” and there shows him six of the River People hanged (pp. 63–6) is the one that insistently returns in the narrative. On every recurrence it gathers force and significance and serves as a sign to Big Bear of the quickening approach of destruction. After his Thirst Dance when he danced “for a council” among the Indians, it is there even as Thunderbird grants the rain:

He drank; Running Second stood there with a leaf funnelling water into him and smiled, her round face streaming shiny, and she merged and doubled, double into not eight but six shapes as indistinguishable blackness hung there distorted in a glazed bulging eye under a black hat rim, blackness strung aloft like heads and bodies.

(p. 165)

This vision lies behind his passionate urging:

“We must get to the highest chief and talk,” said Big Bear fiercely, his mind running red in his visions, the hat by the Tramping Lakes blacker and bigger over him than ever, “We danced for a council.”

(p. 187)

At the end of his life, Big Bear realises that the vision of Section 1 and the reality have become one, with the hanging of the six ring leaders of the Frog Lake massacre by Hodson:

Coming towards him he saw at last what he had dreaded so long. The hard boots of Little Man, his white child's clothes and stiff black hat, it was clearly Hodson with glass over his snout making two oval reflections where his bulging eyes should have been. And behind him came the procession; six shapes coming relentlessly and he saw them as he had seen long ago, and knew them in their steady pace, their hands tied behind their backs.

(p. 410)

A similar convergence between vision and reality occurs in Big Bear's other vision of the fountain of blood which he first sees in the midst of his triumph after the buffalo hunt. He hears a coyote laughing, and as he listens he sees what Coyote is laughing at:

The sky above him was flaming red, red slimed him completely, whenever he looked he saw all merging to red in the spray of the fountain he slipped and floundered desperately, down on his knees, to squash down into the earth again, the mountains, the hills, the ridge where the women and children were coming with the travois and pack animals to cut up the meat and pack it to camp.

(p. 130)

Though Big Bear tries hard to forget “what Coyote had laughed him into seeing, just as he had never wanted to remember what the Little Man had laughed him into seeing long ago” (p. 131), he cannot lose this sense of doom even in the laughter and life of the Indian feast and he knows intuitively, with “vision and certainty”12 that “this had been the last buffalo run he would ever make” (p. 132). His prophetic vision gives him the strength to avert a disastrous confrontation between Indians and whites in 1884, but it is not enough to prevent the Frog Lake massacre in 1885, as he knows even before it occurs:

“I'll tell you this now. When I ran my last buffalo cow there,” Big Bear said, “I saw something. I saw a spring shoot out of the ground as if it was water and I covered it with my hand to stop it, but it spurted up between my fingers and ran over the back of my hands, I could not stop it. That was red blood, Sioux Speaker.”

(p. 226)

After the massacre Big Bear sees the confirmation of the vision, and for him it is only a matter of time until the hanging vision comes true too:

“I saw this long ago, but not those six black ones, not yet.”


“It is not my doing, this thing of my young men.”

“Ah, I know. But it will all be yours. You will carry it all on your own back.”

“My friend, I am very sorry for what has been done … I have prayed about this for years, and cried for it today.”

(p. 267)

The only other character who shares Big Bear's powers of second sight in his youngest son Horsechild, his true spiritual heir as the ending indicates, and when Horsechild has his first power vision, all he sees is loss and disorientation. Already his people have been dispossessed and driven from the plains into the swamps. Ironically, his talisman is no gift from the Great Spirit but the blue glass eye belonging to Stanley Simpson, the white man whose lies will later condemn Big Bear at his trial:

“I've held it every night,” said Horsechild.

“In my last sleep somebody came to me in a dream and invited me to come along. I was walking along behind him and the willows got too thick, and muskeg, and when I got out into a clearing, on the north side of it, he was far ahead on the south but I couldn't get there before he was gone.” He kicked at the sand. “I couldn't trail him, he didn't have tracks.”

(pp. 329–30)

While his father recognises this as a power dream, he also sees the threats to its fulfilment as the Indians' way of life is destroyed:

“He'll come again,” Big Bear said, “But perhaps you can follow him far enough only on the plains.”

(p. 330)

I have dwelt on Big Bear's visions because they are the authentic signs of his spiritual integrity; they give his voice its authority because they bear witness to his direct relationship with the metaphysical forces that govern human existence. As we listen to Big Bear, another perspective on narrative time opens up. We have already noted the counter-pointing of history and the subjective experience of the characters involved in the action. Now there is a further counterpoint to be observed: whereas for most of the Indians and the whites the situation looks to be developmental, with the story progressing by causes and effects, there is also Big Bear's other point of view, that all these events are merely fulfilling an end already preordained.13 For Big Bear, as for nobody else embroiled in these events, the end is already foreknown, and his status as a tragic hero rests firmly in this certain knowledge of his people's destiny. He knows that any actions, whether of violent resistance to the whites or of compromise in accepting the treaty conditions, are temptations away from the visionary truth vouchsafed him by the One Great Spirit. For him the present and the future being already foreseen are in the past, and his heroism (so fatally misunderstood by his own people as much as by the whites) lies in passively watching the inevitable convergence of forces and events and in the face of this, reminding his people of their inheritance and retaining his own faith in his God. The conflicts between Big Bear's visionary point of view and the humanly limited point of view shared by everyone else are worked out through the narrative in complex patterns of suspense and blindness. It is not only the whites who need telescopes and spectacles to help them see or like Simpson are dangerously one-eyed; the Indians themselves cannot conceive of radical changes in their ways of living off the land.

In one sense Big Bear is as fatally limited as everyone else, for he too cannot get beyond his own cultural conditioning. He cannot see things from the white men's point of view, just as he cannot understand their language and cannot see how they can find him guilty of “stealing Queen Victoria's hat” (as “her crown and dignity” is translated into Cree at the trial) “since he had never so much as seen the Grandmother. How could I do that?” (p. 387) The very language of the novel demonstrates the dimensions of Big Bear's limitations, as Wiebe pointed out at a conference in Edmonton in 1979:

(In the Temptations of Big Bear) “it's very important that the language should warn you at all times that you're sort of off-base with it, because you're dealing with a Cree world-view, and that world-view could not comprehend a lot of what was happening to it. How do you do that except by the way you handle the language?”14

However, Big Bear does have the visionary power to see through his particular historical situation with all its determining conditions to an impersonal incandescent vision that transcends human limitations. This is the force of his cosmic vision just before his death. On his release from Stony Mountain jail and his return to his own land to die, we experience through his indirect interior monologue his sense of disorientation and despair; all he sees is the desecration of the land when he “suddenly recognised nothing where he knew he had ridden since he was tied in the cradle-board on his mother's back” (p. 409), and all he hears is Horsechild's catalogue of the deaths and the demoralisation of his people. But if it is Horsechild who tells him this terrible story, it is also Horsechild who restores to him his Power Bundle intact, and with the “warm weight against his soul” of “Chief's Son's Hand hanging from around his neck, on his chest, each great ivory claw curved, there” (p. 415) Big Bear is delivered from despair and released from the cramped conditions of his actual life into his transcendent vision where he gives thanks to the Great Spirit and glorifies Him, against all reason and against the whole history of his people's dispossession:

Such happiness broke up in him that he had to turn the complete circle to see anything once more in the beautiful world that had once been given him.

(p. 415)

When he lies down to die, the last thing he sees is the dawn, “the red shoulder of Sun at the rim of Earth” and the last image of Big Bear is not one of dissolution but of “everlasting, unchanging, rock.”15 His is the prophetic vision which sees beyond the limits of the present and the logic of circumstances to a cosmic harmony resting in the Only Great spirit. It is what Wiebe calls “The apprehension of a perfection. I think man is an animal capable of the apprehension of perfection”.16

As the narrative voice affirms Big Bear's faith at the end, we recognise that Big Bear's apprehension of perfection forms an intimate connection with the epigraph from Acts 17 at the beginning of the novel. And it is the voice of the white story-teller a hundred years on relating these two transcendent visions of history (one Indian, one Biblical) to the continuing story of humanity under God that gives Big Bear his true significance and gives the novel that “larger meaning” which Wiebe signalled in his conversation with Kroetsch. Yes, this is “history from a slightly different angle”: starting from the focal points in official prairie history, Wiebe has imaginatively unearthed the Indian angle, and certainly the flow of sympathy in the novel is toward the Indians and especially toward Big Bear. So much so that, as Keith recalls, Maria Campbell (author of Halfbreed) “claimed that the spirit of Big Bear took over from Wiebe and wrote his speeches for him”.17 We must add the footnote to this: when Eli Mandel asked Wiebe, “Well, do you believe that?” Wiebe answered, “Well, no, not really; no.”18 Though Wiebe seems to have an uncanny insight into the Indians' consciousness, as we see when the narrative voice tells most of the Indian sections and slips easily in and out of Big Bear's head, it would be absurd to claim that Wiebe had “gone Indian”. As the storyteller looking back from the vantage point of a hundred years' distance, Wiebe can perceive not only Big Bear's heroic significance but also his limitations which are as inevitable and insurmountable as those of the white participants in the action. Big Bear too is trapped in and by history.

So, “history from a slightly different angle” is not exclusively Big Bear's angle. The complex movement of the narrative has been towards a more comprehensive view of history that will include Big Bear's view and the white unofficial and official views and go beyond them. The “larger meaning” that the total novel brings to our awareness is a metaphysical view of history, where history is contained in the religious vision stated in Acts 17:

God who made the world and all that is in it, from one blood created every race of men to live over the face of the whole earth. He has fixed the times of their existence and the limits of their territory, so that they should search for God and, it might be, feel after him, and find him. And indeed, he is not far from any of us, for in him we live, and move, and have our being.

This is a vision of the overarching presence of God's order 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.


  1. Shirley Neuman, “Unearthing Language: An Interview with Rudy Wiebe and Robert Kroetsch,” in A Voice in the Land, ed. W. J. Keith, Edmonton: NeWest Press, 1981, p. 230, p. 233.

  2. ibid., p. 230.

  3. The title of an essay by Gillian Beer, “Beyond Determinism: George Eliot and Virginia Woolf,” in Women Writing and Writing about Women, ed. M. Jacobus, London: Croom Helm, 1979. Some of Beer's perceptions about these two women writers, also writing for oppressed groups, seem peculiarly apposite in a discussion on Wiebe.

  4. W. J. Keith, Epic Fiction: The Art of Rudy Wiebe, Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1981, pp. 61–64; Rudy Wiebe, “On the Trail of Big Bear” and “Bear Spirit in a Strange Land,” A Voice in the Land, pp. 132–149.

  5. A Voice in the Land, p. 138.

  6. ibid., p. 217.

  7. The distinction I am making between these two aspects of narrative time is that between ‘story’ and ‘discourse’ as set out by G. Genette in Narrative Discourse, Oxford, Blackwell, 1980, and J. Culler, The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction, Cornell University Press, 1981.

  8. My model for this temporal analysis is the Indicative Chronology of Proust's A la Recherche in Genette, Narrative Discourse, p. 91. I have expanded and modified my model, though my discussion owes much to Genette's insights.

  9. See Ina Ferris, “Religious Vision and Fictional Form: Rudy Wiebe's The Blue Mountains of China,A Voice in the Land, pp. 97–123.

  10. Rudy Wiebe, The Temptations of Big Bear, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1973, New Canadian Library edition, 1976, p. 16. All references to the text will be taken from the NCL edition.

  11. Eli Mandel and Rudy Wiebe, “Where the Voice Comes From,” A Voice in the Land, p. 152.

  12. Wiebe, The Scorched-Wood People, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1977, New Canadian Library edition, 1981, p. 188.

  13. Cynthia Chase, “The Decomposition of the Elephants: Double-Reading Daniel Deronda,PMLA, 93 (March 1978), 215–227, offers a deconstructive reading of that novel which plays with cause and effect and vision, though I find it provocative rather than convincing.

  14. Stephen Scobie, “For Goodness' Sake” Books in Canada (Feb. 1980), pp. 3–4.

  15. See W. J. Keith's discussion of the rock image in his excellent reading of Big Bear as tragic hero, Epic Fiction, Ch. 5, pp. 62–81.

  16. A Voice in the Land, p. 234.

  17. Epic Fiction, p. 73.

  18. A Voice in the Land, p. 151.

John Thieme (essay date 1982)

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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. …

What is true of the constitution of historical facts is no less so of their selection. From this point of view, the historian and the agent of history choose, sever and carve them up, for a truly total history would confront them with chaos.


Lévi-Strauss's remarks on the nature of historical discourse have particularly interesting implications with regard to the work of writers from post-colonial societies who, explicitly or implicitly, take issue with received versions of ‘history’ through the medium of creative literature. Their efforts frequently involve reconstituting the past according to the ‘psychic movements’ of the present and thus in the Third World Caliban not Prospero becomes the protagonist of history. However, beyond this attempt to correct the distortions of imperialist historiography, one sometimes detects a more radical critique which argues that ‘history’ itself is a discipline which inevitably imposes a Western filter on the interpretation of events. Certainly Western historiography, with its stress on causological explanations of past human behaviour, is by its very nature antipathetic to the cyclic, myth-oriented world-views of traditional Indian and African societies.

In post-colonial New World literature one finds writers torn between those who want to invert the perspectives of Eurocentric histories and those, like Derek Walcott, who argue that history itself is the real ‘Medusa of the New World’2 and as such needs to be eradicated. As Walcott sees it, the Americans owe a particular debt to their ‘patrician’ writers who transcend the confrontation with history:

They know that by openly fighting tradition we perpetuate it, that revolutionary literature is a filial impulse, and that maturity is the assimilation of the features of every ancestor. …

These writers reject the idea of history as time for its original concept as myth, the partial recall of the race. For them history is fiction, subject to a fitful muse, memory. … Their vision of man is elemental, a being inhabited by presences, not a creature chained to his past. Yet the method by which we are taught the past, the progress from motive to event, is the same by which we read narrative fiction. In time every event becomes an exertion of memory and is thus subject to invention. The further the facts, the more history petrifies into myth. … The truly tough aesthetic of the New World neither explains nor forgives history. It refuses to recognize it as a creative or culpable force.3

So ‘history as time’ is to be rejected as a European fiction which tends to perpetuate the divisions of colonialism, albeit in new guises. Moreover Walcott's analogy between the way we are taught to interpret ‘historical’ processes (‘the progress from motive to event’) and the way we read fiction makes it clear that he sees an essential similarity between the two kinds of discourse. To put this another way, one may say that ‘history as time’ is a cause-effect narrative whose agent selects and orders material in much the same way as the author of a conventional nineteenth-century novel. Both produce seemingly inevitable chains of linear events which result in inescapable conclusions. It is in this sense that history and fiction can be seen as synonymous and both need to be constituted in a different way by the Third World or New World writer who finds himself working within the confines of conventions and traditions which are not organic to his society.

In Walcott's poetic autobiography Another Life history assumes a central importance as numerous passages argue that a historical tradition which celebrates the heroes of Empire should be replaced by an acceptance of the tropical landscape and an intuitive recognition of all the various ancestral strains which have gone into the making of the West Indian character:

This forest keeps no wounds, this nature heals
the newest scar, each cloud wraps like a bandage
whatever we enact. What? Chivalry. The fiction
of rusted soldiers fallen on a schoolboy's page.(4)
… that child who puts the shell's howl to his ear,
hears nothing, hears everything
that the historian cannot hear, the howls
of all the races that crossed the water,
the howls of grandfathers drowned
in that intricately swivelled Babel,
hears the fellaheen, the Madrasi, the Mandingo, the Ashanti,
yes, and hears also the echoing green fissures of Canton
by the mud tablets of the Indian Provinces.(5)

Yet, despite this turning away from history in favour of landscape and the non-European aspects of the ancestral past, there are moments when Walcott himself rewrites history in a manner which looks suspiciously like trying to show that West Indians can measure up to the European yardstick. One such is his account, again in Another Life, of the suicide of the ‘Sauteurs’,6 a group of forty Carib Indians on the island of Grenada who, after a heroic last stand against the French in which many of their people were killed, chose death rather than subjugation by jumping over a cliff onto the rocks below. As Edward Baugh has pointed out,7 Walcott's choice of a European heroic metre to describe this episode and his use of a classical analogy (with the Spartan defence of Thermopylae against the invading Persians) has the effect of investing the Sauters with the mantle of European heroes. So, in passages like this, Walcott seems to feel the need to oppose Eurocentric accounts of history by ‘local’ alternatives rather than an aesthetic which attempts to eradicate history itself. Walcott's ambivalence may be viewed as an aspect of the creatively used schizophrenia which pervades Another Life at every level and which the poet sees as a product of the conflict between the local society and the artistic life, but in a broader sense it may be seen as typifying the cleft stick situation in which the writer who reacts against the distortions of European historiography finds himself. Should he meet Europeans on their own terms and attempt to replace their narratives of European achievement with similar celebrations of his own society or should he refuse to play the game by European rules and insist on a ‘history’ which gives as much weight to the oral tradition as the written record, which puts as much emphasis on myth as causal explanations of human behaviour and which values landscape and ancestral memories as highly as the history book?8

Rudy Wiebe's ‘Where is the Voice Coming From?’ is an especially interesting attempt to come to terms with the relationship between historical narrative and fiction, which ultimately asks this same question. Wiebe begins his story by foregrounding the difficulties of writing fiction: ‘The problem is to make the story.’9 His subject, it will transpire, is the death of a Cree Indian fugitive, after a heroic last stand, in Saskatchewan in the 1890s. So the story is very much a ‘history’ and to all intents and purposes the roles of fiction-writer and historian would seem to coalesce from the outset.

Wiebe cites two statements which relate to the problem of ‘making the story’. Teilhard de Chardin's ‘“We are continually inclined to isolate ourselves from the things and events which surround us … as though we were spectators, not elements, in what goes on”’ (p. 135) is allowed to pass without comment. Arnold Toynbee's ‘“For all that we know, Reality is the undifferentiated unity of the mystical experience”’ is, however, dismissed, on the grounds that the story has a basis in ‘finite acts, of orders, of elemental feelings and reactions, of obvious legal restrictions and requirements’ (p. 135). So the author identifies himself as a surrogate historian who believes in the social specificity of actions and eschews the vague universalism of the Toynbee quotation.

What follows shows him cultivating a scientific detachment, as he examines the various pieces of evidence which are the raw material of the story. These are presented in a piecemeal, unsequential way so that there is never any danger of the reader's suspending his disbelief and becoming immersed in the narrative. Indeed the various fragments of evidence are like jigsaw-pieces which assembled in a certain way could form a satisfactory complete picture, but which in Wiebe's hands stubbornly refuse to constitute themselves into a neat and orderly configuration.

So the story becomes a metafictive examination of the problems of constructing an accurate historical account. Wiebe implies that he is working from a factual bedrock of history, but suggests that the evidence is fragmentary and subject to fictional accretions:

Presumably all the parts of the story are themselves available. A difficulty is that they are, as always, available only in bits and pieces. Though the acts themselves seem quite clear, some written reports of the acts contradict each other. As if these acts were, at one time, too well known; as if the original nodule of each particular fact had from somewhere received non-factual accretions.

(p. 135)

Although this is not quite the same as Lévi-Strauss's ‘but where did anything take place?’, one has a similar sense of its being impossible to disentangle a definitive version of ‘historical fact’. And when Wiebe goes on to add that oral transmission further compounds the problem—‘About facts that are still simply told by this mouth to that ear, of course, even less can be expected’ (p. 135)—one begins to suspect that Scheherazade must take over as historian, that fabulation must supplant constellations of quasi-historical information as a means of narrating the past.

After this Wiebe gradually reveals the pieces of data which are the raw material of the story and which could, put together in a certain way, enable the reader to reconstruct a linear account of ‘what really took place’. It becomes clear that Almighty Voice, a young Cree who had been arrested for killing a steer, escaped from the police guardroom at Duck Lake, Saskatchewan Territory on 29 October 1895 and shot Sergeant Colin Campbell Colebrook of the North West Mounted Police while making his escape. He was a fugitive for a ‘year, two hundred and twenty-one days’ (p. 139)10 during which time, on 20 April 1896, a reward of 500 dollars was offered for his capture. Eventually Almighty Voice was cornered in a pit at Kinistino in the Minnechinass Hills along with two teenage relatives, his brother-in-law Dublin and his cousin Going-Up-To-Sky and, after he had shot two more policemen and the local postmaster from Duck Lake with his rifle, he and his two companions were eventually shot themselves on 29 May 1897.

This, then, is the embryonic conventional historical narrative contained within ‘Where is the Voice Coming From?’, but the disjointed mode of presentation and the unreliability of much of the evidence seriously question the value of such historiography.

The various pieces of historical data which the author examines all prove to be in some way deficient, incomplete or imprecise, so that it is clear that ‘making the story’ is likely to be dependent on subjective interpretation. Hearing the names of the protagonists, which include Indians named Paleface and Dublin ‘of all things’ (p. 136), is not, the author tells us, enough, nor is the sound of the Proclamation offering the reward for the fugitive's recapture. So the author turns to visual evidence: a small piece of white bone taken from Almighty Voice's skull and a seven-pounder cannon in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Museum in Regina; Almighty Voice's.44 Winchester in another museum; the police guardroom at Duck Lake; the gravestones of the three policemen shot by Almighty Voice; and various photographs of Almighty Voice's family, including one of himself. Each of these poses problems. Thus the piece of skull is to be seen only through a glass showcase at least thirteen inches deep which renders accurate description difficult and the police guardroom has been transported to a new site and lost its former identity.

Such problems prove, however, to be minor in comparison with the difficulty which the author experiences in relating the supposed photograph of Almighty Voice to the two extant official descriptions of him. This faces him with ‘an ultimate problem in making the story’ (p. 140). The descriptions should be accurate, since their purpose is to make identification of the fugitive possible, but it is difficult to reconcile them with the photograph. Although most of the features of the man in the photograph could be seen to tally with the official descriptions, there are significant discrepancies: nothing can be seen of the prominent scar which both the descriptions say he has on his left cheek; and he does not have the wavy, shoulder-length hair, nor the small hands which one of the descriptions ascribes to him. The author concludes:

Perhaps, somehow, these picture details could be reconciled with the official description if the face as a whole were not so devastating.

… this description concludes: “feminine appearance”. But the pictures: any face of history, any believed face that the world acknowledges as man—Socrates, Jesus, Attila, Genghis Khan, Mahatma Gandhi, Joseph Stalin—no believed face is more man than this face. The mouth, the nose, the clenched brows, the eyes—the eyes are large, yes, and dark, but even in this watered-down reproduction of unending reproductions of that original, a steady look into those eyes cannot be endured. It is a face like an axe.

(p. 141)

It becomes clear that the stance of studied objectivity assumed by the writer is breaking down and he now once again alludes to the de Chardin statement. However, whereas before he has simply quoted it without comment, now he says it ‘has relevance only as it proves itself inadequate to explain what has happened’ (p. 141). The role of disinterested spectator has been deserted and he admits he has ‘become element in what is happening at this very moment’ (p. 142), which would appear to be the writing of the story itself.

At this point a third authority is cited on the relationship between history and creative literature:

… At the same time, the inadequacy of Aristotle's much more famous statement becomes evident: “The true difference [between the historian and the poet] is that one relates what has happened, the other what may happen.”

(p. 141)

The inadequacy is reflected in the story by the way in which the attempt at impersonal statement has broken down, as the author realises that his historical account is a personal construction. Both historian and creative writer, it is implied, are involved in constituting historical facts in the subjective Lévi-Strauss sense. Elsewhere Wiebe has put the matter slightly differently, appearing to differentiate in favour of the creative writer:

The advantage a fiction writer has is that right from the beginning he doesn't pretend that his is the only way of looking at it, he doesn't have to pretend that he has the authentic account of what happened. He goes in and shows you. This is the way I see it, as it could have happened. Then he has this fantastic freedom, you see, of shaping that thing according to some world view that he has, some kind of concept of what people are really like.11

So, while this is very much in keeping with the Lévi-Strauss view that there can be no definitive history, it identifies such a stance as that of the fiction-writer. ‘Where is the Voice Coming From?’ approaches the matter from a slightly different angle by initially purporting to be detached historical narrative, only to see this pose flounder and be supplanted by an openly acknowledged subjectivism.

At this point the story is more than three-quarters complete and Wiebe's main point may seem to have been established. He has analysed the data which go into the making of the story and found them inadequate on their own. But he is concerned with far more than fashionable sub-Derridean deconstruction and in the remainder of the story he ‘goes in and shows’ what a fiction-writer can do to bring such a subject alive. He tells his own version of the story, having made it clear that, like all such narratives, it is but a personal invention:

For it is, of course, I myself who cannot endure the shadows on that paper which are those eyes. It is I who stand beside this broken veranda post. …

(p. 142)

He is the lens through which the story is being filtered to us and he now proceeds to bring the historical incident alive by providing two snatches of dialogue which, he says, can still be heard in the locations where the action took place, even though they have not been recorded for posterity.

First he ascribes to the constable, into whose charge Almighty Voice was apparently committed in the police guardroom, the words:

hey injun you'll get
for stealing that steer
hey injun for killing that government
cow you'll get three
weeks on the woodpile hey injun

(p. 142)

At this point an earlier puzzling element of the story clicks into place. After his initial description of the police guardroom, the author has inserted this speech (p. 138) without offering any explanation of its significance. Now, in retrospect, what the reader may have previously suspected to be the case is quite clear: the scientific objectivity of the narrative stance has been a vain endeavour to suppress the fiction-writer's urge to create an equally valid and personally more satisfying ‘history’ and this earlier interpolation has shown how tenuous his hold on the stance of objectivity has been, since even there the fictive has briefly erupted through the surface of the quasi-historical account.

The other piece of dialogue comes from the mouth of Almighty Voice himself:

We have fought well
You have died like braves
I have worked hard and am hungry
Give me food

(p. 143)

The sound of this voice emerges as the major image of the story, a symbol of Cree defiance, articulating the predicament of a dispossessed people. Immediately before this passage, a longer historical context has been established as Wiebe refers to Almighty Voice's act of defiance occurring ‘long after the three-hundred-and-fifty-year war is ended, a war already lost the day the Cree watch Cartier hoist his gun ashore at Hochelaga and they begin the long retreat west’ (p. 142) and a similar comment by Wiebe, in a 1974 interview, confirms Almighty Voice's significance as a symbol of the lost greatness of his now ‘voiceless’ people:

I think he becomes great … in a kind of terrible last desperate moment … because for an instant he regains the greatness that was his people … in his defiance of the police … he becomes like the Cree who first see Cartier landing on the shore of the St. Lawrence … and they simply stand and stare at him … he is a person like that … and that's one of the reasons why he's remembered so much, because for 20 years before Almighty Voice did that, his people had been voiceless.12

So Wiebe's treatment of history in ‘Where is the Voice Coming From?’ works on two levels. On the one hand, he demonstrates the Lévi-Strauss assertion that there is no absolute history, only versions constituted by the agents of history and chooses himself to replace the historian with the fiction-writer. On the other hand, in the final part of the story he moves beyond such self-reflexive stress on the ‘fictiveness’ of historical narrative and here, as the discussion of the problem of making the story gives way to the creative act of trying to bring the past alive through fiction, Wiebe shows a clear interest in and sympathy for the dispossessed Cree. Like Derek Walcott, he is concerned both with the need to find a new way of writing about ‘history’ and also with dramatising the heroic resistance of the indigenous and subject peoples of the Americas.

Finally the ‘Voice’ is both the symbol of Cree defiance and an image of the fictional narrative which, as the title makes clear from the outset, is concerned with the author's attempt to locate the origins of such fiction. Wiebe writes a post-modernist fiction which, in its self-reflectiveness and exploration of the origins and nature of fiction, has much in common with the work of Borges and his American followers. Ultimately, however, it moves beyond this to emerge as a distinctively Canadian fiction through its adumbration of a theme which suggests the need to rewrite history from the point of view of the dispossessed, whose voice is not recorded in the annals of the ‘colonial’ society. Again this double thrust is very much in keeping with Derek Walcott's dual approach.

Wiebe admits to being influenced by Borges, but finds him ‘too cerebral’ and ‘anti-story’.13 His own work, both novels and short fictions, is finally a vindication of ‘story’ and social and moral concerns are as important in it as the exploration of the nature of narrative. Arguably such a synthesis of interests is a product of Wiebe's Canadian Mennonite background and gives him more affinity with writers from post-colonial societies than with American contemporaries like Barth, Barthelme and Brautigan, who initially appear to be closer relatives.14

‘Where is the Voice Coming From?’ ends, with characteristic downbeat irony, questioning the author's reliability. He has referred to Almighty Voice's death chant as ‘an unending wordless cry’ (p. 143) and he now concludes:

I say “wordless cry” because that is the way it sounds to me. I could be more accurate if I had a reliable interpreter who would make a reliable interpretation. For I do not, of course, understand the Cree myself.

(p. 143)

Briefly, then, we are back with the problem of making the story. But what lives on longest in the mind, once one has finished reading ‘Where is the Voice Coming From?’ is the image of the sonorous voice of the young Indian booming above the sound of the guns being fired at him and this is an apt vindication of Wiebe's decision to make the imaginative writer the agent of history.

Asked, in 1973, whether he regarded The Temptation of Big Bear as historical fiction, Wiebe replied:

I call it a meditation on the past. It is my particular recreation of what happened.15

‘Where is the Voice Coming From?’, which he has referred to as ‘a kind of try-out for some of the things that happen in Big Bear’,16 finally much the same kind of ‘meditation’, instating Scheherazade in the role of historiographer.


  1. The Savage Mind, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1966, p. 257.

  2. ‘The Muse of History’, Is Massa Day Dead? ed. Orde Coombs, New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1974, p. 2.

  3. Ibid., pp. 1–2.

  4. Another Life, London: Jonathan Cape, 1973, p. 70.

  5. Ibid., p. 143.

  6. Ibid., pp. 71–2.

  7. Derek Walcott. Memory as Vision: Another Life, London: Longman, 1978, pp. 45–6.

  8. Cf. V. S. Reid's reworking of the events of the 1865 Morant Bay rebellion and their aftermath in New Day, New York: Knopf, 1949; repr. London: Heinemann, 1973.

  9. Where is the Voice Coming From? Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1974, p. 135. Subsequent references are to this edition and are included in the text.

  10. There appears to be an error of nine days here: the dates given suggest that Almighty Voice was a fugitive for 212, not 221 days. One would like to think that Wiebe would appreciate this, presumably unintentional, example of authorial fallibility.

  11. ‘Rudy Wiebe: The Moving Stream is Perfectly at Rest’, interviewed by Donald Cameron, Conversations with Canadian Novelists, 2, Toronto: Macmillan, 1973; quoted in Personal Fictions: Stories by Munro, Wiebe, Thomas and Blaise, ed. Michael Ondaatje, Toronto: OUP, 1977, p. 226.

  12. ‘Where the Voice Comes From’, Wiebe interviewed by Eli Mandel, originally broadcast on C.B.C. radio, 7 December 1974; repr. A Voice in the Land, ed. W. J. Keith, Edmonton: NeWest Press, 1981, pp. 154–5.

  13. ‘Unearthing Language: An Interview with Rudy Wiebe and Robert Kroetsch’ by Shirley Neuman, A Voice in the Land, p. 243.

  14. This is not to suggest that all Western Canadian novelists would fit this paradigm.

  15. Margaret Reimer and Sue Steiner, ‘Translating Life into Art: A Conversation with Rudy Wiebe’, Mennonite Reporter, 26 November 1973; repr. A Voice in the Land, p. 129.

  16. ‘Unearthing Language’, A Voice in the Land, p. 241.

Further Reading

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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.

David Lyle Jeffrey (review date Winter 1983)

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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 voice. The particular intonation of Wiebe's voice (awkward for some contemporary ears but appropriate to its own character and dedication) owes to the fact that he has habitually spoken words out of the past—old history translating to new story on lips and tongue distinctive enough to make us believe that there could be meaning for the present in memories of the past.

All that seems to be water under the bridge. History professor James Dyck, on-again, off-again narrator of My Lovely Enemy, has no such vital communion with the past, either his own or the past of the Indian culture he studies. One senses he must have had it once for both, but that history has lost its power to charm or challenge, that ego and the present have completely won him over. The past has become academic, in both senses of the word.

In the opening chapter, we see Dyck, a residual Christian defending nominal Christianity against the deprecations of a cocktail party atheist, who asks if God's omnipotence is sufficient for him to change the past. The reverberations of this curious and unanswered question lack any mature philosophical resonance in this novel, but they do echo throughout at the level of innumerable soap-opera clichés concerning the suburban Canadian male in climacteric. Typical of such a figure, Dyck is presented as having a semi-professional attitude towards his work. Yet what we see him doing in the library is research of a different order—instant horseplay with a woman he hasn't met before, who just happens to barge into his microfilm cubicle and straddle him. This is only the beginning of an unimaginative litany of horsy (or doggy) encounters in the novel which, in an apparent attempt to outdo soft-porn schlock in linguistic special effects, include too many ludicrous moments. “A man was made to love a woman to destruction on all fours,” says an orgiastic but still philosophical Dyck after watching his wife (or is it his mistress—he can't be sure) being mounted by the man he has been cuckolding: “this violent vicious giving and taking without reservation and relentless and again and again, through passion into spaceless ecstacy.” In another choice moment of his towering passion Dyck confides to his readers: “She fills me round and full as a suckable grape.” Good grief.

However Wiebe wishes us to read his protagonist (and I do earnestly hope he intends an irony, though the evidence is strong against it), this sort of verbiage must be counted as horrific stuff. Are we to imagine that Wiebe intends a larger distance between himself and his menopausal narrator and actually to criticize a moral and intellectual lightweight run, as it were, by his Dyck? It is difficult, on the evidence of the novel, to come to a flattering answer. For if irony or distance is what Wiebe intends, then a hodgepodge of dark Alberta metaphysics and dismal technical failures prevent us from seeing the purpose clearly. Even in the old joke about Mennonite sexual postures and dancing, Wiebe has somehow got the rhythm wrong—does faltering language mirror a fumbling imagination? Given the western as well as academic ambience of the book one is tempted to suggest a different jacket design, perhaps the famous renaissance illustration of the dilemma of logical effeminacy, which depicts Aristotle being ridden about (on all fours) by the naked Phyllis, her whip in hand. For something seems to be nagging Wiebe, or else his control is deteriorating badly.

Dialogue has never been Wiebe's greatest strength, but his is perhaps nowhere weaker than in this book. Gillian, the young mistress, with “face of purest porcelain, and her voice,” is indistinguishable in her voice from wife Liv or daughter Becca. While this may be intended as an analogue to Dyck's inability fully to distinguish them in his fantasies (he seems to lust after them all), the reader surely requires more differentiation to control the perspective. The heavy theological dialogues between Dyck and his wife, Dyck and his mistress, like the philosophical discussion concerning history between Dyck and his junior colleague (the husband of his mistress), are tedious, vacuous and—worst of all—of no narrative consequence worth the space. The citation of Teilhard de Chardin (The Evolution of Chastity) as an epigraph doesn't much assist in this respect either; in fact, it makes things worse. At bottom, the theorizing about conversion without guilt, like the narrator's triumphant conclusion that choice between wife and mistress is unnecessary or nugatory, is indistinguishable in its quality, as dialogue or as philosophy, from Dyck's commitment to intimate realism in description of his bathroom ritual, laced as that is with reflections that “good gracious the Queen does this too” and learned citations: “but love has pitched his mansion in the place of excrement.”

This book is jammed with literary allusions: narratorial Dyck is afflicted with total recall. Much of the great literature so invoked, however, is used so perversely as to make the citations not only specious in the mouth of the narrator, but also a kind of sacrilege on the page of the author. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Donne, the Romantics, and others are used in contexts which make the allusions banal (the mistress “cannot nor ever will be an enduring Griselda”) or worse (“All lovers live by longing and endure: / Summon a vision and declare it pure,” following recitation of “Love is not love that alters,” as Gillian mounts again). If Dyck's (and Wiebe's) distorted invocation of great authors is not to be thought of as a kind of blasphemy, there will surely be some among his readers who will find blasphemy in the Jesus/God who appears in the stacks of the University of Alberta Library and at Dyck's first hotel room tryst. His function is apparently to offer extensive socratic conversations, during which he quotes Castiglione, Plato, and Hosea to illustrate his thesis concerning sexual liberation and the corporal theology of D. H. Lawrence (or is it J. A. T. Robinson?). Like his alter-ego Dyck, he quotes out of context (e.g., St. Augustine: “If you love God you can do what you please”), pontificates pseudo-philosophically (“to love genitally is a kind of beginning,” “to love is to be … love is exquisite health,” etc.), and rationalizes. Though Dyck uses the opportunity to ask his “divine” visitor “How can a human being live the good life?” it is difficult, even for this pedantic spirit, to get an answer in edgewise; Dyck interrupts him obsessively, preoccupied with irritations concerning the authority of Jesus in matters excremental and sexual, complaining that Scripture doesn't talk about these things in enough realistic detail to satisfy him. Wiebe's collegial “divinity,” devirginized and foxy, nevertheless aids and abets Dyck's insistent aspirations: “The truth of the spirit is your body,” he solemnizes, then laughs in the lingo of the locker-room. We are not to wonder that this special revelation should assist Dyck in his increasingly learned lovemaking; he is the sort who enjoys debating a putative sex life for Jesus and quoting Donne's Holy Sonnet (“Batter my Heart three-personed God”) while copulating with whomever under a piano.

The book concludes its May to September odyssey and carnal allegory in a two-part sequence. The first, predictably perhaps, is in a typological hell, a mine-shaft outside Edmonton converted into a restaurant where buffalo foetus with cactus dressing is served at black-out orgies. It is here that the all-things-dark-and-beautiful philosophy of Dyck and his protégées plumbs its depths of peroration and performance. The concluding chapter involves a preposterous and effectually gratuitous resurrection of his mother by the professor, who calls her forth from the grave with the very words of Jesus to Lazarus, only to hear her say, “Well, that is nice.” Then, a farmer driving his combine off-course just happens by with a nice little typological luncheon which wife, mistress, cuckolded junior colleague, and mother get to share with Dyck and the mortician (who seems, after all, to be Jesus again, in another guise). At this communal repast it seems only fitting, and to Dyck entirely gratifying, that the mortician should anticipate for them all a blessed hereafter in which heaven is actually a state of open marriage. Unsurprisingly also, in this dialogue as in earlier appearances, the mortician-Jesus speaks in accents indistinguishable from those of Dyck. The Professor's shadowy interlocutor, however, like his counterpart in other texts, occasionally utters an appropriate truth: “All words are image, speaking is the only way human beings can handle large reality. But the difference between the image and the reality has to be clear. …” One finds that a lack of such clarity in Wiebe's own narration is a major impediment to the articulation of his characteristic voice. Even the dedication (“Blessed are the dead who die in the faith of Christ”)—at the very least, surprising in this context—seems to underline a profound confusion. No matter how looked at, the Enemy seems distinctly unlovely.

For all that, there is something here entirely worthwhile. Spliced into the fabric of My Lovely Enemy, in two sections, is a truly remarkable story by Wiebe (previously published in Canadian Forum, 61 [March 1982] as “The Broken Arm”). The story of Maskepetoon is one of the best that Wiebe has written, out of the historical vein which he has so successfully mined in the past, and it is a worthy example of the storyteller's art. It embodies all that Wiebe does best, and reminds us of the achievement represented by The Blue Mountains of China,The Temptations of Big Bear and The Scorched-Wood People. None of his readers, I hope, would condemn Wiebe to mere repetition of earlier formulae for success. But the plain truth is that in My Lovely Enemy the Maskepetoon sections stick out like two lilies on a garbage heap. The Indian story is from every point of view superior writing, more convincing both in dialogue and as narrative. By contrast, the body of the novel (into which Maskepetoon in no way fits properly) is cliché-ridden, hackneyed, and trite in its ultimate statement.

Narratively, and in terms of dialogue, some problems of this book are anticipated, I think, in Wiebe's disappointing Mad Trapper (1980). Wiebe seems most successful with a strong voice, one which is used to the powers of “absolute word” and which is secure enough or protected enough to afford a stance oblique to the general culture. “Absolute word,” it need hardly be said, requires the authentication of strong character, character which is achieved in Grandmother Friesen, Maskepetoon, or Big Bear, but not in Dr. Dyck.

Other slippages of voice, especially narrative “inner” voice, seem to be anticipated as early as Wiebe's story about a psychotic killer, “Did Jesus Ever Laugh?” Printed in Where is the Voice Coming From? (1974), it also is a first-person narrative, similarly disturbing in ways which can cause it to undermine deeply our confidence in the author's controlling perspective. Elsewhere in his pursuit of distinctive voice Wiebe has, like his sometime model Tolstoy, reached beyond himself into a community of authenticated personalities, making withal surprisingly credible use of absolute word and extraordinary character. In this latest book it seems Wiebe has made a deliberate choice for “personal landscape,” a trivialized world in which “Tolstoi does not count. He is simply with us, his lolling happy face” merely that of a hapless suburban lap dog. Those who have admired the Tolstoy in Wiebe will grieve for so extreme a diminishment.

Rudy Wiebe (essay date 1984)

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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 monotonous, boring, unrhythmic sound.

So in my first novel, Peace Shall Destroy Many (1962), which concerned a people whose language was not English, I nevertheless used Standard English for both narration and conversation. But from the beginning I was uneasy about that. The language of the Oxbridge Greats seemed especially out of place in the mouths of Mennonite peasants who literally spoke a Low German dialect, and I tried to unsettle the reader by drastic and sometimes awkwardly-shaped images. Of course, many readers immediately assumed I was doing so because I didn't know/couldn't write any better (some have not bothered to reconsider their opinions to this day); this simply angered me and in a later novel, The Blue Mountains of China (1970), I decided to rub the reader's nose in every kind of necessary language, from one-stringed lute, if you will, to full orchestra.

As a result, the first chapter of that novel has a first person narrator who speaks English like a Mennonite:

I have lived long. So long, it takes me days to remember even parts of it, and some I can't remember at all until I've been thinking over it a little now and then for weeks. … But the Lord led me through so many deep ways and of the world I've see a little, both north and south. If your eyes stay open and He keeps your head clear you sometimes see so much more than you want of how it is with the world. …

The second chapter, however, has a central intelligence of clear male factuality, and others are omniscient, dialectal or standard as the character requires; each a voice of its own, a tone and a use of language beyond the obvious information it is dispensing. Certain reviewers/readers decided, of course, that the writer, if he knew what he was doing, was doing it to make the book more pretentiously “harder”. Well, the world provides us all with more than enough fools and there are also others, thanks be, who are more perceptive. To quote W. J. Keith: “Wiebe can move … from a characteristically female viewpoint to an indisputably male reaction … And this is achieved in the only way in which it can properly be achieved, by means of language.”

This achievement “by means of language” is particularly impressive, it seems to me, in the novel by André Brink, Kennis van die Aand (1973) which Brink himself translated into English as Looking on Darkness (1974). His creation of a South Africa world by means of the Coloured English his characters speak is especially striking in Joseph's mother, Sophie; her range goes far beyond a lute, even one with four strings. She can move from statements like, “You his chile, awright. God knows. You his chile en' I don' know if I mus' be gled o' sed,” all the way to “You mustn' try to manure a whole land with one fart, Joseph.” Clearly in the first the Coloured voice is carried more by the contortions of the words, in the latter by the precise, and hilarious, image of folk imagination. At the same time, Joseph speaks the London English he has trained himself so diligently to perfect at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art; so tragically.

In a sense, my translating a non-English dialect into disturbed English word order and rhythmic patterns is an easier problem than that faced by Brink, or Jean D'Costa or Samuel Selvon; my very act of personal translation gives me control: I and I alone am making the translation. They, however, cannot really translate; they struggle not with a different language but with a different kind of English, one they cannot control because it is being spoken by living people who are creating it anew every day according to the living imagination in which they exist. And therein, of course, lies one of their enormous strengths as literary artists.

To change my image from music to food, I may go to England to eat good roast beef, but in Japan I will want sushi. Similarly, I am not looking for Greene or Golding when I read D'Costa or Brink or Rushdie or Selvon: I want Jamaica or South Africa or India or Trinidad, and the language these writers use to get me there is not just flavouring, spice if you please: it is both taste and substance, the way Yorkshire pudding in Liverpool tastes and is a different substance from the raw tuna of Osaka; though both are tasty and nourishing foods.

My professor was wrong. If we are going to have the full orchestra in our world of beautiful complexities, we need the lute very badly. Probably, much more than all those Oxbridge violins we've heard for centuries.

Rudy Wiebe (essay date Spring 1984)

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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 the century we can see more clearly; even allowing for normal political balderdash, the statement is ridiculous.

And it would have been ridiculous even if Theodore Roosevelt had said it at that time about the United States; or N. Lenin, exiled in London and dreaming about the nation of workers and peasants he was convinced he would found in his native land, a proletariat which, when he had a chance to found that nation, would prove as intractable as any nobility and he would end by founding a nation not ruled by a dictatorial and repressive czar, but by a party so brutally oppressive that anyone, even Lenin I think in his worst nightmares, would have prayed to avoid it; if he had had anyone to pray to, besides himself perhaps.

If the twentieth century belongs to any one nation, surely it is the nation of the dead. I mean that enormous nation of the man-made dead which during this century continues to develop with such deliberate, such dreadful, steady speed. The tiniest, most poverty-stricken of countries have often contributed most to its gross national product. Its geographical territory is everywhere, from the veldt of South Africa to the “civilized” cities of Europe and the jungles of Vietnam, or the sands of the Middle East and the bleak rock of the Falkland Islands. At times its population has grown by ten, twelve, and even fifteen million people a year; today its inhabitants number at least one hundred and eighty million, perhaps more for no real census has ever been, or can be, taken. Of these citizens, no more than 25 percent are soldiers; the rest are civilians (who always constitute the bulk of any nation), the children, the old men and women, the farm and factory workers, the mothers, the sick and the crippled, all caught within the boundaries of their proper countries by the relentless maw of this century's death machine, and ground down into violent emigration by that machine.

Scientifically, that machine has been developed to such a point of imaginative brilliance that in 1983 it provides the nation of the dead with an overwhelming capacity for growth. Indeed, it seems quite likely that the end of the twentieth century will see only one nation left on earth, and if we are ever going to have a name for it, perhaps we better hurry and suggest one now. How about The United Republics of Total Death?

Death is the normal end of life; I am not talking about a normality. I am talking about death deliberately planned and man-made, about human activity which has no other objective than to kill other human beings. In one sense, such activity has been with us throughout human history; for example, the Tatars in their wars with the Russian people used to pile the severed heads of their victims in pyramids around the cities they destroyed. It is difficult, but I believe one can grasp the “human-ness” of eighty-four neat stacks of human heads numbering, shall we say, between 400 and 621 each; one could even pick them up, hold them one by one in the palm of one's hand, and consider them, ponder them like Hamlet—all before they rotted completely away. But the issue becomes imaginatively ungraspable when the leader of one superpower declares that his nation would win a nuclear war with no more than 35, at most 45 million of his own citizens killed, because the enemy would suffer more deaths than that.

