Powerful, funny, moving and personal, Lake of the Prairies is a richly layered exploration of the ubiquitous childhood question: where do I come from?
Warren Cariou’s story of origin begins in the boreal Saskatchewan landscape of rock, water and muskeg that is Meadow Lake -- ensconced in the ethos of the north, where there is magic in a story and fiction is worth much more than fact.
Grounded in the fertile soil of Meadow Lake are two historical traditions -- Native and settler. Warren Cariou’s maternal grandparents were European immigrants who cleared acres of dense forest and turned it into pasture. This land also held traces of centuries of Cree settlement -- arrowheads, spear points and stone hammers, which Cariou stumbled upon as a boy. Though the tragic story of how these traditions came to share the same home would remain buried from Warren until much later, history’s painful legacy was much in view. In the schoolyard and on the street corners Warren witnessed the discrimination, anger and fear directed at the town’s Cree and Metis populations -- prejudices he absorbed as his own.
As an adult, Warren Cariou has been forced to confront the politics of race in Meadow Lake. He learned that a rambunctious Native schoolmate could be involved in a torture and murder that would shock the world. And then Warren discovered family secrets kept hidden for generations, secrets that would alter forever Warren’s sense of identity and belonging in Meadow Lake. In the tradition of Wallace Stegner’s classic Wolf Willow, Lake of the Prairies is an intimate and provocative memoir.
About the author
Warren Cariou was born in Meadow Lake, Saskatchewan, into a family of mixed Métis and European heritage. He has written many articles about Canadian Aboriginal literature, especially on Métis culture and storytelling, and he has published two books: a collection of novellas, The Exalted Company of Roadside Martyrs (1999) and a memoir/cultural history, Lake of the Prairies: A Story of Belonging (2002). He has also co-directed and co-produced two films about Aboriginal people in western Canada’s oil sands region: Overburden and Land of Oil and Water. Cariou has won and been nominated for numerous awards. His most acclaimed work to date, Lake of the Prairies, won the Drainie-Taylor Biography Prize in 2002 and was shortlisted for the Charles Taylor Prize for literary nonfiction in 2004. His films have screened at many national and international film festivals, including Hot Docs, ImagineNative, and the San Francisco American Indian Film Festival. Cariou has also served as editor for several books, including an anthology of Aboriginal literature, W’daub Awae: Speaking True (2010), and he is the fiction co-editor of Prairie Fire. Cariou is a Canada Research Chair in Narrative, Community and Indigenous Cultures at the University of Manitoba, where he also directs the Centre for Creative Writing and Oral Culture.
- Nominated, Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction
- Winner, Drainie-Taylor Biography Prize
Excerpt: Lake of the Prairies: A Story of Belonging (by (author) Warren Cariou)
The Story of You
Once Upon a Town
Where do I come from?
The potato patch.
God in Heaven.
A falling star.
A moonlit night.
A hole in the legs.
You were named for the doctor who delivered you.
From here. You’re from right here. The town of Meadow Lake, the province of Saskatchewan, the country of Canada, the planet of Earth. Just down the street at the Meadow Lake Union Hospital you were born, and we lived in the Carter Apartments until you were one, and then we moved to the house, and you grew like quackgrass in the backyard.
And that’s the story of you.
We always have to take someone’s word for it, that mystery of origins. Maybe that’s why I believed I was not so much from a place as from a story–or rather a collection of stories, mutually contradictory and continually evolving in the mouths of my many relatives. This was fine with me. I loved all stories. Dad told us new ones every night at bedtime, and sometimes during the day too, if we badgered him long enough. And even without such prompting, Uncle Hank and Uncle Vic and Uncle Leo told stories on each other, and then Dad would step in to contradict them all and we wouldn’t know who to believe. Mom would stretch Dad’s name out to two syllables–“Ra-ay!”–whenever she thought the shenanigans had gone too far, and Dad would say “Hmp. What! It’s true!” in a tone that suggested the opposite. Dad and his brothers told their stories the way they played cards: as if there was a nickel at stake–and that mattered–and as if the others might very well be cheating. And the point, it seemed to me, was not to get at the truth but to trump their opponents with the most outrageous lie at the most opportune moment.
