Critical Context

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Much of Wiebe’s fiction focuses on the history and mythology of the Canadian west. The novel which preceded The Scorched-Wood People, The Temptations of Big Bear (1973), won Canada’s highest literary honor: the Governor-General’s Award for fiction. It movingly re-creates the life of Big Bear, one of the greatest Prairie Indian chiefs, who, with his people, suffers a fate similar to that of the Metis. The novel which follows The Scorched-Wood People, The Mad Trapper (1980), is a reconstruction of the myth of the mad trapper of Rat River, who kills a policeman and then leads his pursuers on a wild trek across Canada’s northern wilderness. As always, Wiebe uses a historical perspective in order to demonstrate how people can derive a national identity by coming to terms with their past.

The Scorched-Wood People lends a voice to what Wiebe perceives as unresolved racial and cultural differences between people who inhabit the same land. His insistence upon the importance of unearthing history and myth has encouraged the growth of the historical novel as genre in Canadian literature. His work has also supplied impetus to literary interest in minority cultures. Wiebe’s Mennonite heritage makes him sensitive to the difficulties of living differently from the mode of the majority of people, but he uses his special status to advantage. The Scorched-Wood People remains a milestone in Canadian literature because it restores the possibility of a living past: Canadian identity is to be found in its people, the land, and their collective history.