I am referring strictly to numbers. When we consider morality, the issue becomes even more difficult. For if morality concerns the relation between individuals, or between an individual and the larger society, then every human death caused by human violence carries with it a moral value, an aura of morality impugned. People do not die in masses; the heads in the pyramid were cut off one by one even if it could be done simultaneously; every person we kill has a name. A so-called mass killer, whether it be Eichmann or the Yorkshire Ripper, can really only be judged for each single killing because every one of his victims could claim that her individual death had a certain absolute moral value. As such, the un-morality of some killers, whether they be individuals or nations sending forth expertly trained killers in the name of a principle or their own national security, becomes morally incomprehensible to the contemplative mind. That a few people should be able to kill every human being on earth, including themselves, is of course now technologically possible but it is not, I think, morally graspable. For as Hegel says, at a certain point a quantitative change, if large enough, becomes a qualitative difference. We cannot understand, we cannot express in words the immorality (do you notice how weak that word is?), the measureless immorality of the Founding Fathers of The United Republics of Total Death. It drives as far beyond our moral comprehension as our grappling with the imponderable curve of space: what is outside the edge of the universe, beyond that which eventually must return to coincide with itself? We cannot speak, or think, of it; we have no words.

Having begun with this most heavy of all possible introductions, what can I possibly say to justify my own recalcitrant and dogged persistence in writing fiction? There seems no more social point to making novels in the twentieth century than there would be in crocheting doilies if the Ice Age were once again advancing over our continent. And if I persist in writing novels, who will be a reader? I belong to no impoverished so-called “developing” nation; if I did, my work might be of romantic or revolutionary interest, condescended to perhaps but at least considered. Nor am I a citizen of the supernations; if I were a significant writer there, it is highly likely that I would be published in all parts of the world because it is essential for every nation on earth to know what the U.S.A. or the U.S.S.R. considers important. No, I belong to the unlikely northern half of North America, a nation materially rich enough to be envied by almost everyone but socially and politically meaningless. Canada makes the world news only when the Soviet Union destroys our hockey team, again, in an ice arena, or when a Canadian Very Public Person spends a weekend in a New York hotel with a U.S. rock star. Is there any point in my writing novels?

Well, let me tell you something: I once had a brilliant chance. It happened five years before I was born; in the fall of 1929 when my parents bundled up their young family and tried to get out of the Soviet Union. Together with thousands of other Mennonites who had been living there for seven generations, they left their villages and what property they had and flooded into Moscow. Officially there was no hope for them, but they wanted to make one last desperate attempt, by means of a massive gathering together, to importune, to force, to shame, whatever you want to call it, the government into letting them leave the Soviet Union. And it worked, to an extent. For no known reason, in November 1929 about 3,800 Mennonites were given exit visas, put on trains as “landless refugees of German origin,” and shipped helter-skelter to Hindenberg's Germany. Some 14,000 others were sent back, either to their villages or, almost as often, to prison camps somewhere in the farthest reaches of the world's largest nation. My problem is that my mother, father, two brothers, and three sisters were among those 3,800 who were shipped out.

I began to get a clearer view of my problem in the middle sixties when the writings of Alexander Solzhenitsyn began to be known in the West; this climaxed of course with the vivid drama of his expulsion from the Soviet Union. I read everything he published, books upon books, and they were truly magnificent. Dear God, what a writer! And what a platform from which to address the world: secret police, torture, hunger, imprisonment, and exile, all rooted in the Stalin purges by terror which affect everyone on earth to this day much more directly than the horrors of Hitler. I even thought of a possible short story called “Lucky Solzhenitsyn.” Then, this past summer, all that Russian awareness was revived for me with a particular strength.

Two of my father's brothers and their families also made that flight to Moscow in 1929; they were sent back, and the brothers disappeared into Stalin's Gulag never to be heard of again. But one of their sons, my cousin Peter, 19 years old that autumn in Moscow, did survive fifty years in the Soviet Union and in 1979 he was allowed to settle in Germany under the Soviet-West German Umseidler agreement negotiated by Willy Brandt. In 1980 I lectured at the German Association of Canadian Studies in Gummersbach, and at that time my cousin was living within two miles of where I spoke; but neither of us knew the other existed. Now in July 1983, we discovered one another. When I saw him coming towards me through a crowd of people, it seemed I was seeing the face of my father as he was just before he died. And Peter greeted me in that marvellous Russian manner of full embrace and triple kissing, laughing, “You look just like a Wiebe, a real Wiebe!” A wonderfully cheerful, tiny man who had been to the Gulag twice, the last time in 1952 when he was arrested because a group met in his home regularly to read the Bible and pray. Though they couldn't prove that he was spreading anti-Soviet propaganda (officially there is religious freedom in the Soviet Union) he was nevertheless sentenced under Article 58 of the Criminal Code, sentenced to 25 years of hard labour. Now he tells me, “It was all right, I had only four years, only four, they let me out in the Khrushchev Amnesty after Stalin died.” And he holds me, laughing and laughing, there is no limit to his happiness at meeting me.

In 1956 when he returned home four thousand miles from that prison camp near the Chinese border, I was graduating from a Canadian university and I wanted to become a writer. I had every chance, to be whatever I wanted. But what could I write, really? An immigrant child born in an obscure corner of an unimportant land. I have been writing fiction for 25 years now and the question is still there, it does not go away. What can I write? Or should I say whom?

In 1921 Osip Mandelstam wrote: “Just as a person does not choose his parents, a people does not choose its poets.” I would not begin to compare myself to the greatest Russian poet of the twentieth century, but his words, for me, are profound. The poet is parent to his people; the poet makes his people known and recognizable, an acting and speaking manifestation; he begets them, he enfleshes them, yet, he gives birth to them. I was born and grew up in a rocky bushland of northern Saskatchewan, a landscape homesteaded, cleared, and broken to the plough (wherever it was cleared, most of it was still poplar and spruce thick as hair, you had to walk sideways to get between the trees, literally), a place where the temperature varied 150 degrees, easily, between winter and summer, born among a people who had run to the opposite side of the world to escape one of the bloodiest revolutions and civil wars and anarchies and starvations known in history, and to me it was all invisible. It was the world I fell into at birth, and I could not see it. “How do you write in a new country?” my friend Robert Kroetsch asks. How can you see yourself without a reflector? Kroetsch continues: “People who feel invisible try to borrow visibility from those who are visible. To understand others is surely difficult. But to understand ourselves becomes impossible if we do not see images of ourselves in the mirror—be that mirror theatre or literature or historical writing. A local pride [he uses the phrase of William Carlos Williams] does not exclude the rest of the world or other experiences, rather, it makes them possible.”

The true writer writes her people, her place into existence. Out of herself; and in this sense “birth” is a more natural image than “inventing.” People and landscapes and historical events do not create poets: it is exactly the reverse. The American Civil War did not make William Faulkner, nor the Russian Civil War Mikhail Sholokov. The literature I devoured as a child was most definitely not made by people who had lived on the prairie or rocky Canadian bush; they knew nothing of picking rocks and Mennonite hymn singing and Low German and the swampy ooze of muskegs breathing steam from subterranean fires in the rigid winter like spirits breathing upwards through the snow. So, growing up in such a place, among such people, what could I write? Whom could I write? Listen, let me tell you. Let me tell you the story of a Cree man named Maskepetoon, The Broken Arm, who was born somewhere around 1805 near the North Saskatchewan River, whose picture George Caitlin once painted. All the places where he lived can be seen to this day, as can the place in the Peace Hills (south of Wetaskiwin, Alberta) where he met the Blackfoot man who had killed his father. But, instead of killing him immediately, Maskepetoon told him to mount his own horse:

The Blackfoot looked at his friends without hope, then mounted in one swift movement and waited, his face clenched to accept whatever hit him first. Maskepetoon looked up at him.

“Both my hands are empty,” he said then. “You took my father from me, so now I ask you to be my father. Wear my clothes, ride my horse, and when your people ask you how it is you are still alive, tell them it is because The Young Chief has taken his revenge.”

Slowly the old Blackfoot slid from the horse and faced Maskepetoon empty-handed. Then he took him in his arms and held him hard against his heart.

“My son,” he said, “you have killed me.”

Listen, let me tell you another story, of an American woman who comes to Alberta from Illinois with her husband and three sons in 1906 to “make a better life for themselves” as they say, and how her first apprehensions about the prairie gradually gather into a profound fear. The story is called “After Thirty Years of Marriage,” and she fears not merely loneliness, it is space, it is the singleness of woman's work, it is her silent self. This goes beyond fear into primordial terror so deep she cannot even talk of it, but she must finally face it in her winter house, which is both her shelter and her prison; only when she puts her very head into the centre of the terror is she able to sleep without headache or dream, to sleep at last.

There are a thousand stories for any prairie writer to tell, whether the world at large listens or not. I have told only a very few of them, and once the stories have been made, of course, they will be there forever; or at least as long as there is a human ear and eye to perceive them. This came to me in a new way recently while I was reading aloud “The Angel of the Tar Sands.” That very short story tells how the operator of a giant bucket dredging up sand for oil processing at Fort McMurray cuts into the body of an angel buried fifty feet below the earth's surface. Who knows what we will encounter now that we have the technology to rip up the entire earth in an organized way.

And that thought about the Athabasca Tar Sands, of course, brought me back irrevocably to my United Republics of Total Death; for the sands are right there in the northern Alberta space of the Primrose Air Weapons Range where the United States government wants to test the ground-hugging Cruise missile because the terrain of northern Alberta is so much like the terrain of the Soviet Union. Developing the endless, brutal possibilities of our United Republics.

So though I would like to speak of men and of angels, I am nevertheless brought back to death—where I began. I do not believe that writing is like death. Making things with words is not at all like being killed. I once wrote that writing was like climbing a mountain, a mountain which did not and would never exist unless you climbed it. That is still a good way of saying it, but perhaps it is too ego-oriented. Let me try again.

Let me say that writing is like taking a long journey. You must travel every day, and every day you decide roughly where you would like to go, what you would hope to see, but you never know if you will actually get there. You do not really know where you will eat that day, or what, nor where you will be able to rest, if at all, and you may not even have a place to sleep when night catches you. The only certainty is that you are travelling and that travelling with you is another person. This is a person you love; you are together in everything you encounter, whatever you eat, wherever you rest or sleep; whatever the circumstances there you two are together. And that is enough. Together you are enough for anything, anything in this world.

Sherrill E. Grace (essay date Spring 1985)

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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 is put to death because he wants to turn rhythm into a dominant element; because he wants to make language perceive what it doesn't want to say, provide it with its matter independently of the sign, and free it from denotation.

—KRISTEVA, “The Ethics of Linguistics”

“I have heard your many words, and now you have heard my few. A word is power, it comes from nothing into meaning and a Person takes his name with him when he dies. I have said my last words. Who will say a word for my people? Give my people help! I have spoken.”

—WIEBE, The Temptations of Big Bear

From his earliest to his most recent fiction, Rudy Wiebe has demonstrated a deep concern with the nature of violence. His first two novels, Peace Shall Destroy Many (1962) and First and Vital Candle (1966), depict the conflict that arises within isolated and repressive communities when forces of dissension, lust and racial hostility are unleashed, and both novels climax in claustrophobic scenes of violence.1 But Wiebe's exploration of violence is by no means limited to matters of theme and story development. In The Blue Mountains of China (1970), constraints of community, the tension between violence and Christian peace, and the scenes of murder and rape, acquire symbolic importance and moral urgency in several ways: from the striking textual juxtapositions and the unusual serial structure of the narrative, from the variety of narrative voices and, above all, from the violent shifts in style which compel the reader to struggle with a novel that shatters his expectations. With The Blue Mountains of China, Wiebe has moved from a portrayal of violent scenes and characters to a formal violence in the deliberate disruption of conventions and, from there, to a manipulation of linguistic violence in order to attack meaning itself and, thereby, assault the reader's ordered sense of an identity which is inseparable from a grammar.2

Reading these novels in sequence reveals Wiebe's increased foregrounding of language and of the act of narration. Indeed, it would seem that the necessity to develop his art so that he can explore his subjects more seriously has led him to a conscious and deliberate examination of words and the nature of language. Thus, by the time of The Temptations of Big Bear (1973), themes and scenes of physical violence have receded behind the more urgent, because less tangible, violence of language, and the imposition of one group's language upon the lives of another group becomes the central issue. Even in The Scorched-Wood People (1977), where the predominantly dramatic narrative recalls the structure of his first novel, it is the words of the telling, paralleling Riel's tragic obsession with words and the government's deceptive manipulation of words, which continually thrust into the foreground of the text.

But it is in The Temptations of Big Bear that Wiebe achieves his most moving and profound articulation of this violence because it is in this novel that he creates his (to date) most stunning synthesis of moral vision and complex artistic expression. 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; for him, what happened in the West between 1876 and 1885 resulted less from White greed or progressive vision than from the underlying attitudes which are inseparable from the language and grammar that express theme. The Temptations of Big Bear is more than a novel about violent confrontation between two races, two cultures, two ideologies, which led to the historical defeat of one and victory of the other. It goes much further in order to explore the gap between signifier and signified, and as text it situates the reader in that space between two conflicting discourses, quite literally in the cross-fire where he can be told another history, where he can experience another human being, and where, through structure and language, his secure sense of separate identity and inviolable assumptions will be shattered. Most important, this linguistic violence in Temptations is not merely destructive. Wiebe is aware of the connection between speaking (or reading) and living, between the text as novel and the world as text and, therefore, his violence is structured and constructive; it is there to make us learn, sympathize, and understand the power of words and their essential violence.

In order to examine Wiebe's achievement I want to use a model for textual analysis drawn from the concepts of Tzvetan Todorov, Roman Jakobson, and Julia Kristeva. The work of these three theorists overlaps in certain respects, and together they provide a critical paradigm which enables me to move from a discussion of the largest units of the narrative down to details of style, while at the same time identifying a crucial homology among the levels of the discourse. Furthermore, this approach facilitates discussion of Wiebe's treatment of violence, not from the perspective of theme, but from the matrices of structure and language which, in an important sense, are the subject of this novel.

In “The Quest of Narrative” from The Poetics of Prose, Todorov distinguishes between two types of narrative which can occur together in any text but which appear in their purest form in two distinct types of detective novel, the mystery and the adventure:

These are two different kinds of interest, and also two kinds of narrative. One unfolds on a horizontal line: we want to know what each event provokes, what it does. The other represents a series of variations which stack up along a vertical line: what we look for in each event is what it is. The first is a narrative of contiguity, the second of a narrative of substitutions.3

These two types of narrative represent distinct “techniques of plot combination, linking and embedding.” The “horizontal … narrative of contiguity” where events and episodes are linked in the linear construction, relying on causality and succession, typical of traditional prose fiction, gives rise to the adventure story, while the “vertical … narrative of substitutions” where the embedding of narrative materials creates a cyclic and spatial order, most frequently found in lyric poetry, gives rise to the mystery story. Although both types of narrative are present in most fiction with one type predominant, it is possible to separate the two according to relations of contiguity or substitution. To do so is useful in examining not only genre, but also the nature and purpose of narrative development in a specific text, and at this point Jakobson's theory of the bipolar structure of language is helpful.

According to Jakobson, a particular style is created through the syntactic and semantic manipulation of two kinds of connection, those of contiguity and similarity. These in turn arise from the predominance of either metonymy or metaphor both as rhetorical figures within a text and as principles of organization across a larger discourse. “One topic may lead to another,” Jakobson writes,

either through their similarity or through their contiguity. The metaphoric way would be the most appropriate term for the first case and the metonymic way for the second, since they find their most condensed expression in metaphor and metonymy respectively.4

Jakobson goes on to suggest the importance of this bipolar structure of language for distinguishing between realist and symbolist modes of writing, with metonymy predominant in the former, metaphor in the latter,5 and he argues that a tension between these poles is present in any symbolic process (painting, film, dream structure, and so on) “either interpersonal or social.” Combining Todorov and Jakobson, then, allows me to predict that an adventure story with a horizontal narrative will develop metonymically and rely heavily on metonymies while a mystery story with a vertical narrative will follow the principle of similarity and substitution basic to metaphor.

But analysis of these two types of narrative and two styles can be pushed further with Julia Kristeva's concept of language as a dual “symbolic” and “semiotic” process which, through violent interaction, creates what she calls “poetic language.” By “symbolic” processes, Kristeva means “language as nomination, sign, and syntax” and by “semiotic” she means the instinctual and pre-verbal drives manifest in rhythm and intonation, and “anterior to naming.”6 According to Kristeva, language “as social practice necessarily presupposes these two dispositions [semiotic and symbolic], though combined in different ways to constitute types of discourse, types of signifying practices.”7 For example, in scientific language the semiotic disposition is repressed, if not destroyed, while in “poetic language” the hegemony of syntax and nomination are undermined in order to retrieve the semiotic process through rhythm, disrupted punctuation, elisions, rhetorical figures, and so on. “Poetic language,” as distinct from non-poetic language (or what Kristeva calls “symbolic” or “scientific” language), must retain some minimal degree of grammatical constraint if it is to communicate and avoid lapsing into meaninglessness, but Kristeva stresses the potential of “poetic language” to unsettle, shatter, and destroy not only syntax, but the identity of the transcendental Western subject or ego which is guaranteed in syntax.8 Her claims for “poetic language” are indeed large; thus, in “From One Identity to An Other” she writes:

Through the permanent contradiction between these two dispositions (semiotic/symbolic), of which the internal setting off of the sign (signifier/signified) is merely a witness, poetic language, in its most disruptive form (unreadable for meaning, dangerous for the subject), shows the constraints of a civilization dominated by transcendental rationality. Consequently, it is a means of overriding this constraint.9

From these two poles of discourse, the one necessary and repressive, the other equally necessary but potentially liberating (and from a wide variety of combinations in between), it is possible to generate a typology of discourse or, as Kristeva does, to identify types of literature according to the language a writer uses. Thus, traditional novels, by which she means realist fiction, use a non-poetic (“symbolic”) rationalist language while much poetry, surrealist art, and much modern fiction reveal a strong semiotic bias. Furthermore, these two tendencies can occur within a specific text, and when they do they will dominate the metonymic “narrative of contiguity” and the metaphoric “narrative of substitutions” respectively so that the horizontal narrative will contain, in Kristeva's terms, a highly ordered, repressive, rationalist style and the vertical narrative will be conveyed in “poetic language.”

The subject of The Temptations of Big Bear is the clash between the plains Indians and the Whites, who represent law, order, and Eastern government, over the vast stretches of prairie in what was to become Saskatchewan and Alberta. As Governor Morris phrases it in his many treaty negotiations, the Queen is not in the West to trade, to buy land, or to wage war:

“All we want is to protect you and your lands from the white settlers that are coming, who'll build houses in places you want to live yourselves.”10

Big Bear, Chief of the Plains Cree, resisted this tempting white casuistry and for many years refused to sign or take up fixed residence on a reservation, but he also refused the temptation to fight which led his rebellious young warriors, and with them his entire band, into the 1885 uprising that began with the massacre at Frog Lake and culminated in the hostage-taking at Fort Pitt.

On the surface these materials look familiar enough, as if they would provide just the right ingredients for a rollicking Western. But the literary conventions of the Western do not work in a Canadian story of Indians versus Government for several reasons,11 not least of which is the fact that actual physical violence was very limited—no one “committed a Custer”—and the women captives were not even raped; the only female fatality detailed by Wiebe is the suicide of an Indian woman who is unable to flee the bumbling soldiers and police and chooses death over White justice. How, then, was Wiebe to write a novel about a situation where so little of the violence was externalized in dramatic action and conventional heroics? Another model for his story was the historical novel, but here again Wiebe encountered difficulties because he was deeply dissatisfied with the official White history and kept hearing other voices telling another history.12 By necessity he became the archeologist doing violence to official history, uncovering a forgotten past, forcing the unspoken to be heard, and in the process he was forced to do violence to narrative conventions, to the rational causality and linear progression of the realist novel. Wiebe does not, however, altogether abandon linear causal ordering; instead he uses it in tandem with another narrative structure which evolves out of his need to create that other story which he must force us to hear.

The reader is caught in the crossfire between these stories and this dangerous position is controlled by the “intertextuality”13 of the novel and dramatized in the experiences of a minor, yet crucial character, Kitty MacLean. In many ways, Kitty is the reader's surrogate within the text: although White, she learns to understand and sympathize with her Indian captors; although English-speaking, she learns to understand Cree very well and, as is apparent during Big Bear's trial, has some command of Indian sign language. In the amazing scene of her encounter with Big Bear, it is clear that through her ambivalent position between two worlds she has been captured, paradoxically, into a larger freedom.14 Through Kitty Wiebe signals his disruption of a third conventional model for his narrative, that of the captivity narrative. Indeed, The Temptations of Big Bear is itself an ironic captivity narrative in that the Indians are held captive in their native land by an ordinary group of Whites who are neither evil nor good, stupid nor wise, but who are themselves held captive by a logic, an ideology, and most important a language (both mother tongue and type of discourse) which they cannot escape or successfully adapt. In her intertextual position as heroine of a captivity narrative within the larger ironic captivity narrative of the novel, Kitty MacLean represents that possibility of freedom from the constraints of ideology and language which the text offers the reader.

The intertextuality of Wiebe's novel arises from the double narrative structure that employs two distinct types of discourse. Thematically, the doubling is obvious in the two sides to the conflict and two groups of characters. Although my intertextual model, drawn from Todorov, Jakobson, and Kristeva, oversimplifies a complex text that is never as neatly split as my paradigm suggests, it is nonetheless impossible for the reader to be unaware of the conflicting demands of the split discourse with its unremitting pressure and constant violence. On the one side is the horizontal narrative of contiguity, the story of events in the West from 1876 to 1885. This narrative is fixed in time and place by the dated headings of the chapters, and it is carried forward through the exposition and description of a narrator-chronicler who comes forward at several points to provide connections, facts, names and dates, and general information necessary to an understanding of the historical and public events (for example, pages 151–55, 208–13, 235–67 at Frog Lake, and 294–315). More often this narrator-chronicler of the horizontal narrative disappears behind the dialogue or a narrative voice very close to Big Bear (or in the case of John Delaney, a troubled White). There are, however, five first-person narrators (John McDougall, pages 36–48, Edgar Dewdney, pages 110–23, Robert Jefferson, pages 168–77, Kitty, pages 271–94—where her voice merges with the narrator's—and “A Canadian Volunteer,” pages 315–28) each of whom comments upon events, fills in necessary background, and contributes to both the logical progression of the story and the “linking” (in Todorov's sense) of the plot. Several other narrative components, such as the diary fragments, journal excerpts, newspaper reports, and court documents, have a similar function. In addition to providing this essential linear logic and information, the familiar rational discourse of the horizontal narrative reminds us that we are listening to the White version of the story—not surprisingly, the narrators, including Wiebe as chronicler, and the voices behind court document, diary, or newspaper, are White.

On the other side is the vertical narrative of substitutions which Wiebe generates through at least four distinct techniques. First, there are the many White documents which contribute to the story of events semantically, but structurally disrupt the ordering of the story by the random way they are “embedded” in the text without sequential explanation. For example, the sudden shift to three discrete newspaper reports on Big Bear in prison after the eloquence of his final request—“‘I ask the court to print my words and scatter them among White people. That is my defence!’”—functions paratactically instead of sequentially and tosses the reader back into the tragic irony of the Indians' position rather than providing a continuation or explanation of White behaviour. Second, Wiebe creates several brilliant scenes in the Indian camp, scenes of story-telling (another instance of intertextuality) and of hunting and ritual, and these scenes which dominate the first half of the text present, rather than describe, the Indian way of life thereby facilitating the reader's imaginative understanding of the “other's” culture. Third, through the technique of “embedding,” as Todorov calls it, Wiebe repeats, with variations, the initial story of encounter between Indian and White and among Indians because of White pressure (scenes of Big Bear's council with other chiefs), with which the novel opens. The most moving example of the “embedding” is the story of Big Bear's trial which is essentially a repetition of the treaty meeting with Governor Morris and of the later treaty signing of Fort Walsh in 1882 because in each case Big Bear is being tried (judged and pressured) by his White oppressors, and each time he fails to have his words heard by them. The full meaning of this encounter between White and Indian and the latter's inability to be heard cannot unfold within the linear progression of the horizontal narrative because, as Todorov explains of the mystery story (or vertical narrative), the crime being committed before us in the opening pages is “incomprehensible” and the

investigation consists in returning to the same events over and over, checking and correcting the slightest details, until at the end the truth breaks out.15

Fourth, Wiebe creates his vertical narrative around the mode of presentation and the voice of Big Bear. He does not develop Big Bear in the traditional realist manner of carefully inter-connected character traits and evolving personality gradually revealed through psychological motivation and causally related experiences. Instead, we experience Big Bear in flashes and from slightly differing angles—Big Bear on the hill above Fort Carleton, Big Bear hunting buffalo, Big Bear crying “Tesqua” at Frog Lake, Big Bear in a Regina court, Big Bear in death—until, through repetition, we come to know him.

Big Bear's voice or personal speaking style is perhaps the most important element in the creation of this narrative, but for the moment it is enough to note that Big Bear characteristically speaks through stories rather than factual explanation or discursive argument. For example, he always answers a question or request with a metaphorical remark or a story which shoots off from the horizontal narrative at a bewildering angle, thereby wrenching the reader's sense of continuity from its customary logical expectations. A representative example of Wiebe's strategy in creating Big Bear comes very early in the novel where it establishes the habit of Big Bear's mind and the difficulties of communicating with Whites in this way. I am referring to Big Bear's apparent non sequitur—“There is something that I dread. To feel the rope around my neck.”—which Morris and the other Whites completely misunderstand. The reader, too, is at a disadvantage so early in the novel because only much later, after repeated allusions to visions, dreams of death, and the symbolic importance of the neck, will he understand the scope of Big Bear's remark.

Just as the horizontal narrative of contiguity is essential to maintain order and to forward the plot of the novel, so Wiebe's vertical narrative is essential to disrupt that order, to explode it from within so that another type of story can emerge. By confining his White characters within the former narrative and creating his Indians through the latter, he develops an intertextuality that assaults the reader with narrative interruption and temporal and spatial disjunction, and dramatizes the violent, confused encounter between two races, two cultures, and two stories. The first two chapters of the novel plunge the reader into a situation that begins, not simply in medias res as that term is commonly used, but in the middle of a double narrative consisting of a babble of tongues where, like Peter Erasmus the translator, he must listen, desperately, to both sides.

The misunderstanding which surrounds Big Bear's remark about the rope is an initial example of what Jakobson describes as the bipolarity of language. Big Bear, of course, is speaking in metaphors: he is not afraid of being hung by the neck until dead but of seeing his own and his People's souls strangled by White demands. Morris and his associates, however, are literal-minded men (suffering from a variety of aphasia which Jakobson would describe as a “similarity disorder”) to whom a rope around the neck can only be one thing: a metonymy, more precisely a synecdoche, for capital punishment and, therefore, the logical outcome of an illegal act. What this one remark illustrates right at the outset of the narrative is that Jakobson's bipolar structure is represented in the split narrative and the distinctly White and Indian ways of thinking and speaking. Furthermore, the linguistic duality fundamental to the text is borne out by Wiebe's own reflections on language. In his essay “Bear Spirit in a Strange Land” he remarks vis-à-vis Big Bear's fear of the rope:

And Morris interprets that to mean Big Bear is a criminal and afraid of literal hanging! A logical enough thought, I guess, for a white man to whom language is always only proposition, and never parable.16

A language of “proposition” is a language of nomination and denotation relying heavily upon syntactic order, contiguity, relations of cause and effect—in short, on metonymy. A language of “parable,” by contrast, implies something very different, something suggestive, allusive, and alogical, something paradigmatic, arising from analogy and relations of similarity—in short, from metaphor. As might be expected, in The Temptations of Big Bear the horizontal narrative of contiguity presenting the White story is heavily metonymic whereas the vertical narrative is highly metaphoric.

This distinction characterizes the entire text. Thus, the style of the White speakers, from Morris down to the Canadian volunteer, is predominantly metonymic, denotative proposition. Even the narrator, when as a chronicler he is explaining background or forwarding plot, speaks in this transparent realist manner:

Maintain the right to always get your man: by 1884 the North West Mounted Police had been patrolling the prairies, an area of three hundred thousand square miles, for ten years. Their total strength now stood at 518 officers and men and 355 horses; they had already performed most of the unprecedented acts of bravery which would eventually make them almost as useful to adventure romance as the Texas Rangers (never quite, for in ten years they had not yet actually shot and killed a single Indian). Commissioner Macleod began the legend at the fort he named after himself by handling American whisky traders and the Blackfoot Confederacy, and with fine newspaper coverage Superintendent Walsh continued it at the fort he named after himself by handling the refugee Sioux, but the basic method was trained into every green constable. It consisted mainly of nerveless confrontation. As if the Grandmother's law were so impartial and serene above any mere human question or resistance that the very pronouncement of it by one of her polished scarlet-coated officers was power sufficient for any arrest, in any situation.

And over the next three or four paragraphs the realist narrator continues to digress metonymically, as Jakobson explains, “from the plot to the atmosphere and from the characters to the setting in space and time.”17 Just four pages further on, however, there is a surprising shift in the narrator's voice as he begins to speak the other language of the vertical narrative which sustains Big Bear's world:

Prayers and songs had been completed under the new moon, the vigil kept. Through the clear darkness light became, creeping over the land's black shoulders until the river rose on the valley like the serpent that lurks swivelled in the earth, misting upwards, drifting into deeper blue. In the south the bare cones of hills would be forming black above the curl of willows along the creek and before him gradually the naked river shone through its mist, green within moving white; the edge of the sun came levelling the round worn land, discovered Big Bear before his lodge, naked with grey clay stroked over his body. Waiting to pray as the first light touched him (emphasis added).

Although neither passage presents any real difficulty for the reader, the differences between them are important. The first is easy to follow because the language and syntax call no attention to themselves; the sentences proceed in a simple straightforward manner of predication, co-ordination, and subordination, and imagery is limited to a dead metaphor within synecdochic detail—“her polished scarlet-coated officers.” In the second passage, however, syntax is disrupted through ellipsis, parataxis, and strong, unusual metaphors, particularly in the second sentence where the verb “became” arouses expectations which are not met by the ensuing clauses and the reader must go back to “became” in order to grasp its ungrammatical assertion. Despite these disruptions and surprises, this type of discourse does not abandon all syntactic order and constraint, but it does call attention to itself as language through these disruptions and through its rhetorical density. By shattering the repressive language of proposition, breaking the syntax of rationalist and realist discourse, and thereby forcing his language to admit the rhythms, intonations and imagist associations of a semiotic process, Wiebe has created what Kristeva calls “poetic language”—a language which replaces linguistic transparency with the opacity of the word as sign and logical proposition with “instinctual drive.”18 As Kristeva points out, this process is unquestionably violent because when “the most solid guarantee of our identity—syntax—is revealed as a limit, the entire history of the Western subject and his relationship to his enunciation has come to an end.”19 In other words, through “poetic language” the writer can break our ties with the logical, transparent language of proposition which constitutes White identity, and force us to acknowledge “an other” identity—in this case, Big Bear.

There are several stunning examples of Wiebe's “poetic language” which invite analysis, but I will limit my discussion to two: the narrator's third-person creation of Big Bear's point of view during the Thirst Dance and Big Bear's first-person address to the court at his trial. The first reveals Wiebe creating an inner world of ritual and ecstasy controlled by a narrator; the second illustrates his ability to create a convincing speech and therefore a credible and effective character at a crucial point in the novel where the two types of narrative intersect (and I shall return to this point).

The Thirst Dance passage occurs at the climax of Big Bear's ritual and although it is a long one, it is worth quoting in full:

Big Bear was dancing. Sun shafted fire through the wilted leaves, driving through him. He saw himself seated, almost tipped against, the Tree. His body a brittle husk, as hard transparent as snake-skin discarded on sand. There was no movement anywhere, nor sound, as if the hundreds of People he knew around him were each clamped within themselves upon silence, a vision given everyone gigantically, and abruptly the light spilled out like a match flame before night wind and above him Thunderbird spoke. His body lay, waiting, and rain rushed the valley and camp over white, sunlight hesitated on a leaf turning there, then rain falling through the ribboned, flaring streamers. He saw his tongue against the Tree, his throat swallowing, water moving a little farther and then a little farther into his mouth, but he saw only Thunderbird's wild colours smeared broken and flickering in the cloths of the rain and he ran his last cow, floating through rainbows of pink water chuckling under bluish ululating ground and the cow ran above him in the blood and white of her streaming hide through gold and violet sunshine flaming to poplar green. He drank; Running Second stood there with a leaf funnelling water into him and smiled, her round face streaming shiny, and she merged and doubled, doubled into not eight but six shapes A[as indistinguishable blackness hung there distorted in a glazed bulging eye under a black hat rim,] B[blackness strung aloft like heads and bodies, ahh, hung under a pole bobbing to tear themselves loose and coming away suddenly] C[in spouts of black words and words where their bloodswollen souls might have smiled from their faces, one giant flowering upward between his clawing fingers now, folded back, chuckling, a horrible spring of clotted black blood laughter.] (emphasis added)

Even on a first reading one is aware of a degree of syntactic order here, especially in the first four sentences, but that order gradually collapses under the weight of various pressures, and it is these pressures, working upon and disrupting the structures of rational discourse, that create “poetic language.”

Wiebe achieves his purpose in several ways. The most important feature of the passage is its rhythm; Big Bear is dancing, so the language must dance. Cumulative right-branching clauses and phrases strung together with commas stretch out the sentences, subverting clausal connections and defying predicative logic, at the same time as they emphasize rhythmic movement—“His body lay, waiting, and rain rushed the valley and camp over white, sunlight hesitated on a leaf turning there, then rain falling through like ribboned, flaring streamers.” Freed of the normal constraints of punctuation, the rhythm and words draw attention to themselves. Ellipsis combined with strong, frequent verbs, verbals, and adverbs (especially present participles) throughout the paragraph, assist this foregrounding: “Sun shafted fire,” “gigantically,” “abruptly,” “rain rushed the valley and camp over white” (how much more rhythmically effective this is than “Rain rushed over the valley and camp in a white sheet of water,” with its logically unified verb phrase and cautious metaphor), “smeared broken and flickering,” “streaming,” “flaming,” and so on. The language is at once sensuous and synthetic, in the sense that it emphasizes the process uniting the man's body, his ritual movement, and the elements—fire, sand, wind, water—in what Kristeva calls “jouissance,”20 a total joy, simultaneously sexual and spiritual, physical and conceptual.

The second striking aspect of the passage is its flowing imagery located in unusual verbals and adjectives (again, the present participle dominates) and in metaphor. Thus, Big Bear's old body is a discarded snake-skin husk while he prepares for Thunderbird's call to renewed life. The sheer number of present participles and adjectives in the sentence beginning, “He saw his tongue against the Tree,” fills Big Bear's world with an almost unbearable intensity of motion, colour, and sound—“rainbows of pink water chuckling under bluish ululating [not undulating, which would approach descriptive cliché] ground.” The long final sentence concentrates the energy of increasingly sinister images of blackness until the sentence breaks free from all obvious syntactic constraint into three cumulative metaphors for death (marked A, B, C on the passage), each one less grammatically clear and more imagistic than the one before. The sentence also serves as a reflexive touchstone within the text because images of blackness such as “bloodswollen souls,” black “flowering blood,” and “clotted black blood laughter” echo preceding images from Big Bear's speeches and visions, and contribute to the dramatic repetition of similar images at subsequent points in the text.

Bearing in mind the strategies of “poetic language” revealed in the Thirst Dance passage, we can consider Big Bear's trial speech with less quotation and detailed analysis. The passage I am interested in begins—“Did anyone stand here”—and ends—“my heart is stretched out on the ground.” Compared with the Thirst Dance passage, there is a stronger presence of syntax and punctuation, less imagery and, in general, a more restrained use of “poetic language” necessitated by Wiebe's need to sustain our sense of Big Bear at the same time as he must communicate information about specific events. The language of proposition, however, does not dominate. There are some characteristically non-White expressions such as, “I had been given to see,” and temporal and spatial distinctions are vague—“winters and summers and autumns ago I saw beside the Tramping Lakes”—and syntactic subordination and coordination are held to a minimum with “and” or “but.” In fact, the relatively simple sentences, the lack of sophisticated paragraph development and division (there are four distinct ideas presented without transitions or paragraph break), together with the closing metaphor, provide just enough rhythm and colour to qualify a rationalist discourse and sustain our sense of Big Bear's identity.

The final image, a combination of ellipsis and metaphor—“my heart is stretched out on the ground” (for, my heart feels like a piece of dried meat stretched out on the ground, which recalls an earlier description of the wind stretching “their hearts on the ground like dried meat”) brings a double shock of awareness: the reader suddenly knows that he is able to understand, to hear, Big Bear's words at the same moment as he is able to understand how bizarre and irrelevant such words must sound to Justice Richardson.

This scene marks the intertextual climax of the novel and brings the White and Indian stories together for the last time. Indeed, shortly after his sentencing Big Bear ceased to exist at all in the White history which informs Wiebe's horizontal narrative. But it is precisely this juncture in the text that crystallizes the meaning of Wiebe's structural and linguistic strategy because now the reader (the White reader) knows that he has heard something the White courtroom could not hear. Through the violence of “poetic language” he has perceived what Kitty MacLean understood during her captivity as she struggled to translate Big Bear's speech to his warriors for her father:

I could feel that, like light spiralling back and forth through my hollow head but I could not … where did those Cree words come from, I had never heard … were they words, they were, sounds … as if the high oration had melted into chant, or dirge … the old man stood with a wide black hole in the middle of his face and the sound coming out of there.

“What's he saying?” Papa's elbow prodded my knee, “What's that? Kitty!”

But there was only that sound turning in my head. Translate what? And words emerging, spinning over me after a time too, though my mouth could say nothing.

The reader has learned the sound and feeling of otherness which cannot be translated because it cannot exist in the grammar and lexicon of a rationalist, transparent language of proposition. Now, through the shattering of his own syntactic identity, the reader knows what it means to be the victim of White language and law.

Up to and within the trial scene, the double structure, the bipolarity of narrative discourse, and the dual language can be summarized, according to my model, as follows:

White Indian
Todorov: horizontal narrative of contiguity; adventure story vertical narrative of substitutions; mystery story
Jakobson: metonymically organized discourse; realist and historical fiction about events in the Canadian West, 1876–1885 metaphorically organized discourse; lyric and symbolic fiction portraying otherness of Big Bear and his People
Kristeva: language as “symbolic” signifying process, rationalist, syntactic, and denotative; the word as transparent signifier of transcendent signified; paternal function of language, repressing maternal “chora,” representing law, order, and (as in TBB) approaching the metalanguages of journalism and legal jargon, well exemplified in the Indian treaties (see Big Bear's description, p. 144) language as “semiotic” signifying process, rhythmic, prelinguistic, pre-rational; the word as opaque sign; maternal function of language disregarding syntax, destroying rationalist order, favouring emotion regulated through repetition and rhetorical figure, well exemplified in the oral traditions of Indian culture.

But The Temptations of Big Bear does not end with the trial or trail of newspaper summations, and the novel cannot be reduced to a theoretical model. The final chapter is a moving coda to Big Bear's story, to the story of White/Indian conflict and the 1885 rebellion, and it fuses the two narratives and types of discourse outlined above. Wiebe creates Big Bear's dying in a “poetic language” and metaphoric discourse which maintains enough metonymic development (for example, the snatches of dialogue with Horsechild) to inform the reader about where Big Bear is, who is with him, and what is happening. Nevertheless, the horizontal narrative of contiguity is finally overwhelmed by the mystery of Big Bear who turns in the ritual circle before merging with “the Mother Earth” of the Sand Hills and whose life is not an adventure story but a “long prayer to the Only One.” That he is not still in prison and not literally struggling up a sand hill are surely crucial points because the story of his dying, like the story of his living, is a metaphor, a parable.

As this conclusion shows, Wiebe is not content to leave us with the structured violence of the court room. Like those Canadian writers whom Robert Kroetsch describes as resisting violent acts of annihilation or perverse assertions of anarchic freedom, Wiebe accepts “the terrors and the obligations and the necessary violence of that questing”21 for the form that will expose our ignorance, free us from our captivity in language, and shatter us with the experience of the other. The point to be made about The Temptations of Big Bear is not how well Wiebe has created an Indian, but how well he has exploded the porcupine of language and form to make us see the violence of 1885 and to understand how language, with the ideology it supports, creates the conditions of that violence. At a time when so many writers explore violence for reasons which seem nauseating, destructive, or pornographic (for example, Burroughs, Pynchon, Findley, Hawkes, Kozinsky, recent fiction by Robbe-Grillet, E. B. Thomas, and certainly Aquin's Neige Noir), it is important to recognize Wiebe's aesthetic and moral achievement.

This is not a thematic treatment of personal and political violence—as are Peace Shall Destroy Many and Blue Mountains—nor is it a novel of moral realism that shows the unfair treatment of native peoples; it is a novel that creates a linguistic space between the opposed peoples, forces the reader to occupy that ground, and then batters him from both sides with words, some rational and familiar (hence doubly dangerous), others rhythmic and strange. Until, from within this intertextuality, he learns how to hear “the signifier as such” in Big Bear's “few” words.


  1. In his first two novels Wiebe heightens the drama of these violent scenes by situating them within confining spaces—a crowded barn in the first and a store filled with drunken men in the second. He repeats this strategy of enclosure to good effect in Blue Mountains.

  2. Many of the essays in Violence in the Canadian Novel since 1960, ed. Virginia Harger-Grinling and Terry Goldie, Papers from the 1980 Conference on Violence (St. John's: Memorial University, 1981), address the ways in which literature can be violent.

  3. The Poetics of Prose, trans. Richard Howard (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press, 1977), p. 135. Further references are to this edition.

  4. See “The Metaphoric and Metonymic Poles” in The Fundamentals of Language (The Hague: Mouton, 1956), pp. 76–82. The passage quoted is from page 76 where Jakobson goes on to say that, in “normal verbal behaviour both processes are continually operative, but careful observation will reveal that under the influence of a cultural pattern, personality, and verbal style, preference is given to one of the two processes over the other.” This observation further corroborates the linguistic differences between the Indians and Whites and attests to Wiebe's skill. In The Imaginary Signifier (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1982), pp. 183–91, Christian Metz is quick to point out that the critic should not conflate the referential and discursive levels of a text when using Jakobson's terms metonymy and metaphor. Metz's point is especially important for film, but I am describing homologies, not identities, in a novel and have retained Jakobson's usage throughout.

  5. In The Modes of Modern Writing: Metaphor, Metonymy, and the Typology of Modern Writing (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press, 1977), David Lodge constructs a typology of realist, modernist, and post-modernist writing based upon Jakobson's theories.

  6. For Kristeva's theories see Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art, essays ed., introd., and trans. by Leon S. Roudiez, et al. (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1980). Kristeva's theory of “poetic language” is not easy to summarize because it is a product of her research in several fields. The essay of prime importance to me in this paper is “From One Identity to An Other,” Desire in Language, in particular pp. 133–40. See also Roudiez's useful “Introduction.”

  7. Kristeva, p. 134.

  8. Kristeva claims that “‘poetic language’ … through the particularity of its signifying operations, is an unsettling process—when not an outright destruction—of the identity of meaning and speaking subject, and consequently, of transcendence or, by derivation, of ‘religious sensibility’” (pp. 124–25). This would be an interesting claim to explore further with reference to Wiebe's distinction between the language of proposition and the language of parable (see note 16) and Wiebe's own devout religious faith.

  9. Kristeva, pp. 139–40.

  10. The Temptations of Big Bear (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1973), p. 28. All further references are to this edition.

  11. In “Western Myth and Northern History: The Plains Indians of Berger and Wiebe,” Great Plains Quarterly, 3, no. 3 (1983), 146–56, I have discussed the differences between Little Big Man, a Western (albeit a parodic one), and The Temptations of Big Bear.

  12. For an account of Wiebe's struggle to detach Big Bear from the record of White history, see his story “Where is the Voice Coming From?” in the volume of collected stories (1974) by the same title and his essay “On the trail of Big Bear” in A Voice in the Land, ed. W. J. Keith (Edmonton: NeWest, 1981), pp. 132–41.

  13. In Kristeva's original usage—“a permutation of texts, an intertextuality: in the space of a given text, several utterances, taken from other texts, intersect and neutralize one another”—“The Bounded Text,” Desire in Language, p. 36. The Temptations of Big Bear, with its double discourse, collage of documents, and combination of history and poetry is a splendid example of such a “permutation of texts.”

  14. Wiebe emphasizes her freedom at this moment through the description of her hair: “her hair blonder then and not frizzed as it was later [at the Regina trial] but very long and loosened as though incandescent about her shoulders and down her back” (TBB, 315).

  15. Todorov, p. 135.

  16. A Voice in the Land, p. 148.

  17. Jakobson, p. 78.

  18. Kristeva, pp. 144–46.

  19. Kristeva, p. 178.

  20. See her description of the violent pleasure of “jouissance” (a term borrowed from Lacan) in “The Novel as Polylogue,” Desire in Language, pp. 184–88, 201–08.

  21. “The Exploding Porcupine: Violence of Form in English-Canadian Fiction,” Violence in the Canadian Novel, p. 198, emphasis added.

Nancy Bailey (essay date Summer 1985)

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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 never since been discovered, was known only and incorrectly as Albert Johnson. His crime had been initially the disturbance of traps, then the wounding of one RCMP Constable (Alfred King), and finally the killing of another (Spike Millen) on January 29, 1932. R. P. Bilan, writing in “Letters in Canada,” saw Wiebe's novella as a “minor work,” an “interlude” in his writing which Bilan hoped would finally set to rest “Wiebe's concern with historical figures.”1 William French's review was even more hostile, and concluded that the real question was why the novel had been written at all.2 More perceptively, David Carpenter saw in the tale Wiebe's continuing “fascination with the process of converting history into mythic narrative,”3 and felt that to the extent that Wiebe had kept Johnson elusive, he had succeeded in evoking a powerful mythic wendigo figure. W. J. Keith was alone among the critics in heralding the work as a return of Wiebe to the contemporary, to the “area not merely of human memory but of active participation.”4 Frank Hersey, the last survivor of the hunt, condemned the book as “inaccurate and ridiculous.”5

As these responses suggest, one of the particular problems for a writer of historical fiction is the definition and response to history on the part of the reader. There is a resistance both to granting historicity to the present and to deviating from its facts—equal necessities if the author is to achieve the universality of great art which is always dependent upon aesthetic form. Wiebe himself argues that “cold—or even warmed over facts are never more than a beginning; more important is, what has the imagination made of the man known as Albert Johnson.”6 I agree with Keith that The Mad Trapper is a “remarkably artful book,” and that Wiebe's reasons for changing historical facts are “primarily structural and artistic.”7 But the questions still remain: what does his imagination make of Albert Johnson, and how close is his imaginative understanding to historical truth? Wiebe's article “Notes on a Possible Legend,” written in 1978, gives a record of the eleven items (including his 1973 story “The Naming of Albert Johnson”) which attempt “to capture something about Johnson” and “the particular variations of event and character”8 in each which interested Wiebe. This paper argues that, with the help of these notes, an analysis of the four primary distortions of history in The Mad Trapper reveals Wiebe's controlling vision and his success in relating the mythic universality of this vision to the truth of history.