The household could break into these word-wars at the slightest provocation. One brother might say, “Does it seem cool in here to you?” and another would respond, “Naahhh. Not like those times at the farm when the water froze in the wash basin.”
And the battle was on.
“Not like when I had to tunnel through eight-foot snowdrifts to get from the house to the chicken coop.”
“Bullshit! It wasn’t cold then. Snow’s an insulator.”
“Damn near smothered us though, right along with the chickens. I remember they were all keeled over when I got the door open, and the first thing I thought was, that damn weasel’s back!”
“You never did that tunnelling anyway. Uncle Corentin did–I remember him coming in with the shovel frozen to his mitts.”
“I froze my ears in bed once, on the farm. Forgot to wear my tuque.”
“Remember when the chickadees froze solid on the bobwire fence?”
“That was your noggin that froze solid.”
“They did. A dozen chickadees and a pigeon.”
“And a great big clump of bull shit!”
“They did! I plucked them off like apples and Mom baked them in a pie.”
We never knew how these jousts would end–with shouted accusations of bullshit, or laughter, or simmering silences that might well evolve into feuds. As a spectator sport, it was better than Stampede Wrestling, more suspenseful than The Edge of Night.
When it was just the five of us, the immediate family, the stories were not so much a competition as a reward for good behaviour, or at least a diversion from bad.
“Tell us a story, Dad,” we pleaded, several times a day.
“We’ll see,” he said. This was what he always said when we asked for anything. Once I asked if we could have an elephant to play with in our backyard sandbox and he
said, “We’ll see.” Most of the time we didn’t believe he was listening at all. But still we asked our questions, made our requests. It was part of the game, that we would try to coax him away from his newspaper or his book or his chesterfield snoozes. Usually when we had all but given up, he would turn to Glenn or me and say–as if the idea had just occurred to him–“Ready for a story, Buzz?”
He called both of us Buzz, short for Buzzard. Also Little Man. When Michelle was old enough to be something other than The Baby, she became Missy or Miss. And Glenn was Glenn D., and I was Warren G., which became Warren Jeremiah, even though my middle name was Gerald. Sometimes I wondered where these names had come from, but I didn’t ask. It seemed appropriate that, just as there were multiple versions of my uncles’ stories, there were multiple versions of me. Even Dad was Ray or Raymond or Mr. Cariou to other people, and on the diplomas in his office he was Raymondum Geraldum Cariouum. That was the funniest name of all. Mom was Melba or Mrs. Cariou, and to our English friends she was Melber. How could we be so many different things? It seemed that names
were the briefest, most cryptic kind of stories, and that it would take a lifetime to puzzle out their plots and settings and characters.
Sometimes Dad told us our stories in the living room, or the backyard, or in the car as we drove to Canwood or Leonard’s Ranch or the cabin, but the ones we counted on were the bedtime variety. Bedtime was in fact renamed storytime, in a fully successful attempt to quell our rebellions against the early hour (eight-thirty) of our appointed slumbers. For storytime we were willing to go to bed any time after supper.
Glenn and I shared a bedroom, and Dad would come in once we had said our prayers, or claimed to, and we would all climb into one tiny, quivering, plastic-sheeted bed. We lay on our backs, Glenn and I nestling under each of Dad’s arms, resting our heads on his shoulders. When Michelle was old enough she joined in too, the three of us Lilliputians on Dad’s Gulliverian body. We looked up at the stippled ceiling with its tiny winking sparkles that glimmered like distant stars. Streetlight came in through the window, seeping past the navy blue curtains. In winter the aquamarine of our outside Christmas lights illumined the frost patterns on the glass. Sometimes I would scrape my initials in that frost at night and would wake up the next morning to find the letters transmogrified by cold into curlicued rococo fonts like the ones at the beginnings of fairy tales.
“Okay. Where was I?” Dad would say, and we’d have to remind him, because each night’s story was somehow connected to the previous one and there could be no such thing as starting anew.