While similar achievement and purpose can be found in the longer works (The Temptations of Big Bear and The Scorched Wood People), the story “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” provides a particularly illuminating comparison to The Mad Trapper. In the earlier story, Wiebe does not focus on the young brave's identity as he would be known by historical reality deriving from individual characteristics. As Wiebe himself remarked to Eli Mandel, “Almighty Voice is in many ways a petty human being.”9 Even in the second part of the story, when narrative voice is subjectively connected to Almighty Voice, we do not learn of the young brave's emotional or psychic self as he faces his doom. Howard O'Hagan in Wilderness Men creates a much more personalized account with his record of facts such as Almighty Voice's broken leg, his desperate search for water, and his plea in the Indian tradition of warfare to the surrounding white forces, “‘Brothers … It has been a good fight. Send us food and send us water and, when the sun comes up, we will continue the battle.’”10 Wiebe's focus, instead, is on what is beyond the reach of fact and the self as individual: Almighty Voice in his Indian name of “Gitchie-Manitou Wayo,” or “the voice of the Great Spirit,” evokes a response from our humanity at a level beyond even national guilt. Our racial consciousness is stirred by the continuing paradoxes of our humanity—the inhumanity of man to man, the figure of the Pieta in the sorrowing Indian mother, the strength of the will to live even in the face of certain death, and the uncaring beauty of the Spring world.

So too in The Mad Trapper, the question is not who is Albert Johnson—a fact which by the very nature of the case is beyond historical knowing—nor how does his particular, personal motivation explain his irrational behaviour, but what is he in our collective unconscious? The contrast of the opening scenes between the silent, solitary stranger on the raft in the river and the noise and movement of the communal dance hall signals this dichotomy between two levels of being. And the setting moves us quickly beyond the historically real ethnic mix of the trading post into an Arctic that with its vastness, its silence, and its night captures the essence of a mythic place whose reality is in the unconscious. The colours that at first challenge the dark are the red and gold so often associated by the Romantics with hope, and by Canadians on the public and conscious level with the RCMP. But the action moves in ironic relationship to the Christmas/New Year's beginning of the hunt, and the coming Arctic dawn brings death to Johnson, Millen, and Thompson.

The title too is ironic, for both terms of the description are rejected in the novel by Inspector Eames in words (used also by O'Hagan) quoted by Wiebe in his “Notes on a Possible Legend” from the police report. Eames tells the young reporter, “Now, I want you to have three facts very clear or you will not receive another word of information on this case. One: we have no evidence that Johnson has trapped anything. Two: we have every evidence that he is not mad.”11 If on the level of historical fact this is true, it is also ironically true that by the novel's end it is clear that the title does fit both Millen and the war ace hero “Wop” May. Eames' third “fact”—“I will not have it broadcast outside that the RCMP are hounding some poor demented character out of his lonely cabin into the Arctic winter”—is an intentional truth but a factual error since the presence of the media ensures that the erroneous interpretation catches the imagination all over Canada, penetrating even into Ottawa and the force's political masters. Once this happens, Wiebe suggests, it is impossible for the Mounties to call off the hunt before anyone is killed.

Significantly, the patterning of the novel revolves more consistently around sets of threes than through balanced pairs. The opening scene itself presents Johnson as part of a triangular pattern formed by the man, the three-logged raft, and his pole. He retains three pictures of three people; he is sought out three times at his cabin; he spares Millen's life three times. The two chances for communication between Millen and Johnson are broken by the presence of a third and so on. It seems to me that this paradigm of three supports the ironies embedded in the narrative and alerts us to the necessity of discovering alternative rather than to finding a solution in an either/or choice or a both/and balance.

What then are we to know of ourselves in the man who is not Albert Johnson or the Mad Trapper? To turn to the four points of discrepancy between fact and fiction is to turn to the places where Wiebe's artistic and imaginative response is most clearly in control. These are comparable to the crisis in the Almighty Voice story where suddenly Wiebe the objective historian admits that the picture he holds in his hand is not that of Almighty Voice. The fact that is not a fact evokes a response—intuitive, imaginative, emotional, and moral—that leads to the reviewing of the story and to its conclusion. The four places where Wiebe substitutes imaginative fact for history in The Mad Trapper are: first, the development of Spike Millen into a central figure (the “most radical departure from the historical record” according to Keith)12; second, the addition of a second murder attributed to Johnson, that of the purely fictional Paul Thompson; third, the transformation of the character of the late Wop May (bitterly resented by his wife and other survivors)13; and finally, the introduction of the Indian Bill Nerysoo and his wife. Let us turn to these in reverse order.

In the factual accounts of the hunt and in the items Wiebe lists in his “Notes,” the Indian is present only by implication. Wiebe, consistent with his belief that the Indian “must become the center of serious” Canadian western fiction,14 names Nerysoo and develops him as more than simply the catalyst to the action. The first response Johnson makes is to Bill in the presence of King. Three times on one page Wiebe stresses the difference in the stranger's response to these two men. First: “The man was looking intently from Nerysoo to King. It was clear he did not like the policeman's pushy attempt at camaraderie”; then: “There was a pause. The man looked at Nerysoo suddenly. The policeman was there, huge in his ornate scarlet clothes, but obviously the man was not going to talk to him …”; and finally, when King asks him his name, “The stranger deliberately ignored the policeman and stared at William Nerysoo now, almost as if he would read his answer in that broad, strong Indian face.”15

It is again through the Indian that the first connection between Millen and Johnson is made. This time Millen in the presence of Nerysoo sees the look Johnson directs at Nerysoo's wife and her nursing child. Millen sees that Johnson's “head jerked towards her so that for an instant he seemed to lose the rhythm of his movement and his look flashed at her, staring livid as a flame.” The Mountie does not look at Nerysoo, “he knew the Indian had seen that glance, but he did not, somehow could not, admit that he had seen it too” (34). The only scene in which Johnson engages with anyone other than Millen without overt hostility occurs when Nerysoo and his family stop at the new cabin on the Rat River. The gunshot, later directed always at humans, is here directed at squirrels and tree limbs as the men demonstrate equal and skilled marksmanship. The shooting ends with a laugh which links the Indian and the white, offering hope (if it were not for the foreshadowing in the woman's response) of a communion between them greater than that existing in the last scene of Part I when the laugh of Millen and King echoes over the river. The third time masculine laughter rings through the frozen land it comes from Thompson, Millen, Riddell, and Garlund Johnson “the man they were tracking did not hear their comradely laughter” (116). No Indian is present by this time for the fear signalled by Nerysoo's wife at Johnson's cabin has by then affected all of the Indians.

When Johnson survives the bombing of his cabin, Nerysoo refuses to join Millen in laughing at the stranger. Instead, “the Indian stood motionless. … Apprehension, almost fear, on his face” (96). Shortly after this, when Johnson tracks through the camp at night without arousing even the dogs, the Indians leave the hunt. The silent prophecy of Nerysoo's wife becomes spoken as her husband warns Millen of the wendigo. Though previously he has “never thought a white could become a wendigo,” he now warns Millen, “It's white now. … It could get you too” (109). As the Indians depart, Millen muses as he “looked along the river cliffs: was Johnson up there, somewhere, laughing? Did he ever laugh? He should now; he had cleaned them out of their best trackers” (109). The last time the Indian appears in the novel is as the old woman who prophesies correctly that Johnson will live only one more night.

Wiebe uses the Indian to stress both the potential unfulfilled union of Indian, white, and Arctic world, and the breaking of this triad. This would be a union based on ways of knowing that would unite reason, science and language with what are thought by the white Western culture to be the feminine inarticulate traits of sensation, intuition and feeling. Furthermore, it would give birth to two of what Wiebe has described as unrealized Canadian myths: of non-racism and of the North.16 Instead, Nerysoo sets in motion the whole tragic outcome by going to Millen when his trap is sprung. In face of the facts Millen elicits (that only one of the seven traps was touched; that Johnson has not trapped anything himself; that the trap was only sprung, not broken), the Mountie clearly wants to overlook the incident. But he responds to Nerysoo's silent appeal to the justice which the white man brings to the support of property rights. “Nerysoo looked at him steadily. One trap today, two tomorrow, if he imagined the whole Rat was his … there was no way around it” (58).

In Nerysoo's conversation with Johnson, Wiebe hints at an attitude suggested by an Indian tale of the hunt that impressed him for finding “a pitiless and landless man.”17 Clearly Nerysoo's complaint to Millen and Millen's response stem less from Johnson's specific action than from his challenge to established order. However, through this emphasis on a justice based on convention, Wiebe stresses an identity between the races that coincides with the many suggestions that Johnson, known to the Indians as wendigo, could, without his burden of distortion, have been known to them as to Millen as a likeness, a fellow spirit. The result of the white hunt for Johnson is the removal of the Indian trust in the white. The triadic connection is broken. In their retreat to save themselves, the Indians isolate themselves and weaken their white counterparts. Surely Wiebe is connecting imaginative myth to the history of these two races as it has and is developing throughout Canada and the world.

The Indian, of course, as catalyst to the action only responds to Johnson's deed. His molesting of the traps is one of the stranger's strangest actions. Clearly, however, it is not the response of a man who seeks isolation in the Arctic. It is not hard to understand the desire to free one's self of a name and a past (even one without any criminal record as is the case here). But the premise that Johnson wanted isolation as well as freedom from his past does not stand up in face of his choice of proximity for his cabin, his elaborate construction of such a warm and habitable shelter, and his staying there even after he has wounded King. Even dug into earth and buried as it is by snow, the associations Wiebe implies with Johnson's creation are with life—with womb, not tomb. Only the presence of a woman instead of the shadowy photograph of one is lacking to make this a home. The curious detail of the Dodd's liver pills may be another indication that Johnson is harboring an instinct for life, for renewal—not a death wish as many have suggested. Indeed he may be what Wiebe notes in Robert Kroetsch's poem about the hunt, a “poet of survival.”18 Tragically though, Johnson has lost the capacity to relate to other people in any way other than with hostility and fury. But Wiebe allows us to believe that Johnson does not desire this alienation, except from certain people like Alfred King and Wop May.

May, the next discrepancy between fact and Wiebe's fiction, is the one person to break Johnson's incredible calm endurance. May and his plane do what the North of fifty below itself cannot do even to a man constantly on the move, with no protection and no food other than his pack, pursued by the greatest manhunt in history. The plane and its sound disorient, enrage and frighten Johnson:

And the terrible sound. Growing louder, droning nearer sourcelessly and invisibly like some enormous beast snoring him out. He could not tell what it was or from where it was coming but any instant now it would burst upon him like an explosion on the open snow slope and he wheeled and began to run. On his snowshoes, lunging ahead desperately, a scrabbling black dot on the blank betrayal of the enormous slope. He staggered to a stop, but the drone bouncing off the peaks seemed almost above him now, the sky innocent and deadly, only the sound and he sprinted panic-stricken along the rocks in his clumsy snowshoes … his now useless rifle still clutched in his right fist.


It is just after this that Johnson burns his one remaining connection to life—the picture of the woman which “flared up brilliant, leaped into scarlet and golden light” (176).

The intervention of the alien force at the moment of final confrontation between Johnson and Millen dooms forever the hope for a relationship of speech and humanity between them, just as King's intervention has broken Millen's first chance to break through into Johnson's isolation and help to free him. King, who is recognized as the initial enemy by both Johnson and Millen, falls silently early in the novel when he is wounded. But he and what he represents are there at the end, in on the kill with May. He is alive and so is May to form with the news reporter a living triad that represents the comic/demonic reality of history as it was to be, in contrast to the dead trio of Johnson, Millen and Thompson—the tragic might have been. To be true to his vision of history as dominated by meaningless sounds which fail to communicate truth, or feeling, by noise which stems from unfeeling machines and that extends the rifle shot to the overkill of mass warfare, Wiebe has made the “real” May into what Keith rightly calls a “parody hero of an interfering modernity.”19 The laughter that May evokes in these final scenes has none of the camaraderie of the earlier ones. Above all things, Millen pleads with Eames, “Try to resist that plane, eh?” (111).

The plane comes because the bureaucrats in Ottawa have ears to hear only the public hysteria evoked by the media. The media, Wiebe makes clear—and here he has the contemporary record on his side—do not regard words as the prime medium of human relationship and feeling as does Spike Millen. The silliness of the cub reporters and the frenzy of Wop May are only the outward manifestation of the great dichotomy Wiebe creates in the novel between those who respond in life-enhancing ways and those whose lives diminish us all.

The difference is focused on speech and values. King is envious of Millen because he lacks his “superior's” facility with speech, even though he disapproves of Millen's refusal to maintain “the proper, dignified behaviour that Royal Canadian Mounted Police Officers should display” (15). Instead of the “certain formal distance that the law should maintain … must maintain” (16) according to King, Millen argues that “‘if you can't have dignity while being friendly too, what the world good are you as a policeman?’” (15). When King tries to joke, “… nobody laughed. Like the jokes of all humourless men, it was worse than no comment at all and King knew it” (23). Accordingly, King's recourse is to the Regina rule book that produces the dead language of the search warrant and the deadly gunfire. A brilliant metaphor for the language that cannot communicate appears in the half-frozen radio. Riddell explains to Eames that “‘we can receive okay … it's just we can't transmit’” (107). Even the likeable Eames, the best of the receivers, fails to understand and respond to the three pleas he receives from Millen to allow a different language a chance.

Millen demands that he be allowed to “talk [Johnson] out of there” (81). His mistake, he insists to Eames, lay in not respecting his own understanding of Johnson, his knowledge that “Johnson didn't like King and his way of treating people.” On his first visit to Johnson's cabin with King, Millen twice urges that instead of proceeding by the Regina rules he should follow his “feeling” that he should go to the stranger alone (67). Millen's superiority over King which lies in his ability to feel and to communicate with others on the basis of the truth of feeling is dramatized in the opening scene through his participation in the dancing, pie baking and eating contest. This behaviour, which disgusts King, is what Millen explains to Johnson as essential to being human:

‘You have to talk a little bit, Johnson, he said. … You can't just refuse … that's what makes people human—they talk to each other. It makes us different from animals. Animals either just leave each other alone, up north anyway, or they kill each other. The Eskimos told me that long ago, when I first got here. “If we couldn't talk and dance and sing” they said one winter when we'd been dancing four days straight, “we wouldn't be people anymore. The land and the long darkness is too much here.” And they're right, you know. …’


For Millen, human communication, which includes body language and song as well as speech, depends for its moral validity on a one-to-one interaction. Eames thinks Millen wants an “old-time shoot-out … man to man” (110), but Millen's conception of proper behaviour, based in part on his own experience, is very different:

It's stupid, Millen was thinking, to walk straight up against a rifle that was, as Bill Nerysoo said, just part of him like his arm or his eye. A modern police force should know something better than this frontal business with lead. Like a stupid Zane Grey western, all guts and no brain or heart. But what was there to do now except walk up, the storm and the darkness an absolute deadline and if you had the moral weight, the personal strength, the man couldn't pull the trigger. He had experienced that so often; they were lying there sometimes crying behind their doors waiting for you to shove the door open, for the touch of a hand, for a voice that understood. …


Respect from the individual means respect for him, and Millen tells Paul Thompson that “Law up here is, leave people alone if they know what they're doing and not bothering others, help where you can, be there in an emergency, and for damn sure don't create it yourself if you can help it’” (124)

Millen's “way of being a policeman” is not King's or that of the rule book (62). The King conception of a Mountie, based on “quick, aggressive insistence on the law,” leads to his hammering Johnson's door and demanding “‘Johnson. We want to ask you some questions. Open the door’” (61). Millen's way leads to a different rhetoric of speech and action. “Millen knocked his ordinary knock. ‘Mr. Johnson. Are you all right?’” The King view stresses the Police in the Mounties' role, and moves them close to the army. Millen rejects the need for “an army to bring in one man” (81). He insists that “in the old days they needed one RCMP officer who knew his stuff and he'd ride into a whole camp of armed Sioux, alone” (82). Millen (who has run away from the cameras that made the RCMP tourist attractions) has an ideal that would make the scarlet and gold force a substitute for the spiritual agency provided in the south by the clergy. He laments the loss of this potential to Thompson when he says, “‘It used to be good, being a policeman here. … You had time to talk to people, talk them out of … hurting themselves and you’” (125). That is the function Millen waits to fulfill in the moonlight outside Johnson's door. “He shifted in the snow; one sometimes talked for days to men totally silent across a campfire. … Faces like worked stone. And suddenly a word would fall, you never knew when” (64).

Millen's values are those too of the young Paul Thompson whom Wiebe creates fictively to die in the historical place of Millen in order to focus the climax on the almost simultaneous deaths of Johnson and Millen. Wiebe does not use Thompson simply as an agency of plot. Instead, Paul is developed into a character, a youthful Spike Millen, clad in Millen's clothes after this brush with death in the icy river. He dies before he becomes a “mad” trapper, but his death increases Millen's obsessive identification with Johnson. More and more uncommunicative with others, Millen exists only to unfreeze the frozen words of his shadow self:

As if in the strangely warmish air surrounding them now, the many words the man should have spoken but which had never been heard because they had frozen soundlessly into the terrible cold that had hidden him until now, his unspoken words would finally, slowly, steadily unthaw and tonight they would hear Johnson speak at last, his personal words tell them now, tell them why, why.


To the very end Millen retains his belief in the efficacy of the word, in the ideal as distinguished from its imperfect shadow in reality. But because Thompson belongs to the triad of Millen and Johnson, his death leaves no one able to continue to demonstrate Spike Millen's belief in a way of being that could restore the stranger to his humanity. After Paul's death, Millen, his face running with tears, acknowledged defeat, and in the last words of Part Three he bellows “upward against the cliffs into the blizzard, ‘You devil, Johnson, Johnso-o-nnn’” (134).

Millen, the chief historical discrepancy, is the focus of the novel, its dead hero. His loss denies the hope for renewal in the Arctic spring and dooms mankind to be either an Albert Johnson or The Others—in either case “mad,” though in the latter with the madness of absurdity and meaningless non-living. Black and white, broken only by the red of blood or the flame of gunfire, dominate the final two sections. Wiebe translates into his fiction what excited him in Douglas Barbour's poem. It begins, Wiebe notes, with

… historical artifact, with attempted reporter factuality, but quickly the Arctic has become blazing desert and the freezing man is being stripped to his irreducible humanity. Frozen motionless, yet forever moving … Johnson is fit for King Lear's cry ‘Thou are the thing itself.’20

As Millen becomes Johnson he comes to share with him a stature that O'Hagan has likened to Greek tragedy. O'Hagan's epigraph on Johnson is quoted with admiration by Wiebe. It could equally apply to Millen. “Like a figure in Greek tragedy, Albert Johnson was doomed and, like that classic figure, sundered by his fate from those about him, he was at last alone upon the stage, the shadows closing in upon him—a man against the world and against himself, one who chose to die and yet, until his last breath, fought to live.”21 Millen has become a “desperate Character,” as Eames has described Johnson. And Wiebe quotes O'Hagan's comment that “The root of the adjective is the same as that of the Spanish, ‘desperado’ transliterated into English as ‘desperado’—and means literally, ‘without hope’. …”22

If Millen becomes Johnson, it seems legitimate and responsive to Wiebe's strategy (including the evidence of the photographs) to infer that Johnson might have been like Millen. Together they represent our humanity, unwillingly diseased, distorted, and yet recognizably human even in its death agony of despair—doomed to wander as the white wendigo in a world without spirit because of the death of Millen's belief.

That belief represents the alternative to what Johnson has become and to what the “Others” prefigure will come. The agency of Millen's doom, however, is not Johnson. Three times Johnson spares Millen. In a sense Johnson only puts Millen out of his misery by his final fatal shot. What kills Millen is the alternative view of language as instrument of bureaucratic expediency or emotional manipulation, a language to separate not connect. The language associated with Millen's unfulfilled life is based not on words alone but in the actions representative (in terms used by Carl Jung)23 of the eros of relatedness (dance, song) as well as of the logos of separation (action to save life, to protect privacy). It would include, along with the logos of reason and fact, the eros of intuition, sensation and feeling. It would lead to the realization of what Wiebe has described as his ideal of “the strengths that [Canadian] diversity contains, the clash not only of opinions and ideas, but also of social structures, religious belief and perhaps even blood that inevitably results from such diversity.”24 And it would be protected and fostered by an RCMP whose credo would fulfill the romantic hope of the scarlet and gold. But the novel ends in the silence of the lines from Robert Kroetsch's poem.

It was not to be. Wiebe's recording of the 1930s hunt is true to history as we know it in the 1980s. We are not the Millen of our aspirations, connected to the Indian or to the land of our unconscious; we have not been brought together as one nation or even as a global village by the “age of communication.” We are still strangers in our own strange land, seeking deliverance from our loneliness. There is a terrible bleakness in The Mad Trapper, unusual in Wiebe's work and perhaps the real cause of our uneasiness with the novel. We can only hope that historians of the future will be unable to validate what the imagination has made of Albert Johnson.


  1. R. P. Bilan, “Letters in Canada,” University of Toronto Quarterly, 50, 4 (1981), p. 15.

  2. W. French, The Globe and Mail, Sept. 13, 1980.

  3. D. Carpenter, “Primitive Present,” Canadian Literature, 89 (1981), p. 131.

  4. W. Keith, The Mad Trapper, review article, Fiddlehead, 128 (1981), p. 103.

  5. Frank Hersey, The Globe and Mail, Sept. 13, 1980.

  6. R. Wiebe, “Notes on a Possible Legend” in Figures in a Ground, ed. Diane Bessai and David Jackel (Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1978), p. 226.

  7. Keith, p. 102. See also C. Howells, “Silence in Rudy Wiebe's The Mad Trapper,WLWE, Fall 1984, pp. 304–12.

  8. Wiebe, “Notes,” p. 227.

  9. Wiebe, in “Where the Voice Comes From,” Quill and Quire, XL, 12 (1974), p. 20. Similarly in “Notes,” p. 246 he asks, “What does it matter if, as seems likely the case, Johnson himself was really a nasty, misanthropic, vicious little man?”

  10. H. O'Hagan, Wilderness Men (Vancouver: Talon Books, 1978), p. 58.

  11. R. Wiebe, The Mad Trapper (Toronto: Seal Edition, 1981), p. 68. Further references will be included in the text.

  12. Keith, p. 102.

  13. Hersey, Globe, Sept. 13, 1980.

  14. Wiebe, “Western Canada Fiction: Past and Future,” Western American Literature, VI, 1 (1971), p. 29.

  15. Ibid, p. 27.

  16. Wiebe, “Notes,” p. 236.

  17. Ibid, p. 243.

  18. Keith, p. 103.

  19. Wiebe, “Notes,” p. 242.

  20. Ibid, pp. 233–34.

  21. Ibid, p. 233.

  22. C. Jung, Collected Works (Princeton University Press, 1970)., Bollingen Series XX, Vol. 10, pp. 254ff.

  23. Wiebe, “Western Canada Fiction,” pp. 28–29.

A shorter version of this paper was delivered at the Northeast Modern Languages Association conference in Erie, Pa. in April 1983.

Marie Vautier (essay date Fall 1986)

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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 history” by their narrator's comments upon—and challenge to—the very notion of past reality.1 The textual recreation of important historical events permits the narrators to develop the concepts of narratorial control, historical instability, and the fictional mythologizing of the past. Louis O. Mink argues that a certain malaise in the writing of history today originates in a largely unexamined conflict between an implicit presupposition we hold and a contrary explicit belief. Our presupposition is a “vision du monde” shaped by Universal History, a concept which has “disappeared from the discourse of ideas” but which still influences our treatment of history. Universal History posits that the past is to be discovered, not constructed. Difficulties arise, however, in our contradictory belief that “the formal structure of a narrative is constructed rather than discovered.”

According to the common sense of our age, history and fiction are distinct: history claims to be a “true representation” of “past actuality,” whereas fiction does not. Mink argues that the concept of Universal History, although dismantled by Romanticism, has not been completely rejected: we still assume that there is only one past. This past, however, is not an untold story of “what actually happened” which the historian discovers. We determine the significance of the past; it can be made intelligible only as the subject of stories we tell. Narrative history and narrative fiction therefore move closer together. Yet, as Mink notes: “If the distinction were to disappear, fiction and history would both collapse back into myth and be indistinguishable from it as from each other. And though myth serves as both fiction and history for those who have not learned to discriminate, we cannot forget what we have learned.”2

This concern that fiction and history might collapse back into myth is my central subject. In a literary work which has as its referent an historical event, one asks: “where does history stop and fiction start in this text? Is there—can there be—a demarcation line between the two?” Linda Hutcheon has coined the term “historiographic metafiction” to describe such work, which raises not only the question of the verifiability of the historical events recounted in the text, but also the question of the writing of history as a creative act of the imagination, parallel to the writing of fiction.3 Northrop Frye underlines the problem presented by historiography because of its relation to the construction of narrative:

We may raise the question in passing whether it is really possible to write history diachronically, except in special forms like that of Pepy's Diary. It seems more probable that every historian has to stand outside the history he is recording and take a synchronic view of it. The implication is that a history is at once ‘true’ and ‘untrue’ because these statements are being selected and arranged in a form that is no longer purely sequential. ‘Myth’ is often vulgarly used to mean a false statement, or mirage of ideology: this is because every narrative conveys to a reader both the assertion that this event happened and that it could not have happened in precisely that way and in that identical context.4

Many postmodernist texts examine the relationship of truth to narrative. Godbout and Wiebe's novels, however, illustrate particularly well current ontological questionings of history, fiction and myth. In Wiebe's work, an omnipresent, first-person narrator, the Métis poet and song-writer Pierre Falcon, recounts the life of Louis Riel and the rise and fall of his New Nation. Godbout's novel is a political allegory which comments upon the state of affairs in Quebec at the moment of the 1980 referendum on sovereignty-association. Bicephalic Charles and François Papineau are the main characters and the first-person plural narrators of the text. Unlike Riel and Falcon, they are not historically authentic personages. Indeed, they are rather improbable creatures: Charles and François are the names of two heads joined at the neck and sharing a single body. Like Siamese twins with independent minds, emotions, and discourses, they live an increasingly frustrating life, bound together physically and yet partial to different aspirations. The political implications of their complicated existence are foregrounded throughout the text.

Godbout, in a recent interview, said that “Toute entreprise d'écriture est une entreprise pour masquer, transformer, transmuer les choses, et non pas pour les dire comme elles sont … [Ecrire, c'est] briser la chronologie, briser la représentation.”5 Writing for Godbout, then, is an act of transformation which is not based on historical chronology or direct representation. Even the exterior presentation of his text as artifact overtly thematizes its metafictional and historiographic concerns. On the back cover, Charles-François Papineau is presented to the perspective reader as a “real live person,” complete with definite birthdate (1955), birthplace (Montreal) and age (25). The effect of reality which this blurb asserts is greatly strengthened by an initial reference to the celebrated Dionne quintuplets; it then leads on, without the slightest change in tone, to the existence of Charles-François, “le seul enfant à deux têtes qui ait survécu si long-temps.”6 This phraseology implies that there have been other two-headed children, as there have been other sets of quintuplets. Instead of touting the novel as being worth its price, the entire publicity blurb, written by Godbout, emphasizes verisimilitude, the life of “les têtes”: “Leur vie est un roman plein de contradictions et de surprises.”

The title of the reproduction on the front cover, “Le disque rouge à la poursuite de l'alouette,” indicates the political slant of this allegory, the alouette being the traditional mythological symbol of things French-Canadian. Political overtones are also indicated by the play on words in the title. “Papineau” recalls Louis-Joseph Papineau, the leader of the “Patriotes” who fled to the United States after the failure of the 1837 rebellions. Godbout also plays with the standard expression “Faut pas se prendre pour la tête à Papineau!”—loosely translated as “Don't think you're more intelligent than you really are!” As Alain Piette has recently pointed out, the historical Papineau has undergone a process of mythification which makes of him a crystallized heroic figure of the past. Godbout's title, however, totally subverts the raw material he started out with: the cliché concerning Papineau. The use of the plural form centres the reader's attention on the collectivity rather than on the individual Papineau. And the negative form has disappeared—are we then to think that the collectivity is intelligent?7

The chapter headings are unusual in that they use the ordinal and not the cardinal number system: “premièrement, deuxièmement.” The adverbial form is used until the last chapter, which is entitled “enfin.” Such a denomination recalls the “étapisme” project, whereby the Parti québécois hoped that by proceeding by stages (étapes) they would render the referendum vote less traumatic. The epigraph (“Chaque enfant recommence à zéro l'histoire de l'humanité”) is an indication that in this text a certain importance will be allotted to history, and to individual and collective destinies.8 The exterior presentation of the work, then, strongly suggests that its main characters, bizarre and fabulous as they may be, have a historical reality, that they occupy a given time and place. The presentation also indicates that the text will discuss the historical, political, and mythological discourses of Quebec.

Rudy Wiebe shares Godbout's view of writing as an act of transformation; the outer presentations of his novels also address questions of historical verisimilitude and metafictionality. Wiebe has stated that the research he did for The Temptations of Big Bear enabled him to write The Scorched-Wood People at a faster pace, as he had already acquired a knowledge of the historical background of the period.9 This shared research is significant because of the prefatory address in Big Bear:

No name of any person, place or thing, insofar as names are still discoverable, in this novel has been invented. Despite that, and despite the historicity of dates and events, all characters in this meditation upon the past are the products of a particular imagination; their resemblance and relation, therefore, to living or once living persons is to be resisted.10

This passage indicates Wiebe's attitude to story-telling, or, more appropriately, to story-making. Facts, for Wiebe, are the raw material from which he shapes his story. In an interview with Eli Mandel, he sets out his ideas on the relationship of fact to fiction:

Well, you need the facts so you can make something out of them. To discover facts or to discover details of geography are things that are done … But, then, when it's done, it's finished with. The act is in the past. The fact is always in the past, but a fiction is what you make of it. And you have to have a certain amount of facts to make a fiction out of them. Something that will last.11

Wiebe's concern for the longevity of his fictional productions may stem from his desire to give their history back to the people. As does Godbout, Wiebe heaps scorn upon inadequate education systems that neglect to inform people of their historical particularity:

For in forcing me to discover the past of my place on my own as an adult, my public school inadvertently roused an anger in me … All people have history. The stories we tell of our past are by no means merely words: they are meaning and life to us as people, as a particular people; the stories are there, and if we do not know of them we are simply, like animals, memory ignorant, and the less are we people.12

The double concern for making stories and for using words to give meaning to a particular people is linguistically underlined by Wiebe's choice of title. This “meditation” upon the Métis insists upon their collective individuality: they are the scorched-wood people—a translation of the original French name for the Métis, “les bois-brûlés.” The linguistic issue and the potentially political issue are thus stressed on the title-page.

The epigraph printed under the title reads:

And who has made this song?
Who else but good Pierre Falcon.
He made the song, and it was sung
To mark the victory we had won;
He made this song that very day
So sing the glory of the Bois-brûlés.(13)

Although no source is given, this epigraph is in fact modelled on the last stanza of a song composed by the historical Pierre Falcon. It is interesting to compare the original French text to the English translation, and to then compare the latter to Wiebe's epigraph:

Qui en a composé la chanson
Pierre Falcon, poète du canton.
Elle a été faite et composée
Sur la victoire que nous avons gagnée.
Elle a été faite et composée
Chantons la gloire de tous les Bois-Brûlés.
And who composed this little song?
Why, the people's poet, Pierre Falcon.
And why did he write this little lay?
To sing of the victory we won this day.
That's why he wrote this little lay,
To sing of the glory of the Bois-Brulés.(14)

The belittling expressions “this little song” and “this little lay” are conspicuously absent from Wiebe's epigraph. Falcon, the fictional narrator, is telling the story of his people by means of this text, and his story is anything but minor! The words “the people's poet” have also been eliminated; this, however, may be because of the proximity of the word “people” in the title. The verbs “composed,” “write” and “wrote” of the translation have all been replaced by the verb “made.” It is most interesting to note this systematic elimination of all verbs having to do with the act of writing in this epigraph to a metafictional text! This insistence on “making” as opposed to “writing” seems to stress the autonomous existence and power of the text. Its narrator, in retelling the known story, is making a new reality and not just recording the past. The infinitive “to sing” of the translation has been transformed into an imperative “So sing the glory,” in Wiebe's epigraph. As in the original French text, the hearer (reader) is being urged to participate. This song, the written text, has the power to shape our perception of the way things were. Although—perhaps because—it is the product of a particular imagination, it can mediate between us and the past.

Wiebe's novel is divided into four parts, each with its subtitle and epigraph. The epigraph to Part One is a “quotation” from Riel: “If … the Canadian Government wanted to avoid the fact that I was a being at all, the whole world knows that it is not so; they cannot avoid me.” This statement spells out a justification for the text's existence: although a fictional construct, it is going to underline the “reality” of Riel—readers of this work are not to ignore him!

The exterior “wrappings” of the two texts, then, are far from being incidental to their subject-matter. The presentation of Wiebe's novel tends to insist upon the fictionality of his work, even though much of the raw material he uses to create his fiction exists in a historical dimension. Written documents, such as letters, memoirs and trial records, inspire the epigraphs and considerable parts of the text. The exterior of Godbout's novel, which presents a world of quasi-fabulous creatures and happenings, insists upon historical verisimilitude. The titles of both works are textual transformations of what was a linguistic entity with an historical referent. Wiebe's title, being a translation, is indicative of the nature of his text; it will be a mediation between different modes of being. Godbout's front page subverts a fixed linguistic expression and reproduces a mythological symbol, both of which have long been part of the average Quebecker's mythological heritage. His text, as we shall see, is not a mediation between different groups but an internal discussion within a closed system. The outer presentations of both texts do not respect Mink's wish that we maintain the distinction between history and fiction. There is even a hint of their collapsing backwards into myth, in the use of a mythological figure in Godbout's title and in the implication that Wiebe's text will in fact be Falcon's poetic mythification of the glorious deeds of the Bois-brulés.

While commenting upon two important historical and political events, the narrators of both novels are working within a given mythological system and working out a new mythological system. The act of myth-making is central to their texts: they self-consciously blend fiction and history to create or recreate myth. The textual flaunting of historical allusions and ahistorical illusions, however, goes one step further: the narrators present themselves, as well as their texts, as a mixture of fictional elements and historical personages. In this way, they challenge the reality of their own existence. At the same time, however, they stress the importance of their narratorial role and the seriousness of their textual productions. As a result, the historical and fictional worlds of the novels are inextricably bound together.

The historical Pierre Falcon died in 1876, but the fictional Pierre Falcon is not bound by time or space as we know them. He is both in his fictional world and not in it. At one point, as participant, he is singing his “silly, ironic, ribald songs”; at another, as distanced observer, he is commenting upon the life of the twentieth-century Métis. Falcon openly breaks with the objective or “neutral” narrator convention. The articulation of his society and its leader is his poetic function and the “raison d'être” of this text:

During my lifetime I was given many songs, and I have often prayed to the Good Father … I have prayed, give me to make this song of Riel. You gave me so many songs … Give me this song too … I prayed for that for some years, and that song of Riel was not given me until I lay on my deathbed.

Although Falcon was not given the song he prayed for during his lifetime, he is able to concretize the Métis' “greatest vision” from his dwelling-place after death. The repetition of the pronoun “this” indicates that the text we are studying is Falcon's song of Riel: with these written words, he is expressing and giving permanence to a vision held by his Métis society. He is also conscious of the fact that his articulation of the way things were is a strain on credibility. Quoting Riel directly, he says: “I must leave Riel's words to stand in all their unmemorable bareness: their unearthly power will have to be seen in the effect they had … And most of all, I suppose, in their impossibility.”

Falcon is primarily concerned with explicating the Métis' “vision du monde’ to those outside the Métis' universe. If I consider the world of the Métis to be a closed circle, then Falcon's role as narrator may be illustrated by placing him on the circular line. As Métis, he can move within the circle; as narrator-with-a-mission, he can reach outside the circle by means of this written text and explain the Métis to the non-Métis. His repeated efforts to explain the religious cosmological concepts of the Métis underline the fact that he is addressing himself to the non-initiated, as Métis do not need to explain their commonly-held “vision du monde” to each other. Near the end of the novel, while discussing the political and religious crises of his people, Falcon sends a message to the reader about this text:

The word and understanding is very near you: you need no revelation from beyond the grave; as our Jesus said when he was on earth, if you will not believe what is already discernible on earth, then neither will you believe that which comes extraordinarily from beyond.

Falcon, the narrator of this text, and the singing poet of the Métis, is “from beyond the grave” but his words are, indeed, “near” us. His words invite us to understand what should have been discernible on earth: this text solicits our recreation of an historical past.

In Les Têtes à Papineau, Charles and François pose a particular narratorial problem: who is doing the narrating? The first word of the text, “Nous,” indicates that this diary will be a harmonious co-production, as does the following passage: “Donc cet ouvrage ne se prétend pas une biographie officielle. Il s'agit tout simplement du journal de notre évolution … Et c'est pourquoi nous l'assumerons … au nom des deux têtes. C'est un récit bigraphique.”

However, as early as the fifth paragraph of the novel, the “nous” breaks down into third-person narration. Although the “nous” remains the main narratorial voice, this break-down occurs frequently; as a result, the heads are perceived as being different persons. Piette has suggested that the “nous” does not designate only the “personnages-narrateurs,” but also “toute la collectivité québécoise.” The name “Charles François” strongly evokes “canadien-français.” François represents the traditional group which looks nostalgically towards the past; Charles is oriented towards the future.15 Godbout here demonstrates his awareness of the changing socio-economic scene: Charles is the embodiment of the typical Quebec businessman—the “P. D. G.” of the “P. M. E.”—whose existence is still largely ignored outside Quebec.

The narrator's statements and attitude imply that their coexistence is rooted in reality, but even their father, who is partly responsible for their creation, underlines the improbability of their existence; should he write “le nouveau-né” or “les nouveau-nés”? Constant reference to the worlds of make-believe suggests that the heads may be fictional products. Their birth is presented as the opening night of a play; their lives are qualified as a continual “freak show” and they themselves determine their entire existence to be superficial: “Nous savions planer à la surface des idées, des gens et des choses. … Spirituels et superficiels.” They do not even trust their father's version of their conception, as he has a reporter's temperament: that is to say, he has a tendency to produce new realities. The creation of new or alternative realities is a recurrent theme in this work.

The heads discuss their relationship as co-authors in the fourth chapter. Charles proposes that each write his separate version of the adventure; otherwise, the reader will never know who they truly are. It is eventually decided that the primary function of the text is to communicate their evolution to each other. If the world of the text is again a closed circle, then the narratorial role of the heads may be illustrated by placing them within the circular line. Readers may observe the inside communication from outside the circle by reading this text, but the purpose of this “récit bi-graphique” is basically an explanation of themselves to themselves. On the political level, the implication is that, at this critical moment of their history, Quebeckers have to discuss the referendum among themselves. This text is an internal discourse.

Before the operation (which will destroy their individuality, but “normalize” them), the heads are placed in quarantine and hooked up to a computer. Their internal communication can continue, as they each have access to a keyboard. But as the surgeon Northridge has programmed the computer to distinguish between single and plural pronouns (“moi”—“nous”), all their sentences do not show up on the two screens. Metafictionally, of course, this episode underlines Charles-François' existence as a linguistic construct. According to François, the operation is already in progress, as their written discourse has been divided. This text becomes progressively more difficult to write, as the number of interferences increases. Each head has to approve of the text; their failure to agree on the written word can bring their narration to a halt: “Les discours se croisent, se bousculent, s'entrechoquent.” Their knowledge that neither will write the final chapter of the journal contributes to the slowing down of their production. Perhaps the final letter is the only possible solution to the impasse that was described at the beginning of the diary: “Nous sommes, pour ainsi dire, idéologiquement séparés. C'est pourquoi ce livre ne peut être un effort de raccordement. Une médiation.” If we stay within the limits of the narrators' text, the journal will not be published, as it remains an incomplete document.16

The narrators, while aware of the reader outside the closed circle of their text, do not facilitate her/his comprehension of their discourse. They only introduce themselves after five pages of text. They can, and do, keep parts of their communication from the reader: “(Nous avons convenu de ne pas transcrire ici le jeu de mots qui vient de traverser l'esprit de François … ).” Their concern about the operation is disguised behind a façade of light-hearted humour. A passage near the end of the novel, however, echoes Falcon's message to the reader about understanding the text:

Mais les gens croyaient que [Charles] blaguait. Les gens s'imaginent toujours que nous blaguons. Parce que nous avons deux têtes, parce que nous utilisons deux discours; ils croient que nous jouons avec les mots pour des effets de langue. Comment pourraient-ils prendre un monstre au sérieux? Quand sauront-ils que nous disons toujours la vérite? Quand il sera trop tard … ?

Is this not an invitation—if not a plea—to take the narrators seriously? Are we not being told that this text, while playful and therefore regarded as escapist, is, in fact, extremely responsible in socio-cultural terms?17 The constant fluctuation between playfulness and seriousness in Les têtes is comparable to Pierre Falcon's passage through different time-frames coupled with his personal style of recounting past events. Both narrators deliberately focus on the process of story-telling and on the fact that they are subverting the reality of their own narratorial existence. The reader is openly reminded that both the narrators and their texts have a provisional existence. In these works, historical and literary instability reigns.

Falcon's consciousness of his text as a fictional construct is illustrated by the intermingling of “song” and “[written] word.” The Métis poet's songs articulated the power of his people, but in this novel his singing voice has become a written text. With this textual product Falcon does what Riel had hoped to do with his writings, that is to say, he gives a voice to the Métis people. Falcon, however, is wary of written words. For Riel, “the words [wrote] themselves,” and he used them “to give his unwritten people a place on paper before the frozen earth closed them away one by one and no one would hear them. …” But for Falcon, these words of Riel are “words to be used against him, for every written word called to judgement.” Falcon had wanted to shape the Métis' vision into song while still on earth, as words, for him, are frustratingly insufficient when compared to song. By constantly playing off “voice” and “song” against “words” and “paper” Falcon foregrounds his awareness of the limitations of the written word. He would rather that we heard his song, as he is not at all sure of his control over potentially dangerous written words: “The letter was lying there, and letters are dangerous. … The words crouch black on pale paper, unchangeable and deadly.” The irony, of course, is that Falcon's song comes to us and lives on as a written, black-on-white text. The strong use of black/white/grey imagery throughout the novel insists upon this irony. Falcon here expresses a frustration common to many metafictional writers: written words are fixed, rigid, and limited in their ability to communicate fully to the reader. By contrasting “song” with “written word” and by using imagery which recalls the act of writing, Falcon underlines his knowledge of the limitations of the textual product. By means of the written word—and in spite of it—he transmits his dissatisfaction with writing while admitting to his need of it in order to communicate the story of his people.

The difficulty of translation insists upon this text as a construct. The Métis, as we know, spoke French: this text makes us read, in English, about their inability to speak English. This point is driven home by Michel Dumas' incomprehension when he and other Métis eavesdrop upon Colonel Wolseley's plans to attack them: “‘What's that English,’ Michel whispered, ‘what?’.” The problem of translation is related to one of the major themes of the novel: the conflict produced when different linguistic and religious groups with different worldviews come into contact with one another. Falcon's awkward use of the English language underlines, on a linguistic level, the frustrations he experiences in his efforts to explicate the Métis' “vision du monde.” For instance, his account of the “hunter's court” which judges Thomas Scott points out that he is killed, not for political reasons, but because of the effect his blasphemy had on the Métis. Linguistic and cultural incomprehension is evident in the following passage, where Falcon, long afterwards, tries to explain the event to an English-Canadian:

‘It is the cursing,’ [Goulet] said … ‘The few French words aren't so bad, but to understand English, it's so … at home I soak my head in cold water, in snow, but the blasphemy …’

‘Shoot a man for telling you to go to hell!’ MacLead burst out.

‘If you really know …’ but how do you explain the eternal annihilation of your soul to someone who doesn't want to know he has one?

By foregrounding the problems of translation, the text thematizes Falcon's struggles to “translate” the history of his people. Contrary to traditional historiographic practice, this text does not seek to deny or to efface the narratorial voice: the reader is made aware that this song is Falcon's particular meditation upon the past.

Les têtes à Papineau is also an extended metafictional construct; here, much emphasis is placed on the distortion of reality. The reader is made aware of the narrators' predilection for the construction of alternative worlds. Speaking of Charles, François says: “il aime lui aussi inventer des univers inconnus.” The heads acknowledge that they can—and do—change their own perception of things: “Nous adaptions notre discours à la sauce littéraire ou politique suivant les lieux.” Many characters are creative transformers of reality: performers, actors, writers, journalists, and computer programmers. Even the computer is a manipulator of characters, and this makes of it a producer of an alternative reality.

Patricia Waugh has noted that “the question of the ontological status of fictional characters is ultimately inseparable from that of the question of the referentiality of fictional language.” In metafictional works proper names are often flaunted to focus attention on the fact that the objects named exist in a world which is entirely a verbal construct. The names used in this novel point out that “what is referred to has been created … through a ‘naming’ process.”18 Characters change names in order to present another image of themselves. Dippydou, the “rock western” singer, is “de son vrai nom Colette Tremblay.” In this allegorical novel, the names can also have political meaning. For instance, the heads' grandmother, Britty, symbolizes the ailing British empire, and “la race des Papineau” represents Quebec.

As is the case with Pierre Falcon, the narrators overtly thematize their awareness of the act of writing by including other texts within their own: letters-to-the-editor, their father's newspaper articles, selections of their biography and the texts transcribed on their computer terminals. Again, intertextual production is stressed by numerous references to producers of literary texts: Kafka, Rimbaud, Cendrars, Eluard, Prévert. This text also foregrounds its existence as a fictional product by insisting on its linguistic condition. For instance, the repetition of the last word of a sentence provokes a break in the rhythm and forces the reader to become aware of the game of writing. The same effect is produced when the narrators interrupt their discourse to underline the effect of a sound: “embryonnaire, an-bri-yo-nère.” The playful exchange of consonants in the following sentence not only arouses an awareness of word-games but also pokes fun at nationalistic values: “‘C'est tout de même ainsi,’ répondit François, ‘que nous avons conservé nos traditions, notre langue, notre foi, nos chansons et nos chromosomes. Chrysostome!’.” This work, then, flaunts its conditions of textuality; its narrators make us aware of the fictional construction of their text and of the textual creation of alternative worlds.

Les têtes à Papineau is an allegorical comment upon an historical event and upon the socio-political evolution of Quebec which has led it to this important moment. The narrators, by constantly playing off the “historical” world against alternative worlds, confuse our perception of all worlds. They suggest “that history itself is a multiplicity of ‘alternative worlds,’ as fictional as, but other than, the [world of the novel].” The heads do this by using various narrative techniques, such as the insertion of “real historical events [and] personages” into a fictional context.19 For instance, reference is made to the Shah of Iran, Duplessis, and the Dionne quintuplets and to events such as the Battle of the Plains of Abraham and the New York City black-out. At times, distance between the worlds is reduced to a minimum: the centrefold of the 1956 Almanach du Peuple is said to portray, on the left-hand side, the Dionne quintuplets in the arms of their father, and on the right, Charles-François in the arms of Alain-Auguste!

The heads also perform linguistic operations on well-known historical quotations, thereby reinforcing the idea of history as a construct. Henri Bourassa's axiom “la langue est gardienne de la foi” is altered by the narrators' verbal play. Northridge's mother, a French-Canadian postulant from St-Boniface, becomes pregnant to protest against the disappearance of her race. Her baby is adopted by an Anglo-Catholic family in Winnipeg, and the head's ironic, political comment is “Déjà, au Manitoba, la foi n'était plus gardienne de la langue!”

The heads' narration of their own evolution also underlines the fact that history is a construct. Theirs is not presented as a chronological sequence, but as a continual alternation between past and present. Personal significance is frequently given to historical dates, such as the beginning of the quiet revolution. For the heads, writing this text is no different from constructing their history: this text is their history and they are a grammatical construction within it! When Charles stops the narration to read over what has been recorded so far, the construction of this history—and by extension, any history—is foregrounded. The final chapter of their history remains unwritten; like us, they exist in the present and reconstruct the past from fragments; the future is out of their control. At the end of the novel, they seem to lose control over their own existence: they are told they belong to the public, to the nation and to science. By linking their history to that of the collectivity throughout the text, the heads stress that history itself is a “personal reconstruction” and, perhaps, “the ultimate fiction we are all living.”20

In The Scorched-Wood People, Falcon also flaunts his text as an historical construct. He occasionally interrupts his own narrative to refer to the historiographic act: “I know of no historian who has commented on this to say the least strange legal distinction that men who shot and killed Canadian soldiers only intended to wage war while Riel … had actually waged war.” Commentaries of this sort point out Falcon's knowledge of other historical interpretations of the Riel rebellions. They also stress that his Métis “vision du monde” differs from the traditional view of history. As with the translation technique, the use of Falcon as a biased narrator underlines the idea that the true story of the past is necessarily a construct. Different “true stories” are made by different narrators. The presentation of the end of the story in the first paragraph of the novel subverts the traditional historiographic process, which tends to explain events in chronological order leading to a climactic ending. The frequent use of flash-forwards has the same effect. By not giving the sources for the documents he uses, by treating them as just another aid in the story-telling process, Falcon both disorients the reader's perception of objective historiography and makes her/him aware that the past is being constructed. Perhaps this song of Falcon's, this text we are reading, is just as authentic a document as those it has incorporated into itself!

Falcon denigrates the mythological system of the average Canadian. In this book, John A. MacDonald is a scheming hypocrite and the Mounties hardly ever get their man! And though Falcon says he cannot sing of the “machinations of eastern politicians” the following passage certainly retells events in a non-traditional way:

… no Opposition would now dare vote against the last gigantic loan which could complete the financing of the Canadian Pacific Railway for the massive benefit of Canada from Sea to Sea and, quite incidentally, for the benefit of CPR shareholders. Riel had created the catastrophe, an outbreak worthy for Conservative purposes of elevation to rebellion, as the Prime Minister would explain carefully to the Governor General as soon as the fighting was over.

While ridiculing the “great figures” of Canadian history, Falcon also indicates that he is self-consciously constructing an alternative historical world. His demolition of the myths of MacDonald, Cartier and the Mounties creates a vacuum which permits a new historical and mythological perspective. Blending fiction and history, Falcon sets up a mythological system which centres on Louis Riel.

Northrop Frye, discussing myth as the matrix of literature, posits that “literature seems to begin in a corpus of stories.” Some of these stories are classified as folk tales; others take root in a specific society and “begin to exist in time.” The stories of this second group become mythical stories: they are similar to “other stories all over the world,” but they “contain traditional names and specific affinities to religion and legendary history that establish them within a single society.” According to Frye, myth differs from history in that it is not bound to a sequence of events but is a “presentation of human history in a participating form.” I would argue that Pierre Falcon's main concern as a narrator is to reshape the history of Louis Riel: this “song” is a place where the mythical story of Riel and his New Nation is being retold. Falcon's repeated efforts to explain the Métis' cosmology underline his desire to have his listener/reader participate in this recreation of history, this production of myth. With his “song,” the narrator attempts to overturn the historical process which condemns Riel as a moccasin-clad madman. Falcon bases the development of the myth of the Métis upon what Frye calls the decisive “Biblical mythology” of our tradition. He does this by constantly drawing parallels between the Métis and the Israelites, and between Riel and Jesus Christ.21

Paradoxically, setting up Riel as a god-figure depends upon the dismantling of the system already in place, the system of the organized Church. Claiming that Rome has fallen, Riel tells his people that God has called to him with these words: “Hear me! My son, why do you fight against me? Have I not called you, Louis David Riel? To the great mission of the Métis people? Rise! Call your people to that mission with which I will bless the earth!” Strong Biblical imagery dominates this novel. For instance, Falcon refers to the central issue of translation while using the Book of Daniel as an intertext: “but now Riel was speaking a phrase in English, a phrase in French as if he read his terrifying words burned into the log wall.” The twelve members of the Exovedate proclaim Riel to be a “prophet in the service of Jesus Christ,” but the archetypal imagery of the novel suggests that he is Jesus Christ. Falcon insists upon his “beginningless and endless immortality.” Riel moves out of time and out of body into his vision-world. Two passages in particular convey the Riel/Christ metaphor: the baptism of the Methodist Will Jackson as Henry Joseph Jaxon, new son of the New Nation, and the scene of the sacramental meal. Riel asks God's blessing on the “bannock” (unleavened bread) and milk which he and his men eat after they have made a “religious decision”; the men feel that this is “beyond comprehension, revelation!” Riel is both priest and god in this ceremony of the New Nation. The re-shaping of sacraments—doing now what Christ did then—gives a mythic dimension to Riel's actions; it annihilates the difference between Christ's time and his time. In the same way, Falcon's “song” of Riel's passage through time gives a mythic dimension to his story, by annihilating the distinction between the historical past and the present of this text.

Falcon uses cyclical structure and imagery to underline this annihilation of time. That Riel's life on earth was just a part of the cyclical pattern of events is summed up in Gabriel's statement: “You think like a white … You can't help it, that's okay, but you think Riel is finished? He said a hundred years is just a spoke in the wheel of eternity. We'll remember. A hundred years and whites still won't know what to do with him.” After the death sentence has been passed on him, Riel begins to comprehend; his mission, he says, is to bring about practical results, “and even if it takes two hundred years to achieve it, what does that matter? God's time is not ours.” Riel must hang to be a saint; in dying he gives life to the story of his people. The cyclical structure of the novel ties this Christ-like sacrifice to eternity. Falcon produces a “revolutionary view of history” by portraying Riel as a god whose “action [leads] to reconciliation.”22 The Métis, who have known one hundred years of solitude since Riel's death, are not eternally condemned to it. The last sentence of The Scorched-Wood People holds out hope: “O God I pray again, let not our people be confounded. Give them that faith again.” By blending fiction and history, Wiebe has ensured that the myth of the Métis and their leader will remain present and alive in the reader's meditation upon the past.

In Les têtes, Charles and François also self-consciously display their making of history. They too place strong emphasis on mythologies and on the making of myth. By flaunting classical and other mythological allusions, they underline the metafictional aspect of their text. Against these various mythological backdrops, the heads narcissistically concentrate on their own role as myth-makers. This mixture of mythologies informs and deforms their history and ours. It reminds us that we all create our own mythologies, by seeking to historicize our existence in space and time. The heads insist upon their uniqueness and the fact that they are at the centre of the universe; “Les Têtes à Papineau” (capital “T”!) excel at everything, arriving first in their studies, their work and their social life. The entire world is aware of their celebrated existence: Marie-Lalonde's computer programme is a “merveilleux scrap-book électronique” which records the rise of their reputation.

Their apprehension of the unknown, however, provokes a return to “insécurité infantile.” In an effort to dissipate their fear of the operation and of the future, the narrators turn to the mythological past in search of ontological stability. Their playful efforts to insert themselves into the various mythological systems foreground their insecurity. As in Wiebe's work, Christian mythology is frequently used as an intertext. The narrators set up parallels between their life and the life of Jesus Christ. Their birth, for instance, is a mystery and a miracle, and the final meeting of the family is described as a Last Supper. The importance accorded to the American West also indicates the narrators' explorations of alternative mythological systems.

Quebec folk traditions serve as a major intertextual tool. By inserting fragments of Quebec folk songs into their discourse, and by constantly altering well-known historical and political slogans, the heads create a tension between the fabulous world of two-headed beings and the “real” world, the one with an historical setting. This technique brings alternative worlds into contact. It also underlines the fact that this text is reserved to those who have the same socio-historical world-view as the one referred to by all these textual games. One example of this play with myth-making and mythology is the use made of the derogatory term “frog.” Charles and François repeatedly use the frog image as a political metaphor, which permits them to comment upon the uniqueness of their situation and upon their internal disagreement. By incorporating a pejorative term normally used by anglophones, the heads are readjusting their own mythology, re-situating themselves as myth-makers and assuming the controlling power over their own mythological system. The blurring of boundaries between the various worlds in this novel allows the narrators to confuse our perceptions of myth, mythology, history, fiction and reality, and to call for a new way of looking at the world.

Mink's concern about fiction and history collapsing back into myth is, therefore, addressed by the narrators of both The Scorched-Wood People and Les têtes à Papineau. In Wiebe's novel, Pierre Falcon uses the act of storytelling as a means of mythologizing history. He openly strives to set up a new mythological system which will ensure the continual presence of Louis Riel and of his New Nation in today's world. In Godbout, the narrators' interests lie more in manipulating myth so as to blur the boundaries between historical events and fictional elements. The “brouillage” created by the narrators' mixture of fiction and reality, myth and history, forces the reader continually to readjust to shifting worlds. This play results in a tension which provokes questions about the reality of the world outside the text. By overtly displaying themselves and their texts as metafictional and historical constructs, the narrators of both novels foreground the concept that past reality is a construct and ultimately point to the fictional mythologizing of our history.

Northrop Frye writes:

Literature is conscious mythology; as society develops, its mythical stories become structural principles of storytelling … In a fully mature literary tradition the writer enters into a structure of traditional stories and images. He often has the feeling, and says so, that he is not actively shaping his material at all, but is rather a place where a verbal structure is taking its own shape.23

I would argue that in the two “verbal structures” examined in this paper, a process of mythologizing is indeed taking place. I would further argue that because of their metafictionality these two mythologizing “verbal structures” are linked to the world outside the text: they provoke readers to question their conceptions of “history” and “fiction.” Precisely because of their auto-referentiality and their particular use of historical referents, both Les têtes à Papineau and The Scorched-Wood People foreground Edward Said's idea that: “Texts are worldly … they are part of the social world, human life, and of course, the historical moments in which they are located and interpreted.”24 Although Mink sees the blurring of fiction and history as a step backwards in the learning process, these two historiographic metafictions illustrate that this process can indeed be a new way of knowing, a new way of mediating upon the past.


  1. Patricia Waugh, Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction (London and New York: Methuen, 1984), p. 6.

  2. Louis O. Mink, “Narrative Form as a Cognitive Instrument,” in The Writing of History: Literary Form and Historical Understanding, ed. Robert H. Canary and Henry Kozicki (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1978), pp. 129–49.

  3. Linda Hutcheon, “A Poetics of Postmodernism?” Diacritics: A Review of Contemporary Criticism, 13 (Winter 1983), 40–42.

  4. Northrop Frye, “Myth as the Matrix of Literature,” The Georgia Review, 38 (Fall 1984), p. 473. According to Frye, one can step outside one's history and view it objectively and synchronically. This is contrary to Michel Foucault's idea, as expressed by Linda Hutcheon: “We can never describe our own archive, our own discursive history, because we speak from within it.” See Linda Hutcheon, “Canadian Historiographic Metafiction,” Essays on Canadian Writing, 30 (Winter 1984–85), 232.

  5. “Jacques Godbout et la transformation de la réalité, une entrevue de Donald Smith,” Lettres québécoises, 25 (printemps 1982), 54.

  6. Jacques Godbout, Les têtes à Papineau (Paris: Les Editions du Seuil, 1981). Further references are to this edition.

  7. Alain Piette, “Les langues à Papineau: comment le texte national se fait littérature,” Voix et Images, 9 (printemps 1984), 123.

  8. This epigraph is not listed in any dictionary of quotations. Is this “A.D.N.” “l'acide désoxyribonucléique” discovered by J. Watson and K. Crick, which concerns the relationship between chromosomes, genes, and hereditary malformations? Is Godbout metafictionally displaying his tendencies to incorporate scientific and political issues into his fiction?

  9. Brian Bergman, “Rudy Wiebe: Storymaker of the Prairies,” in A Voice in the Land: Essays by and about Rudy Wiebe, ed. W. J. Keith (Edmonton: NeWest Press, 1981), p. 166.

  10. Rudy Wiebe, The Temptations of Big Bear (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1973). The emphasis is mine. This passage is found only in the hard-cover edition; I thank Carla Visser for bringing it to my attention.

  11. Eli Mandel and Rudy Wiebe, “Where the Voice Comes From,” in Voice, ed. W. J. Keith, p. 152.

  12. Rudy Wiebe, “On the Trail of Big Bear,” in Voice, ed. W. J. Keith, p. 134.

  13. Rudy Wiebe, The Scorched-Wood People (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1977). Further references are to this edition.

  14. Brian Davis, ed., The Poetry of the Canadian People 1720–1920, vol. I (Toronto: N.C. Press, 1976), pp. 246–47.

  15. Piette, and Patricia Smart, [“L'espace de nos fictions: quelques réflexions sur nos deux cultures,” Voix et Images, 10.1 (automne 1984)] associate this double name with the English-French conflict. Both Piette and Smart conclude that the heads are, in Smart's words “plutôt les côtés ‘canadien’ et ‘français’ de la psyché québécoise …”

  16. This text, which comes to an end without “finishing,” recalls the final pages of Hubert Aquin's Prochain épisode (Ottawa: Le Cercle du livre de France, 1965).

  17. See Waugh, p. 78.

  18. See Waugh, pp. 93–94.

  19. See Waugh, pp. 104–05.

  20. Ibid., p. 107.

  21. Frye, Myth, pp. 469–74.

  22. Ibid., p. 474.

  23. Northrop Frye, “Conclusion” to Literary History of Canada: Canadian Literature in English, gen. ed. Carl F. Klinck (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1965), p. 233.

  24. Edward W. Said, The World, the Text, and the Critic (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1983), p. 4.

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

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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), poses the moral dilemma in ethnic literature: maintaining a minority vision without dehumanizing the outsider. In ethnic fiction, unlike mainstream fiction, the insiders are members of a minority group, and the outsiders are usually members of the dominant culture (or, perhaps, of another minority group—seen from the point of view of this particular ethnic group). The writer of ethnic fiction faces the problem of portraying ethnic insiders' attitudes toward outsiders. How will ethnic insiders respond to those who have persecuted them? or those who have been similarly persecuted by the dominant culture? or those who simply do not share their customs and beliefs? Further, will the novels present judgment against or justification for the ethnic group's negative responses to outsiders?

Rudy Wiebe, a contemporary Canadian writer, was born in 1934 in a Mennonite family on a homestead at Speedwell, in northern Saskatchewan, of parents who came to Canada from the Soviet Union in 1930. When he was four years old, the family moved to Alberta. Wiebe, whose first language was Low German, was educated at the University of Alberta and the University of Tuebingen in West Germany. In 1960 he received an M.A. in Creative Writing at the University of Alberta. Wiebe also received a Th.B. from the Mennonite Brethren Bible College in Winnipeg, edited the Mennonite Brethren Herald, and taught at Goshen College, Indiana. Since 1967 he has taught English at the University of Alberta.

Wiebe's publications include, in addition to collections of short stories and a play, seven novels: Peace Shall Destroy Many (1962), First and Vital Candle (1966), The Blue Mountains of China (1970), The Temptations of Big Bear (1973) (for which he received the Governor General's Award), The Scorched-Wood People (1977), The Mad Trapper (1980), and My Lovely Enemy (1983).1 In his novels are depicted several ethnic groups: Indians, Eskimos, Métis, and Mennonites. In this essay, concentrating on the latter group (Mennonites), I shall examine Wiebe's treatment of the relationship between the minority vision and the treatment of outsiders in Peace Shall Destroy Many and The Blue Mountains of China.

These two novels are appropriately read as a pair. Peace Shall Destroy Many, set in Wapiti (a fictional community in Saskatchewan), is a realistic presentation of a Mennonite group near the end of World War II. The chief conflicts are generational (between the young man Thom Wiens and Deacon Peter Block) and theological/ethnic (the problem of a pacifist group's trying to live separately from the world). The second novel The Blue Mountains of China (unlike Peace Shall Destroy Many) is an epic narrative of Mennonite history, covering 1883–1967 and exile in several countries. It traces the wanderings of Mennonites from Germany to the Ukraine to Paraguay and Canada “in search of a promised land” (Keith, Epic 42) (freedom to live without participating in military service and freedom to use the German language).

To understand these two novels, one needs some information about Mennonite history. The Mennonites are part of the Anabaptist movement (begun in Europe in 1523), which has been called the left wing of the Reformation.2 (The name “Mennonite” comes from Menno Simons, the leader who survived persecution [Peace, Foreword ix].) The chief tenets of Mennonitism are believers' baptism, separation of church and state, nonparticipation in military service and in government, non-conformity, mutual aid (Peace, Foreword ix, and Redekop, “Translated” 100). Martyred by Catholics and Protestants, the Mennonites, “like ancient Israel, … a religious nation without a country, went from Switzerland to America, from Holland and northern Germany to Prussia, then Russia, finally to North and South America.” Later they divided into many groups (Peace, Foreword ix).

Since Mennonitism began as a religious movement, a controversy exists as to whether Mennonites constitute a religious or an ethnic group. Although the religious dimension can validly be seen as primary, ethnic elements are also important: a sense of community based on family relationships, language, customs, and social views. I am using that ethnic approach, particularly as defined in E. K. Francis' Interethnic Relations: An Essay in Sociological Theory: “ethnicity … generally expresses the fact that certain people are socially defined as belonging together by virtue of common descent.” In his study of the Mennonites of Manitoba (a study which, in many respects, applies also to other Mennonite groups and, consequently, illuminates Wiebe's novels), Francis noted “one intricate web of kinship ties … Mennonites are also keenly aware of their historical traditions; their history emphasizes their common origin, the sufferings that they had to share, the ideas which are common to all branches, even if they may have sought their realization in different ways. It provides them with a social myth that transcends all particularistic divisions, which conceives of the whole group as an indivisible unit.” Further, Francis lists the features “preserving the identity” of the Manitoba Mennonites: “an ideology centering on religion; a concatenation of kinship relations maintained through endogamy; territorial concentration allowing for a high degree of social and even economic self-sufficiency; and a set of separate institutions able to exercise adequate social controls (6, 183). While Wiebe's novels do, of course, contain universal elements (see Suderman), their texture is ethnic—and specifically in the qualities mentioned by Francis.

Wiebe himself is ambivalent about ethnicity in his novels—as two pairs of contrasting statements indicate. First, when asked about the importance of roots, he responded, “I don't think you can deny that at all” (Mandel 150), and “the only way you can write a novel is out of a particular society” (Reimer and Steiner 128). However, he has also said that he does not consider himself “a regional writer” (Melnyk 204). Secondly, Wiebe speaks about the importance of “telling the minority story” (Neuman 230) (and, as critic Sam Solecki notes, “simply by writing about … ostensibly regional individuals, events, and groups … Wiebe asserts their importance. Remembering becomes an act with an ethical dimension …”[6]). However, Wiebe also recognizes that one should “try to see with another person's eye” (Bergman 168); that writers should “imagine [themselves] … into the lives and minds and being of people who are other than … [themselves]” (Scobie 5).

Significantly, Wiebe's ambivalence on this matter is corroborated by his admiration for Frederick Philip Grove's theory of realism: “True realism,” Grove says, “always develops a conflict in such a manner that we see all sides, understand all sides, sympathize with all sides taken separately, and yet cannot tell how that conflict can be avoided. …” (quoted in “A Novelist's” 222). In his ethnic fiction Wiebe does that: “dramatize … ‘all sides taken separately’” (Redekop 103). His simultaneous awareness of the value of a particular ethnic group and of a group or person outside that group enables him to deal perceptively with the dilemma faced by a minority group.

Wiebe's novel contains several ethnic elements: continuity of family names, a separate language, in-group humor, hard work, neatness, exclusion of outsiders. However, I shall concentrate on only one: the problem of trying to maintain the integrity of a minority vision without dehumanizing outsiders (members of either the dominant culture or another minority group). A clear sense of outsiders (those not in the ethnic group) is integral to the experience of Wiebe and indeed of all Mennonites. Wiebe has been “shaped in [a] communit[y] … apart from the Canadian mainstream” (Moss 11); his “sense of … antithesis is rooted in the fact that he is a Mennonite” (Redekop, Rudy Wiebe 66). That separation and its consequent antithesis stem from the persecution of Mennonites, who, historically, have been searching for a place. Their quest has led to a need (which John Reimer, a character in The Blue Mountains of China, says is similar to that of the Jews) “to have land God had given them for their … own” (227), a place where they could find peace. Johann Friesen, another character in The Blue Mountains of China, describes their ideal: “Here [in Paraguay] we have land, we have had quiet here; peace and quiet” (148). Even after persecution ended, Mennonites' assertion of identity continued to produce a distinction between insider and outsider—a distinction reflected in fiction about them. Equally reflected there is the price paid for peace (for a land of their own): overt exclusion of outsiders. In fact, sometimes Mennonites become the establishment—deciding who is an insider and who is an outsider. Although true of any ethnic group, such assumptions are particularly ironic for Mennonites taught to love everyone, to consider no one an enemy. Therefore, a very real dilemma exists in Mennonite experience and in fiction based on that experience: to preserve a unique identity without rejecting non-Mennonites.

Before treating the two novels separately, I shall identify the insiders and outsiders in both. In Peace Shall Destroy Many the insiders are Canadian German-speaking pacifist Mennonites trying to maintain separation from the world; the outsiders are other Canadians and indeed any English-speaking people (members of the dominant culture); other national and racial groups (Russians and Indians); soldiers and people wearing worldly clothes; and even more liberal Mennonites. In The Blue Mountains of China the insiders are, again, German-speaking Mennonites—here in Russia, Canada, and South America—but also (because of partial assimilation) their bilingual (German and English) descendants. The outsiders are Russians and Canadians; first-class passengers on the ship taking the Mennonites from Russia to South America; and, again, more liberal Mennonites—the Russländer who emigrated from Russia to Canada later than the Kanadier.

In Peace Shall Destroy Many Mennonites' exclusion of outsiders is calculated—in Deacon Block's terms—to create “a colony of true Mennonites” (132). Within that colony, Mennonites want to affirm their longing for “a true home” (30), their sense of the impermanence of life (149), and the need for discipline (103). Committed to pacifism and nonconformity to worldly dress and entertainment, they believe that they can function best in communities separate from the world. Thus, the Wapiti colony uses both physical and psychological isolation.

The most visible isolation is, of course, physical: “there was always the bush between them and the world” (48). The Mennonites not only capitalize on this natural barrier but also buy out English and Indians so that they can maintain “a district of Mennonites” (21, 32–33). Another isolation device is the German language. Deacon Block explains its rationale “… we have been separated from … worldly influences … because we have held to the German language in both church and home” (59). Even Pastor Lepp, usually more flexible than Block, defends it. Admitting that “there's nothing Christian about the language itself,” he, nevertheless, asserts its usefulness: “… it makes our separation easier; keeps it before us all the time” (88).

These devices effectively create a psychological “distance” (202, 205) from people who do not share Mennonite traditions: not only English-speaking people (English becomes identified with worldliness) but also participants in military service (as Thom looks up at the military planes, he thinks, “Fly, you heathen” [11]) and people who do not wear plain clothing (for example, Razia Tantamont, a school teacher, whose clothing and attitudes Block considers threatening to his group [124–125]). Certain national groups also become outsiders—Canadians (members of the present dominant culture) and, in retrospect, Russians (members of the dominant culture in the country from which Mennonites had fled to Canada). For example, a “heathen Russian” had, with a Mennonite woman, parented an illegitimate child, Herman Paetkau, also subjected to Mennonites' exclusion (114).

Perhaps the chief outsiders—dehumanized by the insiders—are the Indians, another minority group (left, however, from an earlier majority). Mennonites look at the Indians as unhuman, as animals, and as lower forms of human beings. They see the Indians as “good land that needed clearing” (30) and as dirty “pigs” (37, 74). Even when considered human beings, Indians are criminal (“packs of cutthroats” and “thieves” [83]) or at least inferior to Mennonites. To adults they are “heathen” (151), “unteachable” (138), unsuitable husbands and wives for Mennonites (104 ff), and unsuitable potential church members (110, 194–195, 202). Herman Paetkau is ostracized for marrying Madeleine Moosomin, an Indian woman (102–16). Thom, the protagonist, wonders how Elizabeth Block, a Mennonite woman who has had intercourse with Louis Moosomin, an Indian, could “mix her sacred Mennonite blood” with an Indian (218). And finally, to children, Indians are those who can do “bad” things (15).

The most overt rejection of Indians in this novel comes from Deacon Block, leader of the Wapiti Mennonites. After his discovery that his daughter has had sex with Louis (who had earlier worked on the Block farm) and has given birth to a stillborn child, he threatens Louis with physical violence. Block wishes to “bare-handedly … [tear] him limb from limb” (145) and confesses, “If I had ever once had an inkling what you were doing, I would have … killed you” (184). Assuming the stance of a dominant group, Block threatens to report Louis to the Mounties: “You know what happens to a half-breed that bothers a white woman? … They take him to the whipping room. …” Giving Louis money, Block orders him and his family to move away from the area (183–85).

Not only other national groups but also other Mennonites can be outsiders: more worldly Mennonites south of Wapiti (59, 69); and even Wapiti Mennonites who deviate from the group's traditions: Herman Paetkau, for being an illegitimate child; Hank Unger, for entering military service; Herb Unger, for being less tidy than other Mennonites (he has run-down fences [97, 100]); schoolteacher Joseph Dueck, for using English (55 ff) and for questioning pacifism (45–46). All of these maverick Mennonites are just as isolated as the half-breeds (Morley 67). The culminating example of Mennonites' being excluded from their own community is Elizabeth, to whom her father says (as he orders her to leave the house), “You are no child of mine … I will never look at you again” (144).

In this novel about Mennonites in an isolated community trying to exclude outsiders, Wiebe accomplishes his ideal of showing all sides. He portrays, from the inside, the minority vision. According to that view, there is an advantage to the exclusion of national, racial, and creedal outsiders: the Mennonites (like the Orthodox Jews, Patricia Morley observes) “keep themselves pure.” The disadvantage, that the “security of seclusion” becomes the “rigidity of death” (Morley 7, 69), is presented from the viewpoints of two young men: Joseph Dueck (the Mennonite schoolteacher) and Thomas Wiens (the protagonist). Dueck senses the irony of Mennonites' refusing to fight in the army but accepting the protection of those who do; and Wiens perceives the irony of Mennonites' mistreating Indians. He first notices the inconsistency of teaching them the Bible but not accepting them as church members. Going even further, he exemplifies Wiebe's own regard for the ability to see out of another person's eyes. Thom realizes that Mennonites, in search of a place, have themselves displaced another group. They share with other Canadians a disregard for Indian history. When Thom finds the skull of a wood-buffalo, he thinks, “Why was Canada called a ‘young’ country? White men reckoned places young or old as they had had time to re-mould them to their own satisfaction” (82). Hearing Herman's Indian wife Madeleine speak of her great-grandfather Big Bear, Thom “glimpsed the vast past of Canada regarding which he was as ignorant as if it had never been: of people that had lived and acted as nobly as they knew and died without fear” (111). Unlike the adults, Thom sometimes feels a greater affinity with an Indian than with a Mennonite: “Perhaps it would be better living in a community with a man named Two Poles than with a man named Unger” (39).

Perhaps the answer to Thom's idealistic but appropriate question, “… why must we in Wapiti love only Mennonites?”, is that the kinship among Mennonites exists on a level deeper than creed—that is, in allegiance to family (215). Consequently, Mennonites have more affection for other Mennonites than for outsiders. At the same time, Thom, however, observes Mennonites' potential for violence (which erupts among them in both the past and the present) and their hypocritical attitude toward Indians and understands, therefore, the inappropriateness of distance between Mennonites and outsiders. The novel closes with that tension. Thom “realized that two wars did not confront him; only one's own two faces” (238). Those “two faces,” I believe, can be equated to the minority vision and identification with the outsider.

In The Blue Mountains of China, the other novel in this pair, the insiders are German-speaking Mennonites, second generation bilingual Mennonites, and even English-speaking descendants of Mennonites. While the religious sense of community is not as strong in this novel (Redekop, for example, says that in The Blue Mountains of China community is “viewed almost nostalgically” and that here “violence … results from the absence of … community” [66]), an ethnic sense of community still exists. That ethnicity is exhibited by Frieda Friesen, the narrator of several chapters, and by David Epp, who, after he himself has escaped from Russia, goes back to help other Mennonites and is never heard of again. The bond of kinship unites even a diverse group of Mennonites, fringe Mennonites, and ex-Mennonites who in 1967 meet accidentally3 on an Alberta highway. Since that scene, which occurs at the end of the novel, illustrates exquisitely Mennonites' ethnic community, I shall discuss it in detail.

In this “ritual … recognition scene” (Redekop, “Translated” 117) occurs a meeting of insiders who have never met before: cross-carrying John Reimer (protesting the Vietnam War); Elizabeth Driedger Cereno (a university professor who had married a non-Mennonite); Jakob Friesen IV, recently arrived from Russia to visit his daughter; Dennis Williams (Senior President of Outdoorsman Ltd.) and his family. They soon discover family connections. (“Among Mennonites,” Redekop writes, “the discovery of family relationship is itself a kind of in-joke; wherever two Mennonites are gathered together they will inevitably discover that their mother's father's aunt is their uncle's cousin. This playful process reflects more than self-mockery at possible inbreeding. … The fascination with genealogy is owing not only to the high value placed on the family but also to the fact that the Russian experience fragmented many families and estranged individual members. …” [117]). Interest in genealogy is at first rejected by one person in the Alberta highway group—the apparently-assimilated Dennis Williams (who had changed his name from Wilms): “O god, he thought, I need a bed; sure not long hard relative sniffing” (207). However, soon even he joins in it.

Another part of the recognition scene is the discovery that most of them (including Williams) can speak Lowgerman. When Mrs. Cereno (a woman with a non-Mennonite name) speaks Lowgerman, Dennis “stare[s] … about” and asks, “Does everything in this ditch speak Lowgerman?” (208). This unplanned reunion, with its discovery of family connections and a common language, is climaxed by an impromptu meal consisting of the lunches brought by various members of the group; as they eat, “a sudden oneness … found them in the dust of August grass” (209)—a oneness shared even by the aged Jakob Friesen IV, who insists, “… I have no longer anything with the Mennonites” (193) and “I believe nothing” (196–97, 222, 225). Elizabeth Driedger Cereno, perceiving correctly that his statement of nonbelief is a “lie” (196), thinks, “… despite his lifetime wandering there was for him still only one thing to believe or not believe” (193). Her intuition about Friesen is confirmed at the end of the novel: Friesen's choosing to walk with Reimer re-affirms the continuity of an ethnic tradition shared by these insiders.

The outsiders in this novel again consist of people from other nationalities and traditions. One should remember that some of the groups are considered outsiders because they persecuted Mennonites. Integral to Mennonites' identity has been their persecution from the beginning—recorded in Van Braght's Martyrs' Mirror (1685).4 Because of the epic scope of The Blue Mountains of China, one is made aware of that history—a history lying behind the events in the first novel, Peace Shall Destroy Many. In this novel, The Blue Mountains of China, the chronicle of Mennonite flight is encapsulated, for example in an early scene set in Russia: Muttachi laments, “One hundred fifty years in Russia. One hundred thirty years Friesens live in Gnadenfeld, built this farm, and now just to get away we're runners and hiders” (26). One such persecuting outsider is “the GPU [Soviet secret service] fiend” interrogating Jakob Friesen V (12). Others are outsiders because they do not share Mennonite ideals of hard work or because they committed themselves to the revolution: for example, the “mud-lazy Russians” (127) (about whom the Mennonites feel as, in Peace Shall Destroy Many, they do about Indians, considered not as hard-working as Mennonites); and Escha who, “like every other Russian peasant working on a Mennonite farm, [was] just a bastard” (19). Especially poignant is the exclusion of Escha, “Jakob [V's] doppelgänger.” Although Escha was formerly the “servant” and Jakob “the Mennonite son,” they look and act alike (Redekop, “Translated” 103–04). Jakob, returning after his imprisonment, becomes as violent as Escha and kills him (BMC 33, 39–40).

Another outsider group not sharing Mennonite traditions consists of worldly first-class passengers on the boat taking Mennonites to South America. Here, however, they are observed wistfully by a young girl, Liesel Driedger (the Elizabeth Driedger Cereno who appears as an adult in the last chapter of the novel). These passengers, unlike the Mennonites, wear jewelry and make-up, are “tall and fine, so elegant, their movements so free.” As Liesel watches them, she hears “such laughing, like a grace. She had never heard such happiness. …” Even their German is “refined”—in contrast to Mennonites' Lowgerman, sounding (Liesel thinks) like “the heavy feltboots some men still wore, so stinking when they schluffed by” (81). These passengers are presented seductively from Liesel's angle of vision, but they are clearly the “other”—the outsiders.

Divisions within Mennonite groups also produce outsiders in this novel. (Such divisions conform to actual Mennonite practice. As Rudy Wiebe said in an interview with Donald Cameron, Mennonites are not a “monolithic” group [147].) In the chapter “The Well” (set in Paraguay) Anna, a young Kanadier woman (from the group who had emigrated from Russia in 1874–80), is attracted to Joseph Hiebert, a Russländer Mennonite (from the more worldly group that had emigrated in 1929).5 As Hiebert and Anna meet at the well, he gives her a drink (discovered by the Paraguayan soldiers)—consisting of yerba and unheated water (terere). This drink, “faintly musty and unknown till then, therefore outside regulation” [emphasis added], feels “scratchy, then smooth.” Not only the drink but also all that Hiebert represents is prohibited: “… Anna knew without being told, as did every Kanadier girl, that despite their Mennonite names and talk, these men were too different, too wrong. …” Like the worldly passengers on the boat, the Russländer laughed more than Mennonites usually did. Although Anna is drawn to the more lively and worldly Hiebert, she remains committed to Abraham Funk, another Kanadier, whom she later marries. Eventually the Kanadier hear that Hiebert (like an outsider) was seen “eating and drinking at a table with a painted woman” in Buenos Aires (101–104). To the Kanadier, the Russländer, like the Indians in Peace Shall Destroy Many, are not suitable marriage partners.

While The Blue Mountains of China shares with Peace Shall Destroy Many a distinction between insider and outsider, it differs from the earlier novel in its also including later generations of Mennonites who are at least partially assimilated into the dominant culture. The last chapters of The Blue Mountains of China are set in “Canadian affluence, where problems mean inefficient humidifiers [157] and lost calfskin gloves [160]” (Morley 79). By 1967 many urbanized Mennonites in Winnipeg had become integrated into bourgeois society; they had become part of the majority. Their assimilation is so complete that they fail to understand the concerns of Samuel Reimer (who wants to go on an individual peace crusade to Vietnam [162 ff]) and John Reimer (who, committed to nonviolence and literal obedience to Christ's commands, carries a cross on an Alberta highway). In a reversal of their former position, the bourgeois Mennonites, considering these two Mennonites as untypical, treat them as outsiders (194).6 About these bourgeoisie, who do not share Samuel and John Reimer's new vision of a search for a place, David L. Jeffrey writes, “… much of the pilgrim spirit is lost when any part of the world becomes too much home” (103).

In The Blue Mountains of China (as in Peace Shall Destroy Many) all sides are presented. This second novel contains traditional Mennonite protagonists—adhering to the ethnic vision of the insiders. To present the outsider's view, Wiebe uses less direct methods than in Peace Shall Destroy Many: Escha and the groups surrounding Samuel Reimer and John Reimer. The identification established between Escha and Jakob Friesen V helps the reader to view violence more sympathetically, and the achieved comfort of the Winnipeg Mennonites (no longer needing to be on the road) seems deserved.

Ending the novel with episodes involving assimilated Mennonites may suggest less integrity of the ethnic vision. Admittedly with the gain (less need for exclusion of outsiders) has come a loss. However, juxtaposed with the Samuel Reimer and John Reimer scenes in the conclusion is the family reunion on the Alberta highway (already referred to), an episode demonstrating that ethnic kinship is still alive. In an earlier chapter, when Mennonites are leaving Russia, David Epp asserts, “We aren't Sudermans and Epps and Rogalskis and Martens anymore, we are all one family. …” (125). While the persecution motivating Epp's declaration has now disappeared, that sense of one family continues. Perhaps the grounds for kinship simply change in an urbanized society. In a discussion of the contrast between a “segregated [ethnic] group and its societal environment,” E. K. Francis suggests, “The principal function of differentiating characteristics appears to be symbolic … Characteristics that had played a role in the formative stage may be replaced by other differentiating characteristics at a later stage, in order to maintain the group. In fact, partial acculturation to the host society may increase the chances of survival as a group” (184). Even though Mennonites no longer need to band together to escape persecution, they continue to do so. Accordingly, the Alberta highway family reunion, with its resurgence of ethnicity, re-establishes the dichotomy between insider and outsider.

In these two diverse novels, Peace Shall Destroy Many and The Blue Mountains of China, Rudy Wiebe shows that as long as an ethnic group's sense of family and need for survival persist, the tension between insider and outsider will continue. Whether in one isolated community (as in Peace Shall Destroy Many) or within the scope of several generations and several countries (as in The Blue Mountains of China), the Mennonites, like any ethnic group, encounter the problem of what to do with outsiders. They experience the dilemma of maintaining the “comforting” features of the minority's “enclosing community” without succumbing to the companion “claustrophobi[a]” caused by exclusion of outsiders (Redekop, Rudy Wiebe 66). And because of Mennonites' stance of nonviolence and love, theoretically obliterating a sense of the “other,” that dilemma is uniquely excruciating. Consequently, to any writer depicting the Mennonite experience comes the task of portraying that tension—a task Rudy Wiebe has admirably accomplished in Peace Shall Destroy Many and The Blue Mountains of China.


  1. Wiebe's essays and interviews have been collected in A Voice in the Land, ed. W. J. Keith (Edmonton: NeWest, 1981). See, in addition to numerous critical articles, the following longer studies of his works: Patricia A. Morley, The Comedians: Hugh Hood and Rudy Wiebe (Toronto: Clarke, Irwin, 1977); Magdalene Falk Redekop, Rudy Wiebe, Profiles in Canadian Literature Series (Toronto: Dundurn, 1981); and W. J. Keith, Epic Fiction: The Art of Rudy Wiebe (Edmonton: U of Alberta, 1981).

  2. See Redekop, Rudy Wiebe 66. Note also J. Thiessen, “Canadian Mennonite Literature,” Canadian Literature 51 (Winter 1972): 65 (cited by Morley 6, 12, n. 5). For articles on Canadian Mennonites, see the German-Canadian Yearbook (Deutschkanadisches Jahrbuch) ed. Kartmut Froeschle (Vol. 1–7); Gerhard Friesen and Karin Gürttler (Vol. 8) (Toronto: Historical Society of Mecklenburg Upper Canada, 1973, 1975, 1976, 1978, 1979, 1981, 1983).

  3. Perhaps it is not accidental. After Elizabeth Cereno meets Jakob Friesen IV at the Toronto airport, she sees a newspaper article about John Reimer and suggests that Friesen and she find him. Despite her estrangement from her tradition, she seeks out a fellow Mennonite and, thus, initiates the group encounter.

  4. See H[arold] S. B[ender], “Martyrs' Mirror,” The Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. III (Scottdale, Pa: Mennonite Publishing House, 1957). Redekop, in Rudy Wiebe, comments briefly on Martyrs' Mirror (66).

  5. The distinction between the two groups is important: the Kanadier had “emigrated to Canada because the Russian world was becoming impossible for their beliefs, but these Russländer found theirs adjustable enough to stay on until 1929. … they had become modern. … ; some. … had attended technical schools and even universities in Petersburg or Kiev, perhaps Moscow. No wonder [the Kanadier think] communists had to take their land away before they would leave” (Blue 100). See also Bilan 56–57.

  6. Redekop suggests, however, that “. … there is something characteristically Mennonite about his literal interpretation of Christ's injunction to ‘take up your cross and follow me’” (“Translated” 114–115).

Works Cited

Bender, H[arold] S. “Martyrs' Mirror.” The Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. III. Scottdale, Pa: Mennonite Publishing House, 1957.

Bergman, Brian. “Rudy Wiebe: Storymaker of the Prairies” [interview with Rudy Wiebe]. Gateway [U of Alberta student newspaper], 10 Nov. 1977. Rpt. in A Voice in the Land [See Keith, below], 163–69.

Bilan, R. P. “Wiebe and Religious Struggle.” Canadian Literature 77 (1978): 50–63.

Cameron, Donald. “The Moving Stream Is Perfectly at Rest” [interview with Rudy Wiebe]. Conversations with Canadian Novelists. Toronto: Macmillan, 1973, 146–60.

Francis, E. K. Interethnic Relations: An Essay in Sociological Theory. New York: Elsevier, 1976.

Jeffrey, David L. “Biblical Hermeneutic and Family History in Contemporary Canadian Fiction: Wiebe and Laurence.” Mosaic 11 (1978): 87–106.

Keith, W. J. Epic Fiction: The Art of Rudy Wiebe. Edmonton: U of Alberta, 1981.

———, ed. A Voice in the Land: Essays by and about Rudy Wiebe. Edmonton: NeWest P, 1981.

Mandel, Eli, and Rudy Wiebe. “Where the Voice Comes From” [interview]. CBC radio program, 7 Dec. 1974. Quill and Quire, Dec. 1974. Rpt. A Voice in the Land, 150–55.

Melnyk, George. “The Western Canadian Imagination: An Interview with Rudy Wiebe.” Canadian Fiction Magazine, Winter 1974. Rpt. A Voice in the Land, 204–08.

Morley, Patricia. The Comedians: Hugh Hood and Rudy Wiebe. Toronto: Clarke Irwin, 1977.

Moss, John. The Canadian Novel Here and Now. Toronto: NC Press, 1978.

Neuman, Shirley. “Unearthing Language: An Interview with Rudy Wiebe and Robert Kroetsch.” A Voice in the Land, 226–47.

Redekop, Magdalene. Rudy Wiebe. Profiles in Canadian Literature Series. Toronto: Dundurn P, 1981.

———. “Translated into the Past: Language in The Blue Mountains of China.A Voice in the Land, 97–123.

Reimer, Margaret, and Sue Steiner. “Translating Life into Art: A Conversation with Rudy Wiebe.” Mennonite Reporter 3 (Nov. 1973). Rpt. A Voice in the Land, 126–30.

Scobie, Stephen. “For Goodness' Sake.” Books in Canada, Feb. 1980, 3–5.

Solecki, Sam. “Giant Fictions and Large Meanings: The Novels of Rudy Wiebe.” The Canadian Forum 60 (March 1981): 5–8, 13.

Suderman, Elmer. “Universal Values in Rudy Wiebe's Peace Shall Destroy Many.Mennonite Life 20 (Oct. 1965). Rpt. A Voice in the Land, 69–78.

Twigg, Alan. “Public Eye” [interview with Rudy Wiebe]. For Openers: Conversations with 24 Canadian Writers. Madeira Park, B.C.: Harbour 1981, 207–18.

Van Braght, Tieleman Jansz. Martelaersspiegel [Martyrs' Mirror]. Amsterdam: Hieronymus Sweerts, 1685. Trans. and rpt. in numerous German and English editions (including Scottdale, Pa: Mennonite Publishing House, 1950, and Herald P, 1985).

Wiebe, Rudy. The Blue Mountains of China. 1970. Rpt. New Canadian Library. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1975.

———. “A Novelist's Personal Notes on Frederick Philip Grove.” U of Toronto Q, (Spring 1978). Rpt. A Voice in the Land, 212–25.

———. Peace Shall Destroy Many. 1962. Rpt. New Canadian Library. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1972.