Sometimes he told us about where he was from, the town of Ituna in the southern part of Saskatchewan, where we had never been. He had grown up on a farm near Ituna with his mother and fourteen siblings. His dad had died when he was six or seven but he didn’t tell us about that. Instead he described the funny characters in the town and the trouble that he and his brothers got into. There was the story of Handlebar Harry, the Ituna barber who had fallen asleep in his barber’s chair one afternoon and awakened to find–eeyike!–one half of his handlebar moustache lying on the floor like a turd. (Dad always punctuated his tales with “eeyaws!” or “eeyikes!” at the many turning points of his plots.) There was the story of Jimmy Kobialchuk the bully, taunting Dad and Uncle Leo from the other side of a fence, watching them through a knothole in the wood. Uncle Leo put a rock in his slingshot and whap! shot Jimmy right through the knothole, gave him a black eye.
"Meadow Lake, Saskatchewan, and the Cariou family are fortunate indeed to have produced so gifted a young writer as Warren Cariou. In Lake of the Prairies, his seach into the delights and difficulties of belonging, Cariou has written a timeless and universal tale, full of charm, humour, intelligence and, above all, love for the people and place of his childhood. With remarkable skill he has woven together a talent for storytelling, keen descriptions of nature, a personal memoir and a social history of Western Canada. Most importantly, he exposes the subtleties and cruelties of racial tension between the European settlers and Native peoples of Canada, not through any dry analysis but through a series of startling revelations." -- Michael Bliss, Ron Graham and Heather Robertson of The Drainie-Taylor Biography Prize jury
“Lake of the Prairies is a fine addition to our literature of exile and belonging. This book arrives as a welcome balm for the wounds we experience as a nation that continues to abandon its rural routes (and roots). Cariou’s narrative, with its abundant humour, humanity, and humility, quickens the old and poignant truths that have always attended our wanderings away from home and back again.” -- Trevor Herriot, author of River in a Dry Land
“Warren Cariou is humorous while always being thoughtful, and his descriptive power is exceptional. He is one of the very best young writers of our time.” -- Alistair MacLeod
“Cariou’s writing achieves everything great art should aim to do. It finds something basic and universal in all of us, the beautiful and the profane, and gracefully delivers us to a more enlightened understanding of the relationships that bless and haunt us all.” -- Dennis Bock, author of The Ash Garden
“This memoir is beautifully crafted, artful in its construction, and as with all good memoirs is, in the end, truly penetrating in its analysis-by-hindsight of what can happen to those less privileged than Cariou himself was, in such a backwater as Meadow Lake, Saskatchewan. His evocation of this historic area of forests, marshes, muskeg and lakes reveals a world we otherwise would not have been fortunate enough to know.” -- Sharon Butala, author of The Perfection of the Morning
“Meadow Lake is now officially on the Canadian literary map, and so is Warren Cariou.” -- The Globe and Mail
“It is a superb book, and an honest one too. It is also a gentle book, a humane work that is enlightened and powered by the kind of understanding which can benefit us all.” -- The Edmonton Journal
“Cariou is wise beyond his years . . . with his lyrical voice, love of nature and sensitivity to place . . . a lovely book . . . dive in and enjoy.” -- The Calgary Herald
Other titles by Warren Cariou
mahikan ka onot
The Poetry of Duncan Mercredi
Conversations about Indigenous Manhood
Reimagining Water in the West
Colonialism in Canada
Indigenous Men and Masculinities
Legacies, Identities, Regeneration
Aboriginal Writings from the Land of Water
W'daub Awae, Speaking True
A Kegedonce Press Anthology
Exalted Company Of Roadside Martyrs, The
Related blog posts
Sally Ito on The Emperor's Orphans and Family History
Sally Ito on the family histories that inspired her as she wrote her new book of creative nonfiction.
Detachment: Maurice Mierau on Family, Adoption, and Memoir
November is Adoption Awareness Month. We talk to Maurice Mierau about his new book, Detachment: An Adoption Memoir.