Kenneth Hoeppner (essay date December 1986)

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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 can place Riel within the context of his own people, can force us to see the whole uprising through the eyes of those who were impelled to take up arms.”2 Allan Dueck and Sam Solecki make similar observations. These commentators also link Wiebe's “radical reinterpretation of Canadian prairie history from the perspective of the defeated outcasts”3 with his radical Christianity. Solecki explains the significance of the connection:

If, furthermore, regional fiction is by definition antithetical or oppositional in that its world view stands opposed to the dominant ideology of some real or imagined centre, then a Christian regional fiction is doubly so. In Wiebe's case this means that his fiction is “contestational” (Sartre's term) on two fronts: when he writes about western life and history from a western point of view his fiction stands in opposition to the homogeneous view of Canadian experience whose geographical centre is Ontario and whose ideological origins are in the Laurentian thesis and “national” history; as a Mennonite who happens to be a western writer his novels stand in opposition to a secular and capitalist world view whose centre is everywhere—Edmonton as well as Toronto. In both cases he writes polemically towards and against a hegemonic centre: to make a convenient if artificial distinction, in the first instance he writes as a western writer, in the second as a Christian who happens to incarnate his words—based on the never changing Word—in characters and events that happen to be located in the west.4

But this linking of political reinterpretation with radical Christianity also raises the question of the novel's political implications. Wayne Tefs suggests that “while Wiebe nicely captures the anguish of key figures in the indigenous culture who resisted the imperialist advances, casting their plight in spiritual terms blurs the origins of their dilemmas; reconciling their agony through mystery avoids the social realities behind their personal suffering. At issue here is not the sincerity of Wiebe's conception; the issue is the adequacy of his visionary Christianity to adequately account for the lives and deaths of Big Bear, Riel and Dumont.”5 W. J. Keith, while recognizing Wiebe's artistic achievement, also notices the problem of reconciling religious vision with political pragmatism:

… part of the painful urgency behind the last half of the novel stems, I suggest, from the fact that Wiebe wants to believe in Riel's impossible “great vision” rather than Dumont's practical guerrilla-tactics, yet knows at the same time that, pragmatically, the latter were necessary for success.6

In this paper I propose to attempt such a reconciliation by suggesting that Wiebe's presentation of the historical events follows a line of reasoning most favourable to the Metis, thus giving them a past to be proud of, while also emphasizing the importance of Riel's religious vision in giving them that past. Instead of seeing Riel's religion as the obstacle to the Metis success, Wiebe sees it as the possibility for their renewal. The first part of the paper will examine Wiebe's reinterpretation of the effect of Riel's religious mission on the Metis nation, linking this reinterpretation to Wiebe's Mennonite beliefs; the second part will examine the connection between the novel's attempt to transcend time through its narrative structure and religious content. This examination applies, to The Scorched-Wood People, Ina Ferris's comment on narrative strategy in The Blue Mountains of China:

the narrative questions in effect constitute a metatheme—a secular version of the novel's main theme that engages the reader directly and turns his experience into a confrontation of the central concerns of the fiction,7

suggesting that by trying to put the novel in God's time,”8 Wiebe invites the reader to grant the possibility that Riel's mission may yet be accomplished.

In The Scorched-Wood People the traditional Christianity of the institutional church fulfils the function of “legitimating a given power structure,”9 as is illustrated by Father Fourmond's sermon on St. Joseph's Day, 19 March 1885. He admonishes the congregation that “… to rebel against the properly constituted civil authorities is as great a crime against God as to rebel against the Holy Mother Church, or the Holy Father!”10 Riel's response to Father Fourmond distinguishes his “divine mission” from the mission of the institutionalized church (see page 222), but does Riel's Christianity not have the same result of ensuring the Metis' subjection? His hesitation in calling the Metis to arms, directly attributable to the religious view Wiebe ascribes to him, can be seen as the cause of the Metis' defeat.

Both Joseph Kinsey Howard and George Woodcock hold Riel's religious and visionary ideas as indicative of his irrationality. They regard his ideas as resulting in the political and military ineffectiveness of the Metis' struggle. Howard believes that Riel's idea of his religious mission interfered with the Metis adopting the best military strategy.11 Woodcock is even more emphatic in holding Riel's religion and related imbalance responsible for the Metis' defeat: “If the Métis expected a political leader, they received a prophet, an exalté, a prairie Gandhi without Gandhi's consistency, for Riel developed desperate policies that could succeed only by means of violence, and yet he shrank from violence when it came.”12

Wiebe disagrees with the idea that the Metis nation failed in its struggle with the Canadian government because Riel's mission interfered with their adopting the best military strategy. The Metis failed to become a permanent new nation because they became militarily engaged with Macdonald's government. Within the novel itself, Wiebe makes the point through the omniscient narrator, Pierre Falcon. As W. J. Keith has argued, Falcon is both eye-witness and omniscient narrator “with the historical knowledge and twentieth-century experience of a Rudy Wiebe,”13 and I agree with Keith that, “when Falcon speaks ‘from beyond the grave’ (284) as an authoritative, omniscient narrator, he has taken over the function of the novelist; author and narrator can no longer be easily separated.”14 Wiebe uses Falcon's omniscience to allow him to report Macdonald's thoughts upon hearing of Crozier's defeat at Duck Lake. For Macdonald, war is fortunate. It ensures that parliament will approve the loans necessary to complete the railroad:

… this was most easily war. And one must call it that, as Macdonald said smiling his patented double House of Commons smile which in one expression could contain regret for the sorrow of mothers and wives and children weeping their dear hearts out when men are called to arms and at the same time the blessed relief that finally something drastic has been perpetrated and even the dullest voter will comprehend that now guns can provide their simple, direct solution and with any luck most of the problem will be blown apart altogether and one thing at least is confoundedly certain: no picayunish Opposition will have the gall to yell about budget deficits! …

And the political capstone: no Opposition would now dare vote against the last gigantic loan which could complete the financing of the Canadian Pacific Railway for the massive benefit of Canada from Sea to Sea and, quite incidentally, for the benefit of CPR shareholders. Riel had created the catastrophe, an outbreak worthy for Conservative purposes of elevation to rebellion, as the Prime Minister would explain carefully to the Governor General as soon as the fighting was over: “In respect to the character of the outbreak, we have certainly made it assume large proportions in the public eye. This has been done, however, for our own purposes, and I think, wisely done.”


In suggesting that Macdonald welcomed armed conflict in the Northwest, Wiebe follows a line of argument developed by Howard Adams in Prison of Grass.15 Adams notes that public tax money for building the CPR had been cut off: “Macdonald was under pressure to restore public faith in the railroad, [and] British financiers had also postponed investing in the CPR until economic conditions in the Northwest improved”(90). He concludes:

A comprehensive plan was needed to aid the economy, but this was impossible as long as Ottawa did not have control over how the Northwest was to be governed and administered. Although military invasion was a drastic measure, it was the simplest and most efficient method of achieving this control; the main problem was to make it appear to be necessary for the sake of law and order in the Northwest, so that Macdonald could escape political censure from the Liberals in the East. To justify a military invasion, the Macdonald government obviously allowed the Indian and Metis problems to become aggravated and possibly even encouraged them so that conditions would result in violence.


To ensure that the Metis would take up arms, Macdonald refused to act on their petitions but also, according to Adams, engaged Charles Nolin as an agent provocateur (91). Wiebe's characterization of Nolin, while not actually presenting Nolin engaged in such activity, is in accord with Adams' interpretation. Falcon usually refers to Nolin as “our Charles” (27, 194, 322), the “our” being obviously ironic in each of these contexts. Falcon also speculates that had Nolin and Riel actually fought at Red River in 1870, “a split nose, a burst knuckle given and received might have saved Nolin from his treachery when spring broke through the long winter on the Saskatchewan fifteen years later” (66). Gabriel Dumont also thinks of Nolin as a traitor, as Falcon reports:

… he should have shot the bastard the day he arrived from Manitoba, just ridden over when Patrice Tourond told him, shot him and thrown him and his endless government money into the river; Crozier could never have proved anything. But our Charles had come, all big smile and papers carefully written in English, built the biggest house in the settlement complete with carved white posts on a verandah, always a government contract—interpreter, justice of the peace, telegraph poles, spy— …


Nolin shouted loudest for Riel to stay even though Riel made it clear that his staying would have violent consequences (217–18), yet as soon as violence broke out at Duck Lake, Nolin gave himself up to the police (248–49). And Nolin became the chief witness for the crown in its prosecution of Riel for treason.

If Macdonald actually tried to provoke violence by ignoring the Metis' petitions, then answering them with policemen and troops, the Metis fell into his trap as soon as they started to fight the government's forces. Nor does Wiebe agree with Woodcock's idea that had the Metis followed Dumont's military strategy, they might have been able to prolong the struggle sufficiently to force Macdonald to negotiate. Wiebe's comments on Woodcock's manuscript show that Wiebe thinks that Woodcock contradicts himself on the point of Dumont's superior military strategy. He notes Woodcock's observation that “Major Boulton sent his scouts to explore the ravine and it was now that Dumont's own foolhardiness spoilt what remaining chance he might have to take his enemies by surprise.”16 Wiebe underlines “own foolhardiness” and writes that this “undermines Woodcock's point altogether” (MS 238).

Neither does Wiebe believe Riel's idea of mission to be a sign of his shrewdness as does Thomas Flanagan. Flanagan writes that “at the end of 1875, Riel, having found it unrewarding to continue to play the role of politician, could not easily commence to play the role of priest, but he could very quickly become a prophet.”17 Wiebe writes on Flanagan's manuscript that this is “too mechanistic” and also wrong for “in classical biblical talk this would already prove him false, since no prophet decides this for himself: he is called by God, and often unwilling.”18 The rhetoric of Wiebe's presentation of Riel's defence of his calling invites our agreement that Riel has a mission:

I have always believed … that to hear, and obey, the voice of God who made us all is the highest possible form of human wisdom. And when that voice speaks again and again, calling you to help the weak find justice, the hungry food, that oppressed, guilty consciences must find liberty, how could any human being refuse to obey it? To try, anyway?


But this obedience results in Riel's leading the Metis to defeat. In order to understand how Wiebe sees the possibility for a radical renewal of the Metis nation in that defeat, I think it useful to examine Wiebe's concepts of pacifism and political action.

Wiebe, in an interview with Robert Kroetsch and Shirley Neuman, cites John Howard Yoder's The Politics of Jesus as having “influenced [his] thought about what it means to be a Christian more than almost anything else.”19 Yoder maintains that “Jesus is … a model of radical political action,”20 yet Jesus' example and teaching seem to contradict this in that he taught love for one's enemies and refused violent means for establishing God's kingdom on earth. The Anabaptist, or Mennonite, teaching of pacifism seems also to contradict the idea that the Christian should be a model of radical political action, yet this is what Wiebe and Yoder believe.

Yoder holds to the traditional Christian view as expressed in the Nicene and Chalcedonian creed-statements that Jesus was “true God and true Man” (105). He argues that this view should “be taken more seriously, as relevant to our social problems” (105). An assessment of the validity of his argument is beyond my competence, but I will try to outline its main elements. Yoder believes that Jesus' example is normative. He maintains that

Jesus was, in his divinely mandated (i.e. promised, anointed, messianic) prophethood, priesthood, and kingship, the bearer of a new possibility of human, social, and therefore political relationships. His baptism is the inauguration and his cross is the culmination of that new regime in which his disciples are called to share.


The new regime abides by an “ethic marked by the cross, a cross identified as the punishment of a man who threatens society by creating a new kind of community leading a radically new kind of life” (63).

Yoder identifies the “Powers” that Jesus broke with his life and death as those structures religious, intellectual, moral, and political that “fail to serve man as they should. They do not enable him to live a genuinely free, human, loving life” (146). “The Powers cannot simply be destroyed or set aside or ignored. Their sovereignty must be broken. This is what Jesus did, concretely and historically, by living among men a genuinely free and human existence. This life brought him, as any genuinely human existence will bring any man, to the cross” (147). Yoder emphasizes that the Christian church is the continuing model of this resistance to the “Powers” (151) thus emphasizing the need for the existence of a Christian community:

Nor does he [the Apostle Paul] say that the only way to change structures is to change the heart of an individual man, preferably the man in power, and then see that he exercises his control of society with more humility or discernment or according to better standards. What needs to be seen is rather that the primary social structure through which the gospel works to change other structures is that of the Christian community. Here, within this community, men are rendered humble and changed in the way they behave not simply by a proclamation directed to their sense of guilt but also by genuine social relationships with other persons who ask them about their obedience. …


Hence Jesus' victory over temporal, political power in his lifetime is a victory over earthly power for all time. This victory over the temporal powers is now available to all Christians. It is theirs through faith that it is so, but few individuals, let alone whole communities, have sufficient faith to live as if the victory is achieved. Wiebe has Riel make the point to the Metis at Batoche:

“All creation groans for redemption,” said Riel. “We cannot imagine, the world has never seen, what would happen if a whole people would sacrifice to truly love God and do his will. Israel was called, the Holy Church was called, but they would not. They could never face the terrible demand of faith. Always only a saint, one solitary saint here or there far from each other, but a whole nation believing, holy enough to carry God's will into the world, that would turn winter into spring. We would not recognize the goodness and love that would run everywhere like water raining from heaven, every man love every woman, every woman every man, in purity like a mother her child, like a brother his sister.”


Wiebe's emphasis on the legitimacy of the Metis nation becomes clearer in this context. If the nation is founded upon Christian faith, it really will confound the powers of this world. But the Metis put their faith in guns and were defeated. Wiebe's questioning Woodcock's idea that Dumont's military strategy might have worked makes clear his view that the faith in guns was misplaced. However, the defeat of the nation is also a victory, for Riel gives himself up to Middleton and the government so that his mission can be fulfilled: “‘I come to fulfil God's will,’ Riel pronounced in careful English. ‘Through the grace of God I believe I am a prophet of the new world’” (314). The typology is clearly Christian. Christ also submitted to the powers he came to overthrow and in his submission and death victoriously accomplished his mission. Wiebe emphasizes the connection by quoting from one of Riel's last written prayers: “By the grace and foolishness and scandal of the cross of our Lord, accept my foolish suffering. Renew the face of the earth!” (330), and has Falcon comment: “the way of the cross was humiliation; the prophet must die to reveal his ultimate vision, and this conviction transfigured Riel's understanding of himself even as he heard workmen at the end of the guard-house begin to hammer together what he knew must be his scaffold” (330). Riel's willing death is a reminder to the Metis of Christ's willing death and their faith in Riel combined with their faith in Christ can once more make them a community to confound the powers of this world.

The ending of the novel emphasizes that this restored faith is a possibility. As Gabriel Dumont tells Crozier: “… you think Riel is finished? He said a hundred years is just a spoke in the wheel of eternity. We'll remember. A hundred years and whites still won't know what to do with him” (351). Falcon's closing prayer, “O God I pray again, let our people not be confounded. Give them that faith again” (351), confirms the view that the Metis' recovery of identity as a people depends on faith, not arms. It echoes the closing line of the Te Deum, “O Lord, in thee have I trusted: let me never be confounded.” From Wiebe's Christian perspective, the act of faith required to recognize that Riel's execution is the victory of the Metis' cause will ensure that the Metis will not be confounded. This victory involves accepting Riel's spiritual as well as his political leadership.

Wiebe uses the narrative structure of the novel to support the idea that Riel's victory, like Christ's, is present, not past. In the interview with Neuman and Kroetsch already cited, Wiebe suggests that he is striving for a sense of “timelessness” in The Scorched-Wood People. He achieves this effect in two ways: by making “temporal planes interpenetrate” (240) in Neuman's words, and by telling us stories we know, as Kroetsch says (241). Wiebe refers to the opening scene of the novel as representing the pattern of this timelessness. He does not develop the analysis farther but an examination of the verb forms even in the opening paragraph reveals how Wiebe makes “temporal planes interpenetrate.” Two main events in Riel's life are linked: his dressing for the declaration of the formation of a Provisional Government in 1869, and his dressing for his hanging in 1885. From the perspective of the narrator, the two events are parallel, almost coincident. The verb forms range from the future conditional “would be,” suggesting both the future and the past, Riel's future but the past from the narrator's perspective, to the simple past of “betrayed,” the simple future of “will hear” and “will obediently mount,” and finally to the present of “is … dead” and “have mercy.” For the narrator, as for God, “all is now.” By telling us stories that we know, Wiebe includes us in this experience of timelessness.

Again, the first paragraph of the novel reveals that Wiebe assumes our familiarity with the story. The first words, “sixteen years later,” depend on the reader's knowing that the two events referred to occurred in 1869 and 1885. If the reader knows this, then the events exist concurrently in history, the narrator's mind, and the reader's consciousness, reinforcing the idea of timelessness. The details of Riel's dressing gain significance from the reader's knowledge of Riel's fastidiousness tending towards dandyism. The description of his stone white face, which betrays nothing of his ancestry, reminds the reader that Riel was seven-eighths French-Canadian and one-eighth native Canadian. The reference to his ancestry shifting in the mirror links with the reader's knowledge that Riel's concept of who he was, educated French-Canadian or prairie Metis, was unsettled. The mirror and its image as “whorled brown water” reminds us of Riel's reputation for introspection, almost narcissism. The next sentence's reference to “four perfectly completed fours of years” links with Riel's well-documented belief in the significance of dates and numbers. One could continue to demonstrate that almost every sentence in the novel is linked to a body of information about Riel and the Metis. The full effect of Wiebe's writing depends on the existence of a “community of interpreters.”21 The process of reading the novel is thus a paradigm of the process of making a community necessary if the radical politics of the novel are to be realized. The writer tries to engage the reader in the immediacy of the historical event, but to do so he has to depend on the reader's having or being willing to develop the knowledge of the past necessary to experience its immediacy. This paradigm is consistent with Wiebe's view that the individual is not the source or end of meaning but rather needs to find her or his significance within the context of a community both human and divine.22 The reader who lacks the historical knowledge necessary to enjoy the resonance of the references may be challenged to try to understand them. Similarly, the reader unfamiliar with Wiebe's religious views may be challenged by Wiebe's reinterpretation of history emphasizing the“timelessness” of events to consider the concept of Christ's transcendence of time, which is fundamental to Wiebe's view.

As Riel's speech about the revolution possible when a people share a faith, considered in the framework of Wiebe's Anabaptist thought, shows, the community will be a witness to the contemporaneity of Jesus' victory over the political powers of this world. The community's exemplary life, including its willing submission to oppressive forces when the oppressor's actions cannot be changed by reasonable and peaceable means, will confound the ruling powers. Such revolution ultimately depends on faith, but Wiebe sees his fiction as helping to provide the basis for that faith. The process of reading and interpreting history represents the process of making a community.

What are the “practical results” of Riel's and Wiebe's beliefs, for as Riel tells Middleton, his “mission is to bring about practical results” (315)? First, the community of believers must be established and the telling of history is part of the process of establishing that community. Wiebe makes this point most directly in “On the Trail of Big Bear”:

All people have history. The stories we tell of our past are by no means merely words: they are meaning and life to us as people, as a particular people; the stories are there, and if we do not know of them we are simply, like animals, memory ignorant, and the less we are people.

Voice in the Land, 134)

As Allan Dueck says, this story-telling “is the assertion of their [the Metis' and Indians'] peoplehood that must precede any recovery of cultural vitality.”23

Once a people has been united culturally and religiously, they need to be able to govern themselves in order to translate beliefs into practical terms. Riel had a vision of the Canadian West that would allow such an application of belief to government, as he showed in his declaration of a Provisional Government in 1885:

“I hereby declare,” Riel pronounced slowly, “the formation of a Provisional Government for the North-West. This government will fight for our sacred rights, the liberties and lives of our wives and children. It will fill our great land with God-fearing men and women from the poor of the world, from Poland and Bavaria and Italy and Ireland and France, everywhere. It will give the same freedom and honour to our Indian brothers as is right in the sight of God and men, and we shall live in peace.”


Whether or not such self-government is possible in the contemporary world depends to a considerable extent on the responses of the novel's various readers. If Metis readers respond by agreeing with Dumont that Riel is not finished (351), then Falcon's prayer will be answered and the Metis' faith and sense of community will be restored. If non-Metis readers have developed the historical insight necessary to share the novel's vision, they will become a community united in their support of the Metis' attempts. While readers may disagree with Wiebe's interpretation of religious thought which holds that pacifism is the basis for revolutionary political action, their involvement in the process of reading the work will have required that they consider that interpretation as a possibility.


  1. Brian Bergman, “Rudy Wiebe: Storymaker of the Prairies,” in A Voice in the Land, ed. W. J. Keith (Edmonton: NeWest Press, 1981), p. 165.

  2. W. J. Keith, Epic Fiction: The Art of Rudy Wiebe (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1981), p. 8.

  3. Allan Dueck: “Rudy Wiebe's Approach to Historical Fiction: A Study of The Temptations of Big Bear and The Scorched-Wood People,” in The Canadian Novel Here and Now, ed. John Moss (Toronto: NC Press, 1978), p. 182.

  4. Sam Solecki, “Giant Fictions and Large Meanings: The Novels of Rudy Wiebe,” Canadian Forum, 60 (March 1981), 5.

  5. Wayne Tefs, “Rudy Wiebe: Mystery and Reality,” Mosaic, XI/4 (Summer 1978), 158.

  6. Keith, Epic Fiction, p. 102.

  7. Ina Ferris, “Religious Vision and Fictional Form: Rudy Wiebe's The Blue Mountains of China,” in A Voice in the Land, ed. W. J. Keith (Edmonton: NeWest Press, 1981), p. 92.

  8. Keith, Epic Fiction, p. 100.

  9. Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1981), p. 291.

  10. Rudy Wiebe, The Scorched-Wood People (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1977), p. 221. All further references to this work appear in the text.

  11. Joseph Kinsey Howard, Strange Empire (1952, rpt. Toronto: Swan, 1965). Howard makes this point on pp. 318, 328, 332, 335, and 341–42.

  12. George Woodcock, Gabriel Dumont: The Metis Chief and his Lost World (Edmonton: Hurtig, 1975), p. 13.

  13. Keith, Epic Fiction, p. 99.

  14. Keith, Epic Fiction, p. 101.

  15. Howard Adams, Prison of Grass: Canada from the Native Point of View (Toronto: General Publishing, 1975). All further references to this work appear in the text. Wiebe's papers contain only one reference to Adams: “Howard Adams—U of Saskatchewan—re expert on Dumont?—according to Maria Campbell Adams once thought himself a re-incarnation of Riel—now maligns him for Dumont.” The Rudy Wiebe Papers, University of Calgary Library, Special Collections Division, 41.3A.

  16. George Woodcock, Gabriel Dumont MS in The Rudy Wiebe Papers, University of Calgary Library, Special Collections Division, 26.2, p. 238. The title page of the manuscript bears Wiebe's notation “Ms. rec. from Hurtig Pub. just prior to publication.” The MS and the published text are identical; the passage being considered appears on p. 199 of the published edition.

  17. Thomas Flanagan, “Louis Riel: Insanity and Prophecy,” MS in The Rudy Wiebe Papers, University of Calgary Library, Special Collections Division, 41.6D, p. 7. Although Flanagan's book Louis David Riel: Prophet of the New World (1979) was published two years after The Scorched-Wood People (1977), Wiebe's papers contain early drafts of the book's chapters which Flanagan made available to Wiebe in the spring and summer of 1975. Wiebe began his draft of the novel on 3 January 1976. Flanagan's manuscripts are in Box 4, Files 6D, 8F, 9G, and 10H of the Rudy Wiebe Papers. In his book Flanagan revised the wording of the section under discussion to: “seeing that all his political ambitions had led nowhere, Riel sought compensation in the religious realm, where greatness was still possible.” Louis “David” Riel (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1979), p. 48.

  18. Flanagan, MS, p. 7.

  19. Shirley Neuman, “Unearthing Language: An Interview with Rudy Wiebe and Robert Kroetsch,” in A Voice in the Land, ed. W. J. Keith (Edmonton: NeWest Press, 1981), p. 243. All further references to this work appear in the text.

  20. John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1972), p. 12. All further references to this work appear in the text.

  21. The phrase is Stanley Fish's in Is There a Text in this Class: The Authority of Interpretive Communities (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1980), p. 14.

  22. Francis Mansbridge observes that “throughout Wiebe's work is a strong sense of community.” “Wiebe's Sense of Community,” Canadian Literature, no. 77 (Summer 1978), 42.

    Sam Solecki notes that “the Indians like the other two ‘marginal’ groups Wiebe writes about, the Mennonites and the Metis, ‘have a much stronger sense of community than most white people do’ (Wiebe to Cameron), and this sense of community is predicated upon a religious attitude to life.” “Giant fictions,” p. 7.

    For a discussion of the connection between Anabaptism and the concept of nationality see Calvin Redekop, “Anabaptism and the Ethnic Ghost,” Mennonite Quarterly Review, 58 (April 1984), 133–46.

    Vicky Schreiber Dill's article, “Land Relatedness in the Mennonite Novels of Rudy Wiebe,” Mennonite Quarterly Review, 57 (January 1984), 50–69 also discusses the subject.

  23. Dueck, p. 186.

Carla Visser (essay date 1987)

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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 last few decades, historiographers and fiction writers alike have shown an increasing awareness of the problems surrounding the narrativization of history. Very often, this awareness parallels a larger philosophical questioning of the power of discourse to shape our perceptions of reality. This is hardly a new concept, but the way in which modern storytellers try to deal with it is, as the emergence of the term “post-moderism” suggests.

In his article “The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality,”1 Hayden White, author of various probes into the nature of historiography and the historical imagination, discusses both the advantages and the disadvantages of the narrativization of history. The value of narrative—and this is true not only for historiography but for all instances of storytelling—resides in its capacity for communication, for expressing our interpretations of reality to one another. In order to be effective, then, narrative has to obey certain conventions that make understanding possible; in other words, it has to appeal to what we like to call “common sense”—which, as White points out, is actually common only to a certain society in a specific historical situation. The “truths” that storytellers—historians as well as fiction writers—implicitly rely on to make communication and comprehension possible must be considered conventions, evolved within and accepted by the members of a particular group. Since narrative constitutes the most effective and perhaps the only means of expressing and communicating our views of the world—especially where the past is concerned—the use of these conventions is not only inevitable but also valuable.

At the same time, however, their unquestioned acceptance threatens to obscure their conventional nature and to cast them, instead, as objective, self-evident truths. Accordingly, narrative is often seen as an objective account of reality rather than a culturally conditioned interpretation of it, and historians in particular seem to do little to prevent this, in spite of the fact that the “telling” of past reality poses additional problems in this regard. In the first place, readers of stories about historical events cannot counterbalance the information and interpretation given in the story with personal first-hand experience, since the only knowledge they can have of these events is provided by textual sources. Historians, therefore, should be especially careful to establish that they are not presenting readers with objective truth about past events. Second, much of the evidence available to historians themselves consists of stories told by other, earlier interpreters, so that the problems of narrativization gain an extra dimension: writers have to be aware not only of their own role as interpreters and their own cultural context, but of the cultural circumstances of the “authentic” documents as well. For White, the answer to these problems seems obvious: rather than claiming objectivity, rather even than aspiring to objectivity, historiographers should make it clear, to their readers, that events do not and cannot “tell themselves.”

In modern Canadian literature, this “prescription” parallels the way in which two historical novels, Rudy Wiebe's The Temptations of Big Bear and George Bowering's Burning Water deal with the problems of historical fiction. In spite of obvious differences, these two novels share many underlying preoccupations, the most important of which is undoubtedly their awareness of the historical and cultural conditioning of discourse and their desire to make the reader also aware of this. How exactly they achieve this and what this suggests regarding their view of historical fiction will be the subject of the following discussion.


In both Burning Water and The Temptations of Big Bear, the unconventional narrative structure, as well as the thematization of certain relevant notions, calls attention to the problem posed by the impossibility of objectivity in narrating the past. While the frequent references to different voices and different languages in The Temptations of Big Bear make the reader realize how one-sided our view of Canadian history is, Burning Water's focus on the relationship between the factual and the imaginary emphasizes this novel's attempt at a critique of fiction as such, and of historical narrative in general. Since Wiebe's novel is the least adamant in its rejection of “realist” traditions and its exploration of new techniques, I shall start with a discussion of the thematic of “voice” in The Temptations of Big Bear, in order to establish a framework for further comparison.

The importance of “voice” and “language” as recurrent leitmotive in this novel is hard to ignore, since they manifest themselves in many ways. To begin with, very many expressions are used that somehow refer to words and speech, where Wiebe could just as well have used other expressions. For example, Big Bear pleads for “one voice”2 when asking for an Indian representative in Ottawa; Sitting Bull, to express the idea that someone else will have to take over his leadership, says: “someone else must finish my words”(147); when the chiefs leave Big Bear's lodge, they thank him not for his hospitality but for his words (66); and to express his confidence in John McDougall, Sweetgrass explains: “when you speak I hear my own voice”(45).

The correspondences which are established between the speaker and his voice have the same “foregrounding” effect: Wiebe contrasts the “harder, wilder depth” (21) of Big Bear's voice with the “soft clear voice” (22) of Sweetgrass, and makes Big Bear wonder about the strangeness of the judge's voice, “thinly hard like steel … from so thick a body” (399), and the voice of the court-clerk, “the little dry man shouting aloud as if his voice were intended for open prairie” (394). Big Bear's own voice is, of course, very closely tied in with his life and his power. When he meets Lieutenant-Governor Morris, his voice is strong, “echoing over the valley” (23); but at Frog Creek, “his great voice was lost in the immense lake and creek valley” (258), signalling his loss of authority.

Still another way in which the problem of language is emphasized is by pointing out the difficulties of translation. The best example here is Peter Erasmus' translation of “treason” into Cree; he explains that it is like throwing sticks at the Queen's hat (387), but all through the novel, and in particular in the courtroom scenes, the problem is reiterated. At one point, Big Bear refers to White notions “for which no one could shape sound or any combination of sound leave alone a recognizable sign,” which, he believes, is so “because there [is] no order in the White world” (62).

What this really means, of course, is that the White world—or rather, world view—has its own kind of order, and the different voices and languages can be considered metaphors for the different perceptions of reality that govern two distinct cultures. The different uses of the land, for example, provide a basis for many of the recurrent themes. Morris, in the first chapter, admits that he cannot see the land otherwise than in miles, or in the form of a map (10)—and Captain William Butler, in 1870, finds it “humiliating to an Englishman that so fine a country should be totally neglected” (40); but, for the Indians, the White man's plans for the land seem destructive: “As if just under the edge of [Big Bear's] vision a giant blade was slicing through the earth, cutting off everything with roots, warping everything into something Whiteskin clean and straight” (91). It is not surprising, then, that while for Dewdney the railroad will “humanize …, structure and package” the land (114), to the Indians the railroad “splits it open” (201), “strangles” it (204). Similarly, for the Whites, a square seems to be the ideal form, but Big Bear wishes that he could “see their round beautiful world coming nearer again” (106), and in council he worries that the sun “is starting to look as if it had four corners” (93). At the very end of the novel, of course, the squareness is triumphant, and Big Bear is glad to escape it by dying (409).

The thematization of these differences between White and Indian words, and White and Indian views, makes the reader more and more aware of the importance of the historical and cultural context in which stories of reality are told—or rather, to use one of Wiebe's favourite expressions, in which they are made.3

Hayden White's assessment of the value of narrativity as dependent on “common sense” is taken up by Wiebe in his suggestion that communication between members of different social groups is extremely difficult. At the same time, however, The Temptations of Big Bear is an obvious attempt to show that such communication is not impossible, as long as the different interlocutors are aware of each other's historical and cultural backgrounds; in this case, of course, it is mainly the reader's awareness which is required. The Temptations of Big Bear, then, is, above all, an effort to come to terms with a clash between two cultures and to remedy the one-sidedness of the account of this clash in Canadian historiography.

At this point, it is important to remember that the Indian culture was essentially an oral culture. For the benefit of forgetful readers (whose very role in this enterprise indicates that they belong to a “written” culture), this is emphasized time and again, through, for example, the theme of “voice” and Big Bear's mistrust of written words, but it becomes especially clear and important in the last chapter, where the White preference for the written word makes the judge refuse Big Bear's spoken words as evidence. And when the lawyer responds by asking “Are we to pretend in this court that Indians habitually communicate by written orders, by letters of intention!” (377), he is essentially ignored. When Big Bear is finally allowed to speak for himself (which is after the verdict has been reached), he concludes by saying: “I ask the court to print my words and scatter them among White people” (400)—thus acknowledging, not necessarily the superiority of the written word, but the White people's tendency to regard as “true” only what is written, and preferably printed.

The oral character of Indian culture, combined with the Whites' veneration of the written document, means that the history of western Canada is a “White” history; that is, it has been seen through White eyes and told in a White voice. In The Temptations of Big Bear, Wiebe partly makes up for this; in a sense, he has printed Big Bear's words and scattered them among White people.4 But he also points out that neither side can tell the whole truth; no single story can tell it all. The Temptations of Big Bear contains both White and Indian voices. It seems to say that, since every story is told from a specific viewpoint, each story contains its own, partial and subjective, but nonetheless real, truth. Poundmaker, who was present at the events described here, later says that “it was sometimes hard to say what the truth was” (404). This statement is diametrically opposed to the Crown Prosecutor's assertion: “It is not necessary for me to mention any of the circumstances … because the whole matter … is now almost a matter of history” (357–58); in other words, it is known, defined, and unchangeable. In The Temptations of Big Bear, Wiebe refuses this conception of history as something closed and fully known, even as something that can be fully known.

This insistence on the impossibility of one true story is further reinforced by the narrative structure of the novel. Rather than telling one story, from one point of view, Wiebe calls upon a whole series of “storytellers.” First-person narrators, whose names usually appear in italics above their “stories,” alternate with characters whose thoughts and actions are presented in the third person, but all of them “speak” their own kind of language, in their own distinctly personal voices. The “efficiency” and lack of imagination of Morris's language in the first chapter, for example, are in total contrast to the first words spoken by Sweetgrass: “My heart rises like a bird to see you once more” (17).

It soon becomes clear that this initial difference between the voices of Morris and Sweetgrass is only the first indication of a much larger issue, namely the opposition between White and Indian discourse—which, as was suggested above, is itself a sign of the confrontation between two totally different ways of interpreting reality. The contrast between, for instance, a story told by Colonel Irvine and another story told by Wandering Spirit is startlingly suggestive of the underlying differences in perception. Irvine begins his story as follows:

In 1878, Big Bear, the Cree chief who figured so prominently in the 1885 troubles, had stopped the Government surveyors from carrying on their work. Complaints of this were brought to me. I selected twenty-six men and we proceeded to the scene of the trouble, taking our Winchester rifles with which we had just been equipped.


The dates, the facts, the actions are all very efficiently stated—perfectly understandable to the White reader. Wandering Spirit's story, on the other hand, is likely to disorient that same reader because of the “unusual” way in which it presents itself:

I am very young then, … and I go with Bare Earth of the West People. It is in the Eagle Moon and I run a lot over the snow, ahead scouting. I am thin and hard from running all the time.


Through Wiebe's use of such very different styles, readers are shown the existence and the importance, of presuppositions and “moral meanings”5 inherent in language itself (since Wandering Spirit's words must be considered, here, as a translation from Cree), as well as in the speaker's whole culture. Although the stories told by the many characters in this novel may well be based on reality, they are never created solely from “objective”—nor, for that matter, purely “subjective”—material. A very obvious thematization of this idea in the text is the incident with the surveyors described by Irvine in the above quotation, and the very different accounts given of it by the other parties involved, who all claim their victory (86–7, 89, 115). A second, and perhaps more powerful, effect of this narrative structure is that it forces readers to be aware of the historical and cultural context of the different stories—if only to follow and understand the storyline. In his monologue early on in the novel, John McDougall points out the necessity of knowing “where the voice is coming from”:6 “when I hear words about the Indian treaties, I take a long look at where they come from”(36), and that is what Wiebe seems to want the reader to do: always to remember who is speaking.

However, even if the reader is constantly alert to the conditions in which the speakers “make” their stories, the often intentionally confusing language and points of view which mark in particular the “Indian” stories sometimes make it extremely hard to understand what is “happening.” Just as Big Bear has trouble understanding the “order” of the White world, we, as White readers, find it difficult to see the logic of the Indian perspective, and, consequently, of the Indian way of telling stories. Usually, but not always, the reader will understand the White voices quite easily, in spite of their nineteenth-century origin, and in spite of the fact that they are not always complete; but as soon as the narrator focuses on the Indians, it is likely that readers will be somewhat bewildered. Instead of dates, we have seasons, or phases of the moon such as “the Start to Fly Moon” (196) or “the Frozen-over Moon” (215); place names, too, become less recognizable: “Where-The-Bones-Lie” (315) and “The Place-where-Bullhead-lives” (42) replace our, now conventional, designations. Similarly, the description of Little Bear's Sundance, which marks his entry into manhood, does not refer to anything in the White readers' world, so that, in spite of the clear words and the obvious violence of that paragraph (164), we cannot distill a picture, in our mind, of what is happening there and what it means to the Indians. Still, Wiebe refuses to give readers even so much as the word “Sundance” itself, denying us even the slipperiest footing in this particular part of “reality.” In other words, by not “translating” the Indian—nor, for that matter, the nineteenth-century—perspective into stories compatible with our twentieth-century “common sense,” Wiebe makes readers themselves experience the culture gap and the problems of communication which The Temptations of Big Bear explores. Thus, readers have to recognize the “conventionality” and the historical conditioning not only of these stories, but also of our own discourse and perceptions.

Ironically, the one participant in this communication whose voice is not identified—and whose historical and cultural background is, thus, not acknowledged—is the actual, ultimate maker of all the stories told here: namely, Wiebe, as the author of The Temptations of Big Bear.

In this respect Burning Water is even more self-conscious, for it is conscious of the historicity of its own production. As in The Temptations of Big Bear, the concept of the omniscient narrator, with its pretense to objectivity, of a clear and unified vision, has been replaced by another, more explicitly “subjective,” mode of storytelling. But in contrast to the nineteenth-century, Indian perspective which Wiebe tries to evoke, Bowering constantly reminds the reader of the fact that this novel was written by a twentieth-century writer, in spite of its eighteenth-century subject. The Prologue introduces not only the subject of the novel, but also the voice of the author. At the risk of being accused of succumbing to the “intentional fallacy,” I would even go so far as to call it the voice of George Bowering:

When I was a boy I was the only person I knew who was named George, but I did have the same first name as the king. … When I came to live in Vancouver, I thought of Vancouver, and so now geography involved my name too, George Vancouver. … What could I do but write a book filled with history and myself, about these people and this place?7

Toward the end of the Prologue, however, this “I” proposes the following change in terminology:

We cannot tell a story that leaves us outside, and when I say we, I include you. But in order to include you, I feel that I cannot spend these pages saying I to a second person. Therefore let us stand together looking at them. We are making a story, after all, as we have always been, standing and speaking together to make up a history, a real historical fiction.


The confusion created by this “explanation” seems to be an essential part of Bowering's attempt to redefine fiction, in that it makes readers aware of the strange conventions that regulate our perceptions of the fictional reality created by storytellers. Still, the decision to call the writer in the book “he” rather than “I” has many other implications as well. Whereas Wiebe emphasizes the “making” of stories by his characters, Bowering draws attention to the fact that he, as author, is “making” a story here. By casting the storyteller as a character in his own fiction, he makes the process of production part of the product itself, splitting the novel into two equally important (and closely intertwined) strands. Rather than efface himself and his act of writing from the novel's “reality,” for the sake of apparent objectivity, he suggests that his presence and his “voice” (with all of its “Wiebean” implications) are part of its truth.

In addition, the juxtaposition of the two stories forces readers to realize that it is the author who dictates what will “happen” next, and not, as traditional “realist” fiction would often have us believe, reality itself. In several places in the text, this power of the writer is made very explicit. In chapter 44, the writer “got as far south as he was going to go that winter … before Vancouver did, or before he allowed him to” (192). And as the author says in the Prologue, “Without a storyteller, George Vancouver is just another dead sailor” (9).

Bowering's refusal to ignore the historical conditioning of his own text also accounts for the explicitly modern language and perspective which govern this novel. Used to “realist” literature, readers may at first be disconcerted by, for instance, the generation conflict between two Indians as it is portrayed in the first chapter. It resembles so closely the conflicts that we are used to in our own reality that it seems inappropriate in an eighteenth-century setting. The same holds true for Captain Quadra's “Freudian” assessment of the act of waging war as “repeating the games you played in childhood” (28), and the Indian's analysis of his friend's feeling of guilt in these “psychoanalytical” terms:

I think you want to be punished. I think you enjoy your private sins so much that you desire some confirmation of them, and so you walk around all the time with your shoulders hunched and your eyes looking up guiltily, waiting for Koaxkoaxanuxiwae to poke his beak into the top of your head.


In the same way, our sense of realism is shaken by the description of the Hawaiian evening sun as “falling into the edge of the ocean like a polychrome postcard” (68)—notwithstanding the fact that this is probably the most realistic image of a sunset shared by this author and his readers. Whereas, to a certain extent, traditional historical fiction has ingrained in our reading habits the necessity to forget our own context (but not, paradoxically enough, the context created by other novels), Bowering very overtly offers his modern world as a context for his story (and for history).

This use of the writer's circumstances—rather than those of the characters—as frame of reference separates Burning Water from The Temptations of Big Bear, in which the writer's context remains unidentified. By letting so many voices speak, each in its own particular way and out of its own background, and by overtly thematizing the problems of “voice,” Wiebe calls attention to the historical conditions of the stories told by his characters, that is, to the impossibility of objectivity within the fiction he creates. Bowering, on the other hand, emphasizes the historicity of the fiction he creates, through the modern language, the presence of the writer and his writing, and the “nonfictional” Prologue.

However, it is important to note here that Burning Water clearly focuses on a different “solution” to the problems posed by the narrativization of history. Rather than concentrate on one particular historiographic subject, as Wiebe does, Bowering seems to be preoccupied with the conventionality of our view of the past, and even of reality, in general. Consequently, and as the overt presence of the storyteller suggests, his fiction is much more self-critical and anti-mimetic than Wiebe's is. In a sense, one could consider Vancouver's story a pretext for an examination and exploration of the field of fiction itself; Vancouver's rather conspicuous absence from several entire chapters cannot really be explained otherwise.

The main themes in Burning Water concern the problem of truth and the relationship between facts, fancy, and the imagination, as opposed to Wiebe's themes of voice and vision. Burning Water abounds with expressions such as “in fact,” “as a matter of fact,” and “if the truth be known,” which we use every day, but which, in this context and by the frequency of their appearance, signal the importance of these notions not only in Burning Water but as an integral part of language itself (our language in any case, I should say, remembering Wiebe).

“Fact” and “fancy” also provide the basis for many explicit—though, like the “explanations” in the Prologue, not particularly enlightening—discussions of the value of fiction and the imagination. The first chapter is largely an exercise in distinguishing fact from vision, perception from conventional beliefs. The first Indian believes that he will see what is real by comparing what he sees to the stories he has heard (14), the second thinks that facts are there, independent of stories, and that one needs to look closely to find them (15). The importance of fact as a basis for the imagination is “explained” several times after that—for instance, in Vancouver's response to the accusation that he is too unimaginative:

You speak of [the imagination] as if it were the opposite of facts, as if it were perhaps the enemy of facts. That is not true in the least, my two young friends. The imagination depends upon facts, it feeds on them in order to produce beauty or invention, or discovery. … The true enemy of the imagination is laziness, habit, leisure. The enemy of imagination is the idleness that provides fancy.


This corresponds to the writer's meditation on the imagination's difficulty “to find footing where the fancy has sent it sailing” (26), and to his own voyages in search of facts.

Although this suggests a certain valorization of imagination over fancy, Bowering does his best to emphasize the flexibility and undecidability of these concepts, and of the related notion of “truth,” of which he says,

of course we are in a position to know it, or whatever purchase one makes on the truth in a work of imagination, if that is what we are engaged in, that being the entire issue we test here.


And indeed, the book is certainly testing readers' belief in their ability to recognize “reality.” Bowering's use of both “historical” and literary intertexts, for instance, stresses the fact that all sources from which we may learn historical facts are textual, and his descriptions of such historical figures as Vancouver and Menzies in the process of writing their logs and journals emphasize again that even “authentic” historical documents are products of a human mind and its language, not of reality itself.

The generally accepted boundaries between reality and fiction, between facts and fancy, are also questioned. In chapter 30, Bowering has Vancouver and his men, ships and all, fly over the Rocky Mountains and the prairies, to land in Hudson's Bay: they have found the magic North-west Passage. Readers, however, will probably conclude that we have read about a “flight of fancy.” This conclusion is not a logical result of any inherent deficiencies in the story or in its language, but of a comparison between the image created by that language and the image readers have of their own world—and even that image will, to a certain degree, be the product of linguistic and cultural conventions rather than of reality itself. In the same way, readers will consider the last chapter to be pure “fiction” only if they have accepted from other, more conventional and more reliable, but necessarily textual, sources that Vancouver died in 1798, in his home near London, and not, as Burning Water suggests, in 1796, murdered by his on-board scientist Menzies.8

The many references to folly further complicate the relationship between reality, fiction and truth. Vancouver's ship is said to have left England on April 1, All Fools' Day, and is called by the writer “a ship of fools … set upon the purpose of knowledge” (81). It is suggested all through the novel that Vancouver's search for facts was “a fool's errand” (80), perhaps an inhuman approach to life, characterized by a desire to surpass all of the limits which others seemed to have reached. Vancouver, the “lover of facts” (196), is an ambiguous hero from this point of view: “no one had the superstitious or logical drive to be as thorough as he was” (153). Although fancy, to a certain extent, can be considered folly because it is not rooted in reality, the obsession with pure fact is folly of another kind.

At stake, then, is the stability, and even the possibility, of the boundaries between the real and the imaginary, and the decidability of (objective) truth. Although in many ways this preoccupation is similar to Wiebe's concern in The Temptations of Big Bear, the differences in focus and emphasis between these two novels point to rather dissimilar underlying views of history and of historical fiction.


It is clear that both Bowering and Wiebe have researched a certain amount of historiographical material on the subjects of their novels. The acknowledgements in Burning Water (7), the quotations, and some of the descriptions of historical figures and events, all indicate this (in spite of the sometimes disrespectful use that Bowering makes of the “facts”), as do the precision of the dates and the place names, and the incorporation of “authentic” documents in The Temptations of Big Bear. As a matter of fact, Rudy Wiebe wrote the biography of Big Bear for the Dictionary of Canadian Biography,9 supposedly on the basis of his knowledge of the historical evidence rather than on his talent as a novelist. In a somewhat different vein, in 1970 Bowering published a collection of poems entitled George Vancouver.10

It is just as clear, however, that these two novels do not show the same degree of respect for the conventionally accepted facts. In “On the Trail of Big Bear,” Wiebe expresses both the inevitability and the danger of facts as a basis for fiction when he says that,

unless they are very carefully handled, facts are the invariable tyrants of story. They are as inhibiting as fences and railroads, whereas the story teller would prefer, like Big Bear, ‘to walk where his feet can walk.’11

This view of facts is echoed in the short preface to the first edition of The Temptations of Big Bear, which, perhaps not surprisingly, was not reprinted in the subsequent editions:

“No name of any person, place or thing, insofar as names are still discoverable, in this novel has been invented. Despite that, and despite the historicity of dates and events, all characters in this meditation upon the past are the products of a particular imagination; their resemblance and relation, therefore, to living or once living persons must be resisted.”12

If no names, dates, or events are invented—not by Wiebe, in any case—this leaves only the interpretation of historically accepted evidence, as well as the sketching in of details (which is, in fact, another aspect of interpretation), as the domain of the “particular imagination” that Wiebe refers to. It seems, then, that for Wiebe the ideal (or perhaps, the only) domain of the storyteller—more precisely, the teller of historical fiction—is that of “possibility.” If one compares his biography of Big Bear in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography with the “reality” which Wiebe creates in The Temptations of Big Bear, it becomes clear what this means in practice. Mostly, it means making the past more “real” by adding details of daily life and by evoking events which, given the historical evidence, may have happened even if they cannot be documented or otherwise proven. In accordance with White's notion of the “moral meaning” of narrative, then, although The Temptations of Big Bear respects the facts found by Wiebe, in narrating them he inevitably shows us a “possible” interpretation of those facts, an interpretation that is consistent with them.

Bowering, too, implicitly recommends that the facts be handled carefully, but his technique bears witness to a very different perspective on the relation between facts and fiction. His portrait of Vancouver is, above all, a warning against an overvalorization of facts and “absolute” truth—in spite of Vancouver's defence of the imagination quoted above. Vancouver's loneliness is a direct result of his belief that he will find the ultimate truth by “watching to see what limits of endurance and bravery and service the older men pushed themselves to, and stepping beyond them” (59). And then, “After learning and seeing the ways of performing better than anyone else, came the chance of touching limits. His boats and his eyes would move to the limits and measure them until there were none remaining unencountered” (100–01). His “absolute eye and heart” (125) do not allow him much human communication; as Menzies points out, Vancouver can talk to the natives and, in a way, control them by his command of the language, but he cannot communicate with them in any true sense (150). He dislikes Menzies because the latter “could look at the outside of his soul's vessel and make an estimation of the events transpiring inside” (73). Only with Quadra (who can also “read” him) can he let go of his obsession with the absolute and with factual reality, and experience more human values: “James Cook had showed him how to behave and when to act. Quadra was teaching him to be” (73). When Quadra leaves, Vancouver becomes “the central figure in his own faith” (180), his search for the absolute having become, by then, a result, rather than a cause, of his loneliness. One of his sailors puts it thus: “I know that Vancouver aches for perfection out of loneliness. He is unbending” (227). The early reference to Rilke's poem (71) referred to early on predicts his inescapable destiny: “These people are all crazy, thought Vancouver. He turned and said farewell to something but he was too worn out to imagine what it was” (211). His refusal to look beyond facts, to step out of his rigid frame of mind and discover what else the world has to offer, has finally made him lose any chance of real contact and human happiness. That Vancouver's “greatest discovery” (74), his relationship with Quadra, was never recorded in his log—that is, it was never turned into fact—seems, for Bowering, symptomatic.

Another aspect of “factual reality” is highlighted in Burning Water in the episode in which Vancouver realizes that the Sandwich Islands may, in fact, have been discovered by the Spanish, who referred to them as Los Mojos:

If Los Mojos are not there, then the Spaniards were visitors to the Sandwich Islands before James Cook landed there, and that would not be an acceptable fact in my view of history.


Readers are forced to recognize that even “facts” can be manipulated in the interests of ideology and, thus, that even “facts,” to a certain extent, are accepted rather than proven, belonging to the realm of convention rather than of reality.

For Bowering, the main problem with facts is their overvalorization: for Wiebe, the problem actually concerns, not the facts themselves, but their interpretation and narration. From these two attitudes stem the two, at once very different and yet similar, approaches to historical fiction which underlie The Temptations of Big Bear and Burning Water.

One of the main “points” of The Temptations of Big Bear, as suggested above, is the idea that, although facts do exist and events have happened, the ways these are seen and the stories that are told about them can (and do) vary from speaker to speaker. Accordingly, Wiebe's strategy of telling very many stories from different perspectives may be considered an attempt to approach the whole truth about these events more closely than would be possible when telling only one story. This in turn suggests that Wiebe believes in the ultimate possibility of truth and of knowledge of the past—although we may never reach it, since there are always more stories to be told. From this point of view, the role of historical fiction would be to tell those untold stories, to provide glimpses of the “other side” of already narrated events, to recreate possible perspectives and events, in order to come to a fuller comprehension of the truth. For Wiebe,

The stories we tell of our past are by no means merely words: they are meaning and life to us as people, as a particular people; the stories are there, and if we do not know of them we are simply, like animals, memory ignorant, and the less are we people.13

Like Wiebe, Bowering argues implicitly that stories of the past, in spite of identical factual support, vary with each individual speaker; the story which he tells in Burning Water is a very personal one, as he makes clear in the Prologue. But, unlike The Temptations of Big Bear,Burning Water can hardly be seen as an effort to approach the truth, ultimate and absolute, about its central character. Rather, it questions the possibility of such knowledge of the past, and it claims another kind of truth for this “subjective,” personal, incomplete story—since that is the only kind of story that can be told. Part of the “truth” of this story, then, consists in the awareness, on the part of both the writer and the reader, of its textuality and fictionality. In other words, while The Temptations of Big Bear expresses the impossibility of one “true” story, Burning Water suggests that no story can be objectively and absolutely “true.”

Bowering's essays on post-modernist literature in The Mask in Place,14 many of which consist of an aggressive indictment of realist literature and the paradoxical principles which it relies on, provide some insight into this view of fiction. The realist author, in Bowering's words, “writes a book & then tries to make the reader agree that he is not reading a book” (20). Moreover, the reader is asked to accept that real life also consists of plots with marked beginnings and ends, heroes and villains, and logical explanations for everyone's behaviour. By force of habit, readers have learned to see as realistic that fiction which is told according to the conventions of realism. As a result, realism has become a paradoxical but self-perpetuating system, deriving its legitimacy from satisfying readers' expectations which, of course, it has created. Bowering, therefore, sees the “unlearning” of these expectations, by the writer, and even more by the reader, as one of the most important “goals” of post-modern fiction. For Bowering, as for post-modern “metafiction” writers in general, this means reinstating fiction as an overtly written art: instead of being a transparent “window on the world,” fiction can be compared to “stained-glass windows or cut-glass windows that divert light waves & restructure the world outside.”15

The constant reminders in Burning Water of its textuality and fictionality stress the idea that the things told here are “happening” now, namely as they are created by the author and read by the reader—unlike Wiebe's way of telling which suggests that the events may have happened as they are described in The Temptations of Big Bear. In Bowering's words, “writing is continuous invention … Places and characters don't seem like the real—they are what they are, beings fashioned of words.”16

Accordingly, the conventional unities of time and character development are shattered, the story fragmented, for a double reason: not only because, as White says, “real events do not offer themselves as stories,”17 but also because the fiction created by Bowering has its own logic which does not have to be of the same kind that we (as “realist” readers) are used to. In other words, the writer refuses to provide readers with any guidance other than their own, and the text's, progress, forcing us to recognize that we are reading a book, not witnessing a reality, and leaving us the task of reorganizing the fragments into a (for us) coherent unit. Consequently, as Bowering says, “If you are to identify with anyone it is likely to be the author.”18

The emphasis on the writer's, rather than the characters', reality is evident not only in the juxtaposition of the two “strands” of the novel, but also in other instances as well. One example is provided by the different meetings between Vancouver and Quadra. The first time readers “meet” Quadra is in chapter 4, but it is quite obvious that Vancouver knows him well by then. This means that since the arrival of Vancouver's ships at Nootka in 1792, as it is told in chapter 1, there have been several meetings which readers have “missed.” Readers witness their first meeting in chapter 36—although it is referred to in chapter 13—but by that time readers know about their love affair, and indeed, the author does not pretend that this is the first time readers have met Quadra. Similarly, the fact that chapter 52 is missing can be interpreted as an example of the author's overt manipulation of and final control over the story.

Burning Water, then, lacks “closure” in the sense of a unified, complete universe, not only because the author's explicit presence provides openings into another world, but also because of the fragmentation which, like Wiebe's use of many stories and storytellers, indicates unwillingness to pretend to completeness. Wiebe's realism in The Temptations of Big Bear, while representing a new approach to realist fiction, is far removed, however, from this reappraisal of literature as primarily a non-mimetic art, a creation rather than a re-creation of “reality.” While Wiebe claims to approach a certain kind of “objective” truth with the many stories of The Temptations of Big Bear, Bowering in Burning Water explicitly rejects that kind of truth in favour of a very personal story with a very “personal” truth, a product not so much of “a particular imagination” as of “my” (Bowering's) imagination and specific cultural context.

These two perceptions of “truth” are also illustrated by the different ways in which the two novels try to “deflate” stereotypes as another means of foregrounding the conventional nature of many of our perceptions.

In The Temptations of Big Bear, stereotypical portrayals of the Cree Indians and their lifestyle, and of the events surrounding the signing of the Indian treaties, are “demystified” by our increased knowledge (be it “real” or fictional) of their context—thanks to, among other things, the care with which Wiebe provides everyday details. In Burning Water, on the other hand, stereotypes are the subject of a parodic re-evaluation, which makes readers realize that what they hold to be true, or realistic, is very often part of a set of conventions which literature (and historiography) has engraved in our thought system.

Of the Indians, for example, it is explained that

A lot of people think that Indians are just naturally patient, but that's not true. Before the white “settlers” arrived there were lots of impatient Indians. It's only in the last two hundred years that Indians have been looking patient whenever there were any white men around.


Nor, says Bowering, were they as keen on preparatory ceremonies as white literature has always suggested. During a meeting between Vancouver and the Indian chief Cheslakees, one Indian wonders what Vancouver wants:

“They haven't said yet,” said the second Indian. “So far they have just been going through their elaborate greetings and ceremonial preparations. We have learned not to rush them directly into business or they would feel insulted.”


Another stereotypical idea which this text questions is sailors' superstition about albatrosses—especially dead ones. Dr. Menzies, the scientist aboard Vancouver's ship, shoots an albatross in open sea, and submits the dead bird to a thorough examination. The reader, meanwhile, is told: “In case anyone was wondering: yes, this happened on the same day that the English poet was composing his Christian ballad” (87). This reference to Coleridge19 is picked up later in the book, to explain that the sailors

didn't give two hoots about an albatross. Unless there was a literary person about. If there was a literary person about, they let on about how the great spread albatross was the source of the supernatural calm, and the dead albatross was a source of the supernatural dread.


As in The Temptations of Big Bear, then, we are forced to replace our belief in the truthfulness of traditional perceptions—especially our perceptions of the past—with an awareness of their conventionality. And the fact that, unlike The Temptations of Big Bear,Burning Water's questioning of other fictional texts also emphasizes its own fictionality should not obscure this fundamental similarity between the two novels; in spite of their different strategies, both Burning Water and The Temptations of Big Bear are very much concerned with the “conventionalization” of our views of the past and, by extension, of the present as well.

Also, indicative of this common concern is the overt thematization, in both novels, of the power of language to influence our perceptions of reality through the incorporation of culturally determined “common sense.” For Big Bear, “A word is power, it comes from nothing into meaning and a Person takes his name with him when he dies” (398). When an Indian dies, his name, the words that identify him and, in a sense, give him reality, die with him. Similarly, when Big Bear loses his authority, and thereby part of his personality, he expresses this loss by saying, “they have thrown away my name” (267). The power of words, then, is often a positive power, as Big Bear's plea for “one voice” (104), his belief that “only words can stop” the terrible things he has seen in his visions (207), and his confidence in the power of his own words indicate also. But at the same time, this confidence engenders a deep distrust of words that are capable of destroying or distorting his words. After the council with Sitting Bull and Crowfoot he warns them: “Don't let any man poison my words” (207).

Not surprisingly, Big Bear is especially wary of “White” words—not only because, as he tells Kingbird, “it is always dangerous to talk like Whites. Soon one might begin thinking like them” (125), but also because they are so often said without any regard for the Indian words spoken on the same matters. Of the police, for example, he complains that “our word to them is as the wind” (143). Superintendent Crozier is obviously aware of this; after Big Bear's call for a great Indian council, he realizes that, as he puts it, “Indian talk … may not forever be cheap” (176).

Written White words are even more of a threat to Big Bear, since these are explicitly presented as unchangeable; this means that Big Bear's words have no effect whatsoever on them, as he discovers when he meets Morris: “I and my people have not heard what the treaty says and already nothing of it can be changed” (31). So that later, in the council with Crowfoot and Sitting Bull, he finally asks, “Why talk to someone just carrying more paper around?” (104). The same “negative” power—negative because it makes new words, and new insights, useless—applies to the law, which nobody can change either:

As if the Grandmother's law were so impartial and serene above any mere human question or resistance that the very pronouncement of it by one of her polished, scarlet-coated officers was power sufficient for any arrest, in any situation.


The sad result of this all-powerful written word, for Big Bear, can be seen in the last chapter, where the law cannot be changed “just” to take into account his different norms and values.

In Burning Water, the parodies of accepted “stories” are complemented by several direct references to the power of discourse. For example, Menzies accuses Vancouver of learning to speak the natives' language, not to communicate with them but to control them (150). The pun-like allusion to Benjamin Whorf in chapter 32 (143) emphasizes again Bowering's recognition that language influences culture as well as being influenced by it,20 and that, consequently, there can be no equation of “discourse” and “truth”—an equation disproven also by Vancouver's assessment of the “ownership” of the Sandwich Islands mentioned above.

Such overt references, as well as the general narrative structures of these two novels, indicate the authors' awareness that the power of discourse lies in its capacity to be accepted as objective, as “true.” Their insistence that all stories are determined to a considerable extent by the cultural context in which they are created and told can, then, be seen as an attempt to strip discourse—in particular, historical discourse—of this power.

The role of fiction for both Wiebe and Bowering, it might be argued, appears to be a general, constant, renewal of our perceptions, so that they will not be so “conventionalized” as to prevent new insights. By stressing the idea that every story told, every interpretation of reality, is inevitably a product of historical and cultural conditions rather than of objective, disinterested observation and knowledge, both Bowering and Wiebe leave the door open for other stories from other perspectives, and, in doing so explicitly, they even manage to open some of the doors which have already been closed by the acceptance of certain stories as unquestionably true. In other words, by situating their words (by which I mean, in Wiebe's case, those of his characters) in history, they temper the power of all words to appear objective. At the same time, they prevent readers' unmediated acceptance of their stories, and teach them to see not only that what they are reading is a story, not reality itself, but also that their own accepted views of reality rely to a very large degree on convention rather than on open-minded perception.


Wiebe's search for the truth and Bowering's cynicism toward any but the most personal truth are both based on a rejection of the idea that stories can be objective. Accordingly, both The Temptations of Big Bear and Burning Water insist on situating their stories in history, and on demanding of the reader a critical awareness of this “historicity.” Rather than guaranteeing the reader's easy comprehension by relying on conventional views and techniques, both of these novels prevent the kind of communication that cannot transcend the culturally determined set of conventions called “common sense” by those who share it. “Communication,” in these novels, encompasses the comprehension not only of the stories themselves but of their historical and cultural conditions.

In this way, then, Burning Water and The Temptations of Big Bear provoke recognition of narrative as giving “moral” as well as cognitive meaning to reality, which White sees as a necessary component of historical narrative especially. Paradoxically, however, the strategies used by Wiebe and Bowering to make the reader aware of the conventions underlying narrative and the interpretations of reality it presents, undermine what White calls “the value of narrativity,” its capacity to communicate. In Burning Water, the rejection of conventional “realist” techniques and stereotypes, the author's explicitly personal and fictional interpretation, the lack of a clear story line, all make communication with the reader a lot less “automatic” than in traditional literature; a similar result is produced by the many unfinished, overlapping and often contradictory stories, and the confusion caused by an all too intensive nineteenth-century Indian perspective in The Temptations of Big Bear. However, this paradox is implicitly present in White's theory as well, and it seems unavoidable; the awareness of the historical context of storytellers comes only at the risk of a less narrow “common sense.”

Whereas the historian's role is, first and foremost, to explain the past, to make it understandable in terms of today's norms and values, fiction can create meaningful “realities” that people may never perceive otherwise, and even bring about changes in our conventional attitudes toward the world. The historical fiction of The Temptations of Big Bear and Burning Water not only brings the past to life, but it succeeds in changing our interpretation of it. By telling an “other side” of Canadian history, one that has not found its way into the accepted world view of White historiography (nor, consequently, into that of its readers), Wiebe achieves more or less the same effect as does Bowering by parodying the conventions of historical and realist fiction. Both provoke the reader's awareness of the omnipresence of historical and cultural conditions and of the need to look beyond the conventionalized perceptions of reality—in “metaphorical,” but perhaps more appropriate terms—beyond the apparent objectivity, representativity, and unchangeability of stories.


  1. Hayden White, “The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality,” Critical Inquiry 7 (1980): 5–28.

  2. Rudy Wiebe, The Temptations of Big Bear (Toronto: McClelland, 1976) 104. Further references in this paper will be to this edition.

  3. Cf. the collection of short stories edited by Wiebe and entitled The Story-Makers (Toronto: MacMillan, 1970).

  4. Of course, the words printed here by Wiebe are, in fact, his “White” and written words; they appropriate Big Bear's spoken words rather than present them.

  5. Hayden White, “Critical Response: The Narrativization of Real Events,” Critical Inquiry 7 (1981): 797.

  6. Rudy Wiebe, Where is the Voice Coming From? (Toronto: McClelland, 1974).

  7. George Bowering, Burning Water (Toronto: New P, 1983) 9. Further references in this paper will be to this edition.

  8. W. Kaye Lamb, “Vancouver, George,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography, IV; B. Anderson, The Life and Voyage of Captain George Vancouver, Surveyor of the Sea (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1966) 226.

  9. Rudy Wiebe, “Mistahimaskwa,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography, XI.

  10. George Bowering, George Vancouver: A Discovery Poem (Toronto: Weed/Flower P, 1970)

  11. Rudy Wiebe, “On the Trail of Big Bear,” A Voice in the Land ed. W. J. Keith (Edmonton: NeWest P, 1981) 132–33.

  12. As quoted by W. J. Keith in Epic Fiction (Edmonton: U of Alberta P, 1981) 134.

  13. Rudy Wiebe, “On the Trail of Big Bear,” A Voice in the Land 134.

  14. The Mask in Place. Essays on Fiction in North America (Winnipeg: Turnstone P, 1982).

  15. The Mask in Place 25.

  16. The Mask in Place 116.

  17. “The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality,” Critical Inquiry 8.

  18. Bowering, The Mask in Place 30.

  19. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner,” originally published in Lyrical Ballads in 1798.

  20. Cf. the article on Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897–1941) in the Encyclopedia Britannica, 1961 ed.: “Following some ideas first clearly stated by Edward Sapir, he formulated what came to be known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis: that every language is a systematic presentation or analysis of reality as seen by its speakers, that this reality differs from every other such system, that human beings necessarily see reality only through their particular linguistic system and that the linguistic system and the reality the system represents mutually affect and interpenetrate each other.”

Brian Bergman (review date 30 May 1994)

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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 begin to match Wiebe's own growing excitement at what he saw. Although the canoeists did not encounter another human being in their two weeks of travel, everywhere they looked they found traces of life, past and present: campfire pits, graves marked by circles of stones, the imprint of countless caribou hoofs above the rapids where the animals cross the river on their annual migration. “The whole landscape turned me on,” recalls the 59-year-old Wiebe. “It is so beautiful, so stunningly beautiful.”

Wiebe returned to his home in Edmonton consumed by a desire to write about Canada's Far North. And as befits one of Canada's master storytellers, the result was not some travelogue but an ambitious new historical novel, A Discovery of Strangers. Released this week, it is a fictionalized account of the first of Franklin's trio of ill-fated expeditions to the Canadian North (although he survived this one, as well as the next, many of his men did not). The book details the first encounter between the Yellowknife Indians and whites. It is also a tale of love—and lust—beneath the bearskins as one of Franklin's midshipmen, 22-year-old Robert Hood, woos a beautiful 15-year-old native girl, dubbed Greenstockings by the explorers. And, as ever in Wiebe's fiction, it is a meditation on the human condition, and on what it means to live, and die, in one of the most unforgiving climates in the world.

With A Discovery of Strangers, Wiebe continues to do what he does best: capture on a broad canvas many of the epic events in Canadian history. First there was Big Bear, the proud Cree chief who resisted the empty treaty promises of colonial settlers on the plains of Saskatchewan in the 1880s. Wiebe won a 1973 Governor General's Award for his novel The Temptations of Big Bear, which he is now adapting into a script for a four-hour CBC mini-series to be broadcast next year. Then, with The Scorched-Wood People (1977), Wiebe depicted Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont, the unlikely Métis duo who fought a noble, if ultimately doomed, battle against the Canadian government in the rebellions of 1869 and 1885. And in The Mad Trapper (1980), he resurrected Albert Johnson, the mysterious recluse whose story attracted international attention in 1931 after the RCMP tracked the outlaw through the High Arctic winter.

As he demonstrates in those novels and others, Wiebe is not so much interested in the dry, historical record of what happened as he is in why it occurred. “The factuality means almost nothing unless there's a larger story told there,” says the author. “And I think the fiction writer can often get at those basic human truths best because, at a certain point, he is not hamstrung by the facts.” Wiebe is also powerfully attracted to characters who see the world in spiritual, rather than material, terms. In this secular age, that may limit his potential readership. As well, his uncompromising style (the narrative voice is constantly shifting, and sentences sometimes swirl on for a page or more) can be challenging. But to admirers such as University of Toronto English professor W. J. Keith, Wiebe's subject matter places him in the company of 19th-century Russian author Leo Tolstoy. “I've always been impressed by the moral seriousness of his work,” says Keith, who wrote the study Epic Fiction: The Art of Rudy Wiebe (1981). “I think these are the kind of writers who ultimately have staying power.”

Wiebe comes by his interest in spiritual matters honestly. The youngest of seven children, he was born in 1934 in the Speedwell-Jackpine district of Saskatchewan, 170 km northwest of Saskatoon, where Mennonite immigrants were busily carving out homesteads on quarter sections of uncleared bush. The community, which no longer exists, then consisted of a post office, two stores and two small schools. The centre of community life was the local Mennonite Brethren Church.

In many respects, Wiebe had the quintessential prairie childhood for someone of his generation. His ethnic German family, who worked their own homestead, had emigrated from Russia just four years before his birth and Wiebe spoke only German until school age. He lived in a log house and trudged along trails five kilometres each day to a one-room schoolhouse where by the time he was in Grade 4 he had read the only shelf of books available. At home, he pored over the Bible, in both English and German. Lacking most other forms of entertainment, local families would often gather to tell stories about the Old Country, and why they left it. Those tales helped to inspire Wiebe's 1970 epic novel about Mennonite resettlement, The Blue Mountains of China.

Unable to make much of a living off the harsh bush country, the Wiebes moved to Coaldale in southern Alberta in 1947. Wiebe attended a local Mennonite high school before moving on to the University of Alberta in Edmonton. There, as his master's thesis in English, he wrote his first novel, Peace Shall Destroy Many. Set in a fictional prairie Mennonite settlement, the book outraged many Mennonites because of its frank depiction of community life, including scenes of adultery and violence. By the time the novel was published in 1962, Wiebe was in Winnipeg editing a weekly Mennonite newspaper—a job he lost due to the controversy. “Having people respond to me so negatively made me think very hard about the power of the written word,” Wiebe says today. “I guess I decided I wanted to be a writer, no matter what. And that's the way I still see it: you try to write an honest story, and the reader's response is secondary.”

To write honestly, and from one's own background, is a lesson that the bearded, teetotalling Wiebe helped instil in a generation of undergraduates who enrolled in his creative writing classes at the University of Alberta. He returned there in 1967 with his wife, Tena (the couple raised three children), and was a popular teacher until his retirement six years ago. Many of Wiebe's former students went on to become accomplished authors in their own right. Among them: Aritha van Herk (Places Far From Ellesmere), Myrna Kostash (All of Baba's Children) and Katherine Govier (Hearts of Flame). Govier, who grew up in Edmonton but now lives in Toronto, recalls that Wiebe “fired everyone with an inspired sense of where we were from. He saw it on a very grand, heroic scale.” Wiebe's own fiction, Govier adds, is similarly infused with a passionate sense of place and purpose: “He's a western mythmaker, and that's a very important corner that he has carved out.”

Wiebe, of course, does not limit himself to writing about Mennonites—or westerners for that matter. For Big Bear and the new novel, he expended a lot of time and energy trying to get inside the minds and souls of native characters. And, increasingly, his eye is drawn northward. “The North is the core of the Canadian world, although we don't often think about it,” says the author. “We just keep looking south.”

Wiebe's research for A Discovery of Strangers included scouring explorers' journals and even more arcane sources for details of the first Franklin expedition. The record shows that as winter approached in 1821, the expedition—by then two years out of England—stayed too long mapping the previously uncharted Arctic Ocean coastline and missed the annual migration of the caribou, on which they depended for food. Trapped by the early winter ice, they had no choice but to travel over land in a desperate search for the nomadic Yellowknife Indians who had befriended and fed them the winter before at Fort Enterprise, 450 km to the south. The surviving members of the expedition found the Indians at the same point three months later. But a dozen men had perished in the effort, most from starvation, and some of the survivors had succumbed to cannibalism.

History also yielded a few other tantalizing details. Hood and another midshipman vied for the affections of the native girl Greenstockings—and would have fought a pistol duel over her if a third expedition member had not emptied their weapons of bullets. She later gave birth to Hood's daughter, but before Hood could see his child he died tragically on the trek back from the Arctic Ocean.

From this collection of facts Wiebe fashions both a love story and a morality play about men who, as he writes, “grow steadily colder while they wait, motionless, or search for something edible in a land where whatever it is they know, or do not know, is killing them.” Adding poignancy to the tale is the foreknowledge that these English explorers, in their relentless ignorance and arrogance, will return to the Arctic many years later. On the fateful third expedition, Franklin was sent with two ships, the Erebus and Terror, to sail through the Northwest Passage. He and his 133 men perished after the ships became trapped in the winter ice off King William Island.

If occasionally Wiebe appears to be viewing his characters through the prism of 20th-century political correctness—the female characters sometimes seem unaccountably feminist—that is a minor flaw in a major work of art. In A Discovery of Strangers, Wiebe provides some of the most evocative prose yet about the Canadian North. In a description of caribou migrating across the tundra, he writes: “From every direction more and more of them will drift together, thousands and tens of thousands drawn together by the lengthening light into the worn paths of their necessary journey, an immense dark river of life flowing north to the ocean, to the calving grounds where they know themselves to have been born.”

The land. First and always with Wiebe it is the land. During the 1988 canoe trip, Wiebe and his companions raised a cairn on the highest point of Dogrib Rock, placing there a note that marked the date and purpose of their journey. Then, after gazing again at the endless horizon, they added: “A Land Beyond Words.” And so it was, until Rudy Wiebe gave it a voice.

John Moss (review date October 1994)

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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 confrontation between irreconcilable worlds. Authenticity and historical insight are quite beyond the point, despite some silly things that have been written and said elsewhere about Wiebe's latest work. While the novel may seem to explore John Franklin's disastrous first overland expedition to the polar sea in the early 1820s and to illuminate the gathering awareness among Yellowknife Indians that these whites would forever change their lives, while it seems to document conflicting social values, the sub-Arctic landscape and the affair between a young English officer and an even younger Indian woman, while it apparently uses these materials in a sort of revisionist postmodern implementation of narrative strategies designed to expose anomalies in our present perspectives on the past, a responsible reading suggests it is a very personal expression of Rudy Wiebe's interior vision. A Discovery of Strangers is a confessional exposition, a confabulation of private dreams.

The Indians in this novel, in spite of obvious research, inhabit no world that ever is or was. They are remarkable creations, as are Franklin and his men, but they exist entirely as projections of the author's own sensibility onto a story gleaned from a wide and sympathetic reading of historical records and anthropological texts. Rather than being re-creations, the novel's characters are the metonymic populace of an imaginary landscape, albeit terrain born out of Wiebe's obvious familiarity with the taiga and waters of the sub-Arctic Barrens.

Wiebe tries to create a sentient world of nature in his highly stylized prose, with its emotionally charged imagery, evasive syntax and juxtaposition of voices and improbable perspectives. His Indians are human consciousness within this world, although their minds are by no means the measure of its limits; they often dream beyond their own experience and merge with animals or with landscape they have never seen. Neither in the context of their own envisioned world nor in their encounters with the Franklin party do they truly represent alternate perceptions of reality or various ontologies, although on the surface it may seem otherwise. The success of Wiebe's Indians as figures in a fiction is that they inhabit a thoughtful, white, late-twentieth-century middle-aged male's imagining of what the world might have been if he had been its creator—as, indeed, he is.

Wiebe circumvents changes of appropriation, not by profound insight into “the Indian mind” or the most secret corners of women's lives, but through a kind of solemn playfulness that alerts the reader to his narrative presence as metaphysician within his own text. He enhances character roles as vivid ciphers in his dreamvision through gyrations of imagination at once splendid and alarming. The novel displays no hesitation at all in merging Wiebe's versions of researched Native stories, drawn, for example, from the Book of Dene, with animistic or fabulous accounts of his own devising. His notion of The People's knowing-through-dream, whereby they hunt, and their necessary enthrallment with story, whereby they share values from person to person, generation to generation, he collapses into dream as a prophetic narrative so precise, for example, that a suffering old woman foretells the exact location of the travellers' tragedy a full season in advance.

It cannot be an accident that Wiebe's Yellowknife Indians pun in English, a language they do not speak: Dr. Richardson becomes Richard Sun; Snow Man, a phrase used to describe whites, rhymes in an Indian woman's chant with “woe man”; the names of both Hood and Back evoke wordplay, and Franklin is known as Thick English, although his nickname seems grounded in no language at all. When the reader considers how casually Wiebe enters into Indian consciousness, male and female, young and old, at a most cataclysmic and confusing time in Native evolution, it must be taken that he creates their reality according to his own design(s), quite separable from origins and actuality. His characters do not seem intended to be real, either within their narrative context or within the reader's mind.

In Wiebe's visionary polemic, the British officers are made, ironically, to represent the reader's perspective on the Native and the natural world. Midshipman Robert Hood, with his sweet and open disposition and baffled affection for his hosts, provides us as outsiders (if only because we are necessarily outside the text) with an entry point into alien experience that has somehow, perhaps because less “human” as defined in the Euro-ethnic sensibility, been spared The Fall. While Midshipman Back has sex with anyone available and Lieutenant Franklin holds himself entirely abstemious, and the good Dr. Richardson provides cerebrated links from his journal entries, and the Canadian and mixed-blood voyageurs are differentiated to the extent of their threat to British stability, and the one British servant is an Orkneyman known to the Indians as Hep-Burn (the cross-cultural pun, again; the Indians associate him with a burning flag), all endure the travails and indulgences of Wiebe's carefully constructed envisioning of a dialectically alternative reality. They provide a context within which Wiebe's visionary world is revealed.

Consistent with the dreamvision as a mode of metaphysical inquiry, A Discovery of Strangers is not always forthcoming in the articulation of its philosophical argument. Certainly it is clear that the author is on the side of nature as opposed to civilization, and of dream which he holds in contradistinction to rational thought. He has a fine sense of snow, wind and the elements of weather, season and terrain in which fragmented and elliptical narrative episodes transpire; and against which the sensibilities of his outsiders seem mawkish, mean and wilfully brutish. He has in this envisioned world, above all, with absolute authority celebrated the ephemerality of the moral, the ambiguity of the mortal human condition. Whether or not the originality of his materials, drawn from dream and document, sustains his vision is open to the individual reader's discretion.

Wiebe showed a profound capacity for moral outrage in The Scorched-Wood People, his 1977 novel excoriating Canada's malfeasance in response to the Métis of the last century and their political aspirations. In 1973 his very successful novel, The Temptations of Big Bear, for which he won a Governor General's Award, offered what were at the time wondrous insights for the non-Native population into the soul of the land northwest of all the power centres threatening it, and into the heart of its original peoples. It seemed inevitable that he would eventually round out his survey on the impact of the nineteenth-century trader-settler invasion by writing a novel from the white perspective, whether in pursuit of his own personal roots, fulfilling his Mennonite canon, or through an illumination of the remarkable hardship endured by early immigrants from Ontario and eastwards. His lyrical 1989 meditation on the Arctic, Playing Dead, seemed almost a haunting gloss for a novel, the third of a triptych, yet to be written. A Discovery of Strangers represents in many ways the completion of both projects. As a sort of spiritual and moral autobiography it turns fascinating materials to an intriguing end.

Prema Kumari Marshal (essay date January 1995)

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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 the study of a world literature in the same period for which a comparative study of the literature of different nations is essential. A “Literature-Culture” discipline has many uses, for, it can explore the ways in which literature as a key to the understanding of culture, illuminates a culture's intellectual and imaginative life. It could investigate how literature not only “reflects” and “refracts” but also “lives” and forms the values, social habits and assumptions of cultures. It could help identify the conditions in a civilization which foster or discourage creative achievement in literature and the arts and study the ways in which literature activates or inspires social concerns. Familiarisation with the creative processes in a culture, while ministering to personal enrichment, should contribute to inter-cultural understanding as the study of literature, because of its concern with “Universal Values”. It is a potent means of transcending the confines of particular cultures.

It is at this point important to note C. D. Narasimhaiah's view that in India, literature is primarily a cultural pursuit, for literature and culture have been according to him interchangeable terms. To quote him on the twin values of literature,

What is also recognised in its twin-values of “Prayojana” and “Purushartha”, social utility and “ultimate value”, or that by which all else is known.

(p. 79, AWWID

Literature is used to study the social life of a period and the study of a literature is perhaps the best way of learning about a culture in its various particularities, its different shades of meaning and its own unique tone. As Guy Amirthanayagam defines it

Literature is an invaluable cultural expression because it springs from its cultural nexus … with an immediacy, a freshness, a concreteness, an authenticity and a power of meaning which are not easily found in other emanations or through other channels.

(p. 3, AWWID

Literary studies has taken a new direction now, in the use of literature for learning about a culture. Culture is a rich word and in modern times, writers, critics and artists are trying to promote a common culture in the global village. It is a “rich resource of the human mind” and as Malcolm Bradbury says

it breaks the barriers of nationality and links the community of man,

(p. 13, AWWID

and as Guy Amirthanayagam refers to it,

Culture is counterminous with the human, artistic and moral world of the work of literary creation.

(p. 12, AWWID

Literature, good literature is much concerned with truth, and treats of the most crucial experiences of man and because man is a social animal, these experiences have a social-context and therefore aid in determining and completing our knowledge of the human and cultural condition. Literature is now slowly trying to acquire a special value in the modern scientific age. Natural Sciences and Social Sciences seem to be losing their hold on man and his confidence. People are turning to literature for values whose life-support was once provided by religion and philosophy. Since literature expresses the life lived at the time it proves to be a true source of the realities of a society, of life-giving values and value-judgements. As Guy Amirthanayagam opines

Today one goes to literature for the very creation of values.

(p. 9, AWWID

Social and political systems fall short of depicting these values. So, a literature of cross-culture, cultural contact, should be systematically studied for it proves to be part of a common cause, not merely of inter-cultural understanding but of humanity and its future.

From this point of view, this paper tries to assume a singular significance, for it tends to deal with two major writers from two great cultures and analyse one of their novels each in the light of global concerns such as Peace, religion, humanism and universal values. The novels discussed here are Rudy Wiebe's Peace Shall Destroy Many and Bhabani Bhattacharya's A Dream in Hawaii. The writers present two different cultures and stories in two different settings but with the same sense of purpose.

Among the concepts that provide a key to the growth and development of Rudy Wiebe and Bhabani Bhattacharya as humanist artists, one of the most important is wisdom. For both, wisdom is a complex, growing concept where the most important element is human experience; such a one as Eliot describes:

that holds on human values, that grasp of human experience with a relationship with religious comprehension.

(p. 146, G&A

Like Eliot, Wiebe and Bhattacharya seem to be sceptical and disillusioned about humanistic wisdom which they find to be inadequate to deal with the problems of the modern world and so turn to the necessity to complete it by religious experience. As artists, they are inclined to produce works of art that can only “appeal to the experimental test” for they approve of the view that the need of the post modernist world is the discipline and training of the emotions. In Rudy Wiebe religion plays a prominent role and in Bhabani Bhattacharya “man” seems to be the focus except in his later novels especially in the novel chosen for study A Dream in Hawaii, where he turns to religion and spiritual values. But in both the writers, the place given to values such as peace, spiritualism, freedom and human attributes is almost identical.

Peace Shall Destroy Many was first published in 1962 and was hailed by Rom Founders, as a first-rate novel by any “Standard of judgement”. It deals with the story of Deacon Block, a massively domineering character who is a typical sample from the Mennonite Community. The events take place in 1944 the year of the decisive battles of World War II. Wiebe presents a unique picture of this particular community for whom the church is the centre of living and Pacifism the central tradition of the church. He does believe in the reality of hell and that all persons who violate others rights and live as hypocrites inevitably go there. In fact he had been a victim of sin, for, he had under extreme provocation killed a man in Russia and had never recovered from the shock. This man had, in extraordinarily sad and pressing circumstances robbed the bread that he had preserved for his son. This was during the acute famine in Russia. For this sin, instead of confessing and living with it, he lives to atone for it, by providing for his children and the Mennonites an environment that will be “an island of holiness in a sea of despair.” He tries to provide a leadership and strength to his community that will make it possible for them to lead pure lives. In this attempt, which he strives hard to maintain, he ultimately fails, for his own children fail to comply with his rules and preaching. In an effort to protect his daughter, he had forbidden, her marrying Herman Paetauf because he was an illegitimate child. In frustration and despair, his daughter engages in sexual immorality—“the nadir of sin for all Mennonites” with Louis Moosomin, a dirty, irresponsible half-breed whom Block had to hire because the war had made other help impossible. Further, when she, his child whom he lovingly strove to protect, dies in shame, in childbirth, his hopes are totally shattered. His hope for an isolated and pure world is destroyed. Hell is broken loose when he attacks Moosomin brutally and kills him to avenge his daughter. Deacon Block is a very clearly etched character by Rudy Wiebe, a man who is willing to damn his soul for the sake of his son and daughter.

Thom Wiens is yet another fine portrayal, who is the protagonist of the novel. An eighteen year old Mennonite, sensible and sensitive waiting for his draft call. A young man searching for identity and self knowledge. Like so many heroes of modern fiction, he is in conflict with the values of his own society, because they are false, inadequate and phoney. A dauntless, brave man, honest and unafraid to face unpleasant facts. With the war as backdrop, Thom is aware of the upheavals in the world outside Wapiti and is uncomfortable at the irresponsible and indifferent attitude of the Mennonites, who fail to heed the world outside. While others are dying in the war front, the Mennonites go on heedlessly, unmindful of the conflicts outside. It is shocking for him to discover that Deacon Peter Block who professes and preaches justice and fellowship is striving to keep the world outside his community. In his quest for viable standards it is shattering for Thom to discover that he cannot find them in the staunch defender of the Mennonite traditions, the man who sacrificed much to bring the Wapiti Mennonites to Sasketchewan from Russia. It is shattering to learn that Peter Block not only opposes his efforts to help the natives but is also guilty of heinous sins. He is selfish in trying to protect the community from the outside world. Ninety percent of the entire book is seen through Thom's eyes. Without Thom the novel is a study of disintegration. All the characters in this novel are thorough-going Mennonites, at the same time universal types. The Unger Brothers, Herb & Hank, Herb a careless, unkempt and dirty-minded bachelor—a farmer, and Hank, a flier in the Canadian Air Force who enjoys shooting down Nazis. Elizabeth Block the daughter of the deacon a frustrated and desperate woman driven to death. Pete Block, the quiet son of the deacon who cannot break away from the patterns of thought of his dominating father and who disastrously falls in love with Razia Tantamount, a pretty young and sensuous school teacher at Wapiti, lonely in a community of strange people whom she fails to understand. She craves for the life of mirth and jollity and the big city. Mrs. Block, a meek and mild wife, so docile and subservient to her husband, mild almost to invisibility and several other minor characters.

Thom and Deacon Block are the two major characters in the novel who have to learn a lot from each other, just as Swami Yogananda and Walt Gregson in Bhattacharya's A Dream in Hawaii. Bhattacharya's novel published in 1978 deals with almost the same theme as Wiebe's Peace Shall Destroy Many, that man shall not live by bread alone and that he needs food for his hungry soul too, for man cannot stay away totally from the world of desire and evil; he has to reckon with it and try to get over it by conquering it with spiritual wisdom. Just as Deacon Block and Thom Wiens, who stand poles apart in the beginning of Peace Shall Destroy Many are brought together in the end, in their awareness of peace, religion and spiritualism so also in A Dream in Hawaii, Neeloy Mukherjee or Swami Yogananda and Walt Gregson are brought together.

A Dream in Hawaii deals with the story of Neeloy Mukherjee a young teacher of philosophy in an Indian University, who turns a Yogi, due to the cumulative effect of his own spiritual aspirations and the suggestions of his student Devjani, whom he secretly loves. This teacher-Yogi called Swami Yogananda becomes popular and establishes an Ashram at Rishikesh and attracts a large number of disciples both native and foreign. Stella, an American tourist, a Ph.D. student in Hinduism who is revulsed at the kind of completely uninhibited four letter orgiastic sex, demanded by her husband Walt Gregson, turns to Swami Yogananda and at her request he goes to America to give discourses on Eastern Philosophy—present universal Religion in its Vedantic Concept. In America he becomes very popular for as Bhattacharya describes

It could be that they were motivated by the current lostness in American life, acutely felt but hardly comprehended. Yellow-robed men from the East held out the bright promise of inner adjustment and peace; a promise that dramatised their appearance on the western scene as an advent.

(p. 50, DIH

There is further progress in Swami Yogananda's life for Dr. Vincent Swift, the twentieth century culture-vulture persuades him to start a world center for yoga at Hawaii—to rival the Hare Krishna Movement and the Transcendental Movement, which have established firm roots in America. While there is progression on one side in Swamiji's life, there is retrogression on the other side, for, he is not able to strip himself of the guilt of his inner physical desire for Devjani who is at present at Hawaii, at the East-West Center as a student doing research. Further, the fall of Swami Yogananda is worked out by Bhabani Bhattacharya in a very neat and effective way, similar to that of Deacon Block in Peace Shall Destroy Many. He falls a pray to the plot of Walt Gregson, who sees through the seeming detachment and celibacy of Swami Yogananda, and tries to prove his true nature by sending his mistress Sylvia Koo to awaken the dormant, deeply buried sexual desires of Swami Yogananda. As expected, Swamiji falls for Sylvia taking her to be Devjani and careless her in a half-conscious state of sleep. But there is a change here that Bhattacharya works out in the character of Swami Yogananda (Neeloy Mukherjee): he gets back to his normal self, rejects Sylvia and decides to discard the yellow robe—to kill the tiger of deception and self-deception, and be true to his inner nature, and so returns to India as Neeloy Mukherjee, an ordinary human being. Further if in Neeloy there is a change from the sanyasi to the ordinary human, in Walt Gregson there is a change from the hard-brained materialist, a votary of sexual permissiveness who had strong conviction that the bad is

a key-symbol for the New American, the American of the century's Seventh decade,

(p. 24)

to spiritual attitudes, religious fervour and a realisation of the spiritual aspects of life.

The protagonists in both the novels are men whose mission in life is a quest for truth. The dominating characters are Deacon Block and Swami Yogananda. Both are religious men trying to promote peace and harmony in the worlds in which they live. The people of America had great faith in Swami Yogananda and went into raptures over his preachings. The people of Wapiti, likewise had great faith in Deacon Block and looked up to him as a flock to the shepherd for security, comfort and peace. Both wished to promote and establish communities of peace and love in their surroundings. Though Block had come from Russia, he was not an alien. He had become one of them, the Wapiti Mennonites. In the same way, Swami Yogananda

merged himself in the listeners and they merged into him. He grew with them into depths of understanding, soul-searching. They grew with him likewise.

(p. 178–179, DIH

When Deacon Block spoke in the church and in the meetings the people listened with obedient, rapt attention for he was

Deacon; everyone's quiet and Peaceful when he speaks.

(p. 218, PSDM

If one is a Priest, one is a yogi; if one has vowed to sacrifice materialism and worldly desires, the other has vowed celibacy and sacrifice. But both suffer from the pangs of a guilty past. A past which they cannot shun, a past which is formidably, present and for which they try to make amends. If it is a secret desire for a woman on the part of Swami Yogananda, it is a crime of murder on the part of Deacon Block. His crime is heinous, but for Yogananda, who has vowed to be a celibate, a secret desire for a woman is equally bad. Further, it is interesting to note how the two writers bring about the fall of their dominating protagonists. After high aspirations to become a spiritualist as Swami Yogananda sought and to establish a pure world devoid of sin and problems as Block wished, it is tragic to see how their ambitions are shattered and destroyed and how they go back to their original selves, after the worlds they try to build, collapse. After being totally human they aspire to be models, good models of the religious and spiritual leaders, and however sincerely they try, they are not able to maintain their balance for both external as well as internal factors and the evil world drives them crazy with tension. For Swami Yogananda it is more of internal conflict for he as an ascetic is not able to drive away or suppress his sexual desires for Devjani and he comes to the conclusion that the saffron robes of celibacy are not fit for him for however much he tries, he is not able to keep the evil in him at bay. For Deacon Block, it is more of external conflict for his own actions have wrought the downfall of his children and he bows in shame and frustration and despair and feels that Priesthood has not been the proper thing for him—for in his role as priest he could not be successful. So both the heroes were failures as priests and religious persons. Both of them were not able to build an ideal world for their flock. Both of them are guilt-ridden and come to the conclusion that the evil in man and in the world have to be reckoned with, and it is not easy to don the robes of an ascetic and maintain a purity of mind and purity of heart.

Where there is progress from spiritualism to an understanding that peace and purity cannot be maintained easily, there is another move in both the novels. The move from an understanding of the material world to the spiritual through Walt Gregson in A Dream in Hawaii and Thom Weins in Peace Shall Destroy Many. In more than one way both are seekers of truth and reality. There is to a great extent, a realisation of the self in the end in both the characters Thom Weins and Walt Gregson. Walt Gregson is a seeker of the sensuous pleasure of the flesh and thoroughly worldly in the beginning but he too changes in the end. He becomes aware that evil cannot be done away with, desire cannot be set aside, but it is in the overcoming of that desire that goodness lies. Slowly he is drawn towards Swami Yogananda and feels sorry for the ascetic and runs to meet him before he leaves. Here, the transformation of Walt Gregson is brought out very effectively

His awakening to a new facet of his personal problem—that alone could be meaningful. … He sat up in bed thinking. And out of the chaos of contrary thought ways, a strange conviction was taking shape; despite all his bitter challenge he himself was in deeply felt personal need of Swami Yogananda.

(p. 243–244, DIH

The man who was responsible for the downfall of the Yogi, now becomes an admirer and wishes to pay respect to the Yogi, acknowledging spiritual values. Likewise, Thom Wiens, who had always cornered Deacon Block, questioned him, rebelled against his principles, is sad at his downfall and as Wiebe puts it

is disillusioned with the values of the tradition of his fathers, with the leaders he has been taught to honour

(p. 74 VIL

If Walt Gregson moves from ignorance to experience in his turn to religion and spiritual values, Thom Wiens also matures considerably. He learns that

no forest and bush, no matter how dense, can keep evil from his life, for it is present in the Wapiti Community and within his own heart.

(p. 73, VIL

It is evident in the characters of Deacon Block and Swami Yogananda that they have engulfed themselves in prisons of their own making: of isolation, of rigid principles, of strict adherence to the moral code etc; in Deacon Block and of religious discipline, propagation of Yogic ethics and principles in Swami Yogananda. Unfortunately evil lurks around the corner and both of them cannot uphold their enclosed selves and their preachings. The bars of the prisons collapse and they are their old selves again. In his quest for faith to live by, Thom discovers that he cannot find this faith inside himself and he further finds himself unworthy. Walt Gregson after leading the most shabby life finds that he is totally useless and unworthy.

In comparison, both the novels are lessons in reality, the novelists trying to give the reader one of the most fundamental truths of the human experience—and of religion the staggering evidence of human depravity. Both Bhabani Bhattacharya and Ruby Wiebe make it obvious that underneath the brittle crust of decency lurks the savage, not only in corrupt men like Gregson but also in decent men like Deacon Block, Thom Wiens and Swami Yogananda. In short, one can say that modern novelists cannot be sanguine about the perfectibility and essential goodness of human nature and, as Rudy Wiebe says,

must exemplify Paul's old and bitter truth that “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.”

(p. 76, VIL

Wiebe throws a search light on sin but does not end the novel with a portrayal of man's sinfulness. He recognises a possibility of grace and redemption. Written with World War II in the background, Peace Shall Destroy Many deals with peace and the quest for peace.

If in suppression and avoidance lay defeat, then victory beckoned in pushing ahead. Only a conquest by love unites the combatants. And in the heat of this battle lay God's peace. “My Peace I give unto you, not as the world giveth”.

(p. 238, PSDM

Torn between Joseph Dueck's teachings and his own faith in the community, Thom Wiens is left alone wandering and longing for peace. Joseph Dueck serves as the catalyst for Thom Wiens' quest for peace. His friendship paves way for new thoughts about the meaning of existence and the Christian's relationship with his fellow beings and about the true nature of peace as a living fellowship with God and man. Thom Wiens has received a war call from Germany but is hesitant to join, for, to his community, the rules and tradition of war is the culmination of worldly evil. Peace acquires various meanings in Peace Shall Destroy Many. It is ironically shown as a selfish state of secular security which the Deacon tries to establish. He closes all the doors of the external world on the Wapiti Mennonite Community thinking that, that is peace, the establishment of rules and discipline. Elizabeth Block tells him prophetically to get away from Wapiti, from a peace that imposes restrictions and rules, that frustrates and kills. She says

Go away from here—Wapiti—for a few years … like last winter with Joseph—you'll be buried here under rules that aren't as important as this chaff.

(p. 140–141, PSDM

Her foreboding comes true, for the peace that her father had thought would come to her through his restrictions and rules only led to her fall and destruction. Further Deacon Block's establishing “peace” in his church and community by not allowing outsiders, only shows the Mennonites' hatred for Canadian natives. This only portrays the Wapiti Mennonites' ironic hope of maintaining peace and harmony with themselves and the outside world. The same peace that Deacon Block celebrates, destroys him and many others associated with him; the peace that seclusion brings, the peace that rules, discipline and regulations bring, the peace that the tradition of his forefathers suggest, a peace that is a passive acceptance of bondage. In fact, peace is lost for the people in the community for they find themselves at war with one another just as in A Dream in Hawaii, the Indians and the Americans try to establish Ashrams and institutions to promote peace and goodwill. Finally peace is seen in the novel as an inner state of being, the peace of Christ, “the mighty inner river” that flows constantly and that is found lacking in characters like Block.

Ironically, as peace destroys, it also establishes happiness. Peace and a quest for peace has destroyed Wapiti which is presented in the fighting scene in the barn—it has destroyed, secluded, rigid and hard Wapiti and gained for it freedom, fellowship and peace. A war has to be fought, an external war to secure a right relation with the outside world. A peace that is based on neglect and evasion will destroy, is Rudy Wiebe's opinion. So peace is associated with friendliness, understanding, good relationships, mutual love, affection and freedom. In fact, this is the global village that Wiebe and Bhattacharya visualise. This is the same message that Bhattacharya stresses in his novel. Spurred on by a lack of peace and understanding and filled with a spirit of religious fervour Neeloy Mukherjee embarks on a journey through life as a Yogi to establish peace in the Indian Community and in other parts of the world. In fact, his reaching America, disturbed with loss of values, lack of peace, full of disillusion and lack of faith in values is ironic. A man torn between his desires, his ambition, peace and harmony in the world. He lacks the “inner peace”; he is in mid-position, torn between feelings of the flesh and the spirit but trying to promote peace and fellowship. There is a quest for peace in almost all the main characters, for from a thoroughly materialistic world they proceed towards the spiritual.

Being humanists, both Rudy Wiebe and Bhattacharya aim at man's well being and so end in a note of hope for man. The novels do not end in despair but make a way for grace and redemption and an understanding of religion and spiritual values and prove that ultimately mankind's hope lies in religion for Bhabani Bhattacharya—Hinduism and for Rudy Wiebe—Christianity. As writers with a moral purpose, they agree that man is liable to err and fall into the pit of sin but he has a chance to correct himself and make way toward a good future and that future lies in religion. Through the presentation of the life of an individual and particular community the artists aim at the universal. They present the Universal theme of man's search for meaning in life, his discovery of his sin and need for redemption and finally his trying to live a life of freedom, peace and harmony in a world full of sin and evil.


1. Rudy Wiebe, Peace Shall Destroy Man, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Ltd., 1972. All the subsequent page references [cited as PSDM] are from this edition.

2. Bhabani Bhattacharya, A Dream in Hawaii, New Delhi: Macmillan, 1978. All the subsequent page references are from this edition.

3. Wilbur Long, “Religion in the Idealistic Tradition”, Religion in Philosophical and Cultural Perspective, eds. Clayton Feaver and William Horosz, New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1967.

4. C. D. Narasimhaiah, “Literature in the Global Village: An Inquiry into Problems of Response”, Asian and Western Writers in Dialogue: New Cultural Identities, ed. Guy Amirthanayagam, Hong Kong, Macmillan, 1982.

5. Guy Amirthanayagam, Asian and Western Writers in Dialogue: New Cultural Identities, Hong Kong: Macmillan, 1982.

6. G. S. Amur, “Concept of Wisdom in T. S. Eliot”, English and India, eds. M. Manuel and K. Ayappa Panikker, Delhi: Macmillan Press, 1978.

7. W. J. Keith, A Voice in the Land, Alberta: NeWest Publishers, 1981.

Penny van Toorn (review date Spring/Summer 1997)

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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.

River of Stone takes advantage of, and will add impetus to, the revival of interest in Wiebe's work brought about by the publication of his latest novel, A Discovery of Strangers (1994). The collection brings together twenty-two fictions and memories published between 1964 and 1994. Some, like “The Naming of Albert Johnson,” “Bear Spirit in a Strange Land,” and “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” have been anthologized before, and are already well known to long-time followers of Wiebe's work. Others, particularly the pieces written in the 1980s and 90s, are less widely known, having first come into print during a period of relative obscurity for Wiebe—the long, apparently dry spell between My Lovely Enemy (1983) and A Discovery of Strangers. My only complaint about River of Stone is that more of Wiebe's later writings, specifically “Dialogue at an Exhibition” and “The Shells of the Ocean,” were not included.

In some of the stories included in this collection we see what looks like (but isn't) a new element in Wiebe's work—a humorous side that has been overshadowed by the serious moral intensity of the “giant fictions” upon which Wiebe's reputation mainly rests. The construction, ranking, and mental overlaying of places is explored in “The Beautiful Sewers of Paris, Alberta,” in which Wiebe recalls a 1950s summer job as a labourer (a “grunt”), laying down sewer pipes in a prairie town while reading the “massive romance” of Les Misérables.

The entire edifice of my understanding of Wiebe's work threatened for a moment to collapse when I came to his confession in “The Blindman Contradictions: An Interview with Rudy Wiebe” that he was not the son of Russian Mennonite refugees, but in fact the child of an English gentleman farmer who, when the farm failed, opened a store in Falconer, Alberta. (Was this the Canadian counterpart of Australia's Helen Demidenko scandal, I wondered?) But no. A moment's reflection confirmed that Wiebe couldn't be Anglo-Canadian; after all, his face was on the cover of all those numbers of the Mennonite Brethren Herald he edited in the early 1960s. Wiebe's confessional mode in the “Contradictions” enables Wiebe to make two points: first, he satirizes the critical interest in so-called ethnic writing—(“in Western Canada there's much more point to being ethnic than to being English”); and second, he uses the interview form to suggest that the authentic selves we fictionalize are all the more convincing when discursively performed in genres of truth, such as the interview, which is presumed to offer a transparent window to the author's real self.

Wiebe's trajectory as a writer can be described as a movement from didacticism towards indirection, from overt rhetorical preachiness towards a self-consciously dialogic mode. This dialogic principle is clearly activated by the baffling photograph on the cover of River of Stone: four dark-suited men stand in the foreground; they are surrounded only by prairie grass and sky. Solemn as they are, they look funny because they hold their hats over their faces. Their fingers are interlaced, so presumably these are devout Mennonites praying. But they remain curiously unframed: they float in the open space of the prairie, cut loose from any textual or cultural context. There is no key to the image, no comforting caption to direct understanding. We are forced, or freed—or perhaps trusted enough—to make what we want of this image. …

Tony Tremblay (essay date June 1997)

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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 unique acts of creative misunderstanding.

The Anxiety of Influence 93)

Because we never start but interrupt, suggests Bloom, any telling is a revision, just as any version of that telling is a sub-version, though the dominant ideologies that percolate through our language are vigilant with the censure they place on revision and subversion. Both are suspect and warrant suppression. To presume, however, that any interruption of narrative (whether it is an aggressive interrogation of historiography or a playful probing of history) is not revisionist is to deny both the ideological base of language and the derivative nature of discourse—of language talking about itself and moving unobstructed (and unstoppable) toward self-fulfillment. Because we never start but interrupt. …

That Canadian literature, owing in large part to Rudy Wiebe's cultural programme of re-imagining West, is becoming consciously postcolonial is increasingly evident. Artistic representations of otherness, core/margin differences, indigenous self-determination, and subaltern regional militancies all attest to a growing cultural awareness of what West Indian poet E. K. Brathwaite called “nation language” (15). Simply translated, nation language means the rising to the surface of a whole set of sub-cultural vernaculars. As practice, the articulation of private nation languages is often an unmasking of the politics of identity and representation. But the point is that nation language cannot easily be translated, and certainly not simply borrowed, for cross-cultural purposes. The three-hundred-year history of Western imperialism gives the term a much different meaning in the West than it has for those emerging cultures that are currently exploring its effectiveness as a political means of challenging colonial discourse.

Wedged historically and geographically between two cultural monoliths—the British and American Empires—Canada has been especially vulnerable to the favours of colonial privilege. And decry that privilege as we may in postcolonial times, many in this country have grown fat on an ideological regimen that now seems fit only for deconstruction. It is my intention in this paper, then, to examine the recent Canadian fetish for a historical nation language—what I am terming “historical revisionism”—and to present a structural morphology of a clearly paradoxical, and ideologically suspect, “first-world” postcolonialism. Just as the Orient “was almost a European invention” (Orientalism 1), so is the re-imagining of Canadian history, exploration, and colonization a similar White, Western construction, one which, in appropriating non-White postcolonial language and theory to make its case, appears to represent another kind of trespass, a new seat of power for the historically privileged. My interest is not to attempt to determine, through quantification, whether an “objective knowledge” of another culture or historical period is possible—I agree with Hayden White that it is not, that historiography is a poetic construct—but to demarcate the archaeology of cultural knowledge.

Edward Said suggests, after the fashion of White, that what presents itself in Western revisionism as a looking glass is, in fact, a mirror, able only to offer the satisfying tautologies of a familiar discursive space:

‘The disciplines’ [of specialized ‘area studies’] are institutions more than they are activities. … They regulate and normalize what they study (which in a sense they have also created) far more readily than they analyze themselves or reflect on what they do. The net result, I think, could only by a kind of tautological indulgence be described as full knowledge of another culture.

Islam 135)

Working within the same cultural-studies discourse as White and Said, Canadian theorist Linda Hutcheon has made similar observations about what she terms a Canadian “historiographic metafiction,” which “enacts the recognition of the fact that the social, historical, and existential ‘reality’ of the past is discursive reality when it is used as the referent of art” (23). If we White Westerners, then, cannot write ourselves out of our own colonial discourse and ahistorical privilege—virtual impossibilities—perhaps the only “just” (Ndebele 343) thing we can do to own up to what Marshall McLuhan called the “Narcissus-narcosis” (Understanding Media 55) is foreground the description of our cultural narratology, the way in which our language forces us into hegemonic complicity. As Hutcheon suggests, “the only ‘genuine historicity’ becomes that which … openly acknowledge[s] its own discursive, contingent identity” (23). What follows is an examination of the cultural archaeology, the narrative discursives, of three recent historical revisionists.

In the beginning was aloneness, vastness of space, the land “so long, and the people travelling in it so few, the curious animals barely notice them from one lifetime to the next” (Wiebe 1). There is “no sign of another person. Never a sign of another person” (Steffler 1). “It is clear from the encounter with the skraeling that this country holds many folk we know not of and is extremely large” (Clark 234). And so in emptiness—blank space inviting inscription/penetration/impregnation—begins the revisionism of three recent Canadian fictions, the irony of their shared opening premise signalling clearly “the contradiction at the heart of the literature,” what Barbara Godard calls “its (im)possibility” (9).

The first problem in re-imagining narrative, as Wiebe illustrates, is that of beginning, for the pre-colonized land is not empty but filled with the play of “sniff and claw” (5), the “interlacing howls” (7) “around them everywhere like air” (6). It is, then, the White narrative that insists on beginning (and that begins in nothingness); it is the White eye that reads “lack” in emptiness, that cannot discern plenitude in the “stark black message of … perfect bodies” or “the invidious treachery of a stone” (Wiebe 11). It is, more generally, the White mind that problematizes the start, and, once problematizes, resolves inevitably to begin in nothingness, privileging the absence it can name to the presence it cannot. This is both vanity and blindness, inherited from and manifest in our first-world language and sensibility, making our colonial attempts at writing/(righting) redress “an impossible dream of purity” (Godard 10), yet a dream many of our contemporary writers (and indeed theorists) desire increasingly to pursue.

That “impossible dream” and the desire for redress are increasingly evident in Canadian literature, and three recent historical fictions in particular: John Steffler's The Afterlife of George Cartwright (1992), Rudy Wiebe's A Discovery of Strangers (1994), and Joan Clark's Eiriksdottir: A Tale of Dreams and Luck (1994).1 Though these three works treat different moments in time, occur in different regions of the country, are written from different gender positions, and recount fictionally the colonizing practices of different nationalities, they are astonishingly similar in both the politics of their historical revisionism and in what, consciously or not, is overdetermined in each. What, then, are the assumptions that inform these treatments; and what, collectively, are their effects? Are these texts groping toward a new historicism, their consistencies marking a latent tendency toward canon-formation (albeit, correct[ed])? Are they anterior or posterior to the postcolonial theorizing of first- and third-world critics like Barbara Godard, Derek Walcott, and Njabulo S. Ndebele? And what underlies their poorly disguised propensity toward redress (since historical revisionism accommodates many other “lighter” moods and compromises)? At the risk of synecdoche (from the outset unintentioned), I submit a few observations.

Steffler's Cartwright is an amalgam of fact and fiction grounded historically in George Cartwright's actual three-volume Journal of Transactions and Events, During a Residence of Nearly Sixteen Years on the Coast of Labrador (1792). From Cartwright's Journal Steffler borrows freely—everything from the re-creation of its “frontispiece” to long passages culled verbatim. Steffler amplifies the subtexts in Cartwright's Journal to re-create the explorer as a fully realized ahistorical presence, seemingly more vivid in the fancy of fiction than in the record of history (a feat attributable, Cartwright himself admits early on [Steffler 3], to fiction's sleight-of-hand tricking us into the present). Wiebe and Clark are not as directly indebted to historical sources, yet they also rely on historical records of exploration as baseline intertexts. Wiebe's story is a re-telling of the 1819 Franklin expedition largely from the point of view of the Dene, those most affected by it. Like Steffler, Wiebe relies on personal journals to ground his fiction, particularly the journals kept by Robert Hood (dated 1797–1821), John Richardson (dated 1787–1865), and George Back (dated 1819–1822). Clark's Eiriksdottir, though seemingly the most purely fictional of the three books, also relies on historical record. Her imagined telling relies in part on the Ulfar Vellums manuscript, a fictional journal (though this is never made explicit) recounting the equally fictitious expedition to Vinland (c. 1015 A.D.) by Freydis, daughter of Eirik the Red and half-sister of Leif Eiriksson.

All three fictions revisit Canadian history (specifically the drive toward exploration that prefigures colonization) and all three challenge the veracity of historical witness by incorporating and problematizing personal accounts. Where no personal account exists, Clark constructs one, the Ulfar manuscript. Where history is unbalanced, unidimensional, or unfair (as for Wiebe's Dene and Steffler's Inuit), a first-person, indigenous subjectivity is constructed to counter the “official” record of history. In all three treatments, fiction is privileged—as more rounded, less political, and generally superior to historical concision. And, in all three cases, the judgment of history is encoded in contemporary postcolonial discourse, in other words from “outside.”

However, while all three texts expend considerable time isolating the ideology behind “history making” (Wiebe's Franklin, for example, “will arrange and edit … properly, as always, so [his reports] will make proper and decent, acceptable sense” [247; emphasis added]), there is no clear evidence in any of the three texts that fiction and history are essentially the same: both impulses to narrative. Nor is there much, if any, self-reflexiveness in evidence in these three texts, even though all three are unashamedly didactic (as well they should be) about the seamlessness of “official” discourse—what Steffler's Cartwright publishes as his “seamless whole. … ‘sins and all’” (281) and what Clark's Freydis disseminates as “enough truth … to make the lie[s] convincing” (333). Is this more privilege, this centering of self as postcolonial prophet and simultaneous denial of practice? And why, specifically, the dependence in all three texts on eye-witness accounts in personal journals? Cannot history be imagined and recast (fictionalized toward different ends) without deferral to the allegorized, first-person voices of an ideologically charged past, especially when those voices are incorporated under erasure? Do these treatments reveal, then, more the action of our language (its ahistorical syllogisms and desires) than the possibility (or impossibility) of invention? To similar questions about the vapidity of philological scholarship during a time of profound social change, G. K. Chesterton wrote:

[Critics] were not merely mentioning the things they remembered, but remembering the things they were supposed to mention. Their minds had recorded only the things that were suited to the records and writing only the records that were suited to the official record office.


What twins the historical diarists and modern revisionists in these three recent Canadian texts is a general innocence toward what appears to be the presumed objectivity of their respective practices. As Said remarked of Orientalism, “that sense of self-sufficient, self-correcting, self-endorsing power gave and still gives Orientalism its remarkably un-self-conscious rhetoric” (Islam 134). Canadian historical revisionists are no different, nor is their construct. Unreflexiveness is endemic, but so is the irrepressible urge toward narrative: the impulse to storytelling as safe haven (“I continued to live in my Labrador journal. I returned there every night before sleep like a pigeon flying back to its cote” [Steffler 284]); as fantasy (“Stories are like ropes, they pull you to incomprehensible places” [Wiebe 126]); and as celebration (“Greenlanders are fond of telling stories about themselves, relating them with such gusto and swagger that anyone listening would find it hard to know the truth” [Clark 13]. Both in what they are willing to reveal openly, then, and in what their own practices powerfully and revealingly contradict, these three texts suggest that our history is not found in the “official” versions inscribed in perpetuity (nor, ironically, the edited copy of modernity, and herein lies the point), but rather in our desire to tell and re-tell the stories, regardless of what Godard correctly identifies as the impossibility of the dream of narrative redress. McLuhan might have observed that, while the content changes slightly, remaining ideologically laden, the form carries the real intent. No matter how different they may appear, language and theory share the same discursive authority.

If extended, the premise would seem to suggest that our history is not specifically the record of culturally indexed articulations but the record of endless desires to articulate, desires that continue without completion, crossed constantly by new iterations of a little modified (or unmodifiable) human cognition. In other words, even though the versions change, the story, as a Marxist might observe, remains essentially the same: explorers, whether historical or modern, trespass, and in their trespass leave trace, the white figure of which fades easily into a white ground. As McLuhan said, while we will never know who discovered water, we can be fairly assured it wasn't a fish (Counterblast 5). And so the point is not exactly that “anyone listening would find it hard to know the truth” (Clark 13)—for that suggests, by buried syllogism, the symbiosis of inquiry and truth (not to mention the desirability of truth as an end)—but that the impulse to narrative, accompanied as it always is by unknown ideological trace, is neither correct nor incorrect at any one time—it just is. As Vico observed, knowledge doesn't reflect an external reality, but a cognitive habit; knowledge is what the mind creates (96). This is what Steffler's Cartwright realizes when he surveys the past from the summit of an all-seeing after-life, an action which frees him from the encumbrances of the present tense and from human desire:

He's discovered that time is like sound—that the past doesn't vanish but encircles us in layers like a continuous series of voices, with the closest, most recent voice drowning out those that have gone before.

(Steffler 3)

The clearest consensus the three texts arrive at—more by indirection than design—is that truth is not discovered but created; and it is indeed fascinating, once this point of entry is taken, to re-read the three texts and consider how each works unconsciously against itself to destabilize its own authority by choosing that from the historical record which it is utterly (though uneasily) dependent upon: specifically, a propensity to name, an Aristotelian habit of classification and diminution, an insistence on ethical systems (whether civil, Christian, or natural—systems, in all cases, informing redress), and a groping toward comprehension, regardless of its clear impossibility. In choosing so consistently these elements from the historical record—precisely those that McLuhan isolated as the precursors to the emergence of a teleological “typographic man,” whose somnambulistic reality is a derivative of the printed page (Gutenberg 153–55)—each text stands as an indictment to its own discursivity, implicating itself in the conspiracy of history. And herein, I believe, lies the key to the bleakness of their revisionism, a bleakness that can only be expressed as redress: it is the discomfort of complicity, sensed but not articulated, manifest rather in what is overdetermined in each text. A comparative analysis of those overdeterminants reveals some interesting consistencies, what might be called “a morphology of the fallen.”

First, the propensity to name is portrayed in all three texts as an insistence consigning grace. This propensity is not surprising. At the start of the White narrative, “the word,” being incarnate, exists to be conferred. Soon after arriving in Labrador the historical and fictional Cartwright must name “every river, island, cove, and headland … after family members and friends” (Steffler 118). Franklin's group enacts a similar rite, insisting on “nam[ing] every lake and river with whatever sound slips from their mouths” (Wiebe 22). From the point of view of Wiebe's indigenous Dene (a people known as “Tetsot'ine—Those Who Know Something a Little” [4]), the first curiosity of “These English” is precisely the vanity and myopia of their language, which insists on knowing (not something a little but everything a lot) yet can only know within its own narrow and tautologically proscribed zones of reference. Both theoretically and in practice, naming takes place “outside” of that which is being named and “inside” of language, resulting in a prison-house of self-reification. Naming is therefore “always already” determined. Beneath “their grand attempt to rename the entire country” (13), then, is both a fundamental inability to perceive and, moreover, a resistance to perception: “And once they have named that iridescence, tamed it with a blurted sound, they are again content not to recognize what they can see; to ignore what the wind is breathing over them” (166). As if to mock its own surety, their language soon turns back on itself to rename them—from the once proud and official (and teleological) “Expedition determined by His Majesty's Government to explore the Northern Coast of America from the Mouth of the Coppermine River to the eastern extremity of that Continent” (Wiebe 220) to the lowly and primal “His name is become He Cannot Walk Because He Has Eaten His Boots! Feed us!” (299). To this history (an imperialism of language) Wiebe adds, “Of course, every place already was its true and exact name” (24), a matter-of-fact, ironic salvo that I can read only as confessional. The will to name, in effect, has been exposed and reduced to the banalities of name-calling. Consciously or not, Wiebe problematizes that which his own text names, inviting us to contemplate his treachery of words. What finally becomes obvious in Wiebe's discursive shadow-show is not the bifurcation of meaning and intent, but, in fact, their collusion.

Secondly, each of the three texts plays with the colonizing Whites' reliance on system and structure, specifically the Aristotelian habit of reductive classification that seeks as its ultimate goal the manufacture of diminutives to standardize and demarcate experience. Steffler's fictional Cartwright comes closest to elucidating what informs this habit when explaining the White, Western cosmology (complete with its Aristotelian subtexts) to the Inuit Attuiock. The terseness of his opening (“No. Listen. There is one God.” [145]) prefaces the certainty of his conviction that

there are tricks in the way things are put together … and if we figure them out, the tricks, we can change the way everything is done. To please ourselves. This is how we have iron and ships and guns. We have wheels pushed by water that do work for us. And engines now.


Most significant in Cartwright's few lines (and the nearly identical testimonials in Wiebe [124] and Clark [288–89]) is what is revealed about the primary culture-forming assumptions that ground the White system. Discernible in Cartwright's explanation above, those assumptions are as follows:

1. There is something “outside” language called a universe.

2. That universe is a mystery.

3. That mystery is divinely ordered.

4. Revealing that order is desirable to us (and to Him).

5. Anything desirable to us (and to Him) is good, progressive, and desirable for everyone else, no exceptions.

Though the positivist logic of this system seems ripe for interrogation, none of the three texts pursues a sustained deconstruction of its primary tenets, nor their in situ relation, preferring instead to focus on the institutional and/or cultural effects of those primary tenets (in other words, what they coalesce to form politically): namely, technology and typography; civilization, law, and religion; and the superstructures of ownership, class, and wealth. Critical inquiry aimed at these institutions, like that aimed at the propensity to name, is direct, smug, unremitting, and, again, quite unreflexive.

Wiebe begins his narrative, for instance, by defining his Whites—with echoes of Prufrock (and no flattery)—by their technology as “creatures that looked like humans … abruptly pointing and shrieking, pounding! pounding! scuttling about all day” (2). This and subsequent observations mock the White dependence on mediating realities, situating Whites as derivative of their instruments of knowledge and perception, reducing them, in effect to instrumentation: “They always have to hold something in their hands, something to make marks on, or to look at things or through unknowable instruments” (75). Steffler reads English civilization similarly, treating it, from Cartwright's point of view, as that which sustains order through divine ordinance (“We hang suspended here in a gulf of savagery. It's only the law that holds us up” [174]) and also as that which sanctions all actions, however brutal, in King and nation's name—to which, in all three texts, “these English” are both answerable and reducible. Clark's Freydis (“more determined and ambitious than was considered seemly for a farmer's wife” [41]), is likewise disposed to the culture-forming hegemony of system and structure, her breaking of society's gender stereotype in favour of the rigour and determinism of men being a required prelude to the acquisition of qualities necessary for successful conquest. Groa, Freydis's thrall, is marginal enough to comment clearly on the tendency of system and structure to impose themselves and compound ubiquitously (moving from ownership through other more subtle cultural iterations to the imposition of law) and also to reduce all people, regardless of gender, to this control:

The worst feature of Norsemen is their desire to own whatever they come across, whether it be people, goods or land. They are quick to fence in territory they think should be theirs and will fight anyone who tries to wrest it away. In this respect the women are as greedy as the men. If someone takes what they have, they regard it as a crime. They call it stealing.


Groa's observations, like Cartwright's cosmological dicta above (146), are powerfully revealing, for they invite meditations on ownership, wealth, colonization, slavery, materialism, property, law, war, violence, crime, and punishment—all of which are treated extensively in each of the three texts; all of which are traced back to a system that structures itself by mystery, hierarchy, and revelation; all of which are coaxed open to reveal the ideological base (and baseness) of their discursivity; all of which are exposed by their texts' marginal voices (whether natives, slaves/thralls, or women); all of which manifest themselves as institutions sustained uneasily by and resonating with violence (hence the recurring subtexts of subjugation, greed, gluttony, killing, rape, despoliation, disease, slavery, and corruption); and all of which, consequently, invite redress.

Thirdly, all three texts are consistent with respect to how they resolve the problem of the White politics of propriety. They include in those politics the cultural expressions of manners, food, dress, cleanliness, domesticity, social rituals (such as sexuality, grieving, and worship), and other iterations that are designated tenuously as either “civilized” or “savage.” All three texts explore both designations in sustained inquiries that expose the ideological boundaries of such propriety and reveal, ultimately, the narrowness of the gulf that separates what is acceptable from what is grotesque and unclean. These inquiries question and problematize the primacy of the privileged term “civilized,” going so far, in Wiebe and Steffler, as to invert the hierarchy and reposition “savage” (for reasons related to ecology, human rights, and, alas, victimization) as the privileged term. In Clark, the binary is related directly to another emerging dualism—Christian versus pagan—that is interrogated and resolved in much the same way as in the other two texts: an unexamined deference is accorded to the pagan/savage because it follows nature's patterns and is more creative yet less judgmental, manipulative, and intolerant. With seeming ideological immunity (never noticing, it appears, the parallels between their own vanity and the vanity they are exposing), all three texts privilege the exotica and erotica of native sexuality (and of the anthropomorphism “savage/pagan”) as the either/or solution to the “Western cultural impropriety” of proscription and prohibition. Alas, the morphology of the fallen. What else could it be?

Finally, within each of the three fictions, all confident and vain reliance on naming, system, structure, and propriety breaks down, as Wiebe's analytical men learn when both Franklin (“[whose manner was] nothing if not thoroughly planned, ordered and methodical” [47]) and the “scientific” (67) Doctor Richardson (“with his trained Scottish thoroughness … [h]is notebooks full of numbers, morning, noon, evening, including decimal points” [59]) are deceived by a self-deprecating reliance on number, their miscalculation “on squared paper” (14) failing to account for the basic needs of food, water, and good sense “in a land … twenty-six times the size of England” (14). In each case—and each case is patterned similarly—failure is rooted in, and traced back to, the same culture-forming assumptions that make both the creation and reception of these three texts possible. An awareness of this failure leads, once again, to an arm's length indictment of text itself, the most immediate manifestation of White/Western/colonial hegemony. Toward this end, Clark's Freydis can conclude with legitimacy that “anyone who scratches black marks on sheepskin with a bird's feather is hardly in command of his wits and cannot be trusted to say anything sensible” (194), and Wiebe can unequivocally condemn Franklin's English officers, whose “mind[s are] sodden with texts” (244).

What is fictionalized, however, as confessional and self-indictment (the closest the texts come to reflexivity) is couched in the rather naive polarization of “thoroughness” (the hallmark and downfall of civilized man) and “common sense” (the natural intuition of the indigene). But is not any deferral to that which is opposite to the official view, including revision, as ideologically laden as a fatal thoroughness constructed on the tautologies of propriety? And so, once again, redress can only be rendered in a form complicit with earlier transgressions. The complicit quality in this form of redress is quite inevitable, of course (since, as one of Wiebe's characters, echoing Joyce, recognizes, “Once they make you say, ‘a’, you'll have to say ‘b’ as well” [105]), but the inevitability of it seems to afford neither postmodern play, innovation, nor “contingent identity” (Hutcheon 23) for these three revisionists.

The proscriptive hegemony of the White “system,” then, as these three texts conclude, is not only present in a narrow band of interrelated cultural iterations, but, perhaps most significantly, those cultural iterations are reducible to a fairly narrow set of assumptions—assumptions, moreover, that readily reveal themselves at key points in all three texts (the quotations from Cartwright [146] and Groa [209] above serving as representative instances). Indeed, another thing these three texts have in common and in abundance (though it especially is hidden from their authors) is a tendency to reveal their own signifying practices. And how can this tendency be explained? Is it a function of revisionism or is it, more generally, a function of text, text laden with ideology? Perhaps one answer is that revisionist texts are those most heavily laden (or, at least, those whose lading is more transparent). For me, the question that not only recurs but insists itself (and the question which will conclude this paper) is why doesn't the dreamer know he is dreaming? And I include here myself as dreamer, having intercepted and arrested the discourse of others and having also, no doubt, reeled from “unique acts of creative misunderstanding” (Bloom 93).

Each of the fictional explorers in these texts is a dreamer; all dream a combination of conquest and luck expressed variously as the acquisition of wealth, power, and prestige. (Each of the author-explorers of these three texts is also a dreamer, dreaming a combination of redress and reparation expressed as a revisionist historiography borne of remorse.) All fail, ultimately, because of the incompatibility of the dreamer and the dreamwork, an incompatibility reflected in the litany of ironies that cuts across everything from the rhetorical duplicity of practice (the discrepancy between what is mythologized as “duty” and what is experienced as “duty decreed”) to the tendency of syntax and narrative to resist their authors' own best intentions. As the three texts unfold and duty is indeed decreed, there is a visible waking in each explorer, as if each had emerged full of humility and fear from a cathartic dream in which the pervading mood was remorse. At the end of each text, however, remorse is tempered by a cynicism that questions not only whether anything was learned but whether anything ever can be. Wiebe's Doctor Richardson, for instance, “the deliberate executioner who will continue to live and grow famous because of the food they are sending him at Fort Enterprise, will in twenty-seven years again pass through their land in a swift, scientific canoe and record carefully on squared paper the Dogrib stories of Tetsot'me destruction” (316, emphasis added). What Wiebe terms the soddenness of text (with its attendant pretexts of number, conquest, naming, and division) will continue unabated, countered only—and here again the three texts reach consensus, mostly in practice—by new iterations (by, in effect, more narrative—in Wiebe's case, the story of destruction). Trespass, as Said theorizes, becomes indeed a self-reifying tautology. Hence, at the close of Steffler's narrative, positioned as separate from the main text (not marginal but separate—the distinction is important), is a re-imagining/a retelling/a writing (righting) of sequence and action toward what would have been a different outcome for Cartwright had he succumbed to, rather than butchered, the white bear of the primordial, pre-colonial forest. For Cartwright, read 2000 years of postlapsarian regret; for this sequence doubles as the poetics of the fallen:

He watches and, incredibly, feels no pain, feels instead the satisfaction of feeding a fierce hunger. He has been starving for so long. And with each bite, as more of him vanishes, a feast of new beauty appears. Small ferns and mosses curly as hair spring from the cracks in the rock where he was sitting.


Must we, in the still-colonial first world, let ourselves be annihilated to atone for the sins of the fathers, for trespasses that we continue to commit? Is the motive for annihilation any different from the motive for colonization? If the motive is different, is the impulse that informs it? Are the “passivity” and “inertia” which Steffler's Cartwright counsels not merely “modern” expressions of the imperial dogma that licensed our first-world dominion over the beasts of the earth and the jungle in the first place? In an essay on the problematic of Whiteness in post-apartheid South Africa, Njabulo S. Ndebele cautions against the unproductiveness of guilt as historical redress: “Should the oppressor now feel guilty about it? Guilt … may represent a healthy recognition of the moral flaws of the past and the extent of one's responsibility for them. But guilt is like pain: not many of us would like or wish to inflict it on others” (340). Such a guilt, observes Ndebele, merely entrenches the colonial embrace, representing “for the white minority a defeat in which they have lost nothing” (341). And such is the legacy of re-imagining history, a revision borne of remorse that constructs yet another narrative from the raw materials of colonialism; trapped “inside” of language, we can never get out. Historical revisionist fiction can never be about anything more than itself.

For the fictional Cartwright and the text-sodden Steffler (both more similar than different toward the end), remorse, redress, and revision are realized not in the subtlety of plot difference or the postcolonial politics of inversion that Steffler's appended narrative details, but simply in the creation, as counter to the problem of history, of the narrative appendage itself. In other words, the way in which Steffler (and Cartwright and Canadian revisionists) solve the problem of history—the soddenness of text unabated—is to exact the rite of more imagining, more dreaming, more narrative. That these are often manifest as rather unreflexive historiography is a secondary phenomenon related to the ideology of discourse itself. The more important lesson about knowledge and power appears to be that history—the impulse to narrative—solves history. So if, as Clark concludes, “Luck [is] … the fulfillment of dreams” (360–61) and if dreaming, like history and exploration, is text both re-imagined and compounding, then why would not all of us, to improve our Luck (like Cartwright, Freydis and Franklin; like Steffler, Clark and Wiebe) not dream our way, constantly and without end, into the fulfillment of narrative? Why does the dreamer not know he is dreaming? Because Paradise (narrati-vana) is so close at hand. Like Wiebe's officers, like diarists and revisionists, like postcolonial theorists, we are defined by gluttony, choking on text. Can one ever wake from the satisfaction of feeding such a fierce hunger? Can the meaning ever be anything but that hunger itself?

Because we never start but interrupt; and so we live in emptiness (hunger)—blank space inviting inscription/penetration/impregnation (satiety). …

As Bloom was correct about beginnings, so Eliot was correct about endings; they are mere pauses that preface more questions … that spawn new beginnings … that are merely new interruptions at different entry points. Some questions, then, to end, and begin again. What are we latter-day colonials to infer from the “corrected” history that these texts present us with? Why does each base its “corrective” on a requisite reflexivity while demanding of itself no such protocol? Is this all we colonials are capable of, this myopic sifting and shifting? And what of our shameful past? Without it, how would we think, and what would we think about? Do we need that shame; does it sustain us, providing entry points that preface new strategies, and so on? Undeniably, that shameful past has spawned whole knowledge industries and institutions. And what about the three books themselves, arriving but months apart, saying essentially the same thing—adding “just” treatment and degree to the muted voices of history? Does the timing of their appearance mark a “new moment” in our evolving cultural sensibility? And how does that moment compare, in Wiebe's case, with his earlier work, most notably Big Bear, essentially the same work as A Discovery (Big Bear too is a construct from historical record—from treaties, diaries, journals, and court proceedings) but written twenty years earlier? Finally, what is to be concluded from the fact that all three writers make a special effort to communicate that the indigenes of history were little different from their colonizers—that they had essentially the same appetites for love, hate, power, and manipulation? Is intrusiveness, if we are to believe the evidence of these three revisionists texts, the point of history (and of narrative)? Is to trespass virtuous, even if one is blind to ideological trace?

Derek Walcott's play Pantomime asks just these questions about trespass and trace, challenging the sanctity of our Western folklore, and the goodwill of our desire for redress. Harry Trewe, white owner of a seaside resort in the West Indies, thinks it might be “provocative” to invert the Robinson Crusoe story. Jackson Phillip, his factotum (a retired, black Calypsonian from Trinidad), thinks differently, knowing that, because “language is ideas” (99), language/ideas cannot easily (or safely) be re-imagined. And Jackson is not wrong, for in Harry Trewe's eventual refusal to invert his own canon, Jackson recognizes that what Ndebele did was an extension of colonial privilege:

I think that you cannot believe … that any black man should play Robinson Crusoe. A little while aback, I came out here quite calmly and normally with the breakfast things and find you almost stark naked, kneeling down, and you told me you were getting into your part. Here I am getting into my part and you object. This is the story … [sic] this is history. This moment that we are now acting here is the history of imperialism.


Narrative is safest for Harry, and for the historically privileged, if it is couched in pantomime; that is, if the words are left out. For, if the language is missing, so will its ideological trace remain invisible—and so will its latent unruliness, its tendency to reveal its own signifying practices.

In also working imaginatively to reconstruct the “new story” of post-apartheid South Africa, Ndebele confesses to being cut short by what can only be termed a chasm of sensibility, a chasm between White and Black, past and present, that can never be traversed. Recollecting his desire “to write a novel. … about a young Afrikaner boy … during the war of Angola” (336), Ndebele also relates the epiphanic moment when he became disarmingly aware of the futility of his endeavour, a futility grounded in his realizations that “I simply did not know my main character” and “All I had was a treasure house of stereotypes from which to work” (336). What he says of his experience of writing/(righting) South Africa can also be said of the “historiographic metafiction” in the three novels being considered:

At this time when Berlin walls of various kinds are falling, I am aware of a wall that is as formidable as ever. It is the wall of ignorance. At this time when the spirit of reconciliation is supposed to bring South Africans together, South Africans don't know one another as a people. Can we as a nation write the novel of the future under these conditions?


Ndebele answers “No” (342), offering as alternative a solution positioned somewhere above the “guilt” of the first-world and the “shame” (340) of the third: “Justice … yields not humiliation but knowledge and responsibility” (343). Ndebele's justice, and much third-world, postcolonial literature, starts with the confession of ignorance, with the admission that blackness cannot know whiteness. Perhaps this is what we in the first world have yet to learn. And perhaps we must also continue asking: who is it that is maintaining control of meaning? And whose identity is yet again being willed to power? More questions. … Food, guns, ink, blood. More questions.


  1. The list of Canadian works available to those interested in historical revisionism is lengthy and varied. I could have chosen the work of Daphne Marlatt, George Bowering, Robert Kroetsch, John Mills, or other works by Joan Clark and Rudy Wiebe. The recent arctic and pan-Canadian journals of John Moss and Margaret Atwood would also have proven fruitful. The three texts I have chosen were selected because, unlike other similar works, their revisionism speaks directly to the recent trend in first-world, postcolonial theorizing to redefine historical place, reconstructing it from the present.

Works Cited

Bloom, Harold. The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry. London: Oxford UP, 1975.

Brathwaite, Edward K. “English in the Caribbean.” Reading Black: Essays in the Criticism of African, Caribbean and Black American Literature. Ed. Houston A. Baker, Jr. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1976. 15–53.

Chesterton, G. K. More Quotable Chesterton. Ed. George J. Morlin, et al. Chicago: Ignatius, 1988.

Clark, Joan. Eiriksdottir: A Tale of Dreams and Luck. Toronto: Macmillan, 1994.

Godard, Barbara. “Canadian? Literary? Theory?” Open Letter 3 (1992): 5–27.

Hutcheon, Linda. A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction. New York: Routledge, 1988.

McLuhan, Marshall. Counterblast. Toronto: McClelland, 1969.

———. The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1962.

———. Understanding Media. The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw, 1964.

Ndebele, Njabulo S. “Guilt and Atonement: Unmasking History for the Future.” Concert of Voices: An Anthology of World Writing in English. Ed. Victor J. Ramraj. Peterborough ON, Broadview Press, 1995. 336–43.

Said, Edward S. Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World. New York: Pantheon, 1981.

———. Orientalism. New York: Vintage, 1978.

Steffler, John. The Afterlife of George Cartwright. Toronto: McClelland, 1992.

Vico, Giambattista. The New Science. Trans. T. G. Bergin and Max Fisch. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1968.

Walcott, Derek. Remembrance and Pantomime: Two Plays. New York: Farrar, 1980. 89–170.

White, Hayden. Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe. Trans. Jan Van Heurck. New York: Farrar, 1984.

Wiebe, Rudy. A Discovery of Strangers. Toronto: Knopf, 1994.

T. W. Smyth (essay date Spring 1998)

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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 “hard-earned reputation” (“Lost” III). Of My Lovely Enemy, he writes: “It seems, indeed, to be as unfriendly as any book could be to its author's hard-earned reputation. … [It] is cliché-ridden, hackneyed, and trite in its ultimate statement” (III). Earlier he assessed Wiebe's The Blue Mountains of China (1970) as “by any standard a remarkable novel, one of the best in this country in our time … probably the most demanding novel English speaking Canada has yet produced” (“Search” 185–86).

Other assessments of My Lovely Enemy, although generally more sympathetic, have failed to do justice to a novel whose complexity significantly eclipses that of The Blue Mountains of China.My Lovely Enemy is an extremely difficult text, but its intricacies do not excuse critical misrepresentations. Repeated misreadings arise primarily from the failure to read carefully and perceptively. This novel is not a tentative early effort but the product of an established author whose previous writings should provide some intimations, particularly to critically informed readers, of how this text might be read. My Lovely Enemy is not an aberration; it continues Wiebe's challenge to a limited perception of reality, encouraging “a whole new way of seeing the world.” As a critic of both church and society, Wiebe continues to witness to radical Christian faith, without apology in either the popular sense of confessing fault or the technical sense of explaining his position.

Even Pierre Spriet's review, perhaps the most perceptive assessment of this novel to date, fails to recognize the fundamental nature and significance of that witness. His review does, however, provide an excellent starting point for a rediscovery of a novel whose merits have not been adequately appreciated. Spriet rightly recognizes the thematic continuity between My Lovely Enemy and Wiebe's earlier novels in “the denunciation of a form of Christianity and morality which, to Wiebe, is definitely not Christian” (54), particularly one that “sanctifies the most egotistical forms of possessiveness” between a husband and a wife, heralds the “ambiguity of earnestness and thrift … self-righteousness and purity,” and promotes a “fear of sex” and “a feeling of guilt” (55). He recognizes that Wiebe's celebration of sexual intercourse in the tale of an adulterous affair—between the protagonist, Professor James Dyck, who rediscovers “my lovely enemy” in sexuality (“a world I long ago thought I had completely explored, forever” [Lovely 177]), and Gillian, the “luscious wife of a university colleague” (Spriet 53), who is on a quest for “carnal knowledge” (Lovely 153)—has, despite appearances and critical interpretation to the contrary, “nothing to do with Richler's or Cohen's,” because Wiebe is concerned more with “discovery and communication” than with “physical pleasure” (Spriet 54).

Spriet also acknowledges that in this novel “Wiebe proclaims his message of love and reunion of men and women in God as he never had, at least so openly, in his earlier fiction” (55). But he errs in limiting the role of Wiebe's witness to his faith by dismissing the proclamation as merely thematic. Seeking to go beyond “surface themes” to what he terms its “deeper structure” (55), Spriet focuses on a “dialectical process of negation which ultimately aims at transcending confusion and proclaiming the existence of a truth beyond this world of words and logic.” For him, the novel's structure is founded on “the violent fusion of incompatibilities” that—“fortunately for the novel's readers”—is “only indirectly asserted” (62).

Spriet is right that the “bewildering variety of statements, judgments and utterances of all kinds” can be “baffling” (55), and that the novel “tends to perturb and to confuse the reader and at the same time to spur him into seeking a higher level of awareness” (62). In one sense, interpretations other than Christian are possible, and the novel emphatically does “undermine the referentiality of the story” (59). But I would suggest that Spriet's appreciation of, and focus on, Wiebe's “remarkable ability to undermine words by using all the resources of words” (62) tells only half the story, because it misses the subtlety of Wiebe's position. The problem for Spriet, as for other critics, is a failure to recognize not only the dynamic relationship between the dialogical nature of the narrative and Wiebe's witness but also the scope and nature of his method of indirection, which attests to the role of his Christian faith as not just a theme but the novel's controlling structure as well.


In his recognition of the “bewildering variety of statements, judgments and utterances of all kinds” in My Lovely Enemy, Spriet implicitly identifies the dialogic nature of Wiebe's fiction that other critics have noted.1 Although it has been suggested that Wiebe gives promise of pursuing the dialogic model as articulated by Mikhail Bakhtin, assessments of his achievements have been mixed. Whereas Bakhtin has argued that the voices in a dialogic novel retain a freedom of expression, preserving their autonomy in an interactive “heteroglossia,” Penny van Toorn in particular contends that, for all the evidence of the dialogic within My Lovely Enemy, Wiebe seems ultimately to subvert the dialogic by reverting to monologic closure, especially through the intrusion of the monologic voice of Jesus.

But this is as much a misunderstanding of Bakhtin as it is of Wiebe. There is perhaps no student of fiction more cognizant of a novel's inherent subtleties and complexities than Bakhtin and, at the same time, a theorist whose own subtleties and complexities have been more misread, for his own “commentators and interpreters have trimmed him down (albeit often unwittingly) to their own presuppositions” (Lock 68). Although his distinction between the dialogic and the monologic is commonly recognized, it is often misrepresented. What is not readily noted, for example, is his assertion that “However monological the utterance may be … it cannot but be, in some measure, a response to what has already been said. … The utterance is filled with dialogic overtones” (Speech 92). At the same time, to assume that a dialogic novel should contain no monologic voices is simply one of the many misconstruals of Bakhtin's argument.

Bakhtin does not suggest that the author is a simple cipher of that polyphony, nor is he himself just another voice heralding the author's demise. Rather, he asserts that what actually enters a novel is not the polyphony of everyday language but the author's artistic representation, or image, of those voices. Wiebe, in a discussion of The Blue Mountains of China in which he speaks of using “every kind of necessary language, from one-stringed lute, if you will, to full orchestra” (“One-Stringed” 142), acknowledges that in translating non-English dialects “into disturbed English word order … my very act of translation gives me control: I and I alone am making the translation” (143). But in every representation of another's speech, we are engaged in a translation in which we present our “image” of another's voice through the story.

For Bakhtin, authorial control is the aesthetic essence of the dialogic novel:

Behind the narrator's story we read a second story, the author's story, he is the one who tells us about the narrator himself. We acutely sense two levels at each moment in the story; one the level of the narrator, a belief system filled with his objects, meanings and emotional expressions, and the other, the level of the author who speaks albeit in a refracted way [shades of Wiebe] by means of this story and through this story. The narrator, himself, with his own discourse, enters into this authorial belief system along with what is actually being told. We puzzle out the author's emphases that overlie the subject of the story, while we puzzle out the story itself and the figure of the narrator as he is revealed in the process of telling his tale. If one fails to sense this second level, the intentions and accents of the author himself, then one has failed to understand the story.

Dialogic 314)

Wiebe is not voiceless, exerting his authorial control over a representation that appears, for the most part, simply to mirror the heteroglossic reality of everyday life. By speaking, “albeit in a refracted way,” Wiebe manages to witness to his “belief system” throughout the narrative.

In his early essay “The Artist as a Critic and a Witness” (1965), Wiebe articulates the substance of that witness, stating that faith in Jesus Christ is “the foundation stone of all my thought patterns” (41). The radicalness of his position is such that one cannot, or should not, assume that at any time Christ, the object of faith, is not both the ultimate focus and the measure of his writing. One cannot, for example, see Wiebe in one instance as interested in general social or ethical issues and in another as espousing specifically Christian concerns. Whether he is writing about Big Bear, Almighty Voice, or James Dyck, what he understands of Christ is always the controlling paradigm. Concomitantly, one should not think that the importance of the ostensible subject of his discourse is thereby diminished; for Wiebe, it is only in Christ that anything gains its value. His love for Canada's northwest and for the people who have walked its trails (or its city streets) and paddled its rivers is founded on, and perceived through, the love revealed in the Incarnation. Although Wiebe does lay great stress on “the new way for man to live” (Blue Mountains 215) proclaimed by the Jesus of the Gospels, underlying that proclamation is the great kerygma, the person of Jesus the Christ, who is the Word, the Gospel, the Good News.

Although Spriet is right that the novel seemingly ends thematically in a “didactic muddle,” because a Christian reading “cannot exclude other interpretations” (55), and because James's closing actions remain cloaked in ambiguity, to make the assumption that Wiebe has lost control of his narrative reveals the reader's inability to grasp the nature of his witness and his art.


The apparent structural undermining of Wiebe's thematic Christian proclamation that Spriet perceives in the text's “fusion of contraries” results from a failure to discern its deepest level. My Lovely Enemy has a base that goes deeper than either realism or what Spriet terms the “failure structure.” The true measure of this text's proclamation begins with the recognition that structurally this novel has much in common with romance. Spriet approaches that recognition in identifying the novel's “pattern of character construction” that is “patently more symbolic than psychological” and in perceiving that the characters “correspond to types found in genres which Northrop Frye would call mythic and ironic” (57). The next step would be to approach the novel as a romance and view the entire text mythically, but Spriet does not take this step.

Romance, as Frye explains in The Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance, is a story “told primarily for the sake of the story” (41): it is “man's vision of his life as a quest”—the primary exemplar of the epic of the creature (as opposed to the Bible as the “epic of the creator” [15]). Whereas realism views the action of the ordinary world “horizontally” (one action is seen as arising naturally out of another—giving rise to what Frye labels a “hence” narrative), romance, whose central element is a love story, presents a “vertical perspective”; it is “more sensational,” moving “from one discontinuous episode to another” (47). The principle of action, in what he terms a “thence” narrative, occurs on two levels, one above and one below the ordinary level of experience, to which neither one “correspond[s] very closely” (49). That ordinary world is replaced by a dream world “in which the narrative movement keeps rising into wish fulfillment or sinking into anxiety and nightmare” (53). The “up-and-down movement of the romancer” finds analogies in a world “where we ‘fall’ asleep and wake ‘up’” (53). In romance, the realist's equation of reality with the waking world and illusion with dreaming is rejected: “neither the waking world nor the dream world is the real one. … [R]eality and illusion are both mixtures of the two” (55). Reality, for romance, is “an order of existence most readily associated with the word identity” (54), whereas illusion is a matter of alienation.

The structure of My Lovely Enemy seems to fit this scheme. James is portrayed as engaged in a quest for identity. Disillusionment with his existence has forced him to retreat to “working with the dead” (I). He comes from a family that, in its struggle for survival, has maintained a vibrant, if seemingly fundamentalist, faith, but alienated from his father and from his father's faith, he finds himself a professor with nothing to profess. Mired in male menopause, a forty-two year old with no perceived sense of accomplishment, he is overwhelmed by sameness, stasis, and anonymity.

The apparition of Gillian, a colleague's wife, at a party derails James in the midst of the annual ritual of a theo-philosophical debate, this time on Louis Riel's “alleged” hanging, with his colleague and childhood playmate, the existential ironist Joy Lemming, and instigates his quest for an identity, consciously and regrettably lost. Gillian's appearance triggers his acknowledgement that, although he would not pray to change history, “the research past” (8), his personal past, is a different matter, and James initiates a descent that will alter his relationship with that past.

Reflecting the descent portrayed by Frye as a transition into a night world, James disappears into the grey world of the Micro-Materials Reading Room, where, unseen but by the archivist, he escapes into the past in his purportedly dispassionate investigation of the completed lives of nineteenth-century Indians and fur traders. James claims that Gillian is not a doppelgänger (“she is shaped nothing like me” [13]), but her ethereal materialization in the midst of his research in the Reading Room initiates reflections of doubleness that forcefully fragment his precarious existence as he enters a dream world, which, as Frye claims, is “a world of increased erotic intensity” (104).

The dreamlike state pervades James and Gillian's encounter. Her materialization serves to undermine the story's intended realism, provoking an unreal aura suggestive of Kroetschian playfulness. As we question whether Riel was ever hanged, we also query the corporeality of this beautiful spectre and the lovers' intertwined story. She appears at the party almost as a mirage, or a figment of James's imagination, an object of wish-fulfilment. Wanting desperately to escape from Joy's interrogation, searching in vain for his wife, Liv, to rescue him, he complains, “there was never a single idiot standing about, listening, who would help me destroy this conversation with one good joke” (78); then he discovers Gillian, “a girl with long hair so dark it appeared black, so long it seemed momentarily she was wearing nothing else” (8), who not only listens but also speaks (though seemingly unnoticed by Joy) and then disappears.

When Gillian reappears the next day in the midst of his Indian-history research (her face—so much like that of an ideal Cree—“materializes out of greyness, long hair and narrow Egyptian nose and wide black eyes” [12]), he cannot see but only feel her hair; her face blurs, and in an echo of Edgar Allan Poe's “The Telltale Heart,” “somewhere something is pounding, rapidly, rapidly” (12). Because the heart is his own, is he only imagining the other? He admits the next day that he “would not recognize her” beyond the fleeting vision at the party (35). All he retains is a recollected sense of smell and touch.

At times, despite a strong dissimilarity, he mistakes Gillian for his wife (“this tension of sudden, possible doubleness” [105]); at other times, he has difficulty separating her from himself: “like stepping through a mirror and feeling [if not a physical doppelgänger] someone … known forever” (13), who anticipates his thoughts and feelings, “ris[ing] just as I am aware my leg numb” (15). Both James and Gill seemingly lose discernment between dreams and life. She tells him, “I dreamt you in the library stacks” (145), and he confesses his confusion, his inability to distinguish between them: “It is neither she nor her body, it is both and neither, it is myself and it is not either, o wretched man that I am, who will deliver me out of this?” (143–44).

As if to convince himself of the reality of this vision, James ventures curiously, “someone should be sitting at the next reader so he would never know we are saying anything” (13). But throughout the reading-room episodes, there is no earthly witness; he remarks that “no one but the archivist has ever seen me before [Gillian would make two] in this indecipherable room” (35), and no one but the fleeting frisbee-throwing jock ever sees them together. This is possibly his vision and his alone. Or perhaps it is simply one of his own duality. Frye reminds us that in the classic myth Narcissus exchanges his real self for the reflection with which he falls in love, that this mirroring is integral to the process of illusion and alienation, and that the act of disappearing into one's own mirror images is a central image of descent. Although James cannot see the mirror, he is aware that Gill and he must be inside, because he is lost in her image, transported “into the sheer blackness of her eyes” (12), and that they will “never again feel so innocent inside an accepting innocence [they] did not know [they] had” (13).

Whereas Frye equates Alice's “passing though the looking-glass [in Lewis Carroll's classic story] into a reversed world of dream languages” with descent, noting that “the incidents are largely suggested by nursery rhymes” (155), in My Lovely Enemy the incidents invoke the corresponding nursery rhyme, as the coupling of James (“Jakie” [20]) and Gillian recalls the ups and downs of Jack and Jill and initiates for the entire novel the “up-and-down movement” characteristic of romance, “where we ‘fall’ asleep and wake ‘up.’”

In its complexity, My Lovely Enemy clearly belongs in the company of what Frye categorizes as “elite,” rather than “popular,” fiction, in which “the whole structure of humanist learning, with biblical and Classical mythology radiating out from it, has to be brought to bear on the reading of [it]” (27). Of the two aspects of the mythological universe, one is the “verbal part of man's own creation,” what he calls a “secular scripture,” and the other is a “revelation given to man by God” (60). Significantly, the constant struggle that Frye insists occurs in romance between the “created scripture and the revealed scripture, or whatever we call the latter” (61), is also evident in Wiebe's novel in the abundance of literary and scriptural allusion, and the reader is compelled to bring both readings to bear.


In My Lovely Enemy, the “verbal part of man's own creation” that assumes special prominence is arguably the convention of courtly love, or the myths of eroticism, particularly as explored by Denis de Rougemont in Love in the Western World and Love Declared: Essays on the Myths of Love. The convention surfaces in Harold Lemming's conversation with James in the latter's office, when Harold introduces de Rougemont's distinction between love as perceived in mediaeval Christendom, which Harold claims was “more a source of fealty” (169), and courtly love. In de Rougemont's words,

According to the theory officially received, courtly love arose as a reaction to the brutal lawlessness of feudal manners. It is well known that the nobles of the twelfth century made of marriage simply a means of enriching themselves, either through the annexation of dower estates or through expectations of inheritance. When a “deal” turned out badly, the wife was repudiated.

Western World 33)

Harold remarks that, “For the woman involved … why she finds love whenever she can,” adding in de Rougemont's terms that husbands and wives are “necessary to life but obstructions to love”: “Love cannot be happy. … Courtly love is really the love of love, and in that sense it becomes the desire for death because the most intense love is achieved by the most intense obstruction. The secure constancy expected in Christian marriage makes such love imposs—” (170). Lemming's lecture, in what is surely further evidence of Wiebe's Kroetschian playfulness, is interrupted by a telephone call from Harold's wife, Gillian, arranging a tryst with James at the Lemmings' apartment. The unwitting cuckold, Harold, then proclaims courtly love to be a “heresy” (171), adding that “The church performs marriages in the name of God; and Christ is the only true bridegroom of the church, so there can be only one bride or groom for every believer,” and that “courtly love is of the devil” (172). James, perceiving himself cast as “the horned Devil” (172), reacts with dismissive astonishment and amusement, but the introduction of de Rougemont's theory compels the reader to re-examine the dream world of James and Gillian's affair.

According to de Rougemont's basic thesis, in the Western world passion and marriage are in “inescapable conflict.” In the verdict of the Comtesse de Champagne in 1174, because marriage entails enforced restrictions—“husband and wife are holden, by their duty, to submit their wills to each other and to refuse each other nothing”—love or passion in its freedom “cannot extend its rights over two married persons” (Western World 34). Tracing the roots of passion back to the gnosticism of twelfth-century Catharism and the French troubadours of Languedoc and their radical opposition of spirit and matter, de Rougemont contends through his explication of the myth of Tristan and Iseult that it is not sexuality but the sexual emotion that “becomes, beyond its procreative goal, an end in itself or an instrument of the soul” (Love Declared 35). Passion's goal is neither transient sexual pleasure nor possession of the lover.

De Rougemont argues that what Tristan and Iseult actually “love is love and being in love” (Western World 41), and that the lover, confronting his beloved, is essentially in the presence of his own spirit (“a Form of Light greeting him at the gate of salvation” [Updike 222]), and he claims that it is only in being loved that we counter our fundamental anxiety of existence. In the lover, our own existence is “confirmed and amplified” (Updike 233). Although in the moment of loving and being loved we may cease to fear death, eros is essentially allied with thanatos: “love becomes not a way of accepting and entering the world but a way of defying and escaping it” (222).

Echoes of de Rougemont's thesis resound in My Lovely Enemy, particularly in his assertions that, despite the demise of the courtly society of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, its laws have “become more compelling in that they wield no power over us except in our dreams” (Western World 19), and that the underlying myth of courtly love is at peril in “the broad daylight” (21): “Everything holds together and is connected after the manner of a dream, and not in accordance with our lives. … The events narrated are but images or projections of a longing [James's constant desires] …” (37).

It is not only the pervasive dreamlike state, the aversion to daylight (Gillian admits, “daylight is fatal. … Only darkness becomes me” [36]), the intensive role played by mirrors, the question of confused identities, and the suggestion that the whole occurrence may be perceived as James's vision alone that suggest James and Gillian's affair should be interpreted in de Rougemont's terms. John Updike, whose own fiction has been strongly influenced by de Rougemont's thesis and who describes a man's Iseult as “the woman of his most innocent nostalgia,” provides further clues to understanding Wiebe's novel:

While nostalgia does not create women, perhaps it does create Iseults. What is it that shines at us from Iseult's face [Gillian's face at the party] but our own past [James's past, particularly his flight from his father and his family faith], with its strange innocence and its strange need to be redeemed [James remarks that “The certain temptation of Gillian drives me to the possible temptation of the personal Jesus” (Lovely 169)]? What is nostalgia but love for that part of ourselves which is in Heaven, forever removed from change and corruption? A woman, loved, momentarily eases the pain of time by localizing nostalgia; the vague and the unrecoverable objects of nostalgic longing are assimilated, under the pressure of libidinous desire, into the details of her person. Freud says she is our mother [James says of his mother, “she was the first and she is the last and she will live me into the meaning of all the others” (Lovely 90)].


Furthermore, an echo of de Rougemont's claim that passion serves only to allay one's fear of dying can be heard in James's admission to Jesus of his fear of death. In confessing “Actually I think about [death] in bed, afterwards,” he confirms Jesus's contention that James is not “concerned with dying” when he is in bed with Gillian (79).

It is also in Jesus's debate with James that the gnosticism central to passion as interpreted by de Rougemont, with its explicit neoplatonic duality and the privileging of the spirit over the flesh, comes under attack. Jesus remarks that “reading Plato got early Christians hung up” (139), and he proceeds to challenge and lay bare the errant influence of Platonism and to reinforce the essential goodness of the body itself. The sexual relationships throughout the text, even those that are adulterous, exalt the physical. Challenging those who argue “that anything really physically lovely must somehow be wrong,” Jesus contends that “God is other all right, beyond humanity certainly but not incapable of anything mankind can do, I mean why should God deny himself any of humanity's greatest blessings?” (139), and he asks rhetorically, “Do you think God gave you passion without having any himself?” (85). But he cautions that to “love genitally is a beginning, also an end” (81), and urges James to “practise daylight living” (135).


John Updike generally limits his discussion of de Rougemont to his treatment of erotic love, and his own novels generally reflect that limitation, but de Rougemont himself is careful to proceed further and juxtapose eros to the divinely revealed agape (disinterested or divine love), the subject of the other aspect of Frye's mythological universe. De Rougemont claims that “passion is deadly,” but only if “isolated from its opposite” (Western World 376), and argues that the obstacle that nurtures all passion—the unattainable lady—is actually possible within marriage: “If it is true that passion seeks the Inaccessible, and if it is true that the Other as such remains the best-defended mystery in the eyes of demanding love—could Eros and Agape not join in a paradoxical alliance at the very heart of an accepted marriage?” (377). That alliance for both Wiebe and de Rougemont is founded on the historical manifestation of agape that culminates in Christ's incarnation as recorded in the Bible. It is this narrative that becomes their basic paradigm; as in all Wiebe's fiction, it is in the Bible's inherent typology that we locate the fundamental structural principle.

It was David Lyle Jeffrey's depiction of Wiebe's “fictional strategy” in an article on Wiebe and Margaret Laurence in 1978 that opened the way to a perception of the pervasive typological structure of his writing:

the Bible provides him with a design—a hermeneutical model which yields up both the deep structure of his creations and the methodology in terms of which he “translates” the histories he writes. An absent text upon which Wiebe's writing is a kind of present gloss, the Bible is not obtrusively present as allegory or superficial allusion, but is always working just under the surface, as though history were really, as in typological homiletics, an ongoing fulfillment of the story begun in the Bible.

(“Biblical” 100)

What is surprising is that Jeffrey, having gained this insight, then fails to recognize the fundamental typological structure of My Lovely Enemy. Perhaps he is so thoroughly repulsed by Wiebe's sexual explicitness that he is blinded to the various levels of possible interpretation for this work. More likely, in company with other readers, he simply fails to appreciate the complexity of Wiebe's method of indirection.

It is through attention to this method that the reader should be constantly alerted to this novel's underlying typology. Wiebe addresses the issue of indirection in his early Goshen article:

The more consciously and directly the novelist tries in his novel to preach a certain truth he holds to be valid, the less it will arise out of the stuff of the novel itself, the poorer the novel will be, and the less likely he is to convince anyone, even if he were supposed to convince them.

(“Artist” 42)

To talk about life, love, or God, the writer must resort to figuration. It is only by means of symbols, by parables, by fiction, by “prodding people into thinking” (47), that the artist can prompt them to see things differently and perhaps catch a glimmer of what they can become.

Parabolization is central to his indirection, but the multifaceted means that Wiebe employs to this end have generally been overlooked or misconstrued. For example, a major misreading occurs when discussions about My Lovely Enemy focus exclusively on James. Primarily by virtue of the predominant first-person-singular narration in the May sections of this novel, it is his “trail” that we seem compelled to follow. By sheer dint of the material devoted to him, he is the protagonist who demands and generally receives readers' attention. With minor exceptions, the narrative in the May section is channelled through James's first-person point of view, but in the move to September of this “May to September” romance, which we have been forewarned demands a radical change of perception (a “standing on our head”), we are immediately confronted by a narrative switch from first to third person. Wiebe comments elsewhere2 that the move to the third person immeasurably broadens the point of view, overcoming the strictures and biases that accompany first-person narration. In My Lovely Enemy, the change affords distancing from James's self-obsession and serves to deprivilege him and his narcissism and, in a Levinasian manner, to effect confrontation by the other.

Despite his prodigious memory (suggestive of Borges and mirrored appropriately by Gillian), James in no way controls the narrative now, anymore than he controls his own wants and desires, and the reader is obliged to look elsewhere in search of meaning. In earlier novels, Wiebe was likewise willing to subvert novelistic conventions by using characters seemingly confined to supporting roles to exemplify the “larger meaning” of the text, promoting indirection through heteroglossia, and thereby providing precedents that serve as hermeneutic aids in unravelling the sense of My Lovely Enemy.

One means of this subversion is Wiebe's use of what Roy Pascal (following Charles Bally) identifies as “free indirect speech,” which he describes as a stylistic device that “fuses the narratorial and subjective modes” (21), employing the basic form of indirect speech while preserving within it some of the elements of the subjective perspectives of the characters. A peculiar mix of both direct and indirect speech, it may contain sentence form, personal vocabulary, exclamations and questions of the former, while grammatically appearing indistinguishable from the latter. Through the introduction of expressive gestures, it produces a more lively effect and is often more persuasive than simple narrative reporting but above all it greatly enhances the narrator's art and project, allowing the narrator a voice within the voice of the character and a shaping of the narrative generally. The mingling of voices also demands greater interaction between the reader and the text; as Pascal claims, it “provokes an astonishing imaginative agility in the reader” (33).

Although more muted, less pervasive, than in Wiebe's earlier works, this stylistic device plays a fundamental role in the third-person narrative in the September section of My Lovely Enemy. In the first paragraph, the narrative report is coloured by Wiebe's use of the deictic (demonstrative) adverb now and adjective this (184), which serve as syntactical indicators that what we are being given reflects James's situation in time and place and therefore must originate with him. James thus continues to have a position of privilege, particularly because he is the only character through whom this double voicing occurs, but to understand the novel it is crucial to recognize that in these passages James's “voicing” is always tempered by the presence and the judgement of the narrator. The irony is most pronounced in the judgemental portraits of Whitling-Holmes and his wife, Rikki, obviously drawn in James's mind and reflecting the immediacy of his emotional response but which, through their expression in free indirect speech, serve to carry an ironic narrative rebound upon James himself.

Sarcastic reference to Whit's English immigrant background and his “massive imperial accent” is extended: “Already resources minister, second only to the Leader himself, O he sounds so cultured, so utterly … cultured! Cultivated with never a plow” (188). But culture is also James's way of making a living and something he is not above using to achieve an impression, say with a graduate student such as Gillian. His relationship with her undermines his judgement of Rikki (“Charmingly bucked teeth, a ruddy face of probably mindless laughter”) and her involvement with Whit (“too young by a quarter of a century at least” [189]), enabling the narrator to heap ironic coals on James's own clandestine bridging of generations.

Undermined by the irony that spills over into the narrative generally, the image of James increasingly reflects the falsity that surrounds him—the entrance to The Mine (reminiscent of Wade's fake fort in Jack Hodgins's The Invention of the World [1977]), “a processed plastic barrier” made to look like rock, which is actually “glued together from the photograph of a Blackmud Creek cliff,” or even Rikki's “tremendous decolletage,” which is “so artfully contrived” (191). This professor, who “seem[s] to know everything” but is at a loss about what to profess, and whose prodigious memory is more a bane than a blessing (he recognizes that much of what he recalls is but trivia for him, except for his distorted recollections that constantly alienate him from his father's memory and eat away at his own sense of self-worth), becomes, in the transformed point of view of the September section, an even more questionable conveyor of the text's transforming message.

Jeffrey, recognizing James's limitations, accuses Wiebe of a “slippage of voice” in his protagonist and questions “the author's controlling perspective,” while arguing that the story of Maskepetoon embedded in this text (“one of the best that Wiebe has written”) “in no way fits properly” into the surrounding narrative (“Lost” 114). But surely he has underestimated Wiebe's art and missed yet another indirection. Is it not the case that the Maskepetoon sections, in both style and content, are embedded in the text precisely to provoke a contrast, to emphasize the banality of the illicit affair and the weakness of the prime protagonist? In a perverted adaptation of Jehovah's declaration from the burning bush, James, having bemoaned his fate (“I'm forty-two and what have I done?”), adds plaintively, “I'm all I am!” (208). The very strength of Maskepetoon's faith haunts him. In his pursuit of the Cree chief, he is also looking for himself: “Ahhh I am looking for a shadow, straining for a parallel. Even in mirrors I wouldn't see it” (168). In an allusion to T. S. Eliot's “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” whose protagonist James, in his vacillations, does mirror, he laments, “I will drip and measure out my life into some intravenous tubing” (169). It is the recognition of the power of the Word in Maskepetoon's suffering for his people that trivializes James's own existence.

Despite his recognition of his weaknesses, which outweigh his potential strengths, and the insights that he is frequently afforded, James continues (in a manner containing an echo of Robert Kroetsch's “loving” Liebhaber3) without meaningful discernment: “he could control nothing while he wanted everything”(193). James, like Liesel Driediger and Jakob Friesen of The Blue Mountains of China, is not a Christian. Like them, he has rejected and fled from a Mennonite background. He may recall a wealth of scriptural and poetic material, and he may be adept at arguing theological and philosophical niceties, but like Harold Lemming, whom he ridicules, he lacks discernment. Much of what he contributes positively to the dialogue is by rote and not by understanding. This is the case for James even at his best—for example, when he talks beginnings with Becca and is able to latch onto the creation words of Genesis, words “of willed forgetfulness,” which he finds as “solid” as “the fundamental rocks, nothing to trip and fall between.” The limited extent of his vision, at that point, is to present them as “a different way of talking about beginning … like poetry” (64). He may be tempted by Christianity, but what he hears from others, and is able to recite, has minimal effect on the way that he conducts his life. Even at the novel's conclusion, despite the suggestion that his life may have turned around, it is not clear where he stands or what he is about to do. His anger has dissipated; he has aspirations; he wants to “listen his loved ones into life”; he “would” speak; but we are left with his “opened … mouth” (262).

Insensitivity to Wiebe's indirection, and to his authorial accents generally, results in the kind of textual misreading that Jeffrey provides. Missing “the author's controlling perspective,” he connects James's weakness with the novel's “ultimate statement” (“Lost” 114). Sensitivity to the author's presence in this double voicing should direct the reader away from James. The focus appears to rest instead on James's wife, Liv.4 Despite her more limited role, she can be seen to exemplify the “larger meaning” of this novel, an embodiment of the upward movement of this romance.

At the beginning, Liv is presented as just another working housewife and mother who feels the frustration of contemporary living, resents the male domination of the workplace, and reacts adversely to the religion of her parents, but she is clearly more ardent than James in her search for “the good life” (79). In the early laundry room exchange with James, she claims that, “As you read more, the Jesus stories just make more sense,” and although she vows “never [to] tell” what she is reading (62), I suspect that she is reading Wiebe's theological mentor, John Howard Yoder.5 It is Liv who takes Becca to church and applauds the sermon on the Song of Songs, insisting that the Mennonite preacher “would have explained a few little things to D. H. Lawrence” about love (116). We never hear the sermon, but we see a revitalized Liv “live” out the effects of “seeing things differently.”

She it is who follows John Reimer's directive in The Blue Mountains of China, “you handle offenders, by forgiving” (215), as she forgives James for his adultery and, in the constancy of her physical and spiritual love, forges an alliance of eros and agape. For James, there is a dawning recognition of the measure of her inaccessible otherness as she “pull[s] him … into a revelation of something so profound he had somehow always sensed it in her without grasping its dimension … her gentle merciful goodness always there though hidden until now” (Lovely 233). Again, as if responding to Reimer's “you show wisdom by trusting people,” Liv contends that “Love is trust beyond all possibilities” (233). Finally, she makes the move that both James and Gillian see as an impossible possibility: following Reimer's admonition that “you handle enemies by loving,” she introduces Gillian, portrayed as her “lovely enemy,” to James's mother: “This is our friend from Edmonton …” (258).

James is also displaced through the introduction of Jesus into the narrative. His casual appearance allows for dialogic biblical voicing that in its surrealist effect seems less intrusively didactic. Whereas the heteroglossic nature of the novel is enhanced by James's casual acceptance of Jesus's presence and apparent disregard for his authority, James's own roles as a model for emulation and as a bearer of the novel's message are further diminished.

There is a subtlety to Jesus's presence and the biblical voicing that may escape the reader's attention as much as it seemingly fails to impact on James. Jesus's reference to the prophet Hosea is easily missed, but the significance of his voice is disproportionate to the attention that it receives. The poem attributed to Hosea, a parable describing God's relationship with Israel “seen as wife and husband” (138), is adapted by Jesus as applicable to James's situation and is then used by Wiebe to explicate his novel as a whole through a process that Paul Ricoeur describes as “metaphorization.”

In his article “The Bible and the Imagination,” Ricoeur focuses on the role of Jesus's narrative parables within the Gospel accounts of his life. Noting that “the narrative parables are narrative within a narrative, more precisely narratives recounted by the principal personage of an encompassing narrative,” he argues that “the embedded narrative [the parable] borrows from the encompassing narrative [the account of Jesus's life] the structure of interpretation that allows the metaphorization of its meaning …” and that “the parables in their turn are productive of meaning at the level of the narrative of the life of Jesus” (55). Metaphorization, which he equates with parabolization, “occurs through the intersections of discourse within the encompassing narrative,” an intertextuality that “exercises the reader's productive imagination” (66). In this manner, an identification of the role of the parable of Hosea, although it occupies little space in Wiebe's novel and has little apparent influence on James (he grasps the message that “the injured spouse responds to adultery with always more love” [113], but he cannot see beyond his own immediate desires), becomes essential to an understanding of the encompassing narrative of My Lovely Enemy.

In his 1965 article “The Artist as a Critic and Witness,” Wiebe already addresses the significance of metaphor for his method of indirection. Claiming that “the parable is the simplest form of fiction,” he continues with the assertion that “In one sense [the novel] is nothing more than a long, drawn-out metaphor consistently and artistically worked out to its logical summation” (44). My Lovely Enemy in that sense is a working out of the parable of Hosea. Because the machinations surrounding the foregrounded adultery are for Wiebe too trite6 to justify the novel's existence, Liv's forgiving love rather than James's affair should direct us to another aspect of Wiebe's indirection: this novel's essential focus and the measure of its significance is not the eroticism that leads to adultery but agapic love, particularly love as exhibited in the vicissitudes of marriage.

Lying with James in her mother-in-law's bed, “clutching him as if she would claw off his skin behind the paper-thin walls … he could not tell if she was crying or he or both and motionless, bared teeth to teeth,” Liv and James crave a physical comfort left them by the dead Liese, be it in “a whiff of promise” or even “an abyss.” They seek a fall of transfiguration to carry them beyond the whims of the flesh into “a singular oneness that knew neither longing nor desire nor want, above all not repletion” (243). The brief scene closes without resolution, with a conflicting sense of isolation in the midst of the most complete physical union, a movement “beyond touch,” and a compelling recognition of the limitations of the flesh: “no body can ever touch enough, deeply” (247).

But recurring in this scene is the image of James's mother, Liese: “Where was that life motionless as a knitting needle … forever cooking the same food for the same endless hungers” (243). Liv's frustration over the meaninglessness of her own life (her vacuous role as travel agent to moneyed but miserable clients in pursuit of yet another novelty) is juxtaposed with the harshness of Liese's life: “what was there to it?” (244). Liese's distinctive trait is one of constant perseverance, tending house and caring for James's father, that and praying: “that's what she was doing, here, for all of us, praying” (245).

It was Liese's belief that permeated her existence and sustained her through her trials: the family's impoverished flight to Canada, the hardships of the farm, the family conflicts, the deaths of her children and her husband, the bargaining for favours by Wiens, and her own disabilities and sensory deprivations. Through all these vicissitudes, mirroring the pilgrimage of the people of Israel toward the promised land (a pilgrimage reflected again in her funeral procession—“Es geht nach Haus” [243]), she persevered: “she did what she could” (244). The image of Liese, blind and deaf, sitting at the window, knitting for far-away children, stands in stark contrast to the image of the elderly Muttachi in The Blue Mountains of China, who sits, without faith and without hope, knitting endlessly with the same wool, over and over again (35).

But the portrait of Liese is not without ambiguity. James has always adored her while despising his father, from whom he fled as a youth, but Olena, who attended his mother after his father's death, challenges his bias, suggesting that his mother was not only strong but also “hard” (124). To James's sardonic claim that “She had to be, married to him,” Olena retorts, “Maybe from the start, and he fit in” (124). About to tell him more, she “changes her mind” (125), and that is yet another issue that resists closure. But whatever his parents' relationship, Liese remains a paragon of enduring faith who can confidently anticipate her resurrection7: “Blessed are the dead who die in the faith of Christ” (the novel's dedication). It is she, above all, who triumphs over “my lovely enemy.”

Through the roles assigned to Liv and Liese, My Lovely Enemy itself becomes a parable, modelled on the insight afforded by Hosea, that should be read in the context of the biblical narrative. As Hosea points beyond human love and forgiveness to God's loving forbearance of his people of Israel, a God who is “hopelessly, endlessly in love” (138), Jesus, in his retelling of this Old Testament parable, focuses in the context of typology on himself, the suffering servant, the other who continues to express his forgiving love for all generations: “Father; forgive them. …”

The recognition that the modus operandi of My Lovely Enemy follows not realism but the structure of romance reinforces Spriet's claim that the novel must be read at a deeper level. Although referentiality and “conventional meaning” are undermined in My Lovely Enemy, and at a certain level there is a “refusal” of coherent sense, the fundamental structure is not—as Spriet suggests—one of “failure” (62). As in Wiebe's earlier fiction, the implicit structure of this novel is typological, and that structure, in concert with the overt thematic proclamation of the Christian faith, promotes Wiebe's witness to the abiding power of the incarnation, the word made flesh, and the consequent “whole new way of seeing the world.”


  1. E.g., see Ferris; Jeffrey; and van Toorn.

  2. See Story-Makers xxvi.

  3. In What the Crow Said.

  4. James is also displaced by Gillian as the figure of importance in the passionate quest, because he is actually more of a Don Juan than a Tristan. Although he has, to the point of confronting Gillian, been faithful to his wife, from his youth up he has been plagued by a sexual obsession and is “stupidly destroyed” when Gillian says that “It's not the sex” (105); he cannot see beyond the sex. This affair is actually Gillian's quest for her Tristan. Saying that a husband and a wife cannot be all things to one another, she is in pursuit of “carnal knowledge,” knowing “someone” through the flesh (153).

  5. Particularly Yoder's The Politics of Jesus, which has greatly influenced Wiebe.

  6. Wiebe's repeated parodic description of this banal affair is yet another means of indirection. Linda Hutcheon reminds us that “the collective weight of parodic practice,” divorcing itself from ridicule, defines parody as “repetition with critical distance that allows ironic signalling of difference at the heart of similarity” (26). The “ironic signalling” in this text points not to an inherent “limitation” of the relationship between husband and wife, as Spriet seems to suggest (54), but to possible causes for marital fragmentation and alienation.

  7. The Lazarus-like resurrection of Liese, who, after her funeral service, sits up in the coffin, on command, uttering “Well, that's nice” (257), which is so infuriating to Jeffrey (“a preposterous and effectually gratuitous resurrection” [“Lost” 113]), simply fulfils her expectations within the context of her biblical faith. On reading the Lazarus story earlier with Olena, she foretells her own resurrection: “and I come out just like that. ‘You see,’ she says, ‘you see’” (253).

Works Cited

Bakhtin, Mikhail. The Dialogic Imagination. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Ed. Holquist. University of Texas Press Slavic Series I. Austin: U of Texas P, 1981.

———. Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Trans. Vern W. McGee. Ed. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: U of Texas P, 1986.

de Rougemont, Denis. Love Declared: Essays on the Myths of Love. New York: Pantheon, 1963.

———. Love in the Western World. New York: Pantheon, 1956.

Ferris, Ina. “Religious Vision and Fictional Form: Rudy Wiebe's The Blue Mountains of China.” Keith 88–96.

Frye, Northrop. The Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1976.

Jeffrey, David Lyle. “Biblical Hermeneutic and Family History in Contemporary Canadian Fiction: Wiebe and Laurence.” Mosaic 11.3 (1978): 87–106.

———. “Lost Voice.” Canadian Literature 99 (1983): 111–14.

———. “A Search for Peace: Prophecy and Parable in the Fiction of Rudy Wiebe.” Keith 179–201.

Hutcheon, Linda. A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction. New York: Routledge, 1988.

Keith, W. J., ed. A Voice in the Land: Essays by and about Rudy Wiebe. Edmonton: NeWest, 1981.

Lock, Charles. “Carnival and Incarnation: Bakhtin and Orthodox Theology.” Journal of Literature and Theology 5.1 (1991): 68–82.

Pascal, Roy. The Dual Voice: Free Indirect Speech and Its Functioning in the Nineteenth-Century European Novel. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1977.

Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Tell-Tale Heart.” The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe. Ed. Thomas Olive Mabbott. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1986. 792–97.

Ricoeur, Paul. “The Bible and the Imagination.” Trans. David Pellauer. The Bible as Document of the University. Ed. Hans Dieter Betz. Chico, CA: Scholars, 1981. 49–75.

Spriet, Pierre. “Structure and Meaning in My Lovely Enemy.Gaining Ground: European Critics on Canadian Literature. Ed. Robert Kroetsch. Edmonton: NeWest, 1983. 53–63.

Updike, John. “More Love in the Western World.” Assorted Prose. New York: Fawcett, 1965. 220–33.

van Toorn, Penny. Rudy Wiebe and the Historicity of the Word. Edmonton: U of Alberta P, 1995.

Wiebe, Rudy. “The Artist as a Witness and Critic.” Keith 39–47.

———. The Blue Mountains of China. Toronto: Macmillan, 1970.

———. My Lovely Enemy. Toronto: McClelland, 1983.

———. “One-Stringed Lutes.” Journal of Commonwealth Literature 19 (1984): 142–43.

———, ed. The Story-Makers: A Selection of Modern Short Stories. Toronto: Macmillan, 1970.

Yoder, John Howard. The Politics of Jesus. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1972.

———. The Priestly Kingdom: Social Ethics as a Gospel. Notre Dame, IN: U of Notre Dame P, 1984.

Maureen Harris (review date September 1998)

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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 came to know as much as you do? Why were you led? What was the force behind you? Who are you? Why did you choose Big Bear to write about? What sparked your interest in this powerful man of long ago?

What Wiebe did not learn from this letter was that in 1991 Yvonne Johnson had been convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life with no eligibility for parole for twenty-five years. She is the only woman in Canada serving this sentence. Stolen Life pieces together the complicated story that brought her that dubious distinction. The book is terrible and splendid and absolutely compelling. I read all 444 pages of it almost in a single sitting, and I've hardly been able to stop thinking about it since.

In 1973, The Temptations of Big Bear received the Governor General's Award for Fiction. Wiebe's interest in Big Bear began when he was a graduate student, and he speaks of Big Bear's life as “the story that never lets you go”. It's not surprising he replied to Johnson's letter and began a collaboration that has lasted six years and produced this remarkable and difficult book. The book's story is not just Johnson's; one of its binding strands is the sense of connection between the two writers and their growing involvement in how to tell the story.

“To begin a story, someone in some way must break a particular silence.” This sentence opens the first chapter. It takes courage and work to break silence, and I'm both moved and awed by the courage these writers show in risking this book. Johnson, a Native woman jailed for murder in Canada, might reasonably expect her story to be called a lie or merely predictable (as in a way happened in her trial). She acknowledges herself that she risks completely alienating her mother and others whose support she longs for. Wiebe, by choosing to work with a Native writer and taking on the role of directing and shaping the work, faces complex questions of voice and authority—a minefield he already knows. What did they hope to accomplish? What did they think they were doing? Wiebe explains:

She has asked me to help her; I have promised her, “Yes” … and, for these years we have struggled to tell her story so that she, so that I, so that some possible reader will understand. Something.

Why has she lived such a dreadful life, and why has she been so destructive to herself and those she loves? Why have they been so devastatingly destructive to her? How is it she became entangled in murder? What I already know of her life makes it almost too horrifically representative of what has happened to the Native people of North America; of what her ancestor Big Bear most feared about the ruinous White invasion. …

Yvonne Johnson's life has been as full of incomprehensible violence as her ancestor's. One of seven children born in Montana to a Saskatchewan Cree mother and a Norwegian-American working-class father, she grew up poor, surrounded by racist taunts and bullying. Her oldest brother, Earl, was arrested and died in jail, officially a suicide. The family believes he was murdered by police, and Wiebe finds evidence for their belief. With Earl's death, and the Johnsons' inability to get their questions about it answered, something essential in the family dissolved and her parents separated.

How do you write a book with someone who is in jail? Wiebe visited Johnson and talked to her on the phone. In prison she had begun keeping journals, trying to think about her life and what had happened. He urged her to continue and to write down everything she could possibly remember. They exchanged letters and documents. He researched the circumstances of her life, travelling, interviewing family members and people who knew her, as well as lawyers and court officials and police who were involved in the trial. The work was done slowly and painstakingly, piecing together a story full of the gaps and silences that gather around the unspeakable and the denied. Work done “so that she, so that I, so that some possible reader will understand. Something.”

Johnson was born with a double cleft palate which was not fully corrected till she was sixteen. As a child she couldn't make herself understood.

It was like being deaf but still hearing, speaking but speechless—it was there, heaping up inside me. I could not ask questions, just puzzle everything around inside my head, dreaming it, bouncing it back and forth, without any guidance to help me understand. So I learned by instinct, by watching to see and recognize what others don't, to judge myself by taking chances. To depend only on myself. There was no one else. … I think that then, on a deeper level, my spirit already knew and understood how much I was being hurt.

In addition to the racism and violence marking her childhood, Johnson was sexually abused by both strangers and family members. Her cleft palate meant she was silenced; she couldn't tell what was happening to her. At sixteen, following her arrest and conviction for driving a car without the owner's permission, a sympathetic judge sentenced her to corrective surgery at state expense. But the surgery couldn't correct the rest of her life. She was no longer in school and often lived hidden, trying to stay out of her abusers' reach. The experiences of her childhood and adolescence suggest to me it's no surprise she ended up involved in murder. What is surprising is that she wasn't killed herself along the way.

Stolen Life is full of mysteries, not mysteries like the ones Nancy Drew solved, but the mysteries of the human heart. Why did Yvonne survive? What are the connections that yield an event (the murder) or a work (this book)? One of the most puzzling mysteries this book faces is the ambiguity of family ties. So much power and so much helplessness are braided into these connections. Often love isn't enough to overcome the failures inscribed by poverty and prejudice, or justice turned rancid or violent. Both Wiebe and Johnson understand that families can be helpless to take care of themselves, that love and violence can and do cohabit within individual hearts and the family both.

Yvonne Johnson is now serving her sentence in the Okimaw Ohci Healing Lodge for Native Women in Saskatchewan, transferred there when P4W was closed. While she was still in Kingston she served as door and fire keeper for the sweat lodge and eventually learned she was Medicine Bear Woman, a name she then remembered had been given her ceremonially by her maternal grandmother. This grandmother also had a cleft palate, the mark of the Bear, as does Yvonne's eldest daughter. Finding her spiritual identity and her connection to this grandmother has given her the strength and understanding to begin to live consciously as a medicine person.

So, could it be that I too, after more than thirty-five years of existence, I can be reborn under the ceremonies?

My spirit name is Medicine Bear Woman. I ponder this greatly and still endlessly, what is a medicine person? … as the Elders tell me, all that you have experienced you must learn from, and the people who live the hardest lives can have the greatest understandings and teachings to give others. So learn well, for the sake of others.

How does a medicine person act? She might write a book. In Johnson's years of journal-keeping and letter-writing, and in her work on this book, she has made herself a writer. Through her writing she extends understanding and teachings beyond the circle of those whom she actually meets. In her first journal (begun in 1991 before she contacted Wiebe), she wrote:

I wish I could write my life-story book. Maybe then and only then will my life be revealed, and it might help the next abused and hurting person whom the world judges and condemns as already dead. But this dead person, me, is not beyond help. Maybe in death I'll be of some use.

For this white woman reader, it's clear Johnson gives help as well as asks for it. I hope the publisher has sent a copy of this extraordinary life-story book to Tom Wappel, M. P., and I hope he has the gumption to read it. On March 18th, 1991, the Crown Prosecutor J. Barry Hill said in his address to the jury sitting in Yvonne Johnson's trial: “In this case you are exposed to people who are obviously very different from you and me. That's reality. It would be nice if all the Crown witnesses to a murder were bank managers and accountants. …” While I've been engrossed in this book and writing this review, the Walker trial has been underway in England, and I think it would be nice if we stopped thinking that people in suits never drink wine in the morning and never commit or witness murder. What my mother calls “the best of regulated families” provide prime settings for denial and violence, with their possibility of murderous consequences. We're fools to pretend otherwise, and doubly fools to do it as we drink our morning coffee and read the daily paper. We desperately need the lessons offered by Yvonne Johnson, who has looked hard at her life, trying to see and understand what she has done as well as what has happened to her, and who seeks from what she has learned to make amends.

In their collaboration on this book, Yvonne Johnson and Rudy Wiebe show us the importance and the possibility of listening and speaking, of making connections (among people, words, events), and of offering what the connections teach about the difficulty of being human beings. Their hope, which I share, is that such offerings strengthen the human community. The book would not have been written without their collaboration and the feeling of connection beneath it. Take Yvonne Johnson's word on that:

Nothing just happens, my friend, unless it was meant to be. … If we are guided under the Bear, then even our futures can be changed. … You and I may have been chosen long ago to meet, and our past has given us each a gift of understanding.

—Yvonne Johnson to Rudy Wiebe, 24 December 1992.


Wiebe, Rudy (Vol. 11)


Wiebe, Rudy (Vol. 